Iran is not a 'new Afghanistan', but it has links with Al Qaeda

The Trump administration has detailed evidence that Tehran has co-operated with the terrorist group for 30 years
A handout photo made available by the Iranian Army office on January 13, 2021, shows Iran-made warship Makran prior to be joined to the Navy, in drill in the Gulf of Oman.  - === RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / HO / Iranian Army office" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS ===
 / AFP / Iranian Army office / - / === RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / HO / Iranian Army office" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS ===

On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a press conference outlining evidence of a close relationship between Iran and Al Qaeda. Mr Pompeo went so far as to say that the global terrorist organisation has established its "home base" in the country, and labelled Iran as "a new Afghanistan", in reference to the Afghan Taliban government formally hosting Al Qaeda training camps in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The co-operation between the Taliban and Al Qaeda resulted in the US decision to invade Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, in the wake of the World Trade Centre attacks.
Few would compare Iran's relationship with Al Qaeda to that previously enjoyed by the Taliban. Nor is it certain Iran has become the terrorist group's definitive "home base". These doubts have resulted in the current US administration's detractors branding all claims of an Iran-Al Qaeda relationship entirely baseless. But they are not entirely baseless.

In a press conference, Mr Pompeo accurately described a track record of collaboration between Tehran and Al Qaeda's commanders spanning more than three decades, including material support, strategic assistance and the sheltering of senior terrorist operatives in Tehran.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, U.S., January 12, 2021. Andrew Harnik/Pool via REUTERS
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The real-world political goals of both Iran and Al Qaeda surpass the rhetoric with which they legitimise themselves

All of this is rooted in a well-established body of evidence that has been known to regional security experts for years. In this respect, Mr Pompeo has not presented a major new development, but the information he has presented deserves to be publicised and better understood.

As The National has previously reported, Iran and Al Qaeda's overtures to each other began in North Africa in the 1980s. Reports of an Iran-Al Qaeda relationship were mooted during the administration of George W Bush, though not investigated fully nor acted upon. At the time, Washington was embroiled in its war in Afghanistan and gearing up for its invasion of Iraq.

On the Afghan-Iranian border, there were multiple reports of Al Qaeda operatives using Iran as a transit point and shelter, with the full knowledge of Iranian authorities. Iran detained several of the most senior Al Qaeda leaders who crossed into its territory, in some cases allowing them to live freely in Tehran under surveillance. Some, such as Sulaiman Abu Ghaith and Saad bin Laden, son of deceased Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, were released. Abu Gaith was arrested in Jordan and extradited to the US in 2013. Bin Laden is suspected to have been killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan some time in 2009.

The world was reminded of the freedom enjoyed by Al Qaeda leaders in Iran late last year, when The New York Times reported the assassination in Tehran of Abu Muhammad Al Masri, Al Qaeda's second-in-command and the suspected mastermind of two US embassy bombings in Africa in 1998. Iran denied the killing had taken place. However, in Tuesday's statement, Mr Pompeo confirmed, based on US intelligence, that Al Masri had indeed been shot dead. Many suspect the operation was carried out by the Israeli spy agency Mossad, with Washington's assent.

Sceptics about the relationship between the two often highlight the apparent paradox of Iranian support for Al Qaeda, given that they are often viewed as being in ideological opposition with each other. Iran is governed by a Shiite theocratic system. Al Qaeda is an extremist Sunni organisation, and publicly claims that Iran's government is a manifestation of heresy.

But those who rely on this rhetoric fall into the traps Iran and Al Qaeda set for them, in which they want the world to believe that they are ideologically-driven. They also deploy an oversimplified analysis to the region's geopolitics, based on sectarianism, and underestimate that Iran's regime and Al Qaeda have survived based on manipulating sectarian rhetoric while forging alliances with whoever will ensure their survival.

For example, in 1998, Iran's government was on the cusp of declaring war with the Taliban. And yet, after the US invasion of Afghanistan, when it became expedient for its geopolitical ends, Iran offered material support, in the form of money and weapons, to Taliban insurgents.

The timing of Mr Pompeo's announcement could indicate a short-term political motive as his time in office is coming to an end. But the facts stand and they must be faced. How they are dealt with must be a matter for the next US administration and the wider international community.