The Ayatollahs Back Assad and Al-Qaeda

Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and scholar, is president of the International American Council and serves on the board of the Harvard International Review at Harvard University. Rafizadeh is also a senior fellow at the Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington, DC and is a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. He can be reached at rafizadeh@fas.harvard.edu. Follow Rafizadeh at @majidrafizadeh.


rouhAccording to several national and international news outlets, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, the top Al Qaeda propagandist and Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, will be going on trial in 10 days in federal court in Lower Manhattan. 

Abu Ghaith, who used to be Al-Qaeda’s official spokesman and is married to bin Laden’s daughter Fatima, is facing charges including providing material assistance to terrorists groups and conspiracy to kill Americans, among others.

An unrecognized fact is that Abu Ghaith used to live in Iran and was allowed to leave the country freely. According to the Treasury Department, U.S. documents and officials, other members of Osama bin Laden’s family and inner circle besides Abu Ghaith lived in Iran as well.

Some prominent figures of this group are Saif al-Adel, the military commander of Al-Qaeda and a former Egyptian Special Forces officer, as well as Saad bin Laden, one of Osama Bin Laden’s older sons, who has played a crucial role in the leadership of Al-Qaeda.

More recently, in a report released this week, the US Treasury Department has charged Iran with assisting Al-Qaeda operatives based in the Islamic Republic. The charges have also been brought because Tehran has allowed senior Al-Qaeda members to conduct operations from various regions in Iran, according to the report.

The allegations also strongly indicated that some political figures in the Iranian government and its elite Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have been covertly and tacitly backing Al-Qaeda and other opposition groups in Syria’s civil war.

The Treasury Department, which is introducing new sanctions targeting Iranian terror links, reported that there was “a key Iran-based al-Qa’ida facilitator who supports al-Qa’ida’s vital facilitation network in Iran [and] operates there with the knowledge of Iranian authorities.” The report also adds, “the network also uses Iran as a transit point for moving funding and foreign fighters through Turkey to support al-Qa’ida-affiliated elements in Syria, including the al-Nusrah Front.” 

Olimzhon Adkhamovich Sadikov— also known as Jafar al-Uzbeki and Jafar Muidinov—is characterized by the Treasury Department as an Iran-based Islamic Jihad Union facilitator. This facilitator “operates there with the knowledge of Iranian authorities” and provides funding and logistical support to Al-Qaeda’s Iran-based network.

But it seems that some politicians, scholars and policy analysts are perplexed at how it might be possible for the Islamic Republic of Iran to be supporting Al-Qaeda. Particularly when it comes to Syria, logically, Iran cannot side with Al-Qaeda because Al-Qaeda-linked groups (including Islamic State of Iran and Lebanon and Jubhat Al-Nusra) are attempting to overthrow Assad’s regime, Iran’s staunchest geopolitical, geoeconomic and strategic ally. Even the Treasury Department’s report could not explain why Iran and Al-Qaeda, two seemingly odd bedfellows, would be working together

The main reason that these politicians, scholars, and policy analysts cannot easily see the link is that they view Iran’s politics and the Ayatollah’s policies through a simplified and binary prism. Their main argument comes down to the fact that Al-Qaeda, a Sunni fundamentalist and extremist group, is against the Shiite and Alawite governments of Iran and Syria.

This very simplistic analysis does not highlight the complexity and nuances of the relationships between Iran, Syria, Al-Qaeda and Middle Eastern politics. The link between Iran and Al-Qaeda, in fact, becomes rational when one looks at the objectives of the Aytaollah, Assad’s regime, and Iran’s foreign policy. Both Iran and Syria started this political game with the United States when the uprising started in Syria. They argued that the Syrian government was attacked by Al-Qaeda.

Several reports indicated that Assad, in fact, released many Al-Qaeda members from prison, with Iran assisting their network, in order to buttress the argument that the Assad regime was being attacked by Al-Qaeda. Reportedly, the Al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS have even been selling oil to the Assad regime in exchange for money and recruits with the assistance of Tehran.

In addition, the Islamic Republic can use Al-Qaeda’s Iran-based network to thwart US foreign policy objectives in the region and tip the regional balance of power in favor of Iran and against other regional powers such as Israel.

Iran is also looking for alternatives in case Assad’s apparatuses collapse in Syria. In other words, the Islamic Republic will support its ally as long as Assad can retain his power. If Assad falls, the Islamic Republic will take sides with the winning coalition. Currently, the most powerful groups in Syria are the Al-Qaeda-linked groups. The Islamic Republic will attempt to utilize any powerful extremist groups in order to accomplish its foreign policy goals and ideological and hegemonic objectives.

The perplexing fact is that, if US documents, officials and the Treasury Department have released a report indicating that Iran has been supporting Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda’s Iran-based network, how the United States is still releasing billions of dollars to the Islamic Republic, easing sanctions, and signing conciliatory nuclear deals through diplomatic ways. This seems to be the question that policy analysts, politicians and scholars should pay attention to, rather than debating how Iran can support two opposing groups.

