One is a servant to Shia-Islamist supremacism, and the other, to Sunni-Islamist supremacism. Iran and al Qaeda are mortal ideological enemies.
But they are also occasional allies of convenience — and that’s bad news for the U.S. and the West.
This bears notice alongside the State Department’s new report on global terrorism. Released this week, the report’s Iran section notes that “Iran remained unwilling to bring to justice senior al Qaeda members residing in Iran and has refused to publicly identify the members in its custody. Iran has allowed al Qaeda facilitators to operate a core facilitation pipeline through Iran since at least 2009, enabling al Qaeda to move funds and fighters to South Asia and Syria.”
So, why does Iran treat its mortal ideological adversary so well?
First, Iran wants to maintain leverage over al Qaeda in order to protect its own interests from al Qaeda targeting, and to extract concessions from the group where necessary. Providing controlled geographic transit rights across its territory and allowing some al Qaeda facilitators safe haven on its soil, Iran gives itself means to demand its own concessions from al-Qaeda. This understanding is enforced by the detention-release strategy Iran applies to al Qaeda operatives on its soil, which reminds al Qaeda leaders that Iran is never a true safe haven.
Calculated Iranian cooperation with al Qaeda is also driven by the rise of the Islamic State. Because where ISIS has no interest with Iran other than in trying to destroy its Shia identity, Iran knows al Qaeda is willing to deal with it. By allowing al Qaeda to contest with ISIS, Iran hopes that the lesser of two threats will win out.
Most important of all, al Qaeda and Iran have shared enemies. This leads to a de facto “the enemy of my enemy is my sort-of-friend” calculation. Israel and the U.S. are at the top of the joint al-Qaeda-Iran hit list here. And from Iran’s perspective, allowing al Qaeda to target U.S. interests allows Iran to damage America in a way that prospectively insulates Iran from U.S. reprisals. While this strategic calculation has changed under the Trump administration (which will not tolerate the Iranian revolutionary guards’ use of al Qaeda as a cutout), it worked under the Obama administration. Obama, after all, was desperate to avoid jeopardizing the Iran nuclear agreement.
Similarly, for al Qaeda, Iran offers the means to move its personnel and resources across the world via land. Considering ISIS’s rising challenge to al Qaeda for the leadership of the global Salafi-Jihadist struggle, Osama bin Laden’s progeny cannot afford to lose their operational versatility. And in 2018 at least, that versatility requires Iranian acquiescence.
Yet ultimately what’s most interesting about this cooperation is what it tells us about the nature of Iranian and al Qaeda ideology. Because it shows that unlike the defining ideological fanaticism of ISIS, these actors calibrate their ideology to a realist appraisal of means and objectives. Both Iran and al Qaeda are patient actors pursuing a long-term strategy. And while both sides know that a final fight between them will ultimately be necessary, they also know that their success requires nuance in the moment.
Source » washingtonexaminer