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Iran Report: March 29, 2006

29 March 2006, Volume 9, Number 11

'YEAR OF THE PROPHET' BEGINS IN IRAN. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced on March 20 in Tehran, as his compatriots celebrated the Iranian new year, that the coming year will be called the "Year of [the] Prophet Muhammad," the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. Khamenei said the Islamic community and the Iranian nation need the Prophet's guidance now more than ever. Among the Prophet's lessons, he said, are ethics, dignity, and resistance. Reviewing the past year, Khamenei hailed the presidential election. He also referred to the forthcoming Arba'in commemoration, which marks the 40th day after the martyrdom of Imam Hussein.

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said in his new year's message on March 20 that the Iranian nation will stand firm in pursuit of its nuclear rights, IRNA reported. This self-developed knowledge cannot be taken away, he said, and it is needed for electrical-power generation and other purposes. Ahmadinejad complained that Iran's enemies are engaged in a psychological war against it. Ahmadinejad said Iran should be compensated for the damage caused by 2 1/2 years of suspended nuclear activities. Ahmadinejad said his administration is committed to serving the people, and he urged the public to monitor the performance of the government. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN, SYRIAN OFFICIALS DISCUSS IRAQ. Iranian Minister of Intelligence and Security Gholam Hussein Mohseni-Ejei discussed regional developments during a March 20 meeting with Syrian Vice President Faruq Shara in Damascus, SANA reported. Iraq reportedly was a focus of the talks, and the officials also stressed the importance of continuing contacts. Also in attendance was Iran's ambassador to Damascus, Hassan Akhtari. (Bill Samii)

IRAN-U.S. TALKS TO FOCUS ON IRAQ... Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani told reporters in Tehran on March 16 that Iran is willing to hold talks with the U.S. on Iraq, and this development has caused great controversy in Iran. Top state officials have been at pains to assuage concerns of hardline opponents to such talks.

The Iranian government's desire to forestall such controversy was demonstrated by the fact that Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki gave the presermon speech at the March 17 Tehran Friday prayers. Mottaki stressed that Iran is calling for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq, state radio reported, because their presence is being exploited by combatants in the country. Mottaki went on to say that Iran will have a dynamic foreign policy in the coming year, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's guidance calls for mass participation in Iran's international relations. Mottaki emphasized the need for unity. "We must speak with one voice and remain united at this juncture," he said. "Our officials, scholars, scientists, academics, students, political parties, and people, more than anytime before, must remain united on the nuclear policy which has been carefully thought through."

In a speech in Mashhad on March 21, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated that he does not object to bilateral talks between Iran and the United States, Radio Farda and Iranian state television reported. He said the U.S. repeatedly requested such talks, but "Our officials just ignored them in the beginning." Khamenei said his subordinates will offer the Iranian view on Iraq to the Americans. That view, he said, is "aimed at making Americans understand that they should leave Iraq alone and let Iraqis run their own country. They should stop provoking various sects, so Iraq could experience security."

Khamenei went on to level accusations against the U.S. and other countries, saying, "There is overwhelming evidence implicating espionage organizations in instabilities in Iraq - British, American or Israeli espionage operations." He accused the U.S. of saying that Iran wants to discuss topics other than Iraq, but this is "inaccurate" and the Americans are "deceptive." Khamenei repeated that Iran does not object to holding talks, but "we do not support the talks if they provide a venue for the bullying, aggressive and deceptive side to impose its own views."

Also in his speech Khamenei said Iran's enemies are trying to hinder the country's progress, state television reported. "America is at the forefront of these attempts," he said. What does the U.S. want, he asked rhetorically? "They demand that the Iranian nation should return to them what the revolution took away."

