Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made more detailed allegations about Iran’s secret relations with al-Qaida, rekindling a debate over how the United States should respond to decades-old cooperation between its rival in the Middle East and the anti-American terrorist network.
In a interview broadcast Friday on VOA Persian TV channel, the former senior US diplomat, who stepped down in January, said Iranian Islamist leaders had allowed Al Qaeda’s top operational leaders to stay in the country on two conditions.
“(Firstly) you will do what we tell you to do. And secondly you will not conduct operations against Iranian assets or inside Iran. I am sure you do,” said Pompeo, who was also a member of the CIA. director before heading the State Department under former President Donald Trump.
Pompeo said these two conditions give Iran “enormous control” over al-Qaida. As for what al-Qaida gets in return for respecting Iranian rules, he said Tehran “provides support and allows these al-Qaida leaders to conduct their campaign of global operations.”
The remarks were an extension of details Pompeo shared about Iran-al-Qaida relations in a Jan. 12 speech in Washington while still secretary of state, eight days before his resignation on the day the president was inaugurated. Joe Biden.
The relationship started in the 90s
In the speechPompeo said Iran has decided in recent years to allow al-Qaida to establish “a new operational headquarters” in the country on condition that it abides by rules it did not specify. This cooperation, according to US intelligence assessments and declassified Al-Qaida documents, began in the early 1990s, when ruling Iranian Shia Islamist clerics hosted members of the Sunni Islamist terrorist 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 conflicting episodes in which each side pressured the other to help them achieve their goals. . For Iran, this pressure meant restricting the activities of al-Qaida members and their families on its territory, while for al-Qaida, it meant the kidnapping of Iranian diplomats in Pakistan and Yemen respectively in 2008 and 2013 in order to negotiate better terms for its Iran-based agents.
Speaking in January, Pompeo said that since 2015, Iran’s highest security institutions had granted al-Qaida leaders “greater freedom of movement” in the country under Iranian supervision. He said the Iranian Intelligence and Security Ministry and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had also provided logistical support in the form of travel documents, identity cards and passports to “enable the activity. Al-Qaida ”, including fundraising and global communication.
Pompeo did not cite any example of operational planning by Iran-based al-Qaida leaders, either in his January speech or in his VOA interview last week. Some critics responded to his speech by accusing him of exaggerating Al Qaeda’s capabilities in Iran in order to pressure the new Biden administration to take a harsher approach towards Tehran.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif accused Pompeo in a January 12 tweet “belligerent lies” about the Iran-al-Qaida relationship, without specifying which of Pompeo’s claims he disputed.
President Biden’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) issued a Global Threat Assessment April 26 claiming that counterterrorism operations by the United States and its allies “wiped out parts of the senior leadership of Al Qaeda” the previous year. The report also states that “al-Qaida’s emir general, Ayman al-Zawahiri, remains in hiding, while a handful of Iran-based al-Qaida leaders oversee the al-Qaida network.”
The DIA report was the first in the US intelligence community in recent years to publicly reveal that Iranian-based al-Qaida leaders have a powerful role in the global terrorist network, although it does not specify whether these leaders have become stronger or weaker.
Pompeo tweeted on May 3 that he viewed the DIA report as confirming his January claims about al-Qaida in Iran. He also criticized the Biden administration for saying it was prepared to lift Trump-era US sanctions on Iran, potentially including those labeled as counterterrorism, as US officials hold talks indirect with Iran in Vienna in an attempt to obtain a mutual return between the United States and Iran. compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
Biden said he wanted to revive the deal, in which the United States and other world powers offered sanctions relief to Iran in exchange for limits on Iranian nuclear activities that could be militarized. Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018, saying he was not tough enough on Iran, and began to toughen US sanctions. Iran, which denies seeking nuclear weapons, retaliated in 2019 by starting an ongoing process of breaking the nuclear restrictions of the deal.
Biden’s State Department did not respond directly to a Persian question from VOA about how last month’s US intelligence assessment that Iran-based al-Qaida leaders are overseeing the group’s international affiliates. affects US policy towards Iran.
In a statement, a State Department spokesperson reiterated the Biden administration’s “fundamental problems with Iran’s actions across a range of issues – including its support for terrorism, its ballistic missile program and its destabilizing actions throughout the region “. The official also reiterated that the United States hopes to build on a mutual return to compliance with the 2015 agreement, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), by seeking to “lengthen and strengthen the constraints of the nuclear program Iranian, and also to solve other problems. 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 pressure Iran to stop cooperating with al- Qaida and expels the group.
“I have a feeling the Iranians might be willing to forgo cooperation with al-Qaida in the context of broader negotiations. This 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 militias that have been fighting the United States and its allies for years, he added.
Former US national intelligence official for Iran, Norman Roule, is skeptical of the effectiveness of such a diplomatic approach for Washington. Speaking to VOA Persian, he said Pompeo’s speech in January and the US intelligence community’s latest public assessments of al-Qaida activity in Iran have led him to believe Washington has raised the issue. with Tehran via diplomatic messages that have been ignored over the years.
“For Tehran to reduce its support for al-Qaida requires international pressure and threats to Iran’s economic livelihoods, to convince the Iranians that maintaining this relationship is a bad choice,” he said. -he declares.
Roule said the Biden administration faces a dilemma. This could ease the pressure from US sanctions on Iran to revive the JCPOA and tolerate the risk of Iran-based al-Qaida leaders at any time ordering deadly attacks on the Americans, or it could increase the pressure of sanctions. on Iran at the risk of Tehran moving towards a nuclear weapons capability in the future, he said.
“The risk we need to address more urgently is a political decision that comes with costs and responsibilities,” Roule said.
This article originates from The Persian service of VOA. VOA State Department correspondents Nike Ching and Cindy Saine contributed.