President Bush yesterday accused Iran of harboring and aiding top al Qaeda terrorists, but he stopped short of charging that Tehran was directly involved in the September 11 attacks.
Using stern language against a nation that he has labeled a member of an “axis of evil,” the president said his administration is examining whether Iran had any connection with the 2001 terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania.
“We’re digging into the facts to determine if there was one,” Mr. Bush said from the Oval Office. “They’re harboring al Qaeda leadership there, and we’ve asked that they be turned over to their respective countries.”
But the president reiterated that acting CIA Director John McLaughlin has said, “There was no direct connection between Iran and the attacks of September the 11th.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Bush vowed to “continue to look and see if the Iranians were involved.”
Reports emerged yesterday that an Iranian general collaborated with al Qaeda to arrange the transit through Iran of nine of the September 11 hijackers. The Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat reported that the Iranian general coordinated with “the No. 2 man in al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri, to provide ‘safe passage’ to around nine of those who carried out the attacks.”
A report to be released on Thursday by the September 11 commission also reportedly includes evidence that some of the hijackers passed through Iran on their way to the United States.
The New York Times reported on Sunday that Iran had ordered its border guards not to stamp the passports of al Qaeda members from Saudi Arabia moving through Iran after training in Afghanistan. An Iranian stamp might have made the al Qaeda members subject to additional scrutiny upon entering the United States.
Mr. Bush, who said in his 2002 State of the Union address that Iraq, Iran and North Korea make up an “axis of evil,” also said yesterday that Iran is reconstituting its nuclear-weapons program.
“They’ve got a nuclear-weapons program that they need to dismantle. We’re working with other countries to encourage them to do so,” he said.
The Bush administration vehemently has opposed Iran’s civilian nuclear-power program, saying the oil-rich country does not need such a program and is using it as a cover to open a nuclear-weapons program.
Meanwhile yesterday, Israel accused Iran of resuming the production of enriched uranium, which can be used to build atomic bombs. A military intelligence officer also told a parliamentary committee that he could not rule out the possibility that the Lebanese fundamentalist Shi’ite movement Hezbollah could acquire nonconventional weapons from Iran, Israeli military radio reported.
In Washington, Mr. Bush said Iran must “stop funding terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah that create great dangers in parts of the world.”
“I have long expressed my concerns about Iran. After all, it’s a totalitarian society where free people are not allowed to exercise their rights as human beings. I have made it clear that if the Iranians would like to have better relations with the United States, there are some things they must do,” he said.
Mr. McLaughlin, who took over after former CIA Director George J. Tenet resigned earlier this month, told “Fox News Sunday” that at least eight of the September 11 hijackers passed through Iran.
“This is not surprising to us. I think the count is about eight of the hijackers were able to pass through Iran at some point,” he said. “However, I would stop there and say we have no evidence that there is some sort of official sanction by the government of Iran for this activity. We have no evidence that there is some sort of official connection between Iran and 9/11.”
The comments by the CIA’s acting director confirm leaked accounts of the contents of the report by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, to be released Thursday. According to Newsweek, the Iranian finding in the commission’s report is based largely on a December 2001 memo that had been buried in the files of the U.S. National Security Agency.
Time magazine reported this week that the commission’s report says that Iran, at one point, proposed collaborating with al Qaeda on attacks against America, but that Osama bin Laden declined, saying he did not want to alienate his supporters in Saudi Arabia.
The spokesman for the foreign minister of Iran, which condemned the 2001 attacks, said his country cannot police its entire border, comparing the situation to that of the United States and Mexico.
“We have very long borders, and it is impossible to totally control them,” Hamid Reza Asefi told reporters in Tehran on Sunday. “It is natural that five or six people could have crossed our borders illegally without us seeing them.”
But the White House said the president’s comments are consistent with his doctrine: Nations that harbor terrorists are just as dangerous as the terrorists themselves.
“What this president is doing is pursuing the threats that we face and confronting those threats before they have a chance to fully materialize, whether it’s Iran, Iraq, North Korea or elsewhere,” press secretary Scott McClellan said.