Iran is a non-Arab Muslim state that adheres to an extreme form of Shi’ite Islam. In the Shi’ite axis through which Iran conducts its regional policy (Iran-Syria-Hezbollah in Lebanon), Syria forms a vital link – which is why Iran is expending every effort to keep Bashar Assad in power. Supported by Iran, Shia fundamentalists in their thousands have flocked to Assad’s banner, and are in deadly conflict with the thousands of Sunni jihadists who have joined the opposition forces that are battling to overthrow the Assad régime.
For example, the assassination attempt on the Syrian Prime Minister, Wael Al-Halki, on Monday 29 April, was pretty clearly an operation carried out by one of the extremist Sunni groups that have affiliated themselves to the anti-Assad rebellion.
In particular the military wing of Hezbollah, the terrorist organisation set up in Lebanon by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in the 1980s, is heavily engaged in the Syrian civil conflict, determined to ensure that the Assad régime is not swept away. If eventually a political settlement is reached between the Syrian rebels and the Syrian government, then Hezbollah’s power and influence, already great and growing within Lebanon’s body politic, would have spilt over into its vastly larger Syrian neighbour. In that eventuality the Gulf states, all of which, with the exception of Bahrain, are Sunni Muslim, would be locked in a sort of Shi’ite pincer – and, as the recent release of Wikileaks documents revealed, virtually all of them greatly fear that Iran aims to topple their régimes and dominate the region.
Yet in the convoluted, Byzantine world of Islamic fundamentalism, “my enemy’s enemy is sometimes my friend”, and Shi’ite and Sunni jihadists are agreed at least on a common enemy – Israel. A visceral hatred of Judaism and Jews has been hot-wired into the extreme Islamist world view, and to jihadists of either persuasion Israel as a Jewish state is literally intolerable. As a result, Shi’ite Iran has been far from consistent in its relations with Sunni extremists.
For example, united by a desire to destroy Israel, Iran has consistently supplied the Sunni terrorist organisation Hamas in the Gaza strip with ever-more sophisticated weaponry. As a result the volume and range of the rockets fired from Gaza indiscriminately on civilian targets inside Israel increased to a point when, in 2012, Israel felt obliged for a second time to respond to the continued provocation by a direct military assault.
Now, evidence is emerging that Iran is looking for new ways to reopen its supply lines to Hamas. Rather than risk detection by the Israeli navy, Iran is trying to link up with the hard-line Sunni Muslim government in Sudan to smuggle arms to Gaza, passing through Egypt where another Islamist Sunni government is in power.
“In short,” wrote the distinguished columnist Con Coughlin recently, “Iran has no problem working with its Sunni rivals when it suits its interests to do so – and this should worry us.”
Another disturbing phenomenon is the on-off working relationship between Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Al-Qaeda. Divided by race and religion, they are not natural allies: what unites them is their loathing of the US and Israel. This common hatred was sufficient, following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, to persuade Iran to grant refuge to bin Laden’s daughter, Fatima, and four of his sons – Othman, Mohammed, Laden and Sa’ad – along with various other key Al-Qaeda figures Including former security chief, Saif al-Adel. Now the US believes that Saif al-Adel's father-in-law, Mustafa Hamid, is the link between Al-Qaeda and the Iranian government.
A recent incident linking them is the pre-emptive arrest last week of two men suspected of a plot to derail a passenger train in Toronto. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said the surveillance operation leading to the arrests was "a result of extensive collaborative efforts" – FBI agents from the US were said to be involved in helping foil the attack – and that the terrorist operation had been planned with support from Al-Qaeda elements in Iran.
Canada's Globe and Mail, reporting that the arrested men had been under investigation for months, asserted that the planned terrorist attack involved a Toronto-New York City train and, in the words of New York Republican Representative Peter King, was intended "to cause significant loss of human life including New Yorkers."
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi described the accusation as “the most hilarious thing I've heard in my 64 years." However Jonathan Eyal, head of security studies at the Royal United Services Institute, has said: ”The Canadian claim that this plot has been engineered on Iranian soil is entirely plausible. Western intelligence agencies have known for a long time about the presence of Al-Qaeda operatives in Iran.”
So yes, as and when it suits the Iranian regime and advances their global strategic objectives, Iran will provide support to extremist Sunni groups like Al-Qaeda and Hamas, and these Sunni fundamentalists will accept it. But outside observers need to bear in mind that, in the eyes of hard-line Sunni salafists, the Shia faith is a heresy – indeed some challenge the right of Shi’ites to call themselves Muslim at all. Some Wahabi groups, often designated “takfiri” and sometimes linked to Al-Qaeda, have even advocated the persecution of the Shia as heretics. Such groups have been allegedly responsible for violent attacks and suicide bombings at Shi’ite gatherings at mosques and shrines, most notably in Iraq during the Ashura mourning ceremonies in 2005, where hundreds of Shias were killed in coordinated suicide bombings.
It is some consolation to reflect that cooperation resting on such uncertain foundations is unlikely to be either solid or permanent – and that, effectively challenged, it would almost certainly prove vulnerable.
Published in the Eurasia Review, 30 April 2013: