Iran, Innuendo, and Secret Deals

July 28, 2011 Topic: SanctionsRogue StatesTerrorism Region: IranIraq Blog Brand: Paul Pillar

Iran, Innuendo, and Secret Deals

The administration wants you to think its least favorite regime is cozy with al-Qaeda. And this time it's not in Baghdad.

The Treasury Department on Thursday formally designated six members of what it described as “an al-Qa'ida network” under the terms of Executive Order 13224, a designation that has implications regarding the freezing of the individuals' assets and prohibition of any commercial or financial dealings with them. Such designations have nothing directly to do with states, but there was an additional angle in Treasury's announcement. The heading of the department's press release was, “Treasury Targets Key Al-Qa'ida Funding and Support Network Using Iran as a Critical Transit Point”. Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen was quoted as stating, “By exposing Iran's secret deal with al-Qa'ida allowing it to funnel funds and operatives through its territory, we are illuminating yet another aspect of Iran's unmatched support for terrorism.”

Whoa—“secret deal”? That's certainly an eye-catching phrase. It has been known for some time that al-Qaeda members have been inside Iran. It has been less clear just what the terms of their residence there have been. Most indications suggest that it has been something between imprisonment and house arrest. At least some of the al-Qaeda people in Iran have been able to conduct business of the group from there, but it is unclear again how much of this business is condoned or even known by the Iranian regime. Probably the most that can be said is that the regime, or elements within it, have reasons to have some dealings with the al-Qaeda members, notwithstanding the sharp differences in their objectives. Tehran wants to cement and sustain the rule of the Shia Islamic Republic; al-Qaeda wants to overthrow the established order in the Middle East and establish a Sunni Caliphate.

Despite the provocative phrase “secret deal,” Treasury's announcement says nothing else about any such agreement. The only dealings it describes all seem to have to do with the imprisonment of al-Qaeda members. Only one of the six designated individuals, named Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, is described as “Iran-based”; the other five all live and operate somewhere else and are included in the announcement because they are part of the same network as Khalil. The one bit of business Khalil is said to have with Tehran is that he “works with the Iranian government to arrange releases of al-Qa'ida personnel from Iranian prisons.” One of the other five is said to have “petitioned Iranian officials on al-Qa'ida's behalf to release operatives detained in Iran”—with no indication whether he succeeded. Any connection between the Iranian regime and the group's other activities involving movement of money and operatives is all a matter of innuendo, at least as far as Treasury's announcement is concerned.

Maybe there is something more substantive in the classified realm that cannot be shared publicly. But Americans ought to be wary about this sort of suggestive linkage between terrorists and regimes. A major point in the George W. Bush administration's selling of the Iraq War concerned the movements of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who after the U.S. invasion would establish what became the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda but who also had spent some time in Iraq before the war. The war-selling campaign tried to draw a connection between him and Saddam Hussein's regime. But any connection was all a matter of innuendo. Later information indicated that the regime did not even know where Zarqawi was.

Of course there is not a complete parallel with what is going on now, in that the Obama administration is not selling a war with Iran. But it is under pressure from elements who are eager to talk up the evil of Iran and the need for pressure on Iran, and who even would seem to welcome such a war. Treasury's announcement this week, which strains to underscore the Iranian angle of an administrative action that is not even directed at Iran, may be partly an effort to be seen talking tough about Iran without making any inherently dangerous moves that could mean a confrontation escalating out of control.

The Treasury announcement also does not address Iranian motives in fooling around with al-Qaeda, notwithstanding the sharply different interests and objectives between the regime and the group. The motives have to do with shared antagonism from the United States. In particular, they have to do with the United States' own fooling around with the terrorist group-cum-cult known as the Mujahedin-e Khalq, which some in the United States foolishly believe should be accepted as a legitimate actor because it opposes the Iranian regime. Tehran is in effect saying, “If you are going to flirt with a terrorist group that is of particular concern to us, we will flirt with a terrorist group that is of particular concern to you.” It is important to remember this amid the renewed push, backed by vigorous lobbying on Capitol Hill and the paying of fat fees to notables who will speak on the MEK's behalf, to get the group off the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations. If delisting were to occur, the harmful effects would include substantial damage to the pro-democracy movement in Iran. An additional effect would be to increase the incentive for Tehran to flirt even more with Sunni terrorists including al-Qaeda types, to the point that some actual secret deals might be struck.