Given the increasing power of the Iranian theocracy in Syria on the Assad regime’s side, and the evidence of an overlap between the Assad regime and the Sunni jihadists who have descended on Syria, it is important to assess Tehran’s relationship with Salafi-jihadism.
The Iranian theocracy has virtually seized control of what remains of the Syrian State, which has degenerated into a sectarian militia under the banner of the National Defence Forces (NDF) commanded by the head of Iran’s Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani, who has relocated to the country. The army and paramilitaries were folded into the NDF starting in autumn 2012. This sectarian militia, under Iran’s control, reached 100,000 men by summer 2013. Without it the regime would have collapsed: by November 2012, with a revolt comprising more than 50,000 men, the regime had a maximum of 38,000 usable troops. The only other forces defending the regime are largely-Iraqi Shi’ite jihadists who have been flooded into the country and who are also under Tehran’s control.
Tehran’s relationship with al-Qaeda goes back a very long time. The simplest means of establishing this background is to read the 2004 9/11 Commission Report (p. 240-41):
“In late 1991 or 1992, discussions in Sudan between al Qaeda and Iranian operatives led to an informal agreement to cooperate in providing support—even if only training—for actions carried out primarily against Israel and the United States. Not long afterward, senior al Qaeda operatives and trainers traveled to Iran to receive training in explosives. In the fall of 1993, another such delegation went to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon for further training in explosives as well as in intelligence and security. … The relationship between al Qaeda and Iran demonstrated that Sunni-Shia divisions did not necessarily pose an insurmountable barrier to cooperation in terrorist operations. … [A]l Qaeda contacts with Iran continued in ensuing years. … Intelligence indicates the persistence of contacts between Iranian security officials and senior al Qaeda figures after Bin Ladin’s return to Afghanistan. … Iran made a concerted effort to strengthen relations with al Qaeda after the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, but was rebuffed because Bin Ladin did not want to alienate his supporters in Saudi Arabia. Khallad and other detainees have described the willingness of Iranian officials to facilitate the travel of al Qaeda members through Iran, on their way to and from Afghanistan. For example, Iranian border inspectors would be told not to place telltale stamps in the passports of these travelers. Such arrangements were particularly beneficial to Saudi members of al Qaeda. … 8 to 10 of the 14 Saudi ‘muscle’ operatives traveled into or out of Iran between October 2000 and February 2001. … In sum, there is strong evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of al Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, and that some of these were future 9/11 hijackers. There is also circumstantial evidence that senior Hezbollah operatives were closely tracking the travel of some of these future muscle hijackers into Iran in November 2000.”
In short, Tehran engaged in operational contact, travel facilitation, and joint training with al-Qaeda in the run-up to 9/11, with some graduates of Iran’s training being involved in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The training was often provided through the Hizballah cut-out, specifically the Party of God’s grisly leader Imad Mughniyeh, before 9/11 the man responsible for killing the most Americans with terrorism, who met with Bin Laden to arrange some of this co-operation. It was after the Embassy attacks and the Cole bombing, as it became clearer that al-Qaeda was a killing machine, that Iran intensified its contacts with al-Qaeda—and had these relations with at least some of the death pilots who crashed those planes full of civilians into the American homeland. While the commission found “no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning” for 9/11, there was extensive evidence that “[a]fter 9/11, Iran and Hezbollah wished to conceal any past evidence of cooperation with Sunni terrorists associated with al Qaeda.” The Commission recommended “further investigation by the U.S. government,” which has never arrived—and in this time of redefining Iran as a partner in the region, it doesn’t seem likely this is about to start.
The Iranian theocracy was always keen to be ecumenical, to be at the leading edge of anti-American terror whether that was Shi’a or Sunni—hence its sponsorship of HAMAS. Iran invested heavily in the anti-Soviet jihad, and has a long relationship with Ayman az-Zawahiri and his Egyptian Islamic Jihad, dating to at least to the early 1990s when Iran financially supported Zawahiri’s operations in Bosnia. Despite the sometimes acrimonious public statements traded between the Islamic Republic and Zawahiri—the latter was at one point very annoyed that the former had tried to give “credit” for the 9/11 massacre to the Jews rather than al-Qaeda—Zawahiri has long admired the Khomeini’ist revolution for putting an Islamic regime into practice and the mullahs have long admired Zawahiri as a dedicated and competent killer. Iran has engaged in “tactical cooperation” with al-Qaeda since at least 1996 i.e. the Khobar Towers bombing.
Now turn to the sanctions announced by the U.S. Treasury on February 6. It included all the usual: additions to the list of entities in Turkey, Spain, Germany, Georgia, Afghanistan, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, and Liechtenstein helping the clerical autocracy evade the sanctions on its nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs. Even the designation for terrorism was no surprise: a State born in terrorism that regards anti-civilian mayhem as a legitimate tool of State conduct, Iran consistently leads the world as a State-sponsor of terror. It was very pleasing indeed to see the U.S. administration put its sanctions against Mahan Air, a front-company in the U.A.E. used by the Iranian theocracy to ship weapons to Bashar al-Assad, under the heading of terrorism: if the exterminationist campaign waged by the Alawi edifice against the Syrian population with Iranian oil, money, weapons, and men doesn’t count as terrorist then nothing does. The same went for a number of shell-groups that shielded Mahar Air from direct identification. But it was of note that it was not the regime’s Khomeini’ist proxies but al-Qaeda based in Iran that was being sanctioned.
