Foes Challenge President's Economic Rhetoric
Lawmakers in the conservative-dominated parliament assailed Ahmadinejad on January 21 over signs of runaway inflation. One lawmaker cited a threefold increase in the price of tomatoes, prompting the president to tell him to "come and do your shopping in my neighborhood" rather than patronize "expensive places."
Ahmadinejad, who was presenting his second annual budget plan to the parliament, countered that his government has successfully controlled inflation.
'Playing With Prices'
Ahmadinejad reportedly had told his ministers on January 9 that their government inherited inflation from its predecessors. He claimed that "certain elements" with ties with previous governments were using "illegitimate fortunes" to "create upheaval in the market and play with prices," the dailies "Etemad-i Melli" and "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on January 11. He accused those people of creating "a psychological atmosphere" that has led to price fluctuations.
Ahmadinejad has in the past criticized previous policies -- particularly the economic adjustments of the 1990s under the liberalizing governments of Presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami.
Allegations of corruption that enriches villains at the expense of the public purse is a recurring theme of conservative rhetoric. A past variant claimed the existence of an oil mafia that was helping itself to millions of petrodollars, in the absence of close supervision.
Critics On Both Sides
But the government might find the latest criticism -- which has come from conservatives as well as reformists -- tough to deflect.
On January 6, the conservative deputy speaker of parliament, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, warned that "the general level of prices seems to have gotten out of control," ISNA reported. He conceded that some of the responsibility might lie with previous governments. But he went on to blame more recent government spending, which he said parliament wishes to curb, and said low-cost government loans have forced up housing prices.
Another legislator, Ahmad Khas-Ahmadi, has challenged the government to hand corrupt cronies of previous governments over to prosecutors, according to ISNA on January 10. He blamed a "problem" system that leaves the economy vulnerable to speculation or market perceptions. But Khas-Ahmadi also questioned whether the economy had been managed in such a way as to encourage people to invest in production, rather than to hoard their assets.
Lawmaker Ismail Jabbarzadeh demanded that Ahmadinejad "state clearly" any information he has of financial wrongdoing.
Another legislator, Ismail Jabbarzadeh, demanded that Ahmadinejad "state clearly" any information he has of financial wrongdoing, Aftab news agency reported on January 10.
The head of a special economic department at the judiciary, Elias Mahmudi, weighed in the same day to say that his investigators "are waiting for the president to identify...those [people] with illegitimate fortunes, and God willing, he will," according to ISNA on January 10. Mahmudi vowed that public trials of the culprits would follow.
Rasul Sadiqi-Bonab, a member of the parliamentary Planning and Budget Committee, called the president's sweeping indictment an insult to all hard-working state officials, according to Aftab on January 12.
Another legislator, Tehrani Mehdi Kuchakzadeh, argued that "some of the problems" arise from "the methods and executive decisions...[of] today," adding that "the government, parliament, and judiciary...participate in" those decisions, ISNA reported. He then accused the judiciary of discreetly reassuring corrupt individuals that "nothing will happen" to them if they are caught. Kuchakzadeh said these factors combine to cause inflation.
Lawmaker Mohammad Reza Mirtajeddini did not excuse past governments, but he focused on the Ahmadinejad government's boasts that it is well equipped to resolve bread-and-butter issues. He said the country's "economy is sick," and he urged the president to take "essential measures" to make it better.
Plenty Of Blame
Lawmakers have argued for a range of measures to curb inflation -- in several cases urging a crackdown on speculators -- but their overriding message appears to have been that enforcement and policy-making are powerful tools in the government arsenal to combat abuses and price volatility.
Right-wing legislator Hasan Seidabadi noted that influential individuals from the previous administration -- with the accompanying connections -- can simply borrow from banks if they intend to speculate, "so the matter [has nothing] to do with judicial officials." He said the government should simply prevent such "agents" from abusing "banking resources and ailing-economy opportunities."
Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a former vice president under Ahmadinejad's reform-minded predecessor, President Khatami, utterly rejected the president's defense. Abtahi argued that "high prices that began a year and a half after" Ahmadinejad became president in 2005 "cannot be rooted in previous governments," according to Mehr on January 13. He challenged Ahmadinejad to tell voters what his administration has done to curb inflation.
