Sunday, August 7, 2011

Attempting Iranian Hegemony?

By Musa Keilani

 “Memoirs of a CIA man in Amman” is the title of a book written by Jack O’Connell, the agency’s former station chief in Jordan who served in the area for over 50 years.
Though the publisher gave the book the title of “The King’s Council”, the writer described in detail how Iran was trying to impose its hegemony on the region through what is called “nusrat al muslim” religious edict “fatwa”.

That explains the mullahs’ logistic support given to Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hizbollah and other Iraqi, Jordanian and Syrian groups. Yet, the coordination went even further, having a special arrangement with Osama Ben Laden’s Al Qaeda.

But what would happen to the region if Tehran were allowed to have a nuclear bomb?
The writer predicts that Saudi Arabia would follow Tehran, and Syria, Egypt and other Emirates would follow Riyadh, with nobody knowing who would use it first.

Political indicators about such horrible scenario are evident in Al Qaeda-Iran secret connections, which are visible now and had been there years ago; it is only now, however, that Iran has been officially charged by the US with working with Al Qaeda under a secret agreement.

The US Treasury Department has imposed financial sanctions on six Al Qaeda agents because they were involved in smuggling money and operatives into Pakistan and Afghanistan under the “secret” agreement. Tehran is said to have allowed Al Qaeda to use Iranian territory in the course of moving money and personnel.

The Treasury Department made the allegation in a conference call with reporters, meaning that it wanted maximum media coverage of the charge. And indeed, it received what it wanted, although few questioned the loopholes in the Treasury Department’s version. But then, Tehran can defend itself and is left to do just that.

However, there are some known and suspected facts related to the issue. The suggestion that Tehran and Al Qaeda had an interactive relationship came up immediately after the September 11, 2001, attacks. It was said that Iran allowed Al Qaeda agents to pass through Iranian territory and leave without entry and exit stamps on their passports, including some of those who were found out later to have taken part in suicide hijackings.

Then came reports that many of Al Qaeda fighters who were forced out of Afghanistan by the US military in late 2001 had fled to Iran and were comfortably sheltered there. They included none other than Ben Laden himself and the Jordanian Abu Musab Zarqawi.

It appears to be true that some of Ben Laden’s family members moved to Iran after one of his sons has spoken about them, but, according to the son, they were held there against their will, with only a sister being allowed to leave.

Tehran never bothered to take such reports seriously. It was playing its own game and only few officers outside the deep corridors of power in Iran know exactly what was going on.

The latest US charge that Iran and Al Qaeda has a “secret” deal was duly reported by the US and international media, but little effort seems to have been exerted to substantiate it or try to find out the source on which the allegation was based.

In any event, the US and Iran appear to have had an agreement; parts of it are secret and parts are in the public domain.

According to the former US officials, Iran complained that Al Qaeda fighters were sneaking into Iranian territory across the border from Afghanistan after the Taliban were toppled and that it was becoming very difficult to secure Iran’s borders with Afghanistan (950 kilometres) and Pakistan (700 kilometres). According to former officials, Iran detained hundreds of suspected Al Qaeda operatives and sent as many to their countries of origin as soon as possible.

The Iranian government also sought US assistance in dealing with detainees whose governments did not want to receive back or to cooperate with in this respect, but the then US administration of George W. Bush denied the request.

A report appearing on the website last week observed: “Over the course of 2002 and early 2003, Bush administration hardliners made substantive discussion and co-ordination with Iran over Iraq. Washington suspected that hundreds had sought refuge in Iran’s lawless Sistan-Balochistan province.

Tehran was in the process of finding, arresting and deporting a small number of specific Al Qaeda key figures - while hundreds of ordinary Al Qaeda operatives who had reached Iranian territory had already been apprehended. But some leaders were given a respectable decent safe haven, including Seif El Adl, the military commander of Ben Laden. “Although Tehran deployed additional security forces to its eastern borders, Iranian officials acknowledged that a small group of Al Qaeda figures had managed to avoid capture and enter Iranian territory, most likely through Sistan-Balochistan, in 2002. The Iranian government located and took some of these individuals into custody and said that others, identified by the United States, were either dead or not in Iran.”

At the beginning of May 2003, after Baghdad fell, Tehran offered to exchange the remaining Al Qaeda figures in Iran for a small group of Mujahedeen e-Khalq secular organisation commanders in Iraq, with the treatment of those repatriated to Iran monitored by the International Committee for the Red Cross and a commitment not to apply the death penalty to anyone prosecuted on their return. But the Bush administration rejected any deal.

Ultimately, the US cut off cooperation with Iran over Al Qaeda in May 2003; officials said the move was due to suspicions that an Al Qaeda figure in Iran was involved in a bombing in Saudi Arabia. The suspicion was never confirmed, but the US did not resume its contact with Iran. It was as if the Bush administration were anxious to terminate its contact with Tehran.

However, Bush administration officials stopped short of making a direct charge that Tehran was helping Al Qaeda carry out terrorist actions. And now it is puzzling that the administration of US President Barack Obama wants to break from that practice.

While the situation is largely reminiscent of the way the former administrations built the case for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, one simply cannot believe that Washington wants to wage war on Iran now.

Meanwhile, Jordanians, who suffered atrocities at the hands of Al Qaeda in Amman hotels, cannot but agree with a writer of O’Connell’s calibre, a well established authority on the Middle East, who sees the danger engulfing the region when terrorist groups are used to advance regional Iranian hegemony.

This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 07/08/2011

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