Despite the alarmist headlines, no one should have been shocked by last week's U.S. Treasury Department designation of a Syrian based in Iran as a conduit for sending money and personnel to al Qaeda.
Iran has had links to members of what became known as al Qaeda since the early 1990s, when both had a presence in Sudan. What many may not know is that the United States missed several opportunities to divide the two and gain custody of senior al Qaeda figures and relatives of Osama bin Laden.
Al Qaeda, with its militant Sunni ideology that despises Shiites as worse than apostates, is hardly a natural ally for the world's only Shiite theocracy. Iranian officials indignantly denied the Treasury Department's allegations; one official, speaking on condition of anonymity, noted that Iran opposes al Qaeda adherents in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Iran's leaders, however, share al Qaeda's hatred of the United States and Israel, and both have a long history of grievances against the West.
Their tactical ties were forged in Khartoum, when the Sudanese capital was a virtual resort for Islamist militants and agents of rogue states, including bin Laden; members of Hezbollah, Iran's Lebanese protégé; and Iran's Quds Force, the external arm of the Revolutionary Guards. According to the 9/11 Commission, in the 1990s the Iranians and al Qaeda reached 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."
Al Qaeda recruits also went to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, where they "showed particular interest in learning how to use truck bombs" from Hezbollah trainers, the report found. The commission goes on to say that eight of the 10 Arab "muscle hijackers" who took control of the planes on 9/11 crossed Iran en route to Afghanistan between October 2000 and February 2001. The commission, however, "found no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack."
That attack provoked a sympathetic response in Iran, in contrast with other Middle Eastern countries. The Iranian government, then under President Mohammad Khatami, saw an opportunity to improve relations with the United States and defeat a shared enemy -- al Qaeda's hosts, the Taliban, with which Iran had nearly gone to war in 1998. Iran's Quds Force indirectly helped U.S. forces topple the Taliban in 2001 by working with Afghanistan's Northern Alliance. Iranian security officials also caught and deported scores of al Qaeda members who fled into Iran from Afghanistan. Iran, however, held on to several of bin Laden's children and senior figures, including Saif al-Adel, then al Qaeda's No. 3. Iranian officials said they were under "hotel arrest."