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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?

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?" they ask.

So who is Tehran actually holding, and how would a possible hand-over be facilitated considering the antagonistic history between the United States and the fundamentalist Ayatollahs? Furthermore, how can President Bush overcome his "axis of evil" label and the "sponsor of terrorism" accusation levelled against the Tehran regime by President Bush himself? Iran wants that classification removed before any serious negotiations can begin and President Bush has painted himself into a corner with the tough-guy reputation he has cultivated so effectively.

Reports indicate that the Al Qaeda members being held by Tehran are of some significance. If, Iran is actually holding Al Qaeda's number two and spiritual intellectual Ayman Al Zawahiri, they have a strong hand to play. That they hold Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, the Al Qaeda spokesman, as well as Saif Al Adel, the latest chief of Al Qaeda military operations is almost certain but reports that they are also holding Osama bin Laden's eldest son Saad have not be substantiated.

"The capture of Zawahiri would be an incredible blow to the terrorist organisation," an ex-senior CIA analyst says. "The capture of all four almost certainly a death blow. Al Qaeda might rebuild over time but it will take years to get new leadership with such skills and experience."

To fully understand what a significant catch the four Al Qaeda leaders are one has to understand where they stand in the hierarchy of the organisation and their past achievements.

Ayman Al Zawahiri, a trained doctor, is Osama bin Laden's personal physician as well as the intellectual in the Al Qaeda organisation. Born in Cairo he became a leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad before leaving in the early 1980s after serving a three-year sentence for his part in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Number two to Osama bin Laden for several years, Zawahiri is the intellectual thinker in the organisation as well as its authority on fundamental Islam.

Kuwaiti-born Sulaiman Abu Ghaith was an Imam and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood before travelling to Bosnia to fight alongside the Muslim forces. Pictured seated alongside Osama bin Laden during his interview on Al Jazeera TV after the 9/11 attacks, Abu Ghaith is considered a trusted insider and chief spokesman for the terror organisation.

Thirty-year-old Saad bin Laden is one of Osama's eldest sons and is believed to be a rising star in the organisation, his ability proven in several operations such as the bombing of the synagogue in Tunisia on 11 April 2002 that killed 19 people. Should he be in Iranian custody it would be a major blow to his father, Saad bin Laden having been widely tipped to succeed Osama as head of Al Qaeda when his kidney ailments finally prove too much for him.

Mohammed Makkawi, also known as Adel, was a colonel in the Egyptian Army's Special Forces before joining Al Qaeda. Believed to have trained and fought with the Somali forces in Mogadishu in 1993 when 18 US Army Rangers were killed he helped plan the 1998 attacks on the US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. He was also the key planner in the attack on the USS Cole in Aden harbour and as the liaison officer between Hizbullah and Al Qaeda his value is almost as great as that of Osama himself.

So who holds the stronger hand, the Iranian clerics or President Bush? And how will both sides play their cards in the game of poker that is now unfolding as European emissaries acting on behalf of the US shuttle back and forth between Washington and the leaders in Tehran?

As it stands the Iranians appear to have the advantage. If the US were to gain control of the senior Al Qaeda figures held by Tehran it would be a major political coup, one that any 2004 Democratic presidential challenger would find almost impossible to overcome. This would almost certainly ensure another four year term for President Bush, one that would erase his father's defeat at the hands of President Clinton; something that the younger Bush is known to desire. The Bush administration is therefore certain to bend as far as they can to Tehran's demands but whether this will be enough is yet to be seen.

For their part the clerics in Iran are certain to demand the rescinding of US sanctions, the lifting of the "axis of evil" label and the confirmation that their nuclear programme is in fact for peaceful energy purposes only. Sure to please Russia, the main supplier of Iran's nuclear technology, they see these goals as within their grasp. As such President Putin is viewed by both sides as the "dealer" in their game of cards, an agreement to transfer the Al Qaeda operatives into Russian custody under the pretext of Putin's war on terrorism in Chechnya a possibility for both sides to get what they want. This begets the question: Is it really Russia that is in the driver's seat, with both Iran and the United States the players with the odds stacked against them?
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Author:Vesely, Milan
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7IRAN
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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