The presence of al Qaeda elements in Iran has made headlines since the collapse of Taliban rule in Afghanistan. The issue of deporting or extraditing them to the United States or to their countries of citizenship has engaged several governments through diplomatic channels as well as secret contacts. Iran’s stance has shifted from denying al Qaeda’s presence in the country to announcing the deportation of its members to, ultimately, using them as bargaining chips to negotiate a trade with the United States.
IRAN AND AL QAEDA: BACKGROUND
Iranian officials first made contact with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in the 1980s. But ties were not significantly strengthened until 1994 when bin Laden’s Saudi citizenship was revoked for “irresponsible behavior,” and he moved to Khartoum, Sudan, where he forged an alliance with the National Islamic Front. As a result, bin Laden’s al Qaida organization also began to have closer contact with the government of Iran as well as with Hezbollah of Lebanon for the purpose of cooperating against their perceived common enemies in the West, particularly the United States and Israel.
Iran’s relationship with al Qaeda is strongest through the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ). Throughout the 1990s, the leader of the EIJ, Ayman al Zawahiri, was a frequent guest of Ali Fallahian, Iran’s then-Minister of Intelligence, and Ahmad Vahidi, the then-head of the Quds Force, a special operations unit active abroad. Since February of 1998, when the EIJ joined forces with al Qaeda to form the “World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders,” al-Zawahiri has become bin Laden’s right-hand man and chief of ideology.
Iran’s relations with al Qaeda experienced a downturn in 1996, when international pressure forced bin Laden to relocate from Sudan to Afghanistan and he became the Taliban’s ally. In the summer of 1998, Iran and the Taliban almost went to war following the killing by Taliban soldiers of ten Iranian diplomats and a journalist in the basement of Iran’s consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif. Iran’s relationship with al Qaeda deteriorated further before the September 11 attacks because of bin Laden’s continued alliance with the Taliban and his role in the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud, (the leader of the anti-Taliban resistance), on September 9, 2001.
Following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Washington began complaining that Iran was not doing enough to crack down on fleeing al Qaeda operatives. Iranian officials first categorically denied the American accusations, but revised their stance after Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special envoy in Afghanistan, also confirmed that senior al Qaeda members were in Iran. An Iranian foreign ministry spokesman then countered that Tehran had deported to their countries of origin more than 500 infiltrators from Afghanistan during the first quarter of 2002. In August of 2002, Iran expelled to Saudi Arabia an additional sixteen al Qaeda fighters. Iranian authorities handed over the Saudi fugitives knowing that any intelligence obtained from them during interrogation would be passed to the United States.
The United States renewed its accusations that Tehran was harboring al Qaeda operatives after the end of major combat in Iraq. Mohsen Armin, head of the parliament’s National Security Commission, was the first Iranian to officially announce that some al Qaeda members were hiding in Iran. According to Armin, President Mohammad Khatami considers the improved relations with Saudi Arabia one of the most important achievements of his presidency. He will not permit anyone to place these relations at risk by protecting al Qaeda members, even if this means public confrontation with the various security services that are subject only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s oversight. President Khatami has said: “Whenever we find al Qaeda members, we arrest them. This group has as much hatred and enmity toward Iran as it does the U.S.”
With the U.S. takeover of Iraq, a new element entered into Iran’s involvement with al Qaeda: The Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an Iraqi-based Iranian opposition group that Washington has designated as a terrorist organization. Responding to indications that American officials were considering working with the MEK to overthrow the Tehran regime, the tone of Iranian government officials changed: “In the wake of the terrorist attacks in the U.S., Washington was portraying itself as anti-terrorist, but it entered into a deal with a terrorist group which they have nurtured and given a safe haven in Washington,” said Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the head of the powerful Expediency Council, on May 6, 2003. On May 22, Iranian officials announced that they had several unnamed al Qaeda operatives in custody and proposed a trade with the United States to return MEK leaders to Iran.
“Al Qaeda is the worst enemy of the American government. They have killed more than 2000 Americans,” said an official of Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on condition of anonymity. “Mojahedin-e Khalq is the worst enemy of the Iranian government. They have also killed more than 2000 Iranians. If harboring terrorism is bad for Iran it should be the same for the United States.”
Supporting the MEK is a controversial idea within the U.S. administration. Some Pentagon officials oppose negotiating any deal with Iran for fear it might undercut an opportunity to overthrow the regime. Secretary of State Colin Powell was tight lipped on August 1 when asked in an interview about the possibility of a deal to get the al Qaeda operatives in return for disbanding the MEK. “Using the appropriate interlocutors, we are in touch with the Iranians on both of those issues,” Powell said. In fact, Saudi officials are negotiating a deal with Iran, on behalf of the United States, and are trying to persuade Tehran to hand over seven or eight Saudis.
Tehran now says it will extradite some al Qaeda suspects to unspecified “friendly countries” and will try those whose citizenship has been revoked and cannot be extradited, if they are guilty of crimes against national security. Iran has declined to reveal the identities of the al Qaeda suspects it is holding, but it is widely speculated that Saad bin Laden, Osama’s eldest son, and Sulaiman Abu Gaith, al Qaeda’s Kuwaiti-born spokesman, are among the high ranking members in Iranian custody.
The State Department’s decision on August 8 to ban MEK activities in the United States suggests that some elements of a bargain may already be in place. Meanwhile, however, the MEK continues its radio broadcasts into Iran from Iraq, for nine hours a day, and it reportedly is also providing intelligence to the U.S. military. It would seem that resolving the fate of the MEK is now inextricably linked with any handover of al Qaeda suspects. As a result of two wars, the American army now surrounds Iran from Afghanistan in the east and Iraq in the west. This geopolitical change only makes the two countries more important to one another and will necessitate some sort of resolution of the issue of al Qaeda and the MEK.