How Neo-Cons Sabotaged Iran's Help on al Qaeda
By Gareth Porter
02/23/06 -- -- WASHINGTON, Feb 21 (IPS)
- The United States and
Iran were on a course to work closely together on the war
against al Qaeda and its Taliban sponsors in Afghanistan in late
2001 and early 2002 -- until Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
stepped in to scuttle that cooperation, according to officials
who were involved at the time.
After the Sep. 11 attacks, U.S. officials responsible for
preparing for war in Afghanistan needed Iran's help to unseat
the Taliban and establish a stable government in Kabul. Iran had
organised resistance by the "Northern Alliance" and had provided
arms and funding, at a time when the United States had been
unwilling to do so.
"The Iranians had real contacts with important players in
Afghanistan and were prepared to use their influence in
constructive ways in coordination with the United States,"
recalls Flynt Leverett, then senior director for Middle East
affairs in the National Security Council (NSC), in an interview
In October 2001, as the United States was just beginning its
military operations in Afghanistan, State Department and NSC
officials began meeting secretly with Iranian diplomats in Paris
and Geneva, under the sponsorship of Lakhdar Brahimi, head of
the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. Leverett
says these discussions focused on "how to effectively unseat the
Taliban and once the Taliban was gone, how to stand up an Afghan
It was thanks to the Northern Alliance Afghan troops, which were
supported primarily by the Iranians, that the Taliban was driven
out of Kabul in mid-November. Two weeks later, the Afghan
opposition groups were convened in Bonn under United Nations
auspices to agree on a successor regime.
At that meeting, the Northern Alliance was demanding 60 percent
of the portfolios in an interim government, which was blocking
agreement by other opposition groups. According to U.S. special
envoy to Afghanistan James Dobbins, Iran played a "decisive
role" in persuading the Northern Alliance delegate to
compromise. Dobbins also recalls how the Iranians insisted on
including language in the Bonn agreement on the war on
The bureaucracy recognised that there was an opportunity to work
with Iran not only on stabilising Afghanistan but on al Qaeda as
well. As reported by the Washington Post on Oct. 22, 2004, the
State Department's policy planning staff had written a paper in
late November 2001 suggesting that the United States should
propose more formal arrangements for cooperation with Iran on
fighting al Qaeda.
That would have involved exchanging intelligence information
with Tehran as well as coordinating border sweeps to capture al
Qaeda fighters and leaders who were already beginning to move
across the border into Pakistan and Iran. The CIA agreed with
the proposal, according to the Post's sources, as did the head
of the White House Office for Combating Terrorism, Ret. Gen.
Wayne A. Downing.
But the cooperation against al Qaeda was not the priority for
the anti-Iranian interests in the White House and the Pentagon.
Investigative journalist Bob Woodward's book "Plan of Attack"
recounts that Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen J.
Hadley, who chaired an inter-agency committee on Iran policy
dealing with issues surrounding Afghanistan, learned that the
White House intended to include Iran as a member of the "Axis of
Evil" in Bush's State of the Union message in January.
Hadley expressed reservations about that plan at one point, but
was told by Bush directly that Iran had to stay in. By the end
of December, Hadley had decided, against the recommendations of
the State Department, CIA and White House counter-terrorism
office, that the United States would not share any information
with Iran on al Qaeda, even though it would press the Iranians
for such intelligence, as well as to turn over any al Qaeda
members it captured to the appropriate home country.
Soon after that decision, hardliners presented Iranian policy to
Bush and the public as hostile to U.S. aims in Afghanistan and
refusing to cooperate with the war on terror -- the opposite of
what officials directly involved had witnessed.
On Jan. 11, 2002, the New York Times quoted Pentagon and
intelligence officials as saying that Iran had given "safe
haven" to fleeing al Qaeda fighters in order to use them against
the United States in post-Taliban Afghanistan. That same day,
Bush declared "Iran must be a contributor in the war against
"Our nation, in our fight against terrorism, will uphold the
doctrine of 'either you're with us or against us'," he said.
Officials who were familiar with the intelligence at that point
agree that the "safe haven for al Qaeda" charge was not based on
any genuine analysis by the intelligence community.
"I wasn't aware of any intelligence support that charge,"
recalls Dobbins, who was still the primary point of contact with
Iranian officials about cooperation on Afghanistan. "I certainly
would have seen it had there been any such intelligence. Nobody
told me they were harbouring al Qaeda."
Iran had already increased its troop strength on the Afghan
border in response to U.S. requests. As the Washington Post
reported in 2004, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Javad Zarif
brought a dossier to U.N Secretary-General Kofi Annan in early
February with the photos of 290 men believed to be al Qaeda
members who already been detained fleeing from Afghanistan.
Later hundreds of al Qaeda and Taliban detainees were
repatriated to Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and other Arab and
European countries, according to news reports.
The hardliners would complain that the Iranians did not turn
over any top al Qaeda leaders. But the United States had just
rejected any exchange of information with the very officials
with whom it needed to discuss the question of al Qaeda -- the
Iranian intelligence and security ministry.
The same administration officials told the Times that Iran was
seeking to exert its influence in border regions in western
Afghanistan by shipping arms to its Afghan allies in the war
against the Taliban and that this could undermine the interim
government and Washington's long-term interests in Afghanistan.
But in March 2002, Iranian official met with Dobbins in Geneva
during a U.N. conference on Afghanistan's security needs.
Dobbins recalls that the Iranian delegation brought with it the
general who had been responsible for military assistance to the
Northern Alliance during the long fight against the Taliban.
The general offered to provide training, uniforms, equipment and
barracks for as many as 20,000 new recruits for the nascent
Afghan military. All this was to be done under U.S. leadership,
Dobbins recalls, not as part of a separate programme under
exclusive Iranian control.
"The Iranians later confirmed that they did this as a gesture to
the United States," says Dobbins.
Dobbins returned to Washington to inform key administration
officials of what he regarded as an opportunity for a new level
of cooperation in Afghanistan. He briefed then Secretary of
State Colin Powell, National Adviser Condoleezza Rice and
Rumsfeld personally. "To my knowledge, there was never a
response," he says.
Gareth Porter is an historian and national security policy
analyst. His latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of
Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in June
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