Al Qaeda’s departure from Iran — what does it mean?

The Washington Post reports that senior al Qaeda officials long sheltered by Iran have exited that country in the past year or two. These al Qaeda officials migrated to Iran when, following 9/11, the U.S. began taking out the organization’s top leaders.

The departing officials include Thirwat Shihata who was the deputy of Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s current leader, when he ran Egyptian Islamic Jihad; Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, accused in the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings; and Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law and former spokesman. According to the Post, Shihata is believed to have traveled to Libya.

Before we consider what the departures means, let’s consider what the longstanding presence of al Qaeda leaders in Iran meant. It meant that hatred of the U.S. trumped the Sunni-Sh’ite divide, a point that President Bush grasped and many of his critics (remember the ridicule Bush’s “axis of evil” phrase drew) did not.

What, then, are we to make of al Qaeda’s departure from Iran? The obvious explanation is that Iran and al Qaeda are on opposite sides of the war in Syria. More generally, the departure suggests that, with Obama having largely sidelined the U.S. throughout the Muslim world, the Sunni-Sh’ite divide takes primacy over concern about (though not hatred of) America.

Does the departure also suggest Iran is moving towards rapprochement with America? No. As Michael Rubin says, if Iran had turned a new leaf, it would be handing al Qaeda’s leaders over to the U.S. The fact that Iran would rather set al-Qaeda leaders free than allow them to face justice in the United States confirms that Iran still considers the U.S. its enemy and has no desire to reach a “grand bargain” with President Obama.

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