For State, Teacher Protests Are A Security Matter
The first demonstration was suppressed by security agents and riot police, Radio Farda reported. Protests and arrests have also been reported in some other cities. The government is showing yet again -- as it has with similar collective expressions of discontent by feminists, bus drivers, and students -- that it has little patience for organized protests.
Britain's "The Guardian" on March 16 reported the arrests of about 1,000 people on March 14, apparently just in Tehran. Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi reportedly asked Tehran's chief prosecutor, Said Mortazavi, on March 18 to release all detained teachers, the Mehr news agencyreported that day, citing legislator Akbar Alami, who is also a member of the parliament's National Security Committee.
Numbers Of Arrests Unknown
But a deputy leader of the Teachers' Guild Association (Kanun-i senfi-yi moalleman) identified only by the name Purvosuq told ILNA the same day that only five teachers had been released. He said "no precise figures have been announced" on the number of arrests, adding that 44 detained teachers were to be released by the end of Iran's Norouz holidays, in early April.
Teachers have been asking for their salaries to be adjusted in keeping with other public-sector workers in a country where the annual inflation rate ranges from 12 to 20 percent -- according to the varying assertions of government officials and independent observers -- and where teachers' salaries have fallen behind the rising cost of living.
A meeting on March 13 between teachers' representatives and some parliamentarians and government officials failed to reach a satisfactory conclusion to their grievances.
Teachers were hoping to meet with Education Ministry officials then, but met instead with members of the parliamentary presidium, including spokesman Mohsen Kuhkan, and with officials from the Management and Planning Organization, the Intelligence Ministry, and the Sarullah Base (Qarargah-i Sarullah), a body or military base affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), the daily "Etemad" reported on March 14.
This was perhaps an indication of the state's security-oriented perspective on the issue. Kuhkan told the teachers' representatives that the meeting was not to negotiate over their demands but to inform them of measures parliament had decided in their favor.
He said teachers' salaries would rise in line with inflation from the Persian year beginning on March 21. "The Guardian" on March 16 estimated teachers' salaries to be the equivalent of about $300 to $400 a month. Kuhkan said the pay raise would only be paid half in cash. Iran has in the past decades "paid" some of the wages of public sector workers in staples like rice, sugar, or tea, which are also sold in shops at considerably higher free-market prices.
Kuhkan added that fully satisfying teachers' requests would be "inflationary." Teachers reportedly asked him "why, when it is our turn, you remember inflation. Did liquidity stay the same these years when teachers' salaries were not increased?" Security officials told them to express their demands "within the legal framework," "Etemad" reported.
Teachers have asked for their salaries to rise within the framework of the Coordinated Payment System (Nezam-i hamahangi-yi pardakht), a seemingly new table of state-sector remunerations. This has been approved by parliament, but apparently has yet to be approved by the Guardians Council, a body of jurists that checks the legality of all bills, Radio Farda reported on March 14.
Radio Farda quoted Mahmud Beheshti-Langarudi, a spokesman for the Teachers' Guild Association, as telling ILNA that "there seems to be an agreement between the government and parliament" for the Coordinated Payment System not to come into force within the annual budget for the Persian year starting on March 21. This was presumably to save the state money. He said if parliament was interested in helping teachers it should have presented the bill to the Guardians Council in time for its adjustment and approval for this year.
Education Minister Under Fire Again
Teachers have also asked for the removal of Education Minister Mahmud Farshidi, who has kept his distance from the protests and defended his record as minister. He told ILNA on March 14 that he is not competent to comment on police actions over the protests, but said "the conditions of the country are such that [the protesters] are trying to provoke upheavals, and the report of the arrest of 1,000 teachers in a country that takes pride in being a religious democracy is intended to damage the system's standing."
Farshidi added that his job is to support teachers "behind the scenes," and his efforts have yielded a 50 percent growth in the ministry's budget in the year ending March 20, 2007. He said the education budget is now a little over $6 billion, and he has secured "the promise" of teachers' wages increasing fourfold. He said the teachers' demands should not be politicized, and there should be a "clarification" of these demands and of the activities of 170 groups he said present themselves as teaching unions or associations, ILNA reported.
Many Iranians living on salaries -- and sensitive to the difficult inflationary trends in Iran -- must sympathize with teachers. But it is the state's harsh response that has given these demands a broader interest.
