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Iran Report: July 18, 2006

July 18, 2006, Volume 9, Number 26

IRAN PLAYING KEY ROLE IN ISRAEL-LEBANON CRISIS. As the conflict initiated by Hizballah's seizure of two Israeli soldiers and killing of another eight in a cross-border raid on July 12 continues, many observers are voicing concern that other regional actors -- notably, Iran and Syria -- will be drawn into the conflict.

Iran has warned that it will respond if Israel attacks Syria. Realistically, however, Iran and Syria have been involved with this conflict from the outset because they are the main outside sponsors of Hizballah. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton alluded to this relationship on July 14 at the UN Security Council in New York. "No reckoning with Hizballah will be adequate without a reckoning with its principal state sponsors of terror," Bolton said.

Within hours of Israeli retaliation for the raid and commencement of efforts to recover its soldiers, Israeli officials began assigning some responsibility for the Hizballah attack to Iran. "There is an axis of terror and hate, created by Iran, Syria, Hizballah, and Hamas that wants to end any hope for peace," said Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry website.

Major General Udi Adam, chief of the Israeli Defense Forces' Northern Command, added: "Hizballah, which is a terror organization, operates from inside Lebanese soil with Iran's assistance and financial aid," Jerusalem's Channel 2 television reported. "Iran signed a defense treaty with Syria not too long ago, which is why they are all one single package."

"We know for a fact, and you know it too, that Iran supports these organizations," Adam asserted, while also assigning some blame to Lebanon's government.

Iranian reaction was not immediately forthcoming. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad had been touring East Azerbaijan Province for several days, where he gave several speeches excoriating Israel. "There are also some countries that claim to be democracies and supporters of freedom and human rights but which keep silent when this regime [Israel] bombs Lebanon in front of their eyes and slaughters people in their houses," Ahmadinejad said in Sarab on July 13, state television reported. "They keep silent and they support murderers with their silence." Countries that stay silent will be viewed as Israel's "accomplices," he said, and will be judged accordingly.

In Tehran the same day, Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani and Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi condemned Israeli actions, IRNA reported.

As hostilities entered their second day on July 13, the Israeli Foreign Ministry voiced concern that its missing soldiers will be sent to Iran. "We also have specific information that Hizballah is planning to transfer the kidnapped soldiers to Iran," the ministry's statement said, according to the government's press office.

Although Iran has rejected the possibility that the Israelis will be transferred there, such speculation has historical echoes. Israeli airman Ron Arad, who was shot down over Lebanon in 1986, was reportedly sent to Iran. It is also believed that William Buckley, the Central Intelligence Agency's Beirut chief of station, who was taken hostage in 1984, was sent to Iran for interrogation. He was tortured to death.

The same July 13 Israeli government statement added that Iran is Hizballah's "main benefactor" and provides "funding, weapons, and directives."

"For all practical purposes, Hizballah is merely an arm of the Tehran jihadist regime," the Israeli government asserted. The statement argued that Iranian and Syrian support for groups like Hizballah, Hamas, and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade is ideologically driven, but also serves as a diversion from other international issues.

Some Iranian connections with Hizballah and Hamas are well documented. Larijani was in Damascus on July 12 and, according to KUNA, he met with Hamas leader Khalid Mishaal and leading figures from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, and other groups. He was to meet with a Hizballah delegation, KUNA added, but the Lebanese could not come. Representatives from all these groups participated in a conference in Tehran in April, and they participated in similar events in Tehran in 2001 and 2002. Furthermore, they met with Ahmadinejad when he visited Damascus in January 2006, and they frequently meet with Iranian officials in the Syrian capital and travel to Iran.

Tehran has never tried to hide its support for these groups, which it views as legitimate resistance movements, and it has taken the lead in trying to raise funds for the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.

Among all these groups, Tehran's relationship with Hizballah is the closest. Iranian officials had a leading role in the creation of Hizballah in the early 1980s, and the organization's ideology is based on the Iranian theocratic system of Vilayat-i Faqih. Although it has never renounced its platform of creating an Islamist government similar to Iran's, Hizballah now operates within the Lebanese political system, with its members running for office and serving in the cabinet and the legislature.

