The report of the independent 9/11 commission, aside from demolishing the idea that Iraq collaborated with Al Qaeda, points the finger elsewhere -- including at Tehran. Not only was Iran potentially in league with Al Qaeda in the June 1996 Khobar Towers bombing that killed 19 Americans and wounded 372, says the report released Thursday, but it also probably "facilitated the transit of Al Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11." Iran may not have been aware of the 9/11 plot -- it denied any such knowledge Thursday and said it had arrested "a large number" of Al Qaeda members -- but it probably rendered vital assistance. It doesn't take precise knowledge of a crime to turn you into an accomplice.
The Iran-Al Qaeda link is thinner than Iran's nuclear ambitions, but it's further evidence that the Bush administration chose to see only what would bolster its obsession with toppling Saddam Hussein. Such hypocrisy has been at the heart of U.S. relations with Iraq and Iran for decades, often with lethal consequences.
During the 1980s, the Reagan administration cozied up to Hussein even as he was gassing Iranian soldiers in the Iran-Iraq war. At the same time, the White House went ahead with the so-called Iran-Contra deal, which supplied the mullahs with arms (as well as a Bible signed by President Reagan and a cake that were supposed to demonstrate U.S. goodwill) as part of a complicated scheme to fund Nicaraguan anti-communist Contra rebels. At the time, Congress forbade direct U.S. aid to the Contras.
Then, in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush stood by listlessly as Hussein used helicopter gunships to gas Kurds and Shiites. More than a decade later, President George W. Bush went to war to destroy those weapons of mass destruction, after they no longer existed.
Meanwhile, Vice President Dick Cheney's former company, Halliburton, is being investigated by a grand jury for possibly violating federal sanctions by operating in Iran during Cheney's time as CEO. Today, Cheney is the last major holdout claiming extensive Al Qaeda ties with Hussein.
Here's the real story: Overthrowing Hussein has opened up Iraq to Iran, which has, among other things, allowed Al Qaeda agents to infiltrate Iraq. The Iraqi defense and interior ministers both accuse Iran of fomenting terrorism and have threatened military retaliation inside Iran.
With the U.S. military stretched tightly, it has no capability to back up such bluster even if it wanted to. Washington already has to turn a half-blind eye to the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and ignore the Taliban ties of many Pakistani officials and warlords.
Perhaps Iran really is reforming internally, as a newly released Council on Foreign Relations study headed by former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and former CIA Director Robert M. Gates argues. Perhaps the U.S. should more urgently seek dialogue with the government in Tehran and hope that diplomacy will produce better results than it has so far.
Given the resources the administration has squandered in Iraq, it might have no other choice.