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The top US diplomat has claimed, without evidence, that the Islamist militant group has established a new base of operations in Iran, moving away from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday that al-Qaida had established a new home base in Iran. He claimed the militant group had "burrowed inside" the country, making it harder for the US to target its members.
Pompeo's claims come on the back of a New York Times report that a top al-Qaida leader, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, had been killed in Iran by Israeli operatives in August 2020. Iran subsequently denied the report.
"Al-Masri's presence inside Iran points to the reason that we're here today ... al-Qaida has a new home base, the Islamic Republic of Iran," Pompeo told a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington as an official confirmation of the report, albeit without providing hard evidence.
"Iran is indeed the new Afghanistan ... as the key geographic hub for al-Qaida," Pompeo said. "Unlike in Afghanistan, when al-Qaida was hiding in the mountains, al-Qaida today is operating under the hard shell of the Iranian regime's protection," he added.
"Tehran gives sanctuary to the terror group's senior leaders .. and has allowed al-Qaida to fund-raise, to freely communicate with other members around the world and perform many other functions that were previously directed from Afghanistan and Pakistan."
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded to Pompeo's remarks on Twitter, calling them "fictitious declassifications" and "warmongering lies."
As a clerical state based on Shiite Islam, Iran is considered ideologically opposed to extremist groups like al-Qaida, which adhere to the Sunni branch of Islam and have traditionally been supported by Iran's arch-enemy Saudi Arabia.
A former head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Pompeo has previously said that al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden "considered al-Qaida members inside Iran to be hostages."
Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute think tank, spoke to DW about Pompeo's accusation, calling it "hardly convincing."
The Trump regime has been "pursuing maximum pressure against Iran" since Trump took power — he questioned why they would have not come forward earlier if such evidence did exist.
Parsi also pointed out that by claiming Iran is the new home base of al-Qaida, Pompeo has set up a "casus belli that would allow the administration to go and attack Iran in its last couple of days in power."
Legislation from 2002 permits the government to take military action against al-Qaida without congressional approval.
Parsi believes, however, that the real aim behind Pompeo's move is "to make it impossible for the Biden administration to pursue diplomacy … and to undo the mess that Trump and Pompeo have caused."
He said that this was in line with the designation of the Houthis in Yemen as a terrorist organization on Monday.
Pompeo's arguments of Iranian support for al-Qaida marks one of the first times Washington has clearly accused Tehran of supporting a Sunni extremist group. Iran is a known supporter of Shiite militant groups, such as Lebanon's Hezbollah.
However, Pompeo has said the relationship between Iran and al-Qaida has improved since the 2015 nuclear agreementbrokered by the Obama administration.
US intelligence experts have said Iranian territory provides a relatively safe haven from the US military, and al-Qaida's presence there comes in exchange for guarantees that the extremists will not target Iranian interests.
"Iran decided to allow al-Qaida to establish a new operational headquarters, on the condition that al-Qaida operatives inside abide by the regime's rules governing al-Qaida's stay inside the country,'' Pompeo said.
wmr/rt (Reuters, AFP, dpa)