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."
Roberto Toscano, Italy's ambassador in Iran from 2003 to 2008, said an Iranian diplomat told him that Tehran hoped to use the al Qaeda figures as bargaining chips and also as insurance to prevent al Qaeda from attacking targets in Iran. Tehran's main hope, Toscano told me in an email, was that it could trade the detainees for leaders of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an anti-Iranian regime group that Saddam Hussein had harbored and that had several thousand adherents at a base in Iraq called Camp Ashraf. After the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Iran offered to swap its al Qaeda "guests" for MEK leaders. George W. Bush's administration refused, according to then Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, because Pentagon hawks Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith wanted to retain MEK members as possible agents against Iran. Around the same time, Washington also rejected an Iranian offer for comprehensive negotiations that included on its agenda "decisive action against any terrorists (above all Al Qaida) on Iranian territory."
The MEK, on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations since 1997, is a Marxist-Islamist group that attacked Americans in Iran before the 1979 revolution and Iranian officials afterward. It has scant support within Iran because it sided with Iraq during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. Although Barack Obama's administration has so far kept the MEK on the terrorist list -- despite lobbying by a number of former senior U.S. officials paid to speak on the group's behalf -- Iran has not forgiven Washington for going back on a commitment to declare the MEK members in Iraq as enemy combatants. Instead, the United States put Camp Ashraf's inhabitants under its protection. Responsibility for them passed to Iraq as part of the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement. U.S. diplomats have been trying to arrange new homes for camp residents, but have been frustrated because the MEK refuses to allow its members to accept refugee status.
In light of this tangled history -- as well as mounting U.S. economic sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program -- it is hardly surprising that Iran would not sever all ties to al Qaeda. Iran lives in a dangerous neighborhood where the enemy of my enemy can be a tool, if not a friend. Even though it failed to swap the detainees for MEK leaders, Iran appears to have used its al Qaeda chips to obtain the release in March 2010 of an Iranian diplomat kidnapped 15 months earlier in Pakistan by Sunni jihadists. According to the Associated Press, Iran agreed to give more freedom of movement to Adel, allowing him to travel from Iran to Pakistan and resume contacts with al Qaeda leaders based there. Around the same time, the Iranians also allowed one of bin Laden's daughters, Iman, to join her mother in Damascus.
In announcing the designation on July 28, U.S. Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen said, "By exposing Iran's secret deal with al Qaeda allowing it to funnel funds and operatives through its territory, we are illuminating yet another aspect of Iran's unmatched support for terrorism."
Intelligence experts say it's quite possible that al Qaeda is moving money and personnel between the Middle East and Afghanistan and Pakistan through Iran, but that does not amount to a formal alliance and the Obama administration should not overstate the links.
"When the undersecretary talked about a 'secret deal,' that was probably an inappropriate phrase," said Paul Pillar, a retired veteran CIA analyst who served as national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia under the Bush administration. He called this a "tendentious way" of describing al Qaeda-Iran ties.
The use of such language -- besides providing grist for headline writers -- may reflect U.S. frustration at its inability to resolve the nuclear issue as well as anger at recent attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq that Washington has blamed on militants armed with Iranian weapons. The United States is also seeking to cut off funding for al Qaeda from Kuwait and Qatar. Two of the alleged al Qaeda members designated by the Treasury Department last week are based in Qatar and one is in Kuwait.
Assuming the White House approved Cohen's comments, Pillar said it could have also meant to placate Iran hawks who have been lobbying for more aggressive action, including military attacks. With a presidential election approaching, "the administration doesn't want to be seen as soft on Iran," Pillar said.
There is, however, a danger that such rhetoric will only give new ammunition to the hawks and increase pressure on the administration to take military action -- or risk looking weak if it does not. After all, the Bush administration made the case for war in Iraq using the same three issues Obama has raised against Iran -- weapons of mass destruction, support for terrorism, and abuse of human rights.
"You get enough of the mood music out there and it can't help but affect some people," Pillar warned. "Even if you think you are buying time [for a diplomatic solution], it can come back to haunt you later."