Iran, Canada and the Alleged VIA Bombers

Yesterday, the RCMP arrested two alleged terrorists for attempting to to attack a VIA train travelling between Toronto and New York.  Details of the plot are still sketchy, but according to at least one account, the two alleged terrorists intended to derail VIA train 97 as it crossed the Whirlpool Bridge, near Niagara Falls – plunging the train and its passengers into the Niagara Gorge.  Interestingly, in light of Canada’s recent diplomatic history with that country, the RCMP also alleges that the two alleged terrorists  received support from “Al Qaeda elements in Iran“.

Curiously, within 24 hours, the Iranian government held a press conference denying that it had any involvement with the proposed attack, claiming that the allegations of an Iranian connection were “the most ridiculous fake words”.  The Iranian government spokesperson, Ramin Mehmanparast, went on to claim, quite disingenuously in light of Iran’s well-documented support for terrorism, that “[w]e oppose any terrorist and violent action that would jeopardize lives of innocent people” and to disassociate Iran with Al-Qaeda.

I say “curiously”, because the RCMP pointedly stated that they did not believe that the alleged plot was NOT state-sponsored.  The Iranians spend this morning vociferously denying an allegation that Canada never made.  And while I wouldn’t trust Mr. Mehmanparast as far as I can throw him, I have no doubt he’s telling the truth in so far the claim that Iran had nothing to do with this alleged plot. 

In fact, I suspect part of the reason for the hasty press-conference and denial is that the Iranians want to make very clear that they weren’t involved in what was likely a plot to try to American citizens in North America (since, in all likelihood a good percentage of the passengers on the targeted VIA train would have been Americans).  It can’t have escaped the notice of the Mullahs of Tehran that the leaders of the last government to sponsor an attack on American soil – the Taliban in next-door Afghanistan – or at least those leaders who sun-bleached bones aren’t dotting the Afghan countryside,  have spent the last decade or so dodging American drones and special forces teams, while hiding in shit-holes in western Pakistan.  While the United States probably isn’t all that inclined to invade and occupy Iran for a decade, the likelihood of its political and military leadership living out the year (or its nuclear program seeing 2014 in one piece) would drop dramatically if Iran were implicated in a terrorist attack on Americans.  Mr. Mehmanparast comical denials are proof positive of the power of deterrence.

Equally curiously, though, is that Iran did not directly dispute the one claim that the RCMP, implicitly, DID make – that Al-Qaeda operatives based in Iran had provided direction and support to the terrorist plot.  Sure, Mr Mehmanparast denied any connection with Al-Qaeda – plausible enough given oft-lethal animosity between Sunni Al-Qaeda and Shite Iran – neither he, nor other government officials flatly denied that it was based in Iran.  Indeed, as Alex Wilner writes in this morning’s Citizen, notwithstanding their long-standing hatreds, Iran and Al-Qaeda have been known to co-operate from time to time, when it suits them, dating back to the early 1990s.  While no one sensible person believes that Iran was involved in the 9/11 attacks, there is evidence that Osama Bin Laden, and some of the perpetrators of 9/11, had contacts in and/or travelled to Iran. 

Moreover, since 9/11 Iran has, none-too-secretly, provided shelter to Al-Qaeda operatives fleeing Afghanistan.  According to Seth Jones, in a article in Foreign Affairs last year, al-Qaeda’s “management council” has been allowed to remain in Iran, subject to conditions that they:

refrain from plotting terrorist attacks from Iranian soil, abstain from targeting the Iranian government, and keep a low profile.

Compare that description of al-Qaeda’s activities in Iran with today’s statement by Iran’s UN Ambassador that:

(al-Qaeda) has no possibility to do any activity inside Iran or conduct any operation abroad from Iran’s territory

He isn’t saying that al-Qaeda isn’t based in Iran, merely that they are not allowed to “do any activities inside Iran” (i.e.,  in Jones’ words “targeting the Iranian government”) or “conduct any operations  abroad from Iran’s territory” (i.e., in Jones’ words “plotting terrorist attacks from Iranian soil”).  Far from being a hearty denial that al-Qaeda is based in Iran, Iran’s Ambassador is simply describing the modus vivendi between al-Qaeda and the Iranian government.  Or so the Iranian government thought. 

In that light, Iran may have found itself enmeshed in a terrorist plot that it, directly at least, had nothing to do with.  While I don’t think for a second that the Iranian government has any moral compunctions about killing innocent Canadians and Americans, I have no trouble believing that it is afraid of the consequences of doing so (namely a losing war with the US and its allies, followed by degeneration into Afghan-style anarchy), and they don’t want to be blamed if someone else does it.  So they’re probably pretty pissed-off that al-Qaeda has repaid Iran’s (admittedly grudging) hospitality, to say nothing of its protection from American drone strikes and special forces teams,  by ensnaring Iran in an attempted attack on American and Canadian citizens in North America. 

It’ll be interesting to see if they respond by giving the remaining al-Qaeda operatives in Iran the boot (not that there are many places for them to hide these days), re-arrest them and place them under tighter controls or – and I wouldn’t rule this out – simply have them “disappear”.  In any event, I’m not sure I’d want to be an al-Qaeda operative in Iran these days.

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