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Pompeo's attempts to link Iran to Al-Qaeda reveal the failure of 'maximum pressure'

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (C) arrives for a security briefing on Mount Bental in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, near Merom Golan on the border with Syria, on November 19, 2020. - US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo became the first top American diplomat to visit a West Bank Jewish settlement and the Golan Heights, cementing Donald Trump's strongly pro-Israel legacy. (Photo by Patrick Semansky / POOL / AFP) (Photo by PATRICK SEMANSKY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (C) arrives for a security briefing on Mount Bental in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, near Merom Golan on the border with Syria, on November 19, 2020 [PATRICK SEMANSKY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images]

Last week, the outgoing US Secretary of State and former head of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, announced a flurry of last-minute sanctions against rivals and foes China, Cuba and Iran. This was perceived widely as a desperate attempt to undermine the incoming Democrat Biden administration. He also designated Yemen's Houthi-led government, which has diplomatic ties and support from Iran, as a "terrorist" group. This has been criticised by humanitarian organisations and even former US diplomats and officials as counterproductive and a threat to aid efforts in Yemen.

The latest US sanctions against Iran are a culmination of a failed "maximum pressure" strategy initiated by President Donald Trump following his decision to withdraw America from the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal, the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The sanctions were supposed to force Tehran back to the negotiation table on Washington's terms while also preventing Iran from developing its nuclear programme and adding further strain to its economy.

For Pompeo, these sanctions were also framed as being for the benefit of the Iranian people who he hoped would help bring about regime change. Like others before him, he ignores the fact that sanctions affect the day-to-day lives of ordinary people even though those imposing them insist that they are only targeting the government. In 2019, for example, Human Rights Watch said that the US sanctions pose a serious threat to Iranians' right to health and access to essential medicines.

READ: Iran, US conflict shrouded in the fog of war

Following the expiration of over a decade of a UN arms embargo against Iran, it had demonstrated yet again its ability to survive with resilience and self-sufficiency. It was Tehran's own answer to "maximum pressure", what Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei referred to as an "economy of resistance", whereby the state seeks to steer away from reliance on oil revenues and has also developed its own domestic arms industry.

Two assassinations last year — General Qasem Soleimani in January and nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November — were attempts to hinder Iran's military outreach in the region and derail its nuclear programme, while further undermining any possible reconciliatory efforts by the next US administration. The first killing was a drone strike given the green light by Trump, while the second was more uncertain, with the finger of responsibility pointed at US ally Israel. They have been effective, although they arguably yielded nothing more than short to medium term gains for Iran's enemies.

The Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which Soleimani headed, is still present and active in the region. Meanwhile, Iran announced earlier this month that it will be enriching uranium up to 20 per cent at its underground Fordow facility, and showcasing its underground missile base on its strategic Persian Gulf coastline.

In an ironic twist of fate, the Trump administration has itself been feeling maximum pressure with the failure to win a second term in office; the fallout from the Trump-incited insurrection at Capitol Hill; and Trump's second impeachment. Even the outgoing president's beloved Twitter has dumped him.

READ: With defiance and perseverance, Iran has once again demonstrated its independence

Pompeo is one of the few remaining loyalists in Trump's dwindling inner circle. He once boasted that, "We lied, we cheated, we stole," and latterly claimed that there would be "a smooth transition to a second Trump administration" a week after the election results were released. Trump and his supporters still maintain that the election was fraudulent, but he has provided no evidence to support the allegation.

What's more, Pompeo was last year branded as "the worst secretary of state in history" by the Washington Post. Indeed, veteran military journalist Fred Kaplan this week described him as the "worst Secretary of State ever" and one who leaves behind a "dubious legacy", reported the New York Times.

However, even as his tenure in the State Department draws to an unceremonious close, Pompeo has continued to provide us with further evidence of his poor grasp of reality, with the accusation that Iran is now the "new home base" for Al-Qaeda.