A visitor to the Hizballah press office in southern Beirut will see pictures of the founder of Iran's Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and of the country's current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Travelers in other predominantly Shi'ite parts of Lebanon will note the numerous posters of these Iranian clerics as well. Hizballah hospitals and schools continue to receive funds from Iran's Martyrs' Foundation.

The U.S. government, which classifies Hizballah as a terrorist organization, has asserted that Iran provides Hizballah with funding and weapons. Press reports from September 2002 note U.S. claims that Iran provided surface-to-surface rockets to Hizballah, and there are repeated allegations that Tehran provides Hizballah with millions of dollars annually. Tehran dismisses such accusations, saying it supports Hizballah only with moral and political backing.

Hizballah has repeatedly denied, furthermore, that it is directed by the Iranian government. Most recently, on July 15, Mahmud Qamati, deputy chairman of the Hizballah Political Council, told Al-Jazeera: "We would like to confirm today that the Iranians or Syrians have nothing at all to do with the actions of the resistance in Lebanon, or with the confrontation of the Israeli aggression." He said such allegations are meant to pressure the two countries to force Hizballah to disarm, as called for by UN Security Council Resolution 1559.

Israeli sources claimed on July 15 that an Iranian C802 shore-to-ship missile that was operated by Iranians struck an Israeli navy vessel off the Lebanese coast. The Iranian Embassy in Beirut denied on the same day that any of the country's military personnel are in Lebanon, Al-Alam television and the Lebanese National News Agency reported. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi denied on July 16 that Iranian missiles were used.

Iran's support for Hizballah on Lebanon concerns the international community. A UN report in April said the cooperation of Iran and Syria is needed to bring about the disarmament of all Lebanese militias, and it referred to Hizballah as "the most significant Lebanese militia." The subsequent Security Council Resolution 1680, which was issued in May, cited Syria's negative influence on Lebanese affairs and indirectly referred to Iranian influence.

The relationship between Tehran and Damascus has grown warmer in recent years, as both Iran and Syria face increasing international pressure. The two countries have signed military agreements, and their chief executives have exchanged visits.

Ahmadinejad telephoned President Bashar al-Assad on July 13 and declared that an attack on Syria would be an attack on the Islamic world and would elicit a response, Hizballah's Al-Manar television, Iranian state radio, and SANA reported.

Iranian Friday Prayer leaders' sermons, the content of which is determined in Tehran by the 10-member executive board of the Central Secretariat of the Central Council of Friday Prayer Leaders, has echoed this theme, as well as support for Hizballah. In Tehran, Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani encouraged Muslims to back Hamas and Hizballah, the actions of which he described as "self-defense," state radio reported. In the southern city of Ahvaz, Ayatollah Musavi-Jazayeri said Hizballah has "smashed the myth of [Israeli] invincibility" and described Hizballah's actions as "a source of pride for the world of Islam," provincial television reported.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in Tehran on July 16 that the most recent events in Lebanon and the Palestine territories prove that "the presence of the Zionists in the region is a satanic and cancerous presence and an infected tumor for the entire world of Islam," state television reported. (Bill Samii)

AHMADINEJAD LAUNCHES VERBAL ATTACK ON ISRAEL. "The basic and fundamental problem of the world of Islam is the existence of the Zionist regime," President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said in a July 8 speech in Tehran at a meeting of foreign ministers from countries neighboring Iraq, state television reported. He said Islamic and regional states must work to resolve this problem. Ahmadinejad described Israel as a regional "threat and conspiracy" that was imposed by the Islamic world's enemies to cause discord, and he added that Israel is delaying regional states' "speedy progress and development." "There is no logical reason for the continuation of the life of this regime [Israel]," Ahmadinejad said, adding, "it is necessary for all of the regional countries to completely isolate the Zionist regime."

