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Canadian Terror Arrests Shine Spotlight on Iran-Al Qaeda Cooperation

Canadian officials Monday arrested two Canadian residents on accusations of plotting a terror attack on a Canadian passenger train. The suspected terrorists are alleged to have been backed by Al Qaeda elements in Iran. The plot will complicate Canadian counter-terrorism efforts and highlights ties between the Shiite terrorist-backing country and the Sunni terrorist group.

Seth G. Jones wrote in a 2012 article in Foreign Affairs that’s not happening yet, and that “the terrorist organization would almost certainly refuse Iranian direction.” But he also noted al-Qaeda, so far fearful of endangering its safe harbour by plotting attacks from Iran, would want permission to do so – and if pushed by something like an attack, Tehran might forge a working link.

Ray Boisvert, a former assistant director of CSIS, said some al-Qaeda operatives might operate across a porous border with Afghanistan. But Iran has let al-Qaeda leaders move more freely in recent years, and has shown signs it is “acquiescing” to its activities: “They’re not chasing them down and stopping them.”

While some Western foreign policy analysts have long been adamant that Shiite Iran and Sunni Al Qaeda do not cooperate, U.S. officials have long emphasized ties between the two groups. The U.S. Treasury revealed last year that Iran has allowed Al Qaeda to operate a pipeline to funnel money and fighters to support the organization’s activities in South Asia. Wikileaks documents released in 2010 were conclusive on the question:

U.S. officials and Middle East analysts said some of the most explosive information contained in the WikiLeaks documents detail Iran’s alleged ties to the Taliban and al Qaeda, and the facilitating role Tehran may have played in providing arms from sources as varied as North Korea and Algeria.

The officials have for years received reports of Iran smuggling arms to the Taliban. The WikiLeaks documents, however, appear to give new evidence of direct contacts between Iranian officials and the Taliban’s and al Qaeda’s senior leadership. It also outlines Iran’s alleged role in brokering arms deals between North Korea and Pakistan-based militants, particularly militant leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and al Qaeda…

One of the more remarkable reports describes a November 2005 trip that departed from Iran in which Mr. Hekmatyar, the militant leader, and Osama bin Laden’s financial adviser traveled to North Korea to close a deal with the North Korean government to obtain remote-controlled rockets to use against coalition aircraft in Afghanistan.

“The shipment of said weapons is expected shortly after the new year,” the report said. Several reports describe Iran as a hub of planning activity for attacks on the Afghan government.

Canada maintains a hard line against Iran, and the two countries have had at-best chilly relations for three decades. Iranian antagonism streteches back to the Islamic Revolution, when Canadian embassy staff sheltered some American diplomats and smuggled them out of Iran. In 2003, Iranian security officials tortured and beat Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi to death in Tehran’s infamous Evin Prison. Another Canadian-Iranian journalist, Maziar Bahari was only released from Evin Prison in 2009 after a public campaign pressuring Tehran release him.

Last summer the Canadian government announced they had evidence that the Iranian embassy in Ottawa was recruiting Iranian expats to become agents. By September 2012, Canada determined that it could not afford the risk, and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird announced that Canada was closing its embassy in Tehran and expelling Iranian diplomats from Canada.

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