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Iran Report: March 14, 2007

Ex-President Becomes Leading Government Critic

By Vahid Sepehri

Rafsanjani (left) with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in February

March 13, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Some Iranian commentators have observed a realignment of political forces in recent months, provoked by intense rhetoric from President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's government.

The result could be an opposition comprising forces variously described as centrists or pragmatists, on the one hand, and radicals associated with the president on the other.

The realignment comes as reformists -- effectively excluded from power since late 2005 -- try to raise their profile as government critics.

The maneuvering could provide them an opportunity to regroup -- with a somewhat diluted or evolved agenda -- alongside centrist forces hovering around Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani is an ex-president with a penchant for liberal economics who has in fact begun to do what reformers have been threatening: criticizing the government in earnest.

Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai said the council is examining the new policies "because wherever you look in this country, people are suffering from bureaucracy and administrative complexities."

Tough Talk

Rafsanjani targeted the government's economic policies in particular in a speech in Tehran on March 5.

Tehran-based journalist Mohammad Sadeq Javadihesar told Radio Farda on March 6 that Rafsanjani's criticism came slowly, given the gravity of Iran's economic situation. But the remarks are a further sign of Rafsanjani's return to headline politics.

While he has been a constant of institutional life in past decades, Rafsanjani's political profile subsided during the presidency of Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005). This was in part due to waning popularity relative to Khatami -- Rafsanjani was perceived as representing a conservative state that was thwarting the reform process. But now he is increasingly seen as an informal opponent of radicalism associated with Ahmadinejad's government.

Rafsanjani has consolidated his position since his success in December's elections for the Assembly of Experts, the body of clerics of which he is now a vice president, and his reinstatement by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as chairman of the Expediency Council, a key arbiter and watchdog.

On March 5, Rafsanjani said the government has had enough time to implement its promises. He pledged that the Expediency Council will particularly scrutinize government decisions and expenditures to ensure they conform with the goals of development plans and the constitution -- specifically, the fourth five-year development plan; the 20-year forecast; and Article 44 of the constitution, which calls for large-scale privatizations.

He claimed that several budget amendments so far have contravened those aims. Rafsanjani said council members had "observed them and made do with verbal comments," "Etemad-i Melli" reported on March 6. He warned that this next year's (2007-08) budget text "is even more dependent on oil than those of the previous two years," and cited Iran's stated policy of ending economic dependence on crude oil.

Rafsanjani said the 20-year forecast seeks to reduce that dependence by 10 percent every year "but the trend has been the opposite in the past two years." He conceded that all government branches and the Expediency Council could have been more forceful in implementing these programs in past years.

Rising Chorus?

The comments of other Expediency Council members also hint at newfound political courage. Secretary Mohsen Rezai told reporters on March 6 that the council is examining the formulation of new administrative policies, "because wherever you look in this country, people are suffering from bureaucracy and administrative complexities," ISNA reported.

Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai (Fars file photo)

Rezai said state officials must be informed about broader policies so those plans are not disrupted by changes in government. He predicted that the Expediency Council will face criticism as it seeks to ensure implementation of Article 44, which he said heralds a "revolution." Supreme Leader Khamenei recently said he expects them to prompt an economic revolution.

On March 7, Mahmud Vaezi, the head of the Expediency Council strategic research center called for a similar stabilization -- but of foreign policies, urging an "objective" definition of national interests impervious to changing governments, ILNA reported. Vaezi warned that "today the discourse we use in foreign policy has meant the entire world is against us."

He was perhaps referring to Ahmadinejad's intermittent denunciations of Western powers. Vaezi said the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini "always separated the West from America, so that" in case of conflict with the United States, Iran "could have the support of European states." Vaezi deplored the "lot of slogans" and "bad discourse" used on the nuclear issue, urging instead "a discourse to which people are willing to listen in the international arena."

...Or 'Extensive Front'?

The criticism has not gone unnoticed inside Ahmadinejad's government.

