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Iran Report: June 26, 2007

Iran: Reformists Sense Hostility With Less Than A Year To Elections

By Vahid Sepehri
June 25, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Some of Iran's leading reformists are discerning increasing hostility from conservatives ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for March 2008.

Those fears have been highlighted by a demonstration in Mashhad against former reformist President Mohammad Khatami and sharp verbal exchanges recently in parliament.

The incidents come amid near-daily reports -- especially in reformist newspapers -- of convergence among reformists. Many would-be reformers see a united front and single electoral list -- led by prominent moderates and veterans -- as the best chance of winning a parliamentary majority.

The Mashhad demonstration on June 18 was by a group of right-wing radicals and seminarians who gathered outside a special clerical court in eastern Iran. The protesters demanded the prosecution of ex-President Khatami for having shaken hands with women during a recent trip to Italy -- something that is banned under a strict interpretation of the Shari'a laws that govern Iranian life.

More recently, parliamentarians have responded with hostility to allegations by reformist legislators that reformists were being censored by the chamber's presidium. One right-wing lawmaker accused unspecified critics of the government of having ties to British espionage networks, while another warned of dire consequences if reformists regained control of parliament.

Reformist Reaction

The headline of the reformist daily "Etemad's" front-page report on the seminarians' protest against Khatami suggested that a "radical current" has begun "a new round of attacks against reformists."

Another reformist daily "Etemad-i Melli" reported that the hostile exchanges in parliament signaled that a "hostile front against reformists" was "taking shape in planned pre-session speeches in parliament." "Etemad" saw the speeches and protest in the context of the coming elections, wherein, it claimed, "there is said to be a great possibility of a reformist victory" fueled by perceived failures since Mahmud Ahmadinejad was inaugurated president in 2005.

Reformists believe December's local-council polls represented voters' rejection of the government and support for moderates and reformists. Ahmadinejad supporters dismiss that interpretation. But a fractured right wing might be nervous at the possibility of facing a centrist front led by prominent politicians.

Sword Of Damocles

Even if prominent centrists like Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Mehdi Karrubi, or ex-President Khatami do not run for parliamentary seats, they could allow themselves to be associated with such a front, and discreetly campaign for it.

One way to preclude the electoral usefulness of such figures might be through lawsuits. The leadership has employed the selective or arcane use of laws and legalism to exclude unwanted individuals from public life in the past. Such processes can drag on like a persistent, low-level pain -- without necessarily leading to prison -- and deprive the accused individual of political verve and motivation.

The seminarians who targeted Khatami outside a branch of Iran's special court for Shi'ite clerics in Mashhad on June 18 reportedly filed a formal complaint with the court. Evidence was said to include video footage showing Khatami shaking hands with "half-naked Italian women" on one of his numerous trips abroad -- where he frequently discusses conflict resolution or rapprochement between religions. Protesters carried placards denouncing Khatami's tolerance and alleged moral laxity and urged prosecutors to respond and defend the clergy's tainted honor.

The court might or might not prosecute Khatami. For his part, Khatami might rethink how critical or outspoken he wishes to be in the nine months leading to parliamentary elections.

Double Standards?

It is notable that photographs appeared in some newspapers some weeks ago of President Ahmadinejad, not shaking, but kissing the hand of his elderly former teacher. Those images drew expressions of disbelief from religious conservatives, but the episode has all but disappeared from public attention.

As the reformist daily "Aftab-i Yazd" likes to remind its readers intermittently in editorials, offenses against decency and morals are either "outrageous" or "negligible" in Iran -- depending on who commits them.

One reformist who is a former cabinet minister, Morteza Haji, urged judicial and intelligence authorities to "at least reveal to the public" the identities of the people he accused of being intent on discrediting ex-President Khatami, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on June 24.

Lawmakers Joust

"Etemad" and "Etemad-i Melli" also gave prominent coverage to recent verbal clashes between reformists and conservatives in parliament. Reformists have denounced as censorship a June 17 decision by parliament's presidium to discontinue the practice of reading out the names of groups of legislators who criticize the government, citing time constraints. Conservatives have in turn accused reformists of using the criticism to grandstand and waste parliamentary time.

On June 20, in what "Etemad-i Melli" believed was a move planned the previous night, two conservative lawmakers launched sharp attacks on reformists. Mahmud Abtahi told the chamber that an unspecified group was constantly attacking the government, using "rude words" and aggressive manners. He accused those critics of ties to corruption and to British spies, and threatened to make their names public. Qaenat representative Musa Qorbani separately warned legislators to remember the sixth parliament, which he said hurled "swear words" at the Guardians Council, a body of senior jurists, and the judiciary, and sought to defend "offenders" and ratify laws that senior officials had declared "illegitimate."

"Etemad" suggested that the political right feared adverse election results in March. The paper accused rightists of trying to "target" prominent reformist personalities and of trying to make it easier for the Guardians Council to strike down the candidacies of reformists over perceived "deviations." The daily quoted the head of the reformist Islamic Revolution Mujahedin Organization, Mohammad Salamati, as saying that -- given public discontent with the government's performance -- a return to power by reformists was "certain." Salamati added that he "doubt[s] the people will once more turn to" a radical right wing at the ballot box.

