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Ivan Eland: Oops, They Invaded the Wrong Country?

Oops, They Invaded the Wrong Country?

By Ivan Eland*
July 20, 2004

A potentially major news story—that Iran had more connections with al Qaeda than Iraq ever did, according to the 9/11 Commission’s interim report—has been relegated to the back pages of national newspapers and underplayed by the electronic media. The commission found that as many as 10 of the September 11 hijackers were given safe passage by the Iranians during the year before the attacks. Has the U.S. media already become so cynical about the Bush administration’s motives for invading Iraq that this does not even rate a front page news story?

Maybe, privately, reporters are not that surprised that Iran had closer ties with al Qaeda than Iraq did with the terror group. After all, before the war, the U.S. government knew that the most active state sponsor of terrorism was Iran, not Iraq. In fact, Iraq was not very active at all in sponsoring terrorist attacks. Many opponents of the Iraq invasion argued convincingly that Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda had little ideological affinity. Given that Osama bin Laden’s main goal is to cleanse the Islamic world of corrupt, secular regimes, it was illogical that al Qaeda and Iraq would have much in common. In fact, the 9/11 Commission has concluded that no “collaborative relationship” existed between Iraq and al Qaeda.

Conversely, al Qaeda and the theocratic Iranian government both promoted radical Islamic rule. According to the 9/11 Commission’s interim report, al Qaeda and the Iranian government talked in the 1990’s about finessing their Sunni-Shia differences to cooperate against a common foe. The commission also noted that al Qaeda operatives traveled to Iran and Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah camps in Lebanon for military-style training. What a surprise, evidence shows cooperation between like-minded people and no collaboration between those with diametrically opposed agendas!

Although a post-war inspection has shown that Saddam had no chemical, biological or nuclear weapons and only anemic efforts to reconstitute them, before the war he seemed like a despotic tyrant bent on getting them. Yet, prior to the war and even assuming the worst case for Saddam’s weapons programs, the Iranians were known to be ahead of him in their quest to develop nuclear weapons (the only true weapon of mass destruction) and the missiles to deliver them. Furthermore, in conventional terms, Saddam’s military retained only one-half to one-third of its fighting capability after the first Gulf War and more than a decade of the most grinding economic sanctions in world history.

In contrast, the Iranian government, effectively still run by radical Shiite clerics, had control of an economy four times that of Iraq, a population three times Iraq’s, and a defense budget that was larger than Iraq’s. Even before the war, most security analysts concluded that Iran was the bigger threat.

But the question remains, a threat to what? Even an Iranian threat to U.S. security must be kept in perspective. The 9/11 Commission clearly has no evidence that the Iranians knew about al Qaeda’s 9/11 plot in advance; most of the hijackers didn’t even know the details of the attacks beforehand. Iran’s nuclear and missile programs are primarily a threat to its neighbors, not to the United States. Iran will take some time to develop and produce a missile that can hit the United States. Once Iran possesses missiles and a few nuclear warheads with which to arm them, the United States would still be able to deter an Iranian nuclear attack with the thousands of warheads making up the most potent nuclear arsenal in the world.

And that’s lucky because the United States is unlikely to be invading Iran any time soon. Iran, through questionable information passed through Ahmed Chalabi and his intelligence chief, has cleverly managed to induce the United States to take out its chief regional rival—Saddam Hussein—and at the same time bog the United States down in a long-term quagmire. But even if the U.S. military weren’t so entangled, the much larger, mountainous, and more populous Iran would be much more difficult to conquer than the comparatively smaller, flatter, and less populous Iraq. And even the latter is proving difficult and unpopular back in the states.

Given that Iran was more of a threat, was the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq undertaken to have a “demonstration effect” to scare the stronger Iranians into better behavior? If so, the intervention seems to have had the counterproductive effect of spurring Iran to covertly accelerate its nuclear program. Also, it demonstrates only that the best way to fight the Americans is with guerrilla warfare. Anyway you cut it, the radical Iranian regime is the main beneficiary of the naively muscular U.S. policy toward Iraq.


*Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute in Oakland, CA., and author of the book, Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy: Rethinking U.S. Security in the Post-Cold War World. For further articles and studies, see the War on Terrorism and

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