A Suspicious Tehran To Attend Iraqi Summit
By Vahid Sepehri
Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki (file photo)
MEXICO CITY, May 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iran says it will attend the regional Iraqi security conference to be held in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on May 3-4, but only to discuss Iraq-related affairs.
But it is the prospect of an unofficial meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki makes the meeting in Egypt much more interesting.
No Contact Please
Tehran's official line is that Iran is attending for Iraq's sake and has no interest in talking to the United States.
Iran does not wish to talk to the United States, officials say, but newspapers have given front-page coverage to Iran's decision to attend the conference and the fact that Mottaki and Rice will be at the same venue.
A deputy head of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Mohammad Nabi Rudaki, told ILNA on April 29 that parliamentarians prefer Iran to have no contacts with "America, which is a terrorist government that kidnaps diplomats and has forcibly occupied a country."
Another committee member, Suleiman Jafarzadeh, told ISNA the same day however that Iran would undermine its regional role if it did not attend. Committee chief Alaeddin Borujerdi told ISNA on April 29: "We are attending on Iraq's insistence and to defend ourselves."
The editor of the conservative daily "Kayhan," Hussein Shariatmadari, told ISNA on April 30 that Iran was previously reluctant to attend the meeting, suspicious of its goals and doubting that it would benefit the Iraqis.
Shariatmadari said the United States is trying to involve regional actors like Bahrain, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia in order to reduce the role of Iraqis in resolving their national crisis.
The Shi'a Connection
References by some Iranian politicians to the people of Iraq often carry an implicit assumption that all Iraqis are effectively equivalent to the Shi'a, who constitute the majority population. This majority would -- unless thwarted by the machinations of world powers and their regional allies like Jordan or the Gulf coast countries -- lead Iraq in a "natural" direction toward becoming an Islamic and Shi'a republic enjoying cordial relations with Iran.
This perspective may be one reason for persistent suspicions of an international conference on Iraq or what Iranian politicians intermittently describe as the "internationalization" of the Iraqi problem.
Iranian politicians keep saying: let the Iraqis decide their own fate -- which effectively means let Iraq go whither its majority (the Shi'a) should take it. Shariatmadari told ISNA that a multilateral conference on Iraq was intended to reduce the role of "centers...naturally involved in" Iraq's affairs, which may be a reference to Shi'a.
Like other politicians, Shariatmadari said Iran is attending in response to requests by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and to thwart the "negative effects of this conference as desired by America."
He added that Mottaki might meet with Rice and even discuss other matters on the sidelines of the conference, but this was more inevitable than being "significant" or desirable. "Basically Iran does not intend to negotiate with America" and is not "trying to prepare for it."
The Fars news agency cited Tehran-based observer Saadullah Zarei as saying on April 30 that the conference will seek to change the "balance of power in Iraq" and find an "Arab" solution to Iraq's problems, reducing the roles of non-Arab neighbors Iran and Turkey.
Iran should attend, he said, to help consolidate Iraq's government rather than serve the United States' "supraregional" plans. He claimed the United States has sought to increase the role of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt in Iraq, and "they are trying to weaken the power of the al-Maliki government, which enjoys the votes of the majority of" Iraqis. But he said "the people of Iraq" would block the plans of the United States and that triple alliance (Saudi Arabia/Jordan/Egypt), which he said had backed former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
On a more positive note, Tehran-based academic Mahmud Dehqan told ISNA on April 30 that the conference could positively influence Iran's nuclear dossier, while "our absence" would not interrupt "the game" of regional diplomacy but allow for its development "against us." He said the conference would allow Iran to discuss various issues, including Iraq, Lebanon, and the nuclear dossier with the United States, which he described as the main protagonist in those areas.
Iraqi Premier Nuri al-Maliki and Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in Tehran last year
A concern of Iranian officials is that Iran must win something for itself from such a meeting in exchange for the goodwill it shows in attending.
Politicians have intermittently claimed Iran was politically short-changed for the goodwill and cooperation -- or at least the benevolent neutrality -- they say it showed toward the United States during its attack on Afghanistan and invasion of Iraq after September 11, 2001.
Another part of Iran's reluctance to attend may be due to the uncertainty about the benefits it could win in exchange for helping stabilize Iraq, if indeed it can. There is only scant evidence of any Iranian influence with some insurgent and terrorist groups in Iraq.