But Ahmadinejad's own rhetoric could provide opponents with their most powerful weapon over his handling of economic pressures.
Hadi Baluki, a member of the reformist National Trust Party, noted in mid-January that "Ahmadinejad claimed he would bring oil money onto people's tables" but said people are instead being deprived of bread, ILNA reported on January 14.
Cleric Hussein Musavi-Tabrizi alleged the same day that the government is simply paying too little attention to Iranians' material problems, according to ILNA.
A former deputy finance minister, Said Shirakvand, conceded that systemic problems contribute to inflation, according to ISNA on January 17. But he stressed that he thinks "day-to-day" economic management, stagnant production, and large pockets of cash are to blame for the current inflationary dilemma.
President Ahmadinejad Comes Under Fire
The letter comes amid growing criticism of Ahmadinejad's economic and international policies, including an indirect rebuke from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Ahmadinejad is likely to get a frosty reception when he goes before the parliament on January 21 to present his proposed budget.
Issa Saharkhiz, a prominent pro-reform journalist in Tehran, told Radio Farda recently that Ahmadinejad is coming under increasing fire from lawmakers.
"Other members of parliament have individually criticized the government and Ahmadinejad himself," Saharkhiz said. "If you look at the work of the parliament in the past two weeks, you can see a sort of opposition and confrontation with the government on different issues."
More than half of the members of the conservative-dominated parliament have criticized government spending and a perceived over-reliance on oil revenues. Critics have cautioned that reserves from oil earnings are in poor shape and that the falling price of oil is worrying.
Legislators have also argued that the government must reexamine its economic policies and management -- which many blame for a surge in inflation and a failure to reduce unemployment.
Ahmadinejad, who has been in office since mid-2005, has in the past defended his economic polices and blamed previous governments for such problems.
Reformist and conservative legislators have begun collecting signatures to demand that Ahmadinejad appear before the parliament to answer questions regarding his nuclear policy and other issues. They have reportedly collected at least 50 of the 75 legislative signatures required to summon the president.
Observers say the parliament's recent moves indicate a growing dissatisfaction with Ahmadinejad's performance -- and an attempt by some conservative legislators to distance themselves from his actions.
Ahmadinejad and his allies were dealt a heavy blow in recent local elections when voters rejected many of his favored candidates. The adoption in December of UN Security Council sanctions to pressure Iran over its nuclear work followed. Critics accuse Ahmadinejad of undermining Iranian interests through his harsh rhetoric and actions like Tehran's hosting of a recent Holocaust-deniers' conference.
The conservative daily "Jomhuri Eslami" advised President Ahmadinejad in an early January editorial that he should remain silent on the nuclear topic and instead leave the talking to those who are in charge. The daily is said to reflect the views of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who has the final word in official Iranian affairs.
The conservative daily "Jomhuri Eslami" advised President Ahmadinejad in an early January editorial that he should remain silent on the nuclear topic and instead leave the talking to those who are in charge.
For Saharkhiz, the spate of criticism targeting Iran's president suggests that Ahmadinejad's best days are behind him. He suspects that Ahmadinejad is losing the trust of Iran's leader.
"Mr. Ahmadinejad cannot as easily as before meet with Mr. Khamenei, and the criticism...among clerics shows that the golden era of Mr. Ahmadinejad has ended and that he is moving very rapidly toward a fall," Saharkhiz said.
Ahmadinejad's confrontational international style and hostility toward the West are also increasingly criticized.
Many have criticized Ahmadinejad's recent tour to Latin America -- where he met with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, and other U.S. irritants -- as well as its timing.
Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a former vice president, described it as "the most expensive and most useless" of foreign endeavors by the government. The moderate "Ettemade Melli" daily asked whether Chavez and Ortega can possibly be "Iran's strategic allies."
Rising prices are another reason for growing discontent with the government. A former Tehran mayor, Ahmadinejad rose to national prominence in 2005 with a pledge to bring Iran's oil revenues to households. But in recent months, food prices have climbed as the cost of housing has done the same.
A deputy speaker of the parliament, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, said on January 7 that the government had promised low-interest loans for housing -- a move that increases demand in the sector and with a knock-on effect on rents and purchase prices.
Sadegh Zibakalam, a political analyst in Tehran, speculates that some of Ahmadinejad's supporters are also losing patience with the president.
