McCain not retreating on AQI/Iran ties

John McCain immediately corrected an assertion that Iran trains al-Qaeda fighters, but he remains firm that Iran supports AQI cells in Iraq. Eli Lake, who has covered those same connections for over a year, covers the pushback from McCain and his advisers, and they even invoke Hillary Clinton. Responding to Barack Obama adviser Susan Rice that “there is no body of evidence that Iran is aiding al-Qaeda in Iraq”, Lake reviews the evidence that Rice somehow missed:

The Sun, in a series of dispatches from northern Iraq and Baghdad, detailed claims that Iran has supported Al Qaeda in Iraq. One such dispatch, published on April 25, 2007, quoted the director of the security ministry for the Sulaimaniyah province, Sarkawt Hassan Jalal, as saying Iran had harbored the leadership of a group calling itself Al Qaeda in Kurdistan in five towns on the Iraqi border. A subsequent story, based on an interview with a Kurdish prisoner who went by the name Osman the Small, said Iran’s revolutionary guard and domestic intelligence service had issued the Kurdish jihadist group political refugee cards, identifications that made it possible for them to cross back and forth into Iraq from Iran.

Senior military officials from Multinational Forces in Iraq have said on the record that Iran provides support for Sunni terror outfits in Iraq, but they have not identified them as Al Qaeda in Iraq. A former commander of a group that has at times aligned with Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic Army of Iraq, Abu Azzam al Tamimi, told Al Arabiya television on January 18, 2008, that Iran “interferes in every aspect in Iraq.” When asked whom Iran supports, Mr. al Tamimi said, “Everybody — it works with the government, with the opponents of the government, with the opponents of the government’s opponents, with Al-Qaeda, with the enemies of Al-Qaeda, with the militias, with the enemies of the militias … Iran spreads its investments everywhere – with the Shiites, the Sunnis, and the Kurds,” according to a translation by the Middle East Media Research Institute.

The Sun also reported in July that a senior leadership or management council for Al Qaeda meets regularly in eastern Iran, according to the classified portion of the latest national intelligence estimate on Al Qaeda. An intelligence briefer to the press for that estimate at the time claimed to have no recollection of the section, but the Sun maintains that it is there. Following the defeat of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2001, many senior Al Qaeda leaders, such as Saif al Adel and Saad bin Laden, fled to Iran, while others, such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri, are believed to have fled to the border tribal provinces in Pakistan.

Senior Bush administration officials have in the past said as much. In a 2005 interview with NBC News, the president’s homeland security adviser, Frances Townsend, said, “We believe that they’re holding members of Al Qaeda’s management council.” She went on: “And we have encouraged and suggested that they ought to try them, they ought to admit freely that they’re there — which they have not done — that they’re holding them. Or they ought to return them to their countries of origin, which they’ve also been unwilling to do.”

It wouldn’t be the first cooperation between AQ and Iran, either. As the 9/11 Commission report makes clear on page 240 of its final report, Iran had attempted to work its way into AQ’s graces, but had been rejected out of concern for its Wahhabist supporters in Saudi Arabia:

Intelligence indicates the persistence of contacts between Iranian security officials and senior al Qaeda figures after Bin Ladin’s return to Afghanistan. Khallad has said that Iran made a concerted effort to strengthen relations with al Qaeda after the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, but was rebuffed because Bin Ladin did not want to alienate his supporters in Saudi Arabia. Khallad and other detainees have described the willingness of Iranian officials to facilitate the travel of al Qaeda members through Iran, on their way to and from Afghanistan. For example, Iranian border inspectors would be told not to place telltale stamps in the passports of these travelers. Such arrangements were particularly beneficial to Saudi members of al Qaeda.

Our knowledge of the international travels of the al Qaeda operatives selected for the 9/11 operation remains fragmentary. But we now have evidence suggesting that 8 to 10 of the 14 Saudi “muscle” operatives traveled into or out of Iran between October 2000 and February 2001.

So much for the notion that radical Shi’ite and Sunni jihadists cannot work together. That myth got debunked almost four years ago, and yet people like Susan Rice and the Obama campaign continue to rely on it to shade their eyes to the intertwining of threatening terrorist networks. John McCain obviously has paid a lot more attention to this issue than either Susan Rice or Barack Obama, neither of whom apparently have bothered to read the 9/11 Commission report, let alone review the intelligence and open testimony before Congress on Iran’s support for AQI.