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Iran: Reaction To Iraq Bombing -- Restraint Mixed With Stridency

Prague, 22 December 1998 (RFE/RL) - The Iranian response to the recent U.S. and British air strikes against Iraq was initially restrained. The reaction later grew in stridency. But even then, criticism of the strikes was to some degree balanced by criticism of the Iraqi leadership.

Early on, even the landing of an errant cruise missile in the southwestern Iranian city of Khorramshahr sparked a fairly mild response. The Iranian Foreign Ministry did little more than summon the Ambassador of Switzerland, which represents U.S. interests, and the Charge d'Affaires of the British Embassy to convey its "strong protest."

Due to the 1980-88 war begun by Baghdad, Iran has little sympathy for the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. Understanding the reactions of the Iranian government and press to the recent air strikes, however, requires the weighing of several other factors.

One of the main ones is unhappiness about the U.S. presence in the region, which conflicts with Iran's quest to be a regional leader.

Also, Iran resents what it sees as a double-standard on the Weapons of Mass Destruction issue. While Iraq must submit to UNSCOM inspections and Iranian efforts in the nuclear and missile technology fields are criticized, Israel is perceived as having U.S. permission to develop its nuclear capability.

Other factors affecting Tehran's response to the air strikes include concern for Iraqi Shia; the lucrative oil smuggling trade which bypasses UN sanctions; and expanding trade relations between Iran and Iraq.

Last Thursday (Dec. 17), in the early stages of the air strikes, President Mohammad Khatami chaired an emergency session of the Supreme National Security Council. The result was a condemnation of "U.S. aggression" and a request that the UN Security Council stop the attacks "against a member state of the UN and the 55-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference."

On the same day, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi called for an immediate stop to the strikes. He said, quoting: "It is quite unacceptable for us that certain states launch willful military attacks on a country."

As the air strikes continued, however, the tone became more strident. Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai said that if Iran was hit intentionally by U.S. missiles, America's navy would not leave the Persian Gulf whole. He said the U.S. and British strikes were of "Zionist origin."

Iranian state radio said, quoting, "America's haste to resort to force against Iraq is because the White House feels it has suffered setbacks and defeats in its bid to consolidate its international status." But the radio report simultaneously condemned Iraq's leadership for failing to fulfill its UN obligations on weapons inspections.

The same two themes were used by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the sermon dictated by his office for the Friday Prayers. The Tehran sermon was given by Guardian Council spokesman Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani, who said "America and Britain did this rebelliously and arrogantly, without the understanding and endorsement of the Security Council.... The attack by America and Britain and the crimes they are committing now are not endorsed and are condemned. May God rid the Islamic ummah (community) of the evil of these arrogant tyrants...." But the sermon also condemned the Iraqi government for its failure to cooperate with the UN.

Most sectors of the Iranian press condemned the attacks on Iraq, although "Afarinesh" seemed more concerned about the impact on oil prices.

The "Keyhan" newspaper, which is supervised by the Supreme Leader's Office, condemned the attacks, saying they came outside the UN framework. It called for the Organization of the Islamic Conference to confront the West.

"Resalat" newspaper, which is linked to conservative (bazaari) elements, suggested the attacks were aimed at the Islamic world.

The "Jomhuri-yi Islami" newspaper, which reflects the more radical segment of the Islamic Republic, said the attacks were "illegal" because they were undertaken without UN permission, and the real reason for them was "to cover up the moral disgrace of the American president."

"Abrar," which generally holds radical foreign policy views, voiced similar sentiments.

The government-affiliated, English-language "Tehran Times" said the attack was inspired by the Zionists and the arms business at the expense of the Arab nations.

(William Samii is with RFE/RL's Communications Division.)