* Officials see no change in "a very strange relationship"
* Iran and al Qaeda follow different sects of Islam
By Mark Hosenball
Feb 22 (Reuters) - U.S. and European officials are downplaying allegations that Iran and al Qaeda have recently stepped up cooperation in preparation for possible attacks on U.S. and other Western targets.
The officials, who are familiar with security issues, and private experts, discounted recent news reports about a possible new deal between Iran and what remains of al Qaeda's core leadership, now headed by Ayman al Zawahiri, long-time deputy to the late Osama bin Laden.
"This should not be overblown," said one U.S. official, who asked for anonymity when discussing a sensitive subject.
"This has been a very strange relationship for a decade or more," the official added. "We're not seeing any change in that relationship at the moment."
There have long been reports of on-again, off-again tactical cooperation between Tehran's leaders and al Qaeda. The two share an adversary in the United States, yet follow different sects of Islam. Iran is overwhelmingly Shi'ia Muslim, whose followers are viewed as heretical by al Qaeda's strict Sunni Muslims.
Several recent developments brought the question of improving relations between al Qaeda and Iranian government entities or proxies into the public spotlight. This month, the U.S. Treasury announced that it was imposing sanctions on Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security for human rights abuses and for "its support of terrorist groups."
A Treasury statement alleged that Iran had provided support to three violent militant groups: al Qaeda, the Lebanese Shi'a militia Hezbollah and the Palestinian group Hamas. U.S. and other officials and experts have long alleged close relations between Iran and Hezbollah and less-extensive dealings between Iran and Hamas.
The Treasury alleged that in the case of al Qaeda, the Iranian intelligence agency had "facilitated the movement of al Qaeda operatives in Iran and provided them with documents, identification cards and passports." The Treasury also charged that Iran had helped to finance and arm al Qaeda's affiliate in Iraq and to negotiate the release of Iraqi al Qaeda prisoners.
Britain's Sky News reported that Iran had reached a deal two years ago with al Qaeda's core leadership, led by Zawahiri, to provide militants with advanced explosives training, some funding and safe haven. This, in turn, sparked reports in other British and U.S. media that Iran's improved relationship with al Qaeda could somehow heighten the threat of possible attacks on the Olympic Games in London this summer.
The U.S. official stressed that Washington was not "being dismissive" of the possibility of Iranian-related attack threats or the possibility of some cooperation between Tehran and al Qaeda.
RELATIONSHIP SEEN AS FRAUGHT AND TENUOUS
But U.S. and European government experts said their best available information suggested that relations between Iran and al Qaeda's central leadership remained fraught and tenuous at best. While greater cooperation could not be ruled out, evidence of a real improvement in relations was thin, they said.
"The relationship between al Qaeda and Iran is best described as complicated," one U.S. official said. "The Iranians keep watch on what al Qaeda facilitators are up to. Sometimes the Iranians crack down on their activities; other times they don't. Al Qaeda moving fighters or money is one thing, while planning major terrorist attacks against the West from Iranian soil is probably something they won't allow.
"Al Qaeda is not necessarily friendly to Iran," the official continued, noting that for years Iran has reportedly held a number of top al Qaeda officials, including relatives of Osama bin Laden, in off-again, on-again conditions of detention or house arrest.
The official continued: "Al Qaeda is sort of like a nasty parasite to Iran. It feeds off its ability to operate in Iran, with or without the Iranians' approval. It is unclear if Iran knows exactly what to do with al Qaeda; when to let them conduct facilitation activities, or when to wrap them up. This policy fluctuates, but Iran should know, a parasite always damages its host and therefore it must be removed."
A European official said there is reason to believe that Iranian authorities have and do act as "facilitators" for al Qaeda elements form time to time, turning a blind eye as operatives move to and from Pakistan's tribal areas. The Iranians also arrest and recapture al Qaeda prisoners from time to time, the official said.
But the official said there was no evidence of Iran linking up recently with al Qaeda's fugitive senior leadership nor that they planned attacks together. Al Qaeda's senior leadership is "not in a position to do that and Iran would not want to cosy up to a Sunni terrorist group that kills Shia."
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA Middle East expert who has advised President Barack Obama on policy in Southwest Asia, said that he did not take recent reports about improved relations between Iran and al Qaeda very seriously. The history of their dealings, he said, remained "murky." (Editing by Warren Strobel and Christopher Wilson)