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Al Qaeda Leader Attacks Iran As Ally of "Crusaders"

New York Times story from 1998 on how Iran and Taliban controlled Afghanistan almost went to war over the murder of Iranian diplomats ("Iran Holds Taliban Responsible for 9 Diplomats' Deaths"):

An angry Iran said tonight that it would hold the militant Taliban movement responsible for the deaths of nine Iranian diplomats whose bodies were recovered by the Taliban today in northern Afghanistan.

The Taliban, who control most of Afghanistan, said the Iranians had been killed by renegade forces who had acted without orders. But Iran, which had responded to the diplomats' disappearance with a major military buildup along the Afghan border, appeared in no mood for swift forgiveness.

A Foreign Ministry statement broadcast on Iranian state television said today that Iran reserved ''the right to defend the security of its citizens'' and that ''the consequences of the Taliban action is on the shoulders of the Taliban and their supporters.''

The dead diplomats were among 11 Iranians working at a consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif, a northern town that was the headquarters of an Iranian-backed rebel alliance until it was overrun by the Taliban on Aug. 8. Iranian officials had accused Taliban leaders of ordering that the consulate be captured, but had held out hope that all of the missing diplomats might still be alive.

With some 70,000 Iranian troops already posted near the Afghan border, and plans announced earlier today for more military exercises to be carried out there over the weekend, Teheran-based diplomats said tonight that tensions could turn explosive.

WP op-ed by James Dobbins, who was Bush's first envoy to Afghanistan post Sept. 11, on US-Iranian cooperation over war against the Taliban (''How to Talk to Iran''):

Many believe that in the wake of Sept. 11, the United States formed an international coalition and toppled the Taliban. It would be more accurate to say that the United States joined a coalition that had been battling the Taliban for nearly a decade. This coalition -- made up of Iran, India, Russia and the Northern Alliance, and aided by massive American airpower -- drove the Taliban from power.

The coalition then worked closely with the United States to secure agreement among all elements of the Afghan opposition on the formation of a broadly based successor to the Taliban regime.

As the American representative at the U.N. conference in Bonn, Germany, where this agreement was reached, I worked closely with the Iranian delegation and others. Iranian representatives were particularly helpful.

It was, for instance, the Iranian delegate who first insisted that the agreement include a commitment to hold democratic elections in Afghanistan. This same Iranian persuaded the Northern Alliance to make the essential concession that allowed the meeting to conclude successfully.

...Only weeks after Hamid Karzai was sworn in as interim leader in Afghanistan, President Bush listed Iran among the "axis of evil" -- surprising payback for Tehran's help in Bonn. A year later, shortly after the invasion of Iraq, all bilateral contacts with Tehran were suspended. Since then, confrontation over Iran's nuclear program has intensified.

WSJ story titled "U.S., Iran Show Ability to Cooperate For Common Regional Goals":

As pressure mounts on the White House to engage Tehran over Iraq, Afghanistan offers an example of how U.S. and Iranian interests can constructively align in the Islamic world.

Senior American and Afghan officials say that in contrast with the situation in Iraq, where Iran is allegedly funding and arming Shiite militias, Tehran today is playing an important role in seeking to stabilize post-Taliban Afghanistan.

The Iranian government has pledged $560 million in development aid to President Hamid Karzai's government since 2002, these officials say, roughly half of which has been disbursed. It is developing road and power projects, largely in the western part of the country near the two countries' shared border. And Iranian companies have provided goods and services -- including cement and banking -- to Afghanistan's war-ravaged population.

Iran also has been among the most active nations seeking to combat Afghanistan's largest ill, opium production, say American and Afghan officials. Tehran seized more Afghan opium than any other country last year, with hundreds of its security forces killed while policing its 600-mile border with Afghanistan in recent years, according to the United Nations.

