Accessibility links

Iran Report: March 31, 2003


31 March 2003, Volume 6, Number 14

RUMSFELD: IRANIAN PRESENCE 'UNHELPFUL.' U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was asked during a 25 March Pentagon briefing about the possible presence of Iranian forces in Iraq or Iranian activities there that could affect allied operations (see http://usinfo.state.gov). He responded: "Thus far, Iran has not done things that are making our life more difficult in Iraq. We hope that continues to be the case." Nevertheless, Rumsfeld continued, "we do see Iran-sponsored forces -- Iraqis, but sponsored and armed and housed previously by Iran -- in the country in relatively small numbers, which is unhelpful."

Rumsfeld was more specific during a 28 March briefing. He said that hundreds of combatants from the Badr Corps, which is the military wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), are operating in Iraq and that more are waiting in Iran (see http://usinfo.state.gov). So far, the Badr Corps has not engaged in hostile acts, Rumsfeld said, but "the entrance into Iraq by military forces, intelligence personnel, or proxies not under the direct operational control of [U.S. Central Command commander] General [Tommy] Franks will be taken as a potential threat to coalition forces."

Rumsfeld added, according to RFE/RL, "The Badr Corps is trained, equipped, and directed by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard, and we will hold the Iranian government responsible for their actions and will view Badr Corps activity inside Iraq as unhelpful. Armed Badr Corps members found in Iraq will have to be treated as combatants."

"Rumsfeld is making propaganda to cover up of his lack of success in this war," Iranian government spokesman Abdullah Ramazanzadeh told Reuters on 29 March. "We won't go into this meaningless war, neither for or against either side." "The Badr [Corps'] decisions have nothing to do with Iran. They are independent, like any other Iraqi opposition group."

SCIRI official Muhsin al-Hakim on 29 March denied that the Badr Corps and the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) have a relationship, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. Al-Hakim said that the Badr Corps consists of Iraqi youth and that, "All staff, weapons, and entire training facilities of the Badr Corps are provided inside Iraq, and there is no link between them and the Iranian IRGC." (Bill Samii)

SCIRI SENDING MIXED MESSAGES ON ITS INTENTIONS. Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) leadership figures are sending mixed signals regarding their plans for Iraq's future and regarding their relationship with the United States. On the one hand, SCIRI is part of the Iraqi opposition's recently created Leadership Council, and it seems clear that this council will not be able to function without U.S. support. Indeed, it has sent a list of its appointees to Washington for approval. On the other hand, SCIRI officials have said that they will not cooperate with the United States (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 24 March 2003) and have warned others against cooperating with the United States.

The central council of Iraqi opposition groups on 26 March issued a statement at the conclusion of its meetings in Salaheddin, IRNA reported. SCIRI's Muhsin al-Hakim said that the statement declared the readiness of the Iraqi people and army to rise up against the regime. The statement urged the international community to recognize the government that opposition groups appoint to run Iraq after Saddam Hussein is removed from power, and it urged Iraqi diplomatic missions to declare themselves distinct from the regime.

The Iraqi opposition also named an Interim Authority consisting of Iraqi National (INC) Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi, Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader Masud Barzani, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leader Jalal Talabani and SCIRI Jihad Bureau chief Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim that would take office following Saddam Hussein's downfall, "The Scotsman" reported on 27 March. The Interim Authority named 14 committees that would take over the functions of Iraqi government ministries and submitted a list of possible ministers to the White House and the Pentagon, "The Scotsman" reported.

SCIRI associate Muhsin al-Hakim said in a 24 March telephone interview with IRNA that members of the SCIRI Leadership Council held a series of meetings in recent days to discuss their role in current events and in Iraq's future. "An important meeting in Iraqi Kurdistan on Monday [24 March] was between the high-ranking commanders of the Badr Corps stationed in the region, with the head of the Jihadi Bureau of the SCIRI Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim," he added. SCIRI, in a 24 March message, called on the Iraqi armed forces to "help end [the Ba'athist] regime's domination," IRNA reported. The SCIRI blamed the regime for Iraq's current problems.