Ahmadinejad told a gathering on March 7 that "an extensive front" has opened against him. He blamed people "who have lost access to their privileges and the public purse, and cannot just pick up the phone and ask for millions of tumans to be paid into Mr. So-and-So's [bank] account," ISNA reported.

The president alluded to "certain people's" failure to tackle corruption while in office. He also claimed past privatization efforts were implemented "without norms" and through "middlemen," and implied that they are to blame for the plight of "factory workers [who] have lost their jobs and stand outside our offices every day asking for their wages."

The same day as Ahmadinejad's speech, presidential ally Mohammad Ali Ramin accused "people who formed a party" in 1995 of provoking crises for the government "every day," "Etemad-i Melli" reported on March 7. He was referring to the founders of the Executives of Construction Party, a centrist party associated with Rafsanjani.

The ally accused that group and related "gangs" of wielding extensive economic power behind the scenes; of reducing the powers of Iran's supreme leader following the 1989 death of Khomeini so they could form a "land-grabbing" cartel; and of seeking to impose Rafsanjani "on the system" as a "president-for-life."

Stirring The Pot

Reformists have meanwhile stated -- in typically mild fashion -- their own intention to begin scrutinizing government policies. Hossein Musavi-Tabrizi, a cleric and member of the Association of Qom Seminary Researchers and Teachers, said reformists have strengthened ties and addressed "weaknesses" in the past year, ILNA reported on March 6. He said the government has had "an opportunity" to carry out its promises and now, "two years into the life of the government," reformists can "explain to the public" its level of success in working toward long-term economic goals.

Former reformist Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari said the same day that reformists should now coalesce around "acceptable figures and effective ideas" ahead of the next parliamentary elections, ISNA reported. He did not specify who those "figures" might be.

It is fair to say that since the loss of executive office in 2005, reformists have been wary of criticizing government policies. It would have been easy to take them to court on a variety of "elastic" charges now familiar in Iran, which include undermining national security or inciting public opinion. The term "elastic" was coined by reformist journalist Abbas Abdi to mean charges with broad scope for interpretation. Reformists have also sought prominent figures able to unite the various reformist branches.

Rafsanjani, who has cut a mildly reformist figure in the past two years and who has been vilified for it by radical right-wingers, might be such a figure. But that will become evident only with time, once alignments are clarified and lists formulated for coming parliamentary or presidential elections.

The bold reformist agenda of the late 1990s might not be immediately feasible. But some -- or many -- Iranians might reconcile themselves to a gradually liberalizing agenda, beginning with a revival of the private sector.

Iran Remains Suspicious After Baghdad Conference

By Vahid Sepehri

Iran's envoy to the Baghdad conference, Abbas Araqchi (file photo)

March 12, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's Foreign Ministry has called the March 10 Baghdad security conference a good "first step" toward the eventual restoration of peace in Iraq. But individually, Iranian officials have appeared wary of the United States and its motives at the conference.

The Baghdad conference brought together Iraq's neighbors and states including the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. It was likely the first of at least two such meetings.

On March 11, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini claimed that any success "is closely related to a change of political approach" by what he described as "certain parties." Hosseini said Iran believes Iraqis should be given responsibility for "security issues and...government," "Etemad" reported the next day. And he extended Tehran's promise to "back all efforts...effective in taking the Iraqis out of their present problems."

Hosseini cited three factors that would help restore security: turning security over to the Iraqis; setting a timetable for the departure of foreign troops; and a "serious and indiscriminate" response to "terrorist groups."

That view was shared by the right-wing Iranian daily "Resalat." The paper argued on March 12 that the "authoritative" presence of Iraqi security forces prevented a massacre of Shi'ite pilgrims by insurgents at the Arbain religious ceremonies on March 10. "Resalat" said the Shi'ite ceremonies "showed once more that Iraqi security forces -- providing they have the necessary powers and room for maneuver -- are effective enough in assuring security in Iraq."

Call For Removal Of Foreign Troops

Another leading right-wing daily, "Keyhan," on March 11 cited calls by Iran's envoy at the Baghdad conference for the departure of foreign troops from Iraq. Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and International Affairs Abbas Araqchi argued that "handing security arrangements over to the Iraqi government is most effective way of emerging from the present crisis."

