10 April 2006, Volume 9, Number 13
AGENDA FOR IRANIAN-U.S. TALKS ON IRAQ REPORTEDLY SET. Tehran's charge d'affaires in Baghdad, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, said on April 4 that Iranian-U.S. talks about Iraqi affairs will take place with the participation of Iraqi officials, Radio Farda reported. He said the actual talks will come after a determination on the level at which they will be staged. Kazemi-Qomi said that both Tehran and Washington agree that the formation of a united Iraqi government must take place as soon as possible. He said the Shi'ite parties who won the elections must hold a majority in the government, Radio Farda reported.
An anonymous source in the Supreme National Security Council told Mehr News Agency on April 4 that the purported talks will begin on April 8. The Iranian delegation will be led by National Security Council officials Ali Husseini-Tash and Aziz Jaafari and will include Foreign Ministry officials.
"Al-Quds al-Arabi," an Arabic newspaper from the United Kingdom, quoted anonymous Shi'ite sources in Baghdad as saying that preparatory discussions for the Iranian-U.S. talks have already commenced between the two countries' intelligence services and their diplomatic representatives in Iraq. The sources asserted that Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, secretary of Iran's Guardians Council, is already in Baghdad for the talks.
"Al-Watan," a Saudi daily, on March 26 quoted "well-informed U.S. sources" who said the talks have begun. The sources said the agenda has been set and is restricted to Iraqi affairs but includes formation of a government, U.S. bases, and Iranian intelligence activities.
The possibility of such discussions has not been welcomed by all Iranians. The Justice-Seeking Student Movement (Junbish-i Idalatkhah-i Daneshjui) on April 5 issued a statement criticizing the upcoming talks between Iran and the United States, Mehr News Agency reported, and announced that a rally against the talks will take place in front of the Supreme National Security Council building in Tehran on April 8. The movement said the official stance on talks with the United States is insufficiently transparent and at present such talks are not in the Iranian interest, so they should not take place.
Islamabad-i Gharb parliamentary representative Heshmat Falahat-Pisheh was quoted in the April 4 "Etemad-i Melli" as saying that Iran should get concessions from the United States in exchange for helping it in Iraq. Falahat-Pisheh said the nuclear issue is a particularly important area in which concessions should be secured.
Hussein Shariatmadari, the supreme leader's representative at the Kayhan Institute, editorialized in "Kayhan" on April 3 that he warned in an earlier editorial against holding talks with the United States. Shariatmadari noted with approval Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's March 21 speech, in which he "rejected" negotiations with Washington and said Iranian officials will only express their views on Iraq. Shariatmadari said the minimum conditions for holding talks do not exist. He said the sides are to discuss security, for example, but according to the supreme leader the occupation of Iraq is the main cause of insecurity. "How can we negotiate with the occupier of Iraq on security conditions in this country?!" Shariatmadari asked. "Assuming that America may be considered as a party for talks while we do not even think America deserves to be talked to,... negotiating with America on security will be impossible and unreasonable in essence."
