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Iran: Unrest Grows Into International Dispute

  • Charles Recknagel



Prague, 14 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's domestic unrest is rapidly growing into an international dispute.

A mounting number of capitals are expressing their support for reformers in Iran as students there have held pro-democracy rallies. In return, Iranian hard-liners are accusing foreign powers of seeking to fan unrest in the country for their own ends.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei today publicly accused foreign states of encouraging students to demonstrate over the past six days in Tehran and most of Iran's other main cities.

Khamenei said in a message broadcast to the nation that what he called enemies of Islam and Iran's revolution are trying to use the unrest to pave the way for U.S. dominance over Iran. He also vowed that the protestors and what he called their masters and supporters will be crushed.

Another senior member of the Islamic regime also warned foreign countries against supporting the regime's opponents. Deputy Parliament Speaker Hassan Rouhani said that Iran's clerical regime expected expressions of support for the student protests from the United States and Israel. But he said other nations, which he did not name, are also making the same mistake. He said that Tehran will respond to their efforts at an opportune time.

The hard-line leaders' angry reactions to international criticism comes as international backing for reformers supporting Iran's relatively moderate President Mohammad Khatami has grown over the past week.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said in an interview appearing in the Egyptian government newspaper Al-Ahram today that he is closely following events in Iran and hopes for a victory for the moderate camp.

Mubarak also said Cairo will postpone moving toward re-establishing diplomatic ties with Iran -- which were cut after the 1979 Islamic Revolution -- because, in his words, it is clear the forces of extremism remain active.

Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit told reporters in Ankara yesterday that he sees the student protests as a natural reaction to what he called a repressive regime. Ecevit:

"The Iranian people are very sophisticated. They have a rich history. I believe they can't live under a repressive regime. Therefore, their movement is natural. But we cannot, and don't want, to interfere in their internal affairs. We hope these events can be good for the Iranian people."

A spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry said yesterday that Paris is following events in Iran attentively and sees them as part of a struggle pitting the forces of openness, who support President Khatami, against other circles.

Sweden -- in an official letter to the Iranian embassy in Stockholm -- said yesterday that it hopes reformers emerge with greater influence in the Iranian regime because it is with them that Stockholm intends to work.

Washington has said that the demonstrations represent a desire for political change and that it is concerned by the use of violence to suppress democratic values. U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin outlined the U.S. position in a statement on Monday:

"Clearly, these are significant demonstrations that represent the desire for political change on the part of the younger generation seeking the rule of law and freedom of expression, and that is significant and serious. We have made it clear that we are concerned by the use of violence to put down demonstrations by Iranian students in support of freedom of expression and democratic values and the rule of law."

The events in Iran are also being closely watched by Iran's Gulf Arab neighbors, which have been building better relations with Tehran since Khatami's election in 1997.

Analysts say the Gulf Arab states will not comment publicly on the crisis in Iran because the two sides have refrained in recent years from speaking about each other's domestic affairs after bitter mutual criticism during the Iraq-Iran war of the last decade. But the Arab Gulf states privately support Iran's reformers.

David Macke is a former U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and a regional expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. He told RFE/RL that the Arab Gulf monarchies hope the reform movement will eventually lead to a government that places greater importance on solving outstanding Iran-Arab disputes:

"In general, there is the belief that the reformist trends which we have seen in Iran, beginning with the election of President Khatami, are positive from the perspective of the Arab Gulf Cooperation Council States. But, at the same time, they are not unduly enthusiastic about the current government in Tehran since they recognize that, first of all, it is badly divided between pro-reform and anti-reform elements. And secondly, from the perspective of the Arab Gulf capitals, even the Khatami government will be wedded to certain positions in its international affairs and foreign affairs. For example, the position that the government has taken with regard to the islands, which are in dispute between the United Arab Emirates and Iran."

Tehran and the Arab Gulf states have been locked for decades in a territorial dispute over three strategic islands -- Abu Mussa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs -- which lie near shipping lanes in the Gulf. Tehran has controlled the islands since 1971, when Britain ended its protectorate over the coastal sheikdoms that later became the UAE.

The UAE -- which considers Iran's presence an occupation of its territory -- is backed in the dispute by its Gulf Cooperation Council partners: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Khatami has sought to make a general warming of ties with the Arab Gulf states a hallmark of his presidency. The policy has paid off in a recent stream of senior Gulf Arab visitors to Tehran, including Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan ibn Abdel Aziz two months ago.

The Saudi visit reflected Riyadh's desire to work with Iran, despite Riyadh's continuing wariness of the Islamic Revolution. The Saudis broke relations with Iran from 1987 to 1991 over Tehran's insistence on political demonstrations during the Haj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to holy sites in Mecca.

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