The idea that Iran wields influence in Iraq, though, is in some way Iran's greatest bargaining chip. Some of its expectations might plausibly be cited as the release of Iranian officials captured in Irbil in January, less pressure on its controversial nuclear program and, more generally, to receive a message of assurance and acceptability by the United States and its Arab allies. It is not for nothing that Iraqi officials intermittently ask regional states not to mix their differences with Tehran with affairs in Iraq.
What's In It For Iran?
The comments of Iranian politicians display the recurrence of contradictory positions in official Iranian foreign policy.
Iran does not wish to talk to the United States, officials say, but newspapers have given front-page coverage to Iran's decision to attend the conference and the fact that Mottaki and Rice will be at the same venue.
Iran is attending the conference to help Iraq, and yet sees the meeting as a regional plot against Shi'a. Past allegations by some Iranian politicians that the United States and Great Britain have fuelled civil strife in Iraq to prolong their military presence seem to be speculation that borders on fantasy. But as al-Maliki reportedly told Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani in Baghdad on April 30, the chaos in Iraq could spin out of control into Iran. Who could say with any assurance -- if coalition forces left Iraq -- that even a majority Shi'a government backed by Iran could end the violence?
Could Iran's attendance at the conference be an honest expression of its concern -- as a neighbor and a rational international agent -- with Iraq's unending violence? Many commentators in Tehran have said the conference would achieve nothing without Iran. But perhaps behind the bold rhetoric of journalists and parliamentarians Iran, perturbed by the daily spectacle of bombs and collective death, is more amenable than it might appear to multilateral cooperation to stop that violence.
Iran: Dress-Code Crackdown Continues Despite Criticism
By Golnaz Esfandiari
Women gathered in Tehran in late April to protest disregard for the country's Islamic dress code
May 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- It has become routine in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Every year -- ahead of the hot summer months -- the authorities launch a crackdown on what they describe as "bad veiling." The term is used to describe women who appear in public with colorful scarves and tight coats, or who show their hair or use makeup.
Police accost and sometimes detain such "badly veiled" women on major squares or in shopping malls, warning or fining them -- or taking them to police stations, where they must pledge in writing not to appear immodestly dressed in public.
Yet this year's crackdown is described by observers as one of the harshest in recent memory.
Iranian authorities have vowed that this fresh crackdown on improper clothing is no temporary measure, and announced that "plainclothes police will go into action" from next week.
Police have issued dress-code warnings to more than 10,000 women in the past 10 days, and many others have been briefly detained by authorities.
Since it began in late April, hundreds of women -- and some men -- have been detained at least briefly over their allegedly "un-Islamic" appearance. Some have signed statements pledging not to violate the dress code, while others face court cases. Barbers have been warned not to give men Western hairstyles, and young men playing loud music in their cars have been also warned.
Shops selling some types of clothes have also received warnings, and several have reportedly been shut down.
The crackdown has angered some Iranians, who say they are fed up with state interference in their private lives.
There is fear, despite assurances that authorities will not use force against those who are deemed to be inappropriately dressed.
One video posted on an Iranian website
shows a woman screaming and protesting as police officers try to force her into their car. "Let me go!" she shouts in panic. "I don't want to go! What do you want to do with me? I don't want to go!"
The hejab, or head covering, and the Islamic dress code became compulsory in Iran following the 1979 revolution. Since then, authorities have used various methods to enforce dress laws, including extensive information campaigns.
But they have met with resistance -- particularly from young people. And some 25 years after the establishment of an Islamic republic, authorities still must force citizens to respect the dress code.
Saeed Paivandi, a Paris-based sociologist and expert on Iran, tells RFE/RL that he thinks the political and religious establishment has failed to get young people to follow and respect the version of Islamic culture that officials promote. He says that as a result, there is an ongoing clash between official state culture and the culture developed among young people.
"All of the young people who have grown up in Iran -- those who are under 35 year old -- they've been educated under an Iranian educational system that dictates and [promotes] Islamic cultures and values through pressure," Paivandi says. "All the main propaganda tools are also in the hands of the government, and yet each year we're facing the same issue."
There has been an easing of the strict dress code in recent years, and some women have pushed the limits with short or skimpy clothing or by showing much of their hair. Some boys have opted for unconventional hairstyles or Western clothes.
