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Iran Report: May 5, 2003

5 May 2003, Volume 6, Number 19

IRAN OBSERVES MAY DAY AMIDST MOUNTING LABOR PROBLEMS. As Iran marks another Labor Day -- observed on 1 May since the 1979 revolution as a nod to the country's leftist tendencies -- Iranian workers and the politicians who support them are demonstrating their discontent with the Islamic Republic's failure to fulfill its promises of social equality.

The May Day speech at the quasi-governmental Tehran Labor House by Hassan Sadeqi, head of the Association of Islamic Labor Councils, was disrupted by chants of "workers condemn exploitation of the workforce" and "death to capitalists," the Iranian Labor News Agency reported. The workers then called for a strike. Sadeqi told them that this is their right but they cannot do so without the government's permission. At the end of the official ceremony a worker leapt to the stage and complained that after 25 years under the Islamic regime workers have gotten nothing but lies and promises.

Some 2,000 workers from Tehran staged a sit-in at the Tehran Labor House on the eve of May Day to protest working conditions, wages, and privatization, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. While calling for defending the rights of workers and "countering capitalism," they demanded a halt to privatization, apparently out of concern for the on-again, off-again efforts to privatize inefficient state-owned industries and the layoffs that are part of efforts to make such concerns more efficient.

President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami on 30 April acknowledged that creating employment for university graduates is "an urgent need of the society," IRNA reported, but he offered no specifics on how to better use the capabilities of Iran's youth. IRNA reported some 60 percent of those unemployed in Iran are between the ages of 15-24, and most of them are well-educated. A recent report by Iran's Statistics Center showed that unemployment among those with a high-school and university education stands at 41.4 percent, compared to 23 percent unemployment among the lower-educated and illiterate, IRNA reported.

The Khatami government has been under severe criticism lately for its failure to deliver on its promises to create more jobs. In a 30 April speech carried by state radio, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei expressed sympathy with the country's workers and called for economic reforms, implicitly blaming Khatami's government for failing to bring down government expenditures, control inflation, and increase employment.

The Tehran daily "Kayhan" on 29 April complained that the government and parliament are playing "political games" and "definitely need to wash their eyes." The 17 April issue of "Farhang-i Ashti" complained that Khatami's economic team has been "daydreaming" about job creation. It labeled the president's promise a year ago to create 1 million new jobs "just a political bluff," and claimed that no more than 370,000 new jobs have in the interim been created. The publication predicted that fictitious figures would continue to be presented in order to give a positive image of the president's final years in office. (Steve Fairbanks, Bill Samii)

IRANIAN YOUTH THREATENED BY 'LUMPENISM.' The director of Iran's national Youth Organization, Morteza Mir-Baqeri, recently called for measures to counter the threat of "organized lumpenism" among Iran's youth, the Tehran daily "Iran" reported on 28 April. He cited statistics that show that 2.5 percent of Iranian youths are addicted to drugs, 3.16 percent are inclined toward "wrongdoing," and 3.01 percent lean toward rebellion. He said that HIV/AIDS is growing "in an algorithm pattern" in Iran and called on the media to report the disease. Some 28 percent of Iranian youths are unemployed, he said, and 80 percent of those who are employed make less than $125 per month. (Steve Fairbanks)

CONTROVERSIAL CLERIC DISCUSSES DESPONDENT YOUTHS. Indicating his awareness of the lumpenism phenomenon, former Isfahan Friday-prayer leader Ayatollah Jalaledin Taheri said on 28 April that officials must try to understand young people and heed their demands in order to address youthful pessimism about the future, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported. He said officials should "pursue the reforms demanded by the people, who are the real heirs of the revolution," stop their political disputes, and focus on national interests rather than personal or factional ones. "When youths see that you do not seek to serve your own interests, but serve those of the revolution, then they will support you at every stage," Taheri predicted.