("Iraq Lessons in Afghanistan?," by Jay Solomon, December 11, 2006 -

WP A1 story titled "Al-Qaeda Suspects Color White House Debate Over Iran":

Since al-Qaeda fighters began streaming into Iran from Afghanistan in the winter of 2001, Tehran had turned over hundreds of people to U.S. allies and provided U.S. intelligence with the names, photographs and fingerprints of those it held in custody, according to senior U.S. intelligence and administration officials. In early 2003, it offered to hand over the remaining high-value targets directly to the United States if Washington would turn over a group of exiled Iranian militants hiding in Iraq.

Some of Bush's top advisers pushed for the trade, arguing that taking custody of bin Laden's son and the others would produce new leads on al-Qaeda. They were also willing to trade away the exiles -- members of a group on the State Department's terrorist list -- who had aligned with Saddam Hussein in an effort to overthrow the Iranian government.

Officials have said Bush ultimately rejected the exchange on the advice of Vice President Cheney and then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who argued that any engagement would legitimize Iran and other state sponsors of terrorism. Bush's National Security Council agreed to accept information from Iran on al-Qaeda but offer nothing in return, officials said.

LAT story titled "Afghan leader expresses support for Iran":

Afghan President Hamid Karzai gave Iran his full embrace Monday, saying it has been his country's "very close friend," even as U.S. officials meeting with him here repeated their accusation that Iranian-made weapons were flowing to Taliban fighters.

Karzai made the remarks at a joint news conference after a meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who was in Afghanistan for nearly 24 hours to meet with American commanders and Afghan officials. Gates said that he raised the issue of the Iranian munitions in his meeting with Karzai, but acknowledged that there was no evidence the Iranian government was behind the alleged shipments.

When asked whether he believed Tehran, which has largely been a benign presence in Afghanistan since the 2001 fall of the Taliban, had decided to change course and support its former foes, Karzai gave an impassioned backing for the Iranian government. He called it a force for good in Afghanistan.

"Iran and Afghanistan have never been as friendly as they are today," Karzai said. "In the past five years Iran has been contributing to Afghanistan's reconstruction, and in the past five years Afghanistan has been Iran's very close friend."

...Karzai went out of his way to emphasize Iran's growing economic ties to Afghanistan, saying Iranian exports over the last five years have grown to more than $500 million annually from less than $10 million. He said the close ties between his government and that of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had the support of the U.S. government.

"It has been possible for Afghanistan to be so close with Iran because our partners in the international community, especially the United States, understood and supported this relationship," Karzai said, adding that Tehran also understands the need for Afghanistan to form a "strategic partnership" with the U.S.

"It is in the interest of our brothers in Iran to have a stable, prosperous Afghanistan," Karzai said. "Afghanistan today is good news for our neighbors, and I hope this good news for them will continue by engaging constructively with each other.",1,997194.story?coll=la-news-a_section

WP story titled "2003 Memo Says Iranian Leaders Backed Talks":

The Swiss ambassador to Iran informed U.S. officials in 2003 that an Iranian proposal for comprehensive talks with the United States had been reviewed and approved by Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; then-President Mohammad Khatami; and then-Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, according to a copy of the cover letter to the Iranian document.

"I got the clear impression that there is a strong will of the regime to tackle the problem with the U.S. now and to try it with this initiative," Tim Guldimann, the ambassador, wrote in a cover letter that was faxed to the State Department on May 4, 2003. Guldimann attached a one-page Iranian document labeled "Roadmap" that listed U.S. and Iranian aims for potential negotiations, putting on the table such issues as an end to Iran's support for anti-Israeli militants, action against terrorist groups on Iranian soil and acceptance of Israel's right to exist.

The cover letter, which had not been previously disclosed, was provided by a source who felt its contents were mischaracterized by State Department officials. Switzerland serves as a diplomatic channel for communications between Tehran and Washington because the two countries broke off relations after the 1979 seizure of U.S. Embassy personnel.