"Those who voted for Ahmadinejad 18 months ago might feel that things have not really changed," Zibakalam said. "Of course, nobody expects social justice to be applied and all economic problems solved in Iran in 18 months -- but even the lowest expectation was that Ahmadinejad's government would have some concrete and reasonable programs to deal with it."
Zibakalm said it is still unclear what actions Ahmadinejad might take in the face of the growing criticism.
"Until today, he hasn't shown a serious reaction to the problems," Zibakalm said. "Whenever he has a speech, instead of talking about the main problems, he says, for example, that on the international scene all the Muslims are with us. [His stances] have nothing to do with the problems that people are feeling and dealing with in their daily lives."
(Radio Farda correspondent Behruz Karuni contributed to this report)
Tehran Sees A Divide-And-Conquer Policy In The Mideast
Other Iranian politicians have echoed the ayatollah's remarks and, while their interpretations of regional developments are sometimes based on speculation about the motives of Western or Arab powers, the general tendency discerned is a "colonial" tactic of divide and conquer.
Seeking Islamic Unity
Ayatollah Khamenei told a crowd in Qom, central Iran, on January 8 that religious elites and thinkers have a key duty now to avoid religious discord and promote the unity of all Muslims.
Iran's supreme leader continued, saying that "the enemy" wishes to turn longstanding differences between Shi'a and Sunnis into a means for "fratricide and war and bloodshed among Muslims...so Shi'a must not make the slightest remark or move to help this plot," ISNA reported.
Khamenei added that the divisive policies by the United States are a response to its failures in the Middle East, and to the "growing wave of the Islamic awakening" that finds its source in Iran's Islamic regime.
Hostility among Iranian officials to the United States is certainly not new, however the stated concern of Arab states joining Washington is more recent. Khamenei said "certain Arab states" are making concessions to the United States. He referred to "certain analyses, signs, and reports" indicating U.S. plans to form an anti-Iranian coalition including "Great Britain and certain Arab states."
Such a coalition would achieve little, he added, since Iran already withstood eight years of war with Iraq in the 1980s. Iranian officials like to say that Baghdad enjoyed the support of Arab states, the West, and the Soviet Union during that bloody conflict but yet Iraq still did not triumph.
Khamenei made similar remarks on January 15, accusing Western powers of working against Iran and its defense of the rights of Muslims in various places, including Palestine and Lebanon.
His remarks were then repeated by Iranian politicians, who can neither ignore nor criticize the supreme leader's statements. Khamenei's positions set the tone and general direction of Iranian policies. Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said in Tehran on January 9 that "there is no doubt...America and certain powers" are promoting discord in the region, and he said Khamenei had spoken the day before "for the vigilance of nations and governments in the region" and to "prevent discord and divisions," ISNA reported.
He said "it is not about any particular country" while speaking at a joint press conference with United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zaid al-Nuhayyan.
Legislator Kazem Jalali, a member of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said on January 12 that Iran must be careful with its regional relations, given "America's plot" to divide Shi'a and Sunnis.
Jalali said that "naturally we must move [toward] consolidated and strong relations with neighbors," ISNA reported. As "all the governments around us are Sunni Muslims, we have to be duly careful with this plot, so they do not create a difficult and cold atmosphere against Iran."
He said Iran should not relive the time when Western powers isolated it by "frightening" neighboring states about Iran. Jalali may have been referring to the 1980s, when Iran's newly installed revolutionary state was considered a danger to neighboring monarchies and free-market economies. He said "neighboring countries must know that any radical event happening in this region will harm everyone's interests, and it is not just about the Islamic republic."
Yahya Rahim Safavi, the head of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC), warned more forcefully that "the Arab states that wish -- in a sinister alliance with the Americans and British" -- to plot against Iran, should consider "[former Iraqi leader] Saddam [Hussein's] fate."
He said the "blood of martyrs" has pushed Iran's "oppressive enemies to their destruction." Safavi referred to the Soviet Union, Iraq, and "some of these Arab states that boosted Saddam's war machine with billions of dollars," ISNA reported. He said Iran's foreign policy is peaceful but "the enemies should know" that any "plot" will be "firmly suppressed."
