Iran has arrested several Al Qaeda operatives and they are undergoing interrogation in a new sweep that Washington is fully aware of, a senior Iranian official said Wednesday.
Mohammed Javad Zarif, Iran’s U.N. ambassador, was responding to U.S. action breaking off talks with Iran on security and regional issues because of what Washington described as intelligence that Al Qaeda operatives have taken refuge in the Islamic Republic.
“We have carried out several important operations against several cells, and we have captured them and put them in prison,” Zarif said in an interview from Paris. “We now have a large security net in the eastern provinces to find suspicious elements. We have done this at a cost of several operations against us by people connected with Al Qaeda.”
But the Bush administration said Wednesday that U.S. intelligence had intercepted conversations by Al Qaeda officials in Iran both before and after last week’s bombings in Saudi Arabia that referred to impending action and to a “mission accomplished.” Almost three dozen people were killed and nearly 200 injured.
“There’s no question but that there have been and are today senior Al Qaeda leaders in Iran, and they are busy,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said.
Washington believes the detained Al Qaeda operatives may be only under house arrest and that Iranian intelligence is allowing them to communicate.
“We have questions about whether they are really in prison or being treated as the terrorists they are. Iranian intelligence is not doing all it could,” a well-placed U.S. official who requested anonymity said Wednesday.
The new intelligence intercepts came as a surprise to the United States “because it was taken as a given that Iran was firmly in the anti-Al Qaeda camp,” he added.
Among the operatives believed to be in Iran are Saif Adel and Saad bin Laden, son of Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. The new intelligence intercepts led the White House to indefinitely suspend the U.S.-Iranian direct dialogue that had been budding in recent months under U.N. auspices.
Iran said it could not confirm the identities of many of those detained because they had false papers or multiple passports and were not cooperating in the interrogations.
But the State Department said Iran could get help in identifying them. “If they want to give us fingerprints or turn them over to a friendly country, those are alternatives. Or give them to us and we’ll identify them,” a senior State Department official said. “Excuses are not answers to questions.”
Iran in turn claimed the United States has a double standard in dealing with terrorists, since U.S. troops in Iraq are not detaining or extraditing members of the Moujahedeen Khalq, an Iranian group based in Iraq that is on the State Department’s list of terrorist groups. Its members are only being disarmed, U.S. officials concede.
“There are people in Iraq who on a daily basis are planning attacks against Iran. The United States has to prove it practices what it preaches by arresting and extraditing the Moujahedeen. Otherwise, this is a one-way street,” Zarif said. “If anyone feels betrayed, it is Iran.”
Iran’s anger at the United States over its failure to reciprocate when it comes to the Moujahedeen has led the government of President Mohammed Khatami to declare that it will not resume direct discussions even if the Bush administration changes its position, according to Iranian officials.
Washington is demanding Iran act decisively against Al Qaeda as a precondition for resuming the talks, while Tehran is demanding the U.S. do the same against the Moujahedeen.