Kristof NYT column on US-Iran 2003 "Grand Bargain" that could have been titled "Diplomacy at Its Worst":

In May 2003, Iran sent a secret proposal to the U.S. for settling our mutual disputes in a "grand bargain."

It is an astonishing document, for it tries to address a range of U.S. concerns about nuclear weapons, terrorism and Iraq. I've placed it and related documents (including multiple drafts of it) on my blog,

Hard-liners in the Bush administration killed discussions of a deal, and interviews with key players suggest that was an appalling mistake. There was a real hope for peace; now there is a real danger of war.

Scattered reports of the Iranian proposal have emerged previously, but if you read the full documentary record you'll see that what the hard-liners killed wasn't just one faxed Iranian proposal but an entire peace process. The record indicates that officials from the repressive, duplicitous government of Iran pursued peace more energetically and diplomatically than senior Bush administration officials which makes me ache for my country.

The process began with Afghanistan in 2001-2. Iran and the U.S., both opponents of the Taliban, cooperated closely in stabilizing Afghanistan and providing aid, and unofficial "track two" processes grew to explore opportunities for improved relations.

On the U.S. side, track two involved well-connected former U.S. ambassadors, including Thomas Pickering, Frank Wisner and Nicholas Platt. The Iranian ambassador to the U.N., Javad Zarif, was a central player, as was an Iranian-American professor at Rutgers, Hooshang Amirahmadi, who heads a friendship group called the American Iranian Council.

At a dinner the council sponsored for its board at Ambassador Zarif's home in September 2002, the group met Iran's foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi. According to the notes of Professor Amirahmadi, the foreign minister told the group, "Yes, we are ready to normalize relations," provided the U.S. made the first move.

This was shaping into a historic opportunity to heal U.S.-Iranian relations, and the track two participants discussed further steps, including joint U.S.-Iranian cooperation against Saddam Hussein. The State Department and National Security Council were fully briefed, and in 2003 Ambassador Zarif met with two U.S. officials, Ryan Crocker and Zalmay Khalilzad, in a series of meetings in Paris and Geneva.

...In the master document, Iran talks about ensuring "full transparency" and other measures to assure the U.S. that it will not develop nuclear weapons. Iran offers "active Iranian support for Iraqi stabilization." Iran also contemplates an end to "any material support to Palestinian opposition groups" while pressuring Hamas "to stop violent actions against civilians within" Israel (though not the occupied territories). Iran would support the transition of Hezbollah to be a "mere political organization within Lebanon" and endorse the Saudi initiative calling for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

...It's not clear to me that a grand bargain was reachable, but it was definitely worth pursuing and still is today.

Instead, Bush administration hard-liners aborted the process. Another round of talks had been scheduled for Geneva, and Ambassador Zarif showed up but not the U.S. side. That undermined Iranian moderates.

The case for negotiations with Iran, including the possibilities of a "Grand Bargain," have been made by, inter alios, the following writers:

Zbigniew Brzezinski and William Odom, Vali Nasr and Ray Takeyh, Thomas Friedman, Selig Harrison, Timothy Garton Ash, Michael Hirsh, Shlomo Ben-Ami, Steven Kinzer.

LAT story titled "Iraq returns to its Persian heritage":

Persian script laces and flows across the walls of Najaf's seminaries.

Shiite Muslim religious scholars in the ancient city's turquoise-tiled edifices bury their noses in Koranic texts illustrated with Persian calligraphy, in scenes that evoke Mesopotamia's rich history.

For centuries, Najaf has been a key shrine city and center of worship for much of Iraq's people. But for centuries, Iraq's Ottoman and Arab rulers rarely considered Najaf part of their own history. It was always considered a troublesome outpost of the enemy: Iran.

They were right, for the most part. Historically and culturally, Najaf has long been under Persia's sway.

But so has much of Iraq.

The reading of the Koran in this country differs from the rest of the Muslim world: The rhythm and cadence of Sunnis are unique to Iraq and the Shiites' are unique to Iran. Persian dishes such as fesenjan, a pomegranate stew, are a standard part of Mesopotamian fare. Even this nation's capital carries a Persian name, Baghdad.

