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The U.S. charges Iran with sponsoring terrorism, pursuing weapons of mass destruction, exerting a destabilizing influence in western Afghanistan, and possibly harboring Al Qaeda fugitives. Here is an overview and summary of the U.S. case against Iran as reported in recent months.


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In the aftermath of Sept. 11, relations between the United States and Iran seemed -- remarkably -- to be warming up, as Iran quietly offered support for the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan. In November, Secretary of State Colin Powell shook hands with the Iranian foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, at the U.N. headquarters in New York City -- a simple yet historic gesture that seemed the most tantalizing hint of rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran since the Islamic revolution and the hostage crisis in 1979.

But on Jan. 29, 2002, in his State of the Union address, President George W. Bush branded Iran and its "terrorist allies" as part of "an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world." And on Jan. 31, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice summed up the administration's position on Iran. "Iran's direct support of regional and global terrorism," she said, "and its aggressive efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction, belie any good intentions it displayed in the days after the world's worst terrorist attacks in history."

Since this dramatic turnabout, press reports have tried to piece together the trail leading from the Powell-Kharrazi handshake to the "axis of evil" speech. Whether the revelations of Iranian "mischief" (as Time magazine put it) after Sept. 11 actually influenced Bush's decision to include Iran in the "axis," or whether, as some believe, the inclusion was inevitable given Bush's statement that countries are either "with" the U.S. in its war on terrorism or "against" it, the fact is that the U.S. has long considered Iran a sponsor of terrorism and a potentially dangerous adversary in the Middle East.

Rice and Powell have since clarified that the administration's blunt language does not mean that the U.S. is opposed to holding direct talks with Iran. In March, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden (D-Del.) made a speech in which he invited members of the Iranian Parliament to meet with members of the U.S. Congress. And on April 30, the Financial Times reported that Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, "has quietly authorised the Supreme National Security Council to assess the merits of starting talks with the U.S."

But in a Labor Day speech on May 1, Khamenei denounced the U.S. and dismissed the idea of negotiations. "The Islamic Republic of Iran will never succumb to America's bullying. ... Negotiations will not solve any problem. Negotiations with America are beneficial to the American government." Still, reformist leaders continue to press for an opening up of relations, and it appears that an internal debate within the Iranian government's inner circles over whether and how to engage the U.S. continues, mirroring the debate in Washington over how to engage Iran.

The following is an overview, drawn largely from press reports since Jan. 29, of the developments in U.S.-Iran relations that led up to Bush's State of the Union address and continue to loom over the possibility of a new opening between the two countries.

A Repressive Regime

In April 2002, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights concluded a six-week session in which it assessed the records of the globe's worst human-rights offenders. By the time the commission adjourned, its members had voted to defeat a resolution condemning alleged abuses in Iran and had called home from Tehran its special representative. Finally, after nearly two decades, Iran had managed to clear itself from the U.N.'s list of worst offenders, leaving behind countries such as Iraq, Myanmar, and Sudan, among others.

An April 24 editorial in the Montreal Gazette referred to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights as a "kangaroo court," and U.S. officials and human-rights watchdog groups openly disagreed with its decisions. Just a few weeks before, the U.S. State Department had issued an 18,000-word report condemning the Islamic Republic's human-rights abuses:

The government's human rights record remained poor; although efforts within society to make the government accountable for its human rights policies continued, serious problems remain. The government significantly restricts citizens' right to change their government.

In great detail, the State Department chronicled the many accusations of abuse that have been leveled at the regime in Iran: the mysterious disappearance of political dissidents, the allegations of torture and arbitrary arrest, and discrimination against religious minorities.

Recently, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch issued reports similar to the State Department's. Amnesty International reported that there was an "unprecedented clampdown on freedom of expression and association" in the Islamic Republic, with at least 34 individuals questioned, detained, and tried on the basis of "vaguely worded" laws and before courts that "often fall far short of international standards for fair trial."