Anti-Israel rallies took place after the July 7 Friday Prayers in many Iranian cities, and in the Fars Province city of Shiraz the Students' Justice-Seeking Movement circulated a petition in which signatories indicated their willingness to go to Palestine, Fars News Agency reported. The number of signatories is unknown. Khuzestan Provincial television showed a rally in the city of Ahvaz at which demonstrators, using both Persian and Arabic, chanted, "Down with America," "Down with Israel" and "Palestine, Palestine." Video of rallies in the Khuzestan Province towns of Dasht-i Azadegan, Haftgel, and Shush, was shown, as well. Friday Prayers leaders discussed Palestinian affairs in their sermons.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said on July 9 that although Iraq was the focus of the July 8-9 conference in Tehran (see below), events in Palestine necessitated a reaction, state television reported. Therefore, he said, a separate statement on this subject was issued.

Mottaki also responded to a question about Iran's pledge to fund the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority -- many governments are withholding funding until Hamas renounces violence and recognizes Israel. "The process of that $50 million contribution is in the phase of decision-making now," Mottaki said, Reuters reported. "The payment that I talked about has not been paid yet." (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN PILGRIMS DISCOURAGED FROM VISITING IRAQ. Speaking to reporters in Tehran on July 8, two days after several Iranian pilgrims lost their lives in an Iraqi suicide bombing, Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki urged his compatriots to change their travel plans, IRNA reported. Mottaki said Iranian travelers should wait until the security situation in Iraq improves. Mottaki added that some of the pilgrims are already breaking the law: "Some Iranians still dare to travel to Iraq illegally to visit holy shrines in that country. Based on regulations in Iraq, they are sentenced to six months in jail when caught."

Substitute Tehran Friday Prayer leader Hojatoleslam Ahmad Khatami told a gathering of Islamic Revolution Guards Corps personnel on July 11 that, "America is trying to establish a permanent presence in Iraq by way of provoking ethnic disputes and creating insecurity inside that country," the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported. He added, "Ethnic and tribal clashes are America's bread and butter." To that end," Khatami claimed, "killing Shi'ites on a large scale, and Sunnis on a smaller scale, is on their agenda; by ascribing the killings to acts of revenge by the Shi'ites, they seek to spread killings and insecurity in Iraq." Khatami dismissed accusations of Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs and said Iran hopes for a secure Iraqi state.

The Mujahedin Army in Iraq claimed in a July 12 Internet posting that it was responsible for the shelling of the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad on July 5. The attack is one in a series of recent attacks on Iranians in Iraq. On July 6, a suicide car bomber targeted Iranian Shi'ite pilgrims in the city of Al-Kufah, killing 12 and wounding 39. In June, an Iraqi mob attacked the Iranian consulate in Al-Basrah, reportedly in protest at an Iranian television program that depicted local Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Mahmud al-Hassani as an agent of Israel, police said at the time. (Bill Samii, Kathleen Ridolfo)

IRAQ'S NEIGHBORS ISSUE STATEMENT. An official statement was issued after the July 8-9 meeting in Tehran of foreign ministers from the countries neighboring Iraq (Bahrain, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey), and also from Egypt, IRNA reported. Also in attendance were the secretaries-general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference and of the Arab League, as well as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special representative for Iraq, Ashraf Qazi.

Participants in the meeting declared their support for the Iraqi government and national assembly, and also for the national reconciliation plan of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The statement also underlined participants' concern about the continuing violence in Iraq, and it called for an end to the presence of foreign forces in Iraq. Participating countries agreed to open embassies in Baghdad and otherwise enhance their presence in Iraq. Participants agreed to cooperate in fighting terrorism. The statement stressed the need for a fair and transparent trial for former President Saddam Hussein and other Iraqi leaders, IRNA reported. (Bill Samii)

IRAN TO BE REFERRED TO UN SECURITY COUNCIL. The international community has decided to refer Iran to the United Nations Security Council because of its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment, Radio Farda reported on July 12, after foreign ministers from the five permanent members of the UN (China, France, Russia, the U.K., and the U.S.), Germany, and the European Union met in Paris.

