In written testimony presented to the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday, General David Petraeus offered a succinct and sophisticated take on how the Iranian regime operates. Petraeus explained (emphasis added):
The Iranian regime is the primary state-level threat to stability in the region. Throughout much of the region, the regime pursues a dual-track foreign policy. Overtly, the Iranian government cooperates with regional states through bilateral arrangements to promote Iran as an economic, political, and military power. In parallel, the regime entrusts the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)-Qods Force to execute covert aspects of its foreign policy using political influence, covert businesses, lethal and non-lethal aid, and training to militants supportive of the regime’s agenda. The Qods Force is active throughout the region, and, in fact, controls Iranian foreign policy in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza and influences heavily in Afghanistan and the Gulf Region. Through Qods Force soft power initiatives and destabilizing activities, such as coercion and direct attacks, Iran is subverting democratic processes and intimidating the nascent governments of our partners.
Thus, on the one hand, Iran brandishes its credentials as a regional power and continues to expand its sphere of influence through traditional state-to-state levers. But, on the other hand, Iran cannot betray the revolutionary goals of the Khomeini cult and its heirs. Iran’s terrorist proxies continue to subvert the very states that Iranian government leadership does business with on a day-to-day basis.
Such duplicity is an essential part of Iran’s behavior. As Petraeus explained, we see this dynamic in play in states throughout the region, including Afghanistan. There, the “the Iranian regime appears to have hedged its longstanding public support for the Karzai government by providing opportunistic support to the Taliban.” And we see such duplicity in Iran’s various dealings with al Qaeda as well. Here is how Petraeus put it:
Additionally, al-Qaeda continues to use Iran as a key facilitation hub, where facilitators connect al-Qaeda’s senior leadership to regional affiliates. And although Iranian authorities do periodically disrupt this network by detaining select al-Qaeda facilitators and operational planners, Tehran’s policy in this regard is often unpredictable.
I don’t think it is as unpredictable as Petraeus does, but his comments were otherwise on point.
Iran acts like the corrupt cop who is in league with the mob. The cop will turn over some low-level mafia operatives from time to time, but these efforts are merely intended to obscure cooperation with the bigger fish. After September 11, Iran did turn over some lower-level terrorists operatives by returning them to their home countries in the Arab world. Others, such as al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi, were allowed to regroup inside Iran after the fall of Afghanistan in late 2001 before moving on to rejoin the fight. The biggest fish, including members of Osama bin Laden’s and Ayman al Zawhiri’s families, members of al Qaeda’s military committee (responsible for staging attacks, including the 1998 embassy bombings), Osama bin Laden’s chief spokesman, and important members of al Qaeda’s WMD acquisition efforts, were all given safe haven. The Iranians, at first, denied that they were even living on Iranian territory.
Some members of bin Laden’s family have, in recent months, pretended as though the Iranians are holding their fellow bin Ladens against their will and publicly asked for their release. This appears to be a propaganda ploy. Upon closer inspection it is quite clear that the bin Ladens have lived comfortably inside Iran, and their life there was part of a negotiated agreement to provide protection. See, for example, this Treasury Department designation released in January 2009. The Treasury Department noted that one senior al Qaeda member “negotiated on behalf of al Qaeda in an attempt to relocate al Qaeda families to Iran,” including bin Laden’s and Zawahiri’s families. And members of the bin Laden family, including Saad bin Laden, were allowed to leave Iran when they wanted.
What all of this says about the broader Iran-al Qaeda relationship is something that many analysts do not want to explore.
Today, al Qaeda uses Iran as a “key facilitation hub” for operations inside Saudi Arabia, Yemen, South Asia and elsewhere.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.