It is a bad time for Iran to discuss anything with the United States, conservative commentator Amir Mohebbian wrote in the April 6 "Resalat" newspaper. The timing of Tehran's agreement to engage in talks on Iraq suggests that this reflects an effort to alleviate international pressure on the Islamic Republic. Mohebbian suggested discussing a range of issues, so strengths and weaknesses could offset each other. He also warned of the impression that Iran will look like it is supporting one Iraqi group -- the Shiites -- whereas the U.S. will appear to be the supporter of Sunnis, Kurds, and other minorities, thereby reinforcing American "propaganda" that Iran is interfering in Iraqi affairs. Mohebbian continued, "Holding talks with Americans in Iraq and about Iraq...is not good for Iran's image. And it is not good even for Iran's interests in Iraq and among the countries of the region." The disagreements between Washington and Tehran are so extensive, Mohebbian added, that "these talks will have no results and Iran will be demonstrated to have a weak position." (Bill Samii)
KURDISH ACTIVISTS JAILED IN IRAN. Mohammad Sadiq Kabudvand, head of the Organization for the Defense of Human Rights in Kurdistan, told Radio Farda on April 5 that Mahabad resident Fateh Tirani has received a six-year sentence, which includes a mandatory two-year imprisonment in the town of Maragheh, and a four-year suspended prison sentence. Tirani did not have legal representation. In the town of Oshnavieh, a Western Azerbaijan Province court has given Suleiman Minapak a two-year prison sentence. The two were sentenced for their alleged membership in the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, and for publicizing its activities. Four other members of the KDP-I were arrested in the town of Bukan the previous week and are still being held. (Bill Samii)
DISSIDENT JOURNALIST'S PRISON RELEASE DELAYED. Dissident journalist Akbar Ganji, who was released on prison leave in mid-March and whose release was expected to take place during his leave period, must return to confinement, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported. This is because he was given a seven-day leave starting on March 18, the unidentified deputy prosecutor for prison affairs said, but Ganji did not return on March 25. The period he was absent without leave will be added to his sentence, the official said. (Bill Samii)
ALLEGED EFFORT TO KILL BALUCHI LEADER FAILS. An unnamed spokesman for the ethnic Baluchi group called Jundullah said in an April 5 telephone call to Al-Arabiyah television that reports on Tehran TV about the group's leader are untrue. The spokesman said Iranian military forces tried to kill Abdulmalik Rigi in Dul Bandi, Sistan va Baluchistan Province, hear the border with Pakistan. However, he continued, they hit one of their own vehicles and killed its occupants. The spokesman went on to say that Rigi is unharmed. Jundullah has claimed responsibility for the March 16 attack on a motorcade traveling between the cities of Zahedan and Zabol in which more than 20 people were killed and another seven were injured (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 29 March 2006). The group released a videotape in which it said it was holding several hostages. (Bill Samii)
MILITARY EXERCISES TAKE PLACE NEAR HOLY CITY. Twenty battalions made up of Basij members working at government offices participated in the Forces of Muhammad military exercise near the Tehran-Qom highway on April 3, Fars News Agency reported. Commander Safar Ali Baratlu, commander of the Basij forces of ministries and government offices, said there are now 900,000 Basij members working in state institutions. He did not specify whether that is a provincial or national figure. By participating in this exercise as the "enemy" tries to isolate Iran, he said, "government employees are demonstrating a practical response to internal and external enemies and proving their loyalty to the government." According to the dispatch, these were asymmetric warfare exercises designed to counter an enemy attack. This was the first time such exercises have taken place, and the participants used small and medium-size weapons. Rescue and relief operations took place, too. (Bill Samii)
IRAN'S NAVAL DOCTRINE STRESSES AREA DENIAL. Iran's testing of the new Fajr-3 missile, torpedoes, and other types of hardware during March 31-April 6 war games has overshadowed the exercises themselves. But the maneuvers, which are taking place in the Persian Gulf, the Straits of Hormuz, and the Sea of Oman, are significant because they highlight the role of naval power in Iran's military doctrine.
Iran's long coastline -- approximately 2,400 kilometers in the south -- affects its military outlook, Defense Minister Mustafa Mohammad Najjar said during an early January visit to the southern port city of Bandar Abbas. "One of the strategies of the Defense Ministry is to promote our operation and combat forces' capabilities in the sea," he added. It would achieve this, he said, by building ships and submarines and through cooperation with the gulf's littoral states. Najjar went on to say that the navy applies creative and innovative methods, uses asymmetric warfare, and depends on domestically made products.
Later in the month, an Iranian military official stressed "denial of access" and said the United States is very vulnerable at sea. Mujtaba Zolnur, a high-ranking official at the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), continued, "This is another weak point of the enemy because we have certain methods for fighting in the sea so that war will spread into the Sea of Oman and the Indian Ocean," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on January 23. "We will not let the enemy inside our borders."
IRGC commander General Yahya Rahim-Safavi said in summer 2005 that the plans of the corps' navy include confronting aggressors by using asymmetric warfare and by improving power-projection capabilities, "Siyasat-i Ruz" and "Kayhan" reported on June 8.