Drug abuse is a symptom of youthful disenchantment. Atekeh Tehrani, who works with the drug-abuse department of the State Welfare Organization, said on 27 April that the use of synthetic drugs such as Ecstasy (MDMA) and LSD is increasing in Iran, IRNA reported. Ecstasy, LSD, GHB, Rohypnol, Ketamine, and methamphetamine ("crank") are just some of the "club drugs" that young people use at all-night dance parties ("raves"), dance clubs, and bars. Tehrani added that young people are turning to heroin more frequently, because it is less expensive and more readily available than other opiates.

Iran also is contending with the flow of narcotics originating in Afghanistan. Police in southeastern Sistan va Baluchistan Province announced on 28 April that they had seized 999 kilograms of opium and hashish in a series of raids during the previous three days, IRNA reported. Police in Hamedan Province claimed to have seized 50 kilograms of drugs in the 21 March-21 April period, IRNA reported, and police in Kerman Province announced on 28 April that they seized 82 kilograms of opium that was being smuggled on mules. Kermanshah Province police announced on 27 April that they seized 74 kilograms of hashish in recent raids. (Bill Samii)

DISSIDENT CLERIC DENIES ABANDONING REVOLUTION. Referring to those who accused him of abandoning the revolution when he wrote a very critical and highly publicized resignation letter in July 2002 (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 15 July 2002), former Isfahan Friday-prayer leader Ayatollah Jalaledin Taheri said on 28 April, according to ISNA, "May I be damned if I have abandoned the revolution." Taheri continued: "I have seen the mutilated bodies of our youths on battlefields. I have heard the cries of people being tortured by the previous regime's committees. How could I have abandoned the revolution?" (Bill Samii)

PARLIAMENTARIAN IN HOT WATER FOR REPORT TO UN HUMAN RIGHTS TEAM. The Tehran Justice Department has denounced an Iranian parliamentarian's allegations that two pollsters have been tortured, IRNA and ISNA reported on 27 April. The department said that remarks made by Tehran parliamentarian Ali Akbar Musavi-Khoeni about arbitrary detention to a UN team visiting Tehran in February were "false and harmful to national interests."

Musavi-Khoeni had told the team that Hussein Ali Qazian and Behruz Geranpayeh, jailed for publishing a poll that found that most Iranians favored the normalization of ties with the United States, were held in a secret location and made confessions under torture. As a result, the Justice Department complained, the UN team prepared a draft resolution that "aimed at putting pressure on Iran" at the very time that "the Americans were active in international forums in an effort to prepare the ground for condemning...the dear and honest Iranian nation."

Pollsters Qazian and Geranpayeh issued statements from Evin prison denying that they had been mistreated. Geranpayeh thanked prison guards for treating him respectfully and politely and pointed out that they had given him desserts such as dates, fruit, and milk during the month of Ramadan. He complained that the "false and irresponsible" statements by the Tehran parliamentarian only served to "undermine the position and prestige of the Islamic Republic in international forums," according to the Justice Department's account of testimony by Geranpayeh.

The Inspection Department of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps' Joint Chiefs of Staff filed the complaint against Musavi-Khoeni, IRNA reported on 26 April. Musavi-Khoeni refused to show up after being served a summons by the Tehran Justice Department, according to IRNA and ISNA.

Musavi-Khoeni staged a sit-in at the legislature on 1 May, according to the Iranian Labor News Agency. Yazd parliamentarian Mohammad Reza Tabesh said that as a legislator Musavi-Khoeni should have legal immunity for what he says while performing his duties. Furthermore, his statements were truthful. Tabesh said that parliamentarians and the judiciary had discussed immunity previously and expected it to be respected. (Bill Samii, Steve Fairbanks)

