24 March 2003, Volume 6, Number 13
KHAMENEI, KHATAMI CONDEMN OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in a 21 March Noruz speech broadcast by state radio described the allied attack on Iraq as an "unjust war...that is based on high-handedness and bullying." Khamenei dismissed stated American and British goals, saying: "Their aim is to occupy Iraq, dominate the Middle East region, and gain total control of this precious treasure, namely oil.... They want to protect and safeguard the existence of the illegitimate Zionist government." Khamenei said that Iran supports the Iraqi people, not Saddam Hussein or the Ba'athist regime. Khamenei called on the Iranian people to be vigilant, to know the U.S. and U.K., and to "prepare themselves for possible confrontations."
President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami in a Noruz speech that was broadcast by state television accused the U.S. of undermining international regulations, insulting world opinion, and weakening the UN. Khatami condemned the military action, and he said that America is isolated and its action illegitimate. (Bill Samii)
IRANIAN DIPLOMACY CONTINUES AFTER CONFLICT BEGINS. Tehran's immediate official reaction to Operation Iraqi Freedom, which commenced on 20 March, was a statement from Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi saying that "American military operations on Iraq are unjustifiable and illegitimate," according to a Foreign Ministry statement cited by the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA). Later in the day Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei referred to Iraq during a gathering for the Shia feast of Id al-Qadir (the anniversary of the day when the Prophet Muhammad appointed his cousin Ali to succeed him) and said, "The major powers of the world are proud to be bullies, to be aggressors," state radio reported. Khamenei described the attack on Iraq as "a 100 percent beastly move."
Such statements reflect Tehran's skepticism about U.S. motives and its geopolitical concerns. They may also reflect bitterness over the failure of Tehran's last minute diplomatic efforts to prevent a conflict. Nevertheless, such diplomatic efforts are continuing.
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud bin Abd al-Aziz al-Saud al-Feisal on 18 March greeted Kharrazi when he arrived in Jeddah, IRNA reported. Kharrazi met with Saudi Crown Prince Abdallah Bin-Abd al-Aziz al-Saud and the foreign minister to discuss the possible U.S. attack against Iraq. "What is happening in the region is to safeguard the interests of Israel," Kharrazi said during a meeting with his counterpart. He added, "Unfortunately the gap between the Islamic countries is so wide and the Iraqi regime is responsible for this by sowing the seed of discord among Islamic states through imposing a war on Iran."
Kharrazi visited Sanaa on 17 March, met with Yemeni President Field Marshal Ali Abdallah Salih and Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qurbi, and expressed Tehran's opposition to a U.S. attack against Iraq, IRNA reported on the same day and the Yemeni Saba news agency reported on 18 March. Kharrazi added that the Iraq crisis represents an American effort to divert attention from Palestine, Iranian state radio reported.
Kharrazi is not the only concerned and active Iranian diplomat. Former Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati was tasked as President Khatami's special envoy and sent eastward. Velayati visited Jakarta on 18 March and delivered a message from Khatami to Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, Iranian state radio reported. Velayati said, "The attack on Iraq will start a new phase of international disorder and it will threaten world security and weaken the role of the UN as well." Megawati concurred on the need to resolve the Iraq crisis under UN auspices.
Velayati arrived in Islamabad on 19 March, IRNA reported. The Iranian state news agency had reported three days earlier that Velayati was to discuss the Iraq crisis with Pakistani officials and to relay a message from President Khatami to General Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan is currently one of the nonpermanent members of the UN Security Council, and Velayati said on 19 March that "Iran and Pakistan have been consulting and coordinating at different world fora such as the UN, OIC [Organization of the Islamic Conference], and NAM [Non-Aligned Movement]."
Iranian efforts did not stop after Operation Iraqi Freedom began. Velayati arrived in New Delhi on 20 March, IRNA reported, bearing a message for Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, with whom he met on 21 March to discuss events in Iraq. Moreover, Kharrazi on 20 March chaired a meeting of the Foreign Ministry's "Iraq Crisis Headquarters" and had a telephone conversation with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, IRNA reported, and the next day he telephoned his British counterpart, Jack Straw, state radio reported.