A total of 38,000 men serve in Iran's conventional navy and the IRGC navy, and these forces are believed to have a significant capacity for regular and asymmetric naval warfare.
Rahim-Safavi added that the navy wants to improve its missile systems and its surveillance capabilities, and it wants to strengthen its defense of Persian Gulf islands.
The need to protect bases and oil facilities in the Persian Gulf makes "area denial" through mine warfare a major aspect of Iranian naval doctrine. Mines were used during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. Today, Iran has three to five ships with minesweeping and mine-laying capabilities, and many of its smaller vessels can lay mines. Aircraft can drop mines, too.
Tehran has occasionally threatened to use mines to block the Straits of Hormuz, described by the U.S.'s Energy Information Administration as "by far the world's most important oil choke point." In February 2005 congressional testimony, the Defense Intelligence Agency director, Vice Admiral Lowell Jacoby, addressed this possibility by saying that Iran would rely on a "layered strategy" that uses naval, air, and some ground forces to "briefly" close the straits. Iran's purchase of North Korean fast-attack craft and midget submarines improved this capability, he said.
Missiles are important for "area denial" as well. Iran compensates for limited air power and surface-vessel capabilities with an emphasis on antiship missiles. Four of these systems were obtained from China -- the long-range Seersucker missile, as well as the CS-801, CS-801K, and CS-802 antiship missiles. There are reports that Iran has purchased Ukrainian antiship missiles. Most commercial shipping is within range of missiles based on Iranian islands in the Persian Gulf.
In an effort to limit hostile air power in the region, Iran might target air bases to its south, or it could try to strike aircraft carriers outside the gulf. Submarines could be used for the latter assignment, and the port of Chah Bahar on the Sea of Oman is being modified to serve the kilo-class submarines Iran purchased from Russia in the 1990s.
As the Persian Gulf war games continued and Iran demonstrated new types of equipment, Tehran sought to reassure the international community of its benign intentions. Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said on April 4 that the country's military doctrine is essentially defensive, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. (Bill Samii)
PERSIAN GULF WAR GAMES PURPORTEDLY SIGNAL 'CONVERGENCE' WITH NEIGHBORS. Iranian ships maneuvered in the Straits of Hormuz and practiced electronic countermeasures on April 2, the third day of the Noble Prophet naval war games that began on March 31, state television reported. Antiaircraft exercises reportedly took place as well, and an anonymous "official" said anti-submarine activities took place in the straits, the Persian Gulf, and the Sea of Oman. Personnel from the Basij Mobilization Forces participated in the exercises on April 1, state television reported. Two thousand Basij members and 400 Basij vessels were used in what was described as "exercises designed to defend cities as well as civil relief and rescue operations."
The spokesman for the war games, Vice Rear Admiral Mohammad Ebrahim Dehqani, said on March 31 that 17,000 people, 1,500 vessels, and aircraft are participating in the exercises, which should last until April 6, IRNA reported.
As the exercises entered their fourth day on 3 April, Basij commander Brigadier General Mohammad Hejazi said his force is ready to defend the country, Fars News Agency reported. He added that the war games reflect Iran's policy of "convergence" with neighboring Persian Gulf states. Insecurity caused by aliens, Hejazi said, has a cost for the enemy and those who undermine regional stability. Referring to an earlier missile test conducted by the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (see below), Hejazi said that only Iran's enemies should be fearful. He added that all the countries in the region benefit from the establishment of security, and this security helps Iran economically. Therefore, he continued, Iran would not seek to destabilize the region. (Bill Samii)
IRAN CONDUCTS SEVERAL MISSILE TESTS. On the penultimate day of naval exercises in the Persian Gulf, Iran claimed it successfully tested a "top secret missile," state television reported on April 5. The missile, developed by the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps and fired from a helicopter, reportedly employs "over the horizon targeting" (OTH-T), which is a radar system with a range that exceeds line of sight. State radio falsely claimed, "Iran is the first country to have this capability." The American Harpoon missile has OTH-T capabilities and has existed for nearly 30 years, for example. The Harpoon can also be launched from aircraft, ships, and submarines. In another first, a cruise missile with a 200-kilometer range was reportedly fired from a helicopter on April 5, Iranian state television reported.
