Iran Considers the Odds: The Bush Administration Accuses Tehran of Harbouring Al Qaeda Terrorists and of Trying to Develop Weapons of Mass Destruction; Iran Blames America for Supporting the Mujahedeen-El-Khalq and of Interfering in Its Internal Affairs. So Who Is in the Driving Seat; Which Party Has the Advantage in the Diplomatic Cat-and-Mouse Game That Has Developed as the US Increasingly Looks for a Way out of the Iraqi Quagmire?

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Much of the world's attention is focused on the hunt for Saddam Hussein by the US military and their specially set up Task Force 20. Administration officials trumpet the capture or killing of every minor functionary, the deaths of Saddam's sons Uday and Qussay a major triumph. Expected to diminish the daily attacks on US occupying troops, the two sons' demise has made no impression on the frequency of the attacks, sometimes as many as 12 a day. The same seems to go for the forgotten Al Qaeda organisation, the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta being the latest manifestation of the terrorist organisation's ability to strike at will. And here is where the odds swing in Tehran's favour in its stand-off with the Bush administration, the rumours that the Islamic Republic is holding senior Al Qaeda leadership figures translates into a strong hand of cards.

"I suspect some Iranians would argue that holding these high-ranking terrorists is a good bargaining chip," Ali Ansari, Middle East historian at England's Durham University states, "their incarceration in Iran is a plus for the regime."

"Because Al Qaeda is an insurgent organisation there is always someone to take another's place," US officials counter, downplaying the significance of the captures. "He may not be as good as the person who was there but the organisation is never going to come to a standstill because there is always someone new ready to fill the vacant position."

The US government makes light of Tehran's purported capture of senior Al Qaeda officials, perhaps to shore up their own hand when the serious negotiations over a US military withdrawal from neighbouring Baghdad begin some time in the future. The non-interference by the Iranian clergy in Shi'ite affairs in Iraq will be an important component of any such US military withdrawal, the compliance of the 60% Iraqi Shi'ite majority essential if the removal of troops is to go off peacefully. In the meantime, the Al Qaeda figures the Iranians are holding are effectively neutralised, their ability to plan attacks totally curtailed. One other factor plays to the Bush administration's advantage, and this has more to do with American domestic politics than with any current success on the Iraqi front or Mr Bush's war on terrorism.

As the US President Bush comes under increasing attack for the misleading use of intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, his administration is acutely aware of the looming 2004 presidential election. Increasingly, the American public is questioning the administration's ability to conduct the nation's foreign policy, reported rifts between senior State Department officials and the president's advisors emerging almost daily.

Media speculation has reached such a fever pitch that a PR appearance by Secretary of State Colin Powell and the president at Mr Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch in August was almost exclusively devoted to putting on a unanimity face, both men denying any disagreement over US foreign policy. What better way to underline President Bush's personal ability in foreign affairs then to have an agreement announced on the handing over of the Al Qaeda members nearer the time of the election when its impact will be the greatest?

Sure to have maximum effect, such a quid pro quo exchange of Al Qaeda leadership figures for US recognition that Iran is in compliance with International Atomic Energy Commission regulations would be a diplomatic coup of major political significance at a time when it will be most needed.

Old-time Reagan-era officials are less enthusiastic however. Ever mindful of how adroitly the Iranians played their cards in the Irangate scandal in which Ronald Reagan exchanged arms for hostages these old-time hard-liners ask far more searching questions. "What is to stop the Iranians holding on to the terrorists until they see which democrat ends up as the presidential challenger, and then using their Shi'ite influence in Iraq to help sink Bush's campaign by stirring up trouble in the hope that a new Democratic Party nominee will be more amenable to lenient terms; one who will not be burdened by the macho "axis of evil rhetoric" that Bush carries? …