Iran has become a new haven for Al Qaeda, much like Afghanistan before, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday as he discussed recently declassified intelligence.
The outgoing official doubled down on long-standing allegations of ties between Iran and Al Qaeda.
Mr Pompeo confirmed reports that Al Qaeda’s number two leader, Abu Muhammad Al Masri, was shot in the streets of Tehran in August.
He did not confirm the initial report from The New York Times in November that Israeli agents had killed Mr Al Masri at the behest of the United States.
In his remarks, Mr Pompeo painted Iran as the new base for the terrorist organisation, likening it “the new Afghanistan”.
“Al Qaeda has a new home base,” Mr Pompeo told a group of officials at the National Press Club. “It is the Islamic Republic of Iran. As a result, [Osama] bin Laden’s wicked creation is poised to gain strength. We ignore this Iran-Al Qaeda nexus at our own peril.”
Iran denied the November report by The New York Times that Mr Al Masri, accused of helping to mastermind the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in Africa, was gunned down by Israeli operatives, saying there were no Al Qaeda "terrorists" on its soil.
Mr Pompeo has accused Iran of links to Al Qaeda in the past but has not provided concrete evidence.
"There have been times the Iranians have worked alongside Al Qaeda," then CIA director Mr Pompeo said in October 2017.
While testifying before Congress in 2019, Mr Pompeo asserted that the allegations could allow the president to attack Iran by using the 2001 military authorisation passed to fight Al Qaeda after the September 11 attacks.
Earlier accusations made by the George W Bush administration of Iranian links to Al Qaeda's September 11 attacks on the United States have been discredited. But over the years, there have been reports of Al Qaeda operatives hiding in Iran.
And while Iran and Al Qaeda often find themselves on opposite sides of regional conflicts in places such as Syria, the State Department’s 2019 terrorism report notes that, “Iran remained unwilling to bring to justice senior Al Qaeda (AQ) members residing in the country and has refused to publicly identify members in its custody.”
“Iran has allowed AQ facilitators to operate a core facilitation pipeline through Iran since at least 2009, enabling AQ to move funds and fighters to South Asia and Syria,” the report states.
Mr Pompeo acknowledged that “Tehran actually imposed tight restrictions on its operatives inside Iran for some time” by “putting them under virtual house arrest.”
But he alleged – without offering corroborating evidence – that Iran’s relationship with Al Qaeda changed in 2015, the same year the United States and Iran began finalising the nuclear deal.
“Iran decided to allow Al Qaeda to establish a new operational headquarters on the condition that Al Qaeda operatives abide by the regime’s rules governing Al Qaeda’s stay inside the country,” Mr Pompeo alleged. “Since 2015, Iran has also given Al Qaeda leaders greater freedom of movement inside of Iran under their supervision.”
He also alleged that the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have provided “logistical support for things like travel documents, ID cards and passports that enable Al Qaeda activity.”
He also accused Iran of allowing the terrorist group to “fundraise” and “freely communicate with Al Qaeda members around the world.”
Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute based in Washington, said that Mr Pompeo waiting to announce the bombastic accusations until his final week in office made it look like “a political stunt.”
"If the US was serious about this connection, then the issue is, why wasn't anything done about it when Mr Pompeo was in the CIA back in early 2017?" Mr Vatanka told The National.
“Nobody denies the fact, including the Iranians, that there has been a working relationship at times between Iran and Al Qaeda going back to when they were fleeing Afghanistan in 2001. That’s not the issue. The issue is, what is the value of the relationship, and what kind of threat does it pose to the United States and its interests in the Middle East?"
Advisers to President-elect Joe Biden believe the Trump administration is trying to make it harder for him to re-engage with Iran and seek to rejoin an international deal on Iran's nuclear programme.
Relations between Tehran and Washington have deteriorated since 2018 when Mr Trump abandoned the 2015 nuclear deal, which imposed strict curbs on Iran's nuclear activities in return for sanctions relief.
Since the beginning of his administration, Mr Trump has imposed sanctions on Iranian officials, politicians and companies in an effort to force Tehran to negotiate a broader deal that further limits its nuclear works.
While sanctions have sharply lowered Tehran's oil exports and increased the economic hardship of ordinary Iranians, they have failed to bring Iran back to the negotiating table.
More sanctions are expected before Mr Trump leaves office, US officials say.
Mr Pompeo also announced a series of new, targeted sanctions on five Al Qaeda leaders. The new sanctions were placed on Muhammad Abbatay and Sultan Yusuf Hasan Al Arif as well as three leaders of Al Qaeda-affiliated Kurdish battalions fighting on the border between Iran and Iraq: Ismail Fuad Rasul Ahmed, Fuad Ahmad Nuri Ali Al Shakhan and Niamat Hama Rahim Hama Shari.
The State Department is also offering a reward of up to $7 million for information leading to Mr Abbatay’s identification or whereabouts.