THE SCOTSMAN – IRAN is preparing to strike a deal with America to hand over Osama bin Laden’s two top acolytes in return for its removal from US President George Bush’s “axis of evil”. According to European diplomats involved in talks with the Iranians about the country’s development of nuclear technology, its government sees the dozen senior members of al-Qaeda and 50 fighters living there as a way to win concessions from the US.
Iran wants the Americans to accept it can build nuclear power stations and for the US to clamp down on a rebel movement, Mujahideen-e-Khalq, which is seeking to overthrow the Islamic republic. The rebels have had offices in the US – despite being named on the State Department’s list of terrorist organisations – and it continues to operate freely in Iraq.
The thaw in feelings towards Washington became apparent when officials from Germany, France and Britain negotiated Iran’s agreement to allow inspection of its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
A European government official with knowledge of those meetings said it was clear the al-Qaeda issue was on the table.
Members of the terrorist network in Iran include Osama bin Laden’s son Saad bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri and Saif al-Adel, respectively second and third in command, according to European, Saudi Arabian and US government sources.
Up to a dozen “serious al-Qaeda members” are also there along with some 50 foot soldiers and family members, making a total group of about 300.
Iran has been unwilling to have a handover previously, the European official said, because “the al-Qaeda members provide Iran with a bargaining chip”.
The official added that if the US met Iran’s conditions it would be prepared to hand over the al-Qaeda members to their countries of origin, which is Egypt in most cases, a country which has been co-operating with the war on terror. The terrorists would then be handed over to the US or made available for interrogation.
There are growing signs that a fragile working relationship between the Islamic Republic of Iran and superpower US is beginning to develop. In the latest positive development, Iran attended a meeting in Madrid of countries considering making donations to help the reconstruction of Iraq.
Adel al-Jubeir, foreign affairs adviser to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah, said: “With the Iranians having worked through the nuclear issue, the temperature may drop sufficiently to where this issue can become resolvable.
“Our position is they should be handed over to their countries of origin, and I believe eventually they will be handed over.”
Experts say the chance to repair US-Iranian relations has not been so good for decades.
Judith Yaphe, a specialist on the Middle East at the National Defence University in Washington, said: “Everything is negotiable. The Iranians may be signalling a willingness to put everything on the table.”
The 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran saw 52 Americans taken hostage inside the US Embassy in Tehran and held for 444 days. But, after years of hostility, there have been talks and exchanges at various levels over the past few years and a reform movement in Iran has gained momentum.
In January last year, President Bush labelled Iran a member of the “axis of evil” along with Iraq and North Korea, and after last May’s terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh, the US broke off talks with Iran on all levels.
US officials, including Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, accused Iran of harbouring al-Qaeda members who took part in those attacks. “There’s no question that there are al-Qaeda in Iran,” Rumsfeld said. “Countries that are harbouring those terrorist networks and providing a haven for them are behaving as terrorists by so doing.”
Iranian officials issued a public denial but later admitted their presence.
Prince Saud al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, travelled to Iran during the summer in an attempt to negotiate the return of Saudi members of al-Qaeda. Another Saudi delegation spent two weeks there later, but the Saudi nationals were not returned.
“The majority of them aren’t Saudis,” said al-Jubeir, the foreign affairs adviser. “Most of the names I have seen tend to be from the Egyptian wing of al-Qaeda.”
It would be politically unthinkable for Iran to surrender the al-Qaeda group directly into American custody, but finding a third party willing to act as an intermediary is thought to be an acceptable compromise.
The governments of Muslim countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Sudan, Jordan, Morocco and Yemen have all detained al-Qaeda members since September 11 despite the considerable antipathy towards America felt by many of their citizens.
Egypt has been interrogating low-grade al-Qaeda suspects on behalf of American authorities: al-Qaeda militants secretly rounded up in Sudan have been flown there for questioning.
After senior al-Qaeda figure Anas al-Liby, one of America’s “most wanted”, was caught in Sudan in February 2002, the US authorities ensured he was sent to Egypt.
Its leaders had good reasons to fear both al-Liby and al-Qaeda, as he was wanted for allegedly plotting the murder of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 1995.
The capture of al-Zawahiri and al-Adel in particular would be a major coup for the Americans.
Despite its ongoing concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme, the US will be tempted to accept the IAEA deal brokered by Europe and make a deal that would secure its greatest triumph over al-Qaeda since the invasion of Afghanistan.
A version of this story first appeared in the Christian Science Monitor
A NATION STILL RIVEN BY INFIGHTING
IRAN was declared an Islamic republic in 1979 when its monarchy was overthrown and a unique Islamic republic was declared and religious clerics – led by Ayatollah Khomeini – seized ultimate political control. The eight-year war with Iraq proved a massive drain on the country and its income from vast oil reserves dwindled. However, in 2000 political liberals won a landslide victory over the long-ruling conservative party in parliamentary elections, ushering in a spate of reforms.
President Mohammad Khatami has become popular among young voters in particular by introducing greater social and political freedoms. But he often comes up against Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, left, and hardliners reluctant to compromise on established Islamic traditions. One of Khatami’s biggest achievements was to establish a free press, but this has proved to be a major battleground with the religious right. Some pro-reform journals have been shutdown with reformist writers and editors jailed by the judiciary. Khatami and parliament appear to be unable to intervene.