According to Human Rights Watch, Supreme Leader Khamenei sanctioned the clampdown on independent newspapers and magazines. Speaking at Friday prayers on April 22, 2000, Ayatollah Khamenei characterized the press as a "stronghold of Western influence" in Iran. He defended the newspaper closures, saying, "We are trying to stop the enemy from realizing his propaganda conspiracy."

SEE ALSO

Stifling Dissent: The Human Rights Consequences of Inter-Factional Struggle in Iran
(Human Rights Watch, May 2001)


Weapons of Mass Destruction

In a report released on Jan. 30, the CIA found that "Iran remains one of the most active countries seeking to acquire" technology from abroad -- primarily from Russia, China, and North Korea -- that can be used to develop weapons of mass destruction. "In doing so," the report said, "Tehran is attempting to develop a domestic capability to produce various types of weapons -- chemical, biological, and nuclear -- and their delivery systems." 

Iran denies that it is seeking nuclear weapons, insisting that its nuclear energy program at Bushehr, which is monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is strictly for peaceful energy-producing purposes (see FRONTLINE's interview with Mohammad Ali Mousavi, Iran's ambassador to Canada). Former CIA Director James Woolsey tells FRONTLINE, however, that "there is no underlying [reason] for one of the greatest oil producers in the world to need to get into the nuclear [energy] business."

In a widely noted article on Iran's "nuclear ambitions" published in the Dec. 3, 2001, issue of The New Yorker, Seymour M. Hersh points out that in 1995 Iran and Russia "signed an eight-hundred-million-dollar contract under which the Russians would help install a powerful reactor [at Bushehr], to be run by a Russian-Iranian team. Since then, a vast complex of buildings has been constructed at the site." Hersh adds, "Intelligence officials told me, however, that Iran's most important nuclear production facilities are not at Bushehr ... but scattered throughout the country, at clandestine sites, under military control. The clandestine facilities have not been 'declared' -- that is, they are not subject to I.A.E.A. inspection." Still more troubling, Hersh writes, "it was learned from sensitive sources [in the late 1990s] that Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, who directed the Pakistani nuclear program from the nineteen-seventies until his retirement, earlier this year, made at least one secret visit to an Iranian nuclear facility. ... American officials believe that he brought no actual materials with him to Iran -- just his years of hands-on experience in bomb-making."

In its Feb. 18 issue, Newsweek reported that the Bush administration had expressed concerns over the possibility that Iranian weapons of mass destruction might get into the hands of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, believed to have close ties to Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas: "'Iran remains a serious concern because of its across-the-board pursuit of weapons of mass destruction,' CIA chief George Tenet told a Senate committee last week. When asked to assess the Iranian threat further, Tenet said that Iran's 'continued use of Hizbullah and their own surrogates is a very fundamental challenge to American interests.'"

SEE ALSO

Iran and the Bomb
Excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with former CIA Director James Woolsey; Iran's ambassador to Canada, Mohammad Mousavi; nonproliferation expert George Perkovich; former U.S. under secretary of state for political affairs Thomas Pickering; and Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


Afghanistan and Al Qaeda

Despite quiet gestures in support of the U.S. campaign against the Taliban -- which included Iran's giving safe passage to humanitarian aid, agreeing to conduct search-and-rescue efforts if American pilots were downed in Iranian territory, and using its influence to secure the Northern Alliance's cooperation -- U.S. and Afghan officials say Iran has sent food and clothing, as well as weapons, money, and personnel (including Revolutionary Guard troops) to western Afghanistan in a bid to exert influence and challenge the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, which Iran may view as a potential threat to its interests in the region.

In particular, the Afghan warlord Ismail Khan, who controls the key western city of Herat, is said to have received Iranian support. According to The Washington Post on Feb. 1:

[Ismail] Khan's long ties with Iran have led to allegations that he is a conduit for Iranian arms and influence that could keep Afghanistan unstable. Khan denies it. ... Yet there are persistent reports of Iranian arms coming to Herat. One military officer insists that a small private army of 320 Iranian-trained fighters under Khan's personal command called the Sopah e-Mohammad, or Soldiers of Mohammad, is secreted around three bases in town.

