The nature of the relationship between al-Qaeda and Iran is one of the most contentious debates in the counterterrorism community, dividing analysts, policymakers and government officials. The stakes of establishing or disproving the relationship are considerable—meaningful state support is immensely useful to terrorist organizations, especially one being hunted by the U.S. government. Current analytic disagreements are not necessarily about whether al-Qaeda and Iran have a relationship; on that point, there is little room for doubt. But some observers argue that ideological differences and deep distrust affect the relationship to the point that it is little more than an “insurance policy” for both sides. Others swing to the opposite extreme, arguing the relationship is more akin to a deep, strategic partnership. Still others argue that the relationship is mostly tactical and falls well short of having any strategic value.
It is important to frame the relationship in its historical context with attention to its trajectory and political implications. Such an analysis suggests that al-Qaeda and Iran’s relationship has overcome conflict to generate strategic benefits to both actors.