After the demonstration of the Misaq anti-aircraft shoulder-launched missile on April 4, war-games spokesman Mohammad Ibrahim Dehqani said the missile can be neither detected nor intercepted. The other missile that was tested that day, the Kosar, can be fired from a ship or from land at a target on the water. Dehqani stressed that this missile is also difficult to intercept.
The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps' (IRGC) navy successfully test-fired a powerful subsurface missile on April 2, dpa reported, citing an IRNA report. General Ali Fadavi, deputy commander of the IRGC navy, said the torpedo can reach a maximum speed of 100 meters per second but provided no other information. AP quoted state television reporting that the weapon could destroy virtually any warship or submarine. Dubai's Al-Arabiyah television also reported on the missile test, using Iranian video footage, as did Pakistani television from Islamabad.
Meanwhile, on March 31, IRGC air-force chief General Hussein Salami described the launch the same day of a "new missile with more modern tactical and technical capabilities compared to previous generations of missiles," state television reported. He said the missile has multiple warheads that can hit different targets, and it can evade radar and any country's antimissile defense systems.
U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said on March 31 that the surface-to-surface missile test the same day "demonstrates that Iran has a very active and aggressive military program under way," Radio Farda reported. That program, Ereli charged, includes the development of weapons of mass destruction and the necessary delivery systems. Ereli added that Iranian military activities worry the world. "I think Iran's military posture [and] military-development effort is of concern to the international community, as evidenced by the kind of consensus you're seeing with regard to their nuclear program, as well as other nonproliferation concerns," he said, according to Radio Farda.
Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, told Ekho Moskvy radio on March 31 that Iranian defense industries are insufficiently developed to create world-class missiles. "It is hard to imagine that this missile is a 100-percent Iranian development," he continued. "Most probably it is a clone of a Chinese missile or Chinese and old Soviet technologies combined." This makes the missile predictable and easy to intercept, he said. Pukhov described the Iranian claims as an effort to fight the United States on the "information front." An unnamed "Israeli missile expert" quoted by the newspaper "Yediot Aharanot" on April 2 said the Iranian claim is "detached from reality." (Bill Samii)
IRAN EMPHASIZES REGIONAL PEACE. On the heels of the test-firings of two missiles earlier in the week and during continuing naval war games in the south, Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) chief Yahya Rahim-Safavi said on April 4 that his organization's navy can defend Iran's islands in the Persian Gulf, IRNA reported. He added that the navy can launch land-to-sea missiles a distance of 2,000 kilometers. Rahim-Safavi emphasized that Iran wants regional peace and security, and said this is impossible until foreign forces withdraw from Iraq.
Rahim-Safavi said on April 5 that the United States should recognize Iran as a "regional power," state television and IRNA reported. Speaking in the southern port city of Bandar Abbas, Rahim-Safavi went on to say that Washington should know that threats or sanctions will work against U.S. and European interests.
