Iran Watch: The mythical marriage of Iran and al-Qaeda

"How about some proper evidence this time?"

Writing in the Independent yesterday, columnist and comedian Mark Steel observed:

Governments and commentators keen on promoting a war against Iran should be stridently opposed, not so much because of the threat to world peace, but because their reasons display a shocking lack of imagination. The most common one is that Iran has "Weapons of Mass Destruction". How pathetic to pick the same excuse twice in a row.

In fact, not only have they picked on WMDs "twice in a row" but they've also gone for the fear-mongering classic: yes, a link to - wait for it - al-Qaeda! Yes, al-Qaeda!! Woo-hoo! Gotcha!

Neocon Clifford May, writing on the National Review's website yesterday, in a piece headlined "Al-Qaeda's Big Fat Iranian Wedding", claimed the Obama administration is

reluctant to articulate what has become indisputable: Iran and al-Qaeda are affiliated.

Hmm, where I have I heard something similar to that before? Oh, yeah, here, here and here. And whatever happened to all those claims of a link between secular Iraq and Islamist al-Qaeda? Oh, wait, this, this, and this.

May nods towards the recent headline-grabbing Sky News report which claimed that

Iran and al Qaeda's core leadership under Ayman al Zawahiri have established an "operational relationship" amid fears the terror group is planning a spectacular attack against the West.

Then there's the recent Telegraph piece which claimed

recent intelligence suggested Iran and al-Qaeda could attempt to find a common project in Europe, possibly targeting the London Olympics, which opens in July.

"Possibly" the Olympics? Well, I suppose anything's possible.

Yet, unlike in the run-up to Iraq, this time round some intelligence officials seem to be pushing back. Yesterday, Reuter's Mark Hosenball reported:

U.S. and European officials are downplaying allegations that Iran and al Qaeda have recently stepped up cooperation in preparation for possible attacks on U.S. and other Western targets.

The officials, who are familiar with security issues, and private experts, discounted recent news reports about a possible new deal between Iran and what remains of al Qaeda's core leadership, now headed by Ayman al Zawahiri, long-time deputy to the late Osama bin Laden.

"This should not be overblown," said one U.S. official, who asked for anonymity when discussing a sensitive subject.

"This has been a very strange relationship for a decade or more," the official added. "We're not seeing any change in that relationship at the moment."

The Reuters report quoted another anonymous US official saying:

The relationship between al Qaeda and Iran is best described as complicated. The Iranians keep watch on what al Qaeda facilitators are up to. Sometimes the Iranians crack down on their activities; other times they don't. Al Qaeda moving fighters or money is one thing, while planning major terrorist attacks against the West from Iranian soil is probably something they won't allow. Al Qaeda is not necessarily friendly to Iran. . . Al Qaeda is sort of like a nasty parasite to Iran. It feeds off its ability to operate in Iran, with or without the Iranians' approval.

According to Bruce Riedel, a former CIA Middle East expert who has advised Presidents Obama and Bush, the history of Iran's dealings with al-Qaeda is "murky". Riedel has expressed doubts about the recent anonymous intelligence claims of a collaborative or operational relationship, noting how Iran has held al-Qaeda leaders under detention and house arrest over the past decade.

Another former CIA Middle East expert, Paul Pillar, notes:

It has been known for some time that al-Qaeda members have been inside Iran. It has been less clear just what the terms of their residence there have been. Most indications suggest that it has been something between imprisonment and house arrest. At least some of the al-Qaeda people in Iran have been able to conduct business of the group from there, but it is unclear again how much of this business is condoned or even known by the Iranian regime.

In fact, as Iran expert Trita Parsi notes in his new book, A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran, senior Iranian officials had offered to hand over al-Qaeda figures to the United States and work, side by side, with the US government in its "war on terror" in the days and weeks after the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. They were rebuffed by the Bush administration which decided to instead include Iran in its "Axis of Evil".

But the much bigger and more important point is this: it is difficult if not impossible to believe that Shia-fundamentalist Iran and Sunni-fundamentalist al-Qaeda would want to work together, even if it was on the crude, self-serving basis of my "enemy's enemy is my friend". The mutual loathing, hatred and distrust between the two is just too high; the theological and political differences almost insurmountable. Then again, I wouldn't expect officials in the US intelligence or security communities to understand this key point: shamefully, as an investigation in 2006 discovered, many of them can't tell the difference between a Sunni and a Shia or even identify whether al-Qaeda is a Sunni or a Shia terrorist group.

Ironically, the country that has done most to boost and strengthen al-Qaeda over the past 12 months is not Iran but the United States: intervening in Libya allowed al-Qaeda-linked Islamist groups to take power while intervening in Syria to topple Bashar al-Assad will be a gift to Ayman al-Zawahiri. (Incidentally, if Iran and al-Qaeda are on the same side, then how can Iran and Syria be on the same side, given how Syria and al-Qaeda aren't on the same side? See how ridiculous this all becomes??).

Oh, and on a related note, here's the best piece of evidence to undermine all this new nonsense about an al-Qaeda-Iran "marriage": former al-Qaeda bigwig Anwar al Awlaki - who we were told by the Americans was the most dangerous and influential al-Qaeda terrorist in the world until his death last year - speaking about Iran in November 2010:

Al-Awlaki warned against Iran's military weaponry, saying that it aims at the Sunni Gulf states whose peoples will be the first Iranian targets. "O Sunni scholars, what is your plan to resist the spread of apostasy that is sweeping the region from Iran to Yemen? ... Are your guardians capable of resisting Iran? Iran spends its oil revenues to build its army, and your guardians spend money to protect and guard the American occupation from the blows of the mujahideen."

As the Atlantic's Max Fisher wrote, after reporting on the Awlaki comments:

Iran hawks and al-Qaeda-watchers have long suspected a possible connection for the understandable reason that the two groups share mutual enemies: the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Awlaki's open renunciation of Iran, which comes despite all the strategic incentives he might find for supporting Iran, underscores just how ideologically incompatible al-Qaeda is with official state sponsorship of nearly any kind. Al-Qaeda's ideology is so extreme, and its ideological obedience so rigid, that it would be difficult for the group to tolerate, much less ally with, any regime other than the Taliban.

Nonetheless, people who should know better continue to spin this line about Iran and al-Qaeda. And why not? It worked so well last time round.

So, for instance, despite the fact that the 9/11 Commission report concluded that there was no evidence linking Iran to the 9/11 attacks, ludicrous claims continue to be made. I mean, check out this billboard image which appeared in New York late last year.

Salon's Glenn Greenwald summed up the hawks' simplistic, propagandistic mindset in a single tweet:

Iran and Al Qaeda, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G

Yeah, but how about some proper evidence this time?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war