WASHINGTON – The Bush administration on Wednesday accused Iran (search) of harboring Al Qaeda (search) members and said Iranian leaders had a responsibility to prevent terrorists from entering and operating in the country.
"There's no question but that there have been and are today senior Al Qaeda leaders in Iran, and they are busy" plotting attacks, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said.
The impact on U.S. contacts with Iran, particularly a recent series of meetings in Geneva, was not clear. "We do find ways to communicate and we will continue to find ways to communicate with Iran on subjects that are important to us," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
The meetings, part of an effort to ease friction between the two countries, focused on a range of issues, including postwar Iraq. The United States is attempting to deter Iran from trying to influence the formation of a new government in Baghdad.
U.S.-Iran relations were severed after Iranian militants overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held U.S. diplomats hostage until 1981.
Officials in the Clinton and Bush administrations have suggested from time to time that there was a reformist surge in Iran that could have a moderating influence on the Muslim fundamentalist government.
Still, the State Department this year again accused Iran of sponsoring terrorism. Iran also is accused regularly of trying to undercut peace efforts in the Middle East.
Despite President Bush's declaration of war against Al Qaeda, the terrorist network appears to have regrouped and is suspected in deadly bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco.
Rumsfeld leveled his accusations at a joint news conference at the Pentagon with Crown Prince Salman Bin Hammad Al-Khalifa of Bahrain (search), who said: "I think these guys [terrorists] are the enemies of free people everywhere. The war on terror is ongoing."
Later, after meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell, the Persian Gulf leader pledged steadfast support for the Bush administration's counterterrorism campaign. "We must disrupt their movements," he said of Al Qaeda.
"The presence of Al Qaeda operatives working from Iran is a matter of very serious concern to us," Boucher said. "Whether they are there with the permission, not with permission, or what, it's the responsibility of the government to prevent these kind of people from coming to their country."
If terrorists enter Iran, Boucher said, the government should not permit them to operate and should prevent them from terrorist activities.
"That's a responsibility we expect them and other governments to live up to," Boucher said.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., said disclosure of Iranian links to Al Qaeda demonstrates the futility of making a deal with the reformers in Tehran.
"The Iranian regime is a terrorist regime," said Brownback, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. "A longtime truism of American foreign policy has been that you cannot and should not negotiate with terrorists."
Iran on Tuesday repeated its rejection of U.S. claims it was sheltering members of Usama bin Laden's organization and said it would not hesitate to confront the group.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said Iran has no links to the "fundamentalist and violent" network, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
"In case of confronting Al Qaeda, Iran will act according to its programs and within the U.N. framework, as it did in extraditing the operatives of the group to their countries of origin that in several cases included western states," he was quoted as saying.
Two areas of concern for the United States are Iran's support for Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon who are fighting a cross-border war with Israel, and Iranian forays into Iraq.
Secretary of State Powell said during a recent stop in Egypt that the United States was opposed to fundamentalist rule in Iraq and that such a government was not in the interest of the Iraqi people.
Powell also has disputed published reports the administration was considering re-establishing relations with Iran, although he said the United States long has been in communication with Iran through various channels.