Washington seems to be similarly eager to confine the talks to just one subject. President George W. Bush at a March 21 news conference at the White House described the circumstances under which direct U.S.-Iran contacts will occur, Radio Farda reported. "I gave [Zalmay Khalilzad], our ambassador in Iraq, permission to explain to the Iranians what we didn't like about their involvement in Iraq," Bush said. "I thought it was important for them to hear firsthand, other than through press accounts. He asked whether or not it made sense for him to be able to talk to a [Iranian] representative in Baghdad. I said: 'Absolutely. You make it clear to them that attempts to spread sectarian violence or to maybe move parts that could be used for [improvised explosive devices] is unacceptable to the United States.'" (Bill Samii)

...NOT AL-QAEDA... Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabr said on March 21 that Al-Qaeda will be the subject of the pending Iran-U.S. talks, KUNA news agency reported. Jabr said he was involved in organizing these talks, and added that the son of Osama bin Laden and 25 Al-Qaeda commanders are imprisoned in Iran. Some U.S. intelligence officials believe Tehran is hosting senior Al-Qaeda personnel and allowing them to communicate and plan operations, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on March 21 (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," March 14, 2006). These officials fear that President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is either creating an alliance with the Al-Qaeda members or at least turning a blind eye to their activities. Other intelligence officers and analysts cited by the "Los Angeles Times" doubt this and cite Shi'ite-Sunni tensions as a reason for Tehran to restrict Al-Qaeda activities.

But this is all guesswork, because, an unidentified "U.S. counterterrorism official" admitted: "We don't have any intelligence going on in Iran. No people on the ground." He continued, "It blows me away the lack of intelligence that's out there."

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on March 22 that allegations of the presence in Iran of Al Qaeda personnel are "unfounded and false," IRNA reported. Assefi added, "Dissemination of such reports aims to cover up failure of the occupying forces in guaranteeing security of Iraq." Assefi said Iran has followed through on all its international counter-terrorism commitments. (Bill Samii)

...OR NUKES. The Iranians hope to address the nuclear issue in the meeting with U.S. Ambassador Khalilzad, according to Eurasia View on March 20, but U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said the United States will not negotiate directly with Iran on this topic, "The Washington Post" reported on March 21. National security adviser Stephen Hadley said Tehran might be using the talks as a distraction from the nuclear controversy and to drive a wedge between the United States and other countries, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on March 18.

At his March 21 White House news conference, President Bush also expressed concern about the possibility of Iran having a nuclear weapon, Radio Farda reported. "If the Iranians were to have a nuclear weapon, they could blackmail the world," he said. "If the Iranians were to have a nuclear weapon, they could proliferate. This is a country that is walking away from international accords." Unnamed Western diplomats said the same day that Iran is about to run a 164-centrifuge cascade of machines that enrich uranium, AFP reported. This development could have an impact on the UN Security Council meeting scheduled for March 27.

Great Britain is suggesting that Iran be offered more incentives to abandon its nuclear pursuits, the international edition of "The Wall Street Journal" reported on March 21, because two permanent members of the Security Council -- Russia and China -- will reject the imposition of sanctions against Iran. The British proposal adds that Moscow and Beijing would accept "more serious measures" against Iran if it rejects the incentives. U.S. Undersecretary of State Burns said Washington is not interested in offering incentives to Iran or reducing pressure, "The Wall Street Journal" reported. He said Washington is working toward a statement and, if necessary, a resolution demanding greater Iranian cooperation with international inspectors and an end to enrichment. "The Washington Post" reported on March 21 that the five permanent members of the Security Council have failed to agree on how to deal with the Iranian nuclear crisis.

Foreign ministers from the U.S., U.K, and France have turned to telephone diplomacy with counterparts from Russia and China in an effort to overcome the impasse in the Security Council, Reuters reported on March 23. U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said, "We're waiting for the outcome of the conversations at higher pay grades." White House spokesman Scott McClellan described this as "diplomacy at work" rather than a deadlock.