SCIRI leader Ayatollah Muhammad Baqer al-Hakim said in the 26 March issue of "Al-Hayat," however, that the United States has warned the Iraqi opposition and people not to participate in the war, and the Iraqi regime has issued orders to suppress any popular uprisings. Muhammad Baqer al-Hakim urged the Iraqi people not to fight alongside Washington or Baghdad, emphasized that SCIRI's Badr Corps had suspended its military activities in order to avoid serving what he sees as U.S. interests, and warned that the Iraqi people would resist any foreign forces who stay in Iraq as occupiers.

SCIRI's Akram al-Hakim said in a 26 March interview with Al-Jazeera television that SCIRI does not support an invasion or occupation of Iraq but that it and the rest of the opposition are ready to take over afterward. He expressed the belief that the allies were against the Iraqi opposition playing a role, but Washington might have changed its views. (Bill Samii)

IRAQI SHIA OR IRANIAN 'APPARATCHIKS?' Saddam Hussein has little to fear from senior Iraqi opposition figures because Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has turned many of them into "Iranian government apparatchiks," Alireza Nurizadeh writes in the 24 March issue of Beirut's "The Daily Star." Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, for example, used to be a leading figure in the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, while International Assembly of the Ahl al-Bayt Secretary-General Sheikh Muhammad Mahdi al-Asifi used to lead the pro-Iran faction of the Al-Da'wah al-Islamiyah (Islamic Call) party. SCIRI head Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim soon may be appointed to a similar post, according to "The Daily Star."

"The yellowed Iranian birth certificates (issued by Iranian consulates in Karbala and other cities) of [the named individuals] bear witness to the fact that those Shia who dream of ruling Iraq are more Iranian than Iraqi," according to "The Daily Star." SCIRI's Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim has been touted as a possible future Iraqi leader, furthermore, but his close relationship with Tehran precludes the United States allowing such an occurrence, according to a commentary in the "Gilan-i Imruz" daily of Rasht on 10 February. (Bill Samii)

WARNING OF AN ANTI-U.S. SHIA UPRISING. It would be reasonable to expect Shia Muslims, who make up 60 percent of the Iraqi population, to rise up against the regime that has repressed them for more than 20 years. But the expected Shia uprising had not occurred as of 30 March. This could be due to fear or to co-optation by the regime.

"Closely informed Lebanese and Iraqi Shia sources" said in the 23 March issue of Manama's "Akhbar al-Khalij" that Iraqi Shia have not staged an antigovernment uprising in southern Iraq because they refuse to take power by relying on the United States. Iraqi Shia who are inclined toward Lebanese Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah are preparing for armed resistance against a U.S. occupation, according to the Bahraini publication. Other anonymous sources close to the Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood, according to "Akhbar al-Khalij," say that Sunni Islamists are prepared to join with the Shia in their resistance.

It is more likely that the Shia have not turned against the regime because of outright fear. Shaykh Hatami, identified as an Iraqi opposition figure in the 26 March "The New York Times," said that something similar to martial law was imposed in Basra and that loyalist troops were rushed there to impose a curfew. Two Iraqi deserters said that Shia in the armed forces are watched more closely for disloyalty, "The Washington Post" reported on 27 March.

The regime is also trying to win Shia support, which must be a difficult task after it has spent more than 20 years repressing this religious group. This effort has been noticeable in recent Baghdad satellite television broadcasts. In a 25 March message, Saddam Hussein used Shia imagery to urge tribesmen to fight coalition forces by referring to the first Shia imam, Ali. A 24 March report from Najaf on Baghdad satellite television featured Shia religious leaders accusing the allies of damaging shrines, praying for victory, and calling for God to support Saddam Hussein. On the same day, broadcasts featured poetry and songs about Imam Ali, Imam Hassan, and Imam Hussein, all set against a backdrop of the shrines in Najaf.

Iranian state television's Arabic-language Sahar TV reported on 26 March that the Shia sources of emulation in Najaf have signed a statement urging the population to fight British and U.S. forces. Lebanese Hizballah's Al-Manar television repeated this report the next day. The reports could not be independently verified, but in fatwas (religious decrees) described by Baghdad's INA on 13 March, Grand Ayatollahs Ali al-Sistani, Muhammad Said al-Tabatabai al-Hakim, Muhammad Ishaq Fayyad, and Bashir Hussein al-Najafi reportedly called on Muslims to engage in jihad against the United States and its allies. INA also reported that these individuals sent a cable to Saddam Hussein in which they pledged their support.

