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.”
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.’”
Edelman, the cable goes on, “noted the military situation in Farah Province and asked Karzai whether there might be an Iranian hand behind recent Taliban attacks.” Furthermore, Edelman “recalled maps of the myriad smuggling routes from Iran into Afghanistan and reports of Taliban recruits training at sites in Iran, although there was no concrete evidence of direct Iranian involvement.”
By 2008, questions about the level of Iranian support for insurgents had been answered. CIA director Michael Hayden said such backing had been approved “at the highest levels” of the Iranian regime.
And it continues to this day.
Military press releases regularly note that coalition forces are targeting Taliban commanders with links to both Iran and al Qaeda. In one such press release from November 25, 2010, the coalition said it had launched a raid in Farah Province targeting a “Taliban leader” who is a “key foreign-fighter facilitator . . . after intelligence reports indicated his recent return to Afghanistan from Iran.” This Taliban commander “provides a conduit for foreign fighters from an array of terrorist networks, including al Qaeda, to enter the country and fight for the Taliban.” According to ISAF, he “acts on behalf of terrorist cells to move foreign fighters into Farah and Helmand via Iran.”
There are literally hundreds of similar examples. There is evidence of Iranian intelligence officers toting cash across the border, evidence of Iranian payments to insurgents who have killed American or Afghan soldiers, evidence of Iranian-made C4 explosives being put to use in suicide attacks. The first cache of leaked documents released by WikiLeaks showed that ISAF receives persistent reports of collusion between Iran, the Taliban, and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. What began years ago as carefully planned tactical support for insurgents has grown into widespread Iranian assistance. In Nimruz Province in October, U.S. and Afghan forces intercepted a shipment of 19 tons of explosives from Iran.
The same is true in Iraq. Another leaked cable, this one written by the U.S. embassy in Baghdad in April 2009, outlines a strategy for countering the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’s influence in Iraq as America draws down her forces there. “Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) officers are active in Iraq, conducting traditional espionage and supporting violent extremists,” the cable reads. And while the United States has “succeeded in stopping some IRGC-QF activity through military operations and diplomatic engagement,” there remains work to be done. In particular, the cable says, the IRGC-QF is still smuggling “lethal” explosively formed projectiles into Iraq. A cable from December 24, 2008, discusses a letter to the president of Armenia, in which Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte conveys “our deep concerns about Armenia’s transfer of Arms to Iran which resulted in the death and injury of U.S. soldiers in Iraq.”
When the United States and its negotiating partners sit down with the Iranians this week, the talks will focus almost exclusively on Iran’s nuclear program. But the United States is concerned about the Iranian nuclear program not just because of nuclear weapons, but because of what the Iranian leadership plans to do with them.
Nearly a decade after the 9/11 attacks, not only do we have abundant evidence that Iran, the world’s foremost state sponsor of terror, supports al Qaeda. We also have evidence that Iran actively assists terrorists and insurgents targeting our soldiers and diplomats in two war zones. Why are our leaders so afraid to talk about it?
—Stephen F. Hayes & Thomas Joscelyn