These diplomatic efforts are in line with Tehran's stated policy of "active neutrality." Khamenei's anti-American statements, meanwhile, reflect Iranian hard-liners' long-standing antipathy to the United States, as well as Tehran's geopolitical concern of being surrounded by the U.S. and its allies. Nor was Tehran fully confident that its diplomatic efforts would succeed -- the Foreign Ministry announced on 19 March that it had recalled its personnel from Baghdad, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported. (Bill Samii)
TEHRAN RADIO COMMENTARY DENOUNCES U.S. An Iranian state radio analyst using the name "Mr. Kheradmand" commented on 20 March, "The American military aggression against Iraq lacks the support of the United Nations Security Council [and] is therefore an illegal action contrary to the international regulations." Kheradmand dismissed the U.S. objectives of disarming Iraq and liberating its people. Some 45 countries have joined the "coalition of the willing" against the regime of Iraqi regime, but Kheradmand dismissed this as "the support given by a handful of countries to America." Kheradmand concluded: "America and Britain have the blood of the innocent people on their hands and they are responsible for the heavy material losses of this unjustified war. These two countries must be answerable for their illegal actions." (Bill Samii)
TEHRAN'S REPEATED CLAIMS OF U.S. 'PSYCHOLOGICAL WARFARE.' An early announcement from Tehran radio on 20 March, citing Reuters, said the U.S. Army had taken control of Iraqi radio frequencies, with an Arabic-speaking announcer stating, "The attack on Iraq has begun." This could be a reference to American Commando Solo II missions that are broadcast from Pennsylvania Air National Guard EC-130E aircraft on AM, FM, and other frequencies (see http://www.army.mil/usar/news/2003/03mar/solo.html).
Baghdad is repeatedly changing its radio frequencies in an effort to counter "America's psychological and propaganda warfare," Tehran radio reported in the hours after Operation Iraqi Freedom began on 20 March. IRNA later cited Iraqi dissident sources as saying that Baghdad has both fixed and mobile radio stations for this purpose. Tehran radio added that the United States started broadcasting on the Radio Baghdad frequencies soon after the attack commenced, so Al-Shabab, Baghdad, and Sawt al-Jamahiriyah radios have changed their frequencies.
Iranian state radio on 22 March reported that an American television network had cited Central Intelligence Agency sources who said that the three top figures in the Iraqi regime were dead, but that Iraqi television showed a meeting of President Saddam Hussein, his son Qusay, and Defense Minister Lieutenant General Sultan Hashim Ahmad al-Jabburi Tai. Iranian radio cited anonymous "independent sources" that described the report of the Iraqis' deaths as "the continuation of American psychological warfare operations." (Bill Samii)
MKO LEADER RUNS. Masud Rajavi, leader of the Iraq-based terrorist group known as the Mujahedin-i Khalq Organization (MKO), moved his headquarters to a private house owned by General Ali Hassan al-Majid (a cousin of Saddam Hussein, also known as "Chemical Ali" for his involvement in atrocities against the Kurds) in Tharthar, some 100 kilometers west of Baghdad near the town of Fallujah, the Iraqi Kurdistan Socialist Democratic Party newspaper "Rebazi Azadi" reported on 18 March. Rajavi reportedly took this step to protect himself in case of an American attack on Iraq. Beirut's "Daily Star" had reported on 18 February that an MKO delegation was touring European capitals to find a safe-haven for Rajavi, according to IRNA. While it is not clear how the MKO will react when confronted by American forces, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in response to a question posed about the MKO during a 26 February press briefing, "I wouldn't advise anyone to confront American forces" (see http://usinfo.state.gov). (Bill Samii)
IRGC COMMANDER ANNOUNCES READINESS. Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) commander Yahya Rahim-Safavi said during a 15 March visit to the western city of Kermanshah, "The armed forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran remain vigilant and they are monitoring all activities on the borders of our country," Iranian state radio reported. Rahim-Safavi gave his perspective on U.S. reasons for attacking Iraq: "Americans want to attack Iraq in pursuit of their strategic aims. They want to change the geographical situation in the Middle East, gain control of Iraq's energy resources and make the Zionist regime more secure in the Middle East." (Bill Samii)
TEHRAN PROTESTS ALLEGED AIRSPACE VIOLATIONS. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on 20 March, "The airspace of the Islamic Republic of Iran is closed to the warring sides and they are strongly required to respect it," IRNA reported. In the evening of 21 March the Foreign Ministry summoned Swiss Ambassador Tim Guldimann, whose country represents U.S. interests in Iran, and British Ambassador Richard Dalton in order to protest alleged violations of Iranian airspace by U.S. and U.K. aircraft during the first two days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, IRNA reported.