Iran's "Noble Prophet" naval exercises ended on April 6, and Defense Minister Mustafa Mohammad Najjar announced in Bandar Abbas on that day that Iran is willing to conduct joint exercises with any of the Persian Gulf littoral states, IRNA reported. He added that Iran is willing to sign a non-aggression pact with any of its southern neighbors. Noting the demonstrations of new equipment during the exercises, he promised more in the near future. Also in Bandar Abbas, Islamic revolution guards Corps commander Yahya Rahim-Safavi said, "We hope the trans-regional powers have got the message of the war game," IRNA reported. He warned that insecurity in Iran is a threat to trans-regional powers. (Bill Samii)
AMBASSADOR CALLS FOR NEGOTIATED SOLUTION TO NUCLEAR ROW. Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran United Nations ambassador, said in an April 6 op-ed in "The New York Times" that a negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis is "possible and eminently within reach," and added that Tehran has tried to "resuscitate" negotiations with Berlin, London, and Paris. Not only has Iran accepted rigorous inspections by the UN since October 203, but "Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the leader of the Islamic Republic, has issued a decree against the development, production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons." Zarif concluded by saying that "pressure and threats" will not yield results, whereas "political will" and "serious negotiations" will produce a solution. (Bill Samii)
EARTHQUAKE SURVIVORS CRITICIZE ASSISTANCE EFFORTS. Hanif Yazdani, a resident of the quake-stricken town of Dorud in Luristan Province, told Radio Farda that some 600-700 locals demonstrated in front of the governorate on April 1 over what they view as slow and inadequate provision of emergency services. Three earthquakes struck western Iran early on March 31, with Interior Ministry official Mohammad Hussein Shiri saying the next day that 70 people had been killed and almost 1,300 injured. Shiri said at that time that relief had reached 90 percent of the damaged area, but, according to Yazdani, some 400 people are still without tents. Even people whose houses were not destroyed by the initial quakes are reluctant to go home because they fear aftershocks, Yazdani said. Yazdani told Radio Farda that 160 riot-control personnel (niruha-yi zed-i shuresh) attacked the demonstrators, and shots were fired in the air. Yazdani added that the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps began distributing tents and will enforce order. Yazdani ascribed other relief delays for the impoverished area to bureaucracy, corruption, favoritism, and nepotism.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ereli on March 31 read a letter from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in which she expresses condolences to victims of the Luristan earthquake, Radio Farda reported. The letter also mentions the possibility of U.S. assistance: "We wish to support efforts under way to help those suffering as a result of this tragedy. The United States is ready to provide humanitarian assistance to the Iranian people in this time of need."
Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns telephoned Iran's ambassador to the UN, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on March 31 to express sympathies and offer assistance that would include blankets and water, IRNA reported. Zarif said Iran is not yet seeking international aid.
IRNA reported on March 31 that the United States "uses" humanitarian disasters like the recent Luristan earthquakes to show the Iranian people "it has a humanitarian heart" so it can "create a wedge between the people and the government." State radio reacted to the U.S. offers by saying on April 1 that "the objectives and motives behind the deceptive and misleading sympathies expressed by [U.S. President George W.] Bush and [Secretary] Rice for the quake victims in Iran are apparent to the Iranian people. And if the officials in Washington are sincere, instead of promising to help, they should recognize the rights of the Iranian nation in nuclear technology."
Iran has previously accepted U.S. earthquake relief, and the extent of the assistance after the December 2003 earthquake in Bam led to speculation that official contacts could follow. Tehran dashed these hopes when it rejected a visit by a high-level U.S. delegation that would include North Carolina Republican Senator Elizabeth Dole (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 12 January 2004). Tehran would later ascribe its failure to assist quake victims in a timely fashion to the failure of other countries to meet assistance commitments, but the Red Crescent Society demanded an accounting because only $1.9 million of the more than $11.8 million in foreign funds reached the victims (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 15 March 2004).
Aid from others donors was accepted. For example, Russia sent aid on April 1, according to Russia's RTR television, and Pakistan sent aid the next day, IRNA reported.
