Washington: The arrest of Suleiman Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, has focused new attention on secret talks in 2002-03 between the U.S. and Iran in which a swap of al Qaeda members detained by Tehran for Iranian dissidents under U.S. control was discussed, US Media reported on Friday.
“The proposed deal fell apart when Washington balked at sending the Iranian dissidents — members of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, best known by the acronym MEK — to what they believed would be certain death at the hands of Iranian authorities” NBC News claims while quoting the current and former U.S. and Iranian officials.
Ghaith, who is being held in a New York jail cell after spending a decade in Iran among the al Qaeda group, pleaded not guilty last week to charges of conspiring to kill Americans.
NBC News also quoted U.S. officials and said that “Ghaith has provided an account of his travels to U.S. law enforcement officials, included in a 22-page statement that has yet to be released. He was arrested in Turkey after leaving Iran, transferred to U.S. custody in Jordan and then flown to New York.”
The U.S. has never had a clear idea of the conditions under which members of Al-Qaeda’s “management council” were held in Iran, but one former U.S. official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said last week that they were hidden “in the blackest of the black boxes” inside Iran’s intelligence apparatus. Iranian officials have told NBC News the Al-Qaeda officials were “in jail” in the Islamic Republic.
While U.S. officials believe the Al-Qaeda leaders were initially allowed to contact other members of the terrorist organization as they continued to plot attacks against the U.S. and its allies, Alireza Miryousefi, spokesman at the Iranian mission to the United Nations, said that was never the case.
“Our position about Al-Qaeda is clear,” he said Thursday. “Iran has never permitted Al Qaeda to have any activity or operation from or inside Iran.”
Among the Al-Qaeda’s leaders taken into custody were Ghaith, Saif al Adel, al Qaeda’s military leader, Saad bin Laden, the deceased son of Osama bin Laden, and liaisons with other Sunni groups, including Chechen rebels in Russia.
U.S. and Iranian officials say that the group — armed “with a ton of cash,” as one U.S. official put it — bribed their way across the Iran-Afghanistan border and hoped that Iran would treat them as “the enemy of my enemy,” as another former U.S. official said. But they were rounded up not long after their arrival.
The former U.S. officials say the CIA did not learn of the group’s presence in Iran until the middle of 2002, at which point the U.S. used back-channel communications to arrange secret talks with representatives of Iran. This was months after President George W. Bush, in his State of the Union address, described Iran as part of an “axis of evil” – along with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Kim Jong Il’s North Korea – presenting a “grave and growing danger” to the U.S.
A senior Iranian official, U.N. Ambassador Javad Zarif, also told American Media in 2007 about the discussions with U.S. officials.
In the 2006 book, “Losing Iraq: Inside the Post-War Reconstruction Fiasco,” Columbia University Professor David L. Phillips quoted Zarif as saying Iran was reluctant to turn over the al Qaeda officials to the U.S. or other governments, as the US requested, until and unless the U.S. repatriated high-ranking officials of the MEK — an acronym derived from the group’s Farsi name, Mojahedin-e-Khalq.
The MEK opposed the Iranian regime and was housed, trained and armed by Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. After the U.S. defeated Iraq in April 2003, the MEK came under U.S. control.
Over CIA objections, Pentagon officials had fostered a relationship with Chalabi in hopes that he could establish himself as a leader of Iraqi dissidents in post-Saddam Iraq . Chalabi, however, was unable to deliver on his promises to unite the many dissident factions.
At the same time, Iran had its own reasons for holding onto the al Qaeda members, according to one U.S. counterterrorism official. Many in U.S. intelligence believe that Iran wanted to keep them as bargaining chips — and not just with the U.S. They were in effect hostages. If al Qaeda or allied Sunni terrorist groups carried out attacks in Iran, as had occurred in the 1990s, the group could face harm.
Saad bin Laden was inadvertently killed in July 2009 in a Predator drone strike in Pakistan directed at another suspected terrorist, U.S. officials say.
Others whose whereabouts are unknown include al Qaeda’s chief financial officer, Shaik Said; Thirwat Shihata, former head of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad; Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, deputy chair of the management council; and Abu Dahak, a Yemeni who reportedly acted as a facilitator with Chechen rebels.