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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the National Press Club, in Washington, on Jan. 12, 2021.Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday accused Iran of having secret ties with the al-Qaeda 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-Qaeda, citing newly declassified intelligence suggesting Tehran harboured 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-Qaeda are not natural allies in the Islamic world and have had a fraught relationship since the Taliban, which harboured 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-Qaeda 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.

Pompeo claimed that ties between al-Qaeda 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-Qaeda axis,” Pompeo said. “Iran decided to allow al-Qaeda to establish a new operational headquarters, on the condition that al-Qaeda operatives inside abide by the regime’s rules governing al-Qaeda’s stay inside the country.”

He said that since 2015, Iran has given al-Qaeda leaders greater freedom of movement inside Iran and have provided safe havens and logistical support to al-Qaeda. Pompeo asserted that al-Qaeda 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.

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