Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made more detailed allegations about Iran's secretive relationship with al-Qaida, rekindling a debate about how the United States should respond to the decades-old cooperation between its Mideast rival and the anti-American terrorist network.
In an interview that aired Friday on VOA Persian's TV channel, the former top U.S. diplomat, who left office in January, said Iran's Islamist rulers have allowed al-Qaida's most senior operational leaders to stay in the country on two conditions.
"(First), you'll do what we tell you to do. And second, you won't conduct operations against Iranian assets or inside of Iran. I'm certain that's the case," said Pompeo, who also served as CIA director prior to leading the State Department under former President Donald Trump.
Pompeo said those two conditions give Iran "enormous control" over al-Qaida. As for what al-Qaida gets in exchange for abiding by Iran's rules, he said Tehran "provide(s) support and enable(s) these al-Qaida leaders to conduct their global operations campaign."
The remarks were an expansion on details shared by Pompeo about the Iran-al-Qaida relationship in a January 12 speech in Washington while he was still secretary of state, eight days before he stepped down on the day of President Joe Biden's inauguration.
Relationship began in '90s
In the speech, Pompeo said Iran in recent years had decided to allow al-Qaida to establish "a new operational headquarters" in the country on condition that it abides by rules that he did not specify. That cooperation, according to U.S. intelligence assessments and declassified al-Qaida documents, began in the early 1990s, when Iran's Shiite Islamist ruling clerics hosted operatives of the Sunni Islamist terror group for training exercises.
In the next two decades, the two sides overcame sharp sectarian and ideological differences to develop a cooperative relationship for mutual benefit, marred by occasional adversarial episodes in which each side pressured the other into helping it achieve its goals. For Iran, that pressure meant restricting the activities of al-Qaida operatives and their families in its territory, while for al-Qaida, it meant kidnapping Iranian diplomats in Pakistan and Yemen in 2008 and 2013 respectively in order to bargain for better conditions for its Iran-based operatives.
Speaking in January, Pompeo stated that since 2015, Iran's top security institutions had allowed al-Qaida leaders "greater freedom of movement" in the country under Iranian supervision. He said Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps also provided logistical support in the form of travel documents, ID cards and passports to "enable al-Qaida activity," including fundraising and global communication.
Pompeo did not cite any examples of operational planning by al-Qaida's Iran-based leaders, either in his January speech or in his VOA interview last week. Some critics had responded to his speech by accusing him of exaggerating al-Qaida's capabilities in Iran in order to pressure the incoming Biden administration to take a tougher approach toward Tehran.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif accused Pompeo in a January 12 tweet of "warmongering lies" regarding the Iran-al-Qaida relationship, without specifying which of Pompeo's assertions he was disputing.
President Biden's Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) released a Worldwide Threat Assessment on April 26 saying counterterrorism operations by the U.S. and its allies "eliminated parts of al-Qaida's senior leadership" in the preceding year. The report also said al-Qaida's "overall emir Ayman al-Zawahiri remains in hiding, while a handful of Iran-based al-Qaida leaders oversee al-Qaida's network."
The DIA report was the first by the U.S. intelligence community in recent years to publicly disclose that al-Qaida's Iran-based leaders have a powerful role in the global terror network, although it did not say whether those leaders have become stronger or weaker.
DIA has now publicly confirmed what I said in January: Al-Qaeda’s global terror operations is headquartered in Iran, with the permission of the the Iranian regime. Meanwhile, the Biden Admin is negotiating to lift terror sanctions on Iran?— Mike Pompeo (@mikepompeo) May 3, 2021
That’s NOT America First. https://t.co/EKZJOj35rb
Pompeo tweeted on May 3 that he sees the DIA report as confirming his January assertions about al-Qaida in Iran. He also criticized the Biden administration for saying it is willing to lift Trump-era U.S. sanctions on Iran, potentially including those labeled as countering terrorism, as U.S. officials hold indirect talks with Iran in Vienna to try to secure a mutual U.S. and Iranian return to compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
Biden has said he wants to revive the deal, in which the U.S. and other world powers offered Iran sanctions relief in return for limits on Iranian nuclear activities that could be weaponized. Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018, saying it was not tough enough on Iran, and began tightening U.S. sanctions. Iran, which denies seeking nuclear weapons, retaliated in 2019 by starting an ongoing process of exceeding the deal's nuclear restrictions.
Biden's State Department did not respond directly to a VOA Persian question about how last month's U.S. intelligence assessment that al-Qaida's Iran-based leaders are overseeing the group's international affiliates is affecting U.S. policy toward Iran.
In a statement, a State Department spokesperson reiterated the Biden administration's "fundamental problems with Iran's actions across a series of issues — including its support for terrorism, its ballistic missile program, and its destabilizing actions throughout the region." The official also reiterated that the U.S. hopes to build on a mutual return to compliance with the 2015 deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), by seeking to "lengthen and strengthen the constraints on Iran's nuclear program, and also address other issues of concern."
'Temporary marriage of convenience'
Soufan Group policy and research director Colin Clarke told VOA Persian that the Biden administration should use its pursuit of diplomacy to press Iran to stop cooperating with al-Qaida and expel the group.
"My sense is the Iranians may be willing to give up the al-Qaida cooperation as part of broader negotiations. It is a temporary marriage of convenience," Clarke said. Iran is more likely to make such a concession than to give up its support for regional proxy militias that have been fighting the U.S. and its allies for years, he added.
Former U.S. national intelligence manager for Iran Norman Roule is skeptical that such a diplomatic approach will work for Washington. Speaking to VOA Persian, he said Pompeo's January speech and the U.S. intelligence community's latest public assessments of al-Qaida's activity in Iran lead him to believe that Washington has raised the issue with Tehran via diplomatic messages that have been ignored over the years.
"Getting Tehran to reduce its support for al-Qaida requires international pressure and threats to Iran's economic livelihood, to convince the Iranians that maintaining that relationship is a bad choice," he said.
Roule said the Biden administration faces a dilemma. It could ease some U.S. sanctions pressure on Iran to revive the JCPOA and tolerate the risk of al-Qaida's Iran-based leaders ordering deadly attacks against Americans at any moment, or it could increase sanctions pressure on Iran at the risk of Tehran potentially moving toward a nuclear weapon capability in the future, he said.
"Which risk we should deal with more urgently is a policy decision that comes with costs and responsibilities," Roule said.
This article originated in VOA's Persian Service. VOA State Department correspondents Nike Ching and Cindy Saine contributed.