There is no consensus on imposing sanctions, Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said on March 23, Al Alam television reported. He said the Iranian nuclear issue should not be politicized when the UN Security Council discusses it, nor should the council serve as a court in which Iran is tried. Mottaki dismissed the possibility of Iran resuming its suspension of uranium enrichment activities. Referring to the stances of Russia and China, which have opposed a critical British and French statement on the Iranian program, Mottaki said, "Some countries have suggested that the opportunity should be given to talks on the Iranian nuclear issue, and there is a possibility that the talks will continue until a comprehensive agreement is reached." (Bill Samii)

MIXED REACTIONS IN IRAQ TO POSSIBLE IRAN-U.S. TALKS. Several Iraqi politicians have expressed concern over proposed talks between the United States and Iran on the issue of Iraq's security. Some detractors have speculated that the issue of Iranian involvement in Iraq might become intertwined with the U.S.-Iran nuclear dispute, opening up the potential for Iraq to be sacrificed in any forthcoming agreement between the two.

Shi'ite leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, who proposed the talks last week, said they would aim to dispel mounting accusations of Iranian interference in Iraq. Some Iraqi lawmakers say that the call for talks amounts to an admission by al-Hakim of the Iranian presence in the country.

Not surprisingly, Sunni Arab leaders have been the most vehemently opposed to the proposal. Saddam Hussein's Sunni Arab-dominated administration fought a bitter eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s. During this time and after, Hussein cultivated a fear among Sunni Arabs that Iran would undertake any means to bring down his regime and establish an Iranian-style government in Iraq -- all with the support of Iraq's Shi'a.

"This [call by al-Hakim] is a clear signal of the Iranian presence in Iraq.... When this initiative came, it was only to uncover this situation rather than to introduce a new one. It is an explicit demonstration of what is really happening," Sunni Arab parliamentarian Husayn al-Falluji said in a March 20 interview with RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI).

The influential Muslim Scholars Association, which remains outside the government, called on "neighboring states" to stop harming Iraq in a March 18 statement posted to its website. "The Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs is not new and its harm has reached its peak. What is new, however, is [attempts by some Iraqis] to legitimize this interference and grant [Iran] an international cover based on a full disregard of Iraq's sovereignty and will," said the association, referring to al-Hakim.

In some cases, objection to the proposed talks is based on the supposition that the talks would be held without the presence of Iraqi political forces, and more specifically Sunni Arabs.

The Iraqi Accordance Front, the most powerful Sunni Arab grouping in parliament, has also condemned the proposed talks, saying they amount to a flagrant interference in Iraq's internal affairs. Front member Nasir al-Ani told "The New York Times" that it is the Iraqi government's responsibility to hold talks with Iran. "It's not up to the American ambassador to talk to Iran about Iraq," said al-Ani, the newspaper's website reported on March 18.

Former Sunni parliamentarian Mish'an al-Juburi, who is currently wanted in Baghdad on charges of corruption, told RFE/RL that allowing any of Iraq's neighbors to become involved in Iraqi affairs would be a dangerous development. "If we allow a country like Iran to interfere in Iraqi affairs and take it as a discussion partner on the future situation of Iraq, it can mean that all other neighboring countries -- Kuwait, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia -- may be party to these type of discussions" in the future, he said.

Calling Iran's interference in Iraq "expansionism," al-Juburi added, "We need to stop the Iranian role by supporting and boosting Shi'ite patriots who do not accept Iranian influence in Iraq." Al-Juburi blamed outgoing Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari for the growing Iranian influence in Iraq, saying al-Ja'fari "has surrendered Iraq to Iran. This man is the origin of the mistake. He proved unable to do anything to prohibit Iran, its intelligence and institutions, from taking hold on the whole of Iraq's executive bodies: economic, intelligence, and security" organs, al-Juburi said.

For some Kurds, the issue of Iran-U.S. talks is of special concern. Kurds claim they were betrayed by Iran and the United States after Iran concluded the 1975 Algiers Accord with Saddam Hussein. The accord, demarcating the Iran-Iraq border, led the Shah of Iran to withdraw his support for Iraq's Kurds. The United States followed suit, leaving the Kurds to fend for themselves against Hussein.

