Iran on Tuesday denied any links with an alleged terrorist plot that Canadian authorities claim was directed by al Qaeda operatives in Iran and sought to derail a passenger train.
Canadian authorities allege the suspects, Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, and Raed Jaser, 35, had "direction and guidance" from al Qaeda members in Iran, though there were no claims the planned attacks were state-sponsored by Tehran. Esseghaier is believed to be Tunisian and Jaser from the United Arab Emirates. Canada said the pair posed no immediate threat.
The case bolstered allegations by some governments and experts of a relationship of convenience between Shiite-led Iran and the predominantly Sunni Arab terrorist network.
Some al Qaeda members had been allowed to stay in Iran after fleeing Afghanistan, but were under tight Iranian controls. Relations have been rocky between Tehran and al Qaeda, on many fronts, for years.
Iran was a strong opponent of the Taliban, which sheltered Osama bin Laden and others before the U.S.-led invasion after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Many al Qaeda leaders also view Shiite Muslims with suspicion and hostility.
Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, told reporters that there is "no firm evidence" of any Iranian involvement and groups such as al Qaeda have "no compatibility with Iran in both political and ideological fields."
"We oppose any terrorist and violent action that would jeopardize lives of innocent people," said Mehmanparast.
He called the Canadian claims part of hostile policies against Tehran, and accused Canada of indirectly aiding al Qaeda by joining Western support for Syrian rebels. Some Islamic militant factions, claiming allegiance to al Qaeda, have joined forces seeking to topple the regime of Bashar Assad, one of Iran's main allies in the region.
"The same (al Qaeda) current is killing people in Syria while enjoying Canada's support," said Mehmanparast.
In a separate comment, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi called the claim by Canadian authorities "the most ridiculous fake words."
"I hope Canadian officials resort to more wisdom," he said.
The two countries have had no diplomatic relations since Canada unilaterally closed its embassy in Tehran in 2012 and expelled Iranian diplomats from Ottawa.
On Monday, Alireza Miryousefi, spokesman for the Iranian mission to the United Nations, said the terrorist network was not operating in Iran.
"Iran's position against this group is very clear and well known. (Al Qaeda) has no possibility to do any activity inside Iran or conduct any operation abroad from Iran's territory," Miryousefi said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press. "We reject strongly and categorically any connection to this story."
Charges against the two suspects include conspiring to carry out an attack and murder people in association with a terrorist group. Police said the men are not Canadian citizens, but declined to say where they were from. Police said the men had "direction and guidance" from members of al Qaeda in Iran.
The investigation was part of a cross-border operation involving Canadian law enforcement agencies, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
"It was definitely in the planning stage but not imminent," RCMP chief superintendent Jennifer Strachan said. "We are alleging that these two individuals took steps and conducted activities to initiate a terrorist attack. They watched trains and railways."
Strachan said they were targeting a route, but didn't say if it was a cross border route.
Bruce Riedel, a CIA veteran who is now a Brookings Institution senior fellow, said al-Qaida has had a clandestine presence in Iran since at least 2001 and that neither the terror group nor Tehran speak openly about it.
"The Iranian regime kept some of these elements under house arrest," he said in an email to The Associated Press. "Some probably operate covertly. AQ members often transit Iran traveling between hideouts in Pakistan and Iraq."
U.S. intelligence officials have long tracked limited al Qaeda activity inside Iran. Remnants of al Qaeda's so-called management council are still there, though they are usually kept under virtual house arrest by an Iranian regime suspicious of the Sunni-/Salafi-based militant movement. There are also a small number of financiers and facilitators who help move money, and sometimes weapons and people throughout the region from their base in Iran.