Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ( vasilis asvestas/Shutterstock)
Pompeo floats dubious claim that Iran is helping al-Qaida

Trump officials are doing all they can to prevent the incoming Biden team’s diplomacy with Iran — or worse.

Mike Pompeo on Tuesday accused Iran of acting as al-Qaida’s “new home base,” the outgoing secretary of state’s latest attempt to advance a dubious claim that could justify a military strike against Iran or sabotage President-elect Joe Biden’s diplomatic efforts.

The administration has tried several times to tie Iran to al-Qaida, a claim that has been called politicized or an outright lie. Pompeo made the latest allegation with less than two weeks left in office, and did not offer any new evidence to back it up.

“It seems clear to me that the timing of the Iran-[al-Qaida] revelations, to the extent you want to label them revelations, is politics,” Colin P. Clarke, director of policy and research at the Soufan Group, told Responsible Statecraft in an email. “This appears to be an attempt to hamstring the Biden administration’s ability to negotiate with Iran.”

Clarke, who has testified to Congress on terrorism and worked as an analyst for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, says that “al-Qaeda has benefited from its relationship with Iran…but to describe Iran as a ‘new home base’ doesn’t seem accurate to me.”

Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif called Pompeo’s speech “warmongering lies” in a Twitter post.

Members of al-Qaida were previously known to be living in Iran. Hundreds of militants fled in 2001 from Afghanistan to Iran, where they were detained and closely watched by authorities.

Pompeo claimed on Tuesday that Iran has decided to grant these militants “freedom of movement,” and is even providing the group with “logistical support.” He charged that Iranian authorities made a 2015 deal with al-Qaida, which “has centralized its leadership” in Tehran. 

The secretary of state also confirmed earlier reports that al-Qaida’s second-in-command, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, was assassinated in the Iranian capital last summer.

Experts were skeptical.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if [al-Qaida] continues to maintain a clandestine presence in Iran,” says Nelly Lahoud, a senior fellow at New America. “I would be very surprised if it is collaborating with Iran to plot terrorist attacks.”

Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, noted that the Trump administration “lies all the time” about Iran and is currently engaged in “a campaign to make it harder for Biden…to return to diplomacy with Iran.”

Tuesday’s speech was not the first time the Trump administration has attempted to tie Iran to al-Qaeda.

In 2017, then-CIA director Pompeo released a trove of documents captured from al-Qaida’s late leader Osama bin Laden. He gave an advance copy to the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies which claimed that there “new details concerning al-Qaeda’s  relationship with Iran.”

But Lahoud, who studied the same documents, found just the opposite. She published a study in 2018 showing that al-Qaida “views Iran as a hostile entity,” and points out that members of the group were mistreated and even died in Iranian custody.

U.S. officials gave a series of closed-door briefings on Iran’s alleged connection to al-Qaida in mid-2019, as the Trump administration escalated economic sanctions against Iran and launched a military buildup in the region.

Members of Congress worried that the administration was trying to justify military action against Iran without asking Congress by piggybacking on the war against al-Qaida.

Michigan Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin, a former CIA analyst, told the New York Times that national security experts “should be looking at any talk of ties between senior Iranian leaders and Al Qaeda with a real skeptical eye.”

The Trump administration again attempted to tie Iran to al-Qaida and its Afghan allies after assassinating Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in January 2020. U.S. military intelligence officials pushed back on some of the claims in a report published two months later.

The administration has been less outspoken about other U.S. allies’ relationship with al-Qaida.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have fought alongside al-Qaida — even transferring U.S.-made weapons to al-Qaida’s affiliates — as part of their war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Pompeo added the Houthi movement, which is bitterly opposed to al-Qaida, to the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist groups on Monday.

Turkey has also backed al-Qaida’s affiliates against the Iranian-backed Syrian regime. Former special envoy Brett McGurk has referred to the Turkish-protected zone in Idlib as “the largest al-Qaida safe haven since 9/11,” and the group’s senior members were publicly welcomed to the Turkish-occupied region of Afrin as recently as last month.

“Some of the [Turkish-backed Syrian rebel] factions do not even try to hide their sympathy for [al-Qaida], which is why so many people fled during the [October 2019] operation,” Wilson Center fellow Amy Austin Holmes, who visited Syria in September. told Responsible Statecraft in a text message. “I have personally spoken to Yezidis, Syriac Christians, Kurds and Arabs who fled from Ras al-Ayn in October 2019 and are still unable to return to their homes. None of them want to live under extremists.”

The Trump administration has supported both the Turkish-led intervention in Syria and the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. Still, al-Qaida’s main “center of gravity remains the [Afghanistan-Pakistan] border,” Clarke notes.

“I think we should all be wary of politics influencing intelligence, especially after the 2003 U.S. Iraq invasion,” he added.

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