Pompeo hits Iran for al-Qaida support on his way out

WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday accused Iran of having secret ties with the al-Qaida network and imposed new sanctions on several senior Iranian officials.

Pompeo’s comments come just a week before the Trump administration leaves office and appeared aimed at President-elect Joe Biden’s stated desire to resume negotiations with Iran over the 2015 nuclear deal. President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018.

In a speech to the National Press Club just, Pompeo attacked Iran for alleged secret ties with al-Qaida, citing newly declassified intelligence suggesting Tehran harbored the group’s No. 2, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, who was killed in August, reportedly by Israeli agents.

Shiite-ruled Iran and predominantly Sunni al-Qaida are not natural allies in the Islamic world and have had a fraught relationship since the Taliban, which harbored bin Laden, took over Afghanistan in 1996. Two years later, Iran accused the Taliban of murdering several of it diplomats in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Although U.S. officials had previously confirmed the death of al-Masri and his daughter, the widow of Osama bin Laden’s son Hamza, Pompeo’s remarks were the first on-the-record comments supporting the claim.

“Today, I can confirm publicly to the world for the first time, his death on Aug. 7 of last year,” Pompeo said. He also alleged that Iran had “closely monitored” al-Qaida members before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States and had stepped up such activity and had decided to actively support them following the nuclear agreement.

Speaking after Pompeo’s remarks, two senior U.S. officials told reporters that Iran had facilitated al-Masri’s stay in Tehran, including by sending security guards with him on shopping excursions and granting him access to a swimming pool. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence information, spoke on condition of anonymity.

Pompeo claimed that ties between al-Qaida and Iran vastly improved in 2015, when the Obama administration, along with France, Germany and Britain, were finalizing the nuclear deal. He offered no evidence for the claim. Pompeo has been adamantly opposed to the nuclear agreement since he was a member of Congress.

“A sea change was happening within the Iran-al-Qaida axis,” Pompeo said. “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.”

He said that since 2015, Iran has given al-Qaida leaders greater freedom of movement inside Iran and have provided safe havens and logistical support to al-Qaida. Pompeo asserted that al-Qaida had now based its leadership in Tehran and was continuing to plot attacks on the U.S. and Western targets from there.

Iran has denied all such charges, and did so again on Tuesday.

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh Tuesday condemned Pompeo’s accusations as a “repeat of blaming and fabricating false evidence” against Iran since President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 nuclear deal and began to re-impose sanctions that had been lifted under the accord.

Khatibzadeh derided Pompeo’s accusations as an indication of the “failure of the maximum pressure campaign” by the Trump administration against Iran, the official IRNA news agency reported. He said Iran has had “a crystal-clear and defendable record” in fighting al-Qaida and IS terrorism.

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