Two recent reports are serious warnings to those who oppose the United States endless wars in the Middle East. The reports indicate that although President Trump has lost the elections, his efforts against Iran are continuing, and that he may be looking for an excuse to attack Iran in the last few weeks of his Presidency.
First, the New York Times reported on November 13 that Israeli agents assassinated Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, whose nom de guerre is Abu Muhammad al-Masri, and was supposedly "al-Qaeda’s No. 2 man." The assassination supposedly took place in an affluent neighborhood of Tehran on August 7, on the 22nd anniversary of the terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on 7 August 1998 that killed 224 people and injured hundreds more. Al-Masri had been accused of masterminding the attacks. According to the report, al-Masri’s daughter, Miriam was also killed. Iran denied the report.
The report surprised many, including this author, who follow the political developments in Iran and the Middle East. It has been known ever since the United States invaded and occupied Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 that a number of al-Qaeda operatives and even high-ranking officials, including relatives of Osama bin Laden, had escaped to Iran, had been arrested there, and had been either jailed or were kept under house arrest. In 2003 Iran proposed to the George W. Bush administration to exchange them with the leadership of the MEK, a cult-like group based in Iraq that opposed the government in Tehran and until 2012 was listed by the State Department as a terrorist organization. Because of its collaboration with the Saddam Hussein regime during Iran-Iraq war, the MEK is universally despised by Iranians. In 2003 the MEK leadership was being protected by the US forces in Iraq after the Bush administration invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003.
But the Bush administration rejected the offer, because the Iran hawks wanted, and still wish, to use the MEK against the regime in Tehran. Thus, gradually, Iran either deported al-Qaeda’s members to their country of origin, or exchanged them with al-Qaeda in order to free some Iranian diplomats that had been taken hostage by the terrorist group. One such exchange occurred in September 2015. Iran released five senior members of al-Qaeda and sent them to Yemen, and in return al-Qaeda in Yemen released Iranian diplomat Nour Ahmad Nikbakht, who had been taken hostage in 2013. One of the five senior al-Qaeda members, as reported by none other than the New York Times, was Abu Mohamed al-Misri, the same "No. 2 al-Qaeda" who was supposedly assassinated by Israel’s Mossad last August in Tehran.
The fact that Al-Masri was swapped in 2015 was even reported approvingly on the website of Long War Journals, affiliated with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a well-funded, stridently pro-Israel lobby that opposed the nuclear agreement with Tehran known as the JCPOA, and has long promoted waging economic warfare against Iran. So, if al-Masri was returned to al-Qaeda, how did he return to Tehran, and lived there quietly and comfortably until he was killed? This defies any logic.
More importantly, why would Iran allow al-Qaeda figures to operate freely in Iran, contribute to its leadership’s decisions, and cooperate with the very same groups that Iran has been fighting against in Syria in support of the Syrian government, particularly the two main terrorist groups, the al-Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, the groups that fought with the Syrian government for years, and are now in the Idlib province of Syria, trying to make a last stand against the Syrian army and its allies that are attempting to dislodge them?
But the strange story does not end here. On 24 October 2020 Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security announced that Abu Muhsin al-Masri, "Al-Qaeda’s No. 2 man," who had been living in Afghanistan, had been killed by its forces. The Los Angeles Times on October 25 and Voice of America on October 26 reported the same, an event that was even celebrated in a twit by the White House National Security Council. Even Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani celebrated the killing of al-Masri. Similar to the "other" al-Masri reported by the New York Times, this one is also Egyptian and was 58 when killed. Are the two the same, or they are two men using the same aliases? Afghanistan’s officials believe they are the same. In fact, after the New York Times report, Mirwais Nab, Deputy Foreign Minister of Afghanistan who was visiting Tehran, rejected the Times report and declared that "al-Qaeda No. 2 man" had been killed in Afghanistan, not Tehran.
Could it be that al-Masri had been killed in Afghanistan, but Israel’s Mossad deceived the New Times’ reporters and made them believe that he had been killed in Tehran, in order to provoke an attack by the United States on Iran?
