US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made explosive allegations this week saying that arch-enemy Iran has become a new “home base” for the jihadist al-Qaida organization, though some experts say he presented no credible evidence during his speech in Washington, DC.
“Al-Qaida has a new home base. It is the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Pompeo said on Tuesday.
Brian O’Toole, an American analyst and non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Business and Economics Program, has been a consistent critic of Iran. But he told The Media Line that Pompeo didn’t offer any proof, saying it puts the secretary of state’s credibility in question.
“I find Secretary Pompeo’s timing to be awfully suspicious in making these allegations and am skeptical of a significant ‘relationship’ or the use of Iran as the base of global operations as Pompeo alleges,” O’Toole said.
Unlike in Afghanistan, when al-Qaida was hiding in the mountains, al-Qaida today is operating under the hard shell of the Iranian regime’s protection
In his speech at the National Press Club in Washington on Tuesday, just days before he is set to leave office, Pompeo said that an old enemy had found support from another long-time time US adversary, alleging that al-Qaida is operating in Iran with the knowledge of officials in Tehran.
“Unlike in Afghanistan, when al-Qaida was hiding in the mountains, al-Qaida today is operating under the hard shell of the Iranian regime’s protection,” Pompeo said.
He called on the international community to exert more pressure on Tehran, describing the alleged alliance as a “massive force for evil all over the world.”
In his accusation Pompeo said that “since 2015, Tehran has allowed al-Qaida figures in the country to freely communicate with other al-Qaida members and perform many functions that were previously directed from Afghanistan and Pakistan, including authorization for attacks, propaganda and fundraising.” He said that Iran has allowed al-Qaida members, including several of the 9/11 hijackers, to cross Iran on the way to Afghanistan for training and operational planning.
Dr. Assal Rad, senior research fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based National Iranian American Council (NIAC), told The Media Line that the fact that Pompeo did not take questions after his announcement also weakens his allegations.
“Pompeo didn’t take any questions, which make his remarks less credible given that he was unwilling to have them scrutinized,” Rad said. “But perhaps most telling is the timing of these supposed revelations. If the claims Pompeo made are true, it is unlikely given the amount of pressure he has pushed on Iran that he would wait until days left in the Trump administration to reveal them.”
NIAC, a US non-profit organization founded to promote the priorities of Iranian-Americans, is funded by the Iranian-American community and is generally critical of the Islamic Republic.
Rad says that Pompeo’s “obsession” with Iran is no secret, and that she thinks these accusations are politically motivated.
“It looks like another last-ditch effort to undermine the incoming Biden administration. It is noteworthy that Pompeo in March of 2020 called al-Qaida a ‘shadow of its former self,’ but is now using al-Qaida as a boogeyman to link with Iran,” she said.
Iranian officials swiftly rejected Pompeo’s assertions saying that they are without merit. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif dismissed the claims, vehemently denying them and in a tweet calling the US secretary of state’s accusations “warmongering lies.”
“Mr. ‘we lie, cheat, steal’ is pathetically ending his disastrous career with more warmongering lies. No one is fooled. All 9/11 terrorists came from @SecPompeo’s favorite ME destinations; NONE from Iran,” the tweet said, in part.
Al-Qaida is more hostile toward Iran than any other entity
Prof. Mohammad Marandi, head of the American studies department at Tehran University, told The Media Line Iran doesn’t take anything Pompeo says seriously and “it never did.”
“Al-Qaida is more hostile toward Iran than any other entity. Plus, the US and allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey have a history of working with it in Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, and Syria,” he said.
Dr. Hamed Mousavi, a professor of political science at the University of Tehran, told The Media Line that Pompeo is making these accusations because he’s trying to “muddy the waters in order to gain legitimacy and credibility for their so called ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Tehran.”
President Donald Trump pulled out of the Iranian nuclear deal in 2018, fulfilling a promise he made during his first campaign for office. In the last few years, the US administration imposed crippling sanctions on Iran as part of its maximum pressure, aimed at forcing Tehran back to the negotiating table to renegotiate the deal.
Mousavi calls the accusations “ridiculous,” strongly pushing back on the secretary of state’s assertions, saying those with superficial knowledge of the region know that al-Qaida’s beliefs make it an enemy of Iran.
“Everyone knows that Al-Qaida has Salafi-Wahabi ideological roots and they are very anti-Shia in their political and ideological stances. Also, they have been responsible for numerous attacks on Shia holy sites and Shia civilians within the region, especially in Iraq,” he said.
Iran is a Shiite-majority country; is ideologically opposed to Al-Qaida, an Arab majority extreme Sunni group; and has attacked Shia in the past.
Rad says there is an argument that such a relationship would not make sense given al-Qaida’s ideological outlook, which rejects Shi’ism as heresy.
“I would be careful not to look at political alliances in such black-and-white ideological terms. For expediency’s sake, political and ideological opponents can and have worked together. However, in the case of Iran and al-Qaida, there is a history of enmity and opposition. Though there is evidence of transactional cooperation, such as securing the release of members detained by Iran, there is no evidence of a relationship or collaboration in the manner to which Pompeo tried to create,” she said.
Samuel Ramani, a doctoral researcher in International Relations at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom who has been a frequent critic of Iran, told The Media Line that talk of a relationship between Iran and al-Qaida is not new.
“The United States has argued that connections exist between Iran and al-Qaida since the early stages of the war on terror and these accusations have increased in frequency since the start of Trump’s maximum pressure policy towards Iran in 2018,” he said.
But Ramani questions the timing of Pompeo’s allegations, which he calls unsubstantiated, saying the position of the incoming Biden Administration on re-engagement with Tehran on the nuclear deal has a lot to do with them.
“The Biden Administration, while not wholly united on this issue, generally believes that the nuclear issue should be compartmentalized, and sanctions can be lifted if Iran complies with its nuclear commitments. If Iran is seen to be a direct terrorist threat to the United States, as harboring al-Qaida would suggest, the path to a quick re-engagement on the JCPOA or the nuclear issue becomes much more difficult,” he explained.
Ramani doesn’t rule out some sort of cooperation between Tehran and Al-Qaida, however.
“I think that there are some residual links between Iran and al-Qaida. The presence of Abu Muhammad al-Masri, al-Qaida’s number 2 who was killed last year in Iran, certainly indicates this,” he said.
Pompeo during his announcement also confirmed a New York Times report late last year that said that al-Masri, whose given name is Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, was killed in Tehran in August by Israeli agents, at the request of the United States.
For decades, relations between Washington and Tehran have been at rock bottom, teetering several times on the verge of all-out military confrontation.
In January 2020, the US carried out the assassination of Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Al-Quds force in Baghdad.
On the one-year anniversary of killing Soleimani, Washington sent a US aircraft carrier to the region out of fear of revenge attacks.
The hawkish top US diplomat during his announcement did not call for a military response, however he announced new sanctions on several individuals, a step the US has resorted to countless times against Iran.