GOVERNMENT SPOKESMAN CHARGED WITH INSULTING GUARDIANS COUNCIL. Government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh said he will report to an appeals court in Tehran on 28 April to respond to charges made by the public prosecutor that he insulted the Guardians Council, Tehran's "Iran Daily" reported on 27 April. The paper's murky account of the charges indicates that they stem from an interview regarding the cancelled results of the 2000 parliamentary elections in two provincial towns, which led to a complaint against Ramezanzadeh by the Guardians Council. He was sentenced to a six-month prison term, according to "Iran Daily." (Steve Fairbanks)

AMIR-ENTEZAM BACK IN JAIL. Abbas Amir-Entezam, a deputy foreign minister in the 1979 provisional revolutionary government, is back in jail, "Iran Daily" reported on 27 April. Amir-Entezam spent most of the last 24 years in prison after being convicted for espionage and treason in 1979, but was released on bail last year for medical reasons. He was ordered back to Evin prison on 26 April after making a speech at Tehran University, during which he called for a referendum on whether Iraq should remain under clerical rule, according to "Iran Daily." (Steve Fairbanks)

IRANIAN CAPITAL GETS NEW LEADERSHIP. The new, conservative-dominated Tehran municipal council, which met for the first time on 29 April after being elected on 28 February, elected Mehdi Chamran as its head, IRNA reported. Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari dissolved the municipal council in January for incessant feuding. Chamran, although relatively unknown, finished first in the sparsely attended council elections. Fourteen out of 15 seats were won by hard-liners in the 28 February elections, in which only some 10 percent of voters participated. The low electoral turnout and the switch from the previous reformist-dominated council was attributed to the failure of reformist politicians to effect needed changes.

The new municipal council also appointed Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad as Tehran's new mayor on 29 April, IRNA reported. Ahmadi-Nejad previously served as Ardabil Province's governor and also is a university lecturer in Tehran.

The mayoralty is a political lightening rod, especially in light of the intense factional disputes that are played out in Tehran. Mayor Gholamhussein Karbaschi endured a corruption trial in 1998 that related more to his role in getting dark-horse Khatami elected as president. Karbaschi's successor, Morteza Alviri, resigned in February 2002 after almost continuous disputes with the council. The next mayor, Mohammad Hassan Malek-Madani, was sentenced to jail and barred from public office on corruption charges in January 2003. (Steve Fairbanks, Bill Samii)

NEW IRANIAN PROSECUTOR-GENERAL APPOINTED. The Iranian judiciary has appointed Said Mortazavi prosecutor-general of public and revolutionary courts, IRNA reported on 29 April. As the judge at Bench 1410 of Tehran's Administrative Court, Mortazavi gained much notoriety among reformists for closing down newspapers and for his harsh sentencing of journalists on charges of publishing lies and influencing public opinion. The post of prosecutor-general in Iranian courts had been vacant since 1993, compelling Iranian judges to also act as prosecutors. (Steve Fairbanks)

CONSERVATIVES CRITICIZE IRAN'S FOREIGN POLICY. Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai said in an interview that appeared in the 27 April issue of "Entekhab" that Iranian diplomacy during President Khatami's second term (which started in 2001) has been marked by submissive diplomacy, missed opportunities, and the giving away of unilateral concessions in exchange for minimal financial returns. Rezai said that in Khatami's first term (1997-2001) the climate of trust between Iran and other countries improved, but cooperation did not advance much. He expressed concern that Iran will adopt a submissive position in the face of outside pressure.

Foreign-policy expert Hassan Abbasi said in the 27 April issue of "Resalat" that Iran's foreign policy of "detente...brought us short-term and tactical gains," but "caused our foreign policy to become inactive." "We did not start the tension, so why should we have detente? Had we attacked anyone?" Abbasi said. He added that the inactivity of Iranian foreign policy is noticeable in the Caucasus, Chechnya, the Balkans, Iraq, "and more important than all, with regard to the issue of Palestine." (Bill Samii)

GREAT BRITAIN WARNS IRAN ABOUT TERRORISM. British Prime Minister Tony Blair said on 28 April that the United Kingdom wants Iran and Syria to cease their support for terrorist activities that are interfering with the Middle East peace process, dpa reported. Syria and Iran "have sponsored terrorism that has sought to disrupt that process and that sponsorship of terrorism has got to stop," he said.

