I don’t know what McCain does or doesn’t know about Iran, Iraq, or Islam, or whether he misspoke on Iran and al-Qaeda. But it is not preposterous on its face that they would be in league, as Hilzoy contends, and plenty of officials and journalists have made the same claim.
Iran is secretly forging ties with al-Qaida elements and Sunni Arab militias in Iraq in preparation for a summer showdown with coalition forces intended to tip a wavering US Congress into voting for full military withdrawal, US officials say.
“Tehran is behaving like a racecourse gambler. They’re betting on all the horses in the race, even on people they fundamentally don’t trust,” a senior administration official in Washington said. “They don’t know what the outcome will be in Iraq. So they’re hedging their bets.”
Reports nonetheless persist that hundreds of Al-Qaeda operatives along with some 18 senior leaders—including Saif Adel, Al-Qaeda’s military commander, and Osama Bin Laden’s son, Saad, are living in Iran. Spain’s top counterterrorism judge has dubbed this Al-Qaeda’s “board of managers,” according to the 1 August Los Angeles Times. A French counterterrorism official says that these leaders have “controlled freedom of movement” inside Iran, AFP reported on 15 July, and the London-based Arabic daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat reports that some are even living in villas near the Caspian Sea coast town of Chalus, AFP reported on 28 June. Other accounts of their activities are far more disturbing. U.S. communications intercepts indicate that the 12 May 2003 attacks on the expatriate compounds in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, were orchestrated from Iran, according to the 1 August Los Angeles Times, and though others may be involved, European government officials reportedly point to Adel as the primary suspect.
Many Iran experts are not surprised that the IRGC might provide assistance and refuge to Al-Qaeda members at the same time that other elements of the Iranian government, such as the Intelligence Ministry, are arresting and extraditing Al-Qaeda suspects. Many experts believe the IRGC operates beyond the control of elected politicians in Tehran and answers only to the hard core of the unelected clerical elite. As a top French law enforcement official told the Los Angeles Times: “Iranians play a double game. It is a classic Iranian style of ambiguity, deception, manipulation. Everything they can do to trouble the Americans, without going too far, they do it. They have arrested important Al-Qaeda people, but they have permitted other important Al-Qaeda people to operate.”
The Iranians are now exerting pressure on al-Qa’eda’s leadership to make al-Adel the organisation’s number three which, given bin Laden’s poor state of health, would effectively make him number two. This would put him in a strong position to take control of the entire al-Qa’eda network in the event of Zawahiri being killed or being unable to continue running the group.
“This is an important power play by the Iranians and the prospect of al-Qa’eda and Iran forging a close alliance is truly terrifying,” said a senior Western intelligence official. “They have had their differences in the past, but with the survival of both Iran and al-Qa’eda now at stake they realise it is in both their interests to have closer ties.”
Links between Iran and al-Qa’eda date back to the early 1990s, when bin Laden was based in Sudan. According to the US 9/11 Commission report, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards helped to train al-Qa’eda fighters, and the Iranians were suspected of helping al-Qa’eda to carry out the truck bomb attacks against an American military base in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in June 1996 that killed 19 US servicemen.
So, one left-wing paper, one right-wing, and a “neocon” writing at RFE/RL. Anonymous sources in western and sometimes-allied intelligence agencies, and the 9/11 Commission Report. I’d guess there’s some admixture of good intel, bad intel, speculation, spitballing, propagandizing, tasseomancy, first-hand knowledge, and rank ignorance.
And Hilzoy’s analogies don’t hold water, either—it is not “exactly that clueless” to confuse white supremacists and radical black nationalists (“When George Lincoln Rockwell, Elijah Muhammad, and Malcolm X shared the same stage”), or Ron Paul’s and Dennis Kucinich’s supporters (“Kucinich considers GOP Ron Paul as his running mate”). Hey, this is fun! Let’s close the circle of crackpottery: “An unholy alliance: Aryan Nation leader reaches out to al Qaeda”
A couple of hours up the road from where some September 11 hijackers learned to fly, the new head of Aryan Nation is praising them—and trying to create an unholy alliance between his white supremacist group and al Qaeda.
“You say they’re terrorists, I say they’re freedom fighters. And I want to instill the same jihadic feeling in our peoples’ heart, in the Aryan race, that they have for their father, who they call Allah.”
Cranks, criminals, and terrorists can be remarkably pragmatic in finding common cause. The enemy of my enemy? He’s good people.