NEW YORK--Cuba needs dollars. But a Cold War-era trade embargo prohibits American tourists from visiting. Fortunately, ingenious border control officers thought of a solution: When U.S. citizens arrive at Havana, the Cubans don't stamp their passports. When tens of thousands of Americans come back home to the U.S., they tell immigration that they were in Mexico or Canada instead, which they were--to change planes.
Israel offers a similar courtesy. "Do you plan to visit any Muslim countries?" customs clerks ask travelers at Tel Aviv. If the answer is positive, they affix the visa stamp to a separate piece of paper. Nicholas Berg, the American entrepreneur beheaded in Iraq, didn't know to ask. His Israeli passport stamp got him picked up at an Iraqi checkpoint, and cost him his life.
For reasons ranging from economic dependence upon migrant labor (hello Rio Grande!) to religion and politics, numerous nations fail to document the movement of foreign nationals through their territory. Sometimes, for reasons no one asks and nobody tells, border guards don't bother to stamp a passport upon entry from abroad. It's happened several times to me at JFK in New York.
Failing to stamp passports is commonplace. Yet the Bush Administration, operating on the assumption that most Americans don't know that, is floating the possibility of war against Iran based on that innocuous practice.
According to a Newsweek report about the new 9/11 Commission Report, "Iranian officials instructed their border inspectors not to place Iranian or Afghan stamps in the passports of Saudi terrorists traveling from Osama bin Laden's training camps through Iran." Calling this "the strongest evidence yet of a relationship between Iran and al-Qaeda," the report notes that "eight to ten of the 'muscle' hijackers of the September 11 plot" crossed through Iran from Afghanistan, "undoubtedly help[ing] the 9/11 terrorists pass into the United States without raising alarms among U.S. Customs and visa officials ... the report raises new, sharper questions about whether the Bush Administration was focused on the right enemy when it decided to remove Saddam Hussein."
The invasion of Iraq was preceded by similar trial balloons in the press. Should Bush remain in office this November and the "we invaded the wrong Ira-" argument catch fire among a complacent and compliant media, we may be fighting a third unwinnable war against a Muslim state a year from now.
There's even less evidence of a link between al-Qaeda and Iran than between al-Qaeda and Iraq--but that's not stopping E-Z Boy warriors like Cheney and Rumsfeld.
First and foremost, there's no reason to believe that Afghan or Iranian visa stamps would have caused alarm at the U.S. border. My passport is thick with stamps from countries in Central Asia and the Middle East, including those issued by both the Taliban and Northern Alliance governments of Afghanistan. Only two countries, France and Israel, have asked me about them. Even after 9/11, U.S. Customs never examined them.
Furthermore, Iran doesn't stamp Saudi passports for good reason: the Saudi government, dominated by Wahhabi Sunni extremists, despises Shia Iran. Viewing Shiites as pseudo-Islamic heretics more contemptible than infidels, the Saudi regime takes a dim view of those who travel to Iran--a fact that Iranian customs takes into account when welcoming Saudi visitors so they don't get into trouble back home.
Another mystery: Why does the December 2001 National Security Agency memo cited by Newsweek mention Afghan visa stamps? Iran has no more ability to issue Afghan visas than Mexico has to issue American ones.
The big reason to doubt an Iran-al-Qaeda connection is historical. In one of many events unknown to most Americans, Taliban forces under Mullah Mohammad Omar seized the Iranian consulate at Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998. After the Afghans murdered ten Iranian diplomats and one journalist there, Iran massed troops on the border and threatened war against Afghanistan. (The crisis passed when the Taliban apologized and turned over the bodies.)
To say the least, it's extremely unlikely that Iran would have formed a cozy alliance with Mullah Omar's bosom buddies in al-Qaeda just two years later in 2000, as the Bushies now claim. In fact, despite having no diplomatic relations with the United States, Iran provided back-channel assistance to the Bush Administration during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, including turning over al-Qaeda suspects and offering to rescue American pilots shot down near the Iran-Afghanistan border. "It's definitely the case that there was no love lost between Iran and the Taliban," John Pike, director of the defense think tank Global Security, said in 2002.
Odds are that others will see through the current attempt to blame tie Iran to 9/11. That's why they've already got a new argument in reserve: the "yet unknown role" Iran allegedly played in the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers apartment complex in Saudi Arabia. It's the same tactic we saw during the run-up to war against Iraq: lie, retreat, repeat. The question is, will we fall for it again?
NEXT WEEK: Why war against Iran would be disastrous for the U.S.