Al-Qaeda (and US) eclipsed by rise of Iran
By Mahan Abedin
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.  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". 
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.
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.  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
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
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.