At the beginning of September, New America published a paper, based on recovered al-Qaeda documents, which concluded that there was “no evidence of cooperation” between the terrorist group and the Islamic Republic of Iran. New America’s study lauds itself for taking an approach that “avoids much of the challenge of politicization” in the discussion of Iran’s relationship with al-Qaeda. This is, to put it mildly, questionable.
A narrative gained currency in certain parts of the foreign policy community during the days of the Iraq war, and gained traction since the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in 2014, that Iran can be a partner in the region, at least against (Sunni) terrorism, since Tehran shares this goal with the West. Under President Barack Obama, this notion became policy: the US moved to bring Iran’s revolutionary government in from the cold, to integrate it into the international system.
The primary instrument in re-aligning the Iran policy was the nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But that was only one aspect; the more important developments were on the ground in the region. In Iraq, Iran’s proxies were given air support by the American-led anti-IS Coalition, helping Tehran shape the political settlement in that country in the aftermath of the “caliphate”. In Syria, the Coalition informed Iran that its proxy regime would not be harmed, and the anti-IS airstrikes allowed Bashar al-Assad to concentrate resources on destroying the mainstream rebellion that was the real threat to his rule.
Much analysis was offered by the Obama administration and sympathetic outsiders to explain why these developments served Western interests, and much effort has been made to obfuscate and minimize Iran’s relationship with al-Qaeda. This is a mistake. Just as the JCPOA’s failure to properly assess Iran’s past nuclear-weapons work means that the deal is inherently flawed, since without this baseline monitoring compliance is impossible, so it is with attempts to normalize the Iranian regime without a realistic accounting of its past behavior, particularly its long relationship with al-Qaeda.
The revolution in Iran in 1979 that brought Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power sought to cut across ethnic and sectarian lines in its appeal for allies. The revolutionary elite undoubtedly believed in its mission to export its interpretation of “true Islam”, but there were practical considerations as well. A Shia Persian theocracy trying to make its way in a majority-Sunni Arab world had every incentive to present itself in ecumenical terms and did so. The Iranian revolution was “a movement aimed at the triumph of all the oppressed”, the Iranian constitution said, adding a populist appeal to material resentments into the ideological mix, as the regime fought to stabilize itself in a regional state system that rejected it.
The Khomeini regime had considerable success in energizing Islamists throughout the Middle East. Whatever doubts Sunni Islamists had about a Shia regime, the Iranian regime was, as they saw it, concrete evidence that an anti-Western, sharia-based system could take hold of a major country. In Egypt, the Islamists embraced Khomeini with vigor. The violent revolutionaries of al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya, led by “The Blind Sheikh” Omar Abdurrahman, drew inspiration from what had happened in Iran. One notable admirer of the Iranian revolution was Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaeda who was at that time the leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ). Al-Zawahiri, indeed, cultivated direct links with the Islamic Republic, drawing on their assistance as he tried to overturn the regime in Cairo. The Muslim Brotherhood, in its Egyptian heartland and beyond, supported the Iranian revolution—with the exception of the Syrian branch after the Iranian-allied Assad regime brutally crushed a rebellion that included Brotherhood elements at Hama in 1982.
Al-Qaeda emerged in 1988 out of al-Maktab al-Khadamat (The Services Bureau) that Abdullah Azzam and Osama bin Laden had used to feed resources to the Arab jihadists who came to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet occupation. Azzam was assassinated in November 1989; the list of suspects includes Western intelligence, the Pakistani government, and al-Zawahiri. Bin Laden had returned to his native Saudi Arabia in November 1989 after the Soviet Army withdrew from Afghanistan, but soon collided with authorities. After the firm rejection of Bin Laden’s offer of a rag-tag band of jihadists to the Saudi monarchy to defend against Saddam Hussein after the conquest of Kuwait, his opposition became more radical and he was confined to the coastal city of Jeddah. In April 1991, Bin Laden managed to leave Saudi Arabia for Pakistan, ostensibly to attend an Islamic conference. Based in Peshawar, on Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Bin Laden’s Saudi citizenship was revoked in November 1991 when Riyadh found al-Qaeda’s operatives smuggling weapons into the Kingdom from Yemen. Bin Laden landed in Sudan in December 1991, where he was enthusiastically welcomed by Islamist ideologue Hassan al-Turabi. A recent coup in Sudan, led by a military officer, Omar al-Bashir, who had no grand vision of his own, had opened the way for al-Turabi to implement a regime compatible with Bin Laden’s vision.
Khartoum’s relations with Tehran were generally friendly, based on a similar political outlook, though there were some complications. From Iran’s point of view, Sudan was geopolitically well placed to counterbalance Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but the Sudanese regime’s close relations with Saddam and the instability in the country raised questions about its reliability. For the Bashir-Turabi regime, Iran filled the gap left by strained relations with the Gulf states, offering significant resources, financial and military, to press the civil war in south Sudan, though Iran’s proselytizing activity on behalf of its version of Shiism irked some in al-Turabi’s circle. The Sudanese regime’s relationship with al-Qaeda was much clearer. al-Qaeda was “commingled with the Sudanese government”, as one former CIA officer put it: Khartoum provided land for training camps and official services like printing passports, and al-Qaeda provided money, weaponry, even fighters, and construction equipment to help the state prosecute its war and begin reconstruction in the country.
It was in this environment that al-Qaeda and the Iranian regime first established contact.
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