Iranian officials are believed to be still holding "a large number" of al Qaeda operatives in custody. The Bush administration has being trying for months to strike a deal with Tehran to hand over the al Qaeda suspects, who could potentially provide information about terrorism operations currently in the planning stages. However, the two countries have yet to find a way to surmount the long-standing animosity that is presently blocking an extradition agreement.
Ali Yunesi, Iran's Minister of Intelligence, has confirmed that al Qaeda members are being held by Iranian authorities. "Since the fall of the Taliban [in 2001], we have arrested a large number of al Qaeda members, some of whom have been expelled or handed over to their country of origin," Yunesi revealed at a news conference in June. "We are still holding many others, small and big."
According to diplomatic sources, the al Qaeda detainees still in Iranian custody include network spokesman Suleiman Abu Gaith, top strategist Saif al Adel and Osama bin Laden's son, Saad. Al Qaeda detainees are reportedly being held in northern Khorasan Province, and are being guarded by the members of the Quds Brigade of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
In recent weeks, a Foreign Ministry consultant disclosed, Iranian diplomats held numerous secret meetings with government representatives from other Middle Eastern nations, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to discuss the extradition of al Qaeda members still being held in Iran. The source went on to say that extradition deals had been agreed upon, but at the last moment Iran balked at implementation. Instead, Tehran announced that the al Qaeda members had disappeared. Political observers view the government claim of vanishing al Qaeda operatives as highly improbable, and suggest that Tehran instead opted to hold on to them, hoping they could be of use as bargaining chips in its quiet diplomatic parley with the United States. Some Iranian officials have also indicated that the al Qaeda members might be put on trial in Iran.
On several occasions in 2003, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has publicly assailed Iran for harboring terrorists. At the same time, Bush administration officials have used back-door channels to probe the possibility of an extradition arrangement with Iran. Those quiet diplomatic efforts have stumbled, however, largely because the two countries have not found a way to set existing bilateral tension aside. [For background, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Iran is reportedly driving hard bargain in extradition discussions. Among the conditions is the handover of American-held members of the Mujaheddin-e-Khalq (MEK), an exiled Iranian group based in Iraq that has conducted armed operations aimed at driving Islamic clerics from control in Tehran. Iranian officials are also reportedly interested in using the discussions on the al Qaeda operatives to broaden a dialogue with the United States. Iran in particular is interested in being removed from President George W. Bush's so-called "Axis of Evil," which also included Saddam Hussein's Iraq and North Korea.
Quiet negotiations have been going on since at least May. US officials broke off talks in mid-May after Washington reportedly intercepted communications originating in Iran in which Adel reportedly issued orders for a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia. A bombing attack in Riyadh subsequently claimed 29 lives.
The Bush administration took action in mid-August that indicated that a deal could be reached, effectively ordering the closure of the MEK representative office in Washington. Nevertheless, until recently, many influential Bush administration officials had backed US support for the MEK, viewing the group as a potentially valuable ally in any possible attempt to promote regime change in Tehran.
In May, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi admitted that up to 600 al Qaeda members had been detained in Iran. He indicated at the time that all of them had been shipped to their home countries, a claim subsequently contradicted by Yunesi, the Intelligence Minister. Observers say that a large number of Qaeda members fled from Afghanistan to Iran in late 2001, after the US-led anti-terrorism coalition drove the militant Taliban Islamic movement from power in Kabul.
The Afghan-Iranian frontier, especially in Iran's southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan Province, is widely recognized as porous and has the reputation as a widely used narcotics trafficking route. In recent years, over 1,200 Iranian border troops and police officers soldiers have been killed in clashes with traffickers. Al Qaeda members reportedly paid sizable bribes to smugglers to secure safe passage into Iran. Most reportedly sought to get to Bandar Abbas and other Iranian port cities on the Persian Gulf, from where they could potentially depart Iran for more secure destinations.
Ultimately, many al Qaeda operatives ended up staying in Sistan-Baluchistan, which is the poorest and least-populated province in Iran. It is also a region where the central government's authority is considered tenuous.
It is not known how many al Qaeda members who fled to Iran evaded detection by Iranian authorities, but, as Kharrazi indicated, authorities apprehended roughly 600 members of the group. Some may have surrendered themselves in the hope that they would receive the protection of hardliners within Iran's political leadership. Some al Qaeda members also may have been tricked into turning themselves in.