OpinionOp-EdIran and al-Qaeda: a 'joke' with a nasty punchline

Iran and al-Qaeda: a ‘joke’ with a nasty punchline


The Telegraph: When Canadian officials revealed that an al-Qaeda terror cell caught planning to blow up a passenger train was acting on the orders of comrades based in Iran, the allegation was enough to give the Iranian foreign minister a fit of the giggles.

The Telegraph

Iran laughed at the idea of links with a terror plot in Canada. But it’s no laughing matter.

By Con Coughlin


When Canadian officials revealed that an al-Qaeda terror cell caught planning to blow up a passenger train was acting on the orders of comrades based in Iran, the allegation was enough to give the Iranian foreign minister a fit of the giggles. “This is the most hilarious thing I’ve heard in my 64 years,” was how Ali Akbar Salehi responded to this latest claim of Iranian skulduggery.

Given the Islamic republic’s well-documented history of involvement in terrorism, Iranian officials have become highly skilled at distancing their country from accusations of wrong-doing, whether they relate to its controversial nuclear programme or last year’s terrorist atrocity in Bulgaria in which five Israelis died.

So it should come as no surprise that the mullahs’ spin machine went into overdrive last week when Iran found itself directly implicated in the Canada plot. Pointing out that al-Qaeda’s uncompromising Sunni Muslim ideology was contrary to the teaching of Iran’s Shia Muslim theocracy (some Sunnis do not even recognise the Shia as Muslims), Iranian officials ridiculed the Canadian claims, arguing that in places such as Iraq and Syria, Iran and al-Qaeda were most likely to be found fighting each other, rather than co-operating on dastardly bomb plots.

And, as so often happens these days, Tehran’s protestations of innocence were taken at face value by large sections of the media. Rather than enquiring why Canadian counter-terrorism officials were confident the proposed train attack had links with Iran, most commentators accepted the denials at face value.

And yet, when you look more deeply at the country’s complex relationship with al-Qaeda and other radical Sunni terror groups, the picture is less clear cut. Iran, it is true, has often had a vexed relationship with al-Qaeda and its allies. Iranian-backed militias came close to all-out war with al-Qaeda following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and in a video to his supporters earlier this month, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al-Qaeda leader, denounced Iran, saying that its true face has been unmasked by its support for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

But while there are times when Iran’s Shia leadership finds itself at odds with radical Sunni groups, there is also evidence to suggest that, on occasion, the rival groups find it possible to set aside their differences and co-operate.

Iran provided a haven for hundreds of al-Qaeda fighters fleeing from Afghanistan after the US-led military intervention in 2001, including relatives of Osama bin Laden and the organisation’s military commander Saif al-Adel. Iran claims they were put under house arrest, but Western intelligence officials are less sure, believing that Tehran is happy to tolerate al-Qaeda on the strict condition that its activities within the Islamic republic do not compromise Iranian interests. In essence, the arrangement echoes the old Arab saying, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

Another example of Iran’s willingness to co-operate with radical Sunni groups when it suits its interests can be seen in Tehran’s support for the militant Hamas movement in Gaza. During the past decade there have been several occasions when Israeli warships have intercepted attempts by Iran to supply weapons to Hamas, including medium-range missiles capable of hitting Israeli cities.

Now, evidence is emerging that Iran is looking for new ways to reopen its supply lines to Hamas. Rather than risk detection by the Israeli navy, the republic is trying to link up with the hard-line Sunni Muslim government in Sudan to smuggle arms to Gaza, passing through Egypt where another Islamist Sunni government is in power.

In short, Iran has no problem working with its Sunni rivals when it suits its interests to do so – and this should worry us.

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