Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad infuriated Americans last week when he claimed that America had exaggerated the death toll from al-Qaeda's September 11, 2001 attacks.
"They announced that 3,000 people were killed in this incident, but there were no reports that reveal their names," he said, adding that the 9/11 attacks were a "big fabrication."
While Ahmadinejad is delusional, he unquestionably has insider knowledge about al-Qaeda and its operations. Indeed, Iran maintains a murky relationship with the world's most dangerous terrorist organization that we must not ignore.
The State Department's recently-released 2009 Country Reports on Terrorism notes that Iran is "unwilling to bring to justice senior al-Qaeda members it continued to detain, and refused to publicly identify those senior members in its custody."
The report explains that, "Iran has repeatedly resisted numerous calls to transfer custody of its [al-Qaeda] detainees to their countries of origin or third countries for trial."
Finally, Foggy Bottom notes that Iran is "reportedly holding Usama bin Ladin's family members under house arrest."
This revelation is not new. In January 2009, the U.S. Treasury added a handful of al-Qaeda associates to its list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists; all were based in Iran.
Treasury identified Mustafa Hamid as a "senior al-Qaeda associate who served as a primary interlocutor between al Qaeda and the Government of Iran" and had "negotiated on behalf of al-Qaeda in an attempt to relocate al Qaeda families to Iran."
Muhammad Rab'a al-Sayid al-Bahtiyti was identified as an "al-Qaeda operative" who followed the instructions of al-Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, "to take al-Zawahiri's family to Iran."
Treasury fingered Ali Saleh Husain as a "senior al-Qaeda associate who had close relations with Usama bin Laden" After 2001, Husain was "responsible for smuggling al-Qaeda members and associates via networks in Zahedan, Iran."
Then there is Usama bin Laden's son, Sa'ad. Treasury notes that in 2001, "Sa'ad facilitated the travel of Usama bin Laden's family members from Afghanistan to Iran" and was "involved in managing the terrorist organization from Iran."
The U.S. intelligence community has long been aware of the ties between al-Qaeda and Iran. The 2004 final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (The 9/11 Commission), notes that in the early 1990s, discussions in Sudan between representatives of al-Qaeda and Iran yielded an "agreement to cooperate in providing support" to terrorists. The report also notes that in the early 1990s, "al-Qaeda operatives and trainers traveled to Iran to receive training and explosives." In 1993, the report continues, al-Qaeda operatives went to Lebanon "for further training" under the auspices of Iran. There was also a "persistence of contacts between Iranian security officials and senior al-Qaeda figures" in Afghanistan during in the mid-1990s.
That's just training and communication. There is also reason to believe that Iran and al-Qaeda carried out joint operations. The 9/11 Commission notes that the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers complex in Saudi Arabia was "carried out with support from the government of Iran," but also with "signs that al-Qaeda played some role." That attack killed 19 U.S. servicemen.
Finally, the Commission noted a "willingness of Iranian officials to facilitate the travel of al-Qaeda members through Iran, on their way to and from Afghanistan." Indeed, evidence points to the fact that "8 to 10 of the 14 Saudi 'muscle' operatives [from the September 11 operation] traveled into or out of Iran" in 2000 and 2001 before arriving here.
So, while Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may not know much about the casualties stemming from the worst terrorist attack on American soil in our country's history, he knows quite a bit about the terrorist network that carried it out.
As the debate continues over how to neutralize Iran and its aggressive foreign policies, including its drive to acquire a nuclear weapon, Americans must not ignore the connection between the Islamic Republic and Usama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former intelligence analyst at the U.S. Treasury, is vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.