WASHINGTON - In a significant escalation in the rhetorical battle against Iran, the U.S. Treasury Department Thursday accused Tehran of having forged a "secret deal" with Al-Qaeda to allow it to use Iranian territory to transport money and operatives to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The statement marked the first on-the-record accusation by a senior administration official under President Barack Obama that the Islamic Republic has a specific agreement with the terrorist group.
At the same time, one government official stressed, the statement did not assert that Tehran is directly providing support to Al-Qaeda. Nor did it impose sanctions on any Iranian official, as it did on six- member Al-Qaeda network which it alleged is using Iran as a "core pipeline" between the Middle East and South Asia.
Nonetheless, the statement is almost certain to increase pressure from neo-conservatives and other hawks, especially Republicans in Congress, to take stronger action against Tehran, according to some observers here who noted that allegations that tied Saddam Hussein to Al-Qaeda was a critical element in rallying the U.S. public behind war with Iraq eight years ago.
The Treasury statement, which imposed financial sanctions against six alleged Al-Qaeda activists living in Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Qatar and Kuwait, charged that they constituted a network headed by Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil that "serves as the core pipeline through which al- Qa'ida moves money, facilitators and operatives from across the Middle East to South Asia…"
Khalil, a Syrian national, has operated in Iran since 2005 "under an agreement between al-Qa'ida and the Iranian government," according to the Treasury's statement.
In addition to collecting funding from donors in the Gulf and moving the money on to senior Al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and Iraq, it said, Khalil "works with the Iranian government to arrange releases of al-Qa'ida personnel from Iranian prisons." When successful Khalil "then facilitates their travel to Pakistan".
"Iran is the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world today," said Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, David S. Cohen in the written release published on Treasury's website.
"By exposing Iran’s secret deal with al-Qa’ida allowing it to funnel funds and operatives through its territory, we are illuminating yet another aspect of Iran’s unmatched support for terrorism. Today's action also seeks to disrupt this key network and deny al-Qa-ida's senior leadership much-needed support."
Thursday's announcement comes amidst a spate of charges by senior U.S. officials, including former Pentagon chief Robert Gates and his successor, Leon Panetta, that Iran has sharply increased its arming of Shia militias that have been attacking U.S. troops in Iraq, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, to suspected Taliban forces in Afghanistan.
"Iran is very directly supporting extremist Shia groups which are killing our troops," declared the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, earlier this month. Of the 15 soldiers slain in June – the worst monthly U.S. death toll in three years - nine were killed in rocket attacks which U.S. military officials said they could trace to Iran.
Those charges have provoked a chorus of calls by neo-conservatives and other hawks for the administration to take strong action.
"We ought to go after the militias in Iraq as well as their backers in Iran who've decided to make Iraq a proxy war," urged an editorial in the Wall Street Journal.
Both the administration and Iran hawks here have also charged that Tehran, and particularly its Revolutionary Guard's Qods Force, has provided material and other assistance to the security forces of President Bashar Assad in their brutal crackdown of the ongoing protest movement in Syria.
Meanwhile, no progress has been made in persuading Iran to freeze its uranium-enrichment programme, which Washington and its allies charge is aimed at building nuclear weapons. The continued impasse on that front has added to pressure, especially from Congress where the so- called "Israel Lobby" exercises considerable influence on both parties, to take a more confrontational stance toward Tehran.
Given this background, Thursday's accusation of a "secret deal" between Iran and Al-Qaeda is likely to add to that pressure, according to some analysts, although others argued that it also served to reassure the public and other interested parties, including foreign intelligence agencies, that Washington was keeping a careful eye on Tehran and successfully disrupting key networks.
"It shows we're watching these guys and stopping these activities," said Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University who served in senior posts in the Ford and Carter administrations. "They're saying, 'Hey, we're doing things, we're on top of this situation'."
Hillary Mann Leverett, an Iran analyst who served in the Clinton and Bush administrations, agreed that the administration was "showing they’re in control and that they're watching Iran ever second of every day."
"But," she added, "it's pretty dangerous because, at the end of the day, this can be used as part of the case to further confrontation with Iran. This is exactly the kind of thing that we saw in the lead- up to the invasion of Iraq in terms of trying to make the connection with Al-Qaeda."
That Al-Qaeda has had a presence in Iran has long been accepted by U.S. officials and independent observers, including the 9/11 Commission which concluded in 2004 that Tehran likely had more connections to Al-Qaeda than Baghdad before the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
The nature of the relationship, however, has always been a source of contention. "It's no secret that Al-Qaeda types have been known to be in Iran under circumstances about which American analysts and commentators disagree," said Paul Pillar, a 28-year CIA veteran who served as the National Intelligence Officer in the Near Eats and South Asia during George W. Bush's first term.
"The circumstances seem to have been something between house arrest and some other form of restricted residence, if not outright incarceration," he told IPS, noting that Khalil's main responsibility appeared to be to gain the release of Al-Qaeda members from confinement.
He added that Tehran may have been using Al-Qaeda militants as a "bargaining chip" to bolster its demands that Washington repatriate or disperse militants of the Iraq-based Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MeK), a terrorist group whose activists have enjoyed U.S. protection at Camp Ashraf, located close to the Iranian border, since the 2003 invasion.
"We've got the MeK as a stick hanging over the Iranian head, and any dealings they have had with Al Qaeda serve largely as a terrorist stick that the Iranians can hold over ours," he said.
The Treasury announcement, he added, "reads like a strained effort to implicate Iran as much as possible, without giving us details. In fact, all but one of the individuals [Khalil] named as part of the network aren't even in Iran."
The other five alleged network members include Al-Qaeda's overall commander in Pakistan's tribal areas, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman; a "key supporter" of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Umid Muhammadi; and two Qatari citizens and one Kuwaiti who raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in the Gulf and provided logistical and other support for Al Qaeda.
"I'm sure Treasury would not issue the statement unless they had a lot of evidence," said Sick, who added that he suspected the assertion about an "agreement" may have been based on the intelligence gained from Osama bin Laden's computers files seized during the May raid in which he was killed.
A possible reason that Treasury focused on Khalil and the Iran connection in its statement, he said, was that, "From a bureaucratic point of view, you get points for being tough on Iran. The story could as easily been written with the headline, "Two U.S. Allies in the Gulf promote and support anti-U.S. terrorism."
In Congressional testimony last year, Gen. David Petraeus, who will soon take over the CIA, charged that Al-Qaeda used Iran "as a key facilitation hub…. Although Iranian authorities "periodically disrupt this network by detaining select Al-Qaeda facilitators and operational planners, Tehran's policy in this regard is often unpredictable," he said in what was until now the strongest official U.S. assertion of Iranian complicity with Al-Qaeda.
Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.