Authorities say the new campaign strengthens society's morality and security. They say a large portion of the population supports it.
Many conservatives have applauded the fresh crackdown and said the problem of inadequate dress should be confronted head on.
A woman being detained in Tehran last month (AFP)
Iran's largest reformist student group is among those who have warned that the measures could backfire. Some legislators have also complained about the move and called for cultural work.
Even the head of Iran's judiciary, Aytollah Hashemi Shahrudi, has warned against the tough measures and said that "hauling women and young people to the police station will [serve no purpose] except to cause damage to society."
Some observers argue that the fresh move contradicts pledges that Iran's president made ahead of his 2005 election. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad promised freedom and said -- among other things -- that hairstyles and clothing are not the root of society's problems.
Others say the crackdown is an attempt by the government to deflect public attention from important issues, such as economic hardships or Iran's growing international isolation over the nuclear issue.
Some contend that the new crackdown is aimed at pleasing senior clerics in Qom, many of whom have expressed their support. One senior cleric, Ayatollah Safi Golpayegani, recently compared "bad veiling" to a contagious disease and said it should be confronted in order to protect all of society.
Sociologist Paivandi predicted the new morality drive is doomed to failure.
"If such measures were truly going to succeed, then in the past 25 years they should have been able to resolve the issue through -- as they say -- 'soft measures' and cultural work or through the use of force," Paivandi says. "But none of those methods have been effective, and they have increased the distance between the two cultures and opinions. Since these [new] measures do not address the main difference, they will have no result."
Authorities appear to be turning a deaf ear to such predictions, however. They have said the current crackdown will continue and that "ethical security" will be enforced.
U.S. Seeking To Engage Iran, Syria On Iraq?
By Andrew Tully
Ambassador Ryan Crocker (file photo)
WASHINGTON, April 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- For months, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has resisted the idea of holding talks with Iran and Syria, which he accuses of mischief in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq.
But this week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, urged Iran and Syria to attend next week's talks on stabilizing Iraq. The meetings will be held on May 3 and 4 in the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Rice said in an interview published on April 22 in Britain's "Financial Times" newspaper that Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki would miss what she called an "opportunity" if he couldn't attend next week's meeting.
The next day, Crocker, speaking in Baghdad, echoed Rice, stressing the importance of getting all Iraq's neighbors to discuss how to stabilize the country.
"What happens in Iraq doesn't occur in a vacuum," he said. "There is a region; there are neighbors; there is an international community. And over the next couple of weeks, I think we all are going to be very busy looking at both the regional and the international aspects of Iraq's situation with the conferences that will convene in Sharm el-Sheikh at the beginning of May."
Iraq has invited its neighbors to the meetings, as well as the permanent members of the UN Security Council and the G-8 industrialized nations. Iran has yet to accept the invitation, leading both Rice and Crocker to urge it, as well as Syria, to attend.
Until now, Washington has said it has nothing more to say to Syria about how it believes Damascus should behave. And it says it won't talk to Iran until it suspends uranium enrichment.
Some observers view the statements by Rice and Crocker as a shift in U.S. policy, and perhaps an opportunity for U.S. diplomats to discreetly probe Iranian and Syrian counterparts about eventually holding direct talks.
Pro And Con
James Aborezk, who represented the U.S. state of South Dakota in the Senate from 1973 to 1979 and was the first American of Arab descent to serve in the U.S. Congress, has long been a critic of Bush's conduct of the war in Iraq.
Aborezk said he's surprised the administration is urging Iran and Syria to attend the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting, given that Bush has been, to use his word, "adamant" about not talking to representatives of the two countries.
"My guess is that Bush is desperate to get out of Iraq, saving his own ego, which is why he's staying in there so long anyhow," Aborezk said. "And he's looking for any way that anyone can help him get out."
Steven Welsh studies international security issues at the Center for Defense Information, a private policy research center in Washington. He says there are two important reasons that he doesn't believe there's been a shift in Washington's approach to Iran and Syria, particularly Iran.
"Over time, they've taken pains to distinguish between the Iraq issue and the issue of Iran developing nuclear weapons, for one thing," Welsh said. "The second point is [the meeting at Sharm el Sheikh is] a multilateral framework with Iran so that it doesn't simply get reduced to a U.S.-Iranian matter, but rather have the focus be squarely on building peace in Iraq and building Iraqi sovereignty and stable nationhood for Iraq."