The decision was based on EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana's report on his recent meetings with Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, according to the foreign ministers' joint declaration of July 12. "The Iranians have given no indication at all that they are ready to engage seriously on the substance of our proposals," the declaration continued, and it mentioned failure to comply with the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) demand for "suspension of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities." "We have agreed to seek a United Nations Security Council resolution, which would make the IAEA-required suspension mandatory," the declaration added.

"Should Iran refuse to comply, then we will work for the adoption of measures under Article 41 of Chapter VII of the UN charter." Article 41 allows the Security Council to employ measures other than war -- such as economic sanctions, severing diplomatic relations, or interrupting communications -- in order to back its decisions. Iranian compliance with IAEA and Security Council demands and commencement of negotiations would preclude any further Security Council action.

EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana had delivered the proposal from China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States during an early-June visit to Tehran.

One day later, Iranian President Ahmadinejad said that the U.S. aims to "create discord," state television reported. On the other hand, "We are all trying to calm the situation and establish a constructive, fair, and legal dialogue aimed at resolving the issues." Ahmadinejad said Iran and the Europeans could resolve the crisis, and a subject that has been problematic for so many years cannot be resolved so quickly. He added that Iran only wants time to consider the international proposal that it received on June 6.

In Tehran on the same day, Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki also said time is needed to study the international proposal Iran received, IRNA reported. He warned that haste will harm all the interested parties.

Tehran had tried to prevent a referral through shuttle diplomacy. Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani arrived in Rome on July 10 to discuss the nuclear issue with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi and Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema, IRNA reported. Later that day, Larijani told Italian television that the international proposal intended to resolve the nuclear crisis is ambiguous and must be clarified before Tehran can respond to it, IRNA reported. Therefore, he continued, a response will not be forthcoming before the G8 meeting in Russia on July 15-17.

In an interview that appeared in "Corriere della Sera" on July 11, Larijani said, "We don't trust some of the European countries that have played a leading role." Larijani criticized British Prime Minister Tony Blair's "deplorable pronouncements on Iran that were quite out of place." Larijani did not cite which of Blair's statements he is referring to. He said Italy does not act this way, and "Your country is our prime trading partner in Europe." He encouraged Italy to be more active diplomatically in the nuclear issue.

Larijani held formal discussions with Solana on July 11, Radio Farda reported. The talks took place behind closed doors, but in a subsequent press conference, Solana referred to his upcoming meeting in Paris with foreign ministers of the countries involved with the package of incentives offered to Iran. He said, "Tomorrow I will have a meeting with the ministers of the six countries and they will report -- we will make an analysis of the situation after this period of time and we will see how to proceed," Radio Farda reported.

Referring to the July 13 Paris meeting, U.S. national security adviser Stephen Hadley said on July 10 in Washington that participants will consider Iran's response and determine "whether it is enough to move towards negotiations or whether we need to reopen a process at the Security Council," according to the State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs. (Bill Samii)

RUSSIAN MINISTER RULES OUT USE OF FORCE AGAINST IRAN. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists in Paris on July 13 that Russia "excludes any possibility of the UN Security Council sanctioning the use of force against Iran," Russian news agencies reported. Lavrov added, however, that Moscow is "disappointed with the absence of a positive reaction from Iran" to the recommendations and proposals worked out recently by the UN Security Council and Germany on Iran's nuclear activities. He noted that if Tehran does not return to negotiations, "the Security Council will consider steps appropriate to the situation." Russian and Chinese diplomats reluctantly agreed with their Western colleagues on July 13 that Iran has delayed too long in responding to the council's proposals and that the matter should be referred back to that body. (Patrick Moore)

VOTING AGE TO RISE. Legislator Kazem Jalali said on July 12 that the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee has approved a bill that would increase the voting age, Mehr News Agency reported. The current voting age is 15, and the bill would raise the minimum age of voters to 18. However, according to Jalali, this change applies only to municipal council elections. As elections for councils and for the Assembly of Experts are scheduled to coincide this year, it is not clear how smoothly the voting process will go. (Bill Samii)

