Al-Qaeda and Iran: Analytical View
Al-Qaeda’s freelance structure has little appeal to Iran, which is a top-down theocracy that prefers to operate through similarly organized, elite…
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” is how the expression goes. And, fittingly enough, it apparently originated with an old Arabic proverb. But where the anti-American jihadism of al-Qaeda and Iran are concerned, things have never quite worked out in the proverbial way.
The truth is, in 1998, Iran very nearly went to all-out war against al-Qaeda, which by then had brought many of its gunmen and trainers into the Taliban’s Afghan military apparatus. The flash point came when Taliban forces killed a group of nine Iranian diplomats in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, which had been a stronghold for the Taliban’s Northern Alliance enemies (whom Iran supported, largely through their backing of Abdul Ali Mazari, a leading warlord from Afghanistan’s minority Shiite population).
Iran’s then-President, Mohammad Khatami, told his fellow Iranians: “I assure you that we will defend the integrity and honor of the sacred system of the Islamic Republic of Iran” – by which he meant defending Iran’s Shiite Muslim theocracy against the Sunni Taliban/al-Qaeda heretics. To which the Taliban replied: “Iran must know that if the soil of Afghanistan is attacked, we will target Iranian cities and the entire responsibility will rest with Iranian authorities.”
The enemy of my enemy is my friend, the proverb tells us – but not in this case
About 70,000 Iranian troops were positioned near the Afghan border, apparently ready to move east. (In militant Islamic terms, it was the rough equivalent of the Sino-Soviet border conflict of 1969, when war very nearly was joined by two dictatorships – both nominally joined by communist brotherly love, but in truth despising one another.) Only thanks to the intervention of the UN and (bizarrely) the United States, was an Iran-Afghanistan war averted.
The 9/11 attacks, and the subsequent American invasion of Afghanistan, changed Iran’s calculus. The mullahs still distrusted the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But they were more concerned about the prospect of an unimpeded American military presence on their border. Their general strategy, as it was in Iraq from 2003 onward, was to encourage as much carnage as they could without taking a direct military role.
Some Iranian leaders also seemed to believe that al-Qaeda terrorists might become useful to Tehran, but their overtures on this front were contradictory and confused.
As Seth Jones noted a year ago in Foreign Affairs magazine, Iran became home to an al-Qaeda “management council” in the aftermath of 9/11. At first, council members operated freely. But then, in 2003, Iran placed them in prison, or under house arrest. At one point, Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants even threatened Tehran with attacks if al-Qaeda personnel weren’t released.
Iran eventually granted al-Qaeda members their freedom. But Jones reports that Tehran “appears to have drawn several red lines for the council: Refrain from plotting terrorist attacks from Iranian soil, abstain from targeting the Iranian government, and keep a low profile.”
Assuming these ground rules are still in place, life might get interesting for the Iranian-based al-Qaeda members who allegedly gave “direction and guidance” to the two Canadian-resident men who now stand accused of plotting to blow up a Via passenger train: By all appearances, they broke Tehran’s terrorist curfew.
On Monday, Canadian police indicated that there was no evidence that the alleged attacks were state-supported. And that makes sense. Aside from the Sunni-Shiite theological schism separating al-Qaeda and Iran, they have extremely different organizational styles. Al-Qaeda is now essentially a corporate brand to which freelancing terrorists in different parts of the world pledge allegiance. Al-Qaeda’s unpredictable and unprofessional nature therefore has little appeal to Iran, which is a top-down theocracy that prefers to operate through similarly organized, elite terrorist surrogates – namely, Hezbollah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ own Quds force.
Even if Iran wanted to bed down with al-Qaeda, Levantine geopolitics would get in the way: In recent months, the war in Syria has begun to draw Iranian-supported Hezbollah fighters into direct confrontation with the al-Qaeda-affiliated militants of the hardcore Sunni Nusra Front.
In other words, al-Qaeda and Iran now are much closer to being enemies than being allies. Which makes sense: After fourteen centuries of oft-murderous feuding between Islam’s Shiite and Sunni branches, striking an alliance between militants on both sides requires a lot more than a shared hatred of Uncle Sam.