News / Middle East

Iran's Ties to Terror Shadow Nuclear Talks

Iran’s Ties to al-Qaida Pose Nagging Questionsi
Jeff Seldin
March 24, 2014 11:08 PM
As the U.S. and the West continue negotiations with Iran over its controversial nuclear program, the specter of Iran’s ties to terrorism - and specifically al-Qaida - lingers in the background, analysts and U.S. officials say. Jeff Seldin has the details.
As the U.S. and the West continue negotiations with Iran over its controversial nuclear program, the specter of Iran’s ties to terrorism - and specifically al-Qaida - lingers in the background, analysts and U.S. officials say.
“This is something that has gone back several decades now, but continues to get short shrift from the U.S. government,” said Jonathan Schanzer at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“Iran’s playing three dimensional chess,” he said. “We see al-Qaida becomes useful to Iran in terms of attacking the United States, attacking the West, vilifying and targeting Israel.  All these things very much work in Iran’s favor.”
For the past several years, the only U.S. government agency to consistently make the case linking Iran to al-Qaida has been the Treasury Department, which in February designated an Iran-based terrorist, Jafar al-Uzbeki, as a key al-Qaida facilitator.  The designation accused him of funneling a “significant amount” of money from Iran into Afghanistan and Pakistan to help fund al-Qaida activities.
The designation also linked al-Uzbeki to Yasin al-Suri, previously identified as the head of al-Qaida’s Iran network and one of a handful of operatives identified since 2011 for getting al-Qaida fighters into Syria.  And according to a senior Treasury official, al-Uzbeki has been “operating with the knowledge of the Iranian authorities.”
“This really deserves attention,” said U.S. Representative Adam Schiff, a member of the House Intelligence Committee. “We see a relationship between Iran and al-Qaida that at times is difficult to figure out, because on the one hand they would be natural adversaries, but in that part of the world, terrorism makes strange bedfellows.”
Still, the apparent union is between two opposing branches of Islam -- Shi’ite Iran and Sunni al-Qaida. It runs contrary to conventional wisdom, analysts say, as Shi’ites and Sunnis have targeted each other through violence across the Middle East.
Al-Qaida-linked groups targeted Iran late last year, killing 23 people, including a cultural attaché, in an attack on Tehran’s embassy in Lebanon.
“Ultimately the enmity between Iran and al-Qaida is almost deeper than the enmity between the United States and al-Qaida,” said Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council. “But Iran is stuck in the region, and as a result sometimes it does strike small deals in order to actually protect itself or to advance its interests in other ways.”
Parsi said that in 2003, Iran was willing to trade al-Qaida operatives it caught fleeing from U.S. forces in Afghanistan to the United States in exchange for several concessions, a deal Washington rejected.
Yet not everyone is convinced the relationship between Iran and al-Qaida is one of forced convenience.
Investigators looking at the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. raised concerns in their final report, pointing to “discussions in Sudan between al-Qaida and Iranian operatives” in the early 1990s.
“We thought it was an important question but you could not investigate every important question that arose from 9/11 fully,” said 9/11 commission co-chair and former congressman Lee Hamilton. “We had recommended in our report that the United States government further investigate the links between Iran and al-Qaida, including any collaboration prior to 9/11. To my knowledge the United States government has not done so.”
The 9/11 commission’s report cited possible collaboration between Iran and al-Qaida in the June 1996 attack on Khobar Towers, a residential complex housing American Air Force personnel in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.  Nineteen Americans were killed and 372 wounded.
The commission also turned up evidence suggesting Iran gave passage to the 9/11 hijackers, although commission member and former CIA operative Mike Hurley said there never was anything to suggest a larger role for Tehran in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
“We could never establish that there was Iranian participation, Iranian government participation in the 9/11 plots,” Hurley said.  But he added “there was a pattern of being open and welcoming to al-Qaida members, and sometimes even some senior figures of the al-Qaida shura [council] in Afghanistan.”
Hurley, who now serves as an advisor to the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, is among those who hoped the U.S. government would have done more to clarify the nature of the Iran-al-Qaida relationship.
“I don’t have a good sense and I don’t know that there’s been kind of deep active pursuit and investigation of that.  I think it may be an area where the government has fallen down to some extent,” he said.
More recently, Canadian investigators alleged that two men arrested in connection with a 2013 plot to derail a train, Raed Jaser and Chiheb Esseghaier, received "directions and guidance" from members of al-Qaida in Iran.  Iran denied any involvement.
U.S. officials also have said former al-Qaida spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith, now being tried on terror charges in the U.S., spent time in Iran along with one of former al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden’s sons, Saad.  The Iranian government claimed the two were “in custody,” but U.S. officials say Abu Ghaith was arrested last year in Jordan.
Still, despite the numerous concerns and the terrorist designations from the Treasury Department, officials at the State Department remain focused on the nuclear negotiations with Tehran, mentioning only their broad concerns about Iran’s ties to terror.
“While we are continuing engagement on the nuclear program and our concerns about that in a comprehensive deal, we have remaining concerns about human rights violations, about terrorist activities that they are up to,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said last week. “Certainly, I don’t think there’s a secret about our concerns, given we expressed them very publicly, about Iran’s engagement and efforts to assist Hezbollah and others who are encroaching into Syria.”
That approach concerns the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Schanzer, who worries that a lack of attention to Iran’s support of terrorism, and its links to al-Qaida, ultimately could give Iran an advantage in negotiations.
“This is a very dangerous regime that we’re playing with, and I don’t believe we’re playing on equal footing,” he said. “You have to really begin to wonder if Iran crosses that nuclear threshold, they’re able to get that nuclear weapon, they could put it in the hands not just of Hezbollah or Hamas but potentially into the hands of al-Qaida.”
But former congressman Hamilton, while concerned about the Iran-al-Qaida connection, plays down the danger.
“Nations do not usually share nuclear secrets very easily with anyone, and certainly with one they do not control,” Hamilton said. “The paramount interest of the United States now, of course, is to limit any possibility of a breakout toward a possible nuclear weapon in Iran," he said. “That is the focus of the diplomacy today and it seems to me, should be.”

