Iran is using the senior members of the al-Qaeda network it has detained as a bargaining chip in its war of nerves with the US, and will only allow their extradition in return for substantial concessions, sources in the political establishment said Thursday. "Iran holds the golden key on the al-Qaeda issue, and the US knows it," a source familiar with the senior leadership said. "They need us."
Iranian officials privately acknowledge that Tehran is holding important members of the network -- thought to include Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian who is believed to be the head of al-Qaeda's military operations; Suleiman Abu Ghaith, its Kuwaiti-born spokesman; and Saad bin Laden, the son of the its leader, Osama bin Laden.
Reports in Saudi-owned newspapers have alleged that the network's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, may also be in Iranian custody.
The government has officially confirmed it is holding some senior figures, but has not named them.
With Iran under intense US-led pressure over its nuclear program, as well as its role in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, al-Qaeda members held in custody could provide invaluable leverage in negotiations with Washington.
Fleeing the attack on Afghanistan, hundreds of al-Qaeda members crossed the border into Iran. Although some 500 have been extradited, some figures are reported to have received protection from Iran's revolutionary guard.
Whenever the extradition of al-Qaeda members has been suggested by European diplomats, Tehran has protested that an exiled Iranian resistance group, the People's Mujahadeen of Iraq, has received lenient treatment in the west.
Iranian sources and European diplomats say resolving the fate of this group is inextricably linked with any handover of al-Qaeda suspects. Iran has demanded the US take a firmer line against the People's Mujahadeen, which has bases in Iraq and has staged attacks against Tehran. US-led forces have disarmed the group in Iraq and are questioning its officers in an attempt to glean intelligence about Iran.