A week ago two men were arrested in Canada on suspicion of planning what officials describe as an al-Qaeda-backed plot to derail a VIA passenger train traveling from Toronto to New York. Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officials said the alleged plot had support from al-Qaeda in Iran, although there was no sign of state sponsorship. The Iranian government quickly denied any links to the two men in question. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, also said “al-Qaeda's beliefs are in no way consistent with Tehran's”.
Many Western analysts used that logic and argued that a sectarian state like Iran and al-Qaeda are unlikely to work together because Shiite-Muslim of Iran and the strict Sunni militant group of al-Qaeda are natural enemies on either side of the Muslim world's great sectarian divide. But what these analysts ignored is the fact that Iran, in pursuing its own ends, has in the past taken advantage of al-Qaeda fighters' need to shelter or pass through its territory and hosted them. Indeed, many of bin Laden's children and some al-Qaeda leaders fled to Iran following the September 11 attacks. Knowing that Iran is a secret-police state makes it highly unlikely that the Government of Iran is unaware of al-Qaeda activities on its own soil.
Like any good detective faced with a homicide case, the first thing to do is to look for the motive and the weapon used. So, we should ask ourselves why would Iran be interested in an attack on Canada, and why use al-Qaeda to carry such act?
At the beginning of last year, as Iran continued to violate its international obligations by ignoring successive UN Security Council resolutions to cooperate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and suspend its enrichment-related activities, Canada in consultation with the US as well as some European countries agreed to increase its economic sanctions against Iran. These sanctions hit Iran pretty hard and struck a blow to its oil industry. At the time, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper reportedly said that Iran poses the "world's most serious threat to international peace and security”. Then, by the end of last year, Canadian Foreign Minister Baird announced further sanctions against Iran under the Special Economic Measures Act in response to Iran's continued lack of cooperation with the IAEA, a move which put Canada on the Iranian radar. Moreover, Iran is well aware of the close link and solid relationship between Israel and Canada. Israeli officials often stated that Canada, especially under the leadership of PM Harper, is “a true friend of Israel.” However, the Iranian Government considers Israel as its biggest enemy.
It was, nonetheless, unlikely that Iran would take the risk of actively collaborating with al-Qaeda against North America since that would only escalate the tension between Iran and the West. So, Iran opted for using al-Qaeda covertly as a tactic they deemed best in order to maximize gains while minimizing losses. Most likely Tehran also underestimated the Canadian intelligence agencies, believing that this plot will go undetected.
What the West seems to be too naïve to understand is the complex and malicious Iranian mindset in dealing with the international community. True that Iran is a sectarian state. One might also be confused by the fact that in Syria Iran is supporting al-Assad regime – and more recently Hezbollah Shiite fighters against their Sunni al-Qaeda backed “Nusra Front”. For Iran, however, that does not mean it won’t support al-Qaeda in North America or Europe if it means reaching its objectives. This is not at all a paradox for Iran which deals with others by the mentality of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.
What is baffling, however, for those who understand the Iranian political culture, the RCMP saying: the accused of plotting to launch a terrorist attack received support from elements of al-Qaeda in Iran, but, “it is unlikely that the Iranian regime is involved”! This linear and simplistic way of thinking makes the West an easier target to complex security threats such as the one we recently witnessed.
Does our police and intelligence service really believe that members of al-Qaeda that are hosted by Iran can operate away from the eyes of the system? Nonsense! Why then in a country like Iran, where there is not a single Sunni mosque in Tehran and there are yearly Sunni-related prosecutions, would there be al-Qaeda cells present? And why despite all the inflammatory speeches of al-Qaeda against Shiites, Iran still did not target al-Qaeda at home? Also, why was al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, entering Iranian territory without impunity? And why was a spokesman for al-Qaida, and the son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, the Kuwaiti Suleiman Abu Ghaith in Iran? Have we also forgotten that the May 2003 terrorist attacks in the Saudi capital Riyadh had been issued from the south of Iran, and specifically from the Egyptian leader in al-Qaida Saif al-Adel? Why also does Iran support Sunni Hamas in Gaza and Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon? Is it possible after all to say that there is no information as to whether al-Qaeda in Tehran is Iranian-sponsored or not?
Yes, there might be a lack of physical evidence to the Iranian involvement in sponsoring al-Qaeda operations in Canada and the United states, but that is expected from a country that does not want to have direct confrontation at the time being with the West.
We, in Canada, need to wake up and be very vigilant about Iran's relationship with al-Qaeda as this is the biggest threat to our domestic security today. Iran might think it has a reason and a covert weapon to attack us with. However, by attacking us via al-Qaeda, Tehran is playing with fire and escalating the situation with the West – intentionally or accidentally – to a level that might get out of control and most likely will not be to its advantage. This message should be conveyed loud and clear by Canadian officials to Iran.