Despite the Sunni-Shiite Divide, al-Qaeda and Iran Work Together

September 8, 2022 | Jonathan Schanzer
About the author: Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the United States Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is author of the new book Gaza Conflict 2021: Hamas, Israel and Eleven Days of War (FDD Press). Follow him on Twitter @JSchanzer.

When the Obama administration negotiated its 2015 nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic, it hoped doing so would foster a new Middle Eastern order in which Shiite Iran would use its power against Sunni jihadist groups like al-Qaeda and Islamic State—relieving America of the burden of fighting them. This strategy rested on a number of false premises. Jonathan Schanzer explores one:

A photo, first posted on an anonymous Twitter account, circulated last week among terrorism watchers here in Washington. It received scant attention in the mainstream media. The now authenticated photo, dated 2015, shows three of al-Qaeda’s top leaders smiling casually. . . . Their location: Tehran. All three men served in key leadership positions for the world’s most dangerous terrorist organization. And all three men were apparently circulating freely in Iran.

The photo questions—yet again—the notion that al-Qaeda and the Islamic Republic were at odds. If anything, they appear to cooperate, even if Sunni-Shiite sectarian tensions prevent a full-blown alliance. American officials (mostly those advocating for a nuclear deal with Iran) have repeatedly and falsely asserted that the Iranian regime maintained an antagonistic relationship with al-Qaeda, placing members of the world’s most dangerous terrorist group under house arrest.

This assertion has been regurgitated by prominent beltway analysts such as Nelly Lahoud and Peter Bergen. Both wrote books recently, parroting lines proffered by U.S. officialdom, downplaying the ties between Tehran and al-Qaeda. Both got it wrong.

Earlier this year, [meanwhile], a federal judge found in favor of victims and families that sued Iran for providing “material support” to al-Qaeda, among other groups that perpetrated terrorist attacks against American servicemembers and civilians in Afghanistan.

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