U.S. Intelligence Undercuts Trump’s Case on Iran-al Qaeda Links

Despite claims by Pompeo, Tehran and al Qaeda have been at odds more often than they've been aligned since 9/11.

By , a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo walks toward a plane to depart Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on June 24.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo walks toward a plane to depart Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on June 24. JACQUELYN MARTIN/AFP/Getty Images

To bolster the Trump administration’s case against Iran, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has given classified briefings to Congress in recent weeks alleging close ties between Iran and al Qaeda. But experts familiar with the views of the U.S. intelligence community are contradicting these claims, saying that the Iran-al Qaeda relationship almost certainly does not include active collaboration in terrorist acts and is even less evident now than it was at the time of 9/11.

“The administration is grasping at straws,” said Seth Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We are at the lowest point since 9/11 in terms of al Qaeda numbers in that country. The numbers I have looked at suggest it’s less than five [people].”

Jones, a former senior official in U.S. Special Operations Command and a counterterrorism specialist, co-wrote a study that came to this conclusion at the end of last year, and the U.S. intelligence community believes little has changed since then despite the rapidly rising tensions between the United States and Iran, experts say.

Beyond that, there is general agreement among experts that to the extent Iran and al Qaeda have a relationship, it is not one of terrorist collaboration but rather a cautious modus vivendi defined by mutual forbearance, in which they agree not to attack each other and occasionally supply harbor (in Iran’s case, to use as a bargaining chip with Washington).

Indeed, given their religious enmity, Shiite Iran and Sunni-dominated al Qaeda have been mostly at odds since the terrorist group first emerged in the mountains of neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan. Well before 9/11, Tehran had been backing the Northern Alliance Afghan guerrillas—who were also U.S. allies—fighting the Taliban hosts of al Qaeda. After 9/11, the Iranians rounded up and allegedly placed under house arrest several al Qaeda figures who were inside Iran, and those numbers have fluctuated since then.

Skeptics on Capitol Hill believe Pompeo is making the case about al Qaeda links to avoid asking Congress for a new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) for military action against Iran. The current AUMF, in force since 9/11, is focused entirely on al Qaeda and associated forces, authorizing the president to use force “against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.”

Though the administration has not divulged details of Pompeo’s briefings, the implication of his argument appears to be that harboring any al Qaeda member inside Iran could be a casus belli. But even those who take a hawkish position on Iran tend to be dubious of this position.

“I haven’t ever advocated going to war over this,” said Thomas Joscelyn of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “There are certainly plenty of examples of the two [al Qaeda and Iran] being at odds, particularly in Syria and Yemen. And Iran’s detention of some al Qaeda personnel and family members became a flash point between the two sides. [Al Qaeda leader Osama] bin Laden also didn’t approve of Iran expanding its regional footprint.”

Joscelyn added: “However, humans are often duplicitous. And there’s no question that Iran and al Qaeda have had an ‘agreement’ allowing al Qaeda to operate its ‘core pipeline’ for moving money and personnel inside Iran. This fact comes from President [Barack] Obama’s Treasury and State departments, beginning in July 2011.”

Indeed, because they have shared a common enemy—the United States—many experts believe the accommodation between the two has often been subject to sudden shifts based on the mood between Washington and Tehran. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Tehran even attempted to swap al Qaeda figures inside the country with the Mujahedin-e Khalq, a rabidly anti-regime Iranian militant group based in Iraq. At the same time, however, there is scant evidence that, even in the most anti-American frame of mind, Tehran ever co-sponsored a terrorist act with al Qaeda; on the contrary, most of the evidence suggests that Iran drew a line there.

“My reading of the Iranian calculation was they were willing to allow, for several years, some al Qaeda members and their families on their territory, as long as they were not involved in plotting attacks,” Jones said.

There have been occasional flare-ups of suspicion. In mid-2003, when bombs tore through three housing complexes in Saudi Arabia and killed 27 people, including nine Americans, hard-liners in the United States blamed Tehran. Citing telephone intercepts, they claimed the bombings had been ordered by Saif al-Adel, one of the al Qaeda figures supposedly imprisoned in Iran. “There’s no question but that there have been and are today senior al Qaeda leaders in Iran, and they are busy,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said at the time. But there was never any evidence proffered that the Iranian government knew of Adel’s alleged activities.

James Dobbins, who dealt extensively with Iran as President George W. Bush’s Afghanistan envoy after 9/11, told Foreign Policy: “I don’t think there was ever any evidence of active collaboration or support from Iran, as opposed to a kind of contact, and perhaps simply not interfering with al Qaeda on occasion for whatever reason. Also it’s known that the Iranian government is divided and the left hand doesn’t always know what the right hand is doing.”

The Trump administration in recent days has also sought to make the case that Iran is collaborating with the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan; the Defense Department just published a timeline called the “Iranian Campaign of Malign Influence,” which includes alleged Iranian ties to the May 31 car bomb in Afghanistan that wounded four U.S. service members and killed four Afghan civilians.