UNICEF has committed $100,000 to assist young victims of the March 31 earthquake, "Iran" newspaper reported on April 4. Christine Salazar Volkmann, the UNICEF spokeswoman in Iran, said after a visit to the city of Borujerd in Luristan that children had spent several nights out in the cold since the tremors. UNICEF's Iran office has distributed 10,000 cots and 300 tents, "Iran" reported. The UNICEF office added that experts on children's health have been sent to the region. An April 3 statement from the United Nations added that the World Health Organization (WHO) has established an office in Dorud, one of the worst-hit cities, and is sending enough supplies for the treatment of 20,000 people, AP reported. A total of $450,000 has been committed by UN agencies. (Bill Samii)
TEHRAN DENOUNCES U.S. DEMOCRACY PROMOTION. "Friends of Uncle Sam in Iran," Tehran television announced on April 6. An unnamed U.S. deputy secretary of state has announced that unnamed Iranian NGOs are receiving "tips and wages" from the U.S. These NGOS, Tehran television continued, will do Washington's bidding under the guise of "human rights and democracy." (Bill Samii)
POLITICAL ACTIVISTS VOW TO STEER CLEAR OF POSSIBLE U.S. FUNDING. Prominent activists and political opponents of Iran's hard-line administration are warning that U.S. funds designated to help civic groups could backfire. The Bush administration recently (in February) announced plans to seek $75 million in emergency funding to promote democracy in Iran, in addition to $10 million already budgeted. A loose affiliation of intellectuals at home and abroad has rejected such aid as "an insult" to the Iranian people. And the fear of any perception of subservience to a foreign government is strong.
While gauging public opinion can be a tall order in Iran, many of those who have spoken out so far say they are keen to maintain their independence. They say they don't need American money to continue their efforts to promote democracy in Iran.
Mohammad Ali Dadkhah is a co-founder of the Center for Human Rights Defenders. Dadkhah tells RFE/RL that democratic changes should come from inside the country -- without outside interference. "Democracy is not a product that we can import from another country," Dadkhah says. "We have to prepare the ground for it so that it can grow and bear fruit -- especially because independent and national forces, and also self-reliant forces, in Iran will never accept a foreign country telling them what to do and which way to take."
The proposed U.S. aid would include $25 million to support "political dissidents, labor union leaders, and human rights activists" in additional to nongovernmental groups outside Iran. The declared aim is to allow them to build support inside the country.
The U.S. administration also wants $50 million to set up round-the-clock television broadcasting in Persian to beam into Iran. Another $5 million is aimed at allowing Iranian students and scholars to study in the United States. And $15 million is earmarked for other measures like expanding Internet access, which is tightly controlled in Iran.
Wary Of Perceptions
It can be difficult to measure broad public opinion in Iran, whose authorities keep a tight lid on public expression. But most activists inside the country would be wary of being labeled pro-American.
Dadkhah says that if activists were to accept the U.S. aid, they would immediately be branded U.S. spies and accused of endangering Iran's national security. "Independent forces would go close to these financial funds," Dadkhah says. "We have to work through legal paths and logical channels so that democracy, freedom, and human rights are fully respected in this country."
Abdullah Momeni, an outspoken Iranian student leader, warns that U.S. financial aid would threaten the independence of those seeking increased freedoms and put them at the official risk. Momeni tells RFE/RL that those working for democracy in Iran instead need moral support and international recognition. "Under the current conditions, the support of the international community and pressure on the authoritarian Iranian regime to recognize democratic principles in Iranian society could help the Iranian people achieve democracy," Momeni says. "The only result of financial aid would be to inflame sensitivities, put civil society activists under threat, and give the regime an excuse to suppress opponents and opposition members."
Fiercely 'Independent Opposition'
A loose alliance of political activists and intellectuals calling itself the Independent Iranian Opposition has issued a statement declaring that "only the people will determine Iran's fate." It adds that the independent Iranian opposition has always battled with no expectation of financial assistance from "interested foreign powers." It also pledges that members will continue their efforts until a "free, independent, and democratic Iran" emerges.
A respected human-rights activist and lawyer, Mehrangiz Kar is an Iranian woman who lives in the United States. Kar tells Radio Farda that while money is important for rights groups to function, "security" is even more crucial to their effectiveness. "The shaky security under which human rights and democracy activists are working in Iran would become even shakier and more uncertain [if U.S. funding is involved]," Kar says. "So, in my opinion, if they could provide security and money, that would be ideal. But since they can't, sending money through government channels is one of the most damaging ways that has been adopted in the name of helping democracy and human rights in Iran."
Abbas Milani is a distinguished Iranian scholar and co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution. Milani questions whether the new U.S. initiative would achieve its goal of fostering democracy. He pointed out in a joint contribution with Michael McFaul to "The Wall Street Journal" on March 6 that while "outsiders find it easy to support democracy rhetorically," it is harder to put such concepts into practice.
