In the midst of the holiday season this month Sarah Palin had an op-ed in USA Today that is important and interesting in several ways. She calls for crippling sanctions on Iran to halt its nuclear-weapons programs (although she doesn’t seem to know we already have a United Nations Security Council Resolution that mandates a complete arms ban on Iran) and she seconds Tony Blair’s call for using force if necessary. She argues for more support to the Green movement inside Iran without ever using its title.
One item leaped out at me. She correctly says Iran is today the world’s “biggest state sponsor of terrorism.” Then she adds, “It has shielded al-Qaeda leaders, including one of Osama bin Laden’s sons.” Then the clincher—imagine how terrible it would be if terror-backer Iran had nukes.
This is eerily reminiscent of Bush-Cheney on Iraq and al-Qaeda and the run up to the disaster in Mesopotamia in 2002 and 2003, and she is playing very loosely with the facts. It is true that some senior al-Qaeda figures, including members of bin Laden’s family, fled Afghanistan to Iran after we toppled the Taliban in 2001. What their status has been in Iran since has been much debated. They are not allowed to travel freely. Some reports say they are under house arrest or more serious detention. There is pretty good reporting that al-Qaeda wants them back and has gotten some released by negotiating with Tehran. One of bin Laden’s son probably got out in 2008 and one of his daughters in 2009 via Syria. They may engage in some operational activity, especially in courier traffic between the al-Qaeda core in Pakistan and Iraq and the Gulf states. “Shielded” does not capture any of this nuance, perhaps deliberately.
What about 9/11? The 9/11 Commission thoroughly investigated the possibility of Iranian links to 9/11 and concluded that although some of the hijackers transited Iran en route from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan for training, “we have found no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack.”
The relationship between al-Qaeda and the Islamic Republic of Iran has been shrouded in mystery and secrecy for years. But the hints of occasional operational cooperation between al-Qaeda and Tehran are outweighed by the very considerable and public evidence of the deep animosity between Sunni extremist al-Qaeda and Shia extremist Iran. Antipathy for each other is at the root of their ideologies and narratives and has been most visible in their competition for influence in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This may change, however, if the United States and Iran move toward confrontation or even conflict over Tehran’s nuclear weapons ambitions. As tensions between Washington and Tehran increase, Shia antipathy for Sunni jihadists like al-Qaeda and its ally the Afghan Taliban may be outweighed by a desire to find ways to hurt America. Similarly as Washington ratchets up the pressure on al-Qaeda in Pakistan, Osama bin Laden and his gang may find Iran a more attractive potential partner. Several al-Qaeda leaders have publicly said an American-Iranian war would be good for al-Qaeda and should be encouraged.
Senior U.S. counterterrorist officials in the White House say that one of their big worries is that Iran would free all the al-Qaeda detainees in Iran as U.S.-Iranian relations deteriorate, a move they said would immediately replace much of the damage we have done to al-Qaeda with the drones in Pakistan in the last two years. So we may be better off with the al-Qaeda operatives staying shielded than unshielded. In any case we don’t need to play loose and fast with the facts about Iran and al-Qaeda to make a case for a third war in the Middle East.