Evidence that Iranian territory is being used as a base by al-Qaeda to help in terrorist operations in Iraq and elsewhere is growing, say western officials.
It is not clear how much the al-Qaeda operation, described by one official as a money and communications hub, is being tolerated or encouraged by the Iranian government, they said.
The group’s operatives, who link the al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan with their disciples in Iraq, the Levant and North Africa, move with relative freedom in the country, they said.
The officials said the creation of some kind of al-Qaeda hub in Iran appears to be separate from the group of seven senior al-Qaeda figures, including Saad bin Laden, son of the group’s figurehead, that Iran is said to have detained since 2002.
A senior US official said the information had produced different assessments. “The most conservative, cautious intelligence assessment is that [the Iranian authorities] are turning a blind eye. But there are a lot of doubts about that,”? he said.
“They are benefiting from the mayhem that AQ is carrying out. They don’t have to deal with al-Qaeda to benefit.”?
Yet while Tehran might be content with the pressure al-Qaeda is placing on the US occupation in Iraq, Iran, as a state based on Shia Islam surrounded by mainly Sunni countries, has long been wary of al-Qaeda’s fierce brand of Sunni Islam.
A former Iranian official said Iran feared al-Qaeda and did not want to distract it from Iraq, dismissing any idea that Iran was supplying it with weapons. “Our relationship with al-Qaeda, at an intelligence level, can be said to be successful as long as they are at a distance,”? he said.
Analysts say several Sunni extremist groups, some presumed linked to al-Qaeda and from various ethnic groups including Kurds, are in Iran. US-led military action in Iraq has led some to seek refuge over the border.
In the past, Tehran has also been a target of al-Qaeda attacks. A militant Sunni group based in Pakistan and possibly linked to al-Qaeda was suspected of the 1994 bombing of the shrine of the seventh Shia Imam, Reza, in Mashhad, killing 26 people.
Iran has also shown growing concern over Jundullah, a radical Sunni group from the restive south-east area of Balucestan that has carried out violent attacks in recent years.
Three years ago, Pakistani officials said members of al-Qaeda had begun leaving Pakistan’s border region close to Afghanistan and heading for Iraq. Of the routes used, going overland via Iran was the easiest. That traffic might have increased as links between al-Qaeda and its Iraq offshoot intensify.