Protests A Security Matter
Farshidi's calls not to politicize the demands and the presence of Intelligence Ministry officials at the meeting in parliament indicate that the state is concerned with the security aspect of the protests.
This may also be said of its view of other collective expressions of dissatisfaction in the past. It is difficult to say whether it is the state's impatient response that ends up "politicizing" such protests, or if the state has correctly found malignant and manipulative hands it alleges are at work in these gatherings.
An oft-repeated allegation by officials is that people arrested at gatherings -- teachers in this case but also about students in the past -- were not teachers or students.
The Islamic republic's repressive response may also indicate a fear that small and specific protests, if tolerated, may flare up into large-scale demonstrations, as student protests purportedly did in Tehran in 1999.
Families of detained teachers deplored in an open letter to President Mahmud Ahmadinejad on March 17 "the New Year gift" of "prison and arrests" that teachers had received from "the government that claims to be kind and just," advarnews.com reported.
Teachers, the letter stated, only gathered outside parliament to "seek justice." Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Shahrudi is also reported to have told the Tehran chief prosecutor, the official immediately responsible for the arrests, that Iranians have a right to participate in "legal gatherings" and "voice protests by civic means," Mehr reported legislator Akbar Alami saying on March 18.
These remarks show that the Iranian state is correct in relating such protests to issues beyond the specifics: they concern the nature of certain social rights that Iranians hope to enjoy and who it is that determines the limits on those rights.
New Year Marked In Iran Despite Growing Tensions
Iranians will mark Norouz, the Persian new year, on March 21 with festive celebrations. But for some, this year's Norouz preparations have been mixed with fear over an uncertain future.
Worried About Sanctions
Mehri, an office manager in Tehran, tells RFE/RL many are concerned that the UN will adopt economic sanctions against Iran over its refusal to halt uranium enrichment.
"People are worried about sanctions and the very bad economic situation in Iran because everything has become expensive," she says. "I think the price of fuel will also increase and then the [prices of other things] are going to increase even more. If there will be sanctions and factories will shut down, then it would be horrible."
Western officials have said sanctions are not aimed the Iranian people, but rather they are a message to the Iranian government.
Despite such assurances, several Iranian citizens told RFE/RL they believe sanctions will not affect politicians, but will put a strain on the lives of ordinary people.
Some in Iran also say they fear a U.S. attack despite Washington's denials of any such plans.
"The chain [UN Security Council] resolutions that are being prepared against Iran -- the last one is also being [completed] -- but if the current conditions continue it will not be the last and we will see more in the coming months," prominent journalist and government critic Issa Saharkhiz tells RFE/RL. "These are putting Iranian people under pressure and the signs of this are slowly becoming visible -- people can feel it and they're worried. On the other hand, there's concern that the United States will find an excuse to launch a military operation."
A Pending Attack?
This fear is fueled by a number of Western reports and speculation -- carried by Iranian news websites -- about a possible military strike against Iran's nuclear sites.
Washington's recent sending of a second aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf has added to the speculation.
Then there are also comments by Iranian officials who mention the possibility of U.S. or Israeli military action against the country. Previously, such officials would remain silent or would perhaps dismiss the reports about an attack as "psychological warfare."
In recent months officials have, however, stepped up their warnings about such attacks. Iran's senior nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, said on March 14 that Iran would respond with force to any military action aimed at disrupting the country's nuclear program. In February, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei sent a tough message to the "enemy," saying "an invasion would be followed by a comprehensive reaction to the invaders and their interests all over the world."
'Iran Is Not Iraq'
Tehran resident Mehri says she's aware of the "rumors" but believes a military strike is unlikely.
"Most people say the U.S. would not [attack] Iran given the fact that it has not been successful in Iraq," she says. "Anyway, Iran is not Iraq."
Some observers are blaming Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and his confrontational style for the mounting tensions with the United States. Many are worried that ordinary Iranians will pay the price for Ahmadinejad's harsh rhetoric and aggressive foreign policy.
Alireza Kermani, a Tehran-based political activist, told Radio Farda that Iran is in a dangerous situation.
"The situation we are facing is a situation of 'not war' and 'not peace,'" Kermani says. "We are now facing two choices: the continuation of the current situation or gradually moving toward a situation that will result in a military confrontation with the West. We think both situations are dangerous because even if there won't be a military strike against Iran's nuclear sites, it doesn't mean that [Iran] has managed the situation well and the danger has been removed."