The situation in the predominantly Shia southern Iraqi city of Basra remained unclear as of 30 March. Sahar Television reported on 26 March that SCIRI denied that an anti-Baghdad uprising was taking place in Basra, as some Western media reported, citing coalition military sources. SCIRI's Akram al-Hakim said in a 26 March interview with Al-Jazeera television, however, that a localized uprising started on 25 March but did not extend to the rest of Basra. Al-Hakim described the situation in Basra as "on the brink of explosion," but he said the authorities' "severe and suppressive security measures" prevent popular action. In a 26 March press release, Amnesty International accused Iraqi forces of deliberately shelling civilians in Basra and placing likely military targets close to civilians.

Iraqi forces on 28 March fired small arms and mortars at about 2,000 civilians trying to flee Basra, dpa reported, citing a British military spokesman on BBC television. British military spokesman Colonel Chris Vernon said earlier on 28 March, "Basra is clearly nowhere near yet in our hands, and we have no way at the moment of getting humanitarian aid into Basra," dpa reported. Vernon said that the key to controlling the city is eradication of the Ba'ath Party and the irregular forces under its control. According to a 28 March report in "The Washington Post," British Fusiliers are already doing their best to distribute aid in Basra while conceding that it is difficult to do so when locals fear the return of the Ba'ath Party. One resident of Basra said, according to "The Washington Post," "Fifty percent of the people are neutral, and 50 percent are pro-Saddam out of fear."

By 30 March, the situation appeared to be turning to the allies' favor, with British spokesman Group Captain Al Lockwood saying, according to RFE/RL: "Basra is another place where the civilian population is gaining confidence in us. They're prepared to talk to us, and they're giving us details of where these paramilitaries could be hiding, and we're using every avenue that we have to go in there and extract them." An unidentified Iraqi who escaped Basra told RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel that the people of Basra "would love to meet the Americans with flowers." But he said they are afraid that the Americans will treat them the same way they did in 1991. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN CONCERNED ABOUT IRAQI SHIA SHRINES. Many Iranian clerics underwent theological training in the Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala, and these two cities continue to be important sites for Shia Muslims, with thousands of Iranian pilgrims visiting them every year. The Qom Theological Lecturers Association on 26 March issued a statement in which it expressed concern about the "holy shrines and sacred places," the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported. It warned the United States and the United Kingdom that Islamic countries would not remain silent in the face of "possible disrespect for sacred holy shrines."

Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi commented on the possibility that Najaf and Karbala could be attacked during Operation Iraqi Freedom in a 23 March interview on Iranian state television. Kharrazi said that the United States and the United Kingdom are aware of the religious significance of these cities and that, "so far," neither the cities nor the holy places have been harmed, although there is fighting on the outskirts of the cities. "The feelings of Muslims, especially Shia, will be provoked should anything like that happen," he said. Allied forces are finding it difficult to avoid Karbala, however, because it is on the allied line of advance toward Baghdad and because the Medina Division of Iraqi Republican Guards is reportedly there.

Moreover, the U.S. Army was forced to encircle Najaf, which may hold up to 1,000 Iraqi paramilitaries loyal to Saddam Hussein, according to "The New York Times" on 27 March. More than 1,000 Iraqis have died in three days of fighting near Najaf, ITAR-TASS reported on 28 March, citing the U.S. military. An Iraqi military officer killed four U.S. soldiers on 29 March in a suicide bombing.

Iraqi Trade Minister Muhammad Mehdi Saleh refused to give specific casualty figures, but he conceded: "Whatever casualties we suffer, we have the right to defend our country. We will give our lives and our blood so the Americans and British will be defeated," "The Irish Times" reported on 28 March. Iraqi Information Minister Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf was more specific during a 28 March news conference in Baghdad. He claimed that coalition shelling of a Najaf residential area on 27 March killed 26 and wounded 60 civilians, Al-Jazeera satellite television reported. (Bill Samii)

IRAN OFFERS MKO AMNESTY AFTER U.S. FORCES DESTROY MKO BASE. Ahmad Rahimi, spokesman for Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security, said in a 28 March telephone interview with Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television that members of the Iraq-based Iranian opposition militia known as the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO) could come back to Iran if they voice regret for their "crimes" against the Islamic Republic, Reuters reported. The MKO, which is on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations, has been based in Iraq since the 1980s.

