The Great Iran Hype, by Seth Jones

by Joshua Foust on 1/31/2012 · 4 comments

Seth Jones thinks we need to think about al Qaeda in Iran.

Virtually unnoticed, since late 2001, Iran has held some of al Qaeda’s most senior leaders. Several of these operatives, such as Yasin al-Suri, an al Qaeda facilitator, have moved recruits and money from the Middle East to central al Qaeda in Pakistan. Others, such as Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian that served as head of al Qaeda’s security committee, and Abu Muhammad al-Masri, one of the masterminds of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa, have provided strategic and operational assistance to central al Qaeda. The Iranian government has held most of them under house arrest, limited their freedom of movement, and closely monitored their activities. Yet the organization’s presence in Iran means that, contrary to optimistic assessments that have become the norm in Washington, al Qaeda’s demise is not imminent.

Hooo boy. While Seth lays out where he looked for information (i.e. his methodology) very few of his claims are sourced to anything, not even in the normal citation-free format Foreign Affairs prefers (“according to…”). Some of his claims, like how Iran’s “sheltering” of al Qaeda figures (which he also describes “imprisonment and occasional torture”) have gone “unnoticed,” are really difficult to square with the constant coverage of said figures in places like the Long War Journal, the New York Times, and endless public official statements about Iran’s perfidy both in Afghanistan and the larger war on terror. Jones’ claim is made doubly laughable when considering the essay on Iranian-residing figures like al-Masri by Leah Farrell, which was published in none other than Foreign Affairs (she also published an extensive catalogue of her dialogue with al-Masri on her blog, which was also picked up by Steve Coll at the New Yorker).

Anyway, Seth Jones is exaggerating just a bit when he says this stuff has gone “Virtually unnoticed,” as he does in the very first sentence (and it’s hardly the first time he’s falsely accused everyone else of ignoring something). Here is a brief list of Jones’ other assertions that lack even casual inferences to data or sources:

  • “Iran is likely holding al Qaeda leaders on its territory first as an act of defense. So long as Tehran has several leaders under its control, the group will likely refrain from attacking Iran.”
  • “If the United States or Israel undertook a bombing campaign against Iran, Tehran could employ al Qaeda in a response. Tehran has long used proxies to pursue its foreign policy interests, especially Hezbollah in Lebanon, and it has a history of reaching out to Sunni groups.”
  • “Al Qaeda is probably making similar calculations. To be sure, some revile the Ayatollahs.”
  • “The regime might increase its logistical support to al Qaeda by providing money, weapons, housing, travel documents, and transit to operatives — some of which it is already doing. In a worse scenario, Tehran might even allow al Qaeda officials in Iran to go to Pakistan to replenish the group’s depleted leadership there, or else open its borders to additional al Qaeda higher-ups.”
  • “In an even more extreme scenario, Iran could support an al Qaeda attack against the United States or one of its allies, although the regime would surely attempt to hide its role in any plotting.”
  • “It would be unwise to overestimate the leverage Tehran has over al Qaeda’s leadership. The terrorist organization would almost certainly refuse Iranian direction.”

And so on. My only reaction to such wild speculation is, “based on what???”

Jones never says.

He also follows up several of these assertions with speculation that Iran will probably do the opposite or nothing at all, which makes me question just what point, exactly, he was trying to prove with this thing. Even when he starts by noting that the U.S. has only used sanctions and diplomacy (ineffectively!) against Iran, but then suggests… more diplomacy and sanctions to counter the threat of AQ figures residing there.

I have to say, I’m a bit disappointed this is the kind of thing that’s accepted as scholarship in such a prestigious magazine. Especially considering yesterday’s signature of that new-fangled economic cooperation pact between the Afghan and Iranian governments. Is our sourcing & thinking really that thin for a country right next to one of our biggest intelligence operations?

Update: I feel I should point out, too, that in all fairness Jones ultimately argues against military intervention in Iran. “Finally,” he writes, “the United States should think twice about actions that would push Iran and al Qaeda closer together — especially a preemptive attack on the country’s nuclear program.”

While I normally cringe at a high powered analyst spending 2,000 empty words to say “we shouldn’t do bad things that will hurt us,” I am choosing optimism to take comfort that it’s being said at all with regard to Iran. Carry on.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1849 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 4 comments }

Charles Cameron (hipbone) January 31, 2012 at 5:01 pm

It would appear that Seth Jones’ reference to Abu Muhammad al-Masri is to Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, http://www.fbi.gov/wanted/wanted_terrorists/abdullah-ahmed-abdullah
whereas Leah Farrell’s correspondence was with Abu Walid al-Masri (identified above simply as “al-Masri”), i.e. Mustafa Hamid.

Charles Cameron (hipbone) January 31, 2012 at 5:04 pm

Ack, and now we’re both getting our names wrong: it’s Leah Farrall..

Apologies, Leah!

Michael Hancock-Parmer January 31, 2012 at 10:44 pm

This is just a passing note, but doesn’t the rank-and-file (and I assume majority) of al-Qaeda define itself via a specificaly (and publicly strict) version of Sunni Islam? Which is not what one finds in Iran? Not that it categorically can’t be possible, but the ideology that typically defines al-Qaeda doesn’t seem to want anything to do with Shia Muslims, which is similar to painting al-Qaeda as in cahoots with Hezbollah, etc. I dunno – I just think there’s some more explanation necessary before we go around hitting every problem with the “made in Iran” stamp.

anan January 31, 2012 at 11:03 pm

I didn’t understand this piece. Do you really disagree with:
- “It would be unwise to overestimate the leverage Tehran has over al Qaeda’s leadership. The terrorist organization would almost certainly refuse Iranian direction.” What do you disagree with? Zawahiri has publicly said very negative things about Iran.

“In an even more extreme scenario, Iran could support an al Qaeda attack against the United States or one of its allies, although the regime would surely attempt to hide its role in any plotting.” Do you disagree with this? Some parts of the IRGC Kuds force have worked with some AQ and Taliban linked groups in a partial temporary way [arguably hating each other the whole time]. If clear evidence of this became public, it would damage the credibility and popularity of Khamenei, and the legitimacy of Khamanei’s claim to be a Marja. It would hurt Khamenei inside Iran and among non Iranian Shiites. Isn’t it obvious that “the regime would surely attempt to hide its role in any plotting”

“Al Qaeda is probably making similar calculations. To be sure, some revile the Ayatollahs.” Again, what about this statement is controversial? Many Al Qaeda leaders haven’t hidden their views of Ayatollahs, Marjas and Marjeyas.

What do you so strongly disagree with?

In my view Seth Jones might underestimate the extent of tension between Al Qaeda/Taliban/Salafi extremists and Iran. Any cooperation between them is likely to be temporary and partial at best, with both parties plotting against each other the entire time they are “cooperating.” Much the way Sirajuddin Haqqani and factions of the IRGC Kuds have negotiated prisoner swaps between themselves. I don’t think we need to waste sleepless nights worrying about some great Al Qaeda/Taliban/Iran alliance.

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