Welsh says that if Iran were to be a subject, and not merely a participant, in the Sharm el-Sheikh talks, it should be scrutinized for any contributions it may have made to the sectarian violence in Iraq.
"Everyone thinks that engagement of all relevant parties is important, but I think that there's also the question of Iran being held to account to try to understand exactly what the Iranians are doing with respect to Iraq," Welsh said. "And I think it's important that that be a concern of the international community and not just a U.S.-versus-Iran matter."
Welsh recalls that in December, former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, one of the leaders of the Iraq Study Group of leading U.S. foreign policy advisers, urged the Bush administration to try to engage all of Iraq's neighbors, including Syria and Iran, in an effort to come up with a local solution to stabilizing Iraq.
And Welsh notes that Baker remarked there was a good chance that Iran or Syria might not joint the talks in good faith -- or might not join them at all. But at least, Baker said, the United States could say it tried to engage them.
Tehran To Resume Talks With EU In Turkey
Solana (left) and Larijani have met on several occasions (file photo)
April 25, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iran and the European Union are due today to resume talks on Iran's nuclear program when Javier Solana, the EU's foreign-policy chief, and Ali Larijani, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, meet in Turkey's capital, Ankara.
Larijani and Solana are expected to examine whether there is a possibility to reopen negotiations in the hope of finding a diplomatic solution to the standoff over Iran's controversial nuclear activities.
No Sign Of Compromise...
Ahead of the talks, Tehran has given no sign it is prepared to halt uranium-enrichment activities, as demanded by the European Union, the United States, and the UN Security Council.
The West is concerned that Iran could use its enrichment activities for military purposes. Iran says all of its nuclear activities are peaceful and that under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), it has the right to enrich uranium.
On April 23, hard-line Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad reiterated that Iran will continue its disputed nuclear activities. But he described the talks between Larijani and Solana as useful and said they could remove ambiguities.
"We think talks between Ali Larijani, the respectable secretary of Iran's Supreme National Council, and Mr. Solana, are very useful and will help to clear up issues and reach a legal and correct solution and also remove problems and help resume useful cooperation in different areas," he said.
Iran's defiance and its refusal to halt sensitive nuclear work leaves little hope that today's talks will lead to any breakthrough. On April 23, British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett played down expectations of progress in Ankara and, when asked whether she had seen any optimistic signs ahead of the talks, she replied "not really."
...Or A Glimmer Of Hope?
Yet some analysts, including Shahram Chubin, the director of studies at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, believe that Iran might show some flexibility.
Does Larijani have the backing of Supreme Leader Khamenei? (epa file photo)
"The United States wants to engage Iran, not just on the nuclear issue but also on regional issues like Iraq," Chubin said. "The Iranians, I think, after two Security Council resolutions and a lot of informal sanctions that are beginning to bite slowly on Iran, realize they've gotten into a process from which it may be very difficult to get out and therefore their premature announcement that they have industrial-scale-enrichment capability was intended to set down a marker to the West to say that 'look we have this capability and we want this minimum capability but we may be flexible about not going further.'"
On April 23, former senior Iranian diplomat Sadegh Kharrazi was quoted by the "Financial Times" as saying that Larijani was given "the authority for compromise" over Iran's nuclear program in talks with the EU in Turkey. Kharrazi, a former ambassador to Paris, reportedly signaled that Larijani has been given the backing of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the ultimate authority in Iran.
Today's talks will be the first face-to-face meeting between Larijani and Solana since a second set of United Nations sanctions were imposed on Iran last month.
The meeting also comes two days after EU foreign ministers passed a regulation implementing the UN sanctions, including a ban on Iranian arms exports and the freezing of the financial assets of 28 additional individuals and organizations.
Chubin told Radio Farda that the Europeans are hoping for a diplomatic solution instead of a military resolution and have been pursuing that track along with sanctions.
"They clearly are not too happy with this process where they might be losing control in a sense; that there'd be a two-month deadline and then another Security Council resolution," Chubin said. "Also they're not happy about tightening economic credits and eventually perhaps eliminating trade with Iran. They're not happy about that, countries such as Germany and others who have significant trade relations [with Iran]. So they would like to see this thing resolved and they're much more flexible as to how much enrichment to allow Iran with the exception of Britain, which is close to the United States."
