Iran has custody of several high-ranking Al Qaeda members, including spokesman Sulaiman abu Ghaith, a senior reformist official close to Iran's president said over the weekend. Diplomats in Tehran representing three countries also say that, based on their intelligence, Abu Ghaith is among those in custody.
The senior Iranian official declined to say how or when Abu Ghaith and the others had been apprehended or where they were being held. However, diplomats from another country indicated that Abu Ghaith, a native of Kuwait, had been in custody at least since June.
Diplomats said they believed the detainees were in Zahedan, the capital of Sistan-Baluchistan province, a region in eastern Iran populated by Sunni Muslims sympathetic to Al Qaeda.
U.S. officials were skeptical. "Everybody on the U.S. side has been saying, 'Not to our knowledge,' " said one U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"We did have knowledge of a number of Al Qaeda people in Iran under some circumstance, rumors of them being taken into some kind of custody, the nature of which is unclear. Abu Ghaith is one of them."
Abu Ghaith has appeared on a number of video and audiotapes taking responsibility for Al Qaeda attacks, including a bombing at a Kenyan hotel last year that killed 16 people. Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, he appeared in a video and vowed that a "storm of airplanes" would continue to strike American targets until the U.S. ended its "crusade" against Afghanistan and Islam.
Western nations, including the U.S., have for months alleged that Al Qaeda members are in Iran. Tehran has said it has arrested a number of suspected Al Qaeda members, but it has kept the number of detainees and their identities tightly guarded.
What Iran intends to do with those in its custody is complicated by long-standing fractures among the different Iranian state institutions, such as the Intelligence Ministry, nominally under the control of reformist President Mohammad Khatami; the Revolutionary Guards, loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; and the hard-line judiciary, controlled by powerful clerics.
The senior reformist official said Iran has been seeking to exchange information about those in custody in return for guarantees from Western governments to, in effect, shut down the Moujahedeen Khalq, an Iranian opposition group that wants to overthrow the Islamic regime in Tehran. The Iranians want the group's activities to be banned in Iraq, its longtime base of operations, as well as in Europe.
While Iran has been eager to appear cooperative in the war on terrorism and there are indications that it may be willing to extradite those in its custody, it appears highly unlikely they would be handed over directly to the United States.
'Axis of Evil'
Decades-old animosity with Washington, aggravated by President Bush's labeling Iran a member of an "axis of evil," has left Tehran reluctant to do any favors for the U.S. The hard-line Khamenei has refused to allow militants to be turned over to the United States, the senior Iranian official said. Reformists in the government, however, hope that cooperation over Al Qaeda can ease tensions with the West on a range of issues.
Further complicating any discussion of extraditions, the senior official said, is that the militants' countries of origin are hesitant to accept them.
"Say we return Abu Ghaith to Kuwait," said the official. "It could spark a revolution. Half of Kuwait listens to his tapes in the car, but the Kuwaitis would either have to execute him or turn him over to the U.S. It's awkward."
Kuwait has revoked Abu Ghaith's citizenship. Diplomats said Al Qaeda -- and Abu Ghaith in particular -- were among the subjects discussed when Kuwait's information minister visited Iran last month.
Iran has also had high-level contacts with Saudi Arabia recently. The head of Iran's judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, traveled to Saudi Arabia this month; during the visit, unprecedented for an Iranian judiciary chief, Shahroudi met with nearly all of the kingdom's leadership, diplomats said.
And the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal, visited Tehran last month, diplomats said, to talk about Iran's Al Qaeda detainees, particularly any Saudis among them.
According to the senior Iranian official, optimism for a deal with Western governments was running high this spring, particularly before a suicide bombing in Saudi Arabia's capital, Riyadh, in May that killed nearly three dozen people and was blamed on Al Qaeda. Iranian hope for such a deal was bolstered when the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq rounded up and disarmed Moujahedeen Khalq members.
Iran's first step in any deal would have been to tell the West the identity of those it was holding; the hope on both sides was that this might have led to more substantive cooperation. The plan was scuppered at the last minute by a dispute among Iran's divided political factions over the terms of the bargain, the official said.
Iran's ambitious agenda for dealing with the suspects -- secure a deal over the Moujahedeen Khalq and win points with the West while staying in the good graces of Arab governments and public opinion -- has created a set of conditions for any hand-over that one Western diplomat described as "following a classic Iranian pattern of bargaining so hard that the deal is lost."
"As always, we're losing out on these important chances," the senior Iranian official said, "because we can't negotiate with the United States directly, and our domestic problems mess things up."
How to deal with the Moujahedeen Khalq -- also known by the initials MKO -- may be a sticking point in any negotiations. Iranian officials have accused Washington of double standards in the war on terrorism, pressuring Iran to round up suspected Al Qaeda operatives but allowing the MKO -- which is on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations -- to retain a presence in Iraq.
Western officials have argued that Iran cannot equate the two organizations and that Tehran would be best served by cooperating rather than trying to drive a hard bargain.
"The MKO doesn't pose a global, imminent threat on the scale of Al Qaeda," said a Western diplomat in Tehran. "The Iranians accept this, but want to keep the moral high ground so they can link the two issues."
Some countries whose nationals may be among the detainees -- Kuwait and Saudi Arabia -- are U.S. allies. Tehran fears it cannot rely on assurances from such countries that U.S. officials will not be permitted to interrogate the fugitives and that intelligence relating to their time in Iran will be withheld from Washington. Tehran is concerned that the U.S. could use such information to accuse Iran of support for Al Qaeda.
Times staff writer Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.