Two Quds Force commanders, Alireza Hemmati and Akbar Seyed Alhosseini, were designated for support to the “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan”—the Taliban. This oddly formal—and incorrect (it was the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan)—formulation to one side, it rather dents the Iranian regime’s recent PR campaign, which said that the real problem for America in the region was Sunni militancy, against which the Khomeini’ist Republic stood four-square. Not so, says Treasury. In August 2010, they designated General Hossein Musavi, the Commander of the IRGC-QF Ansar Corps, which had responsibilities for subversion and massacre in Afghanistan. Musavi had been a “facilitator and operational planner,” “conducting surveillance and planning terrorist attacks” in Afghanistan prior to his arrest for the very Sunni and very militant Taliban, up to and including running a cell in Kabul, armed with “large quantities of explosives and detonators”. Hemmati is being designated for acting for or on behalf of the IRGC-QF. Hemmati is “an IRGC-QF chief for Afghanistan-focused operations”; he “provided key logistics support” for Musavi, and sent him supplies and travel documentation from Iran. Alhosseini is “a key IRGC-QF officer who oversees the group’s activities in Afghanistan”; he “previously served as chief of the IRGC-QF’s office in Herat,” and also provided logistics and documents to the Musavi cell. (By the looks of it these are belated designations related to the rolling up of a Quds Force network in Kabul.)
This would be bad enough for Iranian propaganda imperatives—the Taliban are “Qaeda-linked” at the very least—but it is considerably worse. Treasury designated Olimzhon Adkhamovich Sadikov, who is an “Iran-based al-Qa’ida facilitator who supports al-Qa’ida’s vital facilitation network in Iran, that operates there with the knowledge of Iranian authorities” (emphasis added). The Iran-based Qaeda network has been known about for some time. Sadikov (a.k.a. Jafar al-Uzbeki and Jafar Muidinov) is a member of the Islamic Jihad Union and provides “logistical support and funding” to the Iran-based Qaeda network, and acts at the direct instruction of al-Qaeda’s General Command. He is an associate of Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil (a.k.a. Yasin as-Suri*), the leader of the Qaeda network in Iran and a Qaeda facilitator, who was designated in July 2011. Khalil was briefly removed as al-Qaeda’s leader in Iran after this when the authorities arrested him but he was soon enough given his job back and reports from late January say he is “more active than ever“. Sadikov has “provided funding” to Khalil.
In October 2012, Treasury designated Adel Radi Saqr al-Wahabi al-Harbi, Khalil’s deputy. State put out bounties for Khalil and Harbi, and also for Muhsin al-Fadhli, “who previously led the Iran-based al-Qa’ida network, and was designated by Treasury and the United Nations in February 2005.”
So far, so standard. Here’s the innovation in last month’s sanctions notice:
“The [Iran-based Qaeda] network also uses Iran as a transit point for moving funding and foreign fighters through Turkey to support al-Qa’ida-affiliated elements in Syria, including the al-Nusrah Front. … Yasin al-Suri is responsible for overseeing al-Qa’ida efforts to transfer experienced operatives and leaders from Pakistan to Syria, organizing and maintaining routes by which new recruits can travel to Syria via Turkey, and assisting in the movement of al-Qa’ida external operatives to the West. Al-Qa’ida’s network in Iran has facilitated the transfer of funds from Gulf-based donors to al-Qa’ida core and other affiliated elements, including the al-Nusrah Front in Syria. The Iran-based al-Qa’ida network has also leveraged an extensive network of Kuwaiti jihadist donors to send money to Syria via Turkey.”
This is no side-show, in short. This Qaeda network in Iran is a key node in getting funds from Khaliji donors to al-Qaeda “Central” and for getting them to the Levant to ruin and tyrannise the Syrian rebellion. To see this done with the complicity of the Ayatollahs’ regime is to reach only one conclusion: they want the takfiris to be empowered in the Levant. And they want that for the same reason their client on the ground wants it: it is supremely helpful to their efforts internationally to hold up al-Qaeda as the only alternative to Bashar al-Assad’s merciless, thieving regime.
The image of a Syria polarised between two extremely horrible choices—a murderous sectarian regime that might at least shield the minorities if only to put them in the way of the rebellion, and a takfiri insurgency—neglects to see “the root of all extremism” in Syria, namely the Assad regime, with the Iranian theocracy pulling its strings. But Iran has even supported ISIS, when it was then-al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQM). The Assad/Iran regime is prepared to kill its own to ensure its survival. The regime was prepared to see Alawis and Druze and of course the Christians slaughtered “in order to use that to convince these minorities to rally around the regime,” as one regime defector put it. Those who reduce this to a fight between al-Qaeda and clerical Iran—like the hapless Denis McDonough—and who believe that protracting this may offer some opportunities to, as it were, kill two birds with one stone, perfectly miss the fact that they are opening the door to the worst of all outcomes.
The Iranian theocracy itself will of course be emboldened by the lack of resolve and will complete its nuclear weapons program. Even assuming it doesn’t use the weapons, it will immediately ignite a massive proliferation of such weapons across the region. It is extremely late in the hour, but this can be averted. Unfortunately it requires the one thing the Obama administration has repeatedly shown—from the chemical weapons deal that requires Bashar’s regime to be perpetuated, to the “interim” nuclear accord that cedes Syria to Tehran—it is not willing to do: make it an absolute priority to ensure the downfall of Bashar al-Assad—and quickly.