On January 16, Guardian Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati also warned that "America's influence and temptations" might create concern about Iran among "certain regional states," IRNA reported. He warned about a bid by "colonial powers" to "create religious divisions" in Saudi Arabia. Jannati said the Hijaz -- where the holy cities of Mecca and Medina are found -- should be secure "but unfortunately negative policies have recently been noted there." He accused the United States of backing "Iraq's terrorists."
Several Iranian officials, as well as the media, see a threat to Iran in the Sunni hostility to Iraqi and other Shi'a, as these are seen as Iran's friends.
Concerns have also been expressed in past weeks at moves to present Saddam Hussein's execution as Shi'ite revenge rather than justice for a cruel dictator. A columnist in the reformist daily "Etemad-i Melli" discerned signs of growing hostility to Shi'a and Iran on January 17 in demonstrations in Jordan following Hussein's execution, and the December resignation of Prince Turki al-Faisal as Saudi ambassador in Washington.
The prince is seen as a promoter of moderation with Iran, while the daily observed that Jordanian security forces seemed not to have put restrictions on the demonstration, which was even attended by Saddam Hussein's daughter. The daily also termed undated comments by Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt -- who has reportedly accused Iranians of buying large tracts of land in Lebanon, "in the Zionist manner" -- as "another example of official anti-Iranian inclinations."
Noting many examples of hostility in Arab media to Persians, the columnist said the United States "cleverly" managed the execution of Hussein to foment anti-Iranian feeling and reduce the main obstacle to a military strike against Iran: hostility to such a move among Arabs.
The column urged Iranian officials to carefully consider their Arab policy and "find a solution" to the prospect of Arab "cooperation with or...indifference" to strikes on Iran. "In such conditions, could one witness the presence of Arabs in the streets...to defend Iran and oppose the hostile acts of the United States?" the columnist asked.
Bush Moves To Contain Iranian Influence
On January 10, Bush unveiled a new strategy for Iraq that includes sending more than 20,000 additional U.S. troops to the country. But the real import of his new Iraq plan may be a fresh focus on Iran and Syria.
"These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq," Bush said. "Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria, and we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq."
Something To Prove?
Indeed, the day after Bush spoke, U.S. forces arrested six Iranians in the Iraqi city of Irbil, accusing them of involvement in attacks against Iraqi civilians and military forces. Iran has vehemently protested the arrest and demanded the release of the five still being held.
Since the president's speech, several senior U.S. officials have reiterated Bush's focus on Iran and its ally Syria.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking on January 15 in Brussels, suggested that the United States has something to prove to Iran.
"The Iranians clearly believe that we are tied down in Iraq, that they have the initiative, that they are in a position to press us in many ways," he said. "They're doing nothing to be constructive in Iraq at this point."
But targeting Iranian and Syrian operatives in Iraq appears to be only part of the new strategy.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice just completed a tour of the region. It included a meeting with Sunni Arab foreign ministers in Kuwait that analysts called an effort to build an alliance to back U.S. stabilization efforts in Iraq and containment of Iran.
Another Carrier Group
But the most eye-catching part of the latest development is a large-scale buildup of U.S. military force in the region.
In the last week, the United States has confirmed the imminent arrival in the Persian Gulf of a second aircraft carrier strike force, as well as Patriot antimissile systems.
"There is a buildup here," says Anthony Cordesman, a former senior U.S. defense official who is now a military and Middle East analyst. "It is a buildup to deal with issues like Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq; with the fact that if you are going to be much more active in dealing with Sunni insurgents and Shi'ite militias, you may indeed need considerably more airpower."
The "USS John C. Stennis" strike group will join the "USS Dwight D. Eisenhower" aircraft-carrier group later this month in what the U.S. Navy called "a warning to Syria and Iran" in the face of acts seen as provocative.
The new strike force will give Washington 16,000 sailors in the region, as well as another nuclear carrier, seven escort warships, 10 air squadrons, 2 submarines, and helicopters to support amphibious landings.
Also this week, reports from Turkey say 16 American F-16 fighter jets have recently arrived at the country's southern Incirlik air base. Officially, they are there for exercises with Turkish NATO forces, but the timing of their arrival and proximity to Iraq and Iran have not been lost upon observers.