Araqchi called on Iraq's neighbors to help train Iraqi police and boost the capabilities of Iraq's armed forces, and "consolidate [border] security" so Iraq can assert control over its internal affairs. The Iranian envoy warned of a "vicious circle" in which "foreign occupation causes insecurity and insecurity is used to justify continued occupation."

Ahead of the meeting, Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati argued that Washington "want[s] in this meeting to make sure Iraq is taken from the hands of its people and its government handed over to an American body ."

"Keyhan" claimed a split concerning Iran among what it described as "radicals" in the U.S. government. It suggested that U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice harbor a more conciliatory attitude, while it ascribed more intransigent positions to former UN envoy John Bolton. The daily claimed that Khalilzad used to be in greater agreement with Bolton.

Washington Needs Tehran?

The daily "Resalat" claimed that the presence in Baghdad of Khalilzad and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield suggested the need by the United States to talk to Iran in its bid to escape from the "bog" of Iraq. The paper argued that the United States is trying simultaneously to pressure Iran and maintain a visibly dominant position, while conveying through the presence of the two diplomatists "the signals of America's need [for] Tehran in an indirect [but] telling and transparent manner."

"Resalat" predicted that this purported strategy would fail and "White House hawks" would have no choice but to openly express their need for Iranian help "in a diplomatic framework."

Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati at Friday Prayers on March 9 (Fars)

Officials in Iran separately expressed skepticism of U.S. motives at the conference. Ahead of the meeting, Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati argued in Tehran's Friday prayers on March 9 that Washington "want[s] in this meeting to make sure Iraq is taken from the hands of its people and its government handed over to an American body -- Iraqi or non-Iraqi -- which is under American domination," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on March 11).

Tehran-based commentator and former Defense Ministry adviser Alireza Akbari expressed similar suspicion. He told ISNA that the United States has the greatest and Iran the "best" roles in Iraq. Akbari said the conference showed the need equitably to redistribute the respective roles and responsibilities of Iraq's neighbors and powers involved in Iraq. He suggested that Saudi Arabia was playing a role but was not accepting responsibility for security in Iraq.

Akbari urged the United States and Iraq's neighbors to respect the "one-Iraq, one-vote principle" and let democracy take its course. Akbari predicted the conference would yield results if -- in his words -- the United States and Saudi Arabia "decided" to allow security to be established in Iraq.

Such statements in Tehran suggest that while the United States suspects Iranian motives and involvement in Iraq, there is suspicion in Tehran, too. That distrust invites the assumptions that the U.S. superpower wishes to remain in Iraq or to install a friendly regime, and that the United States is unlikely to allow the westward spread of Iranian influence.

The other assumption behind such statements is that the departure of occupying troops would lead to a calming of religious discord and violence, renewed Iraqi government control of its territory, and predominantly Shi'ite Iraq falling into a "natural" state of symbiosis and cordiality with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

International Forum Seeks Place For Persian-Based Media

The Khodji Mashrab mosque in Dushanbe (file photo)

March 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- More than 60 media representatives from a handful of countries have wrapped up the first day of a conference in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, on Persian-language media.

Organizers hope the three-day gathering will result in the formation of an association of Persian-speaking journalists and find grounds for future cooperation.

"Thirty years ago, when I began working as a journalist, we were reporting about events that had already happened," said Iranian media representative Hassan Bakhshipoor. "Today we report news as it is happening; today in the news we listen to what is going on now. Look at this change."

Spreading The Word

Attendees include representatives from Afghanistan, Britain, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, the United States, Uzbekistan, and host Tajikistan.

"They discussed globalization and they spoke about the feeling that people evaluate the Persian language through the eyes of Washington and Moscow," RFE/RL's Tajik Service correspondent Saifiddin Dostiev, who is at the gathering, said of events on the first day. "They also discussed the role of Farsi-language media in globalization."

