May 08, 2008

Iran and AQI

In a recent interview, a Kuwaiti Sunni fundamentalist named Mubarak Al-Bathali claims that Iran is supporting Sunni insurgents in Iraq. The charges appear signficiant for two reasons. First, Al-Bathali has been linked by the United Nations and the United States to Al-Qaeda; and, second, the comments come on the heels of reports that three Kuwaitis recently carried out suicide bombings in Iraq, including a Kuwaiti who was a former prisoner at Gitmo.

This accusation--that Iran aids AQI--has been made before, but Dr. iRack is concerned that the timing of this accusation is a bit too convenient given the drumbeat for taking military action against Iran in recent weeks. There is a history of stitching together flimsy connections between AQ and "axis of evil" countries to justify military action, so the default position on these claims should be skepticism.

Is it possible that Iran aids Sunni fighters, including those with ties to AQI, even though Shia Iran and Sunni salafist jihadi AQ are natural moral enemies? Sure. Iran plays realpolitik better than most (and certainly better than we do), and enemy-of-my-enemy logic can produce strange bedfellows. According to the Kuwaiti Times:

Al-Bathali alleged that Iran's motivation for backing both the Sunnis and Shiites opposed to Washington, was because Tehran is eager to "place hurdles in front of America" so that the US would be "too busy to fight" Iran. He also said Iran facilitates the entry of fighters into Iraq and Afghanistan. "Any person who wants Jihad (holy war), is of age and responsible and honest in his intent, I send him and prepare him," Al-Bathali said.

Still, the inherent unnaturalness of Iran-AQ relationship should not be under-appreciated. As soon as groups backed by Tehran stop being useful to bloody American noses, they will be abandoned and, in the case of AQ, probably turned on. As a good friend and leading counter-terrorism-slash-COIN guru to Dr. iRack likes to say, American strategy should be geared towards "fighting Al Qaeda to the last Iranian." If the United States is able to reduce its strategic over-commitment in Iraq (and thus its strategic vulnerability vis-a-vis Iran), the opportunities for exploiting natural animosity between Iran and AQ will increase.