In the aftermath of the successful May 2011 U.S. special operations forces raid into Pakistan that resulted in the killing of al-Qa'idah leader Usamah bin Ladin, there has been a subtle shift in the traditionally uneasy relationship between the government of Iran and the al-Qa'idah terrorist organization. One of the key leaders of the terror organization is Sayf al-'Adil*, currently under supposed house arrest near Tehran.
Al-'Adil, like other senior al-Qa'idah leaders and bin Ladin family members, fled to Iran in the face of the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. According to the Iranians, they were placed under so-called "house arrest" in a residential facility near Tehran. Despite the restrictions placed on these leaders, al-'Adil has been known to travel to Pakistan and probably Afghanistan.
Iran is using al-Qa'idah as a tool in its own fight with the United States and the West. There is no common ideology between the Iranian Islamic Revolution (enqelab-e islami) and the al-Qa'idah Organization (tanzim al-qa'idah) other than the fact that they are both Muslim and favor the imposition of their own interpretation of Shari'ah law. The Iranians follow the doctrine of the Shi'a sect of Islam, while al-Qa'idah is a Sunni fundamentalist group. This relationship is also complicated by the fact that al-Qa'idah is an Arab organization, while the Iranians are predominantly Persians - the animosity between the two runs long and deep.
So here we have two diametrically opposed, ethnically-different Islamic fundamentalist groups supposedly cooperating with each other. The differences go further than just ideology or belief system - it involves much bloodshed on both sides and includes attacks on sites holy to the other side. For example, in Iraq in 2006, the group known as "al-Qa'idah in the land of the two rivers" (more commonly called al-Qa'idah in Iraq, or AQI) under the leadership of the late Abu Musa'ib al-Zarqawi masterminded the beginning of a civil war in Iraq, a civil war between Sunni Arabs and Shi'a Arabs.
The event that triggered the internecine fighting was an attack on the al-'Askari Shrine in al-Samarra' that destroyed the golden dome of the mosque. An AQI attack the next year destroyed the two 100-feet tall minarets at the shrine. The shrine is the burial place of the 10th and 11th Shi'a imams and considered one of the holiest sites in Shi'a Islam. (It has since been restored.)
The attack was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. Despite exhortations from Tehran and Iraqi Shi'a religious leaders, the Shi'a rose up and responded with violence - just as al-Zarqawi planned it. Al-Zarqawi's stated goal, although not supported by Usamah bin Ladin and al-Qa'idah number two Ayman al-Zawahiri, was to kill all of the Shi'a, whom he viewed as apostates to Islam.
The irony - Iran is now cooperating with a group that attempted to kill as many of its fellow Shi'a as it could. Why? The answer is simple. There is one common conviction shared by both al-Qa'idah and the Iranians - hatred of the United States. That hatred of the United States transcends their hatred of each other. It is strong enough to make the two enemies work with each other.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's recent remarks that intelligence gathered from the Abbottabad compound of Usamah bin Ladin has identified 10 to 20 al-Qa'idah leaders whose deaths or capture would "strategically defeat" the organization, may play right into Iran's hand. Iran has pretty much out-maneuvered the Obama Administration in virtually all aspects of the Iranian issue, be it the nuclear program, Iraq or Afghanistan. (See my earlier pieces on Iran going back several years, including during the Bush Administration.)
Since the Secretary has laid down the gauntlet and told these top leaders that if possible, their fate will be the same as that of Usamah bin Ladin, they may be looking for a safer place to hide than Pakistan. Pakistan's probably-complicit Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate has proven not as efficient as might have been thought prior to the May raid. The chances of the Obama Administration launching a similar raid into Iran is virtually non-existent, given its flawed and failed "engagement" policy toward the Islamic Republic.
Iran, for its part, gets to exert greater influence over the al-Qa'idah organization, fitting in with its goal to be the key power broker in the region as the United States all but capitulates its leadership position with the politically-motivated - and premature - withdrawal of its military forces from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Note to political science majors and junkies - what the Iranians are doing is classic. They have turned a potential enemy into an ally in the fight against a common, larger threat - the United States.
The Iranians live by the Middle East adage, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
* Sayf al-'Adil is a nom de guerre. It is Arabic for "Sword of Justice."