TEHRAN, Iran – Iran said Wednesday it won’t allow the United States to interrogate senior al-Qaida operatives in Iranian custody. “No,” was President Mohammad Khatami’s brief reply when reporters asked if Iran would allow U.S. investigators access.
A day earlier while on a visit to Australia, Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Richard Armitage told reporters the United States wanted to talk to al-Qaida suspects in Iran.
“We know that Iran, to her own admission, is holding a certain number of al-Qaida,” Armitage said. “Some of them we believe to be quite high level. We’d like to get access to them and interrogate them to try to head off whatever plans they’ve already got in the works.”
Khatami said Iran was ready to hand over Saudi al-Qaida detainees to Saudi Arabia, which is investigating bombings on May 12 in Riyadh, its capital.
“If their nationality is Saudi, we have no problem handing them over. We have no problem cooperating with Saudi Arabia,” Khatami told reporters after a Cabinet meeting.
On Monday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said Iran would try al-Qaida operatives in Iranian custody whose nationalities are not clear and if no country takes them.
Asefi also said Iran will also try those al-Qaida figures who have committed crimes in Iran. He gave no further details.
Last week, Iran’s government spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh said Iran won’t hand over senior al-Qaida captives to the United States because Iran had no extradition treaty with Washington.
Intelligence Minister Yunesi confirmed for the first time last month that Iran was holding “a large number of small and big-time elements of al-Qaida.” Iran has not identified any of the detainees, citing security reasons.
U.S. officials have said intelligence suggests that al-Qaida figures in Iran include Saif al-Adl, a top al-Qaida agent possibly connected to the May 12 bombings in Riyadh; Abu Mohammed al-Masri, wanted in connection with the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998; Abu Musab Zarqawi, whom some U.S. officials describe as the key link between al-Qaida and toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein; and Saad bin Laden, the son of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
Many al-Qaida operatives are believed to have fled to Iran after the overthrow of the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan in late 2001.