Israeli Public Security Minister Tzahi Hanegbi said on 28 April that Israel demands that the United States do more than place Iran in the "axis of evil," Voice of Israel radio reported. Hanegbi called for resolute action against Iran.

Moreover, Israel has accused Iran of trying to undermine Palestinian Premier-designate Abu Mazen, dpa reported on 28 April, citing the daily "Yediot Aharonot." Avi Dichter, the director of Israel's Shin Bet security service, said that "Iran is trying to stoke the fire of terrorism in order to cause difficulties for Abu Mazen when he assumes his position," the Israeli daily reported. Israeli officials cited in the newspaper said Iran trained and funded the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade unit responsible for the 17 April suicide bombing in the Israeli town of Kfar Saba. (Bill Samii)

IRAN TOPS U.S. TERRORISM LIST AGAIN... "Iran remained the most active state sponsor of terrorism in 2002," according to the U.S. State Department's annual "Patterns of Global Terrorism-2002" report that was released on 30 April ( Iran has done little to comply with international norms on terrorism, and the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security "were involved in the planning of and support for terrorist acts and continued to exhort a variety of groups that use terrorism to pursue their goals."

The report notes that Iran encourages anti-Israeli activity -- for example, Supreme Leader Khamenei referred to Israel as a "cancerous tumor." Moreover, Iran provided Lebanese Hizballah, Hamas, the Palestine Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command with "funding, safe haven, training, and weapons." Tehran also encouraged all these groups to coordinate their planning and escalate their anti-Israel activities.

Iran provided less intensive support to terrorist groups with ties to Al-Qaeda in Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, according to the State Department report. This is presumably a reference to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and to Ansar al-Islam in Iraq. Iran's record on Al-Qaeda is mixed; some members were turned over to their governments and others found safe haven in Iran.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi on 1 May dismissed the inclusion of Iran on the terrorism-sponsor list as "baseless and repetitive," IRNA reported. Assefi compared this with what IRNA termed "U.S. cooperation with the [Mujahedin Khalq Organization] MKO terrorist grouplet" and said, "the U.S. lies in combating terrorism are now quite evident." (Bill Samii)

...AND TEHRAN'S MUJAHEDIN FOES ARE ON LIST, TOO. The Iraqi-based armed opposition to the Iranian regime is identified as a "foreign terrorist organization" in the State Department's "Patterns of Global Terrorism-2002" report. The Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO) -- a.k.a. the National Liberation Army of Iran, the People�s Mujahedin of Iran, the National Council of Resistance, and the National Council of Resistance of Iran -- has killed Americans in the past and supported the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. After getting kicked out of Iran by the Islamic regime, in 1981 the MKO detonated a bomb that killed some 70 Iranian officials. Then it sided with Baghdad in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War and fought against Iranian forces. In 1991 the MKO helped suppress Shia uprisings in southern Iraq and Kurdish ones in the north, according to the report, and since that time it has done internal security work for the Ba'athist regime. In the last four years the MKO has carried out assassinations, hit-and-run raids, and mortar attacks in Iran. Most of its funding and support came from the Iraqi regime, and it has an external support structure that solicits contributions from expatriates. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN LEADERS ANGRY ABOUT MKO STATUS IN IRAQ. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on 30 April said that a U.S. cease-fire with the Iraq-based MKO showed that the United States believes that terrorism is "only bad when it is not in the service of America," Iranian state radio reported. Despite America's having "taken up the banner of fighting terrorism," Khamenei said it has now "taken under its wing" MKO terrorists who have attacked Iranians and fought alongside Saddam Hussein's troops against the Iraqi Kurds and Shia.