Prior to the meeting at the Foreign Ministry, Iranian Interior Ministry Public Relations Office Secretary-General Jahanbakhsh Khanjani said on 21 March that the reason for an explosion at a repair warehouse at the National Iranian Oil Company industrial estate in Abadan is not known and is being investigated, ISNA reported. Minutes earlier Dubai's Al-Arabiyah television network reported that two people were injured when a missile hit an oil refinery in southwest Iran. Shortly thereafter, anonymous "Iranian government sources" told Reuters that the explosion was the result of a missile strike. Abadan Governor Jamal Alami said on 22 March that the rocket fired from an American aircraft injured three people, IRNA reported.
An unidentified "military commander" said later that two more American rockets hit "the village of Manyuhi in Arvand-Kenar near the border with Al-Faw Peninsula" on 22 March, IRNA reported. There also was an IRNA report that a missile caused an explosion near Khorramshahr on 22 March. An Interior Ministry official said in the evening of 22 March that this report was inaccurate and explained that because Abadan, Khorramshahr, and Sardasht are near Iraq, explosions there can be felt in the Iranian cites, ISNA reported.
Abadan Governor Jamal Alami had said that American aircraft violated Iranian airspace five times between 6:30 and 7:00 p.m. local time on 21 March, according to a 22 March IRNA report. An unidentified Iranian "military commander" said in the morning of 22 March that American and British aircraft had entered Iranian airspace near the border city of Arvand-Kenar that day, IRNA reported.
Tehran made similar unconfirmed claims during Operation Desert Fox in late-1998.
U.K. Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon during a press briefing in the morning of 22 March could not confirm the current Iranian allegations. A British Defense Ministry spokeswoman told AFP on 23 March, "Given the disposition of forces it's most likely that this incident was the result of Iraqi action, that's currently the situation."
State Department deputy spokesman Phillip Reeker said later in the day, "we responded last night through the Swiss channel saying that we take this seriously and will look into it," Reuters reported. "Today, we are sending a second message through the Swiss confirming that we are looking into it," Reeker added. "We take seriously Iranian sovereignty and territorial integrity." Iranian officials privately conceded that the missiles could be Iraqi ones fired at U.S. aircraft down, Reuters reported.
Iranian Interior Minister Abdolvahed-Musavi-Lari said on 23 March, "Expert studies indicate that the missile that landed in Sardasht region was probably Iraqi-built," IRNA reported. The Foreign Ministry subsequently summoned the Iraqi charge d'affaires. (Bill Samii)
IRAN CLOSES ITS BORDERS; NO REFUGEES YET. Deputy Interior Minister and Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs chief Ahmad Husseini said on 20 March that Iran's border with Iraq was closed shortly after the allied attack against Baghdad began, IRNA reported. Husseini said that so far no refugees have been seen approaching the border, but he predicted that the conflict could result in up to 1.2 million refugees heading for Iran. Husseini reiterated that Iran would host the refugees at camps established inside Iraq.