Nevertheless, Iran's borders were open to fleeing Iraqi Kurds -- and Shi'a -- during crucial periods in the 1980s and 1990s and many would argue that countless Iraqi lives were saved as a result.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, for one, has backed the talks. "I am one of those who support this and worked for this purpose. When I visited Tehran, I met with Iranian officials and raised this issue with them, since I believe that the Iraqi problem has become an international problem.... If this action serves Iraq and its sovereignty and independence -- provided there is no interference in its domestic affairs -- and if it serves security and stability, prevents infiltrations, and ends terrorism...then this is welcome," Talabani said at a March 19 press briefing in Baghdad.

Meanwhile, Fu'ad Husayn, spokesman for Kurdistan Regional President Mas'ud Barzani, told RFI in a March 20 interview that he believes the Kurdistan Coalition has no official position on the talks. "We must be realistic, as the borders of Iraq are open and every [neighboring] country has some influence in this country. It may be better, and maybe in the Iraqi interest, that these countries arrive at concluding agreements amongst themselves," Husayn said. "If the agreements are in the interest of Iraq, then why not?" He did caution, however, that the talks should not be held at the expense of the Kurdish issue.

Independent Kurdish politician Mahmud Uthman said that Iraq must be represented at any talks. "The dialogue between Iran and the United States alone will be at the expense of Iraq's interests," Uthman told London-based "Al-Hayat," the daily reported on March 18.

Shi'ite leaders currently at odds with al-Hakim's Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) over other issues related to the formation of the incoming government, such as cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's bloc in parliament and al-Ja'fari's Islamic Al-Da'wah Party, are vehemently opposed to the proposal.

Al-Sadr supporters in parliament -- like their Sunni Arab counterparts -- have claimed the very proposal itself amounts to tacit recognition of Iran's interference in Iraqi affairs.

Nadim al-Jabiri's Islamic Virtue Party, which is part of the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) along with SCIRI and the Islamic Al-Da'wah Party, is also opposed to the talks, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on March 18.

SCIRI member Rida al-Taqiy defended the proposal, however, telling "Al-Hayat" that the talks were necessary because they are obstructing talks over the formation of the next cabinet. "The U.S. Ambassador [Zalmay Khalilzad] has frequently accused the [UIA] of establishing relations with Iran in order to remain in power and control [Iraq's] resources and security. These accusations have a negative effect on the formation of the government because the [UIA] won a majority in parliament, which cannot be ignored in the government formation."

Former Shi'ite parliamentarian Ali al-Dabbagh told Paris-based "Le Monde" that while al-Ja'fari is very much aware of Iranian infiltration in the Interior Ministry, he is reluctant to do anything about it, the daily reported on March 17. Al-Dabbagh withdrew from the UIA in October to protest the alliance's monopolization of power in the transitional government.

If al-Ja'fari is indeed hesitating to publicly confront Iran's growing role in Iraq, it may be because of his diminishing influence in the government and the fact that any infiltration -- though it may have occurred without his knowledge -- came under his administration. Al-Ja'fari has also clashed with SCIRI after al-Ja'fari beat out SCIRI's nominee to the premiership, Adil Abd al-Mahdi, by one vote in February.

Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi told Reuters in a March 21 interview that he supports the talks, but only if Iraqi officials, and regional Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, were represented at the talks. "It would be inappropriate for two countries to discuss the affairs of the people of a third country," Allawi said. "The Iraqi political blocs, as well as the region, should be a major part of these discussions." (Kathleen Ridolfo)

GANJI RELEASED FROM JAIL. Akbar Ganji, an Iranian journalist who was imprisoned in 2000 after writing about the connection between top state officials and the murders of dissidents, was released on prison leave on March 17 and has gone home, Radio Farda reported. He was given leave for the Iranian new-year holiday, which lasts until April 3, and his sentence ends on March 30, so he is not expected to return to jail. In an interview with Radio Farda, Ganji's wife, Masumeh Shafii, said her husband's homecoming was unexpected because prison officials had added time to his sentence for unauthorized absences. Ganji went on a lengthy hunger strike, and Shafii said her spouse has lost a lot of weight and he now weighs only 49 kilograms. (Bill Samii)

