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Iran admits holding al Qaeda operatives

Saif Al Adel is believed to be a high-ranking member of the al Qaeda organization.

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Iran tells the U.N. it has detained several al Qaeda operatives, CNN's Kelli Arena reports. (May 22)
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Iranian officials Thursday told a U.N. representative that Iran has several unnamed al Qaeda operatives in custody, CNN has learned.

The acknowledgment comes as Washington has intensified its accusations that al Qaeda terrorists are inside Iran -- something Tehran had previously denied.

U.S. officials said the key question is whether the al Qaeda operatives in custody are allowed to communicate and receive visitors.

One Bush administration official told CNN that Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special representative for Afghanistan, met Thursday in Geneva with Iranian officials. It was during that meeting that Iran said it had several al Qaeda operatives in custody, the official said.

The United States had planned to send its own representative to the meeting, but canceled "because of concerns of an al Qaeda link," the U.S. official said.

The meeting was for the "six-plus-two" group made up of foreign ministers from Afghanistan's six neighbors -- China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan -- as well as the U.S. and Russia.

Iran and the United States have been communicating indirectly through the group, which was originally formed to find a solution to the Afghanistan crisis.

"We know al Qaeda individuals are inside Iran," this official said. "But what is the definition of custody? If they are in Iran, free to plan and direct attacks, such as the Saudi bombings, and are able to receive visitors and updates and other information, that is not custody. That is safe haven."

This official said senior Bush Cabinet officials will meet next week on Iran policy, adding that there is talk about isolating Iran at the United Nations, much as the United States did during the first 20 years after the 1979 revolution.

At the same time, the official acknowledged that there is little support within the international community for this approach.

Senior U.S. intelligence officials told CNN intelligence reports indicate that one of the al Qaeda operatives detained in Iran is Saif Al Adel, the terrorist group's top operational planner -- and third in command.

Officials said they believe Adel was involved in the recent suicide bombings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that killed 25 people, including eight Americans.

Intercepted communications picked up around the time of the bombing provide evidence, some U.S. officials said, of an operational post in Iran. And that evidence, in part, led to the raising of the terror threat level in the United States this week, they added. (Full story)

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he had warned Iran to turn over any al Qaeda operatives it may be harboring.

"We have said very clearly to the Iranian government that harboring al Qaeda would be entirely unacceptable," Blair said. "I hope very much that if they are indeed harboring al Qaeda operatives, that they yield them up." (Full story)

Unlike the United States, Britain has diplomatic relations with Tehran.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Wednesday there was "no question there have been and are today senior al Qaeda leaders in Iran."

"And they're busy," Rumsfeld said.

Earlier this week, U.S. officials said Washington has been in communication with Tehran about al Qaeda, making it clear to that nation's Islamic leadership that it must take more steps against terrorism.

Iran has announced arrests before of alleged terror organization members. In February of 2002, one month after President Bush named Iran as a member of the "axis of evil" supporting terrorism, Tehran announced it had arrested 150 Arab, African and European nationals suspected of being members of the Taliban or al Qaeda.

-- CNN Justice Correspondent Kelli Arena and State Department Producer Elise Labott contributed to this report.

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