Iran Holding al-Qaida Men 'as Bargaining Chip with US'
August 08, 2003
Dan De Luce
Iran is using the senior members of the al-Qaida network it has detained as a bargaining chip in its war of nerves with the US, and will only allow their extradition in return for substantial concessions, sources in the political establishment said yesterday.
"Iran holds the golden key on the al-Qaida issue, and the US knows it," a source familiar with the senior leadership told the Guardian. "They need us."
Iranian officials privately acknowledge that Tehran is holding important members of the network - thought to include Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian who is believed to be the head of al-Qaida's military operations; Suleiman Abu Ghaith, its Kuwaiti-born spokesman; and Saad bin Laden, the son of the its leader, Osama bin Laden.
Reports in Saudi-owned newspapers have alleged that the network's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, may also be in Iranian custody. The government has officially confirmed it is holding some senior figures, but has declined to name them.
With Iran under intense US-led pressure over its nuclear programme, its role in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, al-Qaida members held in custody could provide invaluable leverage in negotiations with Washington.
Fleeing the attack on Afghanistan, hundreds of al-Qaida members crossed the border into Iran. Although some 500 have been extradited, some figures are reported to have received protection from Iran's revolutionary guard.
Whenever the extradition of al-Qaida members has been suggested by European diplomats, Tehran has protested that an exiled Iranian resistance group, the People's Mojahedin of Iraq, has received lenient treatment in the west .
Iranian sources and European diplomats say resolving the fate of this group is inextricably linked with any handover of al-Qaida suspects.
Iran has demanded the US take a firmer line against the People's Mojahedin, which has bases in Iraq and has staged attacks against Tehran. US-led forces have disarmed the group in Iraq and are questioning its officers in an attempt to glean intelligence about Iran.
French authorities recently staged a raid on the group's headquarters in Paris - a move praised by Iranian sources, who said it was part of an understanding under which Tehran would eventually allow the extradition of Algerian nationals linked to bombings in France.
"The US should take note of France's policy on this issue," one source said. French officials have denied a quid pro quo with Tehran.
Iran remains resentful at being named by President George Bush's as part of the "axis of evil", and some within its establishment remain opposed to handing over prisoners at any time.
"Iranian radical conservatives believe that we should cooperate with al-Qaida and turn them into another Hamas," said Saeed Leylaz, a political analyst at Sharif University. "The main policy of these radicals is to militarise the situation in Iran to survive, so they need America's hostility - and unfortunately the US adds fuel to their fire."
Tehran also has reason to fear the network if Iran is seen to be cooperating with the US, Iranian sources say. Saudi Arabia, too, fears al-Qaida's wrath.
Iran has developed close cooperation on security with Riyadh, and there is speculation that Tehran may eventually extradite al-Qaida members to Saudi Arabia.
If Iran is really holding some of al-Qaida's most powerful figures, it would be a serious setback for the organisation, three of whose military commanders have been captured or killed in the past two years.
Even so, its autonomous cells are still able to operate, experts say. The group is suspected of a role in the bombing on Tuesday of a US-managed hotel in Jakarta, which killed 16 people. http://www.guardian.co.uk/iran/story/0,12858,1014346,00.html