Finally, for the first time in history, a Navy officer has been put in charge of U.S. Central Command. Admiral William Fallon, an expert in air warfare, will be tasked with overseeing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Iran will also be part of his purview.
Concerns About Spreading Conflict
All these developments have helped spark a frenzy of media speculation: Is the United States, perhaps with Israel, moving toward military action against Iran?
U.S. lawmakers this week voiced concern the Iraq war could spread to Iran or Syria if U.S. troops chased militants across the border.
But White House spokesman Tony Snow on January 17 insisted the plan is limited to Iraq.
That point has been reiterated by General Peter Pace, the top U.S. military official -- an assurance that Cordesman believes to be sincere:
"Iran certainly is able to play a spoiler role in the region," Cordesman says. "It's able to use proxies like the Hizballah and extremist movements, its ties to Syria and to Iraqi militias raise issues. But it is a long way from being a major regional power and certainly one that can challenge anybody as long as the United States and its regional allies resist."
How Close Is Iran To Nukes?
Cordesman suggests that some have exaggerated the Iranian threat, including the timing of when Iran might ever acquire nuclear weapons.
"It is probably only going to have nuclear weapons, if it has them, well after 2010," he says. "Its missile programs, while they continue to grow and become more sophisticated, still are largely in the development phase and do not have a good track record of tests. Its overall arms modernization can't even cope with the growing obsolescence of its existing arms. So as a military power, it is declining, not rising."
But others beg to differ.
Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, have made no secret of their concerns that Iran is close to obtaining nuclear weapons. They see that as a mortal threat, given Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's frequent virulent anti-Israeli statements.
A January 6 report in the "Times" of London said Israel has a secret plan to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities by using low-yield nuclear weapons. Israel immediately denied that story.
Other analysts say the U.S. military buildup and Fallon's appointment make sense if seen as steps toward striking Iran's nuclear facilities.
Cordesman is not one of them. He says the buildup, while significant, still wouldn't be enough to launch a serious campaign against Iran.
Government Pressuring Activist Students, Universities
The pressure applied by the state on universities has taken various forms: students have been summoned to university disciplinary boards for alleged misconduct, suspended from classes for various periods of time, student newspapers have been shut down, and university directors and professors have been dismissed, and students have been denied entry to graduate schools due to their political activism.
These are the so-called "starred" students -- named because stars or asterisks have been placed next to their names on official lists.
In the past several weeks, the Iranian media have documented several instances of restrictive or punitive measures against students.
In one case, the editor of the student review "Farhang-i Mubarez" at Shahrud University, east of Tehran, was summoned to the disciplinary board there following complaints by city officials that items in the review had insulted local officials, ISNA reported on January 2.
The same day, ILNA reported the closure of the student union at Bu Ali Sina University in Hamedan, western Iran.
In another instance, an official of the Jandishapur Medical University in Ahwaz, southwestern Iran, spoke to ISNA on January 3 about a number of students facing unspecified punishments after someone allegedly complained about their "disrespect for student norms."
ISNA reported the same day that 11 medical students from Shahr-i Kurd in western Iran had been summoned to the disciplinary board of the Shahr-i Kurd Medical Science University to answer questions over reported rowdiness in dormitories, though student Aref Fadai told ISNA he thought this was an "excuse."
So Many Examples
Lawyer Mohammad Ali Dadkhah told ISNA on January 5 that he will complain to the Administrative Justice Court over the expulsion of his client, doctoral student Matin Meshkin, from Tehran's Amir Kabir University.
Several students from Azad University of Sanandaj, in western Iran, were suspended for one or two terms, or admonished in writing, after participating in protests on December 13, ILNA reported on January 6.
Shiraz University student Mohammad Mehdi Ahmadi was summoned to the university disciplinary committee sometime before January 8 for allegedly inciting a student strike, Shiraz student Masud Kheirati told ILNA on January 8. Many similar cases have been reported.
As regards starred students, Mohammad Mehdi Zahedi, the Science, Research, and Technology Minister -- Iran's higher-education minister -- explained to students in Ahvaz on January 3 that according to the decisions of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution (Shura-yi Ali-yi Enqelab-i Farhangi), a body formed after the 1979 revolution, postgraduate students who had a star by their names had disciplinary problems or misconduct cited in their files, and "you should be careful this is not repeated, or you will have problems," ILNA reported.
