Al-Qaeda (and US) eclipsed by rise of Iran

One of the more interesting results of the Israel-Hezbollah War has been the sidelining of the global jihadi movement and the broader Salafi currents that sustain it. Despite all its rhetoric of a global jihad against the enemies of Islam, al-Qaeda and the broader Salafi-jihadi movement were reduced to mere spectators as Hezbollah, once again, dealt a serious blow to Israeli prestige.

While some analysts interpreted Ayman al-Zawahiri’s latest

message as an olive branch to Iran, Hezbollah and Shi’ite militants more broadly, it in fact was not a departure from the terror network’s stance on sectarian relations in Islam. In any case, al-Qaeda is increasingly a marginal component of the Salafi-jihadi movement, and its ideological influence on the new generation of radicals is nowhere near as strong as is often assumed.

However, to understand where Salafi-jihadism stands in relation to Hezbollah and Iran, it is vital to review the relationship between the Islamic Republic and al-Qaeda. This is not only important for dispelling myths but will help to clarify the balance of power between the various Islamic movements that are set to dominate politics in the Middle East.

Iran and al-Qaeda: A secret relationship?
Although the general consensus in the Western media is that there has never been a substantial relationship between al-Qaeda and Iran, occasionally sensational articles allude to such a relationship. The most recent one is by the German daily Die Welt, which claimed on August 2 that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) had released Saad, the oldest son of Osama Bin Laden, from custody to enable him to organize a Sunni resistance against Israel from Lebanon. The paper characteristically cites “intelligence sources” to back up an implausible scenario. Leaving aside the unproven allegation that Saad bin Laden has been in Iranian custody, it is not at all clear what a 27-year-old Saudi of unknown quantity – who is completely unfamiliar with Lebanon – can hope to achieve against Israel.

Notwithstanding the lack of any meaningful relationship, the Iranians have had a complex and intriguing attitude towards militant Sunni Islamism in general and al-Qaeda in particular. American intelligence is convinced the Iranians maintained links to Egyptian radicals (some of whom may have had peripheral ties to al-Qaeda) until recently. [1] This is plausible, especially in light of the Islamic Republic’s deep and complex relationship with Egyptian Islamists spanning the moderate-extremist spectrum.

At the rhetorical level the Iranians have consistently dismissed al-Qaeda as a construct of American intelligence. This is partly rooted in the Iranians’ analysis of the Afghan War of the 1980s. While publicly they have glorified the exploits of the anti-Soviet mujahideen, privately they bear grudges for the isolation of Tehran and its Afghan Shi’ite allies in the conflict and its aftermath. Iran’s isolation from the anti-Soviet jihad is to a large extent justified; at the time they were consumed by their own conflict against Ba’athist Iraq. This prevented the Islamic Republic from developing meaningful ties to the Arabic Islamic networks that matured in the Afghan jihadi landscape of the 1980s. This lack of contact reinforced Iranian suspicions that the Arab Islamists (of which bin Laden was a key member) were ultimately an American pawn in a grand geostrategic game against the Soviet superpower.

In short, the Iranians deliberately downplay the role of the Arabs in the Afghan jihad, instead crediting the indigenous mujahideen with victory over the Soviet superpower. This is in sharp contrast to even moderate Arab Islamist narratives of the conflict. The Muslim Brotherhood and its various off-shoots (which organized much of the relief work in Afghanistan and Pakistan) view the Arab Islamist participation – both on the battlefield and in relief and other non-military activities – as crucial to the victory of the Afghan mujahideen.

The legend that has been constructed (and to which all the Arab Islamists that participated in the conflict subscribe to) credits the “Muslims” with not only defeating the Soviet superpower in Afghanistan, but in engineering its eventual downfall in 1991. This narrative demands the US be grateful for this contribution, which catapulted the Americans into sole superpower position. The fact that the Americans were not grateful formed much of the grievances that fueled the emergence of al-Qaeda.