NO LEAVE FOR POLITICAL PRISONERS IN IRAN. The Students Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners has requested the release of all such detainees in Iran as the country celebrates the new year, Radio Farda reported on March 20. Group spokesman Hassan Zarehzadeh Ardeshir told Radio Farda that many of the prisoners' families have gone to the places of detention to collect their relatives for the traditional New Year's leave, but have not yet been able to do so. A number of political prisoners at Evin prison have warned that if they are not granted their New Year's leave they will begin a hunger strike. Leave for some 20 Evin prisoners has been approved by the prison authorities, Radio Farda reported, but the Tehran prosecutor and other officials blocked it. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN GOVERNMENT ALLEGEDLY COLLECTS DATA ON BAHA'IS. Asma Jahangir, the UN's Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion, has expressed serious concern about allegations that the Iranian government will secretly monitor members of the Baha'i faith, Radio Farda reported on 23 March. Diane Alai, the United Nations representative of the Baha'i International Community, told Radio Farda that a letter dated October 29 instructs the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the police, and all security forces to collect the names of all Baha'is. The letter is from the commander of the armed forces, she said, but she suggested that it is not coincidental that anti-Baha'i articles have appeared in the hardline "Kayhan" newspaper lately. The information that has appeared in "Kayhan" is inaccurate, she continued, but the Baha'i have not been given the right to respond. Baha'i have no rights in Iran, Alai said, and are denied university access. They are arrested and released only after paying very large fines or posting high bails, she said, and retirees do not receive their pensions. (Bill Samii)

SUSPECTS ARRESTED IN IRANIAN ASSASSINATION PLOT. Iran's Arabic-language Al-Alam satellite television reported on March 20 that Iranian security personnel have arrested an unspecified number of people suspected of planning assassinations in the southwestern city of Ahvaz. The suspects reportedly were carrying "advanced weapons equipped with silencers and laser equipment normally used in assassinations, some of which are made in Britain." Unrest in southwestern Iran has been continuing for about a year, and Iranian officials have repeatedly claimed that Great Britain is involved with such incidents.

Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Musavi-Jazayeri, the Friday-prayer leader in Ahvaz, said in his March 17 sermon that the United States is behind efforts to cause ethnic unrest and political divisions in Iran, Khuzestan Province television reported on March 18. "Admitting that it has failed in confronting the Islamic system, the arrogance, including America, has begun a policy of creating division among the political elite and inciting ethnic groups." These U.S. efforts, he continued, will fail because "all ethnic groups in Iran enjoy equality and fraternity and there is no division among them." Referring to the U.S. allocation of funding for democracy promotion in Iran, he said, "The policies of America, which are designed by the Zionists, have always failed, because of our nation's iron will." (Bill Samii)

BALUCHIS CLAIM RESPONSIBILITY FOR SOUTHEASTERN SHOOT-OUT. More than 20 people were killed and another seven were injured when a motorcade traveling between the Sistan va Baluchistan Province cities of Zahedan and Zabol was ambushed late on March 16, Iranian news agencies reported on March 17. Another 12 people are missing.

Zahedan parliamentary representative Peyman Foruzesh said the attackers were Afghan "bandits," and he added that they were trained by U.S. and other foreign forces, Mehr News Agency reported.

National police chief Brigadier General Ismail Ahmadi-Moqaddam connected the attackers with the United States and Britain and said they are trying to cause Shi'ite-Sunni strife, state television reported. "The armed bandits filmed the scene of the killings...using a full video camera kit and this film will probably be broadcast by the foreign media in the next few days," Fars News Agency quoted Ahmadi-Moqaddam as saying the next day. He added that the attackers stopped the motorcade and separated the ethnic Baluchis from the ethnic "Fars" (Persians) before killing the Persians.

Deputy Interior Minister Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr said the attackers have escaped to Pakistan and Afghanistan, IRNA reported on March 18.