The same article, however, quotes a Western diplomat in Pakistan who says that Khan is "not an Iranian puppet, and he's aware of the dangers of getting too close to Iran."

Time magazine reported in its Feb. 4 issue that an Iranian general, Sadar Baghwani, "started showing up at Afghan mosques, reportedly telling Afghans to resist the U.S. presence in their country." And on Feb. 4 The Washington Post noted that Zalmay Khalilzad, the Bush administration's envoy to Kabul, "reported that Iranian-trained Afghan fighters had been sent to Herat in western Afghanistan to join the ranks of the local commander, Ismail Khan, and that some forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' al-Quds Brigade had joined them. ... 'The Iranians are playing hardball on the ground,' a Pentagon official said. 'If they're trying to push American influence out, that's a problem.'" As Time reported, President Bush "issued an ultimatum" in early January: "'If they in any way, shape or form try to destabilize the government,' [Bush] said, 'the coalition will deal with them, in diplomatic ways intitially.'"

In addition, the U.S. says Al Qaeda fugitives may have slipped into Iran, and that some may have found sanctuary there, including Abu Musaab Zarqawi. The New York Times reported on March 24 that Zarqawi, "a senior Al Qaeda leader who fled the western Afghan city of Herat after the American military campaign began, has turned up in Tehran under the protection of Iranian security forces, according to senior Israeli and American officials." Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on ABC's This Week in early February, "We have any number of reports that Iran has been permissive and allowed transit through their country of Al Qaeda." Iran denies that it has provided any assistance to Al Qaeda fugitives.

Khobar Towers Bombing

In June 2001, five years after a truck bomb exploded in front of the Khobar Towers complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 19 U.S. servicemen, a federal grand jury in the U.S. indicted 13 Saudis and one Lebanese. The 46-count indictment said that the suspects were part of a shadowy organization known as Saudi Hezbollah, and that they had been "inspired, supported, and directed by elements of the Iranian government."

No Iranians were named in the indictment, however. As former National Security Adviser Sandy R. Berger told Elsa Walsh of The New Yorker: "We know [the bombing] was done by the Saudi Hezbollah. We know that they were trained in Iran by Iranians. We know there was Iranian involvement. What has yet to be established is how substantial the Iranian involvement was."

There has been speculation that the U.S. refrained from naming Iranian conspirators because of its ally Saudi Arabia's fragile yet evolving relationship with Iran. According to Walsh's reporting, the FBI had managed to build what then-Director Louis Freeh contended was a strong case against Iran. Walsh writes:

On November 9, 1998, Freeh finally got what he had been seeking for two and a half years. ... The suspects confirmed their involvement in the bombing and described how the Iranians had ordered, supported, and financed the attack. Khassab, the cell member who had been turned over by the Syrians, claimed that he had met directly with Ahad Sherifi, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard official who had selected the Khobar barracks as a target, and that Sherifi always announced that he was acting at the behest of Ayatollah Khamenei [Iran's Supreme Leader].

But Clinton administration officials contended that the evidence was "hearsay" and would not hold up in court, and no charges against Iran were filed.

The indictment itself, however, was enough to elicit the rancor of Iran's foreign ministry when it was released last June. "The U.S. judiciary has leveled charges against Iran which have no legal and judicial basis," said foreign ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Assefi, according to the state news agency. "The charges are only supplemental to the ceaseless efforts of the United States to pressure the Islamic Republic."

A June 22 editorial in The New York Times urged the Bush administration to forego the desire to soft-pedal the investigation for diplomatic purposes:

There is no statute of limitations on murder. Although bringing charges against past or present Tehran officials is sure to irritate Iran's reform-minded elected leaders, there can be no diplomatic justification for not pursuing Iranian suspects. ... If a provable case can be assembled against Iranian intelligence officials in the Khobar bombing, Washington should seek further indictments.

