Don't recycle another myth to justify a war with Iran

Don't recycle another myth to justify a war with Iran
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In late 2002 or early 2003, I encountered one of my senior colleagues poring over a massive sheet that covered virtually his entire conference table. When I asked him what he was looking for, he replied that it was a connection between a certain al Qaeda operative and a representative of Saddam Hussein. There were stray reports about a meeting of the two that had taken place in Prague some time earlier, perhaps after 9/11, and proof of any link between Saddam and the terrorist organization would underscore the U.S. administration’s concern about the Iraqi dictator’s nuclear weapons program and strengthen the case for regime change. There was no such link, just as there was no active Iraqi nuclear weapons program.

Sixteen years later, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard Pompeo2020 Dems slam Trump decision on West Bank settlements Netanyahu calls Trump administration reversal on Israeli settlements a 'huge achievement' UN pushes back on US reversal on Israeli settlements MORE has asserted, with complete confidence, that there is an undeniable partnership between the ayatollahs of Tehran and al Qaeda. Thus far, Pompeo has offered no proof of his assertion; possibly, unlike the tale told years ago, it might be true. On its face, it is not impossible for the radical Shi’a regime to cooperate with Sunni terrorists. Tehran recently acknowledged its links to the Sunni Taliban. Indeed, Iran has financed and armed the Taliban for some time, and has trained Taliban fighters. Similarly, Iran is a longtime supporter of Hamas, an offshoot of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood.

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Nevertheless, the reasons for Tehran’s support of the Taliban and Hamas are not necessarily those that would link it to al Qaeda. Iran has backed the Taliban against not only American forces but also against ISIS. The Taliban, for all its extremism, has evinced no inclination to spread its control or ideology beyond Afghanistan’s borders. Moreover, despite its support for the Taliban, Iran also has maintained a channel to the government in Kabul. Indeed, in the early stages of the Afghanistan war, Tehran actually offered to work with Washington to draft a constitution and install a new government in Kabul. As for Hamas, what unites it with Iran is a common desire to destroy Israel, nothing more.

It may well be that Tehran shares with al Qaeda a desire to damage the United States. Moreover, little is beyond the capacity of Qasem Soleimani, the crafty longtime leader of the Iranian Quds Force, the special and clandestine operations arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Soleimani masterminded many of the Shi’a attacks on American forces in Iraq and continues to coordinate the activities of his operatives and supporters inside Iraq’s Shi’a political leadership.

On the other hand, until now there has been no evidence that Soleimani or Tehran’s mullahs  have been working with, or even have been prepared to work with, al Qaeda. After all, it is an organization that hates Shi’a Muslims as much as it despises Israel, and whose franchise under the name of “al Qaeda in Iraq” was responsible for the deaths of countless Iraqi Shi’a during the civil war that raged for several years after the United States deposed Saddam.

The Trump administration may or may not find itself at war with Iran. It is no secret that President TrumpDonald John TrumpDem senator says Zelensky was 'feeling the pressure' to probe Bidens 2020 Dems slam Trump decision on West Bank settlements Trump calls latest impeachment hearings 'a great day for Republicans' MORE is disinclined to involve American troops in another war in the Middle East. Doing so would break one of his major campaign promises, and the president not only does his utmost to keep those promises, he also knows that getting into a war could cost him the 2020 election.

Nevertheless, as he has indicated, the decision to go to war will be his alone. Should he choose to launch an operation against Iran, the administration’s linking the mullahs to al Qaeda might be a useful rationale to back up whatever casus belli he invokes. If that is the case, the Intelligence Community had better establish that there is indeed a solid link between the terrorists and the mullahs. It would be tragic if, as a result of a recycled myth, young men and women once again are ordered to risk life and limb on another Middle Eastern battlefield.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.