Friday, April 21, 2006

Al-Qaeda Finds its Missing Link in Iran

Syed Saleem Shahzad, Asia Times Online:
The US-led "war on terror" is entering a critical phase, with the al-Qaeda leadership being given a chance to revitalize its cause now that Iran is in the US crosshairs over its nuclear program.

"Tehran has taken over the central stage by challenging American hegemony," Hamid Gul told Asia Times Online. "Tehran is today's inspiration force. It charms the Arab youths on the streets. The Arab rulers are terrified of this development, and this is the reason they are coming to Pakistan one after another."

Gul is a former corps commander of the Pakistani army and ex-director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence. Persian-speaking Gul is reckoned as one of the architects of the jihadi movements that finally turned global and made Afghanistan their base in the mid- and late 1990s when the Taliban ruled.

Gul was referring to visits to Pakistan by Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Salah. Islamabad is a US outpost in the "war on terror" that the two prominent Arab leaders visited, while at least one more is scheduled in coming weeks.

Contacts close to the echelons of power in Pakistan's military headquarters, Rawalpindi, tell Asia Times Online that judging from the pattern of talks, all of the Muslim countries that side with the United States anticipate a US attack on Iran around October. READ MORE

And, according to these contacts, their strategy is to consolidate opinion in the Organization of Islamic Conferences to be prepared. This does not mean stopping the attack, but being ready for the fallout in the Middle East and beyond.

"Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's anti-American calls have become the voice of today's Arab youths. They see in him a hero, and it has shaken the foundations of pro-American dictators and monarchs," Gul explained.

"They [Arab rulers] are anxious and restive. They are seeing their doomsday started. Since Pakistan and Arab rulers operate under the US umbrella, they are basically joining their heads together to contain the Iranian threat.

"The way Iran has spun its web in the region, all strategic levers are coming into Tehran's hands. The Hizb-i-Islami Afghanistan led by [Gulbuddin] Hekmatyar is part of the Islamic movement and already close to Iran, but it is only a matter of time when Taliban-related movements will resolve all differences with Iran and join hands with Tehran," Gul said.

Historically, Arabs have viewed Iran with hostility, and there are some who are skeptical whether Iran will continue in its current role as anti-US champion should back-channel diplomacy, especially involving Russia and China, lead to a resolution of the crisis over its nuclear program.

Within two weeks, the International Atomic Energy Agency will give a final report to the United Nations Security Council, the results of which could determine whether or not sanctions are imposed on Iran.

Critics argue that should the crisis be defused, Iran will back down from its present rhetoric and leave all radicals in the lurch. After all, they argue, Tehran has indirectly facilitated US interests in the region, be they in Afghanistan or Iraq.

"I don't agree with this notion," Gul said dismissively. "Iran raised funds for Hamas at a time when the whole Muslim world was sympathetic with Hamas but did not dare to openly support them. Iran [this week] pledged [US]$50 million.

"At the same time, it is untrue that Iran supported US designs in the region. Instead, it cleverly played its cards and now it is evident that it has trapped the Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq," said Gul.

Al-Qaeda's grand design

Iran's becoming a rallying point for anti-US sentiment in the Muslim world fits well with al-Qaeda. Asia Times Online has already outlined a pivotal debate in al-Qaeda on two major issues - the question of a base and that of a unified command structure.

Integral to the first issue was whether al-Qaeda should get rid of its shadowy image and fight in the open. This would involve the establishment of an Islamic state (base) from which calls for jihad could be issued and jihadi forces prepared.

Al-Qaeda has achieved this target in the Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan on the Afghan border by setting up a virtual independent state, which is being expanded into South Waziristan and many towns in Afghanistan, in Kunar, Paktia, Khost, Helmand and Zabul provinces.

But although the Afghan resistance is linked with the Iraqi resistance and they have started open battles against US-led forces in Afghanistan, the question of a unified command that would control resistance movements whether they be in Iraq, Palestine or Afghanistan is still unanswered.

This is where Iran could now fit in, by evolving from an inspirational anti-US model to taking a lead role in orchestrating resistance movements, in collaboration with al-Qaeda.

For radical Islamists, the situation is a major turnaround for their cause of pan-Islamicism and one that could even resolve 1,400 years of historical, ideological and political differences in the Muslim world.

"The Islamic Revolution of Iran [1979] was in fact a victory of all Islamic movements which were striving to establish one Islamic role model in the world so that it would be an inspirational force and would convince the masses that the Islamic system of life was still workable after 1,400 years," Muslim intellectual Shahnawaz Farooqui explained to Asia Times Online.

Shahnawaz is a young Pakistan-based Muslim intellectual, a teacher, writer and a poet. His main work is in the field of the interpretation of Muslim history and Muslim ideologies. His views are often aired in the Iranian media.

"The Iranian revolution was in fact a complete revolution under the leadership of imam [Ruhollah] Khomeini. It was above any sectarian bounds. After the revolution, Khomeini announced that the base of Shi'ite-Sunni differences was historical rather than theological.

"Shi'ites believe that Ali deserved to be the first Muslim caliph, and they rejected all three before Ali and believe Ali is the first caliph. Sunnis believe that the first three caliphs, Bakr, Omar and Osman, are all [the] righteous [ones] and that Ali was the fourth caliph. Imam Khomeini addressed this issue and called it historical differences which had no connection with basic Islamic theology, and if Shi'ites gave up their historical point of view on the issue of the caliphate, it would make no difference, but on the other hand it would wipe out Shi'ite-Sunni differences once and for all," Shahnawaz maintained.

"Unfortunately, imam Khomeini could not convince anybody - neither his internal circles of clerics nor Al-Howza [the supreme Shi'ite religious council in Iraq] as no one among the Shi'ites was ready to give up their historical position on the question of the caliphate.

"However, the situation turned bad after the demise of Khomeini and it was felt that during the period of [ex-president Hashemi] Rafsanjani and [former president Mohammed] Khatami the Iranian revolution was somewhere lost.

"However, the victory of President Ahmadinejad has once again revived the very spirit of the Iranian revolution, and once again all Islamic movements, whether it is the Muslim Brotherhood, Jamaat-i-Islami, Hamas, Islamic Jihad or any other, are joining hands with Tehran," said Shahnawaz.

"To me, President Ahmadinejad has redeemed the Iranian Islamic revolution with all its ideological legacies," Shahnawaz added.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Bureau Chief, Pakistan, Asia Times Online. He can be reached at