On April 24, the U.S. State Department denied a report that the United States and other world powers are willing to consider a compromise centered on an Iranian proposal that would let Tehran continue some enrichment activities.
(Radio Farda broadcaster Fariba Mavadat contributed to this report.)
Iran: Crackdown Intensifies On Students, Activists, And Teachers
By Golnaz Esfandiari
A demonstration of teachers in front of Iran's parliament last month
April 24, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Iranian establishment has long been criticized by rights groups for being intolerant toward critics.
The country is often described as the biggest jail for journalists in the Middle East and harassment of activists is a routine part of the political scene.
Yet observers say that in recent weeks state pressure on women's rights activists, students, and teachers has reached new heights.
"The resistance that the current movements are facing is like when you cut off the top part of a tree. There is no doubt that it will result in many branches growing from it."
Ali Afshari is a political activist and former student leader currently residing in the United States.
"The government feels threatened and because of that it has intensified its crackdown," Afshari said. "[Authorities] think that in this way they can create calm and remove the threats. On the other hand, social groups have realized that by remaining calm they cannot reach their demands, therefore they have increased their protests."
Just in the past week, some 10 women's rights activists have been summoned to court. Four have been sentenced to prison -- including two today -- while others were charged with "gathering and colluding to disturb the national security" and "disturbing public order."
On April 2, the government detained five women involved in the campaign to gather one million signatures in an effort to change laws deemed discriminatory against women. And last month, police arrested over 30 women's rights activists who had gathered in front of a Tehran court to peacefully protest against the prosecution of five other activists.
Arresting Student Activists
State pressure on student activists has also increased. A number of them have been banned from university classes and many have been summoned to court and disciplinary committees over their political and press activities.
Last week, 15 students at Mazandaran University were detained following protests of the sentences handed out by disciplinary committees to student activists at the university. Most of them have since been released.
Dozens of teachers have also been detained in recent weeks in connection with several demonstrations over low wages and poor working conditions.
On April 7, more than 40 teachers were detained in the city of Hamedan. Most were released shortly afterwards. On April 16, Ali Akbar Baghani, the head of Iran's Teachers Association, was detained while teaching at a school in Tehran. The association has been active in organizing teacher protests.
The wave of arrests, court summonses, and intimidation of activists has caused concern in Iran and also internationally with rights groups calling on Tehran to respect the rights of peaceful demonstrators.
Amnesty International expressed concerned in an April 20 statement, stating that peaceful protesters have been increasingly targeted in Iran since Intelligence Minister Gholam Hussein Mohseni Ejeie publicly accused the women's movement and student campaigners of being part of an enemy conspiracy for a "soft subversion" of the government.
Iranian police (Fars file photo)
On April 23, Iran's largest reformist student group, Daftare Tahkim Vahdat, said Ejei's comments are a confirmation of the growing gap between the government and the Iranian people. The group condemned the increased pressure on activists as an attempt to eliminate all critical voices.
A leader of Daftare Tahkim Vahdat, Mohammad Hashemi, told Radio Farda that the crackdown on activists in connected with Iran's international problems.
"The establishment is doing its best to cover all its crises and problems it is facing on the international scene by cracking down on [critics] inside the country," Hashemi said.
Protesters Not Deterred
Afshari, who was jailed in Iran a number of times because of his political activities, believes the government's repressive measures are failing.
"You see women staging protests in front of the revolutionary court, despite the fact that they know they could be beaten up and dealt with [legally]; but they come to the scene, they know they will be summoned to the court but they don't pay attention to these problems," he said. "Students also know they have to pay a price [for their activism], but they continue their fight. This shows that the policies of cracking down on and creating problems [for protesters] have not been effective. They have had the opposite effect and led to the spreading of protests."
In Tehran, human rights lawyer Mohammad Ali Dadkhah tells RFE/RL that the tough measures used by the government will not succeed in silencing critics and activists.
Meanwhile, a protest at Shiraz University caused by the introduction of a new code of conduct has entered its third day today -- student activists there and at other universities show no signs that they will be dissuaded from protesting by state pressure. Likewise, women's rights advocates have also expressed a renewed determination to fight for their rights. And teachers demanding higher wages have also said they will continue their protest and strike in the coming weeks.