Although Bin Laden’s own designs on Iran reportedly never materialized, the documents complicate the picture that many people hold of relations between Iran’s Shiite theocracy and the Sunni terrorist organizations operating just beyond its borders. Although it is true that this sectarian divide often puts Iran at odds with specific Al Qaeda goals and strategies, it is also true that the two sides have repeatedly proven willing to collaborate in opposition to shared enemies, particularly the US and Israel.
Indeed, the lack of a formal Al Qaeda branch office in Iran does not signify the lack of Al Qaeda elements operating in that country with the blessing of Iran. In 2012, an article in Foreign Affairs proclaimed that “since late 2001, Iran has held some of al Qaeda’s most senior leaders. Several of these operatives, such as Yasin al-Suri, an al Qaeda facilitator, have moved recruits and money from the Middle East to central al Qaeda in Pakistan. Others… have provided strategic and operational assistance to central al Qaeda.”
In an online talk this week at the website IranFreedom.org, Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a former Spanish Member of the European Parliament described Tehran’s regional strategy, including its proxy wars with Sunni states like Saudi Arabia, as being aimed at establishing a Shiite regional hegemony in the name of the Islamic Republic of Iran. But part and parcel of this strategy is the expectation of across-the-board Muslim unity, something that the leaders of Iran have called for on various occasions, as when trying to encourage financial and logistical support for anti-Israeli terrorist groups.
This being the case, Iran is certainly willing to support extra-governmental Sunni organizations. Foreign Affairs and the recently released Bin Laden documents indicate that Al Qaeda is one example of this. Other recent events point to escalating Iranian collaboration with the Sunni Palestinian terrorist group Hamas. In the aftermath of a brief war between Hamas and Israel last summer, it was reported that Iranian arms shipments and technical know-how had helped Hamas to boost the range of its rockets by about one-third.
In March, The Tower reported that Speaker of the Iranian Parliament Ali Larijani had made diplomatic visits specifically aimed at improving ties with Hamas and other Sunni groups. Owing to sectarian differences, Hamas had taken a position against the Iran-allied Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, thus straining relations between Hamas and Tehran for a period of years. Nevertheless, both parties reportedly saw sufficient common cause to motivate them to work past these differences.
“Analysts believe that Iran’s forgiveness of Hamas, which is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, could lead to it and other Brotherhood branches becoming Iranian regional proxies,” The Tower reported.
All of this points to trends of collaboration that are still ongoing and that extend to other declared enemies of the US and other Western powers. This week, the Associated Press reported that a delegation from the Afghani Taliban had been sent on a visit to Tehran. This visit was actively promoted by Iranian media, which pointed out that similar delegations had visited Tehran for other high-level talks on two previous occasions.
In a commentary upon these developments at the Asia Times, M.K. Bhadrakumar indicates that it is unclear whether the Taliban visit took place autonomously or at the request of the Iranian regime, but that this detail is unimportant because in either case it signifies broad collaboration across sectarian lines and centered on Tehran.
And according to Bhadrakumar, not only does the Taliban-Iran connection cross sectarian lines, it also points to the formation of partnerships that extend beyond the Muslim world and present a serious, growing challenge to US interests. “It could be seen as yet another sign of a re-alignment in regional politics, involving Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China” against the US and its allies, Bhadrakumar concludes.
To this group Russia could certainly be added, as well as the various Sunni and Shiite terrorist organizations to which Iran has offered a consistent pattern of support and collaboration.