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    Middle East
     Dec 18, 2007
Iran's engagement is al-Qaeda's threat
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - Relative stability in southern Iraq and an improvement in security in the center of the country are natural results of Iran adopting a "friendlier" approach to the country in terms of Washington. Tehran has choked the supply of arms and men through smuggling routes into Iraq and reduced intelligence proxy operations.

In a broader context, the Washington-backed overtures between Iran and Arab countries are expected to lead to an expansion of 

their cooperation in the region and pull the rug from under anti-American and anti-establishment radical Sunni Islamic groups.

After being the first Iranian leader ever to attend a summit of the six oil-rich Gulf Arab states in the Gulf Cooperation Council, in Doha this month, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad will also be the first Iranian president to perform the hajj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. He left for Mecca on Sunday.

And in a rare meeting, senior officials from Iran and Egypt held talks in Tehran last week. The countries broke off ties almost three decades ago. Egyptian Deputy Foreign Minister Hussein Derar discussed bilateral, regional and international issues with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.

Clearly, these breakthroughs in Arab-Iran relations are part of a bigger initiative principally aiming at harmonizing peace efforts for the resolution of the Palestinian dispute. And unless blocked by some regional players and non-state actors like al-Qaeda, these overtures have the potential to end in a major triumph for Washington against al-Qaeda.

Indeed, what is happening is a major u-turn in relations between the Arab world and Iran. The revolution of 1979 was unwelcome in the entire Arab world, which saw the ouster of the US-backed Shah and a return to strict Islamic rule as a threat to all Arab states, mostly ruled by monarchs and totalitarian regimes. These included Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, strong US allies.

To counter the anti-American Iranian revolution, Iraq was supported by Arab states such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to wage a decade-long war against Iran. At the same time, isolated yet oil-rich Iran became a haven for Islamic opposition or Islamic militant groups from across the Arab world. The assassin of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, Khalid Islambouli, was declared a national hero and his family members were given refuge in Iran soon after the event in 1981. Similarly, many top Muslim Brotherhood leaders, the main opposition party in Arab countries like Syria and Egypt, were given refuge in Iran.

However, the sapping war with Iraq ravaged the Iranian economy and after the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 there was a desire on the part of the new Iranian leadership to review its regional and international policies and bring Iran back into the mainstream of nations.

The emergence of the hardline Taliban regime in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda's alliance with it was the major reason Tehran's enthusiasm towards militant groups waned. Khalid Islambouli Street in Tehran was renamed Intifada Street and some restrictions were placed on Islambouli's family members and comrades. Former Afghan premier and Islamist guerrilla leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was asked to leave Tehran when he announced his support of the Afghan resistance against the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

The US invasion on Iraq in 2003 and the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime marked a big turnaround in regional politics and Iran rode its luck to emerge as the major player in the region.

Tehran began promoting Iraq's pro-Iran Shi'ite groups and the idea of Iraq as the gateway for the introduction of the Iranian brand of Islamic revolution into the Arab world - a dream of the Iranian leadership since 1979 - started to come true.

Iraq is now the political center of Shi'ites from Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and they look to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani for guidance. Iran is now positioned to discuss relations with Arab countries and the United States as an equal partner.

In 2004, Iran handed over Mustafa Hamza, a most-wanted Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader living in Iran, to the Egyptian government. This was a message to all players that Iran could "play ball" when it wanted to.

In Egyptian jails, many inmates have been turned to condemn violence, with a profound effect on underground militant cells. This has caused Washington to eye Iranian "safe" houses. Hudaifa Azzam, son of slain Palestinian Islamic scholar and theologian Abdullah Azzam (Osama bin Laden's mentor), told Asia Times Online in Jordan this year that some of these houses are holding Saad bin Laden, one of bin Laden's wives, and several hundred al-Qaeda members. They were caught while traveling from Afghanistan into Iranian border areas or going to Iraq via Iran.

"When Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri [al-Qaeda deputy leader] urged Abu Musab al-Zarqawi [al-Qaeda's leader in Iraq] to shun violence against Shi'ites, that was out of compulsion because Iran has been using these prisoners as bargaining chips with al-Qaeda," Hudaifa told Asia Times Online.

Hudaifa spent 27 years in Pakistan and Afghanistan and had been in contact with bin Laden and Zawahiri before the September 11, 2001, attacks and also negotiated (the failed) truce between slain Afghan leader Ahmad Shah Massoud and bin Laden.

If Iran were to hand over the prisoners to their countries of origin, such as Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Algeria, it would be a big blow to al-Qaeda's operations in the region. Western countries, especially the US, would also benefit from such a handover via potential intelligence gathered from the prisoners.

Saudi Arabia tightened security measures in the kingdom ahead of the annual hajj to Mecca, which began on Monday and which draws millions of Muslims. According to Saudi diplomats, the threat of terror is high during the six or so days of the event. Saudi intelligence is acutely aware of this, and that at any time when new regional peace overtures emerge, al-Qaeda's reaction often surfaces through terror.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

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