Iran: Understanding The Relationship With Pakistan And Al-qaeda

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 17

Aside from Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. led war on terrorism has affected the geopolitical fortunes of Iran and Pakistan more than any other country in West Asia and the Middle East. While on the surface it seems that Pakistan sustained a geo-strategic setback with the attacks on 9/11 and the immediate pressures that were wrought on it to abandon the Taliban and conversely Iran gained from the collapse of the Taliban and Iraq’s Ba’ath regime, the eventual re-configuration of geopolitical assets and influence in the post-9/11 world is still very much in the making. Moreover, the central question in regard to these two crucial countries is how the United Sates will proceed with the war on terrorism. In other words, short to medium term gains and losses by either country are likely to prove insignificant in the wider scheme of events. What are likely to have lasting historical impact are the strategic choices that are made by U.S. policy makers in the crucial years ahead.

Iran & Pakistan: Friendly Rivals

It is important to examine the relationship between these countries, if only to highlight the tensions that were caused by the Taliban and its international Islamist allies and the different treatment meted out to the two nations by the United States.

Broadly speaking, the relationship between Iran and Pakistan has, since the formation of the latter in 1947, been marked by friendly rivalry. While there is no territorial or ethnic dispute between the two states, there are a number of cultural misunderstandings. Iranians on the whole tend to have a patronizing view of Pakistan, dismissing its short history as insignificant compared to Iran’s millennia old political existence. For their part, Pakistanis have feared Iranian inspired Shi’a subversion within their country, particularly after the 1979 Islamic revolution. These prejudices and misunderstandings however have never produced serious inter-state conflict and are unlikely to do so in the future.

While both countries experienced Islamic revivalism from the late 1970s onwards, the key difference has been the political ramifications of this experience and its effect on each country’s geo-strategic fortunes. The Islamic revolution in Iran completely destroyed the old order in that country and facilitated the rise to power of elites wholly dedicated to the doctrines and prejudices of politicized Shi’a Islam. Thus Islamization in Iran has entailed a near complete monopolization of power by the radical and politicized segments of the Shi’a clergy and their lay Islamist allies. Meanwhile, the ascent to power of General Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan in 1977 signaled a reinvigorated role for Islam in Pakistani public life. However, while Zia made Islam the centerpiece of his administration, there was to be no serious disconnect with the previous 30 years since independence. Moreover, while the main Islamist organization in Pakistan, the Jama’at ul Islami benefited from Zia’s rule, it never managed to acquire a dominant position in the state. [1]

In the foreign policy field, the new Islamic regime in Iran came into immediate conflict with the United States. While much of the conflict can be explained in the context of Iranian-US relations from 1953 onwards, the key point is that the Islamic Republic has masked this in global Islamic rhetoric. While Iranian leaders glorify their country’s estrangement from the United States as an example of political independence in a world dominated by the latter, the reality is that Iran has paid a heavy price for this ideological aspect of its post-revolutionary foreign policy. Indeed, over the past two decades the United States has applied intense and consistent pressure to frustrate what many would term legitimate Iranian geo-political aspirations from Central Asia to the Persian Gulf.

Meanwhile in Pakistan, the pro-Islamic military dominated regime of Zia ul Haq brought the country closer to the United States. The catalyst for this was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s commitment to the Mujahideen forces in that country. The military and security links that were forged in that conflict were boosted after 9/11, especially after Pakistan resigned itself to abandoning the Taliban as a geo-strategic tool in Afghanistan. While Iran has also generally cooperated with the U.S. led war on terrorism, it has not received acknowledgement for this from the United Sates. Privately, Iranian officials complain bitterly that Pakistan reaps all the praise while Iran remains blacklisted as the most prolific supporter of international terrorism. What Iranian officials do not seem to appreciate in full is that the allegedly unfair treatment meted out to them by the U.S. stems in large measure from the Islamic Republic’s wider resistance to U.S. influence in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Iran & al-Qaeda: The Pakistani Connection

Much of the open source literature on Iran’s alleged relationship with al-Qaeda can be reduced to disinformation and propaganda. While political pundits often like to cite “tactical considerations” when trying to link antagonistic forces, in the case of Iran and al-Qaeda these arguments are thoroughly unconvincing since the differences between the two sides are simply insurmountable, no matter what interests they may have in common. The Islamic Republic, despite its pan-Islamic pretensions, takes its ideology from the cannons of Safavi Shi’a Islam and Iranian nationalism and is thus the natural and implacable enemy of the neo-Wahhabi forces that sustain al-Qaeda and its broad satellite networks.