The sectarian nature of the war between Shiite and Sunni Arabs in Iraq reflects a centuries-old battle between Persia and the Arab world.

It is a point often misunderstood by U.S. policymakers and ground commanders, who perceive the reemergence of Persian influence among Iraq's newly powerful Shiite Muslim majority as proof of meddling by the regime in Tehran.

Rising Persian influence is a sign of Iraq's ascendance, not Iran's.

"Iraq has been part of the Persian sphere of influence for more than 400 years," said Karar Dastour, an Iraqi Shiite intellectual who lives in southern Tehran and travels to Iraq. "But governments have always tried to crush anything that had the scent of Shiism or Iran. They were never accepted.",1,7397877.story?coll=la-news-a_section

LAT story titled "Maliki may need a talk on Iran, Bush says":

In a warning to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, President Bush said Thursday that Iran was a danger to the Middle East, and promised that if Maliki did not share that view, the president would have a "heart to heart" talk with him.

Appearing at a White House news conference, Bush denounced Tehran for what he said was its support of terrorist groups, and for its nuclear program and threats to Israel. The president, who says that Iran provides explosives used against U.S. troops in Iraq, warned that Tehran would face unspecified "consequences" if such activity continued.

His comments came as Maliki wrapped up a visit to Iran, where he held apparently harmonious meetings with top Iranian officials. Bush said he presumed that Maliki shared his critical view of the Tehran government, but he added that "if the signal [from Maliki] is that Iran is constructive, I will have a heart to heart with my friend the prime minister, because I don't believe they are constructive."

Bush's comments pointed to the continuing challenges his administration faces in trying to deal with the ever-closer relationship between Tehran and the predominantly Shiite Muslim government in Baghdad.

U.S. officials believe that Maliki's government shares their concern about weapons allegedly supplied by Iran, but they also acknowledge anxiety about the fundamentalist Tehran regime's increasing trade with and aid to Iraq, as well as the close personal ties its officials enjoy with counterparts throughout the Baghdad government.

The growing intimacy of Baghdad and Tehran was on display late Wednesday, when Maliki met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other top officials. In a joint appearance, Maliki told Ahmadinejad that Iran has a "positive and constructive" role in improving security in Iraq, the official IRNA news agency reported.

On Thursday night, Iranian television broadcast a statement from Khamenei, declaring, "We support the elected government of Iraq, and all of the factions and ethnic groups should cooperate with the elected government. The only problem, the big problem in Iraq today, is the occupation of Iraq by British and American forces." ...Iraq was not the only neighbor of Iran whose leader provoked a rejoinder from Bush this week.

At a White House appearance Monday, after Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, declared that Iran had "been a helper" to his country, Bush insisted that "they're not a force for good."

Zarqawi on Shiites before he met the business end of a US missile:

BAGHDAD - The leader of al-Qaida in Iraq railed against leaders and paramilitary forces affiliated with Shiite Muslims and urged his fellow Sunnis to confront the rival Islamic sect, according to statements from a new recording that emerged Friday.

...In another section of the four-hour recording, which was posted on the Internet, al-Zarqawi called on Sunnis to "confront the poisonous Shiite snakes who are afflicting you," according to an Associated Press translation.

Al-Zarqawi called Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most prominent religious authority, an "atheist" and lambasted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad...

("Al-Qaida leader calls on Sunnis to confront Shiites," Solomon Moore, LAT, June 3, 2006)

An interesting nugget from a mini-profile of Hezbollah in the Washington Post written by their veteran Mideast correspondent Robin Wright:

Nasrallah has only disdain for bin Laden and the Taliban. In April, an al-Qaeda cell in Lebanon tried to assassinate him. And the late al-Qaeda chief in Iraq this spring condemned the Shiite movement as an "enemy of the Sunnis" -- ironically, in hindsight -- for protecting Israel by preventing Palestinian attacks from Lebanon. "The worst, the most dangerous thing that this Islamic revival has encountered . . . was the Taliban," Nasrallah told me. "The Taliban state presented a very hideous example of an Islamic state."

