Iran: Could Cooperation With U.S. Put Tehran in Al Qaeda's Terrorist Crosshairs?
Aug 18, 2003

Stratfor Intelligence


Iran's national security chief claims that country, like the United States, has been a target of al Qaeda plots. Tehran may be manipulating the facts, but if it steps up cooperation with the United States against al Qaeda, it could in fact become a target in the future.


The secretary-general of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Hassan Rowhani, says Iran has foiled several al Qaeda attacks, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported late Aug. 17. The agency quoted Hassan as saying that Iran had been battling al Qaeda for some time, and that Tehran had arrested hundreds of suspected militants.

Rowhani's statements are a direct signal to the United States that Iran is cooperating in the U.S. war against al Qaeda. Tehran and Washington are currently in talks focused on two issues: the situation in Iraq and Iran's harboring of al Qaeda members. In reality, it is unclear if Tehran has ever been targeted by al Qaeda, or if it will aid Washington's efforts to dismantle the organization. The risk for Iran, however, is that its cooperation with the United States could prompt al Qaeda to retaliate against the country itself.

Iran's relationship with al Qaeda is of prime importance to the United States. Washington believes one key to pre-empting further attacks is to deny the group sanctuary, especially in countries hostile to the United States. Washington also believes this will be vital in preventing al Qaeda from regrouping.

Iran -- an Islamic state that is adjacent to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and shares some of al Qaeda's goals -- makes an attractive host country for the group. Like Osama bin Laden's network, Tehran wants to see the United States withdraw from the Arabian Peninsula. Iran aspires to become the regional hegemon, but it cannot do so as long as the U.S. military dominates the area. Second, Iran sees instability stirred by al Qaeda in countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen as advantageous to its influence over these states.

There are, however, reasons for discord between Iran and al Qaeda. For one thing, the militant group hopes to establish a Sunni Islamic caliphate, but Iran is predominantly Shia. Moreover, an al Qaeda-inspired regime in Riyadh ultimately would rival Tehran's influence in the region. These issues are real, though can perhaps be glossed over in the short term. In addition, Iranian diplomats tell Stratfor that al Qaeda has long plotted and carried out attacks against Iranian assets -- including its airliners -- inside the country.

Iranian officials are now in senior-level talks with the United States, and recent events point to progress on the terms of cooperation. On Aug. 17, IRNA reported that Iraq would reopen its embassy in Tehran on Sept. 1, 2003 -- a move that suggests Iran is willing to expand diplomatic ties with U.S.-occupied Iraq. It also indicates an indirect acceptance of the U.S. rule in Baghdad, as well as perhaps a new avenue for talks and cooperation.

Two days earlier, the U.S. State Department announced that it would close two of the Washington offices of the Mujahideen e-Khalq (MKO), an Iranian opposition group. Tehran has been angered by the U.S.-MKO alliance since U.S. military troops seized Baghdad. Washington's attempts to distance itself from the group, which is based in Iraq and has fought a decades-long war against the clerical regime in Tehran, signal a concession to Tehran.

The U.S.-Iranian talks are intended to prevent a clash between the two countries and to reduce U.S. anxiety about Tehran's relationship with al Qaeda. During a meeting with Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer in late May, Rowhani claimed that Iran had been battling al Qaeda even before Sept. 11 -- arresting more than 500 members and deporting scores to other countries. Australia is a close U.S. ally, and Rowhani's statements were meant for Washington's ears as well as Canberra's.

Rowhani's statement now that al Qaeda had planned to attack inside Iran emerges at an interesting time -- at a point when the U.S.-Iranian talks seem to be making progress. The claim might be meant to demonstrate a shared concern with Washington, though the plots themselves -- if they did in fact exist -- likely predated the detente between Washington and Tehran.

In Rowhani's words, "Their [Al Qaeda's] plans for a wide range of terrorist acts inside Iran were neutralized by our intelligence organizations." This comment suggests a time frame that likely would span the last several months, at the very least. Intelligence agencies aren't known to operate with lightning speed, and uncovering such plots can take weeks, months or even years. In addition, Rowhani claimed in May -- when Tehran and Washington were still doing more shadowboxing than secret talking -- that his government had started the crackdown on al Qaeda years ago.

Iran has reason to worry. Al Qaeda is no doubt unhappy with the Khamanei-Khatami government's cooperation with the Bush administration, nor will it appreciate Tehran's willingness to extradite its members to other countries like Egypt, Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, where members of the network would be tortured and jailed, if not executed.

Various reports, rumors and flies on the wall have claimed that several senior-level al Qaeda members are hiding out in Iran, including Egyptians Ayman al Zawahiri and Seif al Adel, Kuwaiti Sulaiman Abu Ghaith and Osama bin Laden's son, Saad. If Tehran were to extradite these men, it would deal a crippling blow to al Qaeda. A few small-scale attacks aimed at destabilizing Tehran would not be an unexpected response.