Zahedi said Morteza Nurbakhsh, the university admissions chief at the Science Ministry, is a "pious...and godly person" who deals with students fairly. "We have been lenient in this respect compared to previous years, but the media have been exaggerating" and government opponents have "been exaggerating, which has upset me a little."
Zahedi said students with two stars by their names had "flaws" in their files, and he did not know what "three-star students" meant. He admitted, however, that some students have not been registered for the next semester because they had been disqualified by "the relevant authorities," which he said may include the Intelligence Ministry.
These students were presumably deemed troublesome. Zahedi said that he wants lively student formations in universities, but "student formations must act within the framework of disciplinary regulations, and students must know that they can mobilize society, so they must not become a base for parties."
Iranian conservatives have in the past stated their concern that students could become the pawns of political parties.
Ali Tajernia, a former legislator and member of the reformist Participation Front, told ILNA on January 12 that banning students from their courses was something that is unprecedented since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
When students "feel the danger of being [kept] from their studies," he said, universities lose their liveliness. Former parliament speaker Mehdi Karrubi told a group of "starred" students on January 12 that he is surprised students had been banned from entry into graduate courses.
This type of exclusion, he said, happened in the 1980s against communist students at a time, he said, that was fraught with political and security tensions, ISNA reported. He said he would follow up their cases with "some officials" but admitted he was not familiar with the higher-education officials in President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's government.
Repression Causing Opposition
A deputy minister of higher education recently warned against increasing student radicalism, prompting Mohammad Hashemi, a member of the Office to Consolidate Unity (DTV) to blame the "conduct of the Science Ministry in the past year and few months" for this, ILNA and advarnews.com reported on January 9.
"Radicalism in the student movement is caused by the ninth government's treatment of student activists and legal formations at universities," Hashemi said. He said that an "accumulation" of unsatisfied demands led frustrated and angry students to heckle Ahmadinejad at Amir Kabir University during his appearance there in December.
Amir Kabir University student Mehdi Saidipur told ISNA on January 12 that repression in universities may indeed foment radicalism. "If officials do not wish the atmosphere to move toward radicalism, they must permit and provide resources for the activity of critical students in the university," and banning student bodies will not eliminate "their ideas."
Participation member Ali Tajernia also blamed the government for student radicalism. He said "the Science Ministry's mistaken policies" are causing this and its actions show it has become "less tolerant" of student movements in general.
The DTV issued a statement on January 13 warning against what it described as the deteriorating state of universities, a brain drain, and the imposition of an "atmosphere of fear," ILNA reported.
It said officials have sought to stifle criticism against their failed policies, while the obligatory "retirement" of respected academics is intended to "cleanse" universities and pave the way for the appointment of staff sympathetic to Ahmadinejad's government.
UN Experts Urge Tehran Not To Execute Ethnic Arabs
The experts and several human rights organizations have said the men were sentenced to death following a trial that did not meet international standards.
The UN rapporteurs said last week in a statement that relatives of the men have been told they will be executed "in the next few days." The seven are part of a larger group of ethnic Arabs that were arrested in the southwestern Khuzestan Province in June 2006 and charged with armed activity against the state.
In November, the head of Khuzestan's judiciary said the Iranian Supreme Court confirmed the execution sentence for 10 Iranian Arabs. He said they were found guilty of carrying out bombings in Ahwaz, the capital of Khuzestan.
Ten days later a videotape of their so-called "confessions" was reportedly broadcast on Khuzestan provincial television. In the video, the men confessed to their involvement in the bombings and said they had contacts with foreigners.
About a month later -- on December 19 -- three of them were executed despite calls by human rights groups for their executions to be halted. Amnesty International said it had received reports that the bodies of the men were not returned to their families for burial and that people were prevented from visiting the families to offer their condolences.
Rights Groups Complain
The rights group expressed concern that the men could be buried unmarked in a mass grave known as La'natabad (place of the damned).
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and several other human rights groups have said that the death sentences against the men were imposed following a trial that did not meet international standards.
The three UN rapporteurs said in their statement that the men are accused of "serious crimes" but added that it cannot justify their conviction and execution after "trials that made a mockery of due process requirements." They say the men were reportedly convicted based on "confessions extorted under torture."
