In a New York Times op-ed this past Sunday, former National Security Council staffers Richard Clarke and Steven Simon lamented the possibility of a military strike on Iran. They warned that "a conflict with Iran could be even more damaging to our interests than the current struggle in Iraq has been."
At the heart of their concern lies a simple cost-benefit analysis. Iran has not supported anti-American terrorism since the mid-1990s. But if provoked, the mullahs may unleash their terrorist network, which is "superior to anything Al Qaeda was ever able to field." In the war on terrorism, therefore, the potential benefits of a military strike on Iran are rather low, while the costs are prohibitively high.
Clarke and Simon tell us that Iran's last act of anti-American terrorism came in 1996 when the "the Qods Force, the covert-action arm of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, arranged" the Khobar Towers bombing. (It is worth noting that there is still some uncertainty surrounding the Khobar Towers bombing. For example, the 9-11 Commission concluded, "While the evidence of Iranian involvement is strong, there are also signs that al Qaeda played some role, as yet unknown." Eight years after the attack, therefore, the government still wasn't sure if this was a joint Iran-al Qaeda operation.)
While the Clinton administration ruled out a military strike against Iran, Clarke and Simon say that the U.S. intelligence community scared Iran out of the terrorist game. After some unspecified covert action, "Iranian terrorism against the United States ceased."
On its face, this claim is dubious.
Anti-American terrorism has been a central tenet of Iran's Islamic revolution for decades. That the U.S. intelligence community, with its less-than-stellar track record in fighting terrorism during the 1990s, managed to convince Iran to stop orchestrating or aiding terrorist attacks against American interests seems highly unlikely. How could the mullahs have a terrorist network "superior" to al Qaeda, poised to strike, and yet not have used it for the past decade? Are we really to believe, as Clarke and Simon would have it, that this network of terrorist operatives has lain dormant all this time?
The questionable nature of this claim becomes apparent when one considers what Richard Clarke himself thought less than two years ago. In Against All Enemies, Clarke makes it clear that Iran was a "priority" country "as important as the others," including the Taliban's Afghanistan, in the post-9/11 war on terrorism.
While dismissing the evidence of Iraq's ties to al Qaeda (a claim that is also inconsistent with Clarke's previous statements and a wealth of evidence), Clarke argued in 2004:
...al Qaeda regularly used Iranian territory for transit and sanctuary prior to September 11. Al Qaeda's Egyptian branch, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, operated openly in Tehran. It is no coincidence that many of the al Qaeda management team, or Shura Council, moved across the border into Iran after U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan.
Moreover, Clarke explained that the threat posed by Iran's weapons of mass destruction programs, coupled with its ties to terrorism, posed a threat far greater than Saddam's Iraq. He wrote, "Any objective observer looking at the evidence in 2002 and 2003 would have said that the U.S. should spend more time and attention dealing with the security threats from Tehran than those from Baghdad."
Why did Clark believe that Iran should be a priority and Saddam's Iraq should not? He explained: "There is, of course, evidence that Iran provided al Qaeda safe haven before and after September 11."
Even Clarke's famously unequivocal denial of Iraqi involvement with al Qaeda, which supposedly took place the day after September 11 as he was allegedly countering President Bush's pointed questions, includes an admission of Iran's ties. Clarke claims that he told the President, "… we have looked several times for state sponsorship of al Qaeda and not found any real linkages to Iraq. Iran plays a little, as does Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, Yemen."
Thus, Clarke's previous views seem inconsistent with his current claim that Iran stopped supporting anti-American terrorism in the mid-1990s. Far from ending its support for terrorism, it seems that Iran has continued its decades-long terrorist assault against the West. Clarke's book, Against All Enemies, touches upon some of this evidence.
A few additional examples of Iranian support for al Qaeda make it clear that Iran was not scared out of the anti-American terrorism game. The 9/11 Commission reports that al Qaeda operatives received explosives training from Iran in the early 1990s. Bin Laden "showed particular interest in learning how to use truck bombs such as the one that had killed 241 U.S. Marines in Lebanon in 1983." This early history of collaboration did not come to an end. Even after 1996, Iran continued to open its doors to al Qaeda. The Clinton administration's original unsealed indictment of al Qaeda in November 1998 states that bin Laden's group had allied itself with Iran and its terrorist puppet, Hezbollah. The 9/11 Commission even left open the possibility that Hezbollah had assisted al Qaeda's execution of the September 11 plot.
This is just a small sample of the evidence tying Iran to al Qaeda. None of this means that military action against Iran is necessarily the most prudent next step. In this regard, Clarke and Simon may very well be right. A strike against Iran may not be in America's best interests, or the most effective way to deal with the Iranian threat. A careful weighing of the costs and benefits of military action should guide America's path. But by dismissing Iran's role in the past decade of anti-American terrorism, Clarke and Simon muddy the public debate and fail to accurately assess the Iranian threat.
Thomas Joscelyn is an economist and writer living in New York.
By Thomas Joscelyn