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U.S.: Analysts Say Washington Unlikely To Act On Reported Iran-Al-Qaeda Link

The decision by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush to go to war in Iraq was based in part on the belief that Saddam Hussein had links with groups like Al-Qaeda. Now the independent U.S. commission investigating the attacks of 11 September 2001 has reportedly concluded that Iran approached Al-Qaeda seeking to collaborate on attacks against common enemies. But the panel -- whose conclusions are expected to be issued on 22 July -- reportedly says Al-Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden, rebuffed Iran's advances because he did not want to offend his Sunni Muslim supporters by allying himself with rival Shi'as.

Washington, 20 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- President Bush says he hopes to get to the bottom of the reports, with the help of John McLaughlin, the acting head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Speaking with reporters yesterday at the White House, Bush said: "Of course we want to know all the facts. Acting [CIA] Director McLaughlin said there was no direct connection between Iran and the attacks of September the 11th. We will continue to look and see if the Iranians were involved. I have long expressed my concerns about Iran -- after all, it's a totalitarian society."

Bush's statement was one of his toughest remarks on Iran in recent months.

But State Department spokesman Richard Boucher has said the United States is "willing to sit down" and talk with the Iranians "if the president determines it's in our interest to do so and we think there's the opportunity for progress."

McLaughlin, speaking to a television news program on 18 July, said the government "has no evidence" of an official connection between Tehran and 9/11.

But no matter what U.S. intelligence agencies learn, there may be little the United States can do -- or even might want to do -- to punish Iran.

Marina Ottaway, a specialist in Middle Eastern and African issues at the Washington-based think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told RFE/RL that the commission's report, if accurate, is only the latest of several reasons that invading Iraq was a mistake.
A report by the influential U.S. Council on Foreign Relations urges Washington to open a dialogue with Tehran as soon as possible.

Now, Ottaway said, Bush's emphasis on military action in its foreign policy has left it little room to take meaningful action against Iran.

"There is not a lot that the U.S. can do on Iran right now," Ottaway said. "[The United States] certainly does not have a military option the way things are, and it needs some cooperation from Iran on Iraq. Iran certainly has the capacity to make things in Iraq much more difficult for the United States. At the same time, the United States does not have the option of doing in Iran what it did in Iraq, and that is changing the regime."

Ottaway said a policy of regime change can succeed only if the United States has enough military might. But given the resources that the Bush administration already has devoted to Iraq and Afghanistan, she said, it has left itself with few military options elsewhere.

"By going to war in Iraq, the U.S. narrowed its options toward Iran and toward North Korea," Ottaway said. "In other words, there are only so many wars the U.S. can fight at one time."

Another analyst, Nathan Brown, said he finds it unlikely that Iran and Al-Qaeda would have any significant contacts. Brown, a professor of international political science at George Washington University in Washington, cited the deeply conflicting religious principles held by the Iranian government on one side and Al-Qaeda on the other.

"Any strong connection [between Iran and Al-Qaeda] would be implausible," Brown said. "The environment which bin Laden comes out of is one which regards Shi'a Muslims as not simply mistaken but as apostate. But it also strikes me as not impossible, but quite strange and maybe implausible, that the Iranians would even approach them, because there's bad blood that goes back a couple of hundred years -- there's very deep bad blood."

Brown said there appears to be no evidence that Iran actually had a role in the 11 September attacks, and for that reason alone he does not expect a strong response from the United States.

"The conclusions [of the independent 9/11 commission] might be leaked, but the evidence we may never know," Brown said. "So, unless we've got hard evidence, it doesn't seem to me to be wise to make too much out of it. And also, it's my reading of the political situation: That's what's likely going to happen. Right now just does not seem to be the time for an American-Iranian confrontation."

A report by the influential U.S. Council on Foreign Relations urges Washington to open a dialogue with Tehran as soon as possible.

The report, drafted with the participation of former U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, states that "the urgency of the concerns surrounding [Iran's] policies mandates the United States to deal with the current regime rather than wait for it to fall."