Adel Nasseri, deputy governor of Oshnavieh in West Azerbaijan Province, said the same day that Kurdish Iraqi refugees would be settled inside Iraq, where Iran would provide them with accommodations and other services, IRNA reported. The refugees would be allowed on Iranian territory only in case of an emergency, and to that end the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee, the Red Crescent Society, the army, and the police have taken steps to settle them in camps in Sardasht, Piranshahr, and Oshnavieh cities.
Khorramshahr Governor-General Mohammad Ali Shirali said on 19 March that his Khuzestan Province city is ready for any refugees, IRNA reported. Shirali described preparation of a camp "in Khin region, 8 kilometers away from Khorramshahr, near the border city of Shalamcheh, inside Iran." He urged locals to stay calm, saying, "Since the police and army forces stationed at the border strip are on full alert, the people should not be worried at all." (Bill Samii)
IRAN'S MIA SEARCH IN IRAQ TO RESUME AFTER WAR. Iran released almost 400 Iraqi prisoners of war in the afternoon of 17 March, Iranian state radio reported. Iran's Prisoner of War (POW) and Missing in Action (MIA) Commission head Brigadier General Abdullah Najafi said afterwards that Iran would release more than 1,200 Iraqis and in return Iraq would release 350 Iranian prisoners, and the entire process would take three days at the Khosravi border crossing. Iraq's INA news agency confirmed in a 17 March dispatch that 395 Iraqi POWs arrived at the Al-Mundiriyah border post in the Diyala governorate, after undergoing "long isolation and bitter suffering during their imprisonment in Iranian jails and concentration camps, which they faced with patience, bravery, and sacrifice in defense of their dignity, principles, and homeland."
None of the Iranians being released are POWs, Qasr-i Shirin Governor Hussein Khush-Iqbal said, according to IRNA on 18 March. Included among the released Iranians are religious pilgrims, university students, tour guides, farmers and villagers from the border regions, and Iranian border guards, he said.
The last batch of prisoners was exchanged on 19 March, and General Najafi said that a total of 351 Iranian prisoners had been sent home in three stages, IRNA reported. Najafi said 888 Iraqi POWs were sent home in three stages and the remaining 350 POWs would be released in the next month.
Speaking in Abadan on 19 March, MIA search committee head Brigadier General Mirfeisal Baqerzadeh said that the Iraqi actions do not satisfy all of Tehran's demands. He reiterated that the individuals released by Iraq were not POWs and explained that many Iranian POWs were killed while in captivity and then buried in Iraqi cemeteries. Iranian officials are trying to bring these remains home, Baqerzadeh said. He added that search operations would resume when the current Iraq crisis ends. (Bill Samii)
AL-KHOI DENIES ROLE IN FUTURE IRAQI ADMINISTRATION. Abd-al-Majid Khoi, the son of the late Grand Ayatollah Khoi and secretary-general of the London-based Al-Khoi Foundation, denied in the 19 March issue of London's "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that the U.S. government has tapped him as the head administrator of southern Iraq or that his recent trip to Kuwait had anything to do with such a tasking. Al-Khoi said that Iranian officials had leaked the story in order to undermine some Iraqi Shia individuals by linking them with Washington (see Iranian Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai's claim; "RFE/RL Iran Report," 17 March 2003). Al-Khoi went on to say that by now all the Iraqi opposition, including the Iran-backed and -based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution Iraq (SCIRI), is to some extent connected with Washington.
If a war does occur, al-Khoi said, it will be added to "the list of crimes of the ruling Iraqi regime that has taken Iraq and the region to this situation through its arrogance, misconduct, inhuman adventures, indiscriminate attacks on the Iraqis' neighbors, plus its failure to abide by international resolutions and attempts to shirk them." (Bill Samii)
IRAQI ISLAMIST COMPLAINS OF EXCLUSION. Abu Bilal al-Adib, a member of the predominantly Shia Al-Da'wah al-Islamiyah (Islamic Call) party's political bureau, said on 15 March that the Iraqi opposition perceived after meetings in London (in December) and northern Iraq (in late February) that the U.S. "has its own plans and [does] not want the Islamists to be part of its plans," IRNA reported. "At this stage, America is only trying to satisfy the Shia in order to achieve its objectives," he said.
