"The innocent will be let go and the guilty ones will be incarcerated and go to trial," Prince Saud al-Faisal said. Iran "cooperated with us" in handing them over, he said, but declined to speculate on whether that reflects improved U.S.-Iran relations.
Iran is "cooperation with us has been very important and very significant in fighting the terrorists," Saud said in a broadcast interview.
In another interview with The Washington Post, Saud said they were delivered in the knowledge that any intelligence gathered from them during interrogation would be passed to the United States to aid its "war on terror."
"Iran, in the framework of U.N. Security Council resolutions, has handed over the Arab-origin Afghans who entered Iran to their respective countries," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi told Reuters, without identifying the other countries.
"Verifying that they belong to al Qaeda, or any other information related to them, is the responsibility of those countries," he said.
Saud said Saudi officials travelled to Iran in May to question the detained fighters from al Qaeda, which Washington blames for the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"Iran has not only cooperated with Saudi Arabia in this conflict in Afghanistan but cooperated extensively with the United States," he said.
The Washington Post said Saud suggested Iran had worked directly with the United States to combat al Qaeda, but declined to give details, saying: "The U.S. and Iran can speak for themselves as to how much cooperation happened between the two countries."
Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah's foreign policy adviser, Adel Al-Jubeir, said in another television interview, that for "those that deserve punishment ... the punishment will be severe."
On another subject, the foreign minister reiterated that Saudi Arabia would not allow use of Saudi soil in a U.S. attack on Iraq. The United States should "give a diplomatic solution a chance before going to war," the prince said.
"We see there is movement on the diplomatic front on this issue," he said without elaboration.
"There is no proof there is a threat imminent from Iraq," Saud said in explaining his country's refusal to all the United States to use his country in such an attack.
The 16 suspected al Qaeda fighters are reportedly Saudi citizens. The prince said they were turned over in June. About the same time, Iranian officials said publicly that Iran was returning any captured al Qaeda operatives to their home countries.
President George W. Bush has labeled Iran, Iraq and North Korea part of an "axis of evil" that threatens global stability.
Sen. Fred Thompson, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that despite the latest developments "Iran's track record (on terrorism) is not very good."
Iran in the past "has cooperated with and assisted" al Qaeda, Thompson, a Republican, said in a television interview
The decision to turn over suspected al Qaeda members to Saudi Arabia "serves the purpose of the Saudis and also the Iranians," he said.
Thompson characterized Saudi Arabia's reluctance to support action against Iraq as "self-preservation" to blunt criticism from the religious extremists within Saudi Arabia.
He called U.S.-Saudi relations "a marriage of convenience" because "they need us and we need them."