9/11 report uncovers connections to Iran

Hijackers given passage through country

news comes amid debate on nuclear plans

July 22, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Evidence uncovered by the commission that reviewed the Sept. 11 attacks has intensified debate about Iran's links to al-Qaida at a time when efforts to halt Tehran's suspected nuclear-weapons program seem to have stalled.

The commission's final report, to be publicly released at 11:30 a.m. today, will document deeper connections between Iran and Osama bin Laden's terrorist network than the commission had expected, officials say.

In particular, the report is expected to invoke evidence that Tehran allowed several of the Sept. 11 hijackers to pass through Iran. The evidence is not expected, however, to indicate that Iran intentionally aided the Sept. 11 attacks.

More broadly, the report is expected to level heavy criticism of law-enforcement and intelligence failures to gain more advance information about the attacks. It is likely to fault both the Bush and Clinton administrations as well as Congress, and make a series of recommendations.

One of those recommendations is to create a new Cabinet-level national director of intelligence in charge of all 15 spy agencies.

The commission report is being issued against a backdrop of debate about American policy toward the Islamic regime. Its findings are expected to bolster the view of conservatives on Capitol Hill that the United States must adopt a strategy to weaken, and ultimately topple, Iran's clerical leadership. Hardly anyone, though, is advocating U.S. military action to do so.

Added to the concern is Iran's refusal to cooperate with international inspectors in opening up and dismantling what American intelligence officials believe is a nuclear-weapons program that could pose a threat to U.S. allies in the Middle East, particularly Israel.

The commission findings on Iran are likely to cast further doubt on a view held by many Iran experts that the Islamic republic's Shiite clerical leadership would be unlikely to collaborate with Sunni Muslim holy warriors who follow bin Laden.

"We believe in the commission that there were a lot more active contacts, frankly, with Iran and with Pakistan than there were with Iraq," the commission's chairman, Thomas H. Kean, said last month.

John E. McLaughlin, the acting director of the CIA, bolstered one of the panel's reported findings on Sunday when he told a television interviewer that eight of the Sept. 11 hijackers were permitted to transit through Iran en route to the West from Afghanistan, where al-Qaida was based.

Long branded a leading state sponsor of terrorism by the U.S. government, Iran is known to have supplied weapons, training and money to the Lebanese Shiite guerrilla movement, Hezbollah, and to have supported the Sunni Islamic militant group Hamas in its battle against Israel. The report's new evidence has not significantly altered the predominant view of Iran held by U.S. officials.

"I don't think the picture has changed - that picture being one of two elements that are on opposite sides of a lot of issues," said a U.S. official who has been involved in counterterrorism. Hard-line elements within Iran's Republican Guard "are not averse to cooperating with Sunni extremists," this official said, but "there's not a broad new operational alliance."

Opposed Taliban

The new evidence, the official said, does not diminish what had previously been known about Iran: Iran's leadership opposed the Taliban regime that provided sanctuary for al-Qaida's leaders and terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and allied itself with elements of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance rebels.

More recently, Iran has detained some al-Qaida operatives, perhaps to use as bargaining chips with the United States and other governments.

Diplomatic efforts led by Britain, France and Germany to make Iran cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency regarding its nuclear program have yet to produce results. The Bush administration wants to bring the problem before the United Nations Security Council. In response, Iran claims the program is intended purely to meet domestic energy needs.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in an interview broadcast yesterday, said:

"We still think there is a diplomatic solution to this problem. We hope Iran will come to its senses and realize that the possession of such a weapon will not make the many more secure; it'll make them less secure, and it'll make them less able to provide for their people."

Calls for change

At the same time, some foreign-policy thinkers, frustrated with the failure of American efforts over the past two decades to change Iranian behavior, are calling for the United States to establish an open dialogue with Tehran.

In a report this week, a Council on Foreign Relations task force said, "The urgency of the concerns surrounding Iran's policies mandates the United States to deal with the current regime rather than wait for it to fall."

The task force was chaired by Zbigniew K. Brzezinski, who was national security adviser under former President Jimmy Carter, and Robert M. Gates, who was CIA director under former President George Bush.

The Bush administration has made quiet contacts with Iranian officials in the past, particularly to discuss Afghanistan. It also maintains an indirect diplomatic channel through the Swiss government.

Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has pledged that if elected, he would open a direct and open dialogue with the regime, putting Iran's nuclear program at the top of the agenda.

THE 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT

Sept. 11 report released today

The commission will release its final report on the 2001 terrorist attacks at an 11:30 a.m. news conference.

The report also will be available in bookstores nationwide.

For updates and to read the 9/11 report when it becomes available, go to baltimoresun.com.

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