She has spent almost half her life in chadors and hidden away behind closed doors, so we do not know exactly what she looks like. But if the 17-year-old girl who showed up unexpectedly outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran last November resembles her father, she is tall and lissome, with angular features that would be hard to mistake. In any case, the Saudis quickly let Iman bint Osama bin Laden into their embassy compound, and she has been there ever since, waiting for a guarantee of safe passage out of the country.
That may be a long time coming. Already the story she has told has far-reaching implications. At a minimum, it complicates the on-again-off-again dialogue that Washington has tried to pursue with Tehran. And it could put Tehran right in the middle of the Obama administration's fight to wipe out Al Qaeda’s leadership. Iman's case is only the latest, most dramatic bit of evidence showing just how hard the mullahs' intelligence services have tried to turn Al Qaeda to their will, by carrot or stick. If they have not succeeded—and the jury is out on that question—it's not for want of trying. "This is a real Pandora's box for the Iranians," says an Arab intelligence analyst familiar with details of the case who did not want to be more closely identified because of the many sensitive issues involved.
Iman was 9 years old in 2001 when she, a sister, four brothers, and one of their father's wives fled from Afghanistan into neighboring Iran. They reportedly used assumed names and fake passports, and probably expected to transit the country easily and quickly, as many members of their father's organization had done before. But according to the same Arab analyst, the Iranian authorities discovered their identities almost immediately and wouldn't let them go. Since then they have been kept under a sort of loose house arrest in a compound on the outskirts of Tehran.
Other figures from Al Qaeda, among them key leaders and organizers, may also have been confined in the compound for shorter periods of time, according to the same intelligence source. Some Saudi officials believe attacks on Riyadh in the spring of 2003 were actually orchestrated by members of Al Qaeda from Tehran who may have been working with the acquiescence, if not the active cooperation, of Iranian authorities. Nobody thinks Iman was part of those plots. But even little kids hear important bits and pieces of information when they're in such a small, closed environment, and she may well be in a position to provide vital clues about what really happened.
Over the years, Iman would be let out of the compound occasionally to go shopping, but always with someone to watch her, according to the source. Inevitably, security grew lax until she simply slipped away from her minder, got into a taxi, and asked to go to the Saudi Embassy. The rest of her relatives stayed behind, and for several weeks the Saudis and Iranians kept the story as quiet as they could. The priority was to get Iman out of the country. The Saudis issued her a passport, but the Iranians said she had to go to the Foreign Ministry, and it seems the Saudis didn't dare risk exposing her to Iranian security forces out on the street.
Then in late December one of Osama bin Laden's older sons, Omar, who broke with his father in 2001, began talking about the case from his home in Qatar. His British-born wife, Zaina (formerly Jane Felix-Browne), told a Saudi newspaper last weekend that she hoped to go to Tehran to help liberate the family members. Omar said, "None of my siblings have anything to do with accusations of terrorism made against my father; they are innocent of this blight."
As is customary in the charade of civility that surrounds hostage negotiations, the bin Laden couple in Qatar praised the Iranian regime effusively for its generosity toward the family and thanked President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for treating the Tehran contingent so well. Last weekend, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal acknowledged that his government was negotiating for the release of Iman from Iran as a "humanitarian issue."
Conventional wisdom in Washington tends to cling to the idea that the Shiite regime in Iran cannot possibly work with Sunni radicals from Afghanistan, Iraq, or elsewhere in the Arab world because of deep religious and cultural differences. But that is an assumption that needs to be discarded. Iran's funding for the Sunni Palestinians of Hamas is no secret. And since the 1990s, the Iranian intelligence services have been known to accommodate (under surveillance) even the likes of the cynical, sinister warlord and former Afghan prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
A few days after September 11, 2001, in fact, NEWSWEEK's Maziar Bahari interviewed Hekmatyar at the comfortable three-story villa in north Tehran where he lived after falling out with the Taliban in 1995. Hekmatyar offered his opinion that bin Laden was not behind 9/11. "He doesn't have the organization or the wealth for an operation this size," he said. Shortly after that, during semi-secret negotiations between Iran and the United States in late 2001 and 2002, Hekmatyar was one of the cards the Iranians held in the hole, waiting to see when or if they needed to play it. Veteran American diplomat Ryan Crocker, who led the U.S. delegation at the talks, wrote in NEWSWEEK last year that "everyone understood" Hekmatyar had "ties to Osama bin Laden."
"We talked to the Iranians about what a great and good thing it would be if they moved Hekmatyar from house arrest to real arrest and transferred him to Afghan custody," said Crocker. "Of course we wanted them to do something similar with any Qaeda fugitives they'd picked up. All that was on the table.
"Then," Crocker continued, "President Bush gave his first State of the Union address in January 2002, denouncing the Axis of Evil, which he defined as Iraq, North Korea—and Iran. … I knew my job had just gotten a lot harder. Soon afterward the Iranians not only released Hekmatyar from house arrest, they reinserted him back into Afghanistan. Today his Hezb-i-Islami organization is one of the deadliest insurgent forces in eastern Afghanistan, where U.S. troops have taken their highest casualties since 2001."
In the extremely murky world of intelligence and covert operations, contact with a terrorist group is not the same as running it. Saddam Hussein's spooks held meetings with Qaeda operatives in the 1990s but never came close to the kind of operational control they normally demanded of their assets. In the case of Tehran, it's important to keep in mind that the Iranians often take hostages as speculative commodities without necessarily having a clear idea how they will use them: maybe they will hold them, maybe let them go, or maybe a third party will be interested in them. It all depends on where the Iranian intelligence services think they can reap the greatest political rewards. That could well have been the game when they picked up bin Laden's children in Tehran. Then eight years go by. It's a lot for a little girl, not much to a mullah.
The bottom line: the details are murky, but don't let anyone tell you there is no connection at all between Iran and Al Qaeda, and when their interests converge—whether on the attack or the defensive—they may reach accommodations. Their relationship, however complicated it may be, goes way back. As the 9/11 Commission Report noted in a brief but telling summary in 2004:
"There is strong evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of Al Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, and that some of these were future 9/11 hijackers," the commission concluded. "There also is circumstantial evidence that senior Hezbollah operatives [tied to Iran] were closely tracking the travel of some of these future muscle hijackers [ie. the strong-arm guys on the planes] into Iran in November 2000. … [But] we have found no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack. … We believe this topic requires further investigation by the U.S. government."
Thanks to Iman, that investigation should start to move ahead at last.