In Iran, some have also questioned the fairness of the trials and suggested that the purported bombers could have been forced, under duress, to admit to crimes they did not commit.
Emad Baghi is a prominent human rights activist who many times urged Iranian authorities to revoke the death sentences against the ethnic Arabs and to give them a fair trial. He still hopes that the authorities will listen to the appeals by human rights groups and stop the executions.
"It's not unlikely [that they will executed] because the death sentences of three of them have been applied and we've even heard that the prison guards have told some of these prisoners: 'you will join your friends in the next few days,'" he said. "This is a sort of signal that they should get ready. But the fact that some days have passed and they have not been executed has increased our hope that the authorities will be convinced not to enforce the sentence."
Human rights groups say the Iranian government has arrested hundreds of Iranian Arabs since April, 2005, when rumors suggesting the government was planning to change the ethnic composition of Khuzestan led to riots and the deaths of several people. Ethnic Arabs make up about 3 percent of the country's population but a very high percentage of the citizenry in Khuzestan, an oil-rich province.
The province has been also hit by several bombings, including two explosions that rocked Ahvaz about a year ago killing at least eight people. Authorities have blamed "foreigners" -- mainly the United Kingdom -- including "opposition forces" outside the countries for the incidents. Britain, however, has strongly denied the charges.
Some observers say the unrest in the region is rooted in poverty and socioeconomic deprivation. They believe harsh sentences and Iran's heavy-handedness only increase tensions in the region.
Some Already Executed
Apart from the executions in December, two men were executed in March in Ahvaz after being convicted of involvement in bombings that took place in October 2005.
Baghi says many have also been sentenced to long prison terms. He believes the authorities should exercise restraint.
"If the Islamic republic wanted to show determination in dealing with these incidents, this has happened," he said. "Five people have been executed and many have been condemned to long prison sentences. These people have been sentenced to the ultimate punishment and I think it's not logical to seek something harsher. I don't understand why they would want to continue this trend. The continuation of this situation shows that the reaction doesn't have a legal aspect, it's more about revenge and the [use of] violence."
Iranian officials have not reacted to the calls for leniency. Iranian authorities have also not responded to letters sent by the UN human rights rapporteurs that brought the allegations of unfair trials and torture to their attention in an attempt to gain some clarifications.
Reformists Say That Right Destined To Split
Iranian conservatives frequently rally around principles that include the "fundamental" values of Iran's polity, its Islamic credentials, and the paramount position of the supreme leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It is among the reasons they rarely refer to themselves as "conservatives," but rather "fundamentalists" or sometimes "principled" or "value-oriented" (arzesh-gara) politicians -- to highlight their concern for certain principles, not just power.
Reformists contend that there is a persistent division between more radical right-wing forces associated with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and his allies, on one hand, and pragmatists or traditionalists associated with senior clerics like Expediency Council Chairman Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, on the other. Signs of that division include the failure to field a joint presidential candidate in 2005, and more recently, the existence of two conservative lists in the December 15 municipal elections.
Reformists say that municipal voting and balloting for the influential Assembly of Experts, a clerical body that oversees the supreme leader's office, marked a repudiation of government radicalism and support for moderation.
Azar Mansuri, a deputy head of the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front, was quoted by ISNA on January 6 saying that "moderate conservatives clarified their divide with radical conservatives." She added that a "third current" of pragmatic conservatism is taking shape, and said recent elections allowed them to "clarify their frameworks". Mansuri said that when the Ahmadinejad government came to power in 2005, "this divide in the fundamentalist faction became clearer [with] every day." She predicted that the rift would "continue in the future" if some "singular" conduct by radicals persisted -- the latter a presumed reference to presidential tirades and confrontational discourse, as well as a purported bid by radicals to take control of all state institutions.
Mohammad Salamati -- the secretary-general of the left-leaning, reformist Islamic Revolution Mojahedin Organization -- said according to ISNA just a few days later that such a "third current" exists and began to take shape around the 2005 presidential election.
Three Or More...
Commentators tend to leave references to such a "current" general, rather than identify its personalities or boundaries.
But Salamati speculated that the "third current" would have to form its own political party -- thus formalizing divisions within the conservative camp. "Contradictions" in the conservative camp are "essential," he said, "and cannot be resolved easily." Salamati went on to claim that "the faction known as 'fundamentalist' is not united...and [that] there are at least three political groups in that current" with each "going its own way" with its own "material and organizational interests."