“Iranian support to the Taliban has become more formalized and publicly known in recent years. Iran has provided material support to the Taliban since at least 2007,” said Pentagon spokeswoman Rebecca Rebarich. “Iranian support has consisted of small arms, explosives, mortars, [rocket-propelled grenades], heavy machine guns, and 107mm rockets, in addition to training in small unit tactics and the use of weapons systems.”

Jones says this claim “has a bit more truth to it. Iran plays an interesting role in Afghanistan. It has reasonable relations with the Afghan government, including a trade relationship. But Iran provides limited assistance to the Taliban—and has for years—including at training camps on the Iranian side of the border. Iran has also provided limited lethal assistance, including small arms. For a short period, they also provided technical assistance for EFPs [explosively formed penetrators]. But that stopped perhaps a decade ago.”

He added: “Still, one has to put this into perspective. The Taliban’s largest outside supporter—by far—is Pakistan, particularly its chief spy agency, the ISI.” And the United States maintains an alliance with Pakistan.

But the Iranians and the Taliban also make very strange bedfellows—considering that in the past they were deadly competitors. “Iran had almost gone to war with the Taliban after the Taliban attacked the Iranian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif” in 1998, Dobbins said. “They had been victimizing Shia in Afghanistan and blown up their statues in Bamiyan.”

Shortly after the United States ousted the Taliban from Afghanistan’s major cities in late 2001, the Iranians helped in curtailing Taliban influence in Afghanistan, said Dobbins, who at the time worked closely with Iranian envoy Mohammad Javad Zarif, currently Tehran’s foreign minister. Near the end of talks in Bonn, Germany, Dobbins said, “we reached a pivotal moment,” one that Zarif proved key to resolving in Washington’s favor. The numerous parties to the talks had decided that the U.S.-backed Hamid Karzai would lead the new Afghan government. But he was a Pashtun tribal leader from the south, and the Northern Alliance had actually won Kabul, the capital. According to Dobbins, at 2 a.m. on the night before the deal was meant to be signed, the Northern Alliance delegate, Yunus Qanooni, began demanding the vast majority of new ministries, and the pact was close to breaking down. Frenzied negotiators met in the suite of U.N. representative Lakhdar Brahimi, where Zarif translated for Qanooni and then broke the logjam when he whispered in the Afghan’s ear: “‘This is the best deal you’re going to get.’” Qanooni replied: “‘OK,’” according to Dobbins.

“The Russians and the Indians had been making similar points,” Dobbins said. “But it wasn’t until Zarif took him aside that it was settled. … We might have had a situation like we had in Iraq, where we were never able to settle on a single leader and government.” The next month, Iran added to its political support: In Tokyo, at a donor’s conference to help rebuild Afghanistan, Iran pledged $500 million, which was more than double America’s contribution at the time. In a now familiar pattern, however, a chill swiftly followed the warming in U.S.-Iran relations. Not long after the Tokyo meeting, Bush included Iran with Iraq and North Korea in his infamous “axis of evil” speech.

Even so, Iran continued to cooperate sporadically with Washington in Afghanistan. After the fall of the Taliban, at a time when the United States had very few troops in the country, the Iranian military offered to help train and equip the new Afghan army and continued to pay Northern Alliance forces to mop up al Qaeda, Dobbins said. In addition, immediately after 9/11, there was an outreach from Tehran, and the al Qaeda figures inside Iran were rounded up. “We wanted to truly condemn the attacks but we also wished to offer an olive branch to the United States, showing we were interested in peace,” Mohammad Hossein Adeli, a career Iranian Foreign Ministry official, told my then-Newsweek colleague Maziar Bahari in 2007. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—against whom Trump issued new sanctions on Monday—agreed at the time. “The Supreme Leader was deeply suspicious of the American government,” a Khamenei aide told Newsweek in 2007. “But [he] was repulsed by these terrorist acts and was truly sad about the loss of the civilian lives in America.” Tehran issued a statement condemning the attacks and even supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan against the Taliban.

But the “axis of evil” speech cost moderates who wanted rapprochement with Washington a lot of credibility, Iranian sources said. “It destroyed the position of those who believed that helping the U.S. would pay off,” as Zarif described it to me in an interview in the mid-2000s. Nonetheless, outreach from Iran continued in the spring of 2003, with a back-channel proposal to start up broad-based talks with the United States on Iran’s then-tiny nuclear program and even its support for Hezbollah. Though such talks were rejected by the Bush administration, they eventually laid the basis for Zarif’s attempts a decade later to negotiate the 2015 nuclear compromise.

Today, with Trump’s rejection of that deal and his attempt to isolate and confront Iran anew, the country’s reformers and moderates have lost their credibility once again, and it’s not impossible that the hard-liners in Tehran are once again rethinking the relationship with al Qaeda and the Taliban. But the evidence of active cooperation remains scant at best, at least with al Qaeda, experts say.

“There are some periods over the last decade and a half where one could have been concerned about Iran and al Qaeda,” Jones said. “But I don’t understand why this is an issue now. And I cannot believe any responsible intelligence analyst wouldn’t come to that same conclusion.

Lara Seligman contributed reporting.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh