The Obama administration’s success in Central Asia requires an Iran strategy that takes into account the ideological paradox that defines Tehran’s relationship with Sunni jihadists and that state’s radical theology.
Despite the widely held belief that Shia Iran won’t cooperate with Sunni extremist groups because of theological differences, they have found common cause — a hatred for America. But their relationship is more complex than hatred.
The Sunni extremists also cooperate because Tehran supports them with weapons, training, funding and refuge. The extremists want Iran’s help to overthrow religiously corrupt Islamic states replacing them with a caliphate, an Islamic government.
The Islamic Republic of Iran partners with Sunni extremist groups to help preserve its national security, to undermine Western influence and to usher in the Shiite Mahdi, the messiah. These outcomes apparently happen when extremist groups in cooperation with Iranian agents create instability in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan that keeps the U.S. tied down and provides leverage to counter U.S. pressure to end Iran’s atomic programs.
Consider Iran’s paradoxical relationship with two of the leading Sunni extremist groups, al Qaeda and the Taliban, and then the theological nature of the regime’s motivation.
Al Qaeda’s relationship with Iran started in late 1991. The 9/11 Commission Report states al Qaeda and Iranian operatives established an informal agreement to cooperate for actions against Israel and the U.S. Al Qaeda operatives subsequently trained in Iran and Lebanon, home to Iran’s proxy terror group Hizballah.
The 9/11 Commission Report states Iranian officials also facilitated the travel of al Qaeda members after that group relocated to Afghanistan in 1996, to include most of the 9/11 hijackers. Then in late 2001 Iran aided al Qaeda’s retreat from Afghanistan and has allowed many al Qaeda members to operate from Iranian soil ever since.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) plays the primary host for al Qaeda members in that country. One of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s wives and at least six of his children live in a secret compound in Tehran. Top al Qaeda operatives also have or continue to live in Iran such as bin Laden’s son, Saad bin Laden, the heir apparent to the group; Abu Ghaith, bin Laden’s spokesman; and Abdel al Aziz al Masri, al Qaeda’s nuclear weapons chief.
Hussein Shobokshi, a columnist for the Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq Alawsat, wrote that Iran plays host to al Qaeda for operational reasons. He confirms “…that Iran has been able to infiltrate al Qaeda operations. They have been hosting key figures in the leadership structure of al Qaeda for some time.”
Iran-based al Qaeda members enjoy freedom of movement even though they are under some form of “house arrest.” Last year, for example, Saad bin Laden was allegedly able to travel to join his father in northern Pakistan and a recent report indicates the others are well treated to include given the opportunity to take shopping trips.
For years Iran has refused to identify and turn over al Qaeda members to the U.S. or their home country. But last January the U.S. Treasury Department designated four al Qaeda associates in Iran under an executive order, which makes clear that Iran and al Qaeda have been working together on terrorist operations.
The Saudi government alleges al Qaeda operatives inside Iran plot and assist acts of terrorism in other Gulf nations. The alleged perpetrators include Saudi citizens living in Iran who are on the Kingdom’s most wanted list.
Last year, the Bahraini government convicted a five-member cell for receiving explosives and weapons training, engaging in terrorism overseas and terrorism financing targeting “friendly countries.” The men traveled from Bahrain to Afghanistan via Tehran airport where they were met by several al Qaeda-affiliated personnel. The al Qaeda facilitators passed them along from “person to person” until they arrived in Afghan training camps.
Iran also cooperates with the Taliban which Tehran once denounced as “an affront to Islam.” In 1998, Iran was on the verge of hostilities after Afghan Taliban slaughtered Shiites in Mazar-e-Sharif. But in spite of ideological differences and hostilities Iran and the Taliban cooperate because of their common enemy, the U.S. Consider Iran’s assistance to the Taliban.
Iran and the Taliban began cooperating before America invaded Afghanistan. Khirullah Said Wali Khairkhwa, the then-Taliban governor in the province of Herat and a current U.S. detainee at Guantanamo Bay, told interrogators he met with Iranian officials in early 2000 to discuss restoration of peace in Afghanistan, strengthening ties with Tehran and Iran’s offer of anti-aircraft weapons.
The U.S. State Department’s 2008 Country Reports on Terrorism indicates the IRGC’s Qods (Jerusalem) Force provides aid in the form of weapons, training and funding to Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. Since at least 2006 Iran arranged arms shipments including small arms and associated ammunition, rocket propelled grenades, mortar rounds, 107mm rockets, and plastic explosives to the Taliban.
Besides providing arms to the Taliban, Iran seeks to influence activities in Afghanistan via development assistance. “The irony is,” said U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, “the Afghan government and Iranian government have pretty good relationships. … So whether Iran is trying to play both sides of the street, hedge their bets, what their motives are, other than causing trouble for us, I don’t know.”
Secretary Gates is right — Iran wants to cause trouble for the U.S. and its allies by relying on terror proxies — al Qaeda, Taliban, Iraqi insurgents, Hizballah and Hamas. But Iran is more complex than a terrorist-using, atomic weapon-seeking rogue regime. It’s also a theocracy run by radical mullahs and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad who have introduced a new system in Iranian politics: “a militarist and messianic Islamism.”
Ahmadinejad believes U.S. activities in Iraq and Afghanistan are focused on preventing the Shia savior’s return. Shiite Muslims believe that their 12th imam, the Mahdi, born in 869, will reappear as the savior of mankind to end tyranny and bring justice to the world.
For Ahmadinejad, the apocalypse precedes the coming of the Mahdi and the president believes he can speed up the apocalypse by establishing an absolutist regime. The regime’s metamorphosis may have started this summer with rigged elections and brutal suppression of political opposition. Once Iran is internally controlled, presumably the regime turns to international tasks that defy their opponents to the point of war, like undermining U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Tehran denying it has an atomic weapons program.
President Obama’s Iran strategy should drive wedges in the Muslim world between Shia Iran and the Sunni Arabs by playing up the suicidal apocalyptic intentions of the Iranian leadership to drag all the Middle East into a holocaust at the cost of millions of Arab lives. It is clearly in the interest of the entire world to eliminate the Iranian leadership and its nuclear capability now.
Iran created a double paradox to advance its radical agenda. It created a Sunni-Shia paradox using historical enemies, the Arabs and Sunnis, to accomplish its hegemonic goals. But the Arabs and Sunni Muslims, well aware of their Persian enemy’s intentions, embrace them anyway. On the other hand it created a theological paradox whereby the majority of Muslims reject the theology of the Mahdi. Yet, since they are all under the Islamic umbrella, the Arabs are willing to ignore the messianic theology of Iran’s leadership in hopes that they will reap benefits from Iran’s pursuit of the theology through military action against Israel and the U.S.