Iran says it threw out one of FBI's terror suspects

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The Independent Online

One of the 22 men on the FBI's list of "most wanted terrorists" has reportedly been thrown out of Iran, where he was in hiding, amid ever more conflicting signals from Tehran towards the US-led attacks.

If confirmed, the expulsion of Imad Mugniyah could be seen as crucial hard evidence that at least some of those in power in Iran are serious about wanting to end 20 years of hostility with America and partially back the coalition against al-Qa'ida.

But in Washington, a government official said American intelligence did not give any credibility to the report published by a leading Arabic newspaper, Asharq Al-Awsat.

The report he had been "persuaded" to leave Iran came even as the country's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, accused America of leading the world into war. "Regional and, most probably, world peace is being jeopardised particularly by the actions and policies of American officials," Mr Khamenei said. "They are dragging the world into a war to serve the interests of arms manufacturers or their own colonial interests."

Mr Mugniyah, who the FBI says is a former security chief for the Lebanese Hizbollah, has been indicted in the United States for the hijacking of a TWA airliner in Beirut in 1985, in which one man was killed.

The Saudi-owned newspaper said Mr Mugniyah was told "his presence was not to the benefit of Iran and his safety could not be guaranteed after Iranian President Mohammad Khatami agreed to conditional co-operation with the global alliance against terrorism," quoting an unnamed source in the Revolutionary Guards, one of Iran's two standing armies.

The FBI's "wanted" notice described Mr Mugniyah as "thought to be in Lebanon". But Iran openly supports Hizbollah, and it is possible he was in Iran.

Asharq al-Aswat claimed two other men on the FBI's list had been in Iran and since left. They are Hassan Izz-al-Din and Ali Atwa, who are believed to be in hiding in Lebanon.

However, the Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, has said that none of the three is in the country.

The report comes a day after Mohsen Rezai, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards and a senior figure in the Iranian establishment, openly said America and Iran had common interests and should work together.

"Iran is the solution to this crisis," said Mr Rezai. "Although the US is dissatisfied with Iran, it seriously needs Iran's position." Iranian policy has been shrouded in confusion ever since Mr Khatami's unprecedented initial warm overtures towards America after the attacks – so warm that the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, flew to Tehran.

But the warmness was rebuffed by Mr Khamanei, who has more power, and has since vilified America.

This could be another chapter in the power struggle between the reformist Mr Khatami and the hardline mullahs for whom Mr Khamenei is a figurehead. Mr Khatami has been keen to build bridges with the West for some time. But there appears to be a new division, between those who believe the situation is an opportunity for Iran to improve its own situation, and diehard opponents of any co-operation with the "Great Satan", America.

It is possible Iran is pursuing a deliberate dual policy, with Mr Khamenei saying one thing while the government quietly does another, looking for the best advantage. The Iranians would dearly like to see the Taliban cleared out of Kabul, and helping the US might even get Iran off the list of states that sponsor terrorism. Meanwhile, some in Tehran must have a wary eye on American threats to spread the war to other states that harbour terrorists.