Via ABC. More “goodwill.”

Senior U.S. officials tell ABC News that in recent months there have been secret contacts between the Iranian government and the leadership of al Qaeda. It’s a development that has caught the attention of top officials in the White House, the Pentagon and the intelligence community.

According to U.S. officials familiar with highly sensitive intelligence on this issue, the contacts are on the status of high-level al Qaeda operatives, including two of Osama Bin Laden’s sons, who have been under house arrest in Iran since 2003. The officials don’t believe Iran will allow these operatives to go free, but said they don’t know Iran’s motivation for initiating the talks.

“The Iranians know there would be hell to pay if these guys were set free,” a U.S. official told ABC News.

“Iran likely sees these individuals, as major bargaining chips,” says another official. “How and when they’re going to use those chips or whether they are going to keep them in the bank is part of an ongoing strategic discussion they are having internally.”…

In the past, the Iranians have also resisted efforts by Al Qaeda to get them released. But recently there has been a renewed effort by Al Qaeda to negotiate for their release and signs that the Iranians are willing to at least talk about that.

It’s not a secret that some of AQ’s big fish are in Iran but the feds pretend like it is for fear that making a big deal about it would spook Iran into turning them loose. Even so, major stories pop up in major pubs periodically: Newsweek ran a fascinating story a few years ago about how Saif al-Adel ended up in Iranian custody and WaPo claimed last year that Bush turned down an offer from Iran in 2003 to hand over al-Adel and the Bin Laden boys on Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s advice. (This too-bad-to-check report from the Telegraph is still my favorite on this subject.) The New York Sun went so far as to allege that AQ has two separate leadership councils, one of which meets regularly in eastern Iran. The point being, contrary to what the nearest progressive might tell you, the two sides are well acquainted.

ABC’s sources speculate that this new round of “flirtation” is either some form of appeasement by Iran to get Al Qaeda to knock off its recent anti-Iranian rhetoric or a form of saber-rattling against the U.S., possibly due (just me speculating) to Maliki’s offensives in Basra and Sadr City. I’m not sure why they think it’s Iran that’s initiated the talks with AQ, though, instead of vice versa. Be on the lookout in your news reading over the next few weeks for stories about Al Qaeda’s leadership, as I’m suddenly seeing a curious amount of stuff about Osama and who might succeed him. First there was the report from Al Arabiya about the U.S. possibly having traced him to the K2 mountains, then there was Michael Hayden telling the AP about the CIA’s preparations for succession within Al Qaeda, then there’s the increasing success we’ve been having lately with airstrikes against AQ bigwigs in Pakistan, prompting one intel expert to note, “I think the money that the Americans are spreading around is having an effect.” Maybe it’s all a coincidence, but if AQ has reason to believe we have a bead on them then their demand for guys as seasoned as the ones in Iranian custody to fill any new vacancies will be sky high. Just a theory, but as I say, be on the lookout.