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The "Gray Area" of Iran-al Qaeda Connections

3:53 PM, Mar 19, 2008 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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McCain puts out a statement on the fifth anniversary of the war:

"Today in Iraq, America and our allies stand on the precipice of winning a major victory against radical Islamic extremism. The security gains over the past year have been dramatic and undeniable. Al Qaeda and Shia extremists -- with support from external powers such as Iran -- are on the run but not defeated."

The left can't stand this. In fact, they insist on calling it a "gaffe." It's clearly not, given that it's the third time he's said it in as many days. But I participated in a fantastic conference call with the lefty Center of American Progress this afternoon that focused on nothing but the statement. Jon Stoltz, founder of VoteVets.org, Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at CAP, and Ilan Goldberg of the National Security Network were the main players on the call.

Goldberg said McCain "fundamentally misunderstands the problem of what's actually going on in Iraq." He says each insurgent group has "its own interests" and "they're all fighting each other." Katulis then said that McCain "lacks a basic mastery of the facts," and that "he doesn't understand the challenges that America faces." (Hit them where they're strongest!)

Then the questions. First Laura Meckler of the Wall Street Journal asks if there are "groups within Iran" that have supported al Qaeda. Jon Stoltz replies that Iran "almost went to war with the Taliban." He says "I fought these people." She repeats, is there "any Iranian influence with al Qaeda?" Stoltz responds, "Not from what I saw on the ground in Iraq." Meckler again, "well you won't necessarily see from the ground in Iraq..." Stoltz cuts her off, "we're the ones who do the fighting." Meckler says "I understand that but you can't see every influence from a neighboring country, I mean are you really saying because you didn't personally see it, it doesn't exist?" Stoltz says "not from the people we fought."

Meckler again asks if it is inaccurate to say that there is any element within Iran that is supporting al Qaeda. Golldberg: "I don't have the intelligence to say that one way or the other." Stoltz jumps in, "I never saw that on the ground." Katulis then says "the facts on this are in a gray area...but it seems highly improbable that there is broad Iranian support for al Qaeda figures." Later he added that "one might be able to find in our intelligence agencies snippets of some information of some Iranian groups actually supporting some parts of AQI in particular for whatever reason..." Case closed, right?

I was struck by their insistence that Iran wouldn't collaborate with Sunni extremists, and that they had offered as evidence the fact that Iran had, at one point, almost gone to war with the Taliban. So I asked, how do they reconcile this with the deep Iranian support for Hamas, and support in the form of weapons and training for the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. Katulis said "I disagree with the premise of your question, because again it trends towards lumping together threats in a banner of Islamofascism that conservatives tend to do and frankly that type of analytical assessment is what's got us into this mess in Iraq." So I rephrase in the form of "do you deny" that Iran is supporting the Taliban or elements of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. "Well, if you're going to ask that question in that sort of way, you can't deny that anything might be possible in those regards, and certainly on the Afghanistan front there has been strong evidence that Iran, feeling pressure and threatened from the U.S. encircling them, has supported some elements in the last few years of the Taliban. But the way that you ask the question is intended to get some sort of answer that fills whatever storyline you're trying to promote."

Yes, the storyline where Iran, often at odds with Sunni extremists, still assists them when there is a convergence of interests. And if Iran is willing to support the Taliban, whom they almost went to war with, because they feel pressure from the United States, why wouldn't they do the same for AQI? Of course, there is plenty of evidence that they have--but that doesn't fit the storyline at the Center for American Progress.