Milani warns the United States against support for "regime change" through violence or for ethnic groups seeking independence from Tehran. He insists that any new U.S. aid must empower "existing democrats, not create democrats from [among] those with close ties to Washington."
Meanwhile, Iranian officials have described the U.S. administration's funding request as "provocative and interventionist."
Iranian media reported in March that the Foreign Ministry sent a letter of protest to Washington over the plan. Not to be outdone, Iranian lawmakers have approved about $15 million to "discover and neutralize American plots and intervention" in their country. (Golnaz Esfandiari, Radio Farda's Maryam Ahmadi contributed to this report)
RIGHTS LEADER SAYS REFORMISTS SEEK TO REGAIN STRENGTH. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called in February for the U.S. Congress to allow Washington to increase spending on democracy programs for Iran from $10 million to $75 million this year. Fatemeh Aman of RFE/RL's Radio Farda interviewed Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, a leading defender of human rights and advocate democracy in Iran, for her views on the wisdom of such overt support, on how the crisis over Iran's nuclear program is affecting the opposition, and on the current mood among two key groups, women and students. A former member of the Iranian parliament, Haghighatjoo resigned in 2004 following a crackdown on reformers. She is now a visiting scholar with the Center of International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, in the United States.
RFE/RL: As an active member of the Iranian reformists' camp, how do you think Rice's $75 million proposal will affect the democracy movement in Iran? Fatemeh Haghighatjoo: I don't think this plan will help promote democracy in Iran. On the contrary, it will weaken the position of pro-democracy activists in Iran. Even before the United States announced this move, extreme right-wing figures such as Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi [a cleric whose followers include Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad], used to accuse Iranian reformists of receiving suitcases from the United States stuffed with dollars.
This rumor was the basis for the prosecution of many writers and journalists. Many newspapers were banned and journalists jailed. This monetary support will play into the hands of the totalitarian regime in Tehran to systematically crack down on the democracy movement. Having said that, I do agree with some of the points raised by Rice, such as proposals about cultural and scientific exchange. The U.S. government should ease restrictions on Iranians -- particularly academics -- for travel and for culture and scientific exchanges.
RFE/RL: But if the regime is looking for an excuse, couldn't it use even this kind of support against the democracy movement?
Haghighatjoo: This is a long-term issue. Currently, the biggest problem in Iran is the absence of an independent media. Supporting independent media and the free flow of information will have a significant impact on the promotion of democracy in Iran.
RFE/RL: Do you mean media within Iran, or outside the country?
Haghighatjoo: Radio and television are run by the government. Most newspapers and websites are also directly or indirectly run by state institutions. The few independent media outlets there are also under enormous pressure. So what we need are media outlets that are independent of the Islamic Republic. As you know, Iran's Supreme National Security Council has issued an order that bans media from reporting about the standoff [with the West over Iran's nuclear program]. Many people [in Iran] may not know that Iran has been referred to the Security Council. This is the type of news that [independent] media would be able to convey.
U.S. Model For The Middle East?
RFE/RL: Do you think that the United States has a viable model for promoting democracy in the Middle East? How successful do you think this plan could be in the region?
Haghighatjoo: I personally believe that the drive to promote democracy in the Middle East stems primarily from U.S. national interests and the threat of terrorism. Efforts to fight terrorism can also help promote democracy, but once democracy and the principles of voting are accepted, you can't complain about the outcome. A lot of people in the United States are worried about this and are even raising the question whether democracy is appropriate for the Middle East. This is a short-sighted view.
The second point is that democracy cannot be imposed by war. What we should be working on is promoting the culture of democracy in the Middle East. I think the United States needs to revise many of its policies. Promoting democracy has to be adjusted to suit the cultural specificities of these countries. The military option is by nature antidemocratic. Look at Iraq. There are certainly some positive trends there, such as free elections. But the negative aspects predominate, at least for now.
