The Odd Couple

Iran and al Qaeda might seem like strange bedfellows. But their relationship goes back years.


The U.S. Treasury Department’s designation last week of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) as a terrorist supporter is only the latest ratcheting up of pressure against Tehran, and it seems like background noise compared with all the talk of oil boycotts and military strikes. But the designation also highlights one of the most important — and one of the most mysterious — partnerships of our time: Iran’s relationship with al Qaeda.

It is easy to caricature Tehran’s ties to Ayman al-Zawahiri’s organization. Believers in the relationship point out that they are natural friends because both endorse an extreme anti-U.S. agenda and seek to spread radical Islam. Skeptics contend that Iran’s Shiite regime is anathema for Sunni jihadists, making cooperation prohibitive. Both sides have a point: Shared enemies drive Iran and al Qaeda together, but mutual suspicion keeps the partnership tactical and gives both sides reasons to play it down.

Unclassified data on Iran’s relationship with al Qaeda are scarce, but enough can be gleaned or inferred from open-source material to get a sense of the scope of and reasons for the relationship. Last week’s designation accuses the MOIS of "facilitat[ing] the movement of al Qa’ida operatives in Iran and provid[ing] them with documents, identification cards, and passports." It continues: "MOIS also provided money and weapons to al Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI), a terrorist group designated under E.O. 13224, and negotiated prisoner releases of AQI operatives." Earlier designations have highlighted specific tactical links between al Qaeda and Iran, but the connection goes back years.

Iran’s ties to terrorists are undisputed, but its closest relationships are with groups, like the Lebanese Hezbollah, that are composed of Shiite Muslims who embrace Iran’s revolutionary Shiism and feel an affinity toward Tehran as the leader of the Shiite world. Al Qaeda, of course, rejects both. Yet while Iran’s heated rhetoric leads many analysts to focus on its revolutionary ideology, strategic thinking often dominates the clerical regime’s policies toward terrorist groups.

Iran is often more pragmatic than many think. It backed terrorist and militant groups against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the pro-Soviet regime in Afghanistan, and other enemies even though it had little in common with some of its proxies. In the 1990s, Iran began to forge strong relationships to Palestinian Islamist groups, particularly Palestinian Islamic Jihad but also, to a lesser degree, Hamas. Such relationships weakened Iran’s adversary, Israel, and undermined the U.S.-led effort to isolate Iran. They also served the broader Iranian goal of bridging the Shiite-Sunni divide to build a pan-Islamic, anti-American front. (In a recent Friday sermon, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei hinted at this ecumenical approach. "We will continue to support any nation or group that fights or confronts the Zionist regime, and we are not afraid of saying this," he said.

Tehran’s relationship with al Qaeda grew from these seeds. In 1991 and 1992, Sudan’s chief ideologue, Hassan al-Turabi, made Sudan a home to Sunni militants from around the world, including al Qaeda from 1992 to 1996. During this time, al Qaeda and Iranian officials met in Sudan, though it is unclear how fruitful these meetings were. And when al Qaeda left Sudan for Afghanistan in 1996, Iran became a route for fighters to go to and from Afghanistan (though a much less important one than Pakistan).

After the 9/11 attacks, Iran’s role grew more important. Facing the loss of its haven in Afghanistan and pressure (albeit fitful) in Pakistan, some of al Qaeda’s leadership fled to Iran. The regime there both welcomed and limited them, not stopping all their activities, but placing some leaders under a form of house arrest. However, the relationship seemed rocky. After the United States went to war against the Taliban in Afghanistan following 9/11 — when Iran at first tacitly cooperated with U.S. efforts — Zawahiri publicly blasted Tehran for siding with the United States. "All of a sudden, we discovered Iran collaborating with America" and that "Iran stabbed the Muslim ummah [community, in this context] in its back," he said.

