Iran's al-Qaida dilemma
The Jerusalem Post
Hojjatoleslam Hesham Seimori, the resident
mid-ranking Shi'ite cleric at the Fateme Zahra mosque in
the Iranian city of Ahvaz near the Iraqi border, was a
controversial figure. He was known for his anti-Saudi
and anti-Wahabi preaching and as a staunch defender of
policies propagated by the Shi'ite theocratic regime in
Seimori's outspokenness and unconditional
subservience to the central government in Teheran made
him many enemies among the residents of the Shelang Abad
neighborhood, an ethnic-Arab area where his mosque was
based. On June 24, 2007, unidentified gunmen shot him
dead outside his house.
Political assassinations are a rarity in the Islamic
Republic, but Seimori's murder is further disturbing for
Teheran given its potential to provoke sectarianism in
the oil-rich province of Khuzestan that is pivotal to
the Iranian economy.
Since 2005, Khuzestan has experienced a number of
bombings of oil infrastructure and government offices,
and the political atmosphere has not been this tense
since the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988. Teheran has
accused former Iraqi Ba'athists and Western intelligence
agencies as instigating violence here, but never
Three days later, as Seimori's family and friends
gathered in his mosque to mourn his passing, they found
CDs scattered around the building. The CDs contained a
stark warning from al-Qaida stating that Iran should
stop its support of Iraq's Shi'ites, and that it would
otherwise be considered as a legitimate target for Sunni
jihadists. This message was repeated in an audio tape
released on July 9, where Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, a
purported leader of the al-Qaida-affiliated Islamic
State of Iraq, gave Teheran an ultimatum until September
9 to walk away from Iraq and cease its support for
Shi'ite parties or expect "fierce war" which would
strike "every spot" where Iranians are found.
IRANIAN officials and media scantly noted the
al-Qaida ultimatum, and most of the related reporting
was by Farsi-language outlets based outside Iran.
Teheran's silence can be explained by its desire to
avoid panic among its public, given fears that the
carnage in Iraq has the potential to spill over into
Iran. The alternative view is that Teheran considers
al-Qaida's threats mere bravado and untenable as the
latter find itself growingly isolated among Iraq's
myriad of militant groups.
While it is true that to deprive its Iraqi Shi'ite
foes of Iranian patronage would be tantamount to a
significant strategic triumph for al-Qaida in Iraq, to
believe that ultimatums alone would chase Iran off the
stage is to hugely underestimate Teheran's commitment to
shape the future of post-Saddam Iraq.
Meanwhile, there is no evidence to suggest that
Iraq-based Sunni militants perpetrated Seimori's
killing. It is also very possible that the CDs were
produced by a homegrown activist cell which has
deliberately set out to antagonize the Iranian regime.
Nevertheless, Teheran cannot entirely dismiss the threat
of Sunni jihadists to its national security.
With the threat of US or Israeli attacks against its
nuclear installations still looming, at least some
Iranian officials will view inaction in the face of
al-Qaida threats or violence on Iran's soil to be
interpreted as weakness by Teheran's foreign
adversaries, but also by other militant ethnic groups
operating in Iran, such as Marxist Kurdish insurgents in
Iran's west or Sunni Baluchi militants in the southeast.
AND THEN there is the economic necessity to protect
the oil industry in Khuzestan from any kind of attack.
But Iran's options to deal with an al-Qaida threat on
its turf are not uncomplicated. Excessive security
measures in Khuzestan would further disgruntle the two
million ethnic Arab minority, and be a step that would
surely be provided as proof by Sunni Arab regimes of
Teheran's Persian chauvinistic nature. Any military
preemptive effort against its adversaries based inside
Iraq - as Teheran is currently waging in Iraqi Kurdistan
against PEJAK, an Iranian Kurdish insurgent group -
bears the risk of pitting Iran squarely against the US
military. Overt action against al-Qaida could also put a
dent in the Iranian claim to be a guardian of the umma
(Islamic nation), an ambition dear to the neo-Islamists
in Iran and spearheaded by President Ahmadinejad.
While Teheran publicly professes a preference for a
swift withdrawal of US "occupation forces" from Iraq, in
reality the Iranian regime has to be concerned that the
inability of the US to beat al-Qaida in Iraq could very
well have severe repercussions for Iranian national
security once the American military departs from Iraq.
An undefeated and still vehemently anti-Shi'ite
al-Qaida could then redirect its efforts against the
largest and most powerful Shi'ite state in the world,
Javedanfar is coauthor of The
Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the
State of Iran. Vatanka is the security editor at