WASHINGTON - Sen. John McCain's confusion in recent allegations of Iranian training of al Qaeda fighters in Iraq is the result of a drumbeat of official propaganda about close Iran-al Qaeda ties that the George W. Bush administration and neoconservatives have promoted ever since early 2002. McCain, the Republican nominee for the presidency, was confusing the Bush administration's charges of Iranian training of Shi'a militiamen associated with the Mahdi Army with the administration's propaganda theme of Iranian tacit or explicit support for al Qaeda operatives in Iran -- charges which have amplified by right-wing media. During a press conference in Jordan Tuesday, McCain brought up the charge that Iran with training al Qaeda operatives and sending them to Iraq, then corrected himself after Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat from Connecticut, whispered in his ear. It was the fourth time in a little over three weeks, however, that McCain had made the same charge. McCain's confusion has been widely characterised as demonstrating his inability to distinguish Sunni al Qaeda from Shiite Mahdi Army. But more fundamentally, McCain's gaffes were a reflection of how thoroughly he had internalised a favourite theme of the Bush administration and neoconservatives -- that Iran has tolerated and even covertly assisted al Qaeda agents operating inside Iran. Those administration charges have continued despite the repeated release of information by Iran and other countries about its arrest, detention and repatriation of al Qaeda suspects. That charge has been given credence by mainstream news media for years. The theme of an Iran-al Qaeda link first appeared in the wake of the defeat of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Although most al Qaeda cadres escaped to Pakistan, a much smaller number crossed the border into Iran. Despite the fact that U.S. officials later said Iran had been responsive to U.S. communications about intercepting al Qaeda cadres at the border, then Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld stated on more than one occasion in 2002 that Iran was "harbouring" al Qaeda officials. That was same term Bush had used in his Sep. 20, 2001 speech as criterion for considering a nation to be a "hostile regime" in regard to terrorism. The Bush propaganda line was taken so seriously by the news media that the Washington Post reported Aug. 28, 2002 that "Arab intelligence sources" were saying that two high-ranking al Qaeda officials were being "sheltered in Iran along with dozens of other al Qaeda fighters in hotels and guesthouses in the border cities of Mashad and Zabol." The Post said the report "supported the Bush administration's long-standing assertion that Iran -- or at least hardliners in the conservative clerical line of authority that controls the army and intelligence services -- is harbouring al Qaeda fighters." In spring 2003, Iran declared that it was holding senior members of al Qaeda but refused to divulge their identities and proposed to exchange information on its al Qaeda detainees in return for the U.S. providing Iran with information on the anti-Iran terrorist group Mujihidden e Khalk (MEK) which had surrendered to U.S. troops in Iraq. But hardliners in the Bush administration rejected such a deal, on the grounds that MEK should be protected from Iran. After the May 12, 2003 terrorist bombing in Saudi Arabia, which killed eight U.S. citizens and 26 Saudis, Rumsfeld declared, "We know there are senior al Qaeda in Iran...presumably not an ungoverned area." Then CBS news reported, "U.S. officials say they have evidence the bombings in Saudi Arabia and other attacks still in the works were planned and directed by senior al Qaeda operatives who have found safe haven in Iran." That was an obvious ploy to insinuate that Iran was deliberately allowing al Qaeda operatives to plan terrorist attacks from Iranian territory. The New York Times reported May 26, 2003, however, that the Rumsfeld statement was disputed by another unnamed administration official who observed that the intercepted messages did not necessarily refer to the Saudi bombing at all. Former U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence on the matter say there was never any clear evidence that any al Qaeda detainees were being allowed to operate freely. Paul Pillar, the intelligence officer on Iran at the time, said in an interview in 2006, "It was very fuzzy whether they were free to do things or not." Lawrence Wilkerson, later chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, recalled in an interview, "The Iran experts agreed that, even if al Qaeda had come in and out of Iran, it didn't mean the Iranian government was complicit." Iran did hand over 225 suspected al Qaeda operatives to their country of origin in 2003, and provided their names to the United Nations. Saudi Arabia confirmed that Iran had repatriated suspected al Qaeda of Saudi nationality. Nevertheless, Bush administration officials carried out a determined campaign of press leaks in 2003 and 2004 suggesting covert Iranian support for al Qaeda terrorism. A typical example of such press leaks is a CNN story on Oct. 27, 2003 quoting "U.S. intelligence officials" as saying that the "Quds Force" of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps "may be sheltering some al Qaeda leaders, including its military commander, Saif al-Adel and Saad bin Laden, son of the al Qaeda leader." On Mar. 24, 2003, the New York Times reported from Tel Aviv that senior al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had "turned up in Iran" under the protection of Iranian security forces, according to senior Israeli and U.S. officials. But in the Arab-language London daily Asharq Alawsat, usually known for its anti-Iran coverage, published an article by Mahammed Al Shafey in 2005 which quoted an internet posting by al-Adel in which he recalled that approximately 80 percent of the group of al Qaeda operatives led by al-Zarqawi which had fled to Iran had been arrested and the rest had fled to Iraq. According to Al-Adel, "The steps taken by Iran against us shook [us] and caused the failure of 75 percent of our plan." The high point of the Iran-al Qaeda theme was the spate of stories in the week before the publication of the 9/11 Commission report in July 2004, reporting that the Iranian government had facilitated the transit of eight Sep. 11 hijackers through Iran. But CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin said the CIA had "no evidence" of any official Iranian approval of the transit. In July 2005, Iran's intelligence minister Ali Younessi said Iran had apprehended more than 1,000 members of al Qaeda since late 2001. Younessi said that some al Qaeda agents had taken refuge in Iranian cities but had been arrested "because they intended to use Iranian territory to launch terrorist strikes on other countries". He also referred to the arrests and trial of a number of Ansar al Islam operatives who he said were "still in prison". *Gareth Porter is an historian and national security policy analyst. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in 2006.
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