"The Islamic Republic of Iran, out of pity, gave them this new chance," Rahimi said. "We guarantee their life and will not arrest them, although there are some people who committed special crimes inside and outside Iran. If they voice regret for what they did and do not repeat these mistakes, then we will help them solve the problem and lead a respectable life in their country," he added.

The MKO seems destined for an ugly end if it stays in Iraq. INC official Nabil Musawi said in the 27 March "The Scotsman": "These people are worse than even the [Saddam's] Fedayeen because they have nothing to lose.... They will be killed whatever happens, if not by the Americans then by us."

U.S. and British aircraft bombed two MKO bases south of Suleimanieh on 29 March, Social Democratic Party of Iraqi Kurdistan Secretary-General Muhammad Haj Mahmud said, according to IRNA. An unidentified Iranian official in Tehran said that U.S. forces in Iraq on 24 March destroyed two MKO military bases, the "Financial Times" reported on 27 March. An MKO group had moved to a military camp in the area of Mosul, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on 26 March, citing a Kurdish intelligence officer. "The Wall Street Journal" reported on 3 February that Baghdad had moved other MKO forces to that area in January. (Bill Samii, Stephen C. Fairbanks)

FIERCE PUK, ANSAR AL-ISLAM FIGHTING IN SPITE OF AMNESTY. Islamic Movement of Kurdistan (IMK) forces are moving toward Halabja in order to link up with Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) elements, IRNA reported on 28 March, citing Kurdish sources in Kermanshah Province. The two groups' cooperative effort is reportedly the result of PUK leader Jalal Talabani's appeal for them to work together against the Ansar al-Islam group.

Elements from Ansar al-Islam unsuccessfully attacked PUK positions near Halabja during the night of 26-27 March, leaving behind many casualties, IRNA reported on 27 March. "Fierce clashes" between PUK and Ansar al-Islam forces occurred on 26 March, Egypt's MENA reported. The fighting commenced when Ansar al-Islam personnel in Anab village near Halabja opened fire on PUK militias, according to MENA. KurdSat television reported on the same day that U.S. and U.K. aircraft continued bombing Ansar al-Islam positions, as well as Iraqi positions in northern Iraq.

Earlier, on 26 March, the PUK-led Kurdistan regional government issued a general amnesty for members of Ansar al-Islam, KurdSat television reported. The amnesty statement said that Ansar al-Islam has perpetrated treachery and murder against the Kurds, is subservient to foreigners, and is in breach of Islamic teachings. It added that the "scheming band of Arab Afghans and Iraqi intelligence officers" ensnared some "misguided Kurds." All the "misguided Kurds," except for those guilty of assassinations and massacres, have been pardoned, according to the statement. (Bill Samii)

IRAN TURNS ITS BACK ON ANSAR AL-ISLAM. Coalition forces hit Ansar al-Islam positions in northern Iraq with missiles on 21-22 March, AP reported, and the PUK said on 22 March that it fired rockets at Ansar al-Islam positions. Islamic Movement of Kurdistan (IMK) spokesman Haj Balal Suleiman said on 24 March that PUK and IMK forces are preparing to attack Ansar al-Islam positions, IRNA reported. And IMK representative Bahauddin Barzanji said on 25 March that U.S. and U.K. aircraft are continuing to bomb Ansar al-Islam positions, IRNA reported. By 29 March, the Ansar al-Islam elements were routed, according to "The New York Times."

Tehran has had at different times a close relationship with all these warring Kurdish organizations (PUK, IMK, Ansar al-Islam), but it does not seem to be facing any sort of moral dilemma in choosing which one to support now. Iranian actions at this time seem tied to a desire to avoid having a permanent or an excessively large U.S. presence in northern Iraq and a desire to avoid any rise of a Kurdish autonomy movement in Iran.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi on 24 March said that Ansar al-Islam is an extremist group and that Iran has no links with it, IRNA reported, and he dismissed a television report that Iran had assisted Ansar al-Islam as a "baseless and sheer lie." According to a report in the 24 March issue of the PUK newspaper "Al-Ittihad," the bombings that began on 21-22 March killed and wounded many Ansar al-Islam militants, and the remaining ones have fled into the mountains. This may well be the case because, as "The Washington Post" reported on 25 March, Iranian authorities are turning back wounded Ansar al-Islam personnel who seek medical attention.

