On July 21, the Pentagon announced that Muhsin al-Fadhli, an al Qaeda operative who had been wanted for more than a decade, was killed in an airstrike in Syria earlier in the month. Fadhli has been dead at least once before. In September 2014, the United States launched airstrikes against his so-called Khorasan Group (a cadre of al Qaeda veterans plotting attacks against the West), and some officials told the press that Fadhli had perished. That wasn’t true. Still, Defense Department officials are confident they got their man on July 8. The DoD doesn’t usually issue formal press releases for this sort of thing unless there is significant intelligence backing up its claims. The department wasn’t fully forthcoming, however. Its short biography of Fadhli was missing a key word: Iran.
Before relocating to Syria, Fadhli led al Qaeda’s network in Iran. The Treasury Department revealed this fact in a terrorist designation issued October 18, 2012. Fadhli, Treasury reported, “began working with al Qaeda’s Iran-based facilitation network in 2009 and was later arrested by the Iranians.” But he was “released by the Iranians in 2011 and went on to assume the leadership of the facilitation network.”
“In addition to providing funding for al Qaeda activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Treasury said, Fadhli’s network was “working to move fighters and money through Turkey to support al Qaeda-affiliated elements in Syria.” Fadhli leveraged “his extensive network of Kuwaiti jihadist donors to send money to Syria via Turkey.”
Iran didn’t simply turn a blind eye to Fadhli’s activities. The Treasury Department explained that a deal requires al Qaeda’s men to report to the regime. “Under the terms of the agreement between al Qaeda and Iran, al Qaeda must refrain from conducting any operations within Iranian territory and recruiting operatives inside Iran while keeping Iranian authorities informed of their activities.” Al Qaeda benefits from this relationship. “In return” for accepting Iran’s terms, Treasury continued, “the Government of Iran gave the Iran-based al Qaeda network freedom of operation and uninhibited ability to travel for extremists and their families.” Iranian authorities enforce these terms, which were negotiated “with the knowledge” of Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man, by detaining al Qaeda members who do not comply.
There has been surprisingly little discussion of this during the debate over President Obama’s nuclear accord with Iran, even though al Qaeda’s presence on Iranian soil greatly complicates Obama’s vision of a post-deal world.
It is no secret that the president believes the deal with Iran could open the door to a better relationship between the regime and its “Great Satan,” America. “Iran may change,” Obama told the New York Times’s Tom Friedman in an interview published in April, though he tried to tone down his optimism by “emphasizing that the nuclear deal that we’ve put together is not based on the idea that somehow the regime changes.” Still, Obama said Iran could be “an extremely successful regional power” and a “responsible international player,” as long as “it did not engage in aggressive rhetoric against its neighbors,” “didn’t express anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish sentiment,” and “maintained a military that was sufficient to protect itself, but was not engaging in a whole bunch of proxy wars around the region.” Of course, a “responsible” Iran wouldn’t support al Qaeda either.
President Obama and his advisers like to pretend that critics of their Iran deal are warmongers who don’t want a diplomatic resolution or have otherwise been compromised by “lobbying.” But opponents of the deal are rightly concerned about Iran’s clear record of illicit nuclear activities and its decades of anti-Americanism (including killing U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan), antisemitism, and revolutionary fervor, which the regime zealously exports throughout the region. (Iran has actually increased its support for proxy wars during Obama’s tenure in office.)
Iran’s agreement with al Qaeda—exposed by Obama’s own administration, not critics of the Iran deal—puts these concerns into stark relief. It is the administration, after all, that declared Muhsin al-Fadhli a threat to Americans who needed to be killed.