Prague, 8 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The head of Tehran's Justice Department told the semiofficial Fars news agency on 6 December that Iran had tried several alleged members of Al-Qaeda.
Abbas Ali Alizadeh said a special judge had handled the matter. But he refused to give any further details, including the trial's date, verdict, or the number and identity of the convicted.
Paul Wilkinson, chairman of the Center For The Study Of Terrorism at St Andrews University in Scotland, said that given the vague nature of the Iranian announcement, it is practically impossible to determine the identity of those members of Al-Qaeda who Iran says have been convicted.
"We have to admit that there is no clue here as to who these persons might be. They could be relatively low-level people who have ended up in Iranian hands," Wilkinson said. "We can't be sure of that because the Iranians have not given any details whatever of the precise charges or the names of the individuals. And we don't have the verdicts, so we don't have a guide to how serious the crimes might have been. It might be they're given very token sentences for minor infractions."
In fact, the story has only grown murkier.
Today, Intelligence Minister Ali Yunesi was quoted by Fars as saying that Alizadeh may have been talking about Al-Qaeda "sympathizers" -- not members. Yunesi added that Iran is still examining the cases of Al-Qaeda members in its custody.
Washington has periodically accused Iran of providing a safe haven to Al-Qaeda members. Tehran strongly rejects that charge, saying it has arrested and deported hundreds of Al-Qaeda militants who arrived after the fall of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan in late 2001.
Last year, Yunesi said Iran would try some unidentified Al-Qaeda members whose native countries had revoked their citizenship. Last June, Hossein Mousavian, secretary of the foreign policy committee of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said the suspects were middle-ranking members of Osama Bin Laden's terrorist network.
But many Western media reports suggest that top Al-Qaeda officials, such as Saif Adel, are in Iran. Adel, an Egyptian, is widely believed to have taken charge of Al-Qaeda operations after Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the suspected mastermind of the 9-11 attacks on the United States, was captured in Pakistan.
But these reports, as Wilkinson noted, cannot be verified:
"There are speculations about Adel.... There are speculations about Bin Laden's son, of course. But as far as I know that is still speculative," Wilkinson said. "We don't know quite the whereabouts of Saad [Bin Laden] and it's a mystery who actually has still been using Iran as a base."
U.S. intelligence officials believe Al-Qaeda militants based in Iran planned bombings in Saudi Arabia last May.
Last month, Iran struck a deal with France, Britain, and Germany to suspend its uranium-enrichment activities. Enriched uranium can be used for nuclear weapons, which is what the United States accuses Iran of secretly developing.
Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that Iran's announcement about the trial of Al-Qaeda members may be connected to the deal with the three major European Union countries.
"In the agreement with the British, French, and Germans, there was an intriguing sentence about how, independent of other issues, the two sides would cooperate about terrorism, including about the Al-Qaeda members in Iran," Clawson said. "And this announcement may be design to forestall discussions with the Europeans about those Al-Qaeda members. The Europeans have for many months been insisting strongly that Iran provide a list of who are the Al-Qaeda people being held in Iran."
An unidentified Iranian official told Reuters yesterday that Iran's judiciary would not announce the trial verdicts until "legal obstacles were removed." The official refused to say what he meant by "obstacles."
U.S. intelligence officials believe Al-Qaeda militants based in Iran planned bombings in Saudi Arabia last May. And Saudi officials have suggested that Iran-based militants plotted other attacks in their country, including a November 2003 bombing that killed 18 people. Tehran strongly denies those charges and says that Al-Qaeda, on the contrary, has long planned attacks in Iran.
Wilkinson said that security concerns might prevent Iran from revealing details of the trial.
"They live adjoining two countries where there are terrorist activities going on intensively -- that is, Afghanistan and Iraq," Wilkinson said. "And clearly, they will have to be careful how they handle this problem because they know they are potentially vulnerable to the export of this violence into their own borders. So one has to bear in mind that they will be concerned about their own security and bear in mind that Al-Qaeda threatens countries which cooperate with the international coalition against terrorism."
Analysts also said that the apparent contradictions in Tehran's official comments on the trial are merely an indication of the ongoing political divisions in Iran.
Wilkinson said that politically and diplomatically, Iran is in a difficult position.
"Given the divisions that there are in their political system, they want to get a message across that they are not helping Al-Qaeda, they are not collaborating with them, they are not giving them safe haven," Wilkinson said. "On the other hand, they don't want to convey the message that they are lining up firmly behind Washington and the coalition states and acting as a full blown ally in the war against terror."
News of the trials is unlikely to please Washington, which has repeatedly called on Iran to hand over all Al-Qaeda suspects. Iran has ruled that out, but says it has extradited some 500 militants to "friendly countries."
U.S. State Department Spokesman Adam Ereli on 6 December urged Iran to hand over any senior Al-Qaeda operatives it may have -- or turn them over to a third country where they can be dealt with in a "less opaque" manner.