Supporters of Yemen's former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who are allies of Shiite rebels known as Houthis, climb flag poles during a rally to mark the first anniversary of the Saudi-led military campaign against them, in Sanaa, Yemen, March 26, 2016.

Supporters of Yemen's former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who are allies of Shiite rebels known as Houthis, climb flag poles during a rally to mark the first anniversary of the Saudi-led military campaign against them, in Sanaa, Yemen, March 26, 2016. Hani Mohammed/AP

America Shouldn’t Take Sides in the 1,400-Year-Old Sunni-Shia Conflict

The Iran-vs.-Saudi Arabia proxy war isn’t worth getting our military involved.

On November 1, CIA Director Mike Pompeo released thousands of files found by SEAL Team Six in Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Many documents detailed ties between al-Qaeda and Iran. Ned Price, former CIA analyst and de facto Obama administration official, accused Pompeo of releasing the documents to torpedo the Iran deal and drum up support for regime change in Iran. In rushed The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes to claim the documents show how the Obama administration—Ned Price included—covered up the Iran and al-Qaeda ties for political purposes.

Yes, intelligence was politicized during the Obama administration, but Hayes is wrong to claim that the Pompeo CIA’s document-dump contained bombshells. Iran’s ties to al-Qaeda have been well documented for years. In 2011, the Weekly Standard wrote about the Obama Treasury Department releasing info on al-Qaeda’s operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan being quarterbacked from Iran. In 2015, a similar Weekly Standard article detailed Iranian ties to the Sunni terror group. These are but a few examples.

What the CIA’s documents released several weeks ago do show is a confirmation of what we have always known: Shiite Iran has long had an on-and-off-again transactional relationship of convenience with Sunni al-Qaeda. Most important, the history of those ties tells us that the answer to ending the ties is realpolitik, and certainly not war.

A transactional relationship

Writing in The Atlantic, Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, two journalists who have reported extensively about bin Laden and al-Qaeda, detailed the relationship between Iran and al-Qaeda found in the CIA documents. It started in 1995, when al-Qaeda agents reached out to the Iranian deep state to broker an agreement after Iran’s enemy, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, flatly rejected al-Qaeda’s overtures.

There is no evidence that the pre-9/11 ties came to anything, but the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan prompted al-Qaeda to seek a new home base through a greater alliance with Iran. Iran first allowed a senior al-Qaeda official to enter the country, hoping that more would follow, with the goal of using these officials as a bargaining chip with America.

A back-channel between the White House and Iran at international conferences in Germany, Geneva, and Tokyo between late 2001 and early 2003 discussed the ties between al-Qaeda and Iran going back to 1995, though “the vice president’s office suggested the White House do nothing [to acknowledge or end those ties], worrying that the administration would undermine the campaign to oust Saddam Hussein in Iraq—which was being underwritten by claims [Saddam] sponsored al-Qaeda” (when he had actually rejected al-Qaeda).

Through this backchannel, Iran offered to hand over al-Qaeda members to America in exchange for the normalization of relations. “[T]he Bush administration flat-out declined.”

In his January 2002 State of the Union address, the president lumped Iran into his Axis of Evil, along with Iraq and North Korea. Meanwhile, as the War in Iraq was ramping up, the vice president’s office “told U.S. envoys working on Iran and Afghanistan that once regime change had succeeded in Iraq, Tehran was next.”

Iran’s Quds Force—an elite unit within the Revolutionary Guards—“green-lit the sanctuary plan” in response, bringing in more high-ranking al-Qaeda members. From Baluchistan, Pakistan, the “first to be sent over [to Iran] were al-Qaeda wives and daughters, along with hundreds of low-level volunteers… From there, the Quds Force gave them false travel documents that disguised them as Iraqi Shia refugees and flew them out to other countries, where they either settled or went on to join other conflicts.”

Al-Qaeda leaders stayed in Iran. The new base allowed leaders to re-group and plan attacks in Saudi Arabia in 2003 where 35 were killed, including 9 Americans. The Quds Force then transported the al-Qaeda members to a heavily guarded training center. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the eventual head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, did not go—his followers were equipped with Iranian funding and allowed to go to Baghdad, where they began to target American troops.

Even at this point, Iran offered to hand al-Qaeda members over to America, though the White House continued to decline.

That wasn’t the end of Iran’s rocky relationship with al-Qaeda. Throughout the 2000s, Iran was surrounded by U.S. troops—to the west in Iraq and to the east in Afghanistan—and likely believed that absolute American victory in Iraq would lead to Iran being invaded next, just as the vice president said. Because of this, the Kuds Force continued to allow al-Qaeda to reside in Iran, but as prisoners, only allowed to act if it suited Iranian interests.

By 2010, it took al-Qaeda in Pakistan kidnapping an Iranian diplomat to force Tehran to allow some of bin Laden’s family to leave Iran. Fast-forward to 2015, and the Quds Force permitted al-Qaeda members to leave for Syria, in order to fight Iran’s enemy Islamic State. And al-Qaeda military operations in Syria were for a time led by Saif al Adel from a safe house in Tehran, where he was closely watched by the Quds Force. Today, partly because of Iran’s help, al-Qaeda has grown powerful again, possibly toned down its barbarity, and uses the Quds Force and Hezbollah, Lebanon’s Shia party-cum-militia, as a model.

What to do about Iran?

If there were a bombshell in the documents released by the CIA, it was how much Iran’s aid to al-Qaeda was predicated on the Bush administration’s intransigence toward Iran.

Surely, when invading the majority-Shia country of Iraq, telling Shia Iran that they were “next” was a bad idea. A rational country would respond by trying to bog America down in Iraq, and that’s exactly what Iran did. Either way, the relationship between al-Qaeda and Iran was and is—as we have always known—a marriage of convenience, not one of love.

Yes, Iran is aligned against American interests in many ways. Yet many Washington apparatchiks want to ditch the Iran deal—and drum up support for regime change in Iran—solely on the basis of the old news found in the CIA documents. That continued intransigence is deeply disturbing, given its track record of failed policy outcomes.

Majority-Sunni Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have not just aided al-Qaeda out of convenience, but out of love. Which is worse? Saudi Arabia, who we sell billions worth of weapons to every year, funded extremist mosques in America. Elements within Saudi Arabia’s government likely helped the despicable 9/11 hijackers.

Does that mean the U.S. should take on Saudi Arabia and Pakistan too? Absolutely not (although we shouldn’t reflexively support everything they do either).

Our primary interest in the Middle East is to make sure that no one country dominates the oil supply, of which Iran controls but a fraction. It is not in America’s interest to take on the impossible task of eliminating every bad guy in a region overflowing with, and dominated by, bad actors. And even our concern for the Middle East’s oil should be tempered due to America’s rapidly increasing capacity for energy independence.

The bottom line is that by singling out Iran, America is involving itself—wittingly or not—in a 1,400-year-old conflict between the two main branches of Islam, Sunnis and Shias. This is unbelievably stupid.

There are no white knights to side with in ugly sectarian and religious struggles such as this. We should only get involved in a conflict if our vital interests—our security, prosperity, or way of life—are at stake. We should not use our military to referee—or worse, join sides—in the Shia Iran versus Sunni Saudi Arabia proxy war.