The Guardian: The claim that two terror suspects in Canada received guidance from “al-Qaida elements” in Iran will give new prominence to a debate among analysts over the exact relationship between the Sunni extremist group and the Shia Muslim state.
Claims of links between the two date back to the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the inclusion of Iran on George Bush’s axis of evil. There is no evidence of any contact between al-Qaida elements and any parts of the opaque and fragmented Iranian security establishment before 2002. The nearest thing is possible meetings between Osama bin Laden and senior figures in the Lebanese Hezbollah organisation, sponsored by Iran, in Sudan in the early 1990s.
But as the Taliban regime collapsed in Afghanistan in December 2001, many of the foreign extremists who had been in the country fled west into Iran. Some carried on to Iraq where they organised and led attacks on US forces and, later, Shia Muslims. Others, however, including members of Bin Laden’s close family and veteran militants such as the Egyptian Saif al-Adel, stayed in Iran.
It appears to have taken local security forces some time to find and corral the new arrivals. Most appear to have been placed under house arrest, confined to compounds scattered around the country. Quite who was holding them, and why, has never been entirely clear but most analysts believe elements within the hardline Revolutionary Guards took charge of them.
Nor was it clear why they were being held. Bargaining chips? An insurance policy? Potential assets? Analysts disagreed. There was little information and much speculation. Occasional arrests of logistics operatives linked to al-Qaida in Iran – but almost certainly operating illegally – clarified nothing.
Recently there has been more movement. Many of the relatives of militants, including those of Bin Laden, have been released. Some of the senior militants have been freed too, including, it is generally believed, Adel, who may have found his way to Pakistan’s restive tribal areas.
But the claim of aid from al-Qaida in Iran for a plot in the west is new. Is the Iranian state likely to have been involved? Canadian police have said there is no indication that the plot was sponsored by the Iranian state, with which Canadasevered diplomatic relations last year.
Nevertheless, Iran has reacted angrily. “No shred of evidence regarding those who have been arrested and stand accused has been provided,” said a foreign ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, according to the Mehr news agency. He said al-Qaida’s beliefs were in no way consistent with those of the Islamic Republic, and that Iran opposed “any kind of violent action that endangers lives”.
It is true that Iranian state elements have been convincingly linked to attacks overseas such as in Bangkok, Baku and Delhi last year, and have a history of aiding terrorist organisations. But nothing indicates any working relationship with al-Qaida or its various offshoots. More details may emerge in coming days, but leaping to the conclusion that such a relationship now exists seems premature.