In a recent speech, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made it clear that Western policymakers have been wrong to assume an inherently antagonistic relationship between Iran’s Shiite theocracy and the Sunni terrorist group Al Qaeda.
Pompeo revealed for the first time that Al Qaeda’s second-in-command, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, was killed on the streets of Tehran last year. His presence there was indicative of a larger pattern of Al Qaeda operatives being given safe passage or stable residence in Iran, and it lends credence to Pompeo’s allegation that Iran is now effectively the central base of operations for the terrorist group responsible for 9/11.
It would be difficult to overstate the danger that this relationship poses to the United States and its allies. Iran has a long history of channeling its own terrorist objectives through a range of proxy groups like Hezbollah.
The regime’s capabilities are potentially multiplied by the addition of another high-profile organization to this network, especially if that occurred at a time when new proxies were proliferating across the Middle East.
Civil conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen have given the Islamic Republic ample opportunity to recruit and cultivate militant operatives in each of those locales. Many of them now stand at the head of groups that swear allegiance to Iran’s supreme leader and are most likely prepared to demonstrate their devotion through operations beyond Iran’s borders.
Of course, Al Qaeda does not share this motivation. Western policymakers are correct in noting that the Sunni organization rejects the brand of Islam for which Ali Khamenei aspires to be the sole global leader. But mutual antagonism of Western democracies is and always has been reason enough for Al Qaeda and Iran to work toward the same goals.
Intelligence reports have variously found that the two entities were more than willing to put aside their ideological differences in order to undermine American and European interests. It is for that reason that Iran sheltered Al Qaeda operatives in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
Their shared goals also led to Iran acting as a funnel for Al Qaeda fighters trying to make their way to Syria, where they helped to prolong and intensify the civil war, leading to a much deeper Iranian footprint on the country.
This and related developments have greatly imperiled the prospects for regional stability and global security. But much of this could have been avoided if Western policymakers had been appropriately sensitive to the broad, multi-sectarian networks that were beginning to develop years ago. Pompeo’s recent speech did not convey altogether new information.
It only highlighted the outcome of a long process whereby Islamist terror groups have been cooperating to strengthen their hand against foreign powers that were largely preoccupied with other matters.
Pompeo identified 2015 as the turning point where cooperation between Iran and Al Qaeda became systematic and formalized. This, he noted, was when the United States, the European Union, and three of its leading member states were laser-focused on concluding a nuclear agreement with the Islamic Republic.
Not only did that process encourage the Western powers to turn a blind eye to developments that might have threatened the negotiations, but it also promoted those negotiations as a sign that Iran, an Islamist state, was fundamentally different and more trustworthy than Al Qaeda, an Islamist non-state actor.
This assertion of the Iranian regime’s legitimacy was unearned and unwarranted. It was also duly exploited by Iranian entities like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which celebrated the 2016 implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action by capturing a U.S. Navy boat and briefly detaining 10 American sailors.
No doubt, the lack of consequences for that and other provocative incidents has emboldened the Islamic Republic to pursue more of the same, sometimes directly and sometimes through its proxies.
In 2018, this trend apparently culminated in a terrorist plot that, had it been successful, would have been the worst Iranian terrorist attack to take place on Western soil in decades. In June of that year, the pro-democracy coalition known as the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) held its annual rally of Iranian expatriates near Paris.
On the day of the event, an Iranian-Belgian couple was arrested while trying to cross into France carrying an explosive device that had been given to them in Luxembourg by a high-ranking Iranian diplomat, Assadollah Assadi.
When the trial of these individuals began in November, it was established that the bomb was powerful enough to kill hundreds of people in the initial blast, not to mention those who might have died in an ensuing stampede.
A verdict for Assadi, the would-be bombers, and a fourth accomplice is expected to be handed down by the Belgian court this week. Assadi faces a 20-year sentence and he deserves every minute of it, but his individual culpability must not overshadow the fact, highlighted by prosecutors in his case, that he was acting under the direction of government authorities in the Islamic Republic.
His conviction and sentencing should bring greater international attention to the overall phenomenon of Iranian terrorism, as well as the general phenomenon of religious terror since these are increasingly one and the same.
If Iran was willing to use one of its own diplomats in an attempt to carry out a bombing in the heart of Europe, one can only imagine what the regime might be willing to do through its proxies in the near future, especially if it knows that Western policymakers don’t even believe in those proxies’ relationships with Tehran.
If the Biden administration or the foreign policy leadership of the European Union decides to ignore the relationship between Iran and Al Qaeda, it does so at its peril. Unfortunately, the EU has lately given the impression that it is more concerned about imperiling the nuclear deal. But if that deal is threatened by the straightforward demand that Iran ends its relationship with Al Qaeda, then it is surely not a deal worth saving.