Expediency Council Chairman and former President Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani said on the same day that the cease-fire indicates Washington's "hypocrisy" in its war on terrorism since it would allow the MKO to keep arms and "pursue sabotage against neighboring Iran," IRNA reported. Various parliamentarians and columnists echoed these views. One in the influential conservative daily "Resalat" on 29 April, for example, wrote that Washington's aim is to "reconstruct and strengthen" the MKO in order to carry out acts of terror both inside and outside Iraq.

U.S. State Department Counterterrorism Coordinator Cofer Black on 30 April described the cease-fire as "a prelude to the group's surrender," AP reported. "They're a foreign terrorist organization. They are not well-liked in Iraq. They could not be put with a general prisoner population. They are following the orders of the coalition commanders, and their situation will be addressed in the coming days and weeks."

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer on 29 April said that the cease-fire was "part of the ongoing immediate postcombat effort to enhance security on the ground," and said the U.S. goal was to make Iraq "free of all terrorist organizations." Neither spokesman directly addressed the issue of whether the MKO was allowed to fight Islamic Revolution Guards Corps forces that the MKO claims have been infiltrating Iraq to fight them. (Steve Fairbanks)

IRAN CURBS PILGRIMAGES TO SHRINES IN IRAQ. The head of Iran's Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization, Mohammad Hussein Rezai, and Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi both announced on 28 April that Iran will not dispatch any pilgrims to the Shia holy sites in Iraq until an Iraqi government is established, IRNA reported. AFP added that Asefi warned that travel agencies will be punished if they conduct private tours to Iraq, including popular trips to the Shia shrines at Al-Najaf and Karbala. (Steve Fairbanks)

GREAT BRITAIN SAYS IRAN NOT MEDDLING IN IRAQ. "The Islamic Republic does not interfere in Iraqi domestic affairs," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi told reporters on 28 April. He said that it is up to Iraqi groups, not Tehran, to decide on who participates in the conference of Iraqi opposition groups that opened in Baghdad on 28 April (see below).

Air Marshall Brian Burridge, commander of British forces in the Persian Gulf, apparently agrees with Asefi, and said in an interview with AP on 28 April that he sees no sign the Iranian government is meddling in Iraqi affairs. Burridge said that although "some Iranian factions may be trying to influence political developments in Iraq," he believes that "the Iranian government has heeded the warnings of both the U.S. and the U.K." Iranian leaders, he said, "recognize that it is not in their interest to be destabilizing at the moment."

Burridge's remarks appeared to be in reference to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's allegations that Tehran has been stirring up trouble among Iraq's Shia population. Burridge cautioned against jumping to conclusions and pointed out that Great Britain, unlike the United States, has diplomatic relations with Tehran and therefore is in a better position to know "what is local, what is internally generated, and what may or may not be externally generated" in Iraq.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said on 28 April that "it is important that Iran behaves in a responsible way towards Iraq and does not attempt to destabilize the situation at all," dpa reported. "I'm not accusing them of doing that, I'm simply stating that it is important it doesn't happen." (Steve Fairbanks)

SCIRI UNENTHUSIASTIC ABOUT BAGHDAD MEETING. Retired U.S. Major General Jay Garner, head of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), facilitated a meeting of more than 250 Iraqis from across the political spectrum in Baghdad on 28 April to address the formation of a post-Hussein government in Iraq. The meeting also marked the 66th birthday of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Garner told participants, "Today on the birthday of Saddam Hussein, let us start the democratic process for the children of Iraq," Reuters reported. Shia and Sunni clerics, Kurds, businessmen, and Arab tribal leaders attended the meeting.

Hundreds of Iraqis, mostly Shia Muslims, protested outside the 28 April Baghdad meeting, according to Reuters. Protesters said that Shia clerics from the shrine city of Al-Najaf were not properly represented at the meeting. Specifically, the Howzeh Elmieh seminary was reportedly not represented. "The Shia parties do not represent the Howzeh at Al-Najaf" a cleric told Reuters, while a banner stated, "The Howzeh in Al-Najaf must participate in the conference because it represents the people's opinions."

