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Iran: Al-Qaeda Suspects Handed Over To Saudi Arabia -- But Why?

Iran has handed over to Saudi Arabia 16 suspected Al-Qaeda fighters who had fled from Afghanistan. The suspects are Saudis, and Riyadh's foreign minister has characterized the gesture as a significant development in the fight against terrorism. Does it represent a move by Tehran to improve relations with the United States, which considers Iran as belonging to an "axis of evil?"

Prague, 12 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Riyadh has disclosed that Iran has handed over to Saudi authorities 16 suspected members of the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization.

Making the disclosure in U.S. media over the weekend, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faysal bin Abd al-Aziz Al-Saud praised Iran. He said Tehran's cooperation with his country had been "very important" and "very significant" in fighting terrorism.

The prince said the suspects are now being interrogated, and that any information stemming from that process will be shared with the United States. He also spoke of "extensive" cooperation between the United States and Iran, though he did not give details.

The transfer of the 16 suspects -- all reportedly Saudi nationals who fled from Afghanistan -- happened in June. Why is the event only now being publicized?

One possible explanation is that Foreign Minister Prine Saud is seeking to nudge Washington into making a return gesture toward Iran. So far, the U.S. has maintained -- at least publicly -- a consistently cold pose toward Iran, which it includes in what it calls an "axis of evil," along with North Korea and Iraq.

Such a gesture from the U.S. could help defuse regional tensions at a time when U.S. President George W. Bush is expressing increased determination to see the Iraqi regime of President Saddam Hussein toppled from power. There are also rumors circulating that the U.S. is considering a strike against the Iranian nuclear-power facility at Bushehr, similar to Israel's preemptive 1981 bombing of a nuclear plant in Iraq.

French Islamic analyst Olivier Roy says that, given this situation, it is in Saudi Arabia's own interest to defuse such tensions across the Middle East. "The Saudis are worried about the Americans wanting to bomb Bushehr. They don't want to have tensions both with Iran and Iraq at the same time."

Roy says that, on Iran's part, the handing over of the 16 suspects is a "political gesture" aimed squarely at the United States. He says it is designed to show that Iran is not a haven for Al-Qaeda terrorists -- as some in the United States have suggested.

Analyst Alireza Nourizadeh of the Center for Arab and Iranian Studies in London agrees. He says the handover is a "major step" by the Iranians, and that Iran is now looking for a gesture from Washington in return. "It seems the Iranians are taking the American threats very seriously. Forget about the [anti-American] demonstrations and the chanting of "death to America" in the streets of Tehran. Privately, they express their deep concern about the reactions of the United States."

Nourizadeh says the Iranians earlier sought similar positive responses for the measure of cooperation they gave to the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism in Afghanistan. A few months after the events of 11 September, however, in his State of the Union speech, Bush branded Iran as being part of that "axis of evil."

Nourizadeh says that, in any event, the handover will certainly have gratified the Saudi Arabian government. He says that Foreign Minister Prince Saud, in his most recent trip to Tehran, likely told the Iranians that the future of bilateral relations depends on the level of cooperation on the issue of Al-Qaeda suspects.

Daniel Neep, the head of the Middle East Program at the Royal United Services Institute in London, places a different emphasis on the timing of the Saudi disclosure. Neep notes that it comes at a time when there is rising criticism of Saudi Arabia within U.S. political circles. A briefing was given last month to a top Pentagon advisory board by Rand Corporation analyst Laurent Murawiec. Murawiec said the Saudis are active at every level of the terrorism chain -- from planning to financing. The Bush administration quickly distanced itself from Murawiec's analysis.

For Neep, Saudi Arabia is not so much preoccupied with helping Iran build a better image as it is trying to show that it is actively participating in the campaign against terrorism. "With the debate which is going on at present in the United States on the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, [the handover of the suspects] obviously comes at a very timely moment."

As for Iran's intentions in releasing the 16 suspects, Neep believes there is a certain level of confusion over aims in Tehran. He notes the subject of improving ties with the United States is highly controversial in Iranian political circles.

There are sharp divisions on the issue between hard-liners, reformers, and pragmatists, and it is therefore hard for the Iranian government to develop a clear policy.