One sign of this change in Iran's previous support for Ansar al-Islam was its September deportation of Ansar al-Islam leader Mullah Krekar to the Netherlands, where he was arrested (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 23 September 2002). Yet, the PUK continued to complain about Iranian support for Ansar al-Islam even after that event, "The New York Times" reported on 14 January. And although it looked like Tehran was washing its hands of one Islamist Kurdish group, it pursued closer contacts with the IMK and the Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG) led by Ali Bapir. For example, IRGC Ramadan headquarters commander Colonel Masjidi met in January with IMK and KIG leaders in northern Iraq (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 3 February 2003).

This explains the actions of Iranian intelligence personnel, as reported by "The New York Times" on 25 March, who are trying to dissuade the KIG from joining forces with Ansar al-Islam. The success of this venture was shown by the arrival of PUK personnel in KIG positions in Khurmal, as reported in the 26 March "Al-Hayat." The agreement that led to this move places PUK positions in direct contact with Ansar al-Islam ones.

Tehran's support for the mutually antagonistic Kurdish groups probably stemmed from its desire to prevent any one of them from becoming too powerful and from its fear of a completely stable and autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, which could serve as a model for Iran's own Kurdish population of approximately 4.7 million. The arrival in northern Iraq on 23 March of several hundred U.S. special-operations personnel and attack helicopters may be an incentive for Tehran to steer clear of events there. According to IRNA on 25 March, armed Americans wearing PUK clothing were seen in Halabja. Moreover, it seems reasonable to speculate that Washington has sought to reassure Tehran through back channels that it supports Iraq's territorial integrity and that it does not have intentions toward Iranian territory.

It seems just as reasonable to speculate that Tehran has received similar reassurances from Ankara. If anything, Tehran probably welcomes the Turkish military's recent incursion into northern Iraq as a means of preventing the Kurds from becoming overly independent. Moreover, the Turkish presence there is clearly discomfiting for Washington, and according to Ankara's TRT 2 Television on 24 March, special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is having difficulties trying to persuade the Turks to withdraw their forces. Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said on 25 March that it is up to Turkey to decide on dispatching its troops into Iraq "for humanitarian reasons or to prevent giving a chance to terrorism," according to Reuters.

What is probably more pleasing to Tehran is Turkey's refusal to permit land access by allied forces to northern Iraq, which kept the coalition from opening a second front against Baghdad. Washington intended to launch an attack with 62,000 troops from Turkish soil into Iraq, according to Reuters, but all Washington got was overflight rights. The absence of a second front allowed Iraqi forces to concentrate so far on fighting south of Baghdad.

Yet, the 26 March parachute jump of about 1,200 members of the U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade, known as the Sky Soldiers, into northern Iraq may affect Tehran's viewpoint. With the exception of special-operations forces, the 173rd is the first true airborne unit to enter the conflict (the 101st Airborne Division, despite its name, moves by helicopter and not by parachute). In addition to helping open a second front in Operation Iraqi Freedom, the presence of the 173rd may dissuade Turkey from sending its troops farther into northern Iraq and triggering a conflict with the Kurds.

PUK official Ahmad Piri said in the 26 March issue of Milan's "Il Giornale" that once the U.S. troop presence reaches 20,000, the assistance of 30,000 Kurdish combatants will be on offer. "Our men are ready and trained," Piri said. "All they are waiting for before going into action is an official American request." Piri said that Ankara has been sidelined by its refusal to let U.S. troops use Turkish territory. "Ankara is no longer in any position to dictate terms," he said. "It has gone too far and made it impossible for the Americans to operate in the north." (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN POLL FINDS SUSPICION OF U.S. MOTIVES. A telephone poll of Tehran residents conducted by ISNA on 23 March found that 86 percent of respondents condemned the allied attack on Iraq, 97 percent of respondents condemned attacks on Shia holy sites in Iraq, and 78 percent of respondents condemned Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Moreover, 84 percent of respondents said they believe Iran should continue its current policy of neutrality and noncooperation with the United States. ISNA did not report how many people participated in the poll. (Bill Samii)