Right-wing journalist Masud Dehnamaki warned in statements quoted by ISNA on January 9 that four broad "currents" could emerge if the political right fails to unite. He described them as a reformist front; traditionalist conservatives; what he called a "new fundamentalist current" associated with Tehran's mayor, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, and the secretary of the Expediency Council, Mohsen Rezai; and, finally, supporters of President Ahmadinejad and his government. He predicted Ahmadinejad supporters would suffer if they moved away from the conservative mainstream.
Conservatives tried a unified approach in their bid to nominate a single presidential candidate in 2005 -- bringing elders together to find a consensual candidate. That effort failed amid a flurry of reports on the existence, nonexistence, or dissolution of various formal and informal councils of "fundamentalist" elders.
New Election Pressure
The situation could repeat itself as conservatives face the next set of parliamentary elections. A supporter of one of the more successful lists in the recent municipal elections, Mujtaba Shakeri, a supporter of the Great Coalition of Fundamentalists (Etelaf-i bozorg-i Osulgarayan), has suggested that a conservative list for the parliamentary elections be formed around that of his group. Predictably, another prominent conservative, Mariam Behruzi, was quoted by ILNA on January 8 as cautioning that negotiations on that topic would have to include all members of a key coalition of more traditional conservatives: the Front of Followers of the Path of the Imam and Leadership. Behruzi added that she knew nothing of any "group called Fundamentalist Trustees" (Motamedin-i Osulgara) seemingly trying to unite conservatives.
Mohammad Hashemi, the brother of ex-President Hashemi-Rafsanjani and a member of the centrist Executives of Construction, muddied the waters further. ISNA reported on January 8 that he conceded that there are conservative divisions but added that such differences are so abundant that political life is now characterized by the proliferation of groups -- reformist and conservative -- that must inevitably form electoral coalitions. Hashemi warned that voters are no longer paying attention to factions or groups but instead are voting for familiar personalities. He said it is unclear whether conservative divisions are "fundamental" or "strategic."
A newly elected member of parliament for Tehran, Hasan Ghafurifard, claimed that several groups -- supporters of Tehran Mayor Qalibaf, the Front of the Followers of the Path of the Imam and Leadership, and government supporters -- are broadly "convergent" but merely disagree on "specifics," ISNA reported on January 6. Ghafurifard warned against overstating those differences. He went on to argue that phrases like "traditionalist right," "leftist," and "traditionalist" are "Western labels" that are "not in keeping with the realities" of Iranian politics. He said the labels "fundamentalist and reformist" are simply "the...most suitable names these factions have chosen for themselves."
Divisions within the conservative tent may be due to a larger malaise over how conservatives can reconcile their vision of Iran with what Iranian voters want. Reformers sometimes argue that the electorate has changed since the 1997 election of Mohammad Khatami to the presidency. The effort to attract voter support might have contributed to a conservative split: Some conservatives appear to seek the legitimacy that votes confer, and might regard radicalism and revolutionary rhetoric as deterring voters. Reformers claim that one of their ploys is to hide behind appealing titles that blur their conservative identity -- such as "Developers" in the last parliamentary elections, and more recently the Sweet Scent of Service, the list associated with Ahmadinejad.
"Fundamentalism, as the supreme leader has explained in this respect, has specific definitions."
Publicly, there is unity -- as stated by Mohammad Nabi Habibi's Islamic Coalition Society, which is a member of the Front of Followers of the Path of the Imam and Leadership. On January 3, according to ISNA, Habibi denied that younger "fundamentalists" and "the traditionalist right" are divided. He said that "fundamentalism, as the Supreme Leader has explained in this respect, has specific definitions," and went on to claim that he does not know a single "person or formation that wishes to act outside that framework."
The daily "Etemad-i Melli" on January 11 called Habibi's Islamic Coalition the "backbone" of the traditionalist Front of Followers of the Path of the Imam and Leadership. And the paper noted that the Front of Followers did not support the pro-Ahmadinejad list in December's elections. It speculated that the recent announcement of unspecified changes in tactics by the party might even herald the party moving away from the government.