Would Iran give a nuclear bomb to al-Qaeda? - analysis

Why would someone leak such a story and how real is the threat of al-Qaeda getting nuclear material or a “dirty bomb” style nuclear bomb from Iran, even if it did not happen this time?

 A missile is launched during a joint exercise called the 'Great Prophet 17', in the southwest of Iran, December 24, 2021. Picture taken December 24, 2021.  (photo credit: SAEED SAJJADI/FARS NEWS/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY)VIA REUTERS)
A missile is launched during a joint exercise called the 'Great Prophet 17', in the southwest of Iran, December 24, 2021. Picture taken December 24, 2021.
(photo credit: SAEED SAJJADI/FARS NEWS/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY)VIA REUTERS)

On Monday, citing unnamed sources, Maariv reported that al-Qaeda had intercepted uranium that Iran was trying to send to its proxy in Yemen, the Houthis.

There has been no public comment by Israel, the US or Iran and while Maariv, The Jerusalem Post’s sister publication in Hebrew, is a serious newspaper, it is always possible that an interested party “leaks intelligence” to the media that is actually disinformation, to achieve some more complex agenda.

Several former intelligence officials with whom the Post consulted view the story as smoke and mirrors.

Presuming disinformation is what is going on here, why would someone leak such a story – and how real is the threat of al-Qaeda getting nuclear material or a “dirty” style nuclear bomb from Iran, even if it did not happen this time?

The why seems obvious.

 An Iranian missile is displayed during a rally marking the annual Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day, on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan in Tehran, Iran April 29, 2022. (credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS) An Iranian missile is displayed during a rally marking the annual Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day, on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan in Tehran, Iran April 29, 2022. (credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)

Why leak a story about al-Qaeda getting nuclear material from Iran?

There are many Israeli, Arab and American parties who want Jerusalem, Washington, the EU and the UN to take a harder line with the Islamic Republic.

Some would like the Jewish state to attack Tehran’s nuclear facilities, and would have even been happier if the attack had happened some time ago.

Tossing out a story about the ayatollahs handing over nuclear material to al-Qaeda, even if it was “by accident” on the way to giving the material to the Houthis, is a good way to freak the world out that time is of the essence.

In contrast, the nuclear standoff between Iran and world powers has essentially been on pause since August, with no signs that either side is budging or anxious to escalate.

But a rogue nuclear weapon could turn the tide.

The report has not gotten heavy notice, but was picked up by Newsweek – and even if it is not true, will make a number of officials nervous.

Would Iran give a nuclear weapon to proxies?

One of the reasons it will make them nervous is that security experts have been warning about exactly such a scenario for years.

In fact, most top defense officials in Israel and the US, including most hawks, do not really expect the Islamic Republic to use a nuclear weapon against the Jewish state. It is one thing to send one young adolescent to carry out a suicide bombing; it is a very different thing to risk national annihilation. Given reports that Israel possesses between 800 and 2,000 nuclear weapons, any Iranian use of one against Israel could lead to complete devastation for the ayatollahs.

The bigger worry is either that having a nuclear weapon will make Tehran bolder in its terror exploits or that it will “gift” a nuclear weapon to a proxy, such as al-Qaeda, to use against Israel or the US with some level of plausible deniability.

THE HOUTHIS are somewhat new to this whole scenario as they have not been around for much of the 20-plus years that security experts have debated the gifting of an Iranian nuclear weapon to a proxy. But Hezbollah has been discussed in the past, and even more so al-Qaeda, because they are not connected to any state, have nothing to lose and are considered messianic and fanatical enough to do just about anything to anyone.

Some have expressed doubt that Iran, the capital of Shi’ism, would give a nuclear weapon to al-Qaeda, who are Sunni jihadists who might turn and use the weapon against Tehran since Shi’ites are their enemy as much as Jews and the West.

But the principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” has shown us that Iran and al-Qaeda have cooperated in shocking ways at times.

In fact, al-Qaeda’s number two in the world was given refuge in Iran for years until Israel reportedly assassinated him in August 2020.

So the two sides working together is not impossible.

It also seems, however, that whoever leaked this story took pains to make it more believable by removing the Sunni-Shi’ite problem, saying that al-Qaeda intercepted nuclear material intended for the Houthis.

Of course, there are problems with this new wrinkle, such as: Would Iran really risk giving nuclear material to such an upstart group – and what could the Houthis do with nuclear material anyway, given that even Tehran has not figured out yet how to detonate a nuclear device?

Yet, the ayatollahs currently possess enough uranium at the 60% and 20% levels for around four nuclear weapons in a matter of months.

The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) just recently produced a report warning that Iran could potentially pull a “dirty bomb” magic trick in only six months, if it pushed to figure out how to detonate a smaller nuclear device on a truck instead of a more powerful one on a ballistic missile.

The bottom line is that even if Monday’s report is not true, the risk could be real – and sooner than people think. And broadcasting that message in as many languages as possible is exactly what the leaker likely hoped to capitalize on.