Interior Minister Mustafa Pur-Mohammadi said on March 18 that the people behind this attack are also behind unrest in southwestern Khuzestan Province, Mehr reported.

Iranian government spokesman Gholam Hussein Elham said on March 18 that such incidents "have always been sponsored by foreigners," IRNA reported.

Jundullah, an Iranian Baluchi group that held a number of Iranian security personnel hostage earlier this year, released on March 21 a video in which it claimed responsibility for the ambush, Al-Jazeera satellite television reported. Jundullah said it is holding seven people, whom it accuses of serving in the Iranian military and intelligence forces and with the country's Red Crescent Society. The captors are demanding the release of five of their comrades.

Police chief Ahmadi-Moqaddam said on March 22 that the individuals responsible for ambushing the motorcade have been identified, Fars News Agency reported. Ahmadi-Moqaddam said the attackers are hiding out in an area between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and information on the attackers has been conveyed to Kabul and Islamabad through Interpol. However, there is little central government control in the region, and the two governments have informed Tehran that they cannot apprehend the suspects. (Bill Samii)

IRAN PROTESTS AZERBAIJANI ACTIVIST'S STATEMENT. Iranian Ambassador to Azerbaijan Afshar Suleimani handed a protest note on March 17 to the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry in connection with a statement made the previous day at the Second World Congress of Azerbaijanis in Baku by the chairman of that body, Djavad Derekhti, and RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reported. Derekhti condemned Iran's policy toward its sizeable Azeri minority and said the Azerbaijan Republic and so-called Southern Azerbaijan, meaning predominantly Azeri-populated regions of Iran, constitute a single country with a population of 50 million. Suleimani said it was inappropriate to make such a statement at a gathering attended by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. The protest note further made the point that Derekhti's statement violated Azerbaijan's obligations stemming from the bilateral Treaty on Friendly Relations and Cooperation signed in May 2002. On March 18, the conservative wing of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party convened a demonstration outside the Iranian Embassy in Baku to demand that Suleimani be declared persona non grata and that Iran provide its Azerbaijani minority with education at all levels in the Azeri language, reported. (Liz Fuller)

REINTERPRETING ASHURA. The West may not have noticed -- and nor, perhaps, may many Muslims -- but a range of Islamic thinkers are currently trying to raise awareness and understanding of the Islamic tradition of pacifism, tolerance, and rationality. Among them is Emad Baghi, an Iranian scholar of Islam, previously himself imprisoned for his writings about the killing of critics of the regime in the 1990s and now the head of the Tehran-based Organization for the Defense of Prisoners' Rights. Fatemeh Aman of RFE/RL's Radio Farda spoke with him about some of the roots of militant Islam, but particularly about his new and provocative interpretation of Ashura, one of the key moments in the history of Islam and a date of particular significance to Shi'ites. Here, he suggests that the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad and one of Islam's first leaders, should be seen as a symbol of pacifism and rationality rather than as a symbol of tragedy, resistance, and revolution.

RFE/RL: In recent years, tensions between the Islamic world and Western civilization have been rising. Many analysts reluctantly admit that the prediction by the U.S. academic Samuel Huntington of a pending clash of civilizations may be on the verge of coming true. How did we get here, and who is to blame? Other aspects of Ashura were forgotten and a violent and revolutionary picture of Islam was painted, a revolutionary Islam that advocates martyrdom as offering the key to heaven.

Baghi: Toward the end of the 20th century philosophers and social scientists suggested that, with the advent of the third millennium, the whole world would be moving toward greater harmony and mutual understanding. Concepts such as the global village raised an expectation that peace and tolerance would prevail. But the events of September 11 altered this trend. The terrorist attacks of September 11 were not only a human tragedy, but also a catastrophe that deflected the course of history in the third millennium. After September 11, Bin Laden-ism and Talibanism became the dominant face of Islam. As a result, anti-Islamic sentiment rose in the West. The Western public was told that the West was now in a war against Islam. The term "crusade" was commonly used in the media and even by George Bush, although he later distanced himself from that statement.