For their part the Iranians have also masked their hostile relations with al-Qaeda with distorting propaganda. Iranian disinformation depicts al-Qaeda as a manufactured organization in the service of western intelligence services. Websites linked to Iranian security and intelligence outfits dismiss al-Qaeda as a “sectarian” organization in cahoots with the CIA and MOSSAD. [2] This propaganda campaign puts an interesting spin on the 9/11 assaults, effectively dismissing them as a smokescreen for an all out U.S. assault on legitimate Islamic and resistance organizations in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world. Despite this propaganda, there is a real fear in Iranian security circles that the U.S. will use the war on terrorism as a pretext to lobby for the disarmament of the Lebanese Hezbollah and thus relieve Israel of a potential security problem.

Iranian propaganda is also designed to discredit al-Qaeda and its allies, which have been regarded as a primary security threat since 1994. Much of Iran’s covert war with al-Qaeda and its Wahhabi-Deobandi allies in the Indian sub-continent has been fought in Pakistan. Iranian relations with Pakistan became severely strained in 1997 after the Taliban consolidated its hold on power. While the Iranians correctly identified the rise of the Taliban as having been largely facilitated by the Pakistani military and the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), they perhaps overestimated Pakistan’s ability to control the Taliban.

This strained relationship encouraged the Iranian intelligence services to step up their pursuit of Sunni supremacist activists in Pakistani urban centers. For their part, these Sunni organizations, in particular the Sipahe Sahaba Pakistan, stepped up their killings of Iranians and Shi’as in Pakistan. Al-Qaeda itself scored a major coup in 1997 when it assassinated Hisham Diab, a Lebanese Shi’a activist in Bosnia and an operative of the IRGC intelligence directorate. Some elements in al-Qaeda no doubt celebrated this killing as sweet revenge for the alleged Iranian role in the assassination of Abdullah Azzam in November 1989. [3]

Furthermore, allegations that Iran is “holding” several high ranking al-Qaeda leaders, in particular the organization’s security chief Saif al-Adel, must be treated with some caution, not least because the Iranians themselves have been keen to disseminate this story. While it is likely that some al-Qaeda members are in Iranian custody, it serves Iran’s interests to refer to them as “high-ranking” members in order to maximize its leverage over the United States, in particular over several near-deals in Iraq.


The Islamic Republic, despite its visceral enmity to al-Qaeda and Salafi Islam in general, fears becoming the ultimate victim of the US-led war on terrorism. This conforms to Tehran’s suspicion that the war on terror is a smokescreen for a much wider assault on all vestiges of militant political Islam.

While the attacks by al-Qaeda and U.S. counter-attacks have hitherto served the interests of the Islamic Republic, namely by destroying its enemies in the Taliban and Iraq’s Ba’ath regime, this pattern is unlikely to continue. Given that the Islamic Republic is now the sole remaining center of serious opposition to U.S. influence in the Middle East, major terrorist attacks in the future are likely to constrain the geopolitical maneuverability of the Islamic regime and set it on a collision course with the United States. Indeed future attacks are likely to bolster the surreptitious arguments in the U.S. that while enlisting the full support of Pakistan’s military and security elites has facilitated a “tactical” victory in the war on terror, the “strategic” breakthrough will only come with the demise of the Islamic regime in Iran.


1. S Nasr, The Vanguard of the Islamic Revolution: The Jama’at-l Islami of Pakistan, London 1994, p. 219.

2. One of these websites is Baztab: This site is run by Mohsen Rezai, the former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGGC). Most of the writers and analysts of Baztab are former employees of the “political-Ideological” department of the IRGC.

3. Much speculation and conjecture surrounds the motives and identities of Azzam’s assassins. Although some al-Qaeda supporters and propagandists blame the Iranian intelligence services for this assassination, it is more likely that Azzam was targeted by ambitious Egyptian Jihadi groups striving to consolidate their position in Pakistan and Afghanistan.