COUNTERINTELLIGENCE HEADQUARTERS CREATED TO DEAL WITH BORDER UNREST. Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi said on July 12 that a special counterintelligence headquarters is being created to handle insecurity in the provinces along Iran's borders, Fars News Agency reported. Hashemi-Shahrudi said there is a distinction between antiregime efforts to stir up ethnic conflict and other factors that cause public disturbances. The Islamic Republic faces continuing unrest in the predominantly ethnic Azeri provinces in the northwest and the Baluchi-inhabited regions bordering Pakistan in the southeast.

There is trouble in the Kurdish regions that border Iraq and Turkey, too. Operations by the Iranian and Turkish armed forces against Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) personnel are continuing, Roj TV from Denmark reported on July 12. The PKK attacked an Iranian military post in Zeman Griwi village in Kamyaran, while the Iranian military shelled an area between Kamyaran and Hewraman. Meanwhile, General Hassan Karami, the police commander in West Azerbaijan Province, said PKK forces have suffered significant losses recently, "Kayhan" reported on July 11. He added that many PKK members are surrendering. (Bill Samii)

RESURGENCE OF RELIGION-POLITICAL SOCIETY RAISES CONCERNS. The recent announcement by a former Iranian vice president of the arrest of members of a banned and clandestine religio-political group probably caught many observers by surprise. The secretive Hojjatieh Society is unlikely to have many remaining members. And allegations in the past five years of Hojjatieh activism have generally appeared in connection with political disputes or to explain sectarian strife. But statements by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who reportedly is inclined toward Shi'ite millennialism, have contributed to speculation that the Hojjatieh Society is making a comeback. Could that include a run for Iran's supreme leadership?

Given the opaque nature of Iranian government, the public might never know just how pervasive the Hojjatieh Society's activities really are.

But Former Vice President Abtahi was quoted by the hard-line daily "Kayhan" on July 5 as saying that several Hojjatieh Society members were arrested recently. It is difficult to test the veracity of the claim by Abtahi, who served as vice president for legal and parliamentary affairs under ex-President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami. But it renews fears that the secretive Hojjatieh could wield considerable power in the Iranian establishment.

The Hojjatieh group was formed by a Mashhad-based cleric in the early 1950s to counter the activities of Bahai missionaries, who claimed that the long-awaited Twelfth Imam of Shi'ite Islam had already returned and been superseded by the Bahai faith. That cleric, Sheikh Mahmud Halabi, recruited volunteers who could debate the Bahais and who formed the original Hojjatieh Society (formally known as the Anjoman-i Khayrieyeh-yi Hojjatieh Mahdavieh). But reference sources say the society expanded its reach and its membership in the 1960s and 1970s.

Hojjatieh members initially opposed the ideas of Islamic government and rule of the supreme jurisconsult (Vilayat-i Faqih) espoused by the father of Iran's revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Instead, they favored collective leadership of the religious community and opposed religious involvement in political affairs.

But founder Halabi feared a communist takeover after the 1978-79 Islamic revolution. So he urged his followers to abandon their ideas about collective religious leadership and secular government in Iran's watershed referendum in December 1979.

That move reportedly paid off in the form of administrative appointments in the postrevolutionary government for members, whose religious credentials have been described as "impeccable" by author Baqer Moin in his 1999 book, "Khomeini: Life Of The Ayatollah."

Khomeini and others appear to have grown concerned over Hojjatieh members' secrecy, however, and their success. By 1983, Supreme Leader Khomeini was attacking the Hojjatieh Society and demanding that they "get rid of factionalism and join the wave that is carrying the nation forward" or be "broken." The Hojjatieh Society announced its official dissolution the same day, according to author Moin.

Fast-forward more than two decades to a speech just weeks after President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's August 2005 inauguration. Outgoing President Khatami is warning of the emergence of an extremist movement that is raising fears of corruption and claiming that universities' curricula are insufficiently Islamic. Khatami adds that such groups aid foreigners who do not want to see Islamic states succeed, according to Fars News Agency on August 19.