With the English and Russian languages already relatively well established in the region -- thanks in part to proximity to Russia and satellite television -- participants at the Dushanbe forum are seeking ways to promote and spread the use of Persian-based languages in media.

"The participants discussed ways to develop Farsi-language media and the culture of Farsi, Tajik, and Dari, which are similar [languages]," Dostiev said. "Most of the participants were concerned about globalization, but Hassan Bakhshipoor from Iran said globalization will help promote the Farsi language throughout the world."

Representatives at the forum hope to establish an Internet website to provide news and information to all those who speak Persian-based languages.

The participants noted, however, that there is a need for two alphabets on such a website.

"At the end of [today's] meeting, participants agreed that in the future they would make a common Internet site for Farsi-language media in which Persian speakers could read [Persian-based-language] news in Arabic script or [modified] Tajik Cyrillic," Dostiev said.

Shared History

Long before Turkic people like the Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Turkmen or Uzbeks arrived in the area that is now Central Asia, the region was home to Indo-Iranian peoples. It is thus no surprise that Persian-based languages are still found throughout the region.

"The free flow of information has 50 years of history. But we Tajiks and Farsi-speakers did not use it as we could -- we did not use the declared right to a free flow of information and access across borders of verbal, written, and recorded information," Ibrohim Usmonov, a former Tajik deputy culture minister and professor of journalism who also headed Tajik Television and Radio told attendees.

"[We Persian speakers] did not use the declared right to a free flow of information and access across borders of verbal, written, and recorded information."

"We did not fully use our right to spead our national vision," Usmonov said. "For some, this was because of political limitations; for others, a lack of finances cost them this opportunity. Of course, Iran has more opportunities but still did not use it as it country should."

Despite long separation, the Persian spoken in Iran, the Tajik spoken in several Central Asian states, and the Dari spoken in Afghanistan are still mutually intelligible.

The conference is scheduled to conclude on March 13.

(RFE/RL Tajik Service correspondent Iskander Aliev contributed to this piece.)

'Pressure Groups' Maintain Role In Politics

By Vahid Sepehri
March 9, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- There are recent indications in Iran of a resurgence of what some politicians have ominously dubbed the "pressure group." It is a reference to an ill-defined set of people with radical political ideas and intransigent religious beliefs who have in the past exerted their "pressure" by beating people or disrupting meetings.

Their shadowy nature makes it difficult to discern a resurgence in a systematic way, but their activities arguably mirror the existence of perceived or actual political tensions between right-wingers and their critics.

The victims are generally students, journalists or other perceived liberals, but included a reformist cabinet minister on at least one occasion.

Rowdy Bunch

Since the election of the conservative Mahmud Ahmadinejad in 2005, ex-President and current Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani has become a figurehead for moderate political forces and even reformers. It is a position previously occupied by former President Mohammad Khatami.

Hashemi-Rafsanjani has also adopted public postures favoring economic liberalization.

Alikhani said the men rode by the newspaper's offices on motorcycles at 2 a.m. and threw incendiary objects at the windows.

The tilt has earned him sharp criticism from some radicals. In June, he was heckled at a speech in Qom, in north-central Iran, by apparent "pressure group" types.

Heckling is one way that prominent regime figures are warned or intimidated in Iran. And Hashemi-Rafsanjani's treatment was perceived by sympathizers as a measure of the dissatisfaction some radicals feel with his moderate postures in the past two years. But a cleric as prominent and solidly entrenched in the system as Hashemi-Rafsanjani would have to fall very far from grace to suffer physical harm, as ordinary citizens have done.

An example of that type of pressure was the violent breakup of a press forum in northern Iran in late February. Reformist journalist Mashallah Shamsolvaezin said that as he began to address the assembly at the invitation of the Golestan Province Press House, individuals stormed in and began beating up members of the audience, provoking an abrupt end to the session, ISNA reported on February 27.

Shamsolvaezin was led out by police, and he said that "these people" pursued his car into the evening. He observed that an unspecified group had already issued a statement denouncing that press meeting and threatening to respond if it took place.

