Iran rejects US claim of al-Qaida link

Posted in Iran | 19-Jul-04 | Author: Ewen MacAskill| Source: Guardian

Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi speaks to journalists during a news conference in Tehran July 18, 2004.
The Iranian government yesterday admitted for the first time that half a dozen of the al-Qaida terrorists behind the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington had passed through Iran.

But the government, anxious to avoid being the next US target after Afghanistan and Iraq, denied any official involvement with al-Qaida members.

The admission came five days before the US commission investigating the September 11 attacks was scheduled to publish its 600-page report, and amid growing speculation that it would endorse the view that there was no evidence linking the September 11 hijackers to Saddam's Iraqi regime - one of the Bush administration's key arguments for going to war.

The Washington Post reported yesterday that the commission would criticise the White House, Congress and other parts of the US government, for failing to detect or prevent the atrocities.

With the focus of suspicion recently turning to Iran, Hamid Reza Asefi, an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, yesterday acknowledged that some of the hijackers had passed through the country from Afghanistan months before the attacks. "We have long borders and it is not possible to fully control them. It is normal that five or six people who cross the border illegally over a period of five or six months may evade our attention. The same happens on the border between Mexico and the United States."

John McLaughlin, the acting director of the CIA, yesterday told Fox News: "We have no evidence that there is some sort of official connection between Iran and 9/11." But he said it was not surprising that the hijackers were able to pass through Iran, given the country's "history of supporting terrorism". He said eight of the 19 hijackers had passed through the country.

The link being made between Iran and al-Qaida comes as pressure grows on Tehran over suspicions that it is planning a nuclear weapons capability. The US, which has no diplomatic ties with Tehran, wants a UN security council resolution imposing sanctions.

The Israeli government, which bombed an Iraqi nuclear plant in 1981, has been hinting that it will mount a military strike to prevent Iran fulfilling any nuclear weapons ambitions. Iran continues to insist that it is seeking to develop its nuclear programme for peaceful purposes.

The British government has meanwhile become increasingly disillusioned over Iran, the Foreign Office shifting to the view that Tehran is intent on nuclear weapons. Relations have also been strained by the failure of Tehran to return two British boats seized at the Iran-Iraq border.

Mr Asefi said that news reports from the US linking Iran and al-Qaida were part of a US government cover-up to deflect attention from Iraq. He added that Iran had tightened its border controls since the September 11 attacks. The passage of the al-Qaida members had happened before the attacks and "who knew that September 11 was going to happen?" Iran had demonstrated over the past few years that it was opposed to terrorism - and the US had failed to show appreciation of that.

Iran helps finance Hizbullah in south Lebanon but says it has had no involvement with al-Qaida. Tehran has arrested hundreds of al-Qaida suspects over the past few years, last week handing to Saudi Arabia a man dubbed a senior al-Qaida memberwho had surrendered.

The Washington Post reported yesterday that the US commission report on the September 11 attacks would recommend a restructuring of US intelligence to create a "cabinet" with an overview of the other agencies. However, Mr McLaughlin said it would be difficult to achieve that "without adding an additional layer of bureaucracy". He said the same objective could be brought by "modest changes" to the role of CIA director.