On Friday, Nov. 27, Israel was presumed to have been responsible for the targeted killing of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Unfortunately, the United States under a Biden presidency, will most likely abandon this maximum pressure strategy, in favor of reentering a nuclear deal with Iran instead.
But Israel’s actions were not strong enough. In fact, the focus should not be solely on confronting Iran’s nuclear program, but also tackling their relationship to al Qaeda and their nefarious expansionism in Afghanistan. This is why a nuclear deal with Iran that does not address these other challenges, will never be able to eliminate the threats to the United States and Israel.
While Republicans have resisted strong actions against Saudi Arabia for exporting a religious ideology that is the lifeblood for groups like ISIS and al Qaeda, Democrats have traditionally undermined and ignored the complicated relationship between Iran and al Qaeda. The binary picture drawn of the Syrian conflict, of Sunni groups pitted against Shiite groups has further obscured these links.
But this seemingly unnatural relationship between Shiite and Sunni fundamentalist actors originates in the 1990s. In Sudan, the Islamist political leader Hassan al Turabi held a series of meetings between different extremists, among them Hamas, Hezbollah and the PLO, precisely when Osama bin Laden arrived in the country. One of al Turabi’s objectives was to persuade Sunni and Shiite extremists to put aside their differences and unite against their common enemy. Then, between 1992 and 1996, another round of meetings was sponsored by Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, a Sudanese cofounder of al Qaeda, between al Qaeda, Hezhbollah and the National Islamic Front.
As a result, Iranian actors established informal agreements of cooperation with al Qaeda, where Iran would give supplies and support to al Qaeda’s fight against Israel and the United States. The support given by Iran and Hezbollah mainly consisted of explosives and intelligence training, and al Qaeda members traveled to Iran and to Lebanon in the Valley of Bekaa. Iran’s help to al Qaeda materialized in the attacks on the residential complex of the U.S Air Force in Saudi Arabia, the U.S embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the USS Cole in Yemen.
Some of these attacks directly involved the approval of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and former intelligence minister Hojjatoleslam Ali Fallahian, who is wanted by Interpol and Argentina for the bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. Al Qaeda’s capacity to inflict damage to the U.S and Israel led Iran to broaden its relationship with al Qaeda, although this was treated carefully due to al Qaeda’s fear that it would drive away recruits to its cause. Still, this was not an obstacle for Iran to have played a hidden hand in helping the 9/11 attackers.
Since bin Laden was expelled from Sudan in 1996, Iran had facilitated the movement of al Qaeda operatives who transited to and from Afghanistan, where terrorist training camps had been established. Indeed, most of the 9/11 attackers had freely crossed Iran and Afghanistan. Instead of transiting through Pakistan, al Qaeda members had been using this route and had constructed relationships with Iranian officials in order to coordinate objectives of mutual interest.
Still, the Iran-Afghan connection does not originate with 9/11. Iran has had a long presence in Afghanistan, and its influence is second to Pakistan. Iran under the Safavid Empire controlled the western part of Afghanistan and it even conquered Kandahar. In 1857, the Qajar dynasty which ruled over Iran, renounced its possession of Herat as part of its territory. Since then, the borders between both countries have remained relatively stable, although as in the case with Pakistan, certain disagreements remain alive in the government’s historical memories. But that long presence left strong Iranian connections and influences in Afghanistan.
During the Soviet invasion, Iran supported the mujahideen, especially from the Hazara ethnicity, although it’s influence extended to some Pashtun leaders like in their complicated relationship with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who had collaborated with both al Qaeda and the Taliban and was exiled in Iran. Iran and Afghanistan experienced difficulties during the rule of the Taliban, when the Shiite minority was the subject of persecutions, culminating in the massacre of Hazaras and the killing of Iranian diplomats in 1998.
Still, these bitter times would not stop Iran from giving support to the Taliban, following the inauguration of the Karzai administration. But Iran engages in a double game, as it supports the Afghan government, often sending money directly to Hamid Karzai’s office, while also using other ways to delegitimize his administration. For example, Iran has used radio stations to attack the elections. Iran’s aim is to block American influence in Afghanistan and it will certainly fill the gap to suit its interests following a U.S. withdrawal.
It’s economic impact is felt heavily in Afghanistan, and it uses commercial investments and reconstruction projects to extend its influence in the country. Iran also heavily depends on Afghan water resources, whose dry border regions need the Helmand River for their social and economic development. Like this, Iran’s objective is to maintain water access and many of their political interventions in Afghanistan have sought to block Afghan projects that would see its supply reduced or diminished.
Iran long opposed the negotiations and signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement, as it has always been an obstacle to Iran’s ambitions in the country. If President-elect Joe Biden decides to normalize relations with Iran, and pull American military forces out of Afghanistan, it will be dominated by the political machinations of Iran and Pakistan.
An Afghanistan engulfed in civil war, where al Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIS are thriving, and which is being torn apart by Iran, will be a huge national security threat to the United States and Israel.
• Carlo J.V. Caro is a researcher on U.S. foreign relations and unconventional warfare.