Sen. John McCain is taking heat for comments made in Jordan Tuesday that Iran was supplying and training Al Qaeda.
"Dems seize on McCain's Iran gaffe," reports CNN's Political Ticker. CNN Ticker Producer Alexander Mooney reported, "Iran is predominately a Shiite country and is not aiding the Sunni dominated Al-Qaeda." Michael Cooper, of the New York Times, went into more detail, reporting that McCain said, "Well, it's common knowledge and has been reported in the media that Al Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran. That's well known. And it's unfortunate." Eventually, Sen. Joe Lieberman, who was standing beside him during the press conference, whispered a correction in his ear, prompting McCain to say, "I'm sorry, the Iranians are training extremists, not Al Qaeda. I am sorry."
Karen Finney, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee (DNC), seized on McCain's remarks. "After eight years of the Bush administration's incompetence in Iraq, McCain's comments don't give the American people a reason to believe that he can be trusted to offer a clear way forward," she said in the Times article. "Not only is Senator McCain wrong on Iraq once again, but he showed he either doesn't understand the challenges facing Iraq and the region or is willing to ignore the facts on the ground." The DNC website issued a scathing critique of McCain that used almost the exact same wording as CNN, "In fact, Iran, a predominately Shiite country, is not helping Al-Qaeda, a predominately Sunni terrorist group."
It turns out everyone is wrong – McCain, the reporters and the DNC. In the seventh year of the War on Terrorism there remains a dearth of knowledge of pertinent subjects among people who should know better.
One of those subjects is the relationship between Al Qaeda and Iran. McCain was incorrect. It is true that there is no public evidence that Iran is currently training Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) operatives. However, there is a well-documented and ongoing history of cooperation and support between Iran and Al Qaeda despite the fact that Iran is a Shiite country and Al Qaeda is a Sunni terrorist organization. This was spelled out in clear detail in the 9/11 Commission Report.
Page 61 of the report states that the relationship between the world's most infamous terrorist organization and the world's most active state sponsor of terrorism began in late 1991 or early 1992 when Iranian agents met with Al Qaeda leaders in Sudan and informally agreed to provide mutual support for attacks against Israel and the United States.
"Bin Laden reportedly showed particular interest in learning how to use truck bombs such as the one that had killed 241 U.S. Marines in Lebanon in 1983," the report said.
As a result of this meeting, Al Qaeda operatives and trainers went to Iran for explosives training and to Lebanon for training in explosives, intelligence, and security.
Page 240 notes that Iranian agents continued to meet with Al Qaeda leadership figures after Al Qaeda was forced to relocate from Sudan to Afghanistan. Iran tried to strengthen ties with Al Qaeda after the 2000 USS Cole attack, but bin Laden was worried that working closer with Shiite Iran would anger some Sunni supporters in Saudi Arabia. Still, Iranian officials often accommodated Al Qaeda operatives by not stamping their passports to facilitate covert travel through Iran. The report estimates 8 to 10 of the 9/11 hijackers traveled through Iran between October 2000 and February 2001. While the report acknowledged there was no direct evidence of Iranian involvement in the 9/11 attacks – either directly or through its proxy Hizballah – it recommended that the US government investigate the matter further.
In addition, The Daily Telegraph reported in November 2006 that Iran was attempting to influence Al Qaeda leadership decisions and advocate for Al Qaeda figures known to be friendly to Tehran. Less than a year ago, Nasser Ahmad Al-Bahri, a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, told Al Arabiya satellite channel that two top Al Qaeda leaders are responsible for coordination with Iran. In October 2007, The Dallas Morning News claimed there were indications that Iran was sheltering and supporting the Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group Ansar al Islam in a proxy war against Iraqi Kurds. Agence France Presse and other outlets recently reported that the head of the Iraqi Intelligence Service, Muhamad Abdullah Al-Shahwani, accused Iran of targeting the Awakening Councils, which have been the main force behind fight against AQI.
News outlets and public figures should not be so quick to dismiss the possibility of our enemies colluding despite their differences on religious doctrine. While Shiite Iran and Sunni Al Qaeda have many significant differences, this has not precluded a strong relationship of support and cooperation as they share important regional and global strategic enemies – namely the United States and Israel. Al Qaeda is not the only Sunni terrorist organization aided by Iran. Iran also provides significant resources and training to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Instead of using and twisting important facts concerning national security as weapons in the popular election season game of "gotcha," America would be better served if attaining accurate intelligence and educating the public were the chief goals in the often dangerous domain of public discourse.