Al-Adib is part of the Al-Da'wah branch that is close to the Iranian government, and he previously has denigrated the U.S. and questioned its motives. Al-Adib on 20 March condemned the allied attack on Iraq, IRNA reported. He described it as unacceptable and harmful to the Iraqi people. Al-Adib predicted that the Western states that strengthened Iraq previously would now occupy it.
Al-Adib also said on 15 March that the Iraqi opposition has not formed its leadership council yet, and so far there are only two Shia on the opposition committee responsible for dealing with the transition period following President Saddam Hussein's overthrow. SCIRI associate Seyyed Muhsin al-Hakim said on 20 March that the Iraqi opposition's leadership would meet in Iraqi Kurdistan in the coming days, ISNA reported. An anonymous source close to the SCIRI leadership said on 22 March that the Iraqi opposition would meet in northern Iraq on 23 March to discuss a transitional government, IRNA reported. (Bill Samii)
IRAQI OPPOSITION LEADERS MEET IN ANKARA. A meeting of Iraqi opposition groups in Ankara that was hosted by the Turkish Foreign Ministry ended on 19 March, the Anatolia news agency reported. Representatives of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, the Iraqi National Accord, Iraqi National Congress, the Iraqi Turkmen Front, the Kurdish Democratic Party, the Movement for Constitutional Monarchy, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and the SCIRI, participated in the meeting, as did Turkish and U.S. officials.
The objective of the meeting was to determine Iraq's future political structure and the opposition's representation in it, IRNA reported. The meeting's final statement announced the intention to preserve Iraq's territorial integrity, nation unity, and independence, as well as the desire to eliminate weapons of mass destruction. Iraqi natural resources would be used for the benefit of the Iraqi people; uncontrolled refugee movements would be discouraged; and racial, ethnic, gender, linguistic, and religious discrimination would be eliminated. (Bill Samii)
SCIRI EMPHASIZES MILITARY ACTIVITIES. Iraqi National Congress (INC) Chairman Ahmad Chalabi said in the 15 March issue of "Al-Hayat" daily newspaper that the Iraqi opposition created a "joint field command" during its late-February meeting in Salaheddin. Any opposition group that has a military wing is part of this joint field command, he said, and its forces will play a major role in the liberation of Iraq and in maintaining security afterwards.
So far it seems that the SCIRI military unit known as the Badr Brigade (or Badr Corps) is the opposition's most active military element. Bayan Jabr of the SCIRI told Czech Radio 1 on 19 March that his organization has 40,000 trained and armed troops at its disposal. He added, "We have at our disposal tanks, armored vehicles, missile launchers, and chemical protection means, masks and antichemical clothing." Other SCIRI figures are reluctant to give precise numbers, but Abu Hassan al-Ameri, the Imam Ali unit's field commander, told AP on 15 March that Badr has "tens of thousands" of fighters in Iraq.
SCIRI Jihad Office chief Abdul Aziz al-Hakim said on 15 March that the SCIRI intends to fight Saddam Hussein in its own way, regardless of U.S. plans. And al-Ameri said, according to London's "Al-Hayat" newspaper on 16 March, that it is up to the SCIRI to decide on its involvement in any war. He said: "We have sacrificed more than 1,000 martyrs in southern Iraq, in the north, and in the marshland. Everybody will realize that it is impossible to exclude us from the quest to overthrow Saddam. Furthermore, our troops are present inside Iraq and are waiting for our orders in the cities, in Baghdad, Najaf, and Karbala."