THE IRAQ WAR AND IRANIAN POLITICS. Just how the conflict in Iraq will affect Iran's political landscape is not yet predictable. At this early stage, the war has hardened the anti-U.S. positions of the conservatives who have lately gained the upper hand over Iran's reformists. But if the U.S.-led forces emerge soon as Iraq's liberators rather than occupiers, Iranians pushing for democratic reforms are likely to be reinvigorated.

So far, the war has not enflamed passions in Iran as it has in so much of the rest of the world. Iran has had very few antiwar, anti-U.S. demonstrations -- only 700 people, for example, attended a rally earlier this week in Ahvaz. But while a lack of sympathy for Iraq is to be expected from a country that suffered so much at its hands, the low level so far of anti-U.S. and anti-U.K. sentiment in Iran may worry regime leaders who depend on an anti-U.S. stance for maintaining their revolutionary aura.

Consequently, official bodies, including the armed forces, called for "massive" nationwide participation in antiwar rallies on 28 March. A statement from the office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the purpose was to condemn the "massive invasion launched on the defenseless Iraqi nation by the U.S. militarist regime." The Americans, it said, are "ransacking all human, historical, and national resources" in Iraq "under the pretext of regime change." Iran's Islamic Propagation Organization went even further, urging condemnation of the United States' "massacre of Iraqi people" and its "disrespect toward holy sites." That reference to Shia shrines appears to be a baseless attempt to arouse religious passions, as there have been no reports that such shrines have been damaged by the fighting in Iraq.

Regime stalwarts, including conscripts and the legions of low-level government bureaucrats, can be mobilized as usual for the rallies, but few other Iranians will bother. The country is in the midst of its springtime, two-week Noruz holidays, and it will be hard to draw people away from the pleasures of annual visits to friends and relatives.

Sparse turnouts at rallies may not matter much, though, to the conservatives who are monopolizing power in the Islamic Republic. They can do without the sort of popular support that has been the source of strength for their reformist critics; control of the legal system and coercive organizations is what keeps the theocratic conservatives in power. But they can hammer away at the reformists by characterizing them as pro-American at a time when the Americans, as the conservatives describe them, enflame the region and seek hegemony over it. And by invoking national-security concerns posed by war and a U.S. presence along Iran's border, regime conservatives can stifle reformist dissent and press freedoms.

At least that is what reformists fear. A columnist in one of the few remaining reformist newspapers, "Aftab-e Yazd," wrote on 19 March that "some camps" are "trying to exploit the Iraq crisis in order to rid themselves of the domestic challenges they are facing inside the country." A leader of the reformists' Islamic Iran Participation Party, Mustafa Tajzadeh, has tried to turn the security argument on its head, apparently apprehensive that civil liberties could suffer further setbacks in the months ahead. In an interview carried in the Tehran daily "Iran" on 25 March, he argued, not very convincingly, that the danger the U.S. presence in Iraq poses to Iran can only be countered by the "decisive support and extensive participation of the people," which he said "cannot be achieved unless there is democracy at home." He was obviously referring to the reformists' ability --now dwindling -- to rally popular support.

Democracy at home is the biggest threat to the conservatives, who intend to build on recent gains in order to further exclude reformers from the political process. The conservatives were given an unexpected boost in the nationwide local-council elections on 28 February, which the reformists resoundingly lost, particularly in politically crucial Tehran, even though they were freed in those contests from vetting by the conservative Guardians Council. Whether it was the failure of reformists to deliver on promises of reform that was to blame or the apathy of a public fed up with endless, unproductive political wrangling, the dramatic dwindling of the reformists' legitimacy emboldened the conservative camp. Thus, on 16 March the nominally neutral but clearly pro-conservative Expediency Council settled a budgetary dispute between the parliament and the Guardians Council that bolstered the fortunes of the Guardians.

