When al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri spoke in an audio message broadcast to supporters earlier this month, he had harsh words for Iran. Its true face, he said, had been unmasked by its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against fighters loyal to al Qaeda.
Yet it is symptomatic of the peculiar relationship between Tehran and al Qaeda that in the same month Canadian police would accuse “al Qaeda elements in Iran” of backing a plot to derail a passenger train.
Shi’ite Muslim Iran and strict Sunni militant group al Qaeda are natural enemies on either side of the Muslim world’s great sectarian divide.
Yet intelligence veterans say that Iran, in pursuing its own ends, has in the past taken advantage of al Qaeda fighters’ need to shelter or pass through its territory. It is a murky relationship that has been fluid and, say some in the intelligence community, has deteriorated in recent years.
“I wouldn’t even call it a marriage of convenience. It’s an association of convenience,” said Richard Barrett, former head of counter-terrorism for Britain’s MI6 Secret Intelligence Service and later head of the U.N. Security Council’s monitoring team maintaining the world body’s al Qaeda and Taliban sanctions blacklists.
“It’s not a strategic alliance. An al Qaeda presence may suit the Iranians because it allows them to keep an eye on them, it gives them leverage in the form of people who are akin to hostages,” he added.
“There has been a lot of travel between Iraq and Pakistan and I cannot imagine the Iranians are not aware of that,” he said. But it was unlikely that Iran would take the risk of actively collaborating with al Qaeda against North America: “I don’t think the Iranians would take it kindly if it turned out that there had been plotting by al Qaeda on their territory.”