The Iranian-backed Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which has made contradictory statements regarding its willingness to participate in U.S.-led efforts at facilitating a post-Hussein government, was not present at a mid-April opposition meeting near Al-Nasiriyah. SCIRI spokesman Muhammad Asadi said on 25 April that SCIRI leaders were meeting in Tehran to consider the invitation to Baghdad, AP reported on 26 April. "If they [the United States] are going to respect our rights according to our last campaign in London, we will participate surely," he said.

According to a CENTCOM news release (, SCIRI attended the 28 April meeting. London-based SCIRI spokesman Hamid al-Bayati, on the other hand, told Al-Jazeera television on 28 April that none of the organization's political figures were in attendance. "However," al-Bayati said, "some Iraq-based engineers and technocrats who are supportive of SCIRI attended the meeting." Their attendance should be seen in the context of cooperation with ORHA, al-Bayati said. Expressing SCIRI's stand on the issue of working with the U.S.-led initiative, al-Bayati stressed that SCIRI believes that political issues should be left to Iraqis alone. "We have called for boycotting any political measures, or any meeting aimed at forming an interim Iraqi administration under General Garner," he said.

Al-Bayati told Al-Jazeera that the six factions of the Iraqi opposition leadership -- including the SCIRI, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), and others -- would meet in Baghdad on 30 April. Details of that meeting are not yet available.

Meanwhile, Abu Bilal al-Adib, who heads the political bureau of Al-Da'wah Al-Islamiyah's Tehran branch, said in a 27 April interview with ISNA that his party was invited to the Baghdad meeting of Iraqi political figures but, "We have not made any decisions on participating in the Baghdad conference yet." Al-Adib echoed the statements of SCIRI's representatives, saying that the U.S. Defense Department organized the event, but Al-Da'wah believed that Iraqis should have organized it. He did not think the event would be successful under current circumstances. Al-Adib also said he believed that several such meetings would take place until there are approximately 1,000 participants, and said this would become analogous to Afghanistan's Loya Jirga and would elect a government.

The Iraqi participants agreed at the close of the meeting to convene a general congress in one month's time to set the foundation for the formation of a transitional government, Al-Jazeera reported on the same day.

It is still unclear whether decisions made amongst opposition members regarding the formation of a post-Hussein government will fit with the desires of the indigenous Iraqi population. For example, participants at the 300-delegate-strong December 2002 London meeting of the opposition formed a "Follow-up and Coordination Committee" of 65 opposition leaders to "liaise between the various groups and represent them in talks with world and regional leaders." According to reports, Shia Islamists would have 33 percent of the seats on the committee, while Kurds would get 25 percent, Arabs 66 percent, Turkomans 6 percent, and the Assyrians 3 percent (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 23 December 2002). The committee could form the basis for a more broad-based leadership council. (Kathleen Ridolfo, Bill Samii)


By Steve Fairbanks

Over the past few weeks Iran's ruling clerics have been struggling with the idea of entering into formal negotiations, at long last, with the United States. Proponents argue that the formidable U.S. presence in the neighborhood makes it in Iran's national interests to do so. But regime consensus on the issue does not appear to be close at hand, and the storm of criticism generated by one senior leader's proposal shows that sensitivities over breaking the 23-year taboo on even discussing such ties are not easily overcome.

The controversy erupted after the publication last month of an interview with Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, in which the Expediency Council chairman said that his council could consider such a proposal if parliament presented it. He even suggested that a national referendum could be held on the issue. His remarks were startling, considering that Tehran has regularly rejected suggestions of formal meetings or talks ever since relations between the two countries were severed in 1980. Implacable opposition to America has been essential to the regime's revolutionary image and a vital justification for keeping the ruling clique in power.