The Expediency Council's ruling was a clear humiliation for the reformist-dominated parliament, which was unable to turn the reformist bloc's protests and threats to resign into action that was in any way effective. The traditional Noruz holiday for Iranian newspapers, 20 March-5 April, cut off the main vehicle for the reformists to publicize their views. Their nominal leader, President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, who walked out in protest from the 16 March Expediency Council meeting, once again demonstrated his ineffectiveness, this time vis-a-vis Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani, Khatami's predecessor as president, appeared poised to become the main force in Iranian politics.

Beyond these symbolic power implications, the budget ruling is a more practical setback to Iranian democracy, providing funding that will better enable the Guardians to screen candidates for parliamentary elections that are scheduled to take place in less than a year. Just as when the Guardians barred the conservatives' rivals from the 1992 parliamentary elections, the 2004 elections are sure to see few winners from the reformist camp.

Unless, of course, the outcome of the current conflict in Iraq is a clear victory by the allies. A coalition triumph in overthrowing Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi people's welcoming of them as liberators, and a smooth transition to an orderly and democratic country would be an enormous setback to the conservatives and a tremendous boost to the dispirited reformists and democratic forces in Iran. That may very well happen, but the difficulties coalition forces have encountered in Iraq in recent days suggest that it will be some time before Iran's fate becomes clear. (Stephen C. Fairbanks)

ANTIWAR RALLIES IN IRAN. More than 700 people staged an antiwar rally in Ahvaz on 24 March, IRNA reported. The demonstrators chanted "Death to America," "Death to Britain, and "Death to Israel," and Ahvaz interim Friday-prayers leader Hojatoleslam Mohsen Heidari told them that Iranians have a religious duty to sympathize with the Iraqi people. Heidari offered his view on why the allies have attacked Iraq: "The U.S. is merely seeking to force the Islamic Iran to surrender and to dominate the Iraqi oil reserves, the Islamic ummah [community], and the Persian Gulf region through its war on Iraq." The local IRGC commander, Reza Mirzadeh, told the demonstrators that the U.S. flag has been burned in more than 160 countries, and this is a sign of the United States' pending collapse.

Hundreds of relatives of those killed or wounded in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War demonstrated in front of the United Nations office in Tehran on 26 March, according to IRNA. The demonstrators denounced the United States and United Kingdom and voiced their support for the Iraqi people, they criticized the UN for its silence on the conflict in Iraq, and they carried placards demanding the resignation of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Tehran may have hoped to harness such sentiments by staging an antiwar rally on 28 March. Iran's Council for Coordination of Islamic Propagation announced on 24 March that the 28 March Friday prayers would be followed by an antiwar demonstration that is meant to "condemn America and Britain's aggression and to express support for the Muslim nation of Iraq," Iranian state radio reported.

The IRGC in a 25 March statement condemned the U.S. effort to dominate the region and urged the Iranian public to participate in the upcoming rallies, IRNA reported. The statement warned of the possible damage that could be caused by the occupation of Iraq, and it urged Iranians and the global community to provide humanitarian aid.

The Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL) also issued a statement on 25 March in which it encouraged participation in the 28 March antiwar rallies, ISNA reported. The statement described the allied attack as an "oil war" that would "throw the region and the world into a quagmire of insecurity." The MODAFL statement called on the international community to seek peace by isolating the aggressors and endeavoring to end the war.

The Qom Theological Lecturers Association, which serves as a steering committee for curriculum and policies of the Qom Seminary, on 26 March issued a statement in which it urged people to participate in the antiwar rallies, ISNA reported. So did the Supreme Leader's Office, the Islamic Propagation Organization, the Islamic Culture and Communication Organization, and the Teachers Solidarity Union, IRNA reported on 26 March.

Against a background of people chanting "Death to America," a state radio correspondent said on 28 March that participants in the rally "called on international bodies and the world public opinion to end the slaughter of the innocent," and they came to "echo the innocent cry of the oppressed...echo the suffering of the oppressed Iraqi women and children." Earlier in the day, state radio described the demonstrations as a way for the Iranian people to "display their anger and disgust at the American and British warmongers." Demonstrators -- 1,000 (according to IRNA) or hundreds (according to Reuters) -- attacked the British Embassy and police shot in the air to disperse them.