Reformist commentators quickly pick up on the same theme. A member of the left-wing Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization, Hashem Hedayati, says Khatami issued his warning because extremists are entering the government, "Etemad" reports on August 21. Hedayati adds that the phenomenon represents a strategic shift by the Hojjatieh Society, which previously avoided involvement in political affairs.

Less than a month later, a former interior minister and parliamentarian who is a prominent member of the pro-reform Militant Clerics Association (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mobarez), also warns of a Hojjatieh revival. Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Mohtashami-Pur says the society opposed involvement with politics before the revolution but subsequently changed tack and displayed a more violent tendency, "Etemad" reports on September 18. Mohtashami-Pur compares the Hojjatieh Society with Osama bin Laden's terrorist group, Al-Qaeda, and accuses it of "speaking through various podiums, brandishing a truncheon on a heretic witch-hunt, [and] accusing [Iranian] youth" of wrongdoing.

Late last year, former Vice President Abtahi noted that many grassroots religious groups had backed Ahmadinejad's presidential run. What stood out most, he said, was that these groups praised the Twelfth Imam, rather than speaking in political terms, the "Financial Times" reported on November 9. Abtahi speculated that Ahmadinejad has "more important goals than politics," warning that the new head of state "speaks with the confidence of someone who has received God's word."

Ahmadinejad's references to the Twelfth Imam in a September speech at the United Nations brought his affinity for millennialist views to the world's attention. Ahmadinejad's later observation that he was surrounded by an aura during the speech, and that the spellbound audience in the General Assembly sat unblinking, also drew attention to his unorthodox views.

More concretely, there are suggestions that Ahmadinejad has earmarked millions of dollars in government funds for the Jamkaran Mosque on the outskirts of Qom, where some Shi'a believe the Hidden Imam will reappear. Finally, there has been a burgeoning of Iranian websites that focus on the Hidden Imam.

A reformist legislator, Imad Afruq, cautions to the reformist "Etemad-i Melli" daily on February 20 that many "pseudo-clerics" who promote mysticism are distorting Islam and misleading the faithful. Under these conditions, the lawmaker claimed, the Hojjatieh Society will find it easy to operate.

At the same time, a Supreme Court judge, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Sadeq Al-i Ishaq, is quoted by "Etemad" on February 20 as warning of the persistent danger of reactionaries. He says Ayatollah Khomeini regretted ever making use of the reactionary clerics, and accuses the Hojjatieh Society of hiding its true intentions so it can gain places in the government. The judge argues that society still exists and that clerics should take the danger seriously.

There have been accusations that Ahmadinejad's religious mentor, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, is a member of the Hojjatieh Society, a claim that he rejected, according to "Hemayat" newspaper on April 30. The hard-line cleric prompted controversy when he claimed last year that the Twelfth Imam prayed for Ahmadinejad's election, according to "Mardom Salari" on July 21, 2005.

Now, Mesbah-Yazdi's name has surfaced in connection with the upcoming election of the Assembly of Experts, which supervises the Iranian supreme leader's performance and selects a successor. Mesbah-Yazdi has been mentioned by some as a possible successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In an effort to preempt Mesbah-Yazdi's selection, opponents have criticized him on a variety of pretexts -- including his perceived lack of activism against the monarchy before Iran's Islamic revolution.

The outcome of this fall's Assembly of Experts election should help gauge the support that Ahmadinejad and his allies have for placing Mesbah-Yazdi atop Iran's theocratic system -- if that is indeed their objective. Given the lack of transparency in the Iranian political process, however, it will be extremely difficult to get an accurate reading of the Hojjatieh Society's influence. (Bill Samii)

AMERICAN AND IRANIAN SCHOLARS ALLY TO OPPOSE SEIZURE OF ANCIENT PERSIAN TABLETS. Iran has strongly condemned a U.S. court ruling authorizing the seizure of ancient clay tablets from Iran to compensate American survivors of a 1997 Jerusalem bombing. Plaintiffs claim the Iranian state should be made to compensate them because of its support for Hamas, which claimed responsibility for the deadly attack. Iranian officials have called on the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to force the return of the Persian tablets, which are on loan to Chicago University. The university has argued in favor of returning the artifacts to Iran -- and has vowed to protect them.

