Complex double game: Iran supporting Assad AND al-Qaeda?

Playing the al-Qaeda card has been one of the most effective strategies utilized by the Iranian and Syrian regimes

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
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The United States Treasury Department in a report released this week has charged Iran for assisting al-Qaeda operatives based in the Islamic Republic. The charges have also been brought up because Tehran has allowed senior al-Qaeda members to conduct their operations from Iranian soil, according to the findings.

In addition, this Thursday’s allegations and accusations by the Treasury Department strongly indicated that some political figures in the Iranian government and its elite Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have been covertly and tacitly backing al-Qaeda and other opposition groups in Syria's civil war.

According to the Treasury Department, which is introducing new sanctions targeting Iranian terror links, “today the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced the designation of a key Iran-based al-Qaeda facilitator who supports al-Qaeda’s vital facilitation network in Iran, that operates there with the knowledge of Iranian authorities.”

The report also adds, “the network also uses Iran as a transit point for moving funding and foreign fighters through Turkey to support al-Qaeda-affiliated elements in Syria, including the al-Nusra Front.”

Playing the al-Qaeda card has been one of the most effective strategies utilized by the Iranian and Syrian regimes

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Olimzhon Adkhamovich Sadikov— also known as Jafar al-Uzbeki and Jafar Muidinov—is characterized by the Treasury Department as an Iran-based Islamic Jihad Union facilitator. This facilitator “operates there with the knowledge of Iranian authorities,” and provides funding to al-Qaeda’s Iran-based network, along with logistical support as well.

The report has caused some confusion, primarily in the West, on how it would be possible for Iran to be supporting al-Qaeda with its other commitments in Syria? Western media, some policy analysts, politicians, scholars, and even the Treasury Department have found it difficult to offer an explanation on the possible reasons that would make Iranian leaders support al-Qaeda in Syria and in Afghanistan.

Iran’s complex game

The issue with deciphering the unclear link between Iran and al-Qaeda (or other extremist al-Qaeda linked groups such as al-Nusra and the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)), is that rational, logical analysis is mainly anchored in a binary system, whereas this situation resides in a more complex gray area.

This type of thinking has prevented many from properly analyzing Middle Eastern politics, particularly Iran’s domestic and foreign policy, with all its nuances and complicated details.

Those who are perplexed with this news, make the argument that if Iran is supporting the Assad regime, and if al-Qaeda is attempting to overthrow that regime, then Tehran cannot logically back al-Qaeda because they are on opposing sides of the conflict. Another argument comes down to religious alliances, citing that the Shiite ruling clerics in Iran are not naturally politically allied to Sunni groups.

The shortcomings of such analyses and perspectives are overlook the complicated and nuanced issues regarding Iran’s politics, rather categorizing conflicts into Sunni versus Shiite, Assad against oppositions, and so forth.

Not a bewilderment

If we take a close look at Iran’s realpolitik, its struggle for tipping the balance of power in its favor, as well as the geopolitical, geo-economic and geostrategic interests of the Islamic Republic, the notion that al-Qaeda’s Iran-based network has been operating for a while in Iranian soil with the assistance of IRGC forces, can be viewed as totally realistic.

Iran would allow and support al-Qaeda’s Iran-based network for several reasons. First of all, for the last three years— since the uprising erupted in Syria— both Tehran and Damascus have been playing a masterful political game with the United States and other Western powers by arguing that Assad’s regime is being targeted by terrorist enemies like al-Qaeda and its affiliations.

Playing the al-Qaeda card has been one of the most effective strategies utilized by the Iranian and Syrian regimes. According to several credible reports including Telegraph and Business Insider, in order to substantiate and bolster their arguments, Assad released the extremists and Iran provided them with the required platforms to continue this complex double game.

Reportedly, the al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, have been selling oil to the Assad regime in exchange for money and recruits with the assistance of Tehran.

Powerful groups

Secondly, and more fundamentally, it is crucial to have a powerful extremist group on Iran’s side regardless of the religious affiliation of that group. From the Iranian leaders’ perspective, al-Qaeda’s Iran-based network can functions as powerful political leverage for the Islamic Republic over other countries in the region. al-Qaeda’s Iran-based network can be tacitly utilized in order to tip the balance of power in favor of Tehran.

Third, since the uprising erupted in Syria, the Islamic Republic has been considering other alternatives in case Assad’s apparatuses collapse. It is accurate to argue that Assad has been the staunchest geopolitical and geostrategic ally of Iran for decades, and it is also correct to point out that Tehran has been assisting Assad economically (with billions of dollars in credit), politically, through intelligence, advisory, and militarily.

But what matters for Tehran are power, geopolitics, its interests, regional hegemonic ambitions and the balance of power. Tehran will support Assad as long as it thinks that Assad can retain his power.

The moment that the regime collapses, Iran is likely to shift its political position and support any group that seems to come to power. From Iranian perspectives, the most powerful group among the oppositions in Syria are currently the al-Qaeda linked groups. As a result, having close ties with al-Qaeda is paramount for Iran in case Assad is overthrown. For now, keeping a relationship and supporting both al-Qaeda and Assad is political opportunism for Tehran.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and scholar as Harvard University, is president of the International American Council and he serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. Rafizadeh is also a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC, Harvard scholar, and a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. He is originally from the Islamic Republic of Iran and Syria. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. He can be reached at [email protected].

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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