But the truth is that Bin Laden-ism and Talibanism, long before declaring war to the Western civilization, had started a massive offensive against a large portion of Muslims, modern Muslims, those who want to show the peaceful nature of Islam. Examples are the conflicts between different Islamic groups in Afghanistan and the Taliban's cruel violence against Iranians and other Muslim nationalities. The horrible crime that these people committed on September 11 completely eclipsed the peaceful face of Islam.

RFE/RL: But don't we also see elements of violence in the Shi'ite interpretation of Islam?

Baghi: Well, there has been a long tradition of a revolutionary and militant interpretation of the Shi'ism, although this interpretation has always been very different from Bin Laden-ism. The concept of Alavi Shi'ism or "red Shi'ism" [a concept propounded by the Iranian intellectual Ali Shariati that contrasts Alavite Shi'ism or Red Shi'ism -- the religion of martyrdom -- with Safavid Shi�ism or Black Shi'ism, the religion of mourning] was in fact a response to totalitarian regimes and was primarily represented by freedom fighters. Religious intellectuals wanted to use this instrument to mobilize the masses against tyranny. They therefore exaggerated the militant and revolutionary aspect of the Ashura, the movement of Imam Hussein [the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and the third of the Muslim leaders -- imams -- who, as descendents of the Prophet, are the key interpreters of God's will]. Other aspects of Ashura were forgotten and a violent and revolutionary picture of Islam was painted, a revolutionary Islam that advocates martyrdom as offering the key to heaven. Martyrdom and jihad [the concept of holy war] became limited to violent struggle against one's enemies. This picture was in sharp contrast with the spirit of religion. The spirit of all religions is the protection of human dignity. All prophets came to undo injustice against humans. All Islamic texts start with the phrase "in the name of God, the merciful." In Islamic teaching, jihad is not limited to fighting the enemy with violent means. According to Islam, even if you are struggling to put food on your family's table, or if you are writing to spread knowledge and awareness, you are engaged in the jihad.

I think the growing anti-Islamic sentiment is rooted primarily in the reaction to this violent picture depicted by Islam. Even the recent caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that led to a major crisis were not, in essence, an insult to the real prophet, but rather to the Muhammad that Bin Laden-ism had pictured for us. This was aimed at a fake Muhammad forged by violent and extremist groups, and not the prophet known for centuries by Muslims as the symbol of peace and compassion.

RFE/RL: You mentioned that the militant interpretation of Ashura, Imam Hussein's uprising [in 680 AD, which ended with his death in battle with the ruling caliph at Al-Karbala], was an exaggeration by Islamic intellectuals. You recently made a speech entitled "Imam Hussein's Peace", a term normally applied to Imam Hassan [the second imam and the brother of Imam Hussein], who made peace with his rivals. This is a very new and provocative concept. Could you elaborate on that?

Baghi: There has been two approaches to Ashura, an emotional approach and a political one. In the emotional approach, which dominated for centuries, the tragic element of Ashura became prominent. Ashura was simplified as a tragedy. In the political approach, Imam Hussein became the symbol of resistance and revolution. In the emotional approach, Ashura is about tears and sympathy; in the political approach it is about the struggle for freedom. The emotional approach to Ashura and to Islam as a whole is misinterpreted. This gave rise to rituals in which people beat themselves to the point of fainting. In this interpretation, mourning -- and extreme expressions of that -- become virtues. The political approach has introduced other misinterpretations of its own -- to the extent that Imam Hussein is turned into a symbol of war and revolution while Imam Hassan represents pacifism and compromise. The political interpretation has so deeply engraved these concepts upon our psyche that my title, "Imam Hussein's Peace," sounds strange even to many of my friends.

Instead of providing unintended propaganda for Bin Laden's thoughts, let the world hear the voice of Islamic thinkers who show the peaceful face of Islam. We have no shortage of such scholars and political activists in the Islamic world.

