U.S. officials on Wednesday confirmed a story first reported in the Washington Post, that dozens of al-Qaida fighters have taken refuge in Iran. Among those suspected to be harbored by Tehran are Abu Hafs, third in line behind Osama bin Laden, and perhaps also Said al Adel, an Egyptian on the FBI’s most wanted list. But Tehran rejects the allegations, saying it considers al-Qaida a dangerous terrorist group and an enemy of the country.
NBC’S ROBERT WINDREM conducted an exclusive interview Wednesday with Iran’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Mohammed Javad Zarif. Here is a transcript of that interview.
WINDREM: Mr. Ambassador, you saw the Washington Post story Wednesday that says that two al-Qaida military officials are using hotels and other facilities in two Iranian cities as staging grounds for military operations. Are there al-Qaida leaders operating out of Iran?
AMBASSADOR ZARIF: We don’t have any information to that effect. Let me clarify one point: Iran considers al-Qaida and Taliban to be extremely dangerous terrorist organizations who have murdered Iranian citizens before 11th of September and on 11th of September where a number of Iranians were killed in the attacks here in the U.S.
We consider these groups and the people associated with them to be very dangerous, and that is why from December to February we carried out massive operations in order to arrest those who had fled from Afghanistan into our territory. We face a very difficult situation of being located in a very difficult neighborhood. From these routes drugs are smuggled into Iranian territory, and a number of people of dubious background find their way into Iran during those months immediately after the U.S. attack on Afghanistan. We arrested a good number of them; we extradited them to Europe and to their countries of origin.
That is why this is our policy not to allow al-Qaida and Taliban to enter Iranian territory. If we find them in Iran, which is a very big country with vast territory and long borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan, we arrest them, and we extradite them. We do not have any information as to any members of al-Qaida being in Iran currently, but Iran’s policy has always been to investigate any information that it receives on these issues, and we will act accordingly if we receive information rather than allegation.
WINDREM: Have you received any information from the United States government through any third countries to indicate that this may be so?
InsertArt(1632257)ZARIF: We have not received any information from the United States indicating that this is the case.
WINDREM: But if you do get it, you will investigate?
ZARIF: If we receive any information we investigate it, because, as I said, we consider al-Qaida to be a very dangerous terrorist organization. We don’t want any of them in our territory because they are a danger to our citizens.
WINDREM: You mentioned also that al-Qaida had killed Iranians. I recall the 1994 attack at the tomb (of eighth century imam Hazrat-e-Rezain) in Mashad. Is that the type of attack you are talking about?
ZARIF: The one that can be specific and directly attributed to al-Qaida is an attack to our consulate general in Mazar-e-Sharif, where Taliban and al-Qaida killed 11 Iranians. But there are other incidents of cross-border attacks during the time the Taliban had the reign over Afghanistan. There were cross-border kidnappings of Iranian citizens and officials and murder of Iranian citizens and officials by these two entities.
WINDREM: I was reading the transcript of the embassy bombing trial which took place in downtown New York 2000-2001 — it reported that Iran had supplied al-Qaida with weapons and weapons training and that there was an al-Qaida official who had been arrested, brought to the United States and he testified to that. So, that is not correct?
ZARIF: None of that is correct. Iran, as records will show, considered al-Qaida and Taliban to be dangerous organizations and warned the international community of the fact. This happened, unfortunately, during the time when the United States found it in its interest to support al-Qaida and Taliban.
WINDREM: What do you mean by that?
ZARIF: Before September 11th, a bit before September 11th, these organizations and groups were created in order to fight the presence of Soviet Union in our region and then in order to spread a type of approach to Islam which unfortunately is totally alien to Islam, and they targeted primarily Iran in the beginning as the target of their propaganda and their efforts.
We found these ideologies to be extremely dangerous because they advocate violence and they advocate misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Islam and misrepresentation of other values and cultures. Therefore we advocated a need to address this problem with serious, thoughtful and farsighted approach.
WINDREM: President Khatami said today that Iran is concerned that the United States might attack Iran and is prepared to defend itself. Is there need? Does Iran feel there is a need to announce that it would defend itself?
ZARIF: There are certain elements unfortunately here in the United States who have pursued a policy of misinformation. This piece of misinformation about al-Qaida being in Iran is a part of that general campaign of misinformation regarding my country. We believe that any attempt to take unilateral action anywhere in the world is dangerous, does not serve anybody’s interest, and if Iran is a target of such attempt, Iran will certainly defend itself and fight for its right and for its sovereignty.
WINDREM: But not join with Iraq?
ZARIF: No, we believe that any action against Iraq is not going to help stability in our region. At the same time, we believe Iraq must comply with international obligations that emanate from Security Council resolutions.
Robert Windrem is an investigative producer for NBC News based in New York. NBC News researcher Rekha Matchanicka contributed to this story.