Shamsolvaezin apparently did not mention any intervention by the police -- saying merely that they had led him out of the building. This suggests impunity for some, and a familiar scenario of police inaction with people thought to have friends in high places.

Paper Trail

Similarly, Mohammad Alikhani, the parliamentary representative for Qazvin, near Tehran, claimed to ILNA on February 28 that "the pressure group" threw Molotov cocktails at the offices of his weekly publication "Taban." He said the men rode by the offices on motorcycles at 2 a.m., their faces covered, and threw incendiary objects at the office windows.

Reformist journalist Mashallah Shamsolvaezin (AFP file photo)

Alikhani said he though the attackers were "the pressure group acting this way because of the magazine's positions and [its staff's] positions as public representatives." He noted that "such actions are not unpredictable," and said grimly that he expected to "have to pay a greater price than this."

It was not the first violation of a newspaper office in Iran. The early morning attack was reminiscent of another suspect incident: an overnight break-in and theft from the Tehran offices of two cultural and diplomatic foundations run by Khatami on February 10-11. In that case, the culprits took computers, phones, and equipment -- which arguably have some commercial value, so it would be difficult to assert that that was not a theft. But suspicions remain in these cases, as they are rarely solved so as to satisfy a wary public.

More Serious Allegations

Another type of activity that Iranians associate with "rogue" or shadowy elements in Iran -- if not directly with the so-called "pressure group" -- is the disappearance of dissidents or writers. Notorious examples include a string of murders in the 1990s that authorities blamed on a few rogue elements in the Intelligence Ministry. But there is a persistent suspicion that a greater number of unresolved disappearances or deaths in the decades since the 1979 revolution were the work of unidentified agents who went unpunished.

The recent complaint by the wife of editor Hasan Sarahi about her husband's inexplicable disappearance nearly a year ago indicates that such mysterious incidents still happen -- despite assertions by the former reformist administration that the Intelligence Ministry was cleansed of such extrajudicial activities. Indeed, who can say if Sarahi was kidnapped -- much less whether this was the work of people associated with that ministry or members of some other grouping or state-affiliated clique?

Such lawless acts occur in Iran against a backdrop of impunity. And the only check on such activities in past years has been an emboldened public opinion and increased media attention, pressuring officials to respond.

But increasing pressures on the press and free speech under Ahmadinejad's administration might have created more favorable conditions for this type of lawlessness -- reducing the political cost of acting against dissidents or critics.

At the same time, these acts might be seen as nasty reactions to the perceived strength or prevalence of liberal or reformist views. Criticism of Iran's leadership appeared to gain momentum and prominence under the Khatami administration. Now there may be a perception that Ahmadinejad's conservative government -- for whom the "pressure group" would logically have an affinity -- is under pressure from parliamentarians, centrist politicians or regime veterans, students, and foreign governments.

But the persistent trait of these lawless elements remains a surreptitious and sporadic nature. The culprits must maintain a relatively low profile in order to avoid public scandal or publicity that could force authorities to recognize their existence and act. They must avoid too much public mockery of the law if they wish to continue their harassment of opponents.

Ex-Defense Official's Whereabouts Remain A Mystery

By Golnaz Esfandiari

Alireza Asgari disappeared in Istanbul

March 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The fate of a former Iranian defense official remains a mystery a month after his disappearance in Turkey.

At least one Iranian official has suggested that onetime Deputy Defense Minister Alireza Asghari was kidnapped by Western intelligence services. Others have claimed the retired general defected to the West.

Asghari vanished without a trace shortly after arriving in Turkey in early February.

Radio Farda's correspondent in Turkey, Ali Javanmardi, says Turkish newspapers broke the news of his disappearance.

"On February 27, 'Hurriyet' daily reported that an Iranian who has very important information regarding Iran's nuclear activities had disappeared in Istanbul," Javanmardi says. "For the first time, it was also said that Mr. Asghari arrived in Istanbul from a Damascus flight on February 7 and checked into the Hotel Ceylan three days later. Following a meeting with an unknown individual, he disappeared."

