The George W. Bush administration waged what it called a Global War on Terrorism. Yet against Iran, the world's leading sponsor of terrorism, no serious actions were ever taken. President Barack Obama is waging what he calls a "war against al-Qaida and its affiliates." Yet he and his advisers are reluctant to articulate what has become indisputable: Iran and al-Qaida are affiliated.
Senior Obama officials have come closer to calling a spade a spade: Last week, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper described the relationship between Iran and al-Qaida as a "longstanding ... marriage." But you had to listen carefully to hear him say that.
"Iran has harbored al-Qaida leaders, facilitators," Clapper told a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. They have been "under house arrest conditions. (Iran's rulers) have had this sort of standoff arrangement with al-Qaida, allowing (al-Qaida) to exist (inside Iran), but not to foment any operations directly from Iran, because they're very sensitive about, 'Hey, we might come after them there as well.'... So there has been this longstanding, as I say, kind of, shotgun marriage, or marriage of convenience."
Also last week: The U.S. Treasury Department designated the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) for its sponsorship of terrorism. Among the terrorist groups Treasury said MOIS supports: al-Qaida.
Thomas Joscelyn, my colleague at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has extensively researched the Iran-al-Qaida relationship. Back in 2007, he wrote: "No fallacy today is more misguided or more dangerous than the widespread belief that Iran, the world's premier state sponsor of terrorism, and al-Qaida are not allies in the terrorists' war against the West."
The terrorist attack that killed 19 Americans at Khobar Towers in 1996 was almost certainly an Iranian/al-Qaida joint venture. But the Clinton administration chose to shut down FBI investigators in the belief -- misguided but widespread at the time -- that more moderate Iranians were coming to power in Tehran and that publicly revealing the Iranian role would impede diplomatic efforts.
Iran also was implicated in al-Qaida's 1998 bombing of America's embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. When federal prosecutors indicted al-Qaida members, they specifically noted that al-Qaida had forged alliances with "representatives of the government of Iran, and its associated terrorist group Hezbollah, for the purpose of working together against their perceived common enemies in the West, particularly the United States." And in November of last year, a Washington, D.C. court found that Iran had provided training for the al Qaeda terrorists at Hezbollah camps in southern Lebanon.
What about the attacks on the U.S. homeland three years later? The 9/11 commissioners "found no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack." However, intelligence obtained by 9/11 commission staffers just before the release of their report - too late for serious examination -- prompted the commissioners to add: "We believe this topic requires further investigation by the U.S. government." Such investigations have not been conducted - or, if they were, their conclusions have never been made public.
In the years since 2001, Iran has continued to cooperate with al-Qaida. In January 2009, Treasury designated four senior al Qaeda members who had received Iran's assistance. Last July, Treasury designated six al-Qaida operatives noting that they used Iran as "a critical transit point for funding to support al-Qaida's activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan." And in September 2011, the State Department designated a Hamas operative, linking him to both Iran and al-Qaida.
In recent days, Britain's Sky News has reported on a "secret intelligence memo" describing "intensive cooperation over recent months between Iran and al-Qaida." Sky News adds: "We do know that an operation is under way. We assess that the most likely target is to be European."
In light of all this, why has there been so little public discussion of the Iranian-al-Qaida relationship? Two reasons suggest themselves: (1) Scholars, journalists and intelligence analysts who denied this association in the past are reluctant to admit they were wrong. (2) Knowledge conveys responsibility: If Iran is - and long has been -- married to al-Qaida, and if Iran is now just a few spins of a centrifuge away from acquiring nuclear weapons, it follows that strong measures must be taken against this growing threat.
That's a message many Americans do not want to hear. It's certainly a message many American leaders do not want to tell them.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.