At the same time they are being hunted in Afghanistan and Pakistan, al-Qaeda terrorists are slipping into Iran in droves, often with the aid of smugglers like Mahmood. Shortly before the May 12 bombings in Riyadh, U.S. intelligence intercepted chats between high-ranking al-Qaeda members in Iran and their underlings around the world. "The leadership of al-Qaeda," asserts a Bush Administration official, "is still active in Iran." Iran counters that it's impossible to seal off its rugged, 1,000-mile eastern border. "We're trying our best," Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi told TIME. "We have strong objections to al-Qaeda, politically and religiously."
Washington's fury over the supposed al-Qaeda connection has many Iranians wondering: After Iraq, are we next? At a Tehran restaurant, one waiter makes sure nobody is listening and then asks, with an equal measure of fear and hope, "Are the Americans going to help rid us of the mullahs?" Advisers to the Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei say he is genuinely worried about a possible U.S. attack. As a result, they say, he has ordered his fellow ayatullahs to refrain from using their influence with Iraqi Shi'ites to whip up unrest against U.S. troops.
But that may not be enough to placate the Bush Administration, which is also reportedly considering trying to destabilize Khamenei's clerical regime by exploiting widespread internal dissent. Still, there is no proof that Iran is abetting al-Qaeda, only that its terrorists are hiding within the country's borders. The Iranians add that the U.S. has not been giving them much assistance. "If the Americans would tell us where these terrorists are," says Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Reza Asefi, "we'd happily arrest them."