Killing "al-Qaeda’s No. 2 man" by the US or its allies is an old story, as US officials have been claiming the same for nearly a decade. CNN reported in June 2012 that Abu Yahya al-Libi, another "al-Qaeda No. 2 man" was killed in Pakistan. Exactly three years later CNN reported that Nasser al-Wuhayshi, "al-Qaeda’s second-in-command" had been killed in Yemen. Then, it was reported that another al-Masri and, of course, "al-Qaeda’s No. 2 man," Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, had been killed in Syria. He was one of the five operatives whom Iran had exchanged with al-Qaeda in Yemen in 2015.
But, the strangest aspect of the New York Times report is its claim that US officials have been silent about the supposed killing in Tehran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a Christian Zionist ideologue and an ardent supporter of Israel, has an insatiable urge to confront Iran and, if he can, start a war with that nation. As the CIA Director Pompeo released the Agency’s documents taken from Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan, but gave advanced copies to the FDD. Pompeo had presumably hoped that the FDD would uncover evidence linking Iran directly to al-Qaeda (much as the George W. Bush administration struggled to link Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda nearly 20 years ago), so that the 2002 Authorization for use of Military Force in the so-called war on terrorism could be invoked against Iran. The FDD obliged and published a report. But the evidence for such a link that it adduced from the documents was so weak that it was almost entirely ignored by lawmakers and major media alike.
Pompeo also worked with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to organize a conference in Poland in February 2019, ostensibly about the Middle East, but clearly targeting Iran. When, in June 2019, Iran shot down a US drone that it claimed had violated its airspace in the Persian Gulf. Pompeo pushed hard for retaliatory military attacks on Iran, but Trump rejected his urgings. When precision missile and drone attacks, attributed by Washington to Iran, on Saudi Aramco’s oil facilities, heavily damaging the facilities and rendering the Saudi’s MIM-104 Patriot defense system useless. Pompeo called the attacks "an act of war" on Iran’s part.
So, one would expect Pompeo to have a field day, if "al-Qaeda’s No. 2 man" was found living quietly and comfortably in Tehran, and assassinated by Israel. This would be the "smoking gun" that he has been looking for: a definitive link between the terrorist group, whose leaders have always hated the Shiites, and the Shiite Iran, so that he can "justify" military strikes on Iran. So, why has Pompeo been silent? It simply defies logic and what is known about Pompeo and his hatred of Iran and Iranians.
The second report by the New York Times is just as alarming. It reported on Monday November 16 that President Trump met with his advisers on Thursday November 12 to discuss his options for attacking Iran. This was supposedly provoked by the latest report of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which indicated that Iran had 2442.9 kilogram of low-enriched uranium [all enriched below 5 percent], which is 12 times larger than what the 200 kilogram that the JCPOA allowed Iran to store within the country.
What is not mentioned is that, first, Iran had much larger amounts of low-enriched uranium right before the JCPOA was signed, but exported 97 percent of it to Russia after JCPOA, and, second, Iran exercised strategic patience between May 2018, when President Trump pulled the United States out of the JCPOA and imposed illegal, immoral, and sadistic economic sanctions on Iran, and June 2019 when Iran began distancing itself from the JCPOA, precisely according to the agreement that allows Iran not to deliver on its obligations, if one or all other parties to the agreement did not deliver their part of the agreement either.
Why does the President want to attack Iran, even though he is supposedly antiwar and an isolationist? The answer is clear: aside from his desire to completely destroy the JCPOA in order to make it impossible for President-Elect Joe Biden to begin negotiating with Iran again, Trump is trying to keep pleasing the Zionist billionaires who have supported him over the past four years, funding his elections. This will not only help his business ventures and those of his family members, particularly Jared Kushner, after his Presidency is over, it will also be useful to him if he or a family member decides to run in 2024. That pleasing his Israel’s supporters means more suffering for the people of Iran and the Middle East does not matter to Trump. The only thing important to Trump is Trump.
Muhammad Sahimi is a Professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.