By December, a month before President Bush's "axis of evil" remarks in his State of the Union address, the administration was taking a harder line. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice confirmed what Walsh had reported in The New Yorker, telling the Arabic-language newspaper Al Hayat on Dec. 20, "When we questioned those who carried out the explosion in the Khobar complex, they clearly mentioned training and finance provided by Iran."

Arafat and the Karine A

On Jan. 3, 2002, Israeli commandos seized the Karine A, a ship in the Red Sea carrying 50 tons of heavy arms and explosives that U.S. and Israeli intelligence have determined were heading from Iran to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. The U.S. and Israel say that two top aides to Yasser Arafat met secretly with Iranian officials in Moscow in May 2001, and that Arafat himself had approved the dealings with Iran.

The shipment was intended, according to Israeli officials quoted by The New York Times, "to give the Palestinians a quantum leap in firepower and change the military calculus in the uprising." The Times goes on, "Both the Palestinians and Iranians deny they are working together, but American and Israeli officials say they now see the shipment as part of a broader relationship."

On Feb. 12, Secretary of State Colin Powell told Congress, "[Arafat] wrote me a letter three days ago on the Karine A, accepting responsibility, not personal responsibility, but as chairman of the Palestinian Authority." The Washington Post reported in early February that "the discovery of Iran's role in smuggling 50 tons of weapons to the Palestinians was a body blow to the State Department's initiative to engage Iran."

"An Iranian-Palestinian connection is not good news," a U.S. official in the Middle East told Time magazine in January. According to Time, "The Israelis say the crew told them the weapons were loaded onto the Karine A from boats off the Iranian coast in an operation headed by Lebanese Hajj Bassem, an assistant to the notorious terrorist Imad Mughniya [a leader of the Lebanese militia Hizballah who has close ties to Iran]."

Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas

The U.S. State Department, in its "Patterns of Global Terrorism 2001" report, calls Iran "the most active state sponsor of terrorism," and names Iran as a source of support for the Lebanese militia group Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (regarded as a wing of Hezbollah), and Hamas, all three of which the U.S. has designated foreign terrorist organizations. As the report notes, the U.S. has long held Hezbollah responsible for terrorist attacks against U.S. targets, from the bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 and of the U.S. Embassy annex in Beirut in 1984, to the taking of hostages in Lebanon in the 1980s, to providing training and assistance to the Saudi offshoot of Hezbollah in carrying out the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Dhahran, which killled 19 U.S. servicemen.

More recently, the U.S. has pointed to Hezbollah's, and by extension Iran's, efforts to intensify the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank. The New York Times reported in March that U.S. and Israeli intelligence believe that Imad Mughniyah, considered the mastermind of Hezbollah's terrorist wing (and allegedly responsible for the 1983 attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut), was sent by Iran to help the Palestinians shortly after the beginning of the intifada in September 2000.

"Israeli and American officials believe," The Times reports, "that the 18-year struggle by Hezbollah in Lebanon, backed by tens of millions of dollars worth of arms from Iran, provided a model for what Tehran would like to recreate on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. 'The strategy is to make the West Bank another Lebanon,' said one senior American intelligence official."

Iran has emphatically denied the charges that it is involved in terrorist-related activities. "We never have supported any groups which take act of terrorism," Mohammad Ali Mousavi, Iran's ambassador to Canada, tells FRONTLINE. "We have morally supported groups who are fighting for their independence or for their being out of occupations, like Hezbollah. ... Terrorism is a menace of this world. We are against terrorism. We differentiate between terrorist acts [and] those legitimate rights of people who had been or are under occupation."

Robert Baer, a former CIA officer who was stationed in the Middle East, says that the U.S. position on Hezbollah is too simple. "I don't agree that Hezbollah itself is a terrorist organization. It delivers powdered milk; it takes care of people," says Baer. "It's a social organization; it's a political organization. It fights corruption." He says that the relationship between Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad is similar to the relationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA. "Under the Hezbollah umbrella [is] the Islamic Jihad, which I call their special security. ... You can paint Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. You can do that for political reasons, but strictly speaking, it is many things," says Baer.

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