NYT op-ed on the enmity between Al Qaeda and Hezbollah ("The Enemy of My Enemy Is Still My Enemy"):

WITH Israel at war with Hezbollah, where, you might wonder, is Al Qaeda? From all appearances on the Web sites frequented by its sympathizers, which I frequently monitor, Al Qaeda is sitting, unhappily and uneasily, on the sidelines, watching a movement antithetical to its philosophy steal its thunder. That might sound like good news. But it is more likely an ominous sign.

Al Qaeda's Sunni ideology regards Shiites as heretics and profoundly distrusts Shiite groups like Hezbollah. It was Al Qaeda that is reported to have given Sunni extremists in Iraq the green light to attack Shiite civilians and holy sites. A Qaeda recruiter I met in Yemen described the Shiites as "dogs and a thorn in the throat of Islam from the beginning of time."

...Several of Al Qaeda's ideologues have issued official statements explaining Hezbollah's actions and telling followers how to respond to them. The gist of their argument is that the Shiites are conspiring to destroy Islam and to resuscitate Persian imperial rule over the Middle East and ultimately the world. The ideologues label this effort the "Sassanian-Safavid conspiracy," in reference to the Sassanians, a pre-Islamic Iranian dynasty, and to the Safavids, a Shiite dynasty that ruled Iran and parts of Iraq from 1501 till 1736.

They go on to argue that thanks to the United States (the leader of the Zionist-Crusader conspiracy), Iraq has been handed over to the Shiites, who are now wantonly massacring the country's Sunnis. Syria is already led by a Shiite heretic, President Bashar al-Assad, whose policies harm the country's Sunni majority.

Here's the single best essay I've read on the relevant history of Islamic sectarian discord penned by Economist mideast correspondent Max Rodenbeck in the NYRB:

Understandably, the Shia narrative of history is largely one of accumulating grievances. Yet this worldview is constructed from faith as well as fact. Shiism revolves, more than any other religious doctrine except perhaps Christianity, around notions of redemption through suffering. Its origins lie in the grudge that rapidly grew, following the death of the Prophet in 632 AD, among the partisans (shi'ain Arabic) of Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law. Passed over three times for the title of caliph, or worldly successor to Muhammad, Ali then reigned only briefly before being assassinated. His son Hussein later tried to rally supporters in Iraq, but the institutions of the caliphate had been captured by the Ummayads, distant cousins from a powerful rival branch of Muhammad's clan. Claiming hereditary title, the Ummayad Caliph Yazid dispatched an army that surrounded and slaughtered Hussein and his followers.

Survivors of that massacre, including Hussein's sister Zaynab, subsequently drew support from other disgruntled Muslims, particularly among newly converted, non-Arab groups such as the Persians. (Hussein was said to have married the daughter of the last Sassanian shah of Iran.) With time, a subtle accretion of pre-Islamic beliefs grew to overlay their Shiism. In much the same way that the preexisting myths of Isis and Horus, Astarte and Adonis eased the spread of Christianity, the tragic saga of the House of the Prophet came to be seen as a parable about the struggle of good against evil. The Shia came to regard Ali as their first imam, a model of virtue and the true vessel of the word passed through Muhammad, whose divine right was usurped by treachery. The martyrdom of Hussein, now recognized as the third imam, became, after his followers' failure to protect him, a symbol of communal guilt, to be expiated by penitence, most dramatically in the flagellation rites of the Ashura festival.

("The Time of the Shia," by Max Rodenbeck, New York Review of Books, August 10, 2006 - behind a pay wall, email me to send)

NYT op-ed titled "Can You Tell a Sunni From a Shiite?":

FOR the past several months, I've been wrapping up lengthy interviews with Washington counterterrorism officials with a fundamental question: "Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?"