The Nuclear Crisis And The Reformers
RFE/RL: Before the Iranian presidential elections in June 2005, you predicted that if Ahmadinejad were elected, it would militarize Iranian politics and increase pressure on the democracy movement. Now it seems that the nuclear standoff is also helping the militarists. What can Iranian activists do to have an influence on this process, or prevent it from moving ahead?
Haghighatjoo: I think if the United Nations were to pressure Iran on the issue of human rights, rather than on the nuclear issue, it would have been much more effective. The regime would never have been able to manage to create such a united front against it. People would certainly not let the regime violate human rights and justify it as being in the national interest -- whereas they have been able to create some degree of unity among different factions of the regime and make a national-interest issue out of the nuclear standoff. Any military action or even indiscriminate sanctions against Iran will strengthen the position of the totalitarian elements within the Islamic Republic. I hope the Security Council is aware of this fact.
RFE/RL: Why are the reformers so quiet? Is it a temporary tactic, or is it out of fear of prosecution?
Haghighatjoo: I am not entirely uncritical of the policy of the reformers in Iran. But the fact is that they are under enormous pressure. Events such as the appearance of Akbar Atri and Ali Afshari [of the Office for Strengthening Unity, an umbrella student group] before the U.S. Congress in March also increase the pressure on the reformers. After the topic of the $75 million in aid came up, many Iranians were arrested who had in the past attended the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center in New Haven [which documents human rights abuses in Iran, and receives U.S. funding]. It's important to act in a way that doesn't raise the price of activism in Iran.
RFE/RL: Before the election, you predicted that an Ahmadinejad government could only survive in a crisis. Is the nuclear standoff the type of crisis that you believe he's been seeking?
Haghighatjoo: Yes, a crisis like this. And also possibly a military attack. A military attack, in particular, would help them to strengthen themselves enormously. The different factions have now found a common enemy. Without this [nuclear] crisis, the parliament and the executive would now be engaged in a bitter fight, and the rift between [and current chair of the Expediency Council, which has supervisory powers over all branches of government, and former President] Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad or [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei would have deepened.
Iran's Rebellious Women?
RFE/RL: Let's turn to women's issues. The governments of Ahmadinejad and [former President Mohammad] Khatami's governments differ in this regard tremendously. You had said that Khordad 2nd -- the date, in the Islamic calendar, when Khatami won his first election, and the subsequent name of Iran's reformist movement -- would have not happened without women. Do you think the achievements of the women's movement during that time are being lost irreversibly?
Haghighatjoo: Well, as I said, the pressure is immense, and it has silenced even the most outspoken reformers. I don't think the current situation will put an end to the women's movement, but it will have a significant negative impact on it. Activities will diminish, but the demands will still be there, and they will be expressed again once the situation improves. We should also realize that these pressures may trigger a rebellious response. Previously, women always sought permission for their gatherings. However, many women's groups don't bother with that anymore. I think women's demands and the form of their protests will change.
The Importance Of Students
RFE/RL: Will the next major movement in Iran be a student movement?
Haghighatjoo: The generation of the Islamic Revolution is committed to the Islamic Republic and the concept of a religion-based governance. Both the reformists and the conservatives are from this generation. Many reformists still support the concept of "Vilayat-i Faqih," or supreme jurisprudence. But the new generation is not interested in the model of the Islamic Republic; it supports a secular model instead. Secularism -- not exactly as practiced in France or Turkey, but as a system based on the separation of the institution of religion from the institution of power. This generation cannot see their freedom being restricted in the name of religion.
The next leaders of the Iranian democracy movement will be those who fight for a secular constitution, and this potential exists in the student movement. I believe that no broad political movement can take root in Iran without the students. However, the student movement is not yet mature, and cannot lead to a widespread civic movement by itself. The student movement must ally itself with elites who follow the same principles. The religious elites cannot be allied with the student movement. We see now that the demarcation between the religious elites and the student movement is becoming increasingly clear. I don't think a widespread movement will take shape soon. However, if the students make the right moves and take advantage of political opportunities that may come up, they can pave the way for a broad civic movement.