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Pompeo 'Revealed' Iran's Ties to Al-Qaida, but Tehran Poses Graver Threats to the U.S.

It's an open secret that Iran has become a haven for Al-Qaida, so why did the secretary of state see fit to call Tehran out for it only now?

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, January 12, 2021.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, January 12, 2021.Credit: Andrew Harnik/Pool via Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seemed pleased with himself this week when he addressed the National Press Club in Washington D.C. and “revealed” his big secret – Iran has become a haven for Al-Qaida. He even disclosed another open secret by saying that senior Al-Qaida official Abu Mohammed al-Masri was assassinated in Tehran last August.

It’s just a pity that the New York Times scooped him, having reported this back in November. The paper added that Israeli agents carried out the hit at America’s request. And Arab media outlets had reported the assassination even earlier.

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Iran initially denied that al-Masri was killed on its soil, to distance itself from any connection with Al-Qaida. But even it eventually confirmed the report.

So why did Pompeo see fit to finger Iran for hosting Al-Qaida members only now? The most common answer is that he sought to plant mines under President-elect Joe Biden’s plan to return to the nuclear deal with Iran that America quit in 2018. A more far-fetched speculation is that in the few days remaining to Donald Trump’s administration, the outgoing president sought to use the Al-Qaida connection as a pretext for attacking Iran.

But neither explanation currently seems likely. It’s doubtful that Biden will be deterred by the presence of Al-Qaida operatives in Iran, because they were also living there during the original negotiations over the nuclear deal and continued to do so after it was signed in 2015.

Moreover, an American attack on Iran over Al-Qaida would likely boomerang. If such an attack takes place, it would need a much weightier justification to be seen as legitimate.

Pompeo promised to present proof that Al-Qaida operatives had turned Iran into a base for launching attacks. He will likely quote from some of the tens of thousands of documents and emails found in Abbottabad after the 2011 assassination of Osama bin Laden, who lived there.

An Iranian flag is pictured near in a missile during a military drill, with the participation of Iran's Air Defense units, IranCredit: WANA NEWS AGENCY / REUTERS

But here, too, no surprises are expected. Researchers who have studied these documents haven’t found anything new or exciting that wasn’t known in the past.

Among these documents are letters from people close to Bin Laden who were living in Iran. In the letters, they complained about their difficult lives in the Islamic Republic, saying they felt like they were in jail, and expressed a desire to return to Afghanistan.

In 2003, two years after the war in Afghanistan began, many senior Al-Qaida officials and members of Bin Laden’s family fled to Iran – around 400 of them, according to one estimate. Al-Masri, whose real name is Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah and who served as bin Laden’s deputy, was one of them. Another was Saif al-Adel, whose real name is Mohammed Salah al-Din Zaidan, who headed the terrorist organization’s security service. Iran allowed the group to live in its territory – under guard, closely monitored and in conditions resembling house arrest.

According to an investigative report by “The Atlantic,” based in part on interviews with a senior Al-Qaida official, the Iranian government offered in both 2001 and 2003, via intermediaries, to extradite senior Al-Qaida officials to the United States. Then-Iranian President Mohammad Khatami even offered to freeze his country’s nuclear program in exchange for American promises to refrain from attacking Iran and normalize relations with it.

Then-U.S. President George Bush rejected both proposals without explanation. According to the “Atlantic,” his vice president, Dick Cheney, advised him to reject them, on the grounds that if Al-Qaida operatives were extradited to America, this would undercut one of the main pretexts for America’s war in Iraq – namely, that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was cooperating with Al-Qaida. Apparently, Cheney feared the operatives’ extradition from Iran would reveal that Hussein had no ties with Al-Qaida.

FILE PHOTO: Former U.S. President George W. Bush speaks at a forum sponsored by the George W. Bush Institute in New York, October 19, 2017. Credit: Seth Wenig/AP

Later, the administration told the intermediaries to terminate the negotiations, since once Saddam had been successfully eliminated, Iran was next in line.

Tehran never explained why it gave asylum to senior Al-Qaida officials, but in light of its offer to the Bush Administration, it seems it considered them a bargaining chip to avert the threat of an American attack. Some people have also described its relationship with Al-Qaida as a marriage of convenience, in which Iran gave the operatives asylum in exchange for immunity from Al-Qaida attacks.

Al-Qaida saw Iran as a possible alternative base from which its members could plan and execute attacks on other countries. But bin Laden never trusted Tehran and said so explicitly in one of his letters. And in 2013, Reuters quoted his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, condemning Iran for its support of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whom he termed a murderer of his own people.

