By Arab News
By Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami*
The announcement of the killing of Al-Qaeda’s deputy commander in Tehran has again raised questions about the Iranian regime’s relationship with the terrorist organization and has provided a fresh reminder of the need to analyze the regime’s strategy based on using the organization as an asset and providing safe havens for its leaders.
On Nov. 14, 2020, American media outlets cited reports from US officials confirming that a covert joint operation by US and Israeli intelligence services had resulted in the assassination of Al-Qaeda commander Abu Mohammed Al-Masri in the heart of Tehran on Aug. 7, 2020. Al-Masri was involved in the attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry predictably dismissed the reports of Al-Masri’s killing on Iranian soil, describing them as “fake news.”
In the face of significant evidence from various sources repeatedly confirming the longstanding relationship between Iran and Al-Qaeda, the regime in Tehran insists on sticking unyieldingly to its policy of denial. It cites sectarian differences and conflicting ideological views as supposedly compelling evidence of the lack of any connection between Tehran and Al-Qaeda, and it reiterates the animosity between the two sides.
However, a closer look at both the trajectory of relations between the two sides and their ideological similarities will quickly reveal the deep-rooted ties between them and show the Iranian regime’s success in forging an alliance with Al-Qaeda and employing its operatives to meet Iranian objectives.
In theory, there are two different schools of thought within Al-Qaeda in relation to dealing with Shiites in general and with Iran in particular. The first school of thought, spearheaded by Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Abu Mohammed Al-Maqdisi, believes that targeting Iranians and Shiites in general is not a priority for the organization because they are excused for their ignorance of the “true” understanding of Islam, which Al-Qaeda claims to monopolize.
Also, this school is somewhat more lenient and flexible in its attitude toward Shiites when compared to the second school of thought, which will be discussed in the following lines. According to this first school of thought, precedence should be given to confronting the more evident enemy: The West, the US and those aligned with them.
The second school of thought within Al-Qaeda was spearheaded by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, a student of Al-Maqdisi and the assassinated leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, who believed in the necessity of expanding the organization’s terrorist operations against Shiites with the aim of sparking a Sunni-Shiite civil war in Iraq.
On the ground, meanwhile, Iran’s regime has provided a safe haven for Al-Qaeda operatives who had been trapped in Afghanistan following the US invasion of Kabul in 2001. Many members of Al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups found they had no choice but to escape to Iran, particularly in light of the Iranian regime sharing the organization’s animosity toward the US and feeling they had no hope of fleeing to Pakistan given the strong CIA presence there.
By having these Al-Qaeda members and affiliates on its soil, Iran found additional assets for extending its terrorist capabilities in the region and beyond. These assets had the potential to carry out whatever terrorist operations the Iranian regime wished to mount or potentially serve as a useful bargaining chip with the US, to be swapped — if necessary — to achieve its interests against the US.
Meanwhile, Al-Zarqawi directed his extremist vision toward the Shiites in Iraq in order to cause the greatest possible disruption for the remaining US troops in Iraq in order to drive them out of the country, enabling Iran to take control of Iraq. It is worth noting that Al-Zarqawi had first fled to Iran following the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan before moving to Iraq.
Although 20 years have passed since the confrontation between the US and Al-Qaeda reached its peak, Iran still maintains the organization as an asset and bargaining chip, harboring senior Al-Qaeda commanders such as Saif Al-Adel, a high-level member of the organization’s shoura council, on its soil. Experts believe that Al-Adel has tremendous field experience, with most observers agreeing that he is still in Iran according to a UN report released in 2018. Other prominent Al-Qaeda associates still in Iran include the family of the terrorist organization’s deceased founder, Osama bin Laden.
With the “alliance and employment” relationship between Al-Qaeda and Iran’s regime proven and well-documented, it seems probable that the future of the Washington-Tehran relationship under the incoming US President Joe Biden will put the Iranian regime under significant US pressure no less than the extreme pressure imposed on the regime by President Donald Trump.
Despite the expected gradual settlement of the crisis surrounding the nuclear deal during Biden’s time in office, the problems resulting from all the other Iranian excesses will emerge more than ever before. These excesses include Iran’s expansionism across the Middle East, the regime’s support for armed militias and terrorist groups, its human rights abuses and the issue of detainees with dual Iranian-European citizenship in Iranian prisons.
Each of these excesses and aggressions by Iran’s regime is sufficient to provoke sanctions against Tehran and they should be as severe as those imposed on it due to its nuclear activities. The foregoing is based on the assumption that US sanctions will be lifted all in one go after Biden comes to power, which we believe to be rather unrealistic.
For its part, Iran, for the first time, announced the upcoming release of several detainees from its prisons shortly after the announcement of Biden’s victory in the US presidential election. After Trump filed lawsuits challenging the validity of the voting process in a few states, Iran slowed down in taking the remaining steps to release the detainees. This was in addition to the growing debate within the Iranian ruling elite about the possible future scenarios in relation to the US position on the nuclear deal under Biden and the best way to deal with them.
While dragging its heels on releasing some detainees, Iran was expected to release some of the imprisoned dual nationals. A significant number of dual nationals have been arrested while visiting their relatives in Iran. The regime levels various implausible allegations at detained dual nationals, such as accusing them of carrying out espionage missions for Western countries, and effectively uses them as bargaining chips during its negotiations with the West. One of the best known among these cases is that of Iranian-British dual citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, detained in Tehran since April 2016.
Based on all the mentioned points, even if the assassination of Al-Qaeda leaders in Iran carried out by the US and Israel results in the close relationship between Tehran and Al-Qaeda coming to the fore again, this will serve Iran indirectly, relieving the regime of the burden of harboring Al-Qaeda commanders, and significantly reducing the likelihood of future escalation between Iran and the Biden administration.
This is especially so when we put the killing of Al-Masri in Iran on Nov. 14, 2020, side by side with the success of French forces in killing Bah Ag Moussa, an Al-Qaeda military leader in the organization’s North African wing on Nov. 13, 2020, and with Afghanistan’s announcement of the killing of one of Al-Qaeda’s senior commanders on its soil, Mohammad Hanif Rezai, on Nov. 12, 2020.
This means there are a number of files related to Al-Qaeda and its collaboration with certain governments, first and foremost Iran, that are about to be closed, meaning the policy of “alliance and employment” that Iran has pursued with Al-Qaeda may come to an end. In the meantime, the current US administration is hastening its withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, making them conducive arenas for the spread of terror activities of Iranian militias operating on the ground in both countries.
- Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami