Iran plotting to groom bin Laden's successor
By Con Coughlin and George Jones, Political Editor
Last Updated: 2:20am GMT 14/11/2006
Iran is trying to form an unholy alliance with al-Qa'eda by grooming a new generation of leaders to take over from Osama bin Laden, The Daily Telegraph can reveal.
Western intelligence officials say the Iranians are determined to take advantage of bin Laden's declining health to promote senior officials who are known to be friendly to Teheran.
Tony Blair addressing the Lord Mayor's banquet last night
The revelation will deal a major blow to Tony Blair's hopes of establishing a "new partnership" with Teheran.
Addressing the Lord Mayor's banquet in London last night — an occasion traditionally used by the Prime Minister to set out the Government's foreign policy — Mr Blair said he wanted to launch a diplomatic initiative to secure peace in Iraq by establishing dialogue with Iran and ending threats of military force against the regime.
He confirmed that a major rethink of strategy was under way on both sides of the Atlantic as he offered Iran a partnership rather than isolation if it stopped supporting terrorism in Lebanon or Iraq and halted attempts to develop nuclear weapons.
With the British and American governments looking for an exit strategy from Iraq, the Prime Minister admitted that they needed Iran's co-operation to prevent the country descending into civil war and to secure an overall Middle East peace settlement.
But the revelation that Iran is working hard to establish a closer relationship with bin Laden's fanatics, who provoked the war against terrorism with the attacks on September 11 2001, is likely to undermine severely Downing Street's attempts to effect a rapprochement. Iran is also suspected of arming insurgent groups in southern Iraq – many of which have links to al-Qa'eda – that have been responsible for many of the roadside bomb attacks against British troops.
But intelligence officials have been most alarmed by reports from Iran that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is trying to persuade al-Qa'eda to promote a pro-Iranian activist to a senior position within its leadership.
The Iranians want Saif al-Adel, a 46-year-old former colonel in Egypt's special forces, to be the organisation's number three.
Al-Adel was formerly bin Laden's head of security, and was named on the FBI's 22 most wanted list after September 11 for his alleged involvement in terror attacks against US targets in Somalia and Africa in the 1990s. He has been living in a Revolutionary Guard guest house in Teheran since fleeing from Afghanistan in late 2001.
Alarm over al-Qa'eda deepened yesterday with a Foreign Office warning that the group was determined to acquire the technology to carry out a nuclear attack on the West.
A senior Foreign Office official said that the terrorists were trawling the world for the materials and know-how to mount an attack using nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.
The official said: "We know that the aspiration is there, we know attempts to gather materials are there, we know that attempts to gather technologies are there."
In last night's speech, the Prime Minister said that he wanted to see constructive engagement with the whole of the Middle East.
"A major part of the answer to Iraq lies not in Iraq itself but outside it, in the whole of the region where the same forces are at work and where the roots of this global terrorism are to be found," he added.
"That is what I call a "whole Middle East" strategy.
"There is a fundamental misunderstanding that this is about changing policy on Syria and Iran. First, those two countries do not at all share identical interests. But in any event that is not where we start.
"On the contrary, we should start with Israel/Palestine. That is the core. We should then make progress on Lebanon. We should unite all moderate Arab and Muslim voices behind a push for peace in those countries but also in Iraq. We should be standing up for, empowering, respecting those with a moderate and modern view of the faith of Islam everywhere."
But Mr Blair's hopes of a dialogue with Teheran were dealt a further blow last night when President George W Bush rejected the notion that talks with Iran were the key to undermining the Iraq insurgency.
He insisted that Iran should pay the consequences for continuing work on its nuclear enrichment programme.
"It's very important for the"threat to our world security". Last night he was more measured on Iran.
"To be fair, they have a genuine, if entirely misplaced fear, that the US seeks a military solution in Iran. They don't," Mr Blair said.
Iran had already rejected the US's offer of the first direct talks for 30 years if it abided by the UN demand to suspend uranium enrichment. It was now using "pressure points" in the region to thwart America and Britain.
"So they help the most extreme elements of Hamas in Palestine; Hizbollah in Lebanon; Shia militia in Iraq," said Mr Blair.
He said Iran faced a clear choice: help the Middle East peace process, not hinder it; stop supporting terrorism; and abide by, not flout, international obligations.
"In that case a new partnership is possible, or alternatively they face the consequences of not doing so: isolation," he added.