Conventional wisdom holds that a radical Sunni terrorist organization and Shi’ite Iran could never be allies due to Sunnis’ and Shi’ites’ historic religious differences. But that has long since been disproven. Iran had and still has good relations with the Taliban in Afghanistan, as well as with Turkey, Qatar, Hamas and Pakistan – all Sunni organizations or states.

Interests or ideology?

Iran operates according to its own interests, and it did so in 2015 when it reached an agreement with Al-Qaida to release its senior officials, including al-Masri and al-Adel, from house arrest in exchange for the release of an Iranian diplomat kidnapped in Yemen. It even agreed to press Assad to allow members of the Nusra Front – an Al-Qaida affiliate that later split from the organization – to leave Daraa in southern Syria and join other Syrian rebel organizations in the northern district of Idlib.

Pompeo said Iran had become a haven for Al-Qaida, but didn’t specify which branch of the organization he meant. Some of its senior officials – mainly those from Jordan, like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and North Africa – refuse to talk to Iran. Others, who come from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have no such qualms. They have even accepted money and military aid from Tehran, included training at Hezbollah bases in Lebanon and permission to set up training bases on the Iranian-Afghani border.

This cooperation didn’t escape America’s notice. But between 2013 and 2015, negotiations over the nuclear deal were at their height, as was the war against the Islamic State. Thus it wasn’t a good time to attack Iran for cooperating with Al-Qaida, especially since it was participating – both directly and through Shi’ite militias in Iran that were under its patronage – in the battle against the Islamic State.

Members of Al-Qaida's Nusra Front villages in the southern countryside of Idlib, December 2, 2014.Credit: Reuters

Evidently, Tehran isn’t the only one that knows how to maneuver between interests and ideology. So does the American government, in its relations with both Iran and other countries.

And if Washington is trying to out Al-Qaida from the Iranian closet, it shouldn’t forget to add Pakistan and Afghanistan – two American allies that continue to grant the organization shelter and even cooperate with its members.

But Iran’s hosting of Al-Qaida members, even if some planned and carried out attacks on Saudi Arabia, isn’t the main threat to American interests in the Middle East. Iran has no control over the organization’s other branches, which operate virtually autonomously in North Africa, including Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, as well as Somalia and Yemen.

Moreover, Al-Qaida is now fighting among itself over who should succeed al-Zawahiri, who apparently died of an illness in November. Al-Masri’s assassination eliminated the “natural” heir, but al-Adel, another claimant to the crown, isn’t accepted by all Al-Qaida affiliates, and especially not the Syrian one, which wants the group’s next leader to come from its ranks.

The much bigger threat is Iran’s patronage of Shi’ite militias in Iraq, which have attacked both American and Saudi targets. But it’s hard for American forces to operate in Iraq, due to the Iraqi parliament’s decision to oust all foreign forces, which was passed after America assassinated top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in January 2020.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani waves to the crowd as he arrives at the podium next to a picture of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, top right, and Iraqi Shiite senior militia commCredit: Ebrahim Noroozi,AP

The subcontractor

Another threat is the entrenchment of Iranian forces near the al-Bukamal border crossing between Iraq and Syria – one of three official crossings, and the only one controlled by Iran. The second, al-Tanf, is controlled by American and Iraqi forces, and the third, up north, is controlled by the Kurds.

After the defeat of the Islamic State, Iran transferred units of its Revolutionary Guards to the al-Bukamal region, alongside units recruited from Afghanistan and local tribesmen. Many Syrians were expelled from the city, and in their place, with Assad’s consent, Iran settled Iraqis and militiamen from other countries who supported it.

Both people and goods move through al-Bukamal, which also hosts the Imam Ali base – apparently the largest Iranian base on Syrian soil, covering some 20 square kilometers. Tehran has stored missiles there with a range of 700 to 800 kilometers.

An Israeli air force F-16I fighter plane is seen at a hangar during a tour organized for the foreign press at the Ramon Air Force Base, November 19, 2008.Credit: MARINA PASSOS/AFP

The base has suffered several airstrikes attributed to Israel in which people were killed. But unlike other airstrikes attributed to Israel in Syria, the attacks on al-Bukamal – of which the latest occurred this week – aren’t meant to send a message or encourage Iran to leave Syria.

Rather, these attacks are meant to prevent the base’s further development and stop Tehran from building a land bridge under its control that runs from Iran through Iraq, Syria and finally Lebanon.

Seemingly, America should have been a party to the attack on the Imam Ali base. But American military involvement in Syria would prompt a Russian response. That’s why using Israel as a subcontractor is preferable.

Nevertheless, the Iranian military threat has very little to do with the threat posed by Al-Qaida. Raising the latter now is reminiscent of Bush’s effort to link Saddam Hussein with Al-Qaida as a key justification for launching the war in Iraq.

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