UPDATED: Friday, April 13, 2012 - 8:53am
Iran is assisting al Qaeda by facilitating links between senior terrorist leaders and affiliate groups, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East told Congress on Tuesday.
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the U.S. Central Command, also said Iran's nuclear program is facing problems, and as a result, Tehran is not expected to emerge with a nuclear weapon this year.
The exact details of when U.S. intelligence agencies estimate Iran will have a nuclear bomb are classified, but the timeline for developing a nuclear device has "thankfully slid to the right a bit," he said.
On Tehran's ties to al Qaeda, Gen. Petraeus said the group "continues to use Iran as a key facilitation hub, where facilitators connect al Qaedas senior leadership to regional affiliates."
"And although Iranian authorities do periodically disrupt this network by detaining select al Qaeda facilitators and operational planners, Tehrans policy in this regard is often unpredictable," he stated in written testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The comments reinforce concerns of both military and intelligence officials about Iran's backing for the group behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Some analysts in the past doubted or minimized links between Shi'ite Islamists like those in Iran and rival Sunni extremists, such as al Qaeda.
A U.S. counterterrorism official said al Qaeda members are located in Iran, and "and the Iranian government knows it."
"Al Qaeda members also make their way through Iran to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the Iranian government knows it. Thats just unacceptable," the official said.
A National Counterterrorism Center report said Iran is unwilling to "bring to justice" senior al Qaeda members it holds and "has refused to publicly identify those senior members in its custody."