Though Rafsanjani from time to time had publicly advocated business ties with America during his 1989-97 tenure as Iran's president -- he even stood up to hard-liners by facilitating a favorable oil concession to a U.S. firm -- this public consideration of diplomatic ties was something new. None of Iran's leaders had dared to depart from the legacy of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who maintained that the United States and Iran were a "wolf and a lamb" that could never meet unless America changed its "bullying" ways. And Rafsanjani even expressed regret over Iran's having lost opportunities for talks, "acting too late or badly or doing nothing" -- an apparent reference to Iran's failure to reciprocate the conciliatory gestures made in the final years of President Bill Clinton's tenure.

Rafsanjani's long-established reputation as a skilled consensus builder and pragmatic politician means that the open-mindedness he expressed on ties probably reflected the thoughts of other top leaders, even if it was not politically possible for them to express them. None came out to back him up on the issue, but neither did any of them openly dispute him. Rafsanjani himself, probably to deflect criticism, a few days later gave a harsh critique of U.S. actions in Iraq, saying America is even worse than Saddam Hussein, though he did not mention the proposal for negotiations.

When Rafsanjani's interview was published on 12 April, many in the West greeted it as a sign that Tehran was changing its tune in response to America's dramatic military advances in Iraq. But in fact the interview appears to have taken place as early as 3 February, when the war in Iraq was still not a certainty. Though he almost certainly calculated then that a war was inevitable and that it would have serious implications for Iran, it appears unlikely that he made his remarks because he was intimidated by America.

The publication's timing served to scuttle, if only for the time being, Tehran's revisiting the issue of ties. Critics from both the reformist and conservative camps argued that Tehran would be in an exceptionally weak bargaining position if it suddenly proposed talks just when the United States was at its victorious height. "Wouldn't such negotiations lead to strategic concessions that would be required from our country?" the reformist Tehran paper "Mardom Salari" asked on 19 April.

Predictably, some reformists blame earlier "missed opportunities" on hard-line conservatives who had blocked President Mohammad Khatami's goal of detente with the United States. But most reformists could not embrace Rafsanjani's proposal, likely perceiving that doing so would only confirm conservatives' characterization of them as on America's payroll. Then again, the vilification of Rafsanjani by reformist newspapers during the 2000 parliamentary elections, which resulted in his embarrassingly low showing at the polls, makes it awkward for reformists to side with him now.

Factional rivalry repeatedly raises its head over the issue of ties. Reformists do not want Rafsanjani and his conservative allies to take credit for, and reap the benefits of, a breakthrough with America, just as the conservatives always did all that they could to prevent President Khatami from thawing relations with Washington. And there are institutional rivalries, too: the reformists argue that it should be the government (read Khatami) or the parliament (dominated by reformists) that should decide the issue. Constitutionally, they argue, the issue is beyond the jurisdiction of Rafsanjani's conservative-dominated Expediency Council (literally, the "Council for Determining the Best Interests of the System").

Members of both factions reject Rafsanjani's proposal for a nationwide referendum on the grounds that a democratic settlement of such a crucial issue would undermine the regime's authority. Reformists had advocated such a referendum for the past few years, but now many of them fear that if it were held at Rafsanjani's wish it would be a public-relations boon for the conservatives, who would appear to be more in line with the people's wishes.

If a consensus is reached on this crucial issue, and assuming that Washington is amenable to talks at this juncture, it would have to be Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who gives the go ahead, representing as he does (or should) all the major factions, just as only Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had the authority to accept a cease-fire with Iraq in 1988. But Khamenei so far has shown no public inclination to change policy on the United States.

The two sides have too much to talk about to remain estranged much longer. Washington's plans for postwar Iraq (including, most recently, its truce with the Iranian opposition organization, Mujahedin Khalq) are the latest of pressing issues that call for direct talks between Washington and Tehran. U.S. economic sanctions on Iran, America's intentions toward Persian Gulf and Central Asian security, and Iran's nuclear ambitions are also high on the long list of issues that need direct, bilateral discussion.