Jeff Seldin

Jeff works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters and is national security correspondent. You can follow Jeff on Twitter at @jseldin or on Google Plus.

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Comment Sorting
by: Amin from: Texas
March 27, 2014 9:54 AM
Lets look at the source of all this misinformation: "Jonathan Schanzer at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.", a zionist organization funded by Sheldon Adelman. What else would you expect? Surprised that VOA would allow itself to be used for false propaganda!

by: spring12 from: us
March 26, 2014 9:48 AM
I agree w/ most people here. this news is nothing but junk. Alqueda is a saudi terrorist organization and it is a proven fact that the saudi elite have supported them even in the 9/11 probably w/ the help of the Israeli intelligence. there is zero chance that Iran will get involved with alqueda even if they wanted to the alqueda sunnis are sworn enemies of the iranian shiites. they are like a 2 pole of the magnet which repels each other and no way they can attract one another. another Iranophobia bs by the Israeli stooges.

by: Change Iran Now from: USA
March 25, 2014 9:23 PM
Iran is bound and determined to support Islamic terror, instigate violence in Syria's civil war, expand its cyber warfare capabilities and strengthen a nefarious relationship with Russia. All are grave issues that are occurring as Iran negotiates with the West over lifting sanctions in exchange for the Islamic Republic halting its nuclear weapons program.
Iran is the world's leading state-sponsor of terror, and how the Islamist state will not end its global ambitions despite any assurances given to the West.

by: kat from: California
March 25, 2014 6:39 PM
This article sounds really bizarre. I smell an agenda! These two, iran and alqada are sworn enemies. These weird and nonsensical articles pop up when the nuclear negotiations heat up again. We do not want or need another war. Lets negotiate in good faith. Their economy is in shambles and I've read they haven't seen any improvements either. Their Crazy bizarre nonsensical hardliners are also spewing nonsense to derail the negotiations. Obama and rahani both need to be empowered.

by: mirab from: LA
March 25, 2014 5:52 PM
The Iranian regime is not my favorite and is an enemy of its people but US and Israel are also plotting against Iran (its people and not the government) by telling lies, misrepresentation, and conspiracy against a nation.

by: Babu from: USA
March 25, 2014 3:03 PM
I am amazed by the writer's imagination. He should write fictional stories. I am sure he is being paid by Saudi Arabia and USA. Can he be so childish?

Bin Laden was a Saudi, all the people involved in 9-11 were Saudi Arabian and all of these were Al-Qaeda people. Zawahri is Egyptian. How can his sane mind link Iran to Al-Qaeda...looks like he doesn't have a mind at all. How can idiots like him exist. Be thankful to your masters who pay you to write lies.

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