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.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.