TEHRAN, Iran – A powerful Iranian politician told anti-American worshippers Friday there was nothing in the U.S. Sept. 11 commission report to incriminate Tehran's government — even though the panel said as many as 10 of the hijackers passed through Iran while heading to the United States.
Saudi Arabia also found exoneration in conclusions drawn by the inquiry into the deadliest attack on American soil.
The panel said it found no evidence the Saudi government directly contributed money to Al Qaeda or its Saudi-born leader Usama bin Laden — a point that Prince Bandar (search), the Saudi ambassador to Washington, noted in a statement on an official Web site.
The commissioners also said Saudi Arabia itself was threatened by the terror network, which accuses the Saudi royal family of being insufficiently Islamic. But the panel criticized what it saw as lack of Saudi cooperation with U.S. investigators of Al Qaeda before the 2001 attacks and called the kingdom "a problematic ally in combating Islamic extremism."
The commission report, which followed a 20-month independent investigation, said intelligence pointed to contacts between Iranian security officials and senior Al Qaeda figures. It also found Iran allowed eight to 10 of the Sept. 11 hijackers to pass through its territory on their way from Afghanistan and other countries without stamping their passports.
While the commissioners said no evidence had been found that conservative, Shiite Muslim Iran was aware that extremist, Sunni Muslim Al Qaeda was planning the attacks on New York and Washington, "we believe this topic requires further investigation by the U.S. government."
During his sermon at weekly prayers in Tehran, former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani (search) — still a key figure in the country — said it was not certain that the hijackers passed through the country.
"Every day, thousands of people come and go. ... Such people usually carry false passports. Moreover, many can illegally cross the border. It has been always like this," Rafsanjani said.
"Even if it's true that they have passed through Iran, can you really incriminate Iran with this bit of information?" he said in a sermon that drew chants of "Death to America!" from the thousands of worshippers.
Rafsanjani also accused Washington of creating Al Qaeda to fight Iran and weaken both Islamic factions. America's critics often point to U.S. support of the guerrilla war against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s as proof it helped create Al Qaeda. Bin Laden was among the thousands of Arab fighters inspired by Islamic fervor to fight in Afghanistan.
Rafsanjani said Americans should blame their government for failing to uncover the plot and protect Americans instead of pointing fingers at others.
The commissioners said the United States must "confront problems with Saudi Arabia in the open and build a relationship beyond oil, a relationship that both sides can defend to their citizens and includes a shared commitment to reform."
The panel criticized the lack of Saudi cooperation with U.S. investigators of Al Qaeda before the attacks. It said that in late 1998 U.S. officials were denied permission to question an important Al Qaeda financial officer in Saudi custody, Madani al Tayyib (search).
In his government's first response to the report, Prince Bandar ignored the criticism. In a statement on his embassy's Web site Thursday, he pointed to the commission's findings that the Saudi government had not directly contributed money to Al Qaeda or bin Laden and was pursuing the terrorist mastermind.
Bandar concluded the commission "has confirmed what we have been saying all along. The clear statements by this independent, bipartisan commission have debunked the myths that have cast fear and doubt over Saudi Arabia."
The panel said it could not exclude the likelihood that charities with significant Saudi government sponsorship might have diverted funds to Al Qaeda. But it said it found no evidence of financial support by the Saudi government or individual senior Saudi officials.
The panel concluded that the Sept. 11 hijackers spent as much as $500,000 to plan and launch the attacks, but acknowledged there is some mystery about the source of that money.
The terror network typically collected money from Islamic charities and private individuals, which comprised the so-called "Golden Chain" of bin Laden's organization, the report said.
The commission said some donors knew they were supporting bin Laden's campaign of terrorism, but others did not.
The report praised the Saudi royal family's action in 1999 and 2000 that helped U.S. officials understand bin Laden's finances and the amount of his personal inheritance, which amounted to roughly $1 million each year until 1994, when his wealthy family cut him off. That was far less than the U.S. government's previous estimates of a $300 million lump sum inheritance.
The commission said bin Laden's dispute with the Saudi government dated to the August 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, when Saudis rebuffed a proposal by bin Laden to summon Islamic fighters to retake Kuwait.
Bin Laden publicly denounced Saudi Arabia's decision instead to join the U.S. coalition in the Gulf War and to permit U.S. troops to be based there, and the government responded by taking away his passport and, years later, freezing his bank accounts and revoking his citizenship.