The threat Iran poses to U.S. national security is beginning to sound eerily similar to the widely touted threat posed by Iraq in the run-up to its invasion in 2003. It's a recipe that calls for a frothy link to al Qaeda and a generous helping of WMD fears.
The prospect of a nuclear-armed Tehran has loomed over discussions about a military intervention in Iran for years, but only recently have the country's ties to al Qaeda crept into the mainstream.
In elite foreign policy circles, the link between Iran and al Qaeda gained prominence in late January following the publication of a 2,000-word Foreign Affairs article "Al Qaeda in Iran" by the Rand Corporation's Seth Jones. Jones wrote that several of al Qaeda's most senior leaders are being held in Iran under house arrest and that "evidence of the Iranian-al Qaeda partnership abounds." Despite the fact that the Sunni terrorist group despises Shias, Jones emphasized that both groups share a hatred of the United States and called on U.S. policymakers to "draw greater public attention to Iran's limited, but still unacceptable, cooperation with al Qaeda."
It didn't take long for Jones's warnings to gain wider circulation. Five days after the article's publication, The Wall Street Journal's Siobhan Gorman wrote a piece titled "U.S. Fears Iran's Links to al Qaeda," pushing the story further. "U.S. officials say they believe Iran recently gave new freedoms to as many as five top al Qaeda operatives who have been under house arrest, including the option to leave the country, and may have provided some material aid to the terrorist group," writes Gorman in her lede. It isn't until the second-to-last paragraph that we're told the terrorists would face arrest and prosecution if they took the option to leave Iran (a less fearsome prospect than releasing them). Jones is cited in the article saying Iran has "in effect," given sanctuary to senior al Qaeda leaders for years, though the U.S. officials alluded in the story remain anonymous.
Following the Journal story, the newspaper's News Corp. sister organization Sky News took the story even further with an article yesterday: "Fears Iran is Helping Al Qaeda Plot Atrocity." The thinly sourced account cites "Sky News' intelligence sources" as saying Iran has been giving al Qaeda training in advanced explosives "some funding and a safe haven." The piece also cites a "secret intelligence memo" claiming that "Iran has significantly stepped up its investment, maintenance and improvement of operational and intelligence ties with the al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan in recent months." From which country the memo originates, the reader has no idea.
Since the threat of an al Qaeda link and fears of weapons of mass destruction were enough to instigate an invasion of Iraq, a number of foreign policy observers are justifiably spooked the nightmare of 2003 is repeating itself. "WMDs and murky al-Qaida ties. Wait, I know this one. The smoking gun will be a mushroom cloud?" tweeted the AP's Matt Apuzzo. "Apparently, we can't even get a new script for the sequel: Iran & AQ have 'operational relationship,' plotting attacks," tweeted Salon's Glenn Greenwald.
Members of the media aren't the only ones worried. Hillary Mann Leverett, a former National Security Council aide in both Clinton and Bush administrations, expressed alarm at the connections between al Qaeda and Iran. "I think [there] is a war-fevered hysteria that is going on now," she said in the Journal. "A lot of this stuff is really flimsy and is really questionable."