SCIRI leader Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim was quoted in the 19 March "Financial Times" as saying that the Badr Corps has been militarily active "for the past few days" and has attacked security and command facilities in Baghdad and southern Iraq. The Kurdish "Hawlati" newspaper reported on the same day that the number of Badr personnel in Iraqi Kurdistan had increased from just a few hundred to more than 3,000, and they were poised to attack Khanaqin.
After Operation Iraqi Freedom began in the early hours of 20 March, SCIRI spokesman Muhammad Hadi al-Asadi told ISNA that the Badr Brigade is continuing its activities aimed at overthrowing the Iraqi regime. SCIRI associate Seyyed Muhsin al-Hakim said on 20 March, "The Badr Corps will continue its activities in northern and central Iraq, as well as in Baghdad and important southern cities," ISNA reported.
On the other hand, SCIRI leader al-Hakim in a 22 March interview with Al-Jazeera television said that the Badr Corps would not participate in Operation Iraqi Freedom, which he denounced as an "aggressive war." Al-Hakim said that the Baghdad regime is responsible for the war because it ignored appeals for a peaceful resolution, and the U.S. is responsible too because "it defied international sentiments in general and the sentiments of Muslims and Arabs. It also defied international laws and the Security Council resolutions, as well as the international position...the United States also defied the European position." Al-Hakim described it as an "act of hegemony, and not an act of liberation."
The SCIRI was established in Iran in 1982 and has been based there ever since. It is close to the Iranian leadership and the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), and some Iraqis see it as an extension of Iranian foreign policy. The 16 March "Al-Hayat" described a Badr Brigade parade in Darbandikhan in which the master of ceremonies spoke broken Arabic with a Persian accent, and the band played Persian melodies.
Nevertheless, Iranian government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh on 20 March reiterated his country's neutrality and stated that Tehran would not extend any assistance to the Iraqi opposition, IRNA reported. (Bill Samii)
IRANIAN-BACKED ARAB ORGANIZATIONS CONDEMN IRAQ INVASION. Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah on 20 March called on all "Lebanese and Palestinian nationalist and Islamic groups" to participate in an emergency meeting, IRNA reported, citing Hizballah's Al-Manar television. Hizballah Deputy Secretary-General Shaykh Naim Qasim said in the 21 March issue of London's "Al-Arab al-Alamiyah" that the United States and the West have resorted to war because "the Americans believe that military intervention is the fastest method to dominate and control the region." Qasim said that Iraq is only the beginning of the U.S. plan; the U.S. sees Iran, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria as the "effective quadrant" regarding the Palestinian issue, and this quadrant can be pressured with a successful outcome in Iraq. Israel could focus its attentions on Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria, Qasim said, and the U.S. would focus on Iran and the Gulf states.
Hizballah has deployed extra 57 mm antiaircraft guns in southern Lebanon in anticipation of a possible Israeli attack that would begin after the assault on Iraq commences, Beirut's "The Daily Star" newspaper reported on 20 March. UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) sources could not confirm reports that Hizballah has deployed Katyusha rockets, and UNIFIL spokesman Timur Goksel described "reasonable defensive preparations by both sides." Hizballah official Hassan Izz-al-Din said, "Hizballah is not fearful but cautious and ready for any Israeli attack." He explained that Hizballah's defensive posture would change only if Israel launched an attack.
Abd-al-Aziz al-Rantisi, a leading figure in Hamas, said in a 20 March interview with Al-Jazeera television, "The American should be pursued on every inch of this earth...the United States is the one that is invading us in our homeland." Al-Rantisi called on Arabs and Muslims to "confront the United States." He said that "the Palestinian people who suffer from the Zionist aggression against the Palestinian land and people are the best-placed to feel the pain and bitterness felt by the fraternal Iraqi people." The Hamas official added that Israeli forces are preparing to attack Palestinians, but "if the enemy steps into Gaza, he knows that it will be his grave." Hamas leader Ismail Haniyah told Al-Jazeera on 20 March, "The United States is practicing what can be described as armed robbery against the Iraqi people and against territory and indeed against all our Arab and Muslims region."
