Iran and Al-Qaeda: The Enemy of my Enemy is not always my Friend

Published: April 30, 2013

The Iranian angle to Monday’s foiled terror plot will be interpreted by many through the prism of recent tensions between Tehran and Ottawa…

Although Iran is Shi’a Muslim and Al Qaeda is Sunni, the two will be lumped together under the banner of radical Islamic fundamentalism. Their own differences notwithstanding, it will be argued they share a common animosity toward the US, Israel, and because of Ottawa’s increasingly pro-Israeli policies, Canada as well. Al Qaeda from this perspective is either an instrument of Iranian policy, or an enthusiastic partner in crime. The Iranian government and Al Qaeda, however, have a complex interdependent relationship characterized more by suspicion and mutual vulnerability than shared ideology or operational objectives. Indeed, the mistrust between them is likely deep enough to offset the age-old logic of the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend in all but the most extreme cases.

Al Qaeda and the Islamic Republic of Iran are not just separated by the Sunni-Shi’a schism. Al Qaeda’s particular Salafi interpretation of Sunni Islam is virulently anti-Shi’a.  Core Shi’a practices, such as the veneration of shrines and saints are considered by the Salafis to be apostasy, not much different than idol worship or polytheism.  Al Qaeda’s interpretation is inspired by the state practice of religion in Saudi Arabia, where the country’s Shi’a population has been politically and economically marginalized, and the public practice of Shi’a rituals has been restricted. When the Arab Spring swept across the region the Shi’a of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province rose up, only to be put down by force by the Al Saud’s security forces. Similarly, the Saudis intervened in Bahrain, where popular protests were interpreted as a pro-Iranian Shi’a uprising. The Saudis and Al Qaeda have also backed the Sunni opposition against the Iranian-backed Asad regime in Syria.

This pattern has been repeated across the region. In Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda had embedded themselves within the Taliban government, the country’s Shi’a and Persian speaking Hazaras population were persecuted. In 1988, after several Iranian diplomats were kidnapped and executed, Tehran blamed the Taliban and mobilized its military threatening to invade the country[i]. In Iraq, Al Qaeda’s off-shoots have been targeting the country’s Shia population since the fall of Saddam’s regime. Al-Qaeda’s first leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, declared war on Iraq’s Shi’a in 2005[ii]. Al-Zarqawi was killed in 2006, but the attacks continue. In the past month, Al-Qaeda affiliate, the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) killed 26 and wounded 190 in bombing campaign targeting Shi’a pilgrims[iii]. The Shi’a population in Pakistan has also been subject to persecution and Iran has maintained a long running war with the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan an anti-Shi’a militia allegedly funded by the Saudis and for a time attached to the Pakistani Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) [iv].

Iran itself claims to be a victim of Al Qaeda terrorism. In October 2009 a Sunni group drawn from Iran’s Baluchi minority named Jundullah (the Soldiers of God), staged a series of attacks against Iranian Revolutionary Guard installations. Tehran has long argued that the group is connected to Al Qaeda and supported by Pakistan’s (ISI)[v].

So, with this pattern of conflict and animosity, how is it that Al Qaeda can operate out of Iranian territory? Senior members of Al Qaeda began moving into Iran in the wake of the US war against the Taliban, although they appear to have used Iran as a transit country before then. Initially, the Iranian government arrested their members and claimed that it planned to put them on trial. However, it is rumored that Iran tried to trade its Al Qaeda fugitives to the US for members of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MKO). Tehran has accused the MKO terrorist activities dating back to the early 1980s[vi]. Although no deal materialized with the US, in an effort to reduce tensions ties with Riyadh, Iran did deport several hundred Saudi nationals[vii]. In 2004 they deported Khalid Al Harbi, a prominent Saudi national involved with Al Qaeda[viii].

Unfortunately, as relations with the west and Saudi Arabia have deteriorated, there has been little incentive for Iran to turn over more of Al Qaeda’s membership. Rather it has held them under a loose form of house arrest. This has allowed Tehran to keep tabs on them, and use them as leverage to dissuade Al Qaeda from further attacks against Iranian interests. Al Qaeda has benefited from this arrangement as well. While under detention, its members seem free to go about their business as long as they do not interfere with Iranian interests, and they are safer than they would be in either Pakistan or Afghanistan. Occasionally, they kidnap an Iranian diplomat outside of the country and use them to leverage the release particular individuals, as they did for members of Bin Laden’s family in 2008[ix].

There is a degree of tacit cooperation in this complex relationship, but it is not an alliance in any recognizable form. Iran may hope to use Al Qaeda as a proxy force if they are attacked. However, this would only make sense of if they were truly desperate. Al Qaeda is simply too hostile and too uncontrollable. It is also likely that Iran has provided Al Qaeda with money and weapons in Afghanistan and Iraq. This would be consistent with Tehran’s pattern of backing every viable actor (including the central governments) to hedge against the unpredictable nature of the conflicts. Al Qaeda, however, is not their favored group in either country.

How Iran will react to this latest incident is unclear. We might hope that Tehran would cooperate with Canada and the west as a sign of good faith. It is more likely though, that they will deny any involvement, perhaps wrap a few Al Qaeda knuckles and maintain the status quo. Upsetting their arrangement with Al Qaeda could prove costly for Tehran, and it is uncertain they would get much back from the West in return.