...After all, wouldn't British counterterrorism officials responsible for Northern Ireland know the difference between Catholics and Protestants?

...But so far, most American officials I've interviewed don't have a clue. That includes not just intelligence and law enforcement officials, but also members of Congress who have important roles overseeing our spy agencies. How can they do their jobs without knowing the basics?

...A few weeks ago, I took the F.B.I.'s temperature again. At the end of a long interview, I asked Willie Hulon, chief of the bureau's new national security branch, whether he thought that it was important for a man in his position to know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. "Yes, sure, it's right to know the difference," he said. "It's important to know who your targets are."

That was a big advance over 2005. So next I asked him if he could tell me the difference. He was flummoxed. "The basics goes back to their beliefs and who they were following," he said. "And the conflicts between the Sunnis and the Shia and the difference between who they were following."

O.K., I asked, trying to help, what about today? Which one is Iran Sunni or Shiite? He thought for a second. "Iran and Hezbollah," I prompted. "Which are they?"

He took a stab: "Sunni."


Al Qaeda? "Sunni."


...Take Representative Terry Everett, a seven-term Alabama Republican who is vice chairman of the House intelligence subcommittee on technical and tactical intelligence.

"Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?" I asked him a few weeks ago.

Mr. Everett responded with a low chuckle. He thought for a moment: "One's in one location, another's in another location. No, to be honest with you, I don't know. I thought it was differences in their religion, different families or something."

...Representative Jo Ann Davis, a Virginia Republican who heads a House intelligence subcommittee charged with overseeing the C.I.A.'s performance in recruiting Islamic spies and analyzing information, was similarly dumbfounded when I asked her if she knew the difference between Sunnis and Shiites.

"Do I?" she asked me. A look of concentration came over her face. "You know, I should." She took a stab at it: "It's a difference in their fundamental religious beliefs. The Sunni are more radical than the Shia. Or vice versa. But I think it's the Sunnis who're more radical than the Shia."

Al-Qaeda calls Iran a 'crusader' ally

By Heba Saleh in Cairo
Published: September 8 2008
The Financial Times

In a video issued to mark the anniversary of the September 11 2001 terror attacks, al-Qaeda accused Tehran on Monday of collaborating in a "crusader" war conducted by the west against Islam. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the terrorist group's deputy leader, hit out at Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, on the tape, sections of which were aired by the broadcaster al-Jazeera.

Mr Zawahiri said: "The [leader of Iran] collaborates with the Americans in occupying Iraq and Afghanistan and recognises the puppet regimes in both countries, while he warns of death and destruction to anyone who touches an inch of Iranian soil."

Al-Qaeda, a Sunni Muslim organisation, has only this year started criticising Iran which is predominantly Shia. Mr Zawahiri also said Shias had failed to make a call to arms against the "American crusader invaders".

Diaa Rashwan, an expert on militant Islamic groups at al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said: "I believe this [video] is connected to the situation in Iraq where al-Qaeda is on the defensive. The Iranian influence in Iraq is very noticeable. Iran backs the Shia parties and now the Sunni groups in the country have also been moving against al-Qaeda."

Several politicians in the Baghdad government including Shia prime minister Nouri al-Maliki spent time in exile in Iran during the Saddam Hussein regime.

Mr Rashwan said that in the past al-Qaeda reserved its criticism for Sunni groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Palestinian Hamas movement, which it said was weak and failed to defend Islam. An al-Jazeera executive told Reuters news agency that the network had received a 20-minute tape from al-Qaeda, which was a compilation of material.

The portions screened by the channel included footage of senior al-Qaeda leader Mustafa Abu-al-Yazid, who Pakistan had previously claimed was dead.

Mr Yazid is seen commenting on the resignation of Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, announced on August 18, six days after a Pakistani official said the al-Qaeda commander had been killed in clashes with forces near the Afghan border.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008

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