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Bin Laden Killing a Knotty Issue for Iran

by MEA CYRUS in London

03 May 2011 03:21Comments
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Foreign embassies in Tehran potential targets for retaliation.

[ analysis ] Tehran has reacted cautiously to news of Osama bin Laden's death. Ramin Mehmanparast, spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, addressed the issue in general terms. "We hope this leads to broader peace in the region," he said. "Iran believes there is no further excuse [for American troops] to occupy the region under the banner of the fight against terrorism."

While Mehmanparast did not express any doubts about Bin Laden's death, another high-ranking parliamentarian, Allaodin Boroujerdi, head of the National Security and Foreign Affairs Commission, did. "I don't know about the accuracy of such claims," he said, citing what he said were previous unfounded assertions by Americans that they had killed him. Boroujerdi did however leave the door open to the possibility that this was the real deal. "Even if they got him," he went on, "it was not a big deal, after ten years of chasing him!"

Other questions about the news of Bin Laden's death were also raised in Iran. The conservative Tabnak news website, closely associated with former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Mohsen Rezaei, questioned the authenticity of the photos released by some websites of the top al-Qaeda man.

The Iranian reaction is not surprising. While getting rid of Osama bin Laden was a great strategic and psychological victory for the United States, Iran has little to celebrate, apart from the fact that one enemy of the Islamic Republic was removed by the hands of a bigger enemy.

In such context, it is understandable that Tehran would try to extract from the situation what suits it, like asking for the removal of U.S. forces in the region or condemning the United States for breaching an Islamic country's sovereignty. Iran will also try to spin this as another example of U.S. double standards, by saying that while Washington gives itself the right to enter foreign soil to kill one terrorist, it simultaneously flirts with others like the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization in Iraq.

Such political games aside, Bin Laden's death can hardly be considered an unambiguous victory or defeat for the Islamic Republic. He was a natural enemy of the Iranian religious and political establishment -- Wahhabism and Shiism are fundamentally antithetical readings of Islam. And based on their different religious interpretations, Shiites and Wahhabis have very different ideas about how to deal with the West. Compare Hezbollah with al-Qaeda. While both are on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, Hezbollah is pragmatic, formally structured, and largely focuses on military targets, while al-Qaeda is opportunistic, loosely organized, and explicitly regards violence against civilians as legitimate.

Iran had more practical reasons to hate al-Qaeda as well, especially since the Taliban came to power with the group's help. In particular, the Taliban's 1998 massacre of nine Iranian diplomats and an IRNA reporter at the Mazar Sharif consulate earned it and its allies the Islamic Republic's permanent enmity.

There was thus sufficient incentive for Iran to help the Americans with the war in Afghanistan in 2001. But cooperation in the war against terrorism was quickly overshadowed by the historical hostility between the two. Despite the assistance, President George W. Bush went on to name Iran as a member of the "axis of evil." For its part, Iran perceived that the United States defined terrorism according to its own interests and was keen to brand Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorists for standing up to America.

The fight between the United States and al-Qaeda concerned Tehran in various ways, but Iran was careful to keep a low profile in the matter, seeking to avoid antagonizing either side -- angering al-Qaeda could have led to problems along the country's eastern border. That was why Iran acted as it did against Saad bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader's son, and others associated with the group who passed through Iranian territory after the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. Iran put them under house arrest, but refrained from handing them over to the United States.

Al-Qaeda's actions, especially in Pakistan and Iraq, were probably a driving example for the terrorist group Jundallah, which has struck both military and civilian targets in the southeastern Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchistan. Tehran explicitly blamed al-Qaeda for its influence over Jundallah. Like Bin Laden, Jundallah leaders took sanctuary in Pakistan, further straining Tehran-Islamabad ties. But Iranian intelligence was apparently tipped off by its Pakistani counterparts and Jundallah chief Abdolmalek Rigi was captured en route to Kyrgyzstan to meet some American contacts, according to his televised confession. After Rigi's hastily arranged execution, Iran had virtually nothing to do with anything al-Qaeda related, at least on the surface.

Regardless of whether Bin Laden's death was really a heavy blow to al-Qaeda or more a U.S. propaganda achievement, it may cause new problems for Iran. Retaliation for his killing has been threatened, and it could come in the form of attacks on foreign embassies in Tehran. It is relatively easy for al-Qaeda fighters to reach and security may not be as tight as it is in Arab countries that share intelligence with the United States about the group's operations. Indeed, Arab embassies in Iran may be another target. Any entry by al-Qaeda members into Iran, whatever their aim, may subject the Islamic Republic to paying a heavy price for actions not of its own doing.

These are among the concerns that Iranian officials face in dealing with the al-Qaeda leader's death. Although the Iranian government was quick to condemn the 9/11 attacks and Iranian citizens poured into streets to hold vigils, the regime will now tread carefully, with an eye to the ongoing wave of popular uprisings in the region. Tehran waits to see if Bin Laden's death will have any broad effect on Arab public opinion and, more specifically, if it will prompt a violent reaction by the surviving elements of the al-Qaeda network.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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