An official Hamas statement on the Palestinian Information Center website (http://www.palestine-info.net) said that the U.S. wants to occupy Iraq and control its resources, and it warned that U.S. "aggression" would go beyond Iraq's border.
A statement issued by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad on 20 March announced that "the alliance of evildoers" has launched "an all-out war against everything Islamic" (http://www.qudsway.com). The Iraqi target will be followed by Syria, Iran, and Lebanon, the statement said, and after that will come Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Pro-American Islamic regimes will not be safe from "the American-Zionist project." The statement called on people to defend Iraq if they love Palestine. "You must declare war on the United States with all the resources at your disposal...attack its economic interests and American-Zionist pillar regimes in the region." The statement concluded, "Your future depends on your jihad and resistance to the new imperialist aggressive plans." (Bill Samii)
BUDGET INCREASE FOR GUARDIANS A SETBACK FOR REFORMISTS. President Mohammad Khatami and his allies in the government and parliament suffered yet another defeat last week when the conservative Guardians Council won a significant budget increase from the Expediency Council arbitration body. The budget developments in the final days of Iranian year 1381, which ended 20 March, capped a year of setbacks for reformists. Only last month they were defeated badly in nationwide local-council elections, particularly in Tehran.
The latest factional fracas erupted on 16 March, when the Expediency Council, in its role as arbitrator of legislative disputes between parliament and the Guardians Council, decided in favor of the Guardians by assigning it a budget increase far greater than what the government had proposed and parliament had legislated. The Expediency Council approved $12.5 million (100 billion rials) for the Guardians, more than double the $5.5 million specified by the legislators but far less than the $20 million the Guardians wanted. In protest, President Khatami made an unprecedented protest walkout from the Expediency Council session, accompanied by parliament speaker Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi and parliamentary Plan and Budget Committee Chairman Hojatoleslam Majid Ansari.
The issue for Khatami's government and the reformist-dominated parliament was that, according to their interpretation of the Islamic Republic's constitution, the Expediency Council had usurped parliament's duty of setting the budget. Prominent reformist deputy Mohsen Armin said the Expediency Council's decision in favor of the Guardians was "politically motivated" and had been meant to "humiliate" parliament, IRNA reported on 19 March. More than 150 reformist deputies signed a protest letter on 16 March, complaining that the Guardians' budget had risen 437-fold in the past 20 years. Many of the deputies announced they would submit their resignations on 17 March but were prevented from doing so when conservative deputies boycotted the session so that it could not reach a quorum. One prominent deputy on 18 March said that "under no condition" would the legislature accept the budget increase for the Guardians.
But the twelve Guardians -- officially, the "guardians of the constitution" -- dismissed the question of constitutionality and responded by writing to speaker Karrubi that all had been done according to Guardians Council rules, the Tehran daily "Yas-i No" reported on 18 March. In any case, the Guardians noted, all was in accordance with the wishes of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who they claimed had told them back in July 2001 that the government ought to provide them with the funds that they needed. Specifically, their most pressing need was to set up an Islamic jurisprudence data bank.
Some of the parliament deputies suggested that an arbitration committee be set up to determine whether the Expediency Council had acted improperly, but the committee, whose membership has not yet been disclosed, decided on 19 March that Expediency Council Chairman Hashemi-Rafsanjani had acted correctly. That may be the end of the matter; in any event, if newspaper publication remains suspended for the traditional two-week Noruz holiday, the reformists will have no public vehicle with which to protest further.