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  • blert

    Posted by Chris Byrom at the Long War Journal:

    “Iran backing al Qaeda in Syria (in the guise of the al Nusra Front) makes perfect sense.

    Al Qaeda/al Nusra brings comparatively limited assets to bear in
    Syria against the Assad regime, limited enough that Iran’s
    counterbalance with IRGC support to Assad more than offsets the impact.

    However, the presence of al Qaeda among the anti-Assad forces greatly
    complicates any western decision to intervene in Syria against Assad.

    So, by facilitating a managable threat to its interests, Iran goes a
    long way to prevent a threat that would overwhelm Iranian interests.”

    http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/02/treasury_department.php

    • Donald J DaCosta

      Thanks. I suspect this is your opinion but it does make sense. Why the good Dr. Rafizadeh did not speculate or make the same or any similar conjecture that might make some sense of this, casts a fog of confusion over this article.

  • blert

    “The twisted mental gymnastics of the mullahs are hard for the Western mind to comprehend.

    One must conclude that Tehran views AQ as a strategic asset, whereas the campaign in Syria is deemed well run.

    1) At one level, the AQ funding chute draws Sunni fanatics, far and wide, all the better to radicalize them — and ultimately aim them at Riyadh.
    A handful of Sunni assassins wandering around the Saudi sands are going
    to be surely more effective than flamingly alien Shi’ites. Iran wants expendable assets that can mix in the enemy camp.

    3) At an even deeper level, maintaining ‘hand’ over the AQ lines of
    communications is essential for state security. All threats to un-seat
    the mullahs coming from the Sunni camp are sure to be exposed as AQ
    keeps its ear to the sand. By its reputation, AQ will be drawn into any
    such antic scheme. The players will give the game away by mere contact
    and exposure — seeings how AQ is monitored 24/7 by Tehran.

    At the end of the day, they have every hope of using AQ as a
    propaganda shield for deep strikes against the West — to include
    atomics. It just won’t do for AQ to fold up.

    Like the Persian strike at Benghazi — it’s critical that AQ be
    available — with an orgy of evidence — to support the zany notion that
    the Sunnis attacked the Americans — when the only faction to benefit
    remains the mullahs.

    Like children, the MSM suffers the obvious interpretations for Persian
    devious tactics. The media operates from the insane notion that the
    opfor has no guile at all. Whereas, the record shows that Arabs and
    Persians are almost endlessly clever on that front.

    The take-away is that the mullahs are willing to work with (pass on
    the monies to) AQ and have done so, lo these many years. The AQ
    connection goes all the way to the top: Ayatollah Khamenei. It requires
    his sanction.

    Ultimately, Iran will never let AQ run out of money. It’s their
    strategic, deniable, asset. If it didn’t exist, it would be created.

    { In Soviet strategic theory, AQ would be deemed an “ice breaker”, a
    destructive villain that can be followed after by the “Soviet good-guys”
    — in the role of liberator.
    [This was the logic behind supporting AH during 1939-1941. It may be the logic used by Putin WRT Tehran even now.]

    This idea of AQ doing the dirty while the mullahs come in to sweep up the assets… is irresistible to Tehran.

    And, as we have seen, getting the other fellows to do their dirty work
    has been the style going back decades. It works.}”

    http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/01/_as_head_al_qaeda.php

    The mullahs intend to fight America until the last drop of Sunni blood is shed.

    • A Z

      Iran is not toying with Al Qaeda. While giving Al Nusrah limited resources and thus hobbling it, I believe it fully intends to use al Qaeda as much as possible against the West (while still maintain control and deniability).

      Safe have to rest, recuperate & plan, safe transit, technical training and intel assistance are all very important to Al Qaeda. Outside of the $ spent on providing trainers and the intel, there is no money trail leading form AL Qaeda to Iran in the Iranian budget.

      Heck Iran and Iraq both could have assisted the 9/11 hijackers with all of the above and people will still say that Sadam provided no support for 9/11.

      • NAHALKIDES

        Iran DID assist the 9/11 hijackers according to the report of the 9/11 Commission (see “Assistance from Hezbollah and Iran to al Qaeda” on p. 240-241). That doesn’t mean that Iran necessarily knew the details of the 9/11 plot, but they certainly knew they were assisting al Qaeda in some general way.

        • A Z

          Yup, And the Left will never admit it.

          Sadam could have done the same.

          Sadam harbored Abu Abbas & Abu Nidal. he also supported other terrorists.

          Further Terry Nichols went to the Phillipines to do more than visit in-laws and get putang.

        • A Z

          “9/11 Commission (see “Assistance from Hezbollah and Iran to al Qaeda” on p. 240-241)’

          Thx

  • Bamaguje

    It doesn’t make sense that Iran is backing Syria’s Assad with both Hezbollah
    and its own Revolutionary guard troops, and the same time supporting the
    Al-Qaida linked Sunni Jihadists fighting to dethrone Assad.