I am advocating a different view of Ashura, a view that is free of emotionally and politically tainted interpretations. In my view of Ashura, two elements -- rationality and pacifism -- characterize Imam Hussein. If we study history free from emotional or political agendas, we realize that Imam Hussein was more of a pacifist than a militant. The Imam had repeatedly offered ceasefires and peace negotiations to the enemy that had surrounded him. The Imam was a true believer in human dignity and knew that wars destroy human dignity. It was only when all his efforts remained unfruitful that he chose death with dignity over capitulation. That is the real heroism of Ashura.

In this alternative [third] view, Imam Hussein becomes an ordinary, but intelligent, man whose actions are based on reason. He tries to avoid war because he knows the consequences.

RFE/RL: Are you trying to raise an academic point or do you feel that this new view has an immediate implication for the realities of today?

Baghi: Today, in our modern world, the West is advocating a fight against terrorism. I want to raise the point that, 1,350 years ago [at a time when both Imam Hassan and Imam Hussein were alive], when killing was common practice and often praised, Imam Hussein rose up against both war and terror. This may surprise many in the West. Imam Hussein's representative in Kufa [a city in modern Iraq whose population invited Imam Hussein to lead it], when faced with conditions unfavorable for victory over the enemy, suggests to Muslim ibn Aqil, Imam's deputy, that he assassinate Obaidollah Ibn-e Ziad [the provincial governor of Kufa]. That assassination would have changed the course of history and Imam's supporters, who had infiltrated the enemy, were fully capable of executing it. However, Muslim ibn Aqil, who knew Imam Hussein's philosophy very well, vehemently rejected the idea, arguing that "in Islam terror is illegal."

RFE/RL: Do you think the rise of extremism is an irreversible process? How can we stop this?

Baghi: I think the West has made a big mistake by falling into the trap of Bin Laden-ism since the tragedy of September 11. In fact, this policy played perfectly into the hands of those who want to destroy Western civilization. By polarizing the world between the civilized camp and the Islamic camp, a Bin Laden-ist definition of Islam, policymakers in the West paved the way for the extremists to gain ground. All Western media have unintentionally been serving the cause of these extremist groups. This type of blind conflict is exactly what the Bin Laden-ists want. I believe some politicians may have pushed this for political gains. Because their approach was not one based on human rights but rather a political approach, they thought they could use this situation to promote a plan for a new political geography in the Middle East. Some may have seen this as a golden opportunity to gain access to the enormous wealth that is lying underground in this region. But I don't think that the entire Western world thinks like this group of politicians. But, unfortunately, most Western media resources are directly or indirectly serving this approach.

RFE/RL: And the solution?

Baghi: The simple solution is that these resources be used to introduce and promote the other interpretation of Islam. Instead of providing unintended propaganda for Bin Laden's thoughts, let the world hear the voice of Islamic thinkers who show the peaceful face of Islam. We have no shortage of such scholars and political activists in the Islamic world.

These people are largely unknown to the Western public. The reason is that, unfortunately, we have a one-sided flow of translations. If you go to bookstores in Tehran you will be overwhelmed by the number of books on Western philosophy and ideas that have been translated into Farsi. But this is not a mutual relationship. The West does not know much about the evolution of thought and philosophy in the Islamic world. There are very few who would reflect these thought products in the West.

RFE/RL: I want to go back to your provocative new interpretation of Ashura. Can we expand this new approach to other religious issues and texts and come up with novel interpretations?

Baghi: Yes. In the new discourse that is under way in Iran, we are witnessing many novel interpretations of religious principles by prominent religious leaders. For example, Ayatollah Montazeri has challenged one principle that has been conserved for centuries in Islamic jurisprudence: he has criticized Islamic jurisprudence for being based on a recognition of believers' rights rather than on human rights. Mr. Montazeri [under whom Baghi studied for 10 years in Iran's clerical capital, Qom] puts very strong evidence on the table -- and from the Koran itself -- that supports the notion that human rights are a central principle in Islam. In fact, he shows that, in this regard, we have deviated from the true teachings of Islam.