Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Iran Holds Al Qaeda Suspects: Now What?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Iran Holds Al Qaeda Suspects: Now What?

Article excerpt

Heavily bearded and gesticulating wildly, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith made a memorable videotaped appearance in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The Kuwaiti-born Al Qaeda spokesman vowed in the fall of 2001 that the "storm of airplanes" would continue to strike American targets.

Now, Kuwait has confirmed that Mr. Abu Ghaith is in Iranian custody. Not only that, but an emirate official told a Saudi newspaper that Iran was offering to hand one of the US's most wanted Al Qaeda suspects over to Kuwait.

Iran says that it is holding a "large number of small- and big- time" members of the group although it has yet to identify any. Iran's interior minister, Abdolvahed Mussavi Lari, said some of the Al Qaeda detainees would be extradited to their home countries and others would be put on trial. The rest would be deported to the countries from which they entered Iran, he told Iran's official news agency.

By handing over some of Osama bin Laden's closest associates, Iran is in a position to deal a major blow to his network. And Iran is keen to co-operate, both to help ease tensions with Washington and because the Islamic republic regards Al Qaeda as a bitter enemy, analysts say.

But progress is being complicated on several fronts. The Bush administration's criticism of Iran's nuclear facilities and of support of Palestinian militant groups means any direct handover of suspects to the US is unlikely.

How far Iran should "appear to be cooperating in an American-led effort" is also the focus of a struggle between Iran's rival hard- line and reformist wings, says a Western diplomat reached by phone in Tehran. "Iran has been foot dragging, but it was a useful sign last week - the admission they did have some big names and that they were willing to look at extradition," the envoy says.

Another complication: Some of the US's Arab allies are in no rush to take back leading Al Qaeda figures. Kuwait refused to take Abu Ghaith off Iran's hands, explaining it had stripped him of his citizenship after Sept. 11.

Iran would "really like to cooperate" but is in a "peculiar situation right now," says Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University in New York. …

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