The clay tablets were discovered in the 1930s by American archeologists in the former capital of the Persian Empire, Persepolis. They were then sent for study to the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, where researchers say they contain a trove of information about the Persian Empire 500 years before the Christian era.

Abbas Alizadeh is a senior researcher at the University of Chicago and an expert on ancient Iran. He tells RFE/RL that the 2,500-year-old tablets constitute an invaluable part of Iran's historical heritage and provide details about the lives of ancient Persians.

"They are the only documents we have about the Achaemenid Period that give us valuable information about [Persian] society, [and the] economy, and how they built Persepolis -- for example, that they didn't use slaves, [or] that women had almost the same rights as men," Alizadeh says. "And many Achaemenid locations that we are still not aware of are cited there. [The tablets] are very important, and we cannot put a price on them; they are priceless."

The tablets have been on loan to Chicago University for seven decades to allow their study and translation.

But several Americans injured in the bombing of a Jerusalem mall nine years ago won a court ruling in June that would allow them to seize and auction off the collection.

Pursuant to a previous decision that ordered Iran to pay the victims more than $400 million based on its sponsorship of Hamas -- the U.S. court concluded that the university cannot protect Iran's ownership rights to the tablets.

That paves the way for the plaintiffs to confiscate them.

Iranian officials did not show up in court -- a factor that weighed heavily against them in the court's reasoning. But they protested as soon as news of the verdict emerged.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki threatened to retaliate if the ruling is implemented and the tablets are seized.

Other officials expressed outrage, too, saying they will appeal to the International Court of Justice, UNESCO, and other international bodies.

Iranian embassies around the world condemned the ruling, which they say violates international norms and regulations.

Last week, Iranian government spokesman Gholam Hussein Elham vowed that Iran would not permit its cultural heritage to be seized.

"Through [Iran's] legal actions and the efforts of all Iranians abroad, Iran's cultural heritage will be snatched from the claws of those who are not committed to any principles," Elham said.

About 3,000 Iranians living outside the country have signed a petition calling on the U.S. Supreme Court to step in to reverse the ruling. They argue that the Iranian people should not be punished for "whatever the Islamic regime of Iran is doing in the international arena."

Alizadeh warns that implementing the U.S. court's decision could put museums at risk "by people who are trying to profit from tragedies."

"These tablets belong to a [whole] nation. And any government in power at any given time -- now, in the future, or in the past -- is merely the custodian of these tablets, not the owner," Alizadeh says. "Therefore you cannot seize them from the Iranian government -- or you would have to take the people of Iran to court, which is impossible. But if the court disregarded these arguments and ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, then all of the world's museums would be in danger."

Iranian Vice President Esfandiar Rahim Moshaei heads Iran's Cultural Heritage Organization. He warns that the U.S. decision could endanger cultural exchanges at scientific centers around the globe.

Moshaei says he expects cultural and scientific institutions and organizations to oppose the ruling.

Alizadeh says the case has come as a surprise to many.

"When you speak to those who are involved in these issues, they can't believe this case has gone so far," Alizadeh says. "And as far as I've heard, this case will have no chance in the next court session."

The director of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, Gil Stein, has stated in a letter to Iranian officials that the institute remains committed to safeguarding the Persepolis tablets.

Stein called the tablets "every bit as unique and important as the original document of the Constitution of the United States." Reports suggest his institute will appeal last month's ruling.

On July 10, Iran's state news agency, IRNA, quoted UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura as suggesting that the U.S. court decision was "illegal."

Iranian officials have announced that they intend to hire experienced U.S. legal advice to seek the return of the tablets. (Golnaz Esfandiari)