The Iranians have a poor understanding of this dynamic and have thus consistently underestimated the ideological and organizational strength of al-Qaeda. This lack of understanding of the genesis of al-Qaeda predisposes Iranian analysts to too closely identifying the terror network with the Salafi streams in Saudi Arabia.

In the ideological cosmos of the Islamic Republic, Salafism is synonymous with “Ummayad Islam”, characterized by reactionary and extremist thinking and a tendency to bicker with other Islamic traditions, as opposed to the external enemies of Islam. From an Iranian perspective, the antithesis of “Ummayad Islam” is “Islam-e-Nab-e-Mohammadi” (pure Mohammadean Islam) which was revived by the late leader of the Iranian revolution, Grand Ayatollah Khomeini. This Iranian narrative presents “Islam-e-Nab-e-Mohammadi” as being historically concerned with fighting the “real” enemies of Islam, instead of fanning intractable and insoluble sectarian differences. This viewpoint is best articulated by Rasoul Jaafarian, a prolific writer and self-appointed promoter of “Mohammadean Islam”. [2]

Enemy’s enemies

Leaving aside the intense theological and ideological rivalry of Shi’ites and Salafis, there are real problems with this Iranian analysis of al-Qaeda and its supposed Salafi underpinnings. First and foremost al-Qaeda is not even ideologically linked to the type of Salafis which the Iranians find most distasteful. These include Safar al-Hawali, Nasser al-Omar and Abdullah bin Jabreen. Hawali recently declared Hezbollah to be Hezb al-Shaytan (Party of the Devil), while Jabreen issued a fatwa against the Shi’ite Islamist organization at the outset of the conflict.

While Hawali has a semi-jihadi background, he has now moved towards the more mainstream and regime-friendly version of Salafism which views al-Qaeda as “Kharejites” (rejectionists). Salafism is a very broad theological and ideological phenomenon and only a minority within it are predisposed to the type of jihad promoted by al-Qaeda.

Second, al-Qaeda does not have a history of openly attacking Shi’ites, even at the rhetorical level. While the events in Iraq have called this into question, it is important to note that what is regarded as “al-Qaeda in the Land of the two Rivers” formerly led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, has no meaningful organizational and ideological ties to the core of al-Qaeda. The alliance between Zarqawi and al-Qaeda was one of convenience and the former’s vitriolic anti-Shi’ite rhetoric was not condoned by Zawahiri and bin Laden.

Primary target
Simply put, al-Qaeda views the struggle against the West in general and the United States in particular as of primary importance. Sectarian squabbles within Islam can only be addressed once the external enemy has been forced to withdraw from the Muslim world. This is not too dissimilar from the geopolitical aspirations of the followers of so-called “Mohammadean Islam” who have been striving for the withdrawal of the West from the Middle East and other Islamic lands long before the emergence of bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

In fact, al-Qaeda is a secret admirer of the discourse of Islamic Iran and has rarely (if ever) attacked the leaders of the Islamic Republic. However, the Iranians have always maintained their distance not only because of the extreme Sunnism (as opposed to Salafism) of bin Laden and Zawahiri but also because of genuine contempt for the terror network.

Iranian leaders regard their “Islamic revolution” as the vanguard of the global Islamic movement and any competitor (especially one as pretentious as al-Qaeda) is regarded with deep suspicion and disdain. Moreover, there is genuine revulsion of al-Qaeda tactics. This is not only because al-Qaeda targets innocent civilians, but because the Iranians fear that terror attacks against US interests consolidate American hegemony in the region and beyond. These fundamental divisions between Iran and al-Qaeda are likely to deepen as the geopolitical weight of the Islamic Republic continues to grow.

The resurgence of Islamic Iran
Despite their constant denials of providing financial and military help to Hezbollah, Iranian leaders and political analysts have not spared any effort over the past month to glorify Hezbollah’s “resistance” against Israel, and claim credit for the Islamist group’s stunning successes against the Jewish state. Iranian leaders are not altogether unjustified in feeling self-righteous over Hezbollah’s perceived victory. Hezbollah’s impeccable Lebanese credentials notwithstanding, its ties to the Islamic Republic are so deep and organic that the success and failure of either party would leave a uniquely powerful impact on the other.

