The Magazine

The Iran Connection

Dec 13, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 13 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES and THOMAS JOSCELYN
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On December 1, Undersecretary of State William Burns appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee to brief members of Congress on Iran. He touted the effectiveness of the latest round of sanctions and then listed some “wider actions of the Iranian leadership” that cause concern. He cited the regime’s “longstanding support for violent terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas; its opposition to Middle East peace; its repugnant rhetoric about Israel, the Holocaust, 9/11, and so much else; and its brutal repression of its own citizens.”

The Iran Connection

These are the offenses that American diplomats list perfunctorily before reiterating their eagerness to engage with that same Iranian leadership. Burns did not disappoint. He concluded by noting that “there is still time for diplomacy” and “still room for a renewed effort to break down mistrust, and begin a careful, phased process of building confidence between Iran and the international community.” And, lest anyone miss his obvious message, Burns said again: “The door is still open to serious negotiation, if Iran is prepared to walk through it.”

Yet Burns said nothing about Iran’s efforts to fund, train, and equip jihadists in Afghanistan. He said nothing about the extensive Iranian backing of radical Shiite groups in Iraq over the past seven years. He said nothing of Iran’s ongoing support for al Qaeda—support that might have been particularly interesting to his audience of American lawmakers. 

In his remarks on Capitol Hill, Burns simply chose not to mention that the leaders of Iran have been fighting a stealth war against the United States, its soldiers, and its citizens. It is this fact that complicates the Obama administration’s efforts to engage Iran. So it is simply set aside. 

Such evasion is becoming more difficult, however. State Department cables made public as part of the WikiLeaks document dump add to our already substantial knowledge of Iranian malfeasance—and suggest that Iran may actually be increasing its lethal efforts.

One leaked cable contained a stunning revelation. On September 5, 2009, Saudi prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz, the kingdom’s longtime interior minister, met with President Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan. Prince Nayef was especially concerned about al Qaeda’s attacks inside the kingdom, as his son had almost been killed by a suicide bomber eight days earlier. A section of the cable, entitled “Iran Promoting Terrorism,” begins with this sentence: 

Nayef complained that over the past two years Iran has hosted Saudis (all Sunnis)—including Osama bin Laden’s son Ibrahim—who had contacts with terrorists and worked against the Kingdom.

Ibrahim bin Laden is, according to U.S. intelligence officials, a rising star within al Qaeda. Nayef went on to explain that he and other Saudi officials have attempted to get the Iranians to turn over Ibrahim bin Laden and his al Qaeda cohorts. They have failed. Brennan, for his part, “agreed that Iran had the capacity to cause trouble, and assured the Prince that the [U.S. government] was very concerned and looking carefully at the situation.” The administration, however, wasn’t going to allow this revelation to get in the way of its pursuit of talks with the mullahs. “President Obama’s willingness to talk to the Iranians did not mean he did not understand the problem,” the cable says Brennan told Prince Nayef.

News of the cable is significant but unsurprising. For years, Iran has harbored senior al Qaeda terrorists such as Saif al-Adel, wanted for his role in the 1998 embassy bombings, as well as members of both Osama bin Laden’s and Ayman al-Zawahiri’s families. Iranian support for the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan is well-documented. Intelligence from as far back as 2004 has included detailed reporting on Iranian provision of arms and funding for insurgents there. Over the past several years, moreover, intelligence officials have provided policymakers with detailed reporting on another worrisome indication of Iranian support for America’s enemies: Iranian training of terrorists on Iranian soil.

A leaked State Department cable dated November 10, 2007, recounts a meeting between Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Eric Edelman and Afghan president Hamid Karzai. Edelman, according to the cable, urged that the Afghan government “act in concert with the U.S. to end Iranian lethal support to the Taliban before it reaches the same levels as in Iraq.” Edelman was particularly concerned about Iran providing the Taliban with explosively formed projectile weapons (EFPs), which had been intercepted by British troops, and shoulder-fired missiles. President Karzai concurred with Edelman’s assessment. The State Department’s cable reads: “Karzai agreed that Iran has to be confronted, adding without elaboration that we need to do so ‘effectively.’”

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