THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
May 27, 2003
By DAVID S. CLOUD
WASHINGTON — Senior U.S. officials plan to meet Tuesday to discuss Iran after authorities there said they had no knowledge that any senior al Qaeda leaders were operating from Iranian territory.
Tensions between Washington and Tehran have escalated this month over U.S. charges that car bombings in Saudi Arabia may have been overseen by al Qaeda leaders in Iran — part of a pattern, U.S. officials assert, of threatening actions emanating from within Iran’s borders. Some U.S. officials say intelligence reports of al Qaeda’s presence in Iran are strong enough that the Bush administration shouldn’t continue even informal diplomatic contacts unless Tehran cooperates in rounding up members of the terrorist network.
Monday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asef said Iran has no interest in helping al Qaeda’s Islamic militants. A number of the group’s members may have slipped into the country illegally, he said, and several are currently under investigation, but none has been identified as a senior member. “We do not know who these are. How can we say that they are senior members of al Qaeda or not?” he said, according to IRNA, the official Iranian news agency.
Tuesday’s White House meeting on Iran, which also will involve senior State Department and Pentagon officials, is meant to assess how responsive Tehran is being to U.S. requests, sent through British diplomats and a United Nations official last week, for movement against the alleged al Qaeda presence in Iran. White House envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has held periodic meetings with Iranian officials in Geneva, but a planned meeting last week was canceled to emphasize U.S. desire for action, administration officials said.
Unless Iranian authorities take more steps against al Qaeda in coming days, Tehran’s stance is likely to bolster hard-liners in the Bush administration who have been arguing for several months that the U.S. should adopt a more confrontational stance toward Iran. Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, administration officials have accused Tehran of sending agents to foment anti-U.S. sentiment among Iraq’s Shiite Muslims, continuing to back anti-Israel terror groups and stepping up a clandestine nuclear-weapons program. U.S. hard-liners are arguing for steps aimed at destabilizing the Iranian regime from within. President Bush has said U.S. policy toward Iran seeks regime change, but officials say he hasn’t resolved how aggressively to pursue that, except to play down the option of using military force.
The U.S. is particularly interested in the whereabouts of Saef al-Adel, an Egyptian militant linked to al Qaeda who U.S. officials say is believed to have been in Iran recently. U.S. officials say they have intercepted telephone conversations believed to involve Mr. Adel or his associates from inside Iran discussing the May 12 car bombings in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, in which 34 people — including eight Americans — were killed. Iranian officials said during the weekend that they had no information about Mr. Adel.
Even within the Bush administration, a number of questions surround the recent intelligence, including whether the overheard conversations involved individuals planning the attacks or just discussing them afterward. Some U.S. officials say that, while al Qaeda members appear to be in Iran, there is no evidence contradicting the Iranian government’s claim that it isn’t assisting the group. Other officials argue that Iran’s hard-line Revolutionary Guards, who are known to support other terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, probably are providing some covert assistance to al Qaeda.
The internal U.S. debate mirrors similar disagreements last year about whether Iraq under Saddam Hussein was directly aiding al Qaeda in an alliance against the U.S. Little information backing that claim has emerged since the U.S. invasion.
“It’s unclear exactly what the full Iranian involvement with the al Qaeda people is,” a senior intelligence official said. “There are certainly some [in the administration] who take a hard-core view, and others who say we don’t know.”
In addition to al Qaeda’s activities in the region, much of the U.S.-Iran tension these days has to do with events in Iraq. Iranian officials have angrily accused Washington of failing to live up fully to prewar promises to eradicate the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, an anti-Tehran militia group that for years has mounted cross-border attacks from Iraq.
Although U.S. forces in Iraq now are moving to disarm the group, they also are insisting that an Iraqi Shiite militia known as the Badr Brigades, which was trained and armed by Iranian Revolutionary Guards, turn over all weapons by next month. Tens of thousands of the group’s fighters are said to have returned to Iraq after the war and Tehran is likely to view the U.S. move as a way to limit the power of its Iraqi allies in any new Baghdad government.