Iranian analysts and strategists have spent the past month extolling their country’s foreign policy, promoting it as the most effective in the region. Arguably the best piece of analysis was from Reza Amir Khani of Baztab, which tries to rationalize the Islamic Republic’s support to Hezbollah and Hamas within a national security framework. [3] Interestingly, Amir Khani explains the Iranian policy in the context of the evolution of the Western way of war. The author speaks of “Ghale’ie” (fortress) and “Meydani” (field) warfare, arguing that Western warriors (heeding the lessons of legendary Troy) learnt to abandon the fortress for the open field. The rationale is simple; the fall of the fortress entails complete defeat while losses on the field are more manageable. This buttresses the author’s contention that the Islamic republic sees offense as the best form of defense. Instead of waiting for the US to attack Iran, the Iranians are already fighting the Americans and their proxies in Lebanon and Palestine, the author explains. This argument is both compelling and accurate, as evidenced by the emboldened attitudes of America’s adversaries in light of Hezbollah’s perceived victory over Israel.

Hezbollah’s stunning successes against Israel boosts the Islamic Republic’s revival as an ideological power. This process started with the surprise victory of Mahmud Ahmadinejad in last year’s presidential elections. Having spent the last 15 years on the ideological retreat, the Islamic Republic suddenly went on the offensive. This was particularly the case with the country’s controversial nuclear program. The Ahmadinejad government’s confrontational approach has not only been popular but is actually perceived to be working, as evidenced by a more moderate American approach which now favors some form of engagement with Iran.

More broadly, the Islamic Republic’s growing geopolitical weight (stemming in large measure from the ouster of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein) reinforces its ideological revival and motivates Iran’s supporters across the Muslim world. Al-Qaeda and Salafi-jihadis are clearly losers in this intensifying dynamic. The problem is not so much their extreme ideology, but their comparative lack of organizational infrastructure and other resources. While Hezbollah has emerged as the most sophisticated guerrilla organization in the world, the Salafi-jihadis are still struggling with the basics. This is a reality that not even the most sophisticated al-Qaeda propagandists can dismiss lightly.

More broadly, the resurgence of Islamic Iran is likely to boost the fortunes of moderate Islamists across the Arab world. The Muslim Brotherhood’s steadfast support for Hezbollah throughout the latest conflict is indicative of the tacit alliance between the Islamic Republic and the oldest and largest modern Islamist movement in the world. This is yet another dynamic that works against the interests of the Salafi-jihadis, the regime-friendly Salafis in Saudi Arabia and ultimately the House of Saud itself.

In the final analysis, al-Qaeda and the Salafi-jihadis more broadly are proving to be ephemeral and increasingly marginal forces. They are inherently limited by their extremism, lack of vision and resources and isolation from mainstream opinion.

Meanwhile the forces that pose a real threat to American hegemony in the region are increasingly on the ascendant and are set to completely dominate the political landscape of the Middle East in the not too distant future. The Americans are unlikely to be able to reverse this complex and intensifying dynamic. Being increasingly isolated from grassroots opinions in the Middle East, the Americans view force as the preferred option. But that has severe limitations, and can even be downright counter-productive, as evidenced by the latest Hezbollah-Israel conflict.

[1] Author’s interview with Michael Scheuer (former head of the Bin Laden unit at the CIA), the Jamestown Foundation’s Spotlight on Terror, Volume 2 : Issue 13, 14 December 2004.
[2] Rasoul Jaafarian, Bareh Deegar Islam-e-Mohammadi Barabareh Islam-e-Omavi (Once again Mohammadean Islam takes on Ummayad Islam), Baztab.
[3] Reza Amir Khani, Lobnan va Felestin be ma Che Dakhli Darad (How are Lebanon and Palestine related to us?), Baztab.

(This article first appeared in Published with permission.)