WASHINGTON - Following revelations of a George W. Bush administration policy to hold Iran responsible for any al Qaeda attack on the U.S. that could be portrayed as planned on Iranian soil, former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinksi warned last week that Washington might use such an incident as a pretext to bomb Iran.
Brzezinski, the national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter from 1977 through 1980 and the most senior Democratic Party figure on national security policy, told a private meeting sponsored by the non-partisan Committee for the Republic in Washington May 30 that an al Qaeda terrorist attack in the United States intended to provoke war between the U.S. and Iran was a possibility that must be taken seriously, and that the Bush administration might accuse Iran of responsibility for such an attack and use it to justify carrying out an attack on Iran.
Brzezinski suggested that new constraints were needed on presidential war powers to reduce the risk of a war against Iran based on such a false pretense. Such constraints, Brzezinski said, should not prevent the president from using force in response to an attack on the United States, but should make it more difficult to carry out an attack without an adequate justification.
Brzezinski's warning came a few weeks after the publication in late April of former Central Intelligence Agency director George Tenet's memoirs, which revealed that CIA officials had told Iranian officials in a face-to-face meeting that the Bush administration would hold Iran responsible for any al Qaeda attack on the United States that was planned from Iranian territory.
The Bush administration has made persistent claims over the past five years that Iran has harboured al Qaeda operatives who had fled from Afghanistan and that they had participated in planning terrorist actions -- claims that were not supported by intelligence analysts.
Pentagon officials leaked information to CBS in May 2003 that they had "evidence" that al Qaeda leaders who had found "safe haven" in Iran had planned and directed terrorist operations in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Then Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld also encouraged that inference when he declared on May 29, 2003 that Iran had "permitted senior al Qaeda officials to operate in their country."
The leak and public statement allowed the media and their audiences to infer that the "safe haven" had been deliberately provided by Iranian authorities.
But most U.S. intelligence analysts specialising on the Persian Gulf believed the al Qaeda officials in Iran who were still communicating with operatives elsewhere were in hiding rather than under arrest. Former national intelligence officer for Near East and South Asia Paul Pillar told IPS in an interview last year that the "general impression" was that the al Qaeda operatives were not in Iran with the complicity of the Iranian authorities.
Former CIA analysts Ken Pollock, who was a Persian Gulf specialist on the National Security Council staff in 2001, wrote in "The Persian Puzzle", "These al Qaeda leaders apparently were operating in eastern Iran, which is a bit like the Wild West." He added, pointedly, "It was not as if these al-Qaeda leaders had been under lock and key in Evin prison in Tehran and were allowed to make phone calls to set up the attacks."
Although most elements in the Bush administration appear to oppose military action against Iran, Vice President Dick Cheney has reportedly advocated that course. He has also continued to raise the issue of al Qaeda officials in Iran.
Cheney told Fox News in an interview May 14, "We are confident that there are a number of senior al Qaeda officials in Iran, that they've been there since the spring of 2003. About the time that we launched operations into Iraq, the Iranians rounded up a number of al Qaeda individuals and placed them under house arrest."
Cheney did not say that the al Qaeda officials who were communicating with other operatives outside Iran were under house arrest.
As recently as last February, Bush administration officials were preparing to accuse Tehran publicly of cooperating with and harbouring al Qaeda suspects as part of the administration's strategy for pushing for stronger U.N. sanctions against Iran. The strategy of portraying Iran as having links with al Qaeda was being pushed by an unidentified Bush adviser who had been "instrumental in coming up with a more confrontational U.S. approach to Iran," according a report by the Washington Post's Dafna Linzer on Feb. 10.
As Linzer revealed, the neoconservative faction in the administration was still pushing to link Iran with al Qaeda despite the fact that a CIA report in early February had reported the arrest by Iranian authorities of two more al Qaeda operatives trying to make their way through Iran from Pakistan to Iraq.
The danger of an al Qaeda effort to disguise an attack on the U.S. as coming from Iran was raised in an article in Foreign Affairs published in late April by former NSC adviser and counterterrorism expert Bruce Reidel.
In the article, Reidel wrote that Osama bin Laden may have plans for "triggering an all-out war between the United States and Iran," referring to evidence that al Qaeda in Iraq now considers Iranian influence in Iraq "an even greater problem than the U.S. occupation".
"The biggest danger," Reidel wrote, "is that al Qaeda will deliberately provoke a war with a 'false-flag' operation, say, a terrorist attack carried out in a way that would make it appear as though it were Iran's doing."
In a briefing for reporters about the article, Reidel said al Qaeda officals have "openly talked about the advisability of getting their two great enemies to go to war with each other", hoping that they would "take each other out".
Reidel, now a senior fellow with the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, was one of the leading specialists on al Qaeda and terrorism, having served in the 1990s as national intelligence officer, assistant secretary of defence and NSC specialist for Near East and South Asia up to January 2002.
Supporting the warnings by Brzezinski and Reidel about an al Qaeda "false flag" terrorist attack is a captured al Qaeda document found in a hideout of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq in 2006. The document, translated and released by the Iraqi National Security Adviser Mouwafek al-Rubaie, said "the best solution in order to get out of this crisis is to involve the U.S. forces in waging a war against another country or any hostile groups".
The document, the author of which was not specified, explained, "We mean specifically attempting to escalate tension between America and Iran, and America and the Shiite[s] in Iraq."