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An Iran-U.S. Partnership: Thinking The Unthinkable

By R.K. Ramazani (This article first appeared in Charlottesville's Daily Progress)
Talks between America and Iran in Baghdad will mark the first official thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations, frozen since 1980. More importantly, the talks could lead to a vital partnership between Washington and Tehran against al-Qaida, the greatest single terrorist threat in the world today.

Anti-Iran hawks will be horrified at the idea to partner with Iran against al-Qaida. Iran’s ties to Hezbollah and Hamas, they will claim, establish Iran and al-Qaida as woven from the same terrorist cloth.

But such charges gravely distort reality. There is no such a thing as good and bad terrorism; terrorism kills and maims innocent civilians, regardless of the cause. But failure to grasp the importance of conflicts between al-Qaida and Iran benefits al-Qaida and blinds us to common American and Iran-ian interests in the peace, security and stability of Iraq.

Ideologically, the worldviews of Iran and al-Qaida clash. Iran is a status quo power, and al-Qaida is a revolutionary non-state terrorist actor. Iran seeks to shore up its national security interests, whereas, al-Qaida aspires to tear down national boundaries and re-establish the caliphate, the seventh-century Islamic empire.

To al-Qaida, jihadists serve its chiliastic mission of establishing Islamic rule worldwide. To Iranian leaders, Hezbollah and Hamas function as deterrents to Israeli military strikes against Iran.

Al-Qaida leaders are unlikely to abandon their holy war against the West and Israel. By contrast, Iran has offered to discuss its ties to Hezbollah and Hamas and to accept a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Such underlying philosophical differences between Iran and al-Qaida were on display in the wake of the savage attacks on America on Sept. 11, 2001. Within hours of the attacks, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami condemned them as "assaults on human dignity and rights" and told the world later that the attacks were perpetrated by "a cult of fanatics" who could communicate with perceived opponents only "through carnage and devastation."

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was the first Muslim cleric in the world to declare holy war (jihad) against terrorism as a "global scourge." Thousands of ordinary Iranians held candlelight vigils for the American victims of terrorism.

Iran and the United States also have parallel state interests in opposing al-Qaida’s instigation of Shia-Sunni warfare in Iraq. Iran insists vociferously on the solidarity between the two sects.

Khamenei declared on Jan. 15 that the two Muslim sects must accept each other’s beliefs, "should not attack each other" and should not listen to the "enemy," that is, al-Qaida.

By contrast, al-Qaida leaders vehemently reject the idea of Shia-Sunni solidarity and exclude the Shia from their midst, especially the Twelver Shia, a sect that predominates in Iran.

Abu Musab Zarqawi, the late al-Qaida operative responsible for the decapitation of Americans and other captives in Iraq, launched a merciless crusade against the Shia. Branding them as a "lurking snake," a "malicious scorpion," Zarqawi considered the Shia as an "insurmountable obstacle" to al-Qaida’s global plans.

Zarqawi condemned the Badr Brigade, the pro-Iranian military wing of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. He also railed directly against Iran, heir to the 16th-century Shia Safavid state, as the "dagger that stabbed Islam" and prevented the Sunni march to re-establish an Islamic empire from East to West.

Zarqawi declared "total war" on the Shia and Iranians on Sept. 14, 2005. His minions catalyzed open sectarian Shia-Sunni warfare by destroying the Shia shrine at Samarra on Feb. 22, 2006. Since then, millions of Iraqis – of all sects – have been killed, exiled or driven from their homes. Zarqawi’s death was welcomed by Iran and by the U.S.-supported Iraqi government.

Al-Qaida’s No. 2 leader and Osama bin Laden’s chief strategist, Ayman al-Zawa-hiri, has similarly taken aim at Shias and advocated only Sunni solidarity, whether Salafi or non-Salafi.

On May 5, al-Zawahiri intensified al-Qaida’s verbal attacks on the Shia, Bush and Iran, in anticipation of U.S.-Iran talks. Apart from incendiary insults aimed at Shia belief and practice, al-Zawahiri chided Iran for having given up its slogan "America, the Great Satan" [for] the slogan ""America, the Closest Partner."

In response, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, blasted al-Zawahiri. "Why do you, who want to kill Americans, kill innocent people and place bombs in the [Iraqi] market place?"

He added, "On behalf of all the women and children in Asia, Europe and America, who have been victims of al-Qaida terrorists, I wish for you and your terrorist group hellfire, and would gladly sacrifice my life to annihilate you."

President Bush spoke along the same lines before the graduating class of the U.S. Coast Guard on May 23. "If al-Qaida succeeds in Iraq, they would pursue their stated goals of turning that nation into a base from which to overthrow moderate governments in the region, impose their hateful ideology on millions, and launch new attacks on America and other nations." In short, "Al-Qaida is public enemy number one for Iraq’s young democracy, and al-Qaida is public enemy number one for America, as well."

While Bush’s remarks are already getting mixed reviews from skeptical Americans, they might well get a better audience among Iranians. As former Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi put it in May 2003, Iran was "the pioneer in fighting al-Qaida terrorists," and "Iran was the al-Qaida enemy before the U.S."

Al-Qaida condemns Iran for having helped the United States topple the Taliban government, al-Qaida’s stronghold in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida also denounces Iran for detaining "100" al-Qaida jihadists, reportedly including bin Laden’s son.

U.S. officials confirm that Iran previously turned over hundreds of documented al-Qaida suspects to their home countries, and in May 2003 offered to deliver remaining high-level al-Qaida operatives to the United States. That offer collapsed amid unsubstantiated U.S. suspicions.

False accusations about Iran’s link with al-Qaida terrorists will not pressure that country to stop its nuclear enrichment program for electricity production. But they will jeopardize upcoming U.S.-Iran negotiations. More critically, the U.S.-Iran estrangement because of accusations without proof will help terrorist leaders to exploit any and all U.S.-Iran differences, enabling the Islamic extremists to sabotage the prospects for U.S.-Iran cooperation on the stabilization of Iraq.

On the other hand, if cool heads prevail and the United States grasps the reality of Iran-al-Qaida hostility, the upcoming Iran-America talks could serve the common interests of both countries in Iraq. Moreover, given Iran’s high stake in the stability of Afghanistan as well as Iraq, Iranian-American cooperation in Iraq could in time expand to aiding the United States and NATO against the resurgent Taliban and al-Qaida fighters.

American-Iranian partnership against al-Qaida may not be the end-all to Iraqi or Afghani problems. Yet such joint action will be a vital start towards stabilizing both countries, a vision desired by reasonable people worldwide.

About the author:

R.K. Ramazani is professor emeritus of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia He has published extensively on U.S.-Iran relations. The author wishes to acknowledge the assistance of W. Scott Harrop.


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