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updated 1/5/2004 3:26:43 PM ET 2004-01-05T20:26:43

The decision by the Governing Council to expel the People’s Mujahadeen (MKO) from Iraq represents long overdue progress in the war against terror. Now it is time for Iran act against al-Qaeda, which is also a nemesis of the U.S. and Iran. During my recent visit to Tehran, Iranian officials pledged their support to the fight against terrorism. Taking action against senior al-Qaeda members detained in Iran would signal Iran’s commitment.

Tehran welcomed the Governing Council’s decision, which had tacit backing by the U.S. Government. Twenty years ago, the MKO was responsible for a suicide bombing that killed most of Iran’s cabinet and many members of parliament. Moreover, the MKO is reviled by Iranians for siding with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war. For more than a decade, the MKO found sanctuary in Iraq and served as Saddam’s private Praetorian Guard.

It is not surprising that the U.S. would endorse a crack down on the MKO, which led the 1979 hostage-taking at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. What was surprising was that though the group is on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations, the Bush administration was deeply divided over how to handle them.

Cynical Pentagon officials have been toying with the idea of using the Mujahadeen fighters as a possible vanguard against the Iranian government. During the first days of the Iraq war, U.S. warplanes bombed MKO facilities near the Iran-Iraq border. However, Iranian officials claim that the Pentagon attacked bases it knew had been long since abandoned. Tehran was shocked when the U.S. announced a ceasefire and reports surfaced of cooperation between U.S. forces and Mujahadeen militias.

Though President Bush subsequently ordered the group disarmed, the Pentagon has been lax in carrying out instructions. The MKO retained access to its weapons, including tanks and artillery. Its leaders travel internationally. Propaganda broadcasts are beamed into Iran from studios in plain sight of American forces; Pentagon officials have also been observed at MKO press conferences in Baghdad. When pressed to explain its actions, the Pentagon insists it is executing guidance “in accordance with resources available.”

America’s ambiguous position has fueled mutual distrust between the US. and Iran. It has also been used by Tehran to justify delays in taking action against senior al-Qaeda figures in Iranian custody.

Though Iran deported several hundred al-Qaeda foot soldiers it apprehended crossing the border from Afghanistan, Washington wants Tehran to move on the so-called “big fish.”  U.S. intelligence has a special interest in Saif al-Adel, the former operations chief of al-Qaeda. American demands intensified after the terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia on May 12.  The Bush administration claims to have “very troubling intercepts” confirming that al-Qaeda operatives orchestrated the events from their remote prison cells in the Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan.

Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi adamantly refutes charges that Iran is cooperating with al-Qaeda, which he calls a “fanatical and perverted” organization.  Iran despises al-Qaeda almost as much as the United States.  Originally formed as an anti-Shiite movement, more than a hundred worshipers died when Al-Qaeda bombed the Imam Reza shrine in Mashad in 1998.  It was also involved in the heinous beheading of 9 Iranian diplomats in Mazaar-e-Sharif.

Though intermediaries suggested Tehran would not act on al-Qaeda until the MKO was driven out of Iraq, neither the U.S. nor Iran has any appetite for prisoner swaps.  Echoing words from his U.S. counterpart, the Iranian foreign ministry spokesman insists, “We do not do deals when it comes to terrorists.”

During my meetings with Iranian officials, I pointed out that it is in Iran’s interest to deal with the al-Qaeda detainees.  Not doing so just makes Iran more vulnerable to blackmail, threats, and attack.  Tehran seems to be on the verge of a decision to deport the al-Qaeda detainees.

In accordance with Iranian law, the country’s judiciary should determine which al-Qaeda members have committed crimes that are actionable in Iranian courts. If detainees are not going to be tried in Iran, they should be repatriated to their country of origin. As an immediate security precaution, Tehran should impose strict control on detainees by isolating them, confiscating their cell phones, and publishing a list of prisoners.

Taking action against MKO and al-Qaeda members will be a boost for security. It could also establish a positive trend in U.S.-Iran relations and catalyze cooperation in areas of common interest such as the transition to democracy in Iraq.

David Phillips is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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