WASHINGTON - One of the American government's most wanted terrorists visited Syria late last week with Iran's President Ahmadinejad, according to a former Reagan administration national security official and Iran watchers on Capitol Hill.
The former official, Michael Ledeen, now an author and scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, made the claim in an article published yesterday afternoon on the Web site of the conservative magazine National Review. Several American government officials refused to confirm that the Lebanese Hezbollah figure, Imad Mugniyah, was sighted at the meeting in Damascus last Thursday with Mr. Ahmadinejad and the Syrian dictator, Bashar Assad.
Major Matthew McLaughlin, a spokesman for the Central Command, the military division responsible for the Middle East, said, "Central Command keeps its eyes on various terrorists and terrorist groups within the region, but would not offer any comment on the whereabouts of a particular terrorist because the information is classified."
Congressional staffers familiar with America's Iran policy, however, said yesterday that while they had not received confirmation of Mr. Mugniyah's participation in the Ahmadinejad-Assad summit from American officials, they had heard from foreign "diplomatic sources" that the terrorist was at the meeting.
Mr. Mugniyah appears on the FBI's most wanted terrorists list along with Al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the government has offered a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to his capture. Mr. Mugniyah, of Lebanese origin but said to be living now in Iran, is described by the FBI as the "alleged head of the security apparatus" for Lebanese Hezbollah. He was indicted by America for his role in hijacking TWA Flight 847 in June 1985, a terrorist act in which an American citizen and Navy diver, Robert Stethem, was beaten and tortured, shot in the head, and his body dumped out on the Beirut International Airport runway.
Mr. Mugniyah is also linked to other attacks on Americans and reportedly has met with Mr. bin Laden.
A Washington-based Iranian exile leader and a former Iranian minister of education, Manoucher Ganji, told The New York Sun yesterday that while he had not heard of Mr. Mugniyah's purported appearance in Damascus, the purpose of the Assad-Ahmadinejad meeting was to plot against America and Israel. Mr. Ganji said it would therefore make sense for a representative of Hezbollah to be present for the discussions.
News of the alleged connections among Messrs. Assad, Ahmadinejad, and Mugniyah came amid intensifying pressure on the governments of both Syria and Iran. The Assad dictatorship finds itself embroiled in increasing calls for the disarmament of Hezbollah and intensifying scrutiny of its alleged role in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, whose death is under investigation by the United Nations.
And yesterday in the southwestern Iranian town of Ahvaz, in the oil-rich Khuzestan province, two bombs detonated in a bank and outside a government building, according to the Associated Press and Arabic news outlets. The explosions rocked Ahvaz on the same day that Mr. Ahmadinejad and his entire cabinet were scheduled to meet in the town, a trip that Mr. Ahmadinejad cancelled yesterday, citing forecasts for inclement weather. The bombs killed six and wounded 46.
It remained unclear yesterday who was responsible for the bombings, as scholars and analysts of Iran pointed to a violent opposition, separatist movements, and even the Ahmadinejad regime itself as possible culprits.
A fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Patrick Clawson, told the Sun yesterday that the bombings were the latest episode in more than a year of ethnic minority unrest in Iran, where Sunnis, Arabs, Kurds, and Turks are outnumbered by the Persian Shia majority. As Mr. Ahmadinejad's "hard-liner" approach to nuclear armament - prompting increasing concern and action among Western governments - gains greater attention in America and Europe, Mr. Clawson said, Iranians are already aware that Mr. Ahmadinejad is a hardliner at home. The bombings, Mr. Clawson said, were likely a violent manifestation of Iranian outrage at the regime.
The scholar said the actions demonstrated that "the main victims of Iranian terrorism are Iranians," and that anti-Ahmadinejad sentiment among the Iranian population is one of America's most valuable weapons against Iranian extremism. "We have a natural ally in the people of Iran, and we should be using it," Mr. Clawson said.
Mr. Ganji, too, called upon Washington to respond to the attacks with greater support for Iranian democracy activists, both inside the Islamic Republic and in exile. "Washington has been paralyzed all these years, they're still paralyzed. They don't know what to do," Mr. Ganji said. He urged the American government to bring free TV and radio to Iran, and to provide assistance to the exile movement to provide for a peaceful transition to Iranian self-rule.
As for the explosions, Mr. Ganji said they were likely the work of separatists, and said that the violence by enemies of the mullahs' regime would likely set the Iranian pro-democracy movement back. Mr. Ganji condemned the violence, and said that almost all Iranians agree with the regime about Iran's territorial integrity, opposing separatism. The killing of innocent Iranians by separatists, the activist said, would likely increase Iranian support for the Ahmadinejad government.
Moreover, he said, "this is the kind of action that is certainly going to make the work of the non-violent opposition more difficult." The perpetrators of yesterday's attack are "in no way a responsible freedom movement," Mr. Ganji said, adding that the bombings would almost certainly result in the government's using the attacks as an excuse to jail scores of peaceful democracy activists.
An author and scholar of Iran, Kenneth Timmerman, said the attacks may have been perpetrated Ahmadinejad government to inflate its support. "The Iranian regime has a long track record of fabricating bomb attacks inside Iran to advance its own political agenda," Mr. Timmerman said, citing an arson attack in August 1978 orchestrated by Ayatollah Khomeini, originally blamed on the shah but designed by Khomeini's officials to spark the revolution that brought him to power. "I would not be surprised if Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps were doing the same thing today, in a vain attempt to get Iranians to rally around the Islamic Republic," Mr. Timmerman said in an email to the Sun.
The signs of internal unrest in Iran also come amid increasing external pressure on the Islamic Republic. As America, Britain, France, Germany, and the United Nations work to defang Mr. Ahmadinejad's growing nuclear arms program, a movement is afoot in the American Congress to support Iranians hoping to replace the dictatorship with a free government.
In the Senate, Senator Santorum, Republican of Pennsylvania, has introduced the Iran Freedom and Support Act, which mandates government support for Iranian civil society and democracy movements. The legislation - which includes among its cosponsors almost half the Senate, with backing from both Republicans and Democrats - provides increased support for free press and broadcast outlets in Iran, and calls on the American government to facilitate a transition to democracy in the Islamic Republic resembling its anti-communist efforts in the Soviet bloc during the Cold War. Companion legislation has been introduced in the House by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican of Florida, and has more than 330 cosponsors on both sides of the aisle. The House bill, while also calling on American support for Iranian democracy activists, also requires sanctions against the Ahmadinejad regime in response to its nuclear threat.
The White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said yesterday, "the president has made it very clear that we stand with the Iranian people who seek greater freedom."