Posts about Iran and AQ making nice are practically required to mock the old dovish canard that Sunni fanatics and Shiite fanatics would never coordinate, so consider this your official moment of mockery. Evidence to the contrary has been available literally for decades, but the left has always been keen to quarantine Al Qaeda conceptually from the rest of the Middle East lest its allies be targeted by the neocon war machine or whatever. (That’s why they made such a stink about Al Qaeda in Iraq being distinct from the “real” Al Qaeda during the height of Iraq-withdrawal fever, even though there were links there too.)

The thing is, I’m not so sure that narrative is being pushed anymore. Now that it’s a liberal Democrat who’s charged with dealing with Iran, the Iranians can be bad guys without misgivings. So here’s what the bad guys are up to now:

Al-Qaida operatives who have been detained for years in Iran have been making their way quietly in and out of the country, raising the prospect that Iran is loosening its grip on the terror group so it can replenish its ranks, former and current U.S. intelligence officials say…

U.S. intelligence officials have tried wiretapping and satellite imagery to watch the men. The CIA even established a highly classified program — code-named RIGOR — to study whether it could track and kill terrorists such as al-Qaida in Iran. Results have been mixed. Monitoring and understanding al-Qaida in Iran remains one of the most difficult jobs in U.S. intelligence…

Since then, U.S. intelligence officials say, others have followed. One former CIA official familiar with the travel identified the men as moneymen and planners, the kind of manpower al-Qaida needs after a series of successful U.S. drone attacks on al-Qaida’s ranks. But a senior counterterrorism official said the U.S. believes anyone who has left Iran recently is likely to be lower-level…

The roster of al-Qaida figures in Iran is something of a who’s who for the terror group. One is Abu Hafs the Mauritanian, a bin Laden adviser who helped form the modern al-Qaida by merging bin Laden’s operation with Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Islamic Jihad. Al-Qaida’s longtime chief financial officer, Abu Saeed al-Masri, has been held there. So have bin Laden’s spokesman, Suleiman Abu Ghaith, and Mustafa Hamid, an al-Qaida trainer with a terrorism pedigree that spans decades…

Some experts believe that anyone from al-Qaida freed to leave Iran must be returning to the battlefield. Others believe that, with al-Qaida families left behind, terrorists may actually be working for Iran, gathering intelligence or passing messages before returning to Iran.

Supposedly the Iranians started letting people go in late 2008, when Bin Laden’s son Saad and a few others were allowed to leave. Eight months later, Saad was liquidated by a U.S. missile, but there’s plenty more where he came from. Take five minutes and read the AP story in full as there’s lots of interest than I can’t quote. The RIGOR program has now been canceled, even though the CIA isn’t sure how many fish have been let go yet and how big they might be. Saif al-Adel, one of AQ’s most wanted, was caught by the Iranians shortly after 9/11 and is presumably still there; there’s even a goofy rumor floating around that the big dog himself is living comfortably inside the country. Considering how many middle managers have had their tickets to meet Allah punched by predator drones, the AQ faithful left in Waziristan sure could use some new manpower and expertise.

I assume this is all about leverage vis-a-vis Iran’s nuke program, with Tehran sending a tacit message to The One that Hezbollah isn’t the only proxy it can activate if and when things come to a head. What’s less clear to me from the story is whether there’s been more AQ activity via Iran lately or whether we’re just being chattier about it now in order to rally international opinion against the Iranians ahead of the sanctions push. Either way, it’s hard not to read this story in light of ABC’s scoop today about Zawahiri’s deafening silence lately. Maybe he’s dead too and Iran’s trying to fill the leadership void by tossing back some of its bigger Al Qaeda fish. Or maybe he’s gone to ground in anticipation of a major attack, one big enough to have Iran’s AQ faction suddenly scurrying. Or maybe he’s just lying low because the CIA’s drone offensive has been that good? Many questions and few answers, but important enough to make this worth flagging now.

Updater: Terror expert Tom Joscelyn runs through the long trail of evidence tying Al Qaeda to Iran.

Tehran acts like a corrupt cop who is in league with the mob, disrupting the al Qaeda network only on occasion and even then only to detain mainly small fish. It is clear that the big fish continue to operate to some degree. For example, the Saudis complain all the time about the al Qaeda network targeting the Kingdom from Iranian soil. Dozens of the Kingdom’s most wanted terrorists are reportedly operating inside Iran…

There is much more to all of this. The bad news is, according to the AP, the CIA has shuttered RIGOR – a program designed to track the al Qaeda threat emanating from Iran.