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Terror suspect Chiheb Esseghaier arrives at Buttonville Airport just north of Toronto on Tuesday, April 23, 2013. Esseghaier is accused with another man of plotting to derail a train in Canada with support from al-Qaida elements in Iran. (Frank Gunn/CP)
Terror suspect Chiheb Esseghaier arrives at Buttonville Airport just north of Toronto on Tuesday, April 23, 2013. Esseghaier is accused with another man of plotting to derail a train in Canada with support from al-Qaida elements in Iran. (Frank Gunn/CP)

Globe editorial: First Take

Allegations of al-Qaeda activities in Iran are a worrying development Add to ...

The RCMP’s allegation that the two terror suspects arrested on Monday had guidance and inspiration from al-Qaeda elements in Iran is a disturbing development. Al-Qaeda and Iran have had a strained and mutually suspicious relationship in the past. If the RCMP are correct – and their claim is being supported by U.S. sources – then this could mark a dangerous new phase in the terrorist organization’s activities.

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Iran state officials immediately denounced the RCMP’s claim, calling it “hilarious” that Canada would link al-Qaeda to Iran. Their reaction should be filed under “doth protest too much,” as the RCMP did not say the terror group had any connection at all to the government, only that al-Qaeda operatives located in the country had been in communication with the two suspects now in custody.

Terrorism experts say there is little doubt that there are al-Qaeda operatives in Iran, but they point out Iran has been, for the most part, hostile to the terror group. One obvious source of conflict is that al-Qaeda is an ultra-fundamentalist movement based in the Sunni branch of the Muslim faith, which is dominated by Arabs, while Iran is a Persian country dominated by the Shia branch of the faith. The theocratic Iranian government has officially discouraged al-Qaeda from operating on its soil, even placing some members under house arrest.

But, as CNN has reported, the U.S. Treasury recently accused six al-Qaeda members living in Iran of funding terrorism in Pakistan and sending money to Syrian rebels. Others have reported that Iran and al-Qaeda have co-operated in the past against “perceived common enemies.” There seems to be little doubt among terrorism experts that there are al-Qaeda facilitators in the eastern part of Iran near the Afghanistan and Pakistan borders that could well have been in touch with the Canadian suspects.

If accurate, the RCMP’s statement is a disturbing window into Iran. The country is often portrayed in the news as a homogeneous theocracy led by a president who answers to a stern ayatollah. But Iran is far more complex than that. There are factions within the government that do not see eye-to-eye, and the eastern edges, as well as other parts of the country, are to some degree semi-autonomous. Intelligence agencies need to follow this worrisome allegation closely.

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