With the management council still under limited house arrest, Iran and al Qaeda remain at arm's length. But that could change if Washington's relationship with Tehran does. So far, the conflict between Iran and the West has been limited to diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions. It has also occasionally deteriorated into cyber attacks, sabotage, assassinations, kidnappings, and support to proxy organizations. But much like the struggle between the U.S. and Soviet Union during the Cold War, it has not spilled into overt conflict. Should an increase of those activities cause a broad deterioration in relations, however, or should the United States or Israel decide to attack Iranian nuclear facilities, Iran and al Qaeda could come closer together.
For one, Iran would likely respond to an attack by targeting the United States and its allies through proxies in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries. The regime might increase its logistical support to al Qaeda by providing money, weapons, housing, travel documents, and transit to operatives -- some of which it is already doing. In a worse scenario, Tehran might even allow al Qaeda officials in Iran to go to Pakistan to replenish the group's depleted leadership there, or else open its borders to additional al Qaeda higher-ups. Several of the operatives already in Iran, including Adel and Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, would be especially valuable in this regard, because of their prestige, experience in paramilitary and external operations, and religious credentials. In an even more extreme scenario, Iran could support an al Qaeda attack against the United States or one of its allies, although the regime would surely attempt to hide its role in any plotting. Based on Iran's cautious approach over the past decade, Tehran's most likely strategy would be to gradually increase its support to al Qaeda in response to U.S. actions. That way it could go slowly, and back away at any time, rather than choosing an all-or-nothing approach from the start.
It would be unwise to overestimate the leverage Tehran has over al Qaeda's leadership. The terrorist organization would almost certainly refuse Iranian direction. But given the group's current challenges, any support or tentative permission to plot on Iran's soil would be helpful. It could set about restoring its depleted senior ranks in Pakistan and other countries, or else rebuild within Iran itself. The organization might thus be amenable to working within Iranian constraints, such as seeking permission before planning attacks in the West from Iranian soil, as long as the taps were flowing.
It is true that the United States has limited leverage with Iran, but it still has several options. The first, and perhaps easiest, is to better expose the existence and activities of al Qaeda leaders in Iran. Al Qaeda has killed tens of thousands of Sunnis, Shias, and non-Muslims over the past two decades and has unified virtually all governments in the world against it. Iran, too, has become an international pariah. Its limited aid to al Qaeda is worthy of further public condemnation. But Iran has largely escaped such scrutiny.
The United States could encourage more countries to prohibit citizens and companies from engaging in commercial and financial transactions with al Qaeda leaders and their networks in Iran. The U.S. Treasury and State Departments have taken steps against some al Qaeda operatives and their supporters in Iran, including against Suri and his circle. But those efforts have not been coupled with robust diplomatic efforts to encourage other countries to do the same. Nor have they been successful in eliminating al Qaeda's sanctuary in Iran.
Finally, the United States should think twice about actions that would push Iran and al Qaeda closer together -- especially a preemptive attack on the country's nuclear program. Thus far, Iran and al Qaeda have mutually limited their relationship. It would be a travesty to push the two closer together at the very moment that central al Qaeda in Pakistan has been severely weakened.
Thankfully, there is still time to deal with the problem. But the stakes are too high for the United States to remain quiet any longer.
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