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Analysis: al-Qaeda inside Iran

Originally published at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gissou-nia/alqaedain-iran-a-fivepoin_b_3143058.html

As Canadian authorities announced on Monday that they had thwarted a terrorist attack by two foreign nationals with "direction and guidance" from Al Qaeda elements in Iran, Middle East analysts on social networks let out a collective groan.

After a week in which the Embassy of the Czech Republic was forced to issue a statement to clarify that it is not Chechnya -- the republic of origin of the suspects in last week's bombings of the Boston marathon, many surmised that the degree of nuance required to understand the possible links of Al Qaeda operatives in Iran would make many heads explode.

So to avoid simplistic assessments and navigate this layered issue, here is a practical five-point guide to understanding what presence this global terror network has, if at all, in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Point One: Iran is led by a hard-line Shia Muslim government while Al Qaeda is an extremist Sunni Muslim outfit

In other words, the Iranian leadership and Al Qaeda operatives are unlikely to get along. Al Qaeda and its adherents do not even view Shias as true Muslims, much less allies. This reflects rising anti-Shia sentiment in the region, including in post-revolutionary Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi-influenced leadership consider Shias to be a greater threat to Islam than the Jewish state.

But it's not that simple...

Point Two: There are Sunnis in Iran, particularly among ethnic minority groups along the border

Only 10-20 percent of the world's Muslims are Shia, however, an estimated 90-95 percent of Iran's Muslim population is Shia. While Shias constitute the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Iran, about 4-8 percent of Iranians belong to the Sunni branch of Islam, mainly ethnic Kurds who live along Iran's central and northwestern border with Iraq and ethnic Balouch who live along Iran's southeastern border with Pakistan.

Further, while the ethnic Arab population living along Iran's southwestern border with Iraq are experiencing rising rates in conversion from Shia Islam to Sunni Islam -- mostly as an act of defiance borne out of tensions between this ethnic minority and Iran's Shia-led central government -- the definite majority are still Shia adherents.

Point Three: Most Sunni extremists operating in Iran are engaged in acts of terror against the Iranian state, not the West

While Sunni extremist groups operating in Iran such as the Baluchistan based Jundollah have beenaccused of links to al-Qaeda, it seems such groups are more preoccupied with militating for the rights of Sunnis in Iran, and possibly separating from the Iranian state, than hatching terror plans in North America or Europe.

Bombings and alleged assassinations of Shia clerics in the Arab-, Kurd- and Balouch-populated regions of Iran in recent years have led Iranian authorities to make mass arrests of those it considers to be involved in Sunni extremism.

Unfortunately, the Iranian state has also used allegations of terror against the state and endangering national security far too broadly to arrest members of ethnic minorities who do not necessarily have ties to Sunni militant outfits.

Point Four: There are Al Qaeda members in Iran, but most are in jail

Human rights groups that document prison conditions inside Iran have registered the presence of Al Qaeda members in Iran's jails. In 2011, a special ward was created in Iran's notorious Rajaee Shahr prison, in the city of Karaj right outside of the nation's capital Tehran, to house Sunni prisoners -- including those suspected of al-Qaeda links.

While some of these prisoners may have engaged in hostilities against American military forces in Iraq, most of these prisoners are charged with illegally exiting the Iranian border and endangering Iran's national security through acts of violence against the Iranian state and officials. This includes a group of 10 Salafi adherents who are claimed to have assassinated the representative of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in one of Iran's western provinces.

Also the Iranian government's charges against Sunni prisoners tend to trend with the times. Up until 2003, detained Sunnis were charged with being "Ba'athists" -- in a pre-American invasion nod to Iran's long-time enmity towards Saddam Hussein. Recently however Sunnis are accused of "Wahhabism" -- a reflection of Iran's growing concern about Saudi Arabia's influence in the region.

Point Five: The Afghanistan connection

Just like drugs, cheap labor and everything else that makes its way over the porous border between Iran and Afghanistan, senior Al Qaeda figures are reported to have made the trek as well.

After the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan in winter 2001 some of Osama bin Laden's family and top men made their way to Tehran. However they were watched closely by Iranian authorities and kept under a form of house arrest, which other family members strongly protested. Some family members, including bin Laden's daughter, were later released.

While there are allegations that Al Qaeda members located in Iran have sent resources to fund fighting in Syria and terrorist attacks in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, there are no indications of global designs beyond the region, or the Iranian government's involvement in directing such activities.

The record shows that the Iranian leadership may have tolerated the presence of Al Qaeda elements within Iran's borders in some instances. However the Iranian government's relationship with Al Qaeda is not a cozy one given the sizable number of alleged Al Qaeda operatives languishing in Iran's jails. And it is doubtful that the increasingly hostile perceptions of Iranians and Shias in the region have helped warm that relationship.

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