Asghari's hotel reservations, for three nights, were reportedly made before his arrival by two non-Turkish citizens. Some reports have suggested that Asghari moved to an Iranian-owned hotel.

Tehran Speaks

Iranian officials initially remained silent as reports emerged in the Turkish, Israeli, and Arab media. Then in early March, Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki stated publicly that "a retired staff member" from the Defense Ministry had gone missing during a private trip to Turkey. He said Tehran was pursuing the case through diplomatic channels.

Speculation has swirled over Asghari's familiarity with highly classified information on Iran's ties to Hizballah as well as well as its nuclear program.

On March 6, Iranian police chief Ismail Ahmadi Moghadam said the former defense official had likely been kidnapped by Western intelligence services because of his background. He did not give further details.

The 63-year-old Asghari was a deputy defense minister under President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005). He reportedly served as a commander in Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) during the Iraq-Iraq War (1980-88).

In The Loop?

Alireza Nourizadeh, a London-based journalist, says the retired general also played a role in Lebanon. He says Asghari owed his political rise to former Defense Minister Ali Shamakhani and his abrupt departure to President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

"Following the [Iran-Iraq] war, he was among the staff members who were sent to Lebanon," Nourizadeh says. "He led the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) forces in Lebanon. At that time, he used the name 'Reza Asaker.' Later, because of his relation to Admiral Ali Shamakhani and because Shamakhani trusted him, he became a deputy defense minister. After Ahmadinejad's government came to power [in 2005], Mr. Asghari was automatically dismissed, but they gave him an advisory [post]."

Nourizadeh claims that Asghari's recent responsibilities included a 2006 military deal between Iran and Syria.

Lebanon And Nukes

Speculation has swirled about Asghari's familiarity with highly classified information about Iranian ties to the Lebanese militant group Hizballah as well as Iran's nuclear program.

Officials in Iran say the country's nuclear activities are entirely peaceful. But Washington and Israel accuse Iran of secretly pursuing nuclear weapons.

Iran also says that it provides only spiritual and moral support to the Lebanese Hizballah. But accusations are rife that Iran is providing the Lebanese group with missiles and other weapons.

Some reports suggest that Asghari might possess knowledge about an Israeli pilot, Ron Arad, who went missing after ejecting from his aircraft over Lebanon in 1986.

Usual Suspects

Some sources have said that Mossad or the CIA might have kidnapped Asghari for his knowledge of top-secret Iranian activities.

Others have suggested that the disappearance bears the hallmarks of the Mujahedin-i Khalq Organization (MKO), a group that seeks the overthrow of Iran's government.

But a number of recent reports have hinted that Asghari defected to the West. "The Washington Post" today quotes an unnamed senior U.S. official as saying that Asghari is "cooperating with Western intelligence agencies, providing information on Hizballah and Iran's ties to the organization."

Ephraim Kam, a retired Israeli intelligence officer and deputy head of Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, says he thinks circumstances point to a defection.

"I think logically -- and I emphasize only logically -- I tend to assume that he asked for political [asylum] because I think it's going to be quite dangerous for Israel, even for the United States, to kidnap him," Kam says. "Because the Iranians might respond with the same coin, and it's going to put many Israeli officials [in danger] and also the Americans."

Citing an "Iranian military source," the London-based newspaper "Asharq al-Awsat" newspaper reported on March 7 that Asghari "is currently in a northern European country in American custody." The paper claimed that Asghari is being interrogated ahead of his transfer to the United States.

Nourizadeh says he suspects that the former Iranian defense official had planned his defection.

"Asghari has maybe felt that it would be better for him to cooperate on his own, since reportedly the U.S. intelligence services have files on people like him -- this could be one reason," Nourizadeh says. "Another reason might be that he thinks the Islamic republic [Iran] is facing dangerous conditions -- the country is being led toward war -- and he feels that if he parts with the establishment he might prevent a catastrophe."

But in the absence of any firm evidence, Nourizadeh's and others' theories about this prominent disappearance remain so much speculation. And a mystery that Iranian authorities and others are eager to solve.