Could an al-Qaeda Attack Trigger War With Iran?

Following revelations of a George W. Bush administration policy to hold Iran responsible for any al-Qaeda attack on the U.S. that could be portrayed as planned on Iranian soil, former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski warned last week that Washington might use such an incident as a pretext to bomb Iran.

Brzezinski, the national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter from 1977 through 1980 and the most senior Democratic Party figure on national security policy, told a private meeting sponsored by the nonpartisan Committee for the Republic in Washington May 30 that an al-Qaeda terrorist attack in the United States intended to provoke war between the U.S. and Iran was a possibility that must be taken seriously, and that the Bush administration might accuse Iran of responsibility for such an attack and use it to justify carrying out an attack on Iran.

Brzezinski suggested that new constraints were needed on presidential war powers to reduce the risk of a war against Iran based on such a false pretense. Such constraints, Brzezinski said, should not prevent the president from using force in response to an attack on the United States, but should make it more difficult to carry out an attack without an adequate justification.

Brzezinski’s warning came after Fox News’ chief Washington correspondent Jim Angle reported on "Special Report with Brit Hume" May 14 that, according to unnamed U.S. official sources, U.S. officials had urged Iran in two face to face meetings to deport the terrorists to their countries of origin, told them about al Qaeda efforts to get a nuclear device, and "warned that if any terrorist attack against Americans were to come from Iranian territory, it would be held responsible."

Angle quoted a former official as saying that Iran "understood how bad it would be…if there were another terrorist attack and it was learned it had been planned in Iran."

Former Central Intelligence Agency director George Tenet wrote in his recently-published memoirs that U.S. intelligence had learned by early 2003 that a senior al-Qaeda operative who had been detained in Iran was in charge of the organisation’s efforts to obtain nuclear weapons. Tenet said that information was passed on to Iranian officials "in the hope that they would recognise our common interest in preventing any attack against U.S. interests."

The Bush administration has made persistent claims over the past five years that Iran has harbored al-Qaeda operatives who had fled from Afghanistan and that they had participated in planning terrorist actions – claims that were not supported by intelligence analysts.

Pentagon officials leaked information to CBS in May 2003 that they had “evidence” that al-Qaeda leaders who had found “safe haven” in Iran had planned and directed terrorist operations in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld also encouraged that inference when he declared on May 29, 2003, that Iran had “permitted senior al-Qaeda officials to operate in their country.”

The leak and public statement allowed the media and their audiences to infer that the “safe haven” had been deliberately provided by Iranian authorities.

But most U.S. intelligence analysts specializing on the Persian Gulf believed the al-Qaeda officials in Iran who were still communicating with operatives elsewhere were in hiding rather than under arrest. Former national intelligence officer for Near East and South Asia Paul Pillar told IPS in an interview last year that the “general impression” was that the al-Qaeda operatives were not in Iran with the complicity of the Iranian authorities.

Former CIA analyst Ken Pollack, who was a Persian Gulf specialist on the National Security Council staff in 2001, wrote in The Persian Puzzle, “These al-Qaeda leaders apparently were operating in eastern Iran, which is a bit like the Wild West.” He added, pointedly, “It was not as if these al-Qaeda leaders had been under lock and key in Evin prison in Tehran and were allowed to make phone calls to set up the attacks.”

Although most elements in the Bush administration appear to oppose military action against Iran, Vice President Dick Cheney has reportedly advocated that course. He has also continued to raise the issue of al-Qaeda officials in Iran.

Cheney told Fox News in an interview May 14, “We are confident that there are a number of senior al-Qaeda officials in Iran, that they’ve been there since the spring of 2003. About the time that we launched operations into Iraq, the Iranians rounded up a number of al-Qaeda individuals and placed them under house arrest.”

Cheney did not say that the al-Qaeda officials who were communicating with other operatives outside Iran were under house arrest.

As recently as last February, Bush administration officials were preparing to accuse Tehran publicly of cooperating with and harboring al-Qaeda suspects as part of the administration’s strategy for pushing for stronger UN sanctions against Iran. The strategy of portraying Iran as having links with al-Qaeda was being pushed by an unidentified Bush adviser who had been “instrumental in coming up with a more confrontational U.S. approach to Iran,” according a report by the Washington Post‘s Dafna Linzer on Feb. 10.

As Linzer revealed, the neoconservative faction in the administration was still pushing to link Iran with al-Qaeda despite the fact that a CIA report in early February had reported the arrest by Iranian authorities of two more al-Qaeda operatives trying to make their way through Iran from Pakistan to Iraq.

The danger of an al-Qaeda effort to disguise an attack on the U.S. as coming from Iran was raised in an article in Foreign Affairs published in late April by former NSC adviser and counterterrorism expert Bruce Riedel.

In the article, Riedel wrote that Osama bin Laden may have plans for “triggering an all-out war between the United States and Iran,” referring to evidence that al-Qaeda in Iraq now considers Iranian influence in Iraq “an even greater problem than the U.S. occupation.”

“The biggest danger,” Riedel wrote, “is that al-Qaeda will deliberately provoke a war with a ‘false-flag’ operation, say, a terrorist attack carried out in a way that would make it appear as though it were Iran’s doing.”

In a briefing for reporters about the article, Riedel said al-Qaeda officials have “openly talked about the advisability of getting their two great enemies to go to war with each other,” hoping that they would “take each other out.”

Riedel, now a senior fellow with the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, was one of the leading specialists on al-Qaeda and terrorism, having served in the 1990s as national intelligence officer, assistant secretary of defense, and NSC specialist for Near East and South Asia up to January 2002.

Supporting the warnings by Brzezinski and Riedel about an al-Qaeda “false flag” terrorist attack is a captured al-Qaeda document found in a hideout of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq in 2006. The document, translated and released by Iraqi National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie, said “the best solution in order to get out of this crisis is to involve the U.S. forces in waging a war against another country or any hostile groups.”

The document, the author of which was not specified, explained, “We mean specifically attempting to escalate tension between America and Iran, and America and the Shi’ite[s] in Iraq.”

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Gareth Porter

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.