A warning has come from Iranians living outside the country and also activists inside Iran who have warned about the consequences of more punitive UN sanctions against Iran and a possible war.
Some 300 Iranian intellectuals and activists issued a statement last week calling on Iranian authorities to take action to reduce tensions and create trust in its nuclear program.
'We Should Know Our Limits'
Taghi Rahmani, a nationalist religious activist in Iran, is among those who have called on Iranian leaders to meet the key demand of the international community and suspend its uranium-enrichment program. He says that besides the right to have a peaceful nuclear program, Iranians have more important rights such as the right to freedom and justice.
"Our people do not want a war, we all agree -- the nationalist religious forces, seculars, and even some in the establishment -- that we should not move toward another war," Rahmani says. "As a country we should know our limits and prevent actions that lead to tensions and economic sanctions. Any further tougher sanctions and increased tensions in the region would harm the democratic aspirations of many and would create an increased security situation in the society [that could lead to a crackdown on reformers]."
Rahmani believes a military conflict would damage those who are fighting for democracy and human rights. Others, including Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, have voiced similar concerns.
Ready To Unite Around The Government
Majid is a 21-year-old student in Gonabad. He tells RFE/RL that a military strike will result in Iranians rallying in support of the government.
"In the event of an attack, even those who say they don't like this establishment, they will all become united because of their land and honor," he says.
U.S. officials have said all options are on the table when it comes to dealing with Iran's sensitive nuclear work, but they say that for now they remain committed to diplomacy to resolve the issue.
Iranian officials add that they are not looking for a fight. But tension is mounting and, on this Norouz, some Iranians say they can feel it more than ever.
Kabul Mulls Relations Iran
But recently, more attention is being paid to the possibility that Afghanistan's neighbor to the west -- Iran -- may also be pursuing its own agenda in Afghanistan to the detriment of Kabul.
Iran and Pakistan became actively involved in the internal affairs of Afghanistan during the mujahedin's resistance against Soviet forces and the subsequent communist regimes from the late 1970s to the early 1990s.
Both countries also became host to millions of Afghan refugees. During the jihad period -- as the anticommunist resistance is referred to by Afghans -- Pakistan hosted and manipulated the mostly Sunni Muslim and Pashtun mujahedin groups, while Iran managed the mostly Shi'ite Muslim groups.
With the collapse of the communist government of President Najibullah in 1992, the Pakistani-backed groups initially took control of most levers of power.
Gradually, however, Iran, and -- even less obviously, India and the Russian Federation -- cultivated their own relations with new clients to oppose the domination of Pakistan over the future of Afghanistan.
With the advent of the Taliban phenomenon in 1994, Tehran began not only to actively support the loose grouping of former mujahedin parties and communist strongmen -- the United Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan (popularly known as the Northern Alliance) -- but also gave refuge to Pakistan's one-time favorite Afghan client, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, as a potential card to be played.
Tehran Opposed Taliban
Whereas during the jihad period Pakistan and Iran chose their clients based somewhat on ideological, cultural, and religious considerations, in the post-Taliban arrangements Tehran's adamant opposition to the new arrangements in Afghanistan meant that anyone standing against the Taliban was a potential asset.
Then, as now, Tehran believed that the Taliban phenomenon was a Western -- mainly U.S. -- undertaking being used not only to oppose Iran but also to defame Islam.
After the ouster of the Taliban regime by the U.S.-led coalition in late 2001, Iran played a constructive role by convincing its clients to cooperate with the new arrangements and to take an active part in reconstruction. They focused especially on areas close to its border with Afghanistan -- most notably Herat Province.
From the beginning Kabul tried to balance its ties with Iran despite the presence of U.S. and later NATO forces on its soil, something that Tehran has continuously opposed.
As the pendulum of relations between Kabul and Islamabad began to swing, mostly towards antagonistic levels, the Afghan government began to view India -- but also Iran -- as potential balancing factors in Kabul's threat-perception scenarios.
Worried By Iranian Influence
Despite the official stance of the Afghan government, popular views of Iran's attempts to influence Afghanistan -- both strategically and culturally -- have begun to surface recently.
