In the weeks since U.S. President George W. Bush called Tehran part of an "axis of evil," Iranian conservatives have sought to portray reformists as dupes for ever suggesting there might be grounds for dialogue between the two countries. But now, reformists are counter-attacking by calling for an investigation into allegations that hard-liners tried to smuggle arms to the Palestinians and shelter members of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network -- actions they say give Washington a pretext for carrying out policies hostile to Iran. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the latest battle between Iran's conservatives and reformists as both sides wage an ongoing war for public opinion.
Prague, 28 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bush's accusation that Iran forms part of an "axis of evil," along with Iraq and North Korea, has been roundly condemned by conservatives and reformists alike in Tehran.
Iran's supreme leader -- who has long been opposed to making any diplomatic openings to the United States -- has repeatedly criticized the "axis of evil" charge since it was made by Bush in his State of the Union address in late January. Speaking recently, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said "the rhetoric of the U.S. administration in fighting against terrorism...[is] only a cover for the hegemonistic plans of the United States to dominate the wealth and vital resources of other nations."
Many of Iran's reformists, who in the past have sometimes called for exploring a dialogue to ease U.S.-Iranian tensions, have been equally harsh in their assessment of Bush's phrasing. Earlier in February, parliamentarian Ahmad Burghani-Farahani, reading a statement from the legislature's pro-reform majority, said the U.S. president added "a new black page to the [American] book of errors and mistaken calculations about Iran."
But even as Iran's reformists and conservatives have spoken against Bush's statement with one voice, tensions between the two sides have also risen because of it. Hard-line newspapers have lambasted reformists for ever suggesting that relations with America could be better. And they have implied that such bad judgment means the reformists have no business questioning the decisions of Iran's conservative establishment.
The reformists have launched a counterattack. More than half the members of parliament recently raised the question of whether rogue hard-line elements in the government are engaged in operations that could provide a pretext for U.S. military actions against Iran.
Specifically, the parliamentarians called on the Iranian government to investigate allegations that Tehran was involved in recent efforts to smuggle a ship full of weapons to Palestinian fighters. Those charges were initially made by the U.S. and Israel after Israeli security forces intercepted the ship, the "Karine-A," on the Red Sea on 3 January. Tehran has officially denied any link to the arms shipment, which Israel says was intended for the Palestinian Authority.
At the same time, the Iranian parliamentarians called on the government to look into allegations that some Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters fleeing Afghanistan entered Iran seeking refuge. Those charges were made by Washington in January and immediately rejected by Tehran.
Later, however, the Iranian state news agency IRNA quoted anonymous Iranian officials as saying 150 people with suspected links to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban were arrested at Iran's border. That report was subsequently denied by the Iranian Foreign Ministry, adding to the air of mystery surrounding the affair.
Mohammad Kianoush-Rad, a reformist member of parliament, recently spoke to RFE/RL's Persian Service about the motives behind the legislature's call for a government investigation. He told RFE/RL the legislators want to ensure that Iran's national security is not endangered by any elements within the government that may be acting outside of the country's official foreign policy.
"The foreign policy of Iran should go through official channels. Otherwise, it will be misconstrued. For instance, they [U.S. officials] have accused Iran of smuggling arms on a ship. No authority was aware of this in Iran," Kianoush-Rad said.
The parliamentarian says that, so far, there is no evidence to support U.S. charges that rogue elements inside Iran were at work. But Kianoush-Rad said an investigation is needed to ensure that Iran's official foreign policy is being observed.
"In all countries, there are rogue elements who do things despite the foreign policy of that country," he said.
Whether the Iranian government will now react to the parliamentarians' call is an open question. The branches concerned with defense and security, as well as the judiciary, are dominated by conservatives. Hard-line courts in Iran have called in some 60 reformist legislators over the past two years on charges of criticizing conservative officials. Last month, the first legislator to be jailed in nearly 100 years was released only after the parliamentary speaker said he would not chair the assembly until the MP was freed.
The reformists' call for an investigation is only the latest demand in their continuing push for greater transparency in the Iranian political system and for greater rule of law. Reformists won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections two years ago, and Iranian President Mohammad Khatami was overwhelmingly re-elected in June by campaigning for a more open society with greater social and political freedoms.
However, there are no indications that conservatives are in any mood to give in to the reformists' pressure. An article this week in the conservative daily "Kayhan" lashed out at the members of parliament who signed the investigation request. The newspaper accused the parliamentarians of issuing a pro-American statement and betraying the confidence of those who voted for them.
RFE/RL's Azam Gorgin contributed to this report.