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Washington's Linkage Of Iran And Al-Qaeda Could Have Consequences For Nuclear Talks

Ayman al-Zawahri is the new leader of Al-Qaeda, which the U.S. government says Tehran is helping.
Ayman al-Zawahri is the new leader of Al-Qaeda, which the U.S. government says Tehran is helping.

The U.S. government has accused Iran of permitting Al-Qaeda operatives to funnel a substantial amount of money through its territory to their leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

On July 28, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed financial sanctions on Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, also known as Yasin al-Suri, who it calls a prominent Iran-based facilitator, and five other members of his network.

According to U.S. officials, Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil has been operating in Iran under an agreement between Al-Qaeda and the Tehran government.

In its statement, the Treasury Department said, "The network serves as the core pipeline through which Al-Qaeda moves money, facilitators, and operatives from across the Middle East to South Asia."

This isn't the first time Washington has drawn a link between Iran and the terrorist group. The 9/11 Commission also reported finding evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of Al-Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.

Indeed, there have been persistent reports about ties between Iran and Al-Qaeda for years, which is not surprising, given that many hard-line Sunni militants who back Al-Qaeda see the Shi'ite Islam dominant in Iran as heretical.

In 2003, "The Washington Post" reported on the relationship between Ahmad Vahidi, currently Iran's defense minister, and Ayman al-Zawahri, the then-No. 2 in Al-Qaeda who took over leadership of the group following Osama bin Ladin's May 2 death at the hands of U.S. forces.

In the wake of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, several senior Al-Qaeda operatives who fled Afghanistan surfaced in Iran, where the clerical regime kept some of them under house arrest.

Osama bin Laden's son, Saad, also lived in Iran until he was released by Iranian security forces in 2009. And Western intelligence officials say Al-Qaeda's top military strategist, Saif al-Adel, is currently living there.

So suggestions of links between Iran and Al-Qaeda are not news. What makes the Treasury Department's statement different from previous U.S. reports is its certainty of a strong and explicit link between Tehran and the terrorist network.

"The Treasury Department is effectively accusing Iran of being an important link in Al-Qaeda’s financing and recruitment. The designation states that this relationship dates back six years, to 2005. Both of those are new developments," says Patrick Clawson, a scholar and Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Houshang Hassan-Yari, of the Royal Military College of Canada, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that not only has an explicit link now been established between Iran and Al-Qaeda, but the key players in that link have also been identified. "During the Bush Administration [the link] was based on guesswork, but now it seems that the Americans have reached a definitive conclusion," he said.

Iran's assistance to Al-Qaeda may be aimed at driving U.S. forces out of the Middle East, but some experts believe that it could be Iran's way of pushing back on Washington in response to U.S. leadership on tough international sanctions.

Clawson says that strategy may actually harden the international community's resolve to punish Iran for its lack of transparency in its nuclear program.

He says it could further complicate Tehran's negotiations with the P5+1 countries and lead to a "broader and deeper international consensus that the source of the nuclear impasse lies in Iran and not the United States and Europe."

On the other hand, Washington's action just might lead to a reduction in the activity of Al-Qaeda's Iran-based operatives, says Houshang Hassan-Yari.

Because they've now been identified by name, he says, they "might be cautious and limit their activities."

And not just them, but anyone in a position to know about their activities. "Those in Iran who are in touch with these men or control them would be cautious, too. By announcing their names, America [may] benefit."

-- Hossein Aryan