Among many Afghans, mainly Pashto speakers, there is a feeling that Iranian culture and the Persian dialect spoken in Tehran is seeping into their country and is having an irreversible effect on the Afghan cultural identity.
Beyond the linguistic influences, Afghans quietly though in ever-greater numbers talk of a long-term Iranian program to bring their country into the sphere of Iranian influence, especially once the foreign forces leave Afghanistan.
Afghan officials in western provinces that border Iran have discussed incursions by Iranians, violations by Iranian aircraft of Afghan airspace, and support of terrorists in camps operated by Iranians. But there have been no formal or public protests against Iran, even though the Afghan government has made many public complaints of reported interference by Pakistan.
Training Camp In Iran?
Abdul Samad Stanakzai, a former governor of the western Farah Province, expressed concern in January over alleged Iranian interference in Afghanistan's internal affairs.
In an interview with Herat-based Radio Sahar on January 30, Stanakzai claimed that Iran is training "a large number of political opponents of the [Afghan] government" in a refugee camp in Iran called Shamsabad.
"Iran's interference is aimed at influencing our national identity and destroying it in the long term," Stanakzai added. Broadcasting the story, Radio Sahar commented that whereas "key [Afghan] government officials previously complained about interference in Afghanistan's internal affairs by neighboring countries, particularly Pakistan, they have avoided blaming Iran."
In mid-February, General Daud Ahadi, the commander of Border Brigade No. 5 in Nimroz Province, pointed to at least three separate violations of Afghan airspace by Iranian helicopters.
State-run Radio Afghanistan reported two such violations on February 18, adding in a commentary that "the Iranian side on occasion has caused border problems between Iran and Afghanistan that has resulted in violence."
Border Clashes Reported
Nimroz Governor Gholam Dastagir Azad told the Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press on March 9 that "Afghan and Iranian border police clashed" along the border between the two countries and one border policeman from both sides was killed and one Afghan policeman was injured.
According to Azad the clash was caused by a "misunderstanding."
In another development, since February Afghan officials have mentioned that Iran is erecting a wall along the border with the Kang district in Nimroz Province, ostensibly to prevent drug smugglers from entering Iran.
Nur Mohammad Haidar, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Border and Tribal Affairs, told Kabul-based Tolo Television on February 14 that if the "Iranian officials want to prevent drug smugglers and illegal immigrants from entering" their country, they can find more effective preventive measures "in coordination and cooperation with Afghan security officials...than erecting a wall."
Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Satar Ahmad Bahin told Tolo that since the "wall is erected inside Iranian territory, it is not Afghanistan's business." He added: "We have nothing to do with it."
Kabul's total rejection of Pakistan's plans to erect barb-wired fences in selected areas of its border with Afghanistan -- and also inside Pakistani territory -- and its reported acceptance of barriers by Iran, could present diplomatic and legal obstacles to Afghanistan's policy of opposing the Pakistani plan.
Siding With Iran
Kabul's choice of putting its lot with Tehran and New Delhi while seeing only evil intent in Islamabad is -- at best -- a short-sighted policy which not only ignores geographical realties on the ground but also discounts the long-term strategic goals of Iran and, to a much-lesser degree, that of India vis-a-vis Afghanistan.
Another factor which makes Iran a liability to Afghanistan's medium-term stability is Tehran's opposition to the presence of NATO and other foreign forces in Afghanistan.
In a recent commentary titled "People of Afghanistan: Hostages of Occupiers and Terrorists," the hard-line Tehran daily "Jomhuri-ye Islami" restated Iran's claim that Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are creations of the United States and that Washington's strategy is based on a "long stay in Afghanistan. But in order to justify this usurpatory presence," it needs an "explanation and pretext."
The commentary concluded that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda "have acted as a fifth column" for the United States not only to enter Afghanistan, but also to legitimize its presence there.
Unlike its reported involvement in Iraq, Tehran has not created much noticeable trouble to foreign forces stationed in Afghanistan. Instead it has concentrated most of its efforts on cultivating political allies among diverse Afghan political groupings and injecting Iranian culture into Afghanistan.
However, not causing trouble does not mean that Iran lacks the ability to do so, if such a policy would suit Tehran's dealings with the West. Perhaps the "misunderstandings" in Nimroz are just that -- or they could be a message to NATO states of Iran's ability to interfere in Afghanistan.