"How do you deal with al Qaeda?" former British Prime Minister Tony Blair asked rhetorically during a public hearing in London earlier this month. Mr. Blair quickly answered his own question: "You can't deal with them unless you deal with the bigger picture, which includes Iran."
For many in the West, Mr. Blair's words must have seemed odd. After all, we've been told over and over again that Iran's mullahs and al Qaeda come from opposing versions of Islam that are so irreconcilable they cannot cooperate even in the face of common enemies. Mr. Blair knows better.
For the second time in less than a year, Mr. Blair told the British Parliament's inquiry into the Iraq war that al Qaeda and Iran are allies. He learned this the hard way. From 2003 to 2007, when Mr. Blair left office, the British military repeatedly produced intelligence reports pointing to al Qaeda and Iran as the authors of Iraq's most deadly terrorist attacks.
"This was the game-changer," Mr. Blair said. Without al Qaeda and Iran continually escalating the violence, Iraq would have been "manageable," but their actions "almost tipped Iraq into the abyss."
Not only were British intelligence analysts surprised to learn that Iran and al Qaeda both had designs on Iraq, they were shocked to learn that the two worked in tandem. "Nobody foresaw ... that Iran would actually end up supporting A.Q.," Mr. Blair told the Inquiry last year. In his view, this was a near-fatal intelligence failure, and the Brits were not alone in making it. The United States was similarly surprised.
The failure to foresee the al Qaeda-Iranian alliance stemmed from one of the great myths of the Middle East, namely that Shiites and Sunnis are like oil and water - "two completely different types of people," as Mr. Blair put it. This myth has endured even though evidence of cooperation between al Qaeda and Iran abounds.
By the time of the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, it was well-known that many top al Qaeda leaders (including members of Osama bin Laden's and Ayman al-Zawahri's families) had taken refuge in Iran after the allied attack on them in Afghanistan. There was also abundant evidence of past cooperation. For instance, Clinton administration prosecutors correctly charged in 1998 that bin Laden and al Qaeda "forged alliances with ... representatives of the government of Iran and its associated terrorist group Hezbollah, for the purpose of working together against their perceived common enemies in the West, particularly the United States." And during the trial of some of the al Qaeda terrorists responsible for the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, former al Qaeda members provided abundant evidence of collusion between Iran and al Qaeda.
These are just a few examples, chosen from many. Therefore, it should not have been a surprise when, according to Mr. Blair, British military intelligence found that there was a "substantial" Sunni extremist network operating inside Iran.
Quite aside from the failure to acknowledge the intimate working relations between Sunni al Qaeda and Shiite Iran, the allies blinded themselves with a poor analysis of Iran's desires and intentions. Again, Mr. Blair put it succinctly: "Iran's involvement was specifically assessed as unlikely given the hostility to Saddam. If anything, it was thought that ... Iran ... would be more interested in promoting stability than instability." This misreading was particularly egregious. Syrian President Bashar Assad, one of Tehran's most compliant allies, gave an interview shortly before the invasion of Iraq in which he said that once our troops were on the ground, he would support a strategy of replicating the terror-and-mass-movement campaign that drove us out of Lebanon in the 1980s.
These many intelligence failures greatly increased the carnage in Iraq and made it very difficult to design a winning strategy. In time, battlefield intelligence - driven by the discovery that the deadly improvised explosive devices and explosively formed projectiles that killed so many of our soldiers were of Iranian origin - forced us, along with the British, to see what was actually going on. And by the time the terrorists had been mostly defeated, there were hundreds of Iranian Quds Force officers in allied military prisons. (All subsequently have been returned to Iran, some in exchange for Western hostages, others as goodwill gestures by the Iraqi government.)
Mr. Blair insisted that "there is no analysis of what happened after May 2003 that is anywhere near the mark, without consideration of how and why al Qaeda and Iran played the roles they did," and he is smart enough to ask us to apply the lessons of that analysis to the current battlefield. Reflecting on the past, he urges us "to look at this issue ... with AQ and Iran in a broader context and also the linkages between the two."
If we take his advice, we will see, as did the Sept. 11 Commission in a long-forgotten analysis, that Iran may have been involved in al Qaeda's attack against America in 2001. We also will see, as our most senior military officers have told us repeatedly, that Iran today works claw-in-glove with the Sunni Taliban in Afghanistan, just as it did with al Qaeda in Iraq. That is surely the import of Mr. Blair's plea.
There are few Western political leaders who are willing to stand up for the facts as Tony Blair did earlier this month. But if we continue to blind ourselves with myths about the insurmountable barriers between Sunnis and Shiites and with happy thoughts about Iran's presumed quest for "stability," we will continue to sacrifice American fighters to the same intelligence failures that cost us so dearly in Iraq.
We both oppose military intervention in Iran. But there are many ways, including political support for Iran's restive people, of responding to the war the Iranians have been waging against us.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and senior editor of the Long War Journal. Michael Ledeen is Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and his blog, Faster, Please, is published by Pajamas Media.
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