Iranian state media have, over time, become more outspoken in their opposition to Operation Iraqi Freedom. A 27 March message about the demonstrations included the song: "There is a demon on the other side of the world, / Who is involved in deceit and mischief. / The demon is against peace, / While its heart is black, / Its House is White. / It is carrying the flag of peace, / But its plans are mischievous. / I remember when Iran was at war [with Iraq], / It was on the side of our enemy." (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN ARMS SHIPMENT SEIZED IN ITALY. The Finance Police in La Spezia, a port town in the Liguria region of northwestern Italy, recently seized a shipment of war materiel from Iran that allegedly was destined for Senegal, Rome's RAI Radio Uno network reported on 22 March. The police found three containers holding 42 tons of artillery ammunition. The documentation, which described the shipment as "mechanical components," was false, and the police are trying to determine the real destination of the ammunition. The investigation into the provenance and intended recipient of the military goods began immediately, Turin's "La Stampa" reported on 22 March, but investigators stressed that triangular trade is the norm in the trafficking of military goods. (Bill Samii)

DIFFERING VIEWS ON GOVERNMENT APPROACH TO UNEMPLOYMENT. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a 21 March Noruz speech in Mashhad that the government is making a serious effort to create jobs, state television reported. In the previous year, according to Khamenei, the number of jobs created surpassed the number of people entering the job market by 100,000. Khamenei emphasized the importance of this effort because unemployment leads to corruption, and he promised to follow up on officials' job-creation efforts. Minister of Economic Affairs and Finance Tahmasb Mazaheri said on 15 March that in the next five years 8.2 million-9 million people would need jobs, IRNA reported. The annual growth rate must be 8 percent to meet these demands, Mazaheri told a group of taxation officials.

Former presidential candidate Ahmad Tavakoli told a 4 March meeting at Hamedan University that the economic policies of President Mohammad Khatami's administration are "anti-employment," IRNA reported. Tavakoli accused the government of money laundering and providing smugglers with foreign currency in exchange for rials. Moreover, Tavakoli said, the public is traumatized by the contrast between its own living conditions and those of officials and clerics.

Nasrollah Daryabeigui, Executive Secretary of the Mazandaran Chamber of Labor, criticized the way banks provide financing for job-creation programs, Sari's "Juybar" weekly reported on 1 February. Daryabeigui said 3,000 people in the province had stopped working because of nonpayment, and he called on the provincial Management and Planning Organization to conduct its financing activities in a more systematic fashion. "Some units use the available finances and fire their current workforce only to replace them with contract labor," he said. (Bill Samii)

CITING ARGENTINA BOMBINGS, ISRAEL WANTS IRAN TO BE NEXT. "After the war in Iraq, Israel will try to convince the U.S. to direct its war on terror at Iran, Damascus and Beirut," according to an article in the 23 March issue of Israel's "Ha'aretz" daily. It went on to say that "senior defense-establishment officials" are already trying to win over the United States. If the United States goes after Iraq in the course of its war on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, "Ha'aretz" asks, why is Iran being ignored?

In relation to this argument, "Ha'aretz" had reported on 18 March that Israeli intelligence had secured most of the details about the July 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, including an account of the August 1993 Supreme National Security Council meeting at which Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, then-President Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, then-Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Ali Fallahian, and then-Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati decided on the attack. The bombing was carried out with help from Lebanese Hizballah official Imad Mughniyah, according to "Ha'aretz."

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom expressed the belief that Israeli information on the 1994 attack (and on a 1992 attack) coincides with a secret Argentinean report, the Telam news agency reported on 17 March.

Buenos Aires is still eager to preserve its relationship with Tehran, probably because of financial benefits it would otherwise lose. Argentine cabinet chief Alfredo Atanasof stated on 18 March that the Iranian government has said that it will shed light on questions relating to the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, Telam news agency reported, and the Iranian charge d'affaires will return to Argentina from Tehran in the coming days to review the arrest warrants for Iranian officials. On the same day, Argentine presidential spokesman Luis Verdi said that Buenos Aires has informed Tehran that the individual branches of government act independently, Telam reported. Verdi stated that the judge who issued the warrants is not accusing the Iranian government but rather Iranian citizens, and thus there should not be any tension in Iran-Argentina relations. (Bill Samii)

XS
SM
MD
LG