    • Guest

      Sure it does. Iran and Syria prefer al-Qaeda to dominate the Syrian opposition rather than democrats or even just locally-oriented Sunni Islamists, because it makes foreign powers less likely to intervene in Syria (esp. the West, less so for the Arab gulf countries). Assad was denouncing Syrian protesters as terrorists before Jabhat al-Nusra was even set up (Gadhaffi did the same in Libya) or the FSA even formed. It also creates divisions in the Syrian opposition, weakening the rebels, which Assad has been perfectly willing to do with the Kurdish-Arab conflict.

      I don’t believe the SNC or those who try to portray Assad and ISIS as “allies,” but they’re perfectly willing to look the other way most of the time when it works to their advantage.

      • Bamaguje

        “Gadhaffi did the same in Libya…”

        The Benghazi based Libyan rebels against Gadhafi, were indeed Al-Qaeda linked Islamists called Libyan Islamic fighting group (LIFG). They fought along side Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

        In fact the anti-Gaddafi rebellion started out as jail break by Islamists, not any popular opposition to Gaddafi’s rule. Which is why it took NATO more than a year of heavy bombardment to defeat Gaddafi.

        Because the anti-Gaddafi rebellion was never really about popular democracy as Obama & Sarkozy tried to sell it, Libya has remained deeply fractured since then… unable to establish any form of centralized governance… never mind democracy.

        Armed militias that refuse to disarm run amok in the north African country, leading to killing of American ambassador in Benghazi in 2012.

        • Ali Mohammed

          Well said, as a Libyan I second every word you said. Just take a look at the roller of Tripoli right now Abdelhakim Belhadj and you will now how Al Qaeda did indeed replaced Gadhaffi in Libya!

  • http://libertyandculture.blogspot.com/ Jason P

    There are, of course, competing Sunni jihadi groups fighting Assad. Iran is clearly exploiting their al Qaeda allies for their own purposes.

    This is not unusual in the Sunni-Shiite on-again off-again war. While neither side winning is to our advantage, both sides fighting is.

    • A Z

      “While neither side winning is to our advantage, both sides fighting is.’

      Keep your eye on the ball and don’t get complacent. I like the ideal of bleeding them both. I really do.

      But consider this might be like a game of Penga. Nothing seems to happen for long periods of time except for rising casualties on both sides and then all the sudden things break.

      The next big battle is Zabrud, Syria. It will help to cut rebel supply lines and strengthen Assad’s lines. It will also be an important morale boost, which is really needed by Assad’s forces in Aleppo. The ground work for Zabrud was already laid by the taking of the 3 towns to the north.

  • Chiron_Venizelos

    Early in my service a wise mentor cautioned me against clerics who clenched their fists and curled their lips in their teachings. God’s word is about love – not hate. (Please see photo above.)

    • NAHALKIDES

      Islam’s word is about the hatred of the Infidel and the necessity of conquering him.

  • Hassan

    Lies, lies, lies. It makes no sense that Iran would be working with Saudi Wahhabis. If you look in Syria, you will find more support to al-Qaeda groups from the US government than from Tehran. Way more.

    • Maggie

      the truth hurts Hassan

      • Hassan

        I’ll bet it hurts even more that your country are close allies of the country that invented the al-Qaeda. I’ll bet it hurts even more to know that it was Saudi Wahhabis who flew aircraft into buildings on 9/11, not Iranians. And now you are arming them in Syria. You have #### for brains. Indeed, the truth hurts.

        • Maggie

          the Koran invented Al Qaeda

          • paradigmshift

            Al Qaeda was created and is run by the criminally highjacked US govt.

    • SCREW SOCIALISM

      It also doesn’t make sense that “progressives” would side and defend regressives who hang gay teens in fascist iran, enforce dress codes on girls, bar education for girls, ban women from driving cars, bomb the other guys mosque…

      But thinking that the Arab/Muslim world thinks like the civilized world is a waste of time.

    • NAHALKIDES

      Please don’t blame the American people for the stupidity of Barry Hussein Obama and his left-wing cohorts – true, they support Islamists like the Wahabis and the Muslim Brotherhood, but good Americans do not.

  • Maggie

    Thank you so much for this article.. this paradox was troubling me..

  • watsa46

    The clerics are very pragmatic. The ends justify ALL the means. That is the foundation of their “ethic”. Al-Q & Assad are both puppets, just like Hamas and Hezbollah. They all know it. They also support the Taliban against the Afghan and Pakistani people.

  • SCREW SOCIALISM

    DEATH to the islamofascist regime of iran!

    HANG the ayatollahs!

    LONG LIVE PERSIA!

    • Maggie

      America is being crushed by progressivism, the same way Iran was crushed by Islam.. 2 extreme groups forcing their beliefs on the people at any cost

      • SCREW SOCIALISM

        “progressive” sets off fewer alarms than their true moniker of “socialism”.

  • Walter Sieruk

    Even if all the Ayatollahs of Iran join all their forces together with Assad and the members of al Qaeda they all will lose and lose hard in the end. For the Bible teaches in Proverbs 11:21. “Though hand join in hand the wicked shall not go unpunished.”
    [K.J.V.]