- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 16, 2001

In the hunt for the killers of Sept. 11, most people are talking about Osama bin Laden. An influential minority is talking quite loudly about Saddam Hussein. But few people are mentioning the nation that leads the world in bankrolling terrorists: Iran.

So far, nothing indicates that the U.S. government is wrong in fingering bin Laden for the attacks on New York and Washington. And there are clues that Saddam may have had a role. But there is also a good chance that Iran may have been involved, and U.S. spies and cops are keeping it in mind.

There has long been an unholy trinity comprising bin Laden, the terrorist group Hezbollah and mullahs in Iran.

Hezbollah is an Iranian-funded and supplied terror ring. The group tries to recruit Middle Eastern students already in the United States. In 1999, Hezbollah started urging would-be terrorists in this country to get pilot licenses, the CIA says.

That doesn't necessarily mean that Hezbollah was involved in the Sept. 11 plot, which was carried out largely by men in their 20s with pilot licenses. But it certainly is suspicious, in retrospect. Indeed, the recruiting pitch, which was hardly noticed before, in the wake of the attack raised investigators' eyebrows.

Iran is the "most active" of the world's seven state sponsors of terror, the State Department says. Iran spends $100 million a year on Hezbollah and gives it arms, the delivery of which is coordinated by 150 of Tehran's elite Revolutionary Guards stationed at a Hezbollah training camp in Lebanon.

In 1998 and 1999, conservatives in Iran actually increased their support to terrorists in order to undermine Tehran's moderates, who were then reaching out to the United States, terrorism specialists say.

And, in case you forgot, it was Hezbollah that killed 241 U.S. military personnel in a 1983 truck bombing in Beirut. And it was Hezbollah that blew up 19 U.S. airmen at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996. That's on top of regular hijackings, kidnapings and more.

A lot of information about bin Laden's ties to Iran came out at last year's trial of those, including bin Laden, who bombed two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998.

In particular, it was revealed that a bin Laden representative traveled to a Tehran terror confab in 1996. Three years previously, bin Laden had met with Imad Mughniyeh, the operations chief of Iranian-backed Hezbollah, and the two agreed on a common goal of booting the United States from the Middle East. That's according to testimony from the man who handled security for the meeting.

In fact, Mughniyeh is bin Laden's idol, because Mughniyeh, who masterminded the killing of the Marines in 1983, is seen by bin Laden as having succeeded in getting the United States to leave Lebanon the following year.

That bin Laden, Hezbollah and Iran work together is not open to debate, just as it isn't surprising that bin Laden has ties to Iraq. The only question now is: Who, if anyone, helped bin Laden commit the Sept. 11 attacks? Or did one of these states engineer the attack under the "false flag" of bin Laden, so that neither the hijackers nor U.S. sleuths would know the real architects?

Some believe Saddam may have played a role in the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. More recently, The Washington Times reported that a bin Laden operative met with an Iraqi spook.

But Saddam's terror track record is dwarfed by Iran's.

Iraq tried to kill George Bush's father. That's about it. The rest is comparatively small potatoes, if State Department reports are any guide: attacks on relief workers in Kurdish areas of Iraq, a failed attempt to blow up a Radio Free Iraq tower, etc.

That's not to say Saddam may not have had a role. But the din about Iraq has deflected attention from what may be a more serious threat.

Any official public talk about Iran's possible role in terror is extremely sensitive right now. Iran has made encouraging remarks about helping the United States fight terrorism. So talking publicly about Iran's role in terror current or past could hurt chances of "converting" Iran and might throw a wrench into the anti-terror coalition, especially among Arabs.

Keeping quiet about Iran is probably wise, for now. But put these facts in your file of things that may require attention a little later, in case Iranian rhetoric remains just that.

John M. Donnelly is editor of Defense Week, an independent Washington-based newsletter that covers the business and politics of national security.

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