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Iran: Tehran Says It Holds Al-Qaeda Figures, But Keeps Options Open On Their Fate

Iran has said for the first time that it is holding some senior members of the Al-Qaeda terrorism network who fled there following the collapse of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel interviews an expert on international terrorism, Paul Wilkinson of the University of Saint Andrews, regarding who might be in Iran's custody and the likelihood they could be expelled to other countries to face trial.

Prague, 24 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Tehran's announcement yesterday that it is holding some key Al-Qaeda figures goes well beyond its previous statements that it merely has a number of unspecified members of the terrorist network in custody.

Intelligence and Security Minister Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi told reporters in Tehran after a weekly cabinet meeting that, "since the collapse of the Taliban regime, we have arrested a large number of [Al-Qaeda members]. Many of them have been expelled and a large number of them are in our custody -- a mixture of big and small members." He refused to identify any of those being held.

Wilkinson, chairman of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland, says the Western intelligence community has long believed Tehran is holding key Al-Qaeda operatives in addition to numerous foot soldiers of the organization.

But he says there is little widespread agreement among terrorism experts as to who those key people might be.

"One of those whose name comes up time and again is the spokesman for Al-Qaeda, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, who was considered to be senior in his status because of his closeness to [Al-Qaeda second in command] Ayman al-Zawahri," Wilkinson says. "There have also been rumors that Ayman al-Zawahri might be held by the Iranians. But there has been no confirmation of that and that doesn't really fit with the fact that Zawahri has appeared on some of these [videotaped Al-Qaeda] messages that have been relayed to Al-Jazeera and other media. I imagine that Zawahri is still able to operate as a key figure in Al-Qaeda leadership."

Western news agencies have also speculated that those detained in Iran could include Al-Qaeda's security chief, Saif al-Adel. No independent confirmation is available.

The Iranian government's announcement is the latest development in a long-running drama over the presence of Al-Qaeda members in Iran since the Taliban collapsed under U.S. military pressure in Afghanistan in late 2001. That drama has centered on whether Iran is giving refuge to the group's operatives or is tracking them down as terrorists.

Washington has repeatedly accused Tehran of hosting Al-Qaeda members, and U.S. President George W. Bush this week said that Iran and Syria are "harboring terrorists." Bush also said that states that support terror will be held accountable.

Washington has previously charged that a small cell of Al-Qaeda leaders in Iran directed the 12 May suicide bombing attacks in a western residential compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that killed 34 people.

But Tehran has said it is arresting and periodically deporting those Al-Qaeda members who have fled across its border. Earlier this year, Iran said it had extradited more than 500 Al-Qaeda members to their homelands, including Arab, European, and African countries.

Wilkinson says experts on terrorism are uncertain of the extent to which Iran has taken real action against Al-Qaeda.

He says he thinks "there have been conflicting reports and nobody is absolutely certain, perhaps, other than the Iranian leadership themselves and particularly the members of the security establishment in Iran who are very suspicious of the leadership around [President Mohammad] Khatami, so you don't get a clear story from the civilian side of the government."

Wilkinson says the Iranian government appears to be divided in its attitude toward Al-Qaeda. He says hard-liners appear to be sympathetic to Al-Qaeda as allies against Washington while Iran's reformist-led executive branch are hostile to the group.

He says Iranian hard-liners -- who dominate Iran's judiciary and security branches -- originally had little sympathy for Al-Qaeda when it was under the protection of the Taliban. Tehran and the Taliban were openly at odds with each other, as Tehran considered the fundamentalist Sunni Muslim Taliban to be persecuting Iran's Shia co-religionists in Afghanistan and the two governments at times came close to war.

But with the Taliban now out of the picture, some Iranian hard-liners may feel they can make common cause with Al-Qaeda as a fundamentalist Sunni group whose declared enemy is not the Shia but the United States.

"As far as Al-Qaeda is concerned, even though it is a Sunni movement in terms of the majority of its members and leaders, it has a message that is designed to appeal across Sunni-Shia divisions," Wilkinson says. "In other words, it is a message that is aimed at applying to the whole Muslim world, asking them to rally to a holy war on behalf of Muslims everywhere. And one could argue that the hard-liners in Iran were more likely to see Al-Qaeda as ideologically sympathetic."

He says that, by contrast, Iran's reformist camp sees possible Al-Qaeda links as an obstacle to Tehran's growing trade relations with the European Union and other global economic centers -- like the Gulf and Japan -- and, perhaps one day, a detente with Washington. The European Union has frequently conditioned closer trade ties with Iran's progress on human rights and support for the war on international terrorism, as well as greater transparency in Iran's nuclear development program.

Iran has given no reason for why it made the announcement regarding the detention of senior Al-Qaeda people this week, but the statement comes as Tehran is under considerable international pressure to cooperate on more invasive UN inspections to ensure it does not have a nuclear weapons development program.

A gesture of cooperation with the U.S.-led war on terror could help Tehran deflect criticism from Washington that the Iranian regime represents a global security threat as part of President Bush's "axis of evil" of rogue states.

Wilkinson says the apparent ideological divisions within the Iranian government over Al-Qaeda make it uncertain what Tehran means when it says key organization members are in custody and what it may ultimately do with them.

He says the Iranian government could have great difficulty deciding whether to extradite a key Al-Qaeda figure to any country where he would face certain punishment. That could mean Tehran would insist upon conducting trials within Iran for senior leaders, while reserving deportations for relatively minor figures.

Tehran signaled it is keeping its options open in announcing this week it has both "big and small members" in detention.

Interior Minister Abdolvahed Mousavi Lari said yesterday that some Al-Qaeda members would be tried in Iran, some extradited to their countries of origin, and others deported back to the country they entered Iran from.

For now, the announcement has had little effect in quieting the continuing dispute between Tehran and Washington over whether Iran is cooperating in the U.S.-led war on terror.

Intelligence Minister Yunesi said, "We are determined to confront [Al-Qaeda] and we have done that." But he added, in an apparent pointed reference to Washington, that "this confrontation is not to make anyone in particular happy."

For its part, Washington has said it is unable to confirm Tehran's statement that it is holding key Al-Qaeda members. White House spokesman Scott McClellan has raised doubts as to whether Iran's definition of holding suspects means it is detaining them or simply offering them a protective custody that amounts to refuge.

As McClellan put it at a press briefing in Washington yesterday, the U.S. is "not exactly sure" what the Iranians mean by the term "custody."