The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq put Iran and al Qaeda on the same page again. Both wanted to make sure the United States was bloodied. Both organizations usually backed different — and opposed — groups in Iraq, but both their local allies often opposed the United States. The lesson is clear: Although Iran and al Qaeda often have wildly different goals, they both want to weaken and hurt many of the same adversaries. Both are willing to fight and cooperate at the same time.

With al Qaeda members and their families under its control, Iran can loosen its restrictions on al Qaeda operatives in the country and facilitate their travel if it wants to stir the pot in Afghanistan or Iraq (or against the United States generally); on the other hand, it can constrain their mobility or even surrender them if it wants to improve relations with Washington or al Qaeda’s Arab foes. In particular, Iran also seeks the return of members of the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), an anti-Iran group that was long based out of Iraq. Although the United States considers the MEK a terrorist organization, it granted the MEK’s members in Iraq the status of "protected persons" under the Geneva Conventions and did not send them to Iran when it controlled Iraq. Since then, it has pressed Baghdad to let the MEK stay in Iraq.

Iran has successfully used the al Qaeda members resident in Iran to ensure good behavior from the broader Sunni jihadi movement. In 2005, Zawahiri, in internal correspondence with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then leader of al Qaeda of Iraq, urged the leader not to target the Shiites in Iraq and Iranian assets, reminding him that in Iran "we have more than 100 prisoners — many of whom are from the leadership who are wanted in their countries" and thus vulnerable to Iranian pressure.

Ties to al Qaeda and other jihadists, like ties to terrorist groups in general, give Iran options for possible or even unforeseen contingencies. In its relationship with Saudi Arabia today, for example, Tehran is no longer calling for the overthrow of the Al Saud leadership, but remains a rival to Riyadh. Should the relationship worsen, Iran would like the option of working with anti-regime Sunni jihadists. Iran could also use its ties to Sunni jihadists to retaliate for a strike on its nuclear facilities.

From al Qaeda’s point of view, the logic of Iranian help is even more straightforward. Although al Qaeda remains a formidable terrorist organization, it lacks the resources of a major state like Iran. Having the ability to transit via Iran is exceptionally useful for fights in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Some degree of a haven is also vital for al Qaeda, as it needs respite from U.S. and allied efforts to arrest and kill its members. As the U.S. drone campaign has taken its toll on al Qaeda’s senior leadership, having a place where senior leaders can at least survive makes Iran more important than ever.

Despite their common goals and needs, Iran and al Qaeda have had a contentious relationship at times. Many Sunnis, particularly within the jihadi wing, see Shiites as apostates. At times this sentiment has led to massacres and other abuses of Shiites who are unfortunate enough to live under or come across Sunni jihadists. Some groups that share some of al Qaeda’s goals, like Jundallah, a relatively small Sunni group based out of Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, have even attacked Iran itself.

And though Iraq offered a common enemy, it also created new frictions. Al Qaeda’s Iraqi branch went on a murderous rampage against Iraqi Shiites while Iranian-backed groups carried out bloody raids of their own against Iraqi Sunnis. Tens of thousands died in this sectarian fighting.

For both sides, this sort of antagonism leads them to keep their relationship quiet. Al Qaeda would suffer considerably if potential recruits and donors learned it had a close relationship with the hated Shiite Iranians. For Iran, the incentives for keeping the relationship quiet are different but no less profound. Many of al Qaeda’s enemies are countries Iran wants as friends — like Russia — or at least doesn’t want to alienate further, like those in Europe. In addition, many Iranians abhor the Sunni jihadi community for its anti-Shiite words and deeds, and as such any alliance would be unpopular at home.

The United States is already going full-bore against al Qaeda and, appropriately, is putting Iran’s nuclear program front and center in formulating policy toward Tehran. But highlighting Tehran’s ties to al Qaeda, as the Treasury designation quietly does, is a valuable form of pressure. Because Iran and al Qaeda both have an interest in keeping their relationship hidden, making it public may undermine it — or at least stop the ties from getting stronger.

Daniel Byman is a professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of the new book Road Warriors: Foreign Fighters in the Armies of Jihad. Twitter: @dbyman

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