This brazen claim was made with neither evidence nor, it seems, any contextual or situational awareness. We are no longer in 2003 when senior officials in the administration of George W Bush were able to link Iraq with Al-Qaeda so effortlessly as a justification for military action against Baghdad because of its non-existent "weapons of mass destruction" during the early years of the "war on terror". This claim would later be doubted in a re-assessment by the CIA.

Nevertheless, here we are in 2021 and the US Secretary of State is telling the American public and world media that, as of 2015, Iran has granted refuge to Al-Qaeda members, including the deputies of leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri, resulting in the terrorist network centralising its leadership in Iran. "We ignore this Iran/Al-Qaeda nexus at our own peril," warned Pompeo. "We need to acknowledge it. We must confront it, indeed we must defeat it."

The problem for Pompeo is that most of the world does not buy it and is now generally more aware of the nuances and intricacies of the Middle East's sectarian politics than they were prior to the Iraq invasion and occupation. For example, not long after Pompeo's speech, the word "Shia" was at one point among the top ten trends on Twitter as users were quick to point out that Al-Qaeda is a Sunni-jihadist network while Iran is a Shia-majority theocracy, and that the two are diametrically opposed and have even fighting on opposing sides in Syria and Iraq. Hence, any suggestion that Iran is the global headquarters of a movement which deems its Shia hosts to be heretical and legitimate targets can and should be dismissed as baseless propaganda.

Pompeo's statement drew a swift rejection from Iran, with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif saying: "No one is fooled. All 9/11 terrorists came from @SecPompeo's favourite Middle East destinations; none from Iran." Zarif thus reminded the world about the strong-Saudi connection to the 11 September attacks and global jihad, despite the continued, strong-ties between Washington and Riyadh.

The Prime Minister of neighbouring Pakistan, Imran Khan, also dismissed the allegation in an interview yesterday. "There is no doubt that Pompeo is making such baseless accusations against Iran to satisfy Israel. Of course, he may be preparing for the 2024 elections and… is seeking the support of the Zionist lobby," Khan noted.

READ: This year began and drew to a close with Iran being baited into war

It is, however, incorrect to deny the presence of Al-Qaeda operatives on Iranian soil, especially as many are believed to have fled across the border from Afghanistan in 2002-2003. Moreover, reports last year that Al-Qaeda's second-in-command, Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, was killed by Israeli operatives in Iran having been in "custody" since 2003 do indeed raise questions about the extent of any Iranian links to Al-Qaeda. It is true that, at times, their mutual interests collided, as with the Taliban in Afghanistan, for instance. It was in the early 1990s in Sudan where Iran and Al-Qaeda are alleged to have started collaborating in "an informal agreement" according to the 9/11 Commission Report, leading to an Al-Qaeda delegation being trained by Iranian-supported Hezbollah operatives in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.

It is also interesting to note that during the era of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, Tehran offered to extradite senior Al-Qaeda officials to the US. This was turned down by the Bush administration on the advice of the then Vice President Dick Cheney, who argued that it would undermine the justification for war in Iraq and expose the non-existent ties between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda.

In the murky world of international politics, pragmatism has at times trumped ideals and conflicting ideologies. We have seen this with several regional governments arming and later fighting against Al-Qaeda or affiliated groups. The US is not entirely blameless either, hence the proposed Stop Arming Terrorist Act in 2017 which specifically calls for the prohibition of US funding for Al-Qaeda and other groups.

Regardless of the outcome of Trump's historic second impeachment, his days in politics or at least running for office again are likely to be numbered. As for Pompeo, his political career is not necessarily over as he positions himself as a potential Republican candidate for the next US presidential election. With his hawkish approach to Iran and his openly pro-Israel stances, including an unprecedented visit as Secretary of State to illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and Syria's Golan Heights, we are unlikely to be seeing the back of him just yet.

READ: Iran denies Pompeo's assertion it has ties with al Qaeda

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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