Beyond the separation-of-powers issue of parliament's "humiliation," the sizable budget increase should give the Guardians further resources to carry out more effectively another function that severely stymies democratization in Iran. One of the main roles of the Guardians Council, which reformist legislators have tried in vain to overturn, is to vet candidates for parliamentary and presidential elections. With new parliamentary elections coming up next year, the Guardians will now have all the resources they need to ensure that only those candidates who meet their (often undisclosed) standards will be able to run. (Steve Fairbanks)
AGHAJARI REFUSES PSYCHOLOGICAL EXAMINATION. Zahra Behnudi, the wife of Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization member Hashem Aghajari, said in a 15 March telephone interview with IRNA that her husband would only defend himself in an open court and in the presence of a jury. Behnudi was reacting to a recent Supreme Court decision that five specialists should examine Aghajari's psychological health. Behnudi said, "As a university lecturer, a religious intellectual, and a critic, Aghajari believes that such allegations against him are unfair." Behnudi did not explain in what way these qualifications attest to an individual's mental health. Behnudi said that when she last saw her husband, on 6 March, he was physically well. The court has not responded to the request for bail, Behnudi said. (Bill Samii)
NO HICCUPS IN IRAN-RUSSIA CONTACTS. The lead-up to war in Iraq apparently did not have an impact on Iran-Russia relations. Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref said Iran's cooperation with Russia is of a "strategic, long-term nature," according to Moscow's ITAR-TASS agency on 18 March.
Moreover, Iranian officials expressed hopes for long-term trade cooperation with Russia as the Iran-Russia Joint Economic Commission met in Tehran on 17-18 March, according to IRNA and Iranian state radio. The Iranian head of the commission, Assadollah Asgaroladi, in an 18 March interview with Iranian state radio, said that Iran's current imports from Russia are around $700 million but that Iran exports far less than that to Russia due to that country's problematic banking system, transportation problems, and tariffs. Asgaroladi listed the main areas of trade with Russia as atomic energy and steel.
In a related development, Iranian Petroleum Minister Bijan Namdar-Zanganeh said during a meeting with Russian State Property Minister Farit Rafikovich Gazizullin that the Bushehr nuclear-power plant would begin operating at the end of December 2004, state radio reported on 18 March. Namdar-Zanganeh and Gazizullin on 18 March signed a memorandum of understanding that addresses cooperation in oil and gas projects, petrochemical equipment, training, and nuclear energy development, as well as research in the health, agriculture, and industry sectors, IRNA reported.
Meanwhile, Russian Deputy Atomic Energy Minister Andrei Malyshev said on 18 March that Russian specialists would continue their work on the Bushehr nuclear-power plant regardless of possible U.S. military operations against Iraq, ITAR-TASS reported. Malyshev added that Bushehr is 300 kilometers from the Iraqi border and it is well protected by the Iranian military. Presumably the defenses have improved since the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, when the Iraqi Air Force bombed and damaged the Bushehr nuclear facility (in 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, and 1988). (Bill Samii, Steve Fairbanks)
BUSH WISHES IRANIAN AMERICANS HAPPY NORUZ. President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush in a 20 March statement from the White House sent greetings to Iranian Americans on the Iranian new year, Noruz, and expressed "best wishes for a joyous celebration to you, your families, and your relatives and friends in Iran" (http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/03/20030320-9.html). The statement noted that "America remains committed to peace, justice, and opportunity for all people" in this challenging time. The statement expressed dedication to "bringing hope and freedom to troubled regions around the world." (Bill Samii)
TEHRAN REJECTS U.S. 'EMERGENCY' EXTENSION. President Bush on 13 March submitted a six-month periodic report to the U.S. Congress on the national emergency regarding Iran that was declared in Executive Order 12957 of 15 March 1995 (see http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/03/20030313-9.html). This step originally was taken in reaction to the threat posed to the U.S. national security, foreign policy, and economy by the government of Iran's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them, its support for international terrorism, and its efforts to undermine the Middle East peace process. The national emergency will continue for one year because these threats continue, according to President Bush's statement.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on 16 March that extension of the emergency amounts to a "cliche devised for the American internal use," IRNA reported. He dismissed the measure as a reflection of Washington's "irrational" policies and a step that would contribute to America's international isolation. Nor would it have an impact on the Iranian people, according to Assefi. "There has always been a civilized government ruling over Iran since centuries ago, and the efforts such as the senators' resolution never works with the Iranian people." (Bill Samii)