For the second time in less than a year, former British prime minister Tony Blair testified before the Iraq Inquiry on Friday. The Inquiry is investigating the circumstances that led up to the Iraq war and its aftermath. And for the second time Blair warned of collusion between Iran and al Qaeda.
In Blair’s estimation, the problems post-Saddam Iraq faced would have been manageable had it not been for the nefarious influence of external actors such as al Qaeda and Iran. No one foresaw their collusion on the eve of the Iraq war, Blair testified. But al Qaeda’s spectacular suicide bombings and Iran’s extensive sponsorship of terrorists and extremists were the main drivers of the violence that engulfed Iraq in violence.
Toward the end of his testimony, Blair described the two biggest lessons he learned from the Iraq War. He began by saying that “[o]ne of those political lessons is to do with the link between AQ and Iran.”
Blair stated [emphasis added]:
I wanted to make it very clear to you that I think you need to look at this issue to do with AQ and Iran in a broader context and also the linkages between the two, because I think there are a whole series of particularly defense intelligence reports from 2005 and 2006 which are very, very important in this regard and which detail quite extensively the nature of those activities.
Blair addressed the relationship between Iran and al Qaeda in his written testimony submitted to the Inquiry as well. In a section entitled, “The Role of AQ and Iran,” Blair explains that the British intelligence community drastically underestimated both al Qaeda’s and Iran’s designs on post-Saddam Iraq. Their roles were a “game-changer,” Blair contends, and “the dimension not foreseen, that almost tipped Iraq into the abyss.”
“If anything,” Blair writes, “it was thought that whilst Iran would have a keen interest, naturally, in what happened in Iraq it would be more interested in promoting stability than instability.”
That was clearly wrong, Blair says. And that assessment quickly changed after the March 2003 invasion, when intelligence reports highlighting Iranian-sponsored violence began to pour in.
One such British report, dated Sept. 23, 2004, “stated that the Sunni extremist presence in Iran was ‘substantial.'” Blair adds: “This was emphasised in December 2004.”
Blair told the Inquiry that British intelligence officials were more concerned about the possibility of al Qaeda attacks inside the UK and elsewhere than they were about the al Qaeda network already operating inside Iraq. And this was a serious shortcoming in their pre-war analyses.
In his written testimony, Blair explains:
There was no sense that AQ would mount a full-scale operation in Iraq after the removal of Saddam. In retrospect as I said in my evidence, the intelligence that al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian AQ leader, had been in Baghdad in May 2002 should perhaps have been given more weight. But actually most of the British authorities were at pains to separate Saddam from AQ in 2002 not to link them.
That changed after the war had begun, however, and the roles played by both al Qaeda and Iran became “obvious.” Blair writes:
Throughout 2003-2007 I would be chairing meetings, receiving updates, getting weekly reports on the situation all of which reflected this changing security picture. In any event, the roles of AQ and Iran became increasingly obvious and open.
AQ was claiming responsibility for the terrorist attacks and the U.S. and our special forces were focussed on going after them. The type and nature of the EFP and IEDs made Iranian involvement clear. This was backed up by the intelligence. Muqtada Al Sadr, whose JAM militia was our main opponent at the time, fled to Iran.
There is a temptation throughout the West to think of Iran and al Qaeda as separate problems. But Blair has repeatedly rejected that notion. In his testimony before the Inquiry last year, Blair explained [emphasis added]:
What nobody foresaw was that Iran would actually end up supporting AQ. The conventional wisdom was these two are completely different types of people because Iran is Shia, the Al-Qaeda people are Sunni and therefore, you know, the two would never mix. What happened in the end was that they did because they both had a common interest in destabilising the country, and for Iran I think the reason they were interested in destabilising Iraq was because they worried about having a functioning majority Shia country with a democracy on their doorstep, and for Al-Qaeda they knew perfectly well their whole mission was to try and say the West was oppressing Islam. It is hard to do that if you replace tyrannical governments with functioning democracies.
Although many have pointed to collusion between Iran and al Qaeda in the past, the relationship is still not widely understood. The 9/11 Commission concluded that the “relationship between al Qaeda and Iran demonstrated that Sunni-Shia divisions did not necessarily pose an insurmountable barrier to cooperation in terrorist operations.”
For example, the Commission found that “the evidence of Iranian involvement” in the June 1996 Khobar Towers bombing “is strong,” but “there are also signs that al Qaeda played some role, as yet unknown.”
More importantly, al Qaeda’s Aug. 7, 1998 embassy bombings were modeled after Iran’s and Hezbollah’s attacks in Lebanon in the 1980s. Osama bin Laden asked for Iran’s assistance in learning how to execute attacks similar to Hezbollah’s 1983 bombing of the US Marine Barracks, which left 241 Marines dead. Iran and Hezbollah agreed to help, according to the 9/11 Commission, and al Qaeda operatives traveled to Iran and the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon to receive training. Among the terrorists who received the training were members of al Qaeda’s military committee as well as “several operatives” who were involved in the embassy bombing in Kenya.
Evidence of Iran’s hand in the 1998 embassy bombings surfaced during the trial of some of the al Qaeda terrorists responsible. Captured al Qaeda terrorists testified that Iran and Hezbollah trained al Qaeda operatives in the early 1990s. Clinton administration prosecutors included a mention of the relationship with Iran in their 1998 indictment of al Qaeda for the embassy bombings.
The 9/11 Commission also left open the possibility that Iran and Hezbollah assisted al Qaeda in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The Commission cited several connections between the hijackers, Iran, and Hezbollah in a section entitled, “Assistance from Hezbollah and Iran to al Qaeda.” The Commission concluded that “this topic requires further investigation by the U.S. government.”
In the years since the Commission finished its work, top US military officials, the US Treasury Department, Saudi royals, Iraqi leaders, Israeli security officials, and others have pointed to collusion between Iran and al Qaeda. Evidence of the relationship can also be found in numerous State Department cables and ISAF intelligence reports released by Wikileaks, as well as other sources.
Still, it is a rarity for senior Western political leaders to openly address the relationship as Blair did on Friday.