Iran quietly signals an openness to terror fight

Iran steps back from the 'axis' by handing over Al Qaeda suspects

Iran – a nation branded by George W. Bush as part of an "axis of evil" – is signaling to Washington that some Iran-US interests dovetail in America's "war on terror."

Iran's low-key handover to Saudi Arabia of 16 Al Qaeda suspects is a deliberate message to the US that may hint at future neutrality – if not actual cooperation – in any US military action against Iraq, say Iranian and Western analysts.

Iran was aware that the US would be given any information gleaned from the Al Qaeda fighters, who entered Iran from Afghanistan over several months and were expelled in June, said the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, in interviews with The Washington Post and ABC News over the weekend.

"This is very significant: Tehran did this deliberately, as a sign to Washington that Iran is serious about combating terrorism, and handing over Al Qaeda members," says Sadiq Zibakalam, a political scientist at Tehran University in Iran. "It is a gesture of goodwill from Tehran to Washington... and shows that some of the charges that President Bush levels at the Islamic regime about supporting terrorism are inaccurate."

President George W. Bush in January called Iran part of an "Axis of Evil," along with Iraq and North Korea, despite months of secret Iranian intelligence help provided to US forces during the Afghanistan campaign last fall. At that time, American and Iranian diplomats alike hoped those links might evolve into a mechanism for eventual rapprochement.

Instead, the Pentagon accused Iran of meddling in Afghanistan, an arms shipment with Iranian ties was found en route to Palestinian militants, and Mr. Bush coined the "Axis of Evil."

Hope amid hostility

Since then, hostile rhetoric has barely wavered. US officials accuse Iran of seeking weapons of mass destruction and want to scuttle a Russian contract to build Iran's first nuclear power plant.

"At the beginning of last December, Iranians would have been open to the same kind of cooperation on Iraq as they turned out to be on Afghanistan, but they revised their view in light of the nose-dive in relations," says Rosemary Hollis, an analyst at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.

"The question is: Would [Iran] be hostile to US action?" asks Ms. Hollis. "They are still giving indications that, if the US played it right, they could actually be helpful."

If the handover of Al Qaeda fighters to Saudi Arabia is read that way, Hollis adds, "I don't think [the Iranians] will mind."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld earlier this year accused Iran of being "permissive" in allowing Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters to seek refuge in Iran.

Iran denied the charge, noting its long-standing opposition to the Taliban regime and Al Qaeda, and promised to follow up on any future accusations of border-crossings. In February Iran confirmed it had detained more than 100 Arab nationals who had crossed from Afghanistan.

Two different wars on terror

Besides the 16 Saudi nationals expelled last June, militants from Jordan and Egypt who had fled Afghanistan were also turned over to their home countries.

"Iran has repeatedly said it is against terrorism, but it would like to be involved in a United Nations campaign," says Shirzad Bozorgmehr, deputy editor of the English-language Iran News, in Tehran. "Iran's idea of a campaign against terror does not necessarily coincide with that of the US leadership."

"Still, I am sure that Iranian officials are glad that there is one little thing that Iran and the US seem to be on the same wavelength about," Mr. Bozorgmehr says. "This can't escape the public or officials."

Despite the possible ramifications for US-Iran relations, which have been stormy since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, both sides officially played down the news.

An Iranian foreign ministry spokesman said Tehran was simply fulfilling obligations under international law. Several congressmen voiced skepticism at Iranian intentions, saying that if Iran were sincere, it might have handed them directly into US custody. There has been no official response from the White House or State Department.

Analysts say that such overt contact would be virtually impossible today for Iran, where reformers and hard-liners are locked in an internal struggle.

Still, even though the US and Iran have two decades of experience in missing each others' sometimes coquettish signals, actions speak loudly. And, in Iran's complex power structure, such a decision to hand over the Al Qaeda suspects would almost certainly have required conservative approval.

"Many Iranian leaders who make very fiery and radical speeches against the US – their actions do not go hand in hand with what they are saying against the US," says Mr. Zibakalam, the political scientist. "It means that no matter what Iranian leaders are saying against the US, it is really for domestic consumption."

"I think even a few words of appreciation, or moderate words from the Bush administration – not necessarily thanking Iranian leaders, but noting 'positive steps' – would help cool the current hostility between Iran and the US," he adds.

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