The US President George W. Bush administration reiterated its belief on Wednesday that senior al-Qaeda leaders were in Iran and called on the Tehran government to act against them.
"Whether they are there with permission, not with permission, or what, it's the responsibility of the government to prevent those kind of people from coming to their country," the State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, said.
In their public remarks Wednesday, Boucher and other administration officials declined to say whether a clear connection had been established between the al-Qaeda leaders they say are in Iran and last week's bombing attacks in Saudi Arabia. But the tenor of their comments echoed what other administration officials, speaking privately, have described as deep concern about intercepted communications strongly suggesting that the al-Qaeda leaders said to be in Iran played a role in directing the bombings in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, that killed 34 people, including eight Americans.
In Tehran, an Iranian spokesman said his government would expel any Qaeda operatives found in the country, but he said Iran had no knowledge that any were there.
"The only al-Qaeda members that we know of are the ones that have been expelled from Iran," the spokesman, Abdollah Ramazanzadeh, said. "If any exist in Iran they have entered illegally and we have no information about them."
"Any Iranian citizen or foreign security organization which has information about the presence of people suspected of having links to al-Qaeda in Iran should provide us with that information and we will immediately take action and expel them quickly," he added.
American officials have said it is hard to believe that the al-Qaeda presence was not known to at least some elements of the Iranian government, including the hard-line Revolutionary Guards and the security services.
In messages sent through the British and Swiss governments as well as the UN, the US has demanded that Iran provide an explanation for what it says was al-Qaeda's presence, according to administration officials. The officials said that, in a gesture of protest, an American envoy canceled a planned discussion Wednesday with an Iranian counterpart on Iraq, Afghanistan and other matters.