Reformists know, of course, that public support is not always enough to place them in positions of power. They suspect right-wing adversaries might use various means to exclude them from power -- including legal charges and political accusations.

The reformists' move toward the political center -- and their increasing association with prominent centrist statesmen like ex-Presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani -- might signal a bid to win greater "institutional" protection to bolster their popular support. But it might also prompt arch-conservative sympathizers with Ahmadinejad and the Guardians Council to target those "institutional" safeguards as Iran's parliamentary elections draw near.

Palestinian Official Accuses Iran Of Orchestrating Gaza Seizure

By Ron Synovitz

A Hamas stand at an Iranian book fair in Tehran in 2005

June 25, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The intelligence chief of the Palestinian Authority claims Iran played a "big role" in Hamas's recent seizure of Gaza from Palestinian security forces. But Hamas says elements within the Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas had orchestrated the crisis at the behest of "foreign powers" in an apparent reference to Israel and the United States.

Abbas has previously accused "foreign elements from the region" of orchestrating this month's bloody takeover of Gaza by Hamas.

But allegations made on June 24 by intelligence chief Tawfiq al-Tirawi mark the first time that a senior official in the Palestinian Authority has explicitly blamed Iran.

Al-Tirawi said dozens of members of Hamas have received military training in Iran and that Hamas has smuggled weapons into Gaza through tunnels -- not to fight Israel, but to fight the Palestinian Authority.

Tehran Spotlighted

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit last week leveled similar accusations against Iran. He said Tehran encouraged Islamist militants in the Hamas movement to seize the Gaza Strip.

Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mohammad Ali Hosseini, dismissed the allegations on June 24, saying Tehran neither encouraged nor assisted the takeover of Gaza by Hamas.

"Our support for Hamas has had a political and moral aspect," Hosseini said. "When Hamas succeeded in establishing a government based on the Palestinian people's votes and the national unity government was created, we gave humanitarian support to this government."

Hamas Blames West

For its part, Hamas also has rejected al-Tirawi's allegations as "lies."

The recently dismissed Palestinian prime minister from the Hamas movement, Ismail Haniya, says the root cause of the Gaza crisis was Western pressure on his government -- particularly, the diplomatic and economic boycott against his government following Hamas's January 2006 election victory.

Haniya says the problem is not between himself and President Abbas, nor between Hamas and Abbas's Fatah movement. He said the real problem is "with a group supported from abroad and with a foreign agenda.

'Internal Palestinian Dynamics'?

Moin Rabbani, an expert on the Middle East for the International Crisis Group (ICG), said he thinks both Hamas and Fatah are wrongly blaming outsiders for an internal Palestinian dispute.

"It does not seem to me that there was a clear Iranian-inspired plan for these events to happen," Rabbani said. "They were driven, first and foremost, by internal Palestinian dynamics rather than external actors -- whether those supporting Hamas or those supporting Fatah."

Rabbani said Iran's financial support for Hamas is widely known. And he said Iran may be offering other forms of support. But he said allegations that the violence in Gaza was somehow part of a grand Iranian plot seems far-fetched.

"Iran is certainly capable of providing various forms of support to Hamas," Rabbani said. "But the nature of the arrangements, and the logistics, and the border is such that I don't see that they can provide Hamas with a decisive advantage. It's also my view that Hamas understands very clearly the perils of being turned into nothing but an Iranian proxy. So as far as these allegations are concerned, are they pure fantasy? No. There is a clear relationship between Hamas and Iran which both sides acknowledge. Presumably, there are covert elements to that relationship. At the same time, I think those making the allegations are also keenly aware of the political impact it will have in the West -- particularly in the United States -- and the political support this would garner them. And I think that is also an important element of these allegations."

Others in the region stress that Iranian support has been essential for Hamas to achieve its recent gains.

Bassem Eid, the head of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, a nongovernmental organization based in East Jerusalem, told RFE/RL that Hamas was able to defeat the security forces of Fatah in Gaza partly as a result of training and weaponry provided from Iran.

"It looks like through the operation of Hamas, I can see the Iranian weapons there," Eid said. "I am quite sure [of the Iranian connection]. And this is why Hamas becomes more violent than any other Palestinian political movement."

Meanwhile, there are concerns among ordinary Iranians that their president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, has been fueling the Middle East crisis in order to distract attention from domestic economic woes.

A 25-year-old law student in Tehran told Radio Farda today that she is unhappy about reports that Iran is funding groups like Hamas.

"As an Iranian, I believe that whatever act Iran would do to support conflict is so wrong," the student said. "Specifically, if Iran is funding Hamas and causing more instability, it is wrong because these goals bring more war. We had a history of war which clearly shows it is not appropriate for Iran to support terrorist groups and insurgents like Hamas. In addition to that, it is more problematic when Iran has its own desperate economic needs but we are sending money to other countries."

Iran also has been accused of sending weapons to militants in Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistan.

In May, Turkish authorities reportedly seized a cargo of machine guns and pistols hidden among construction materials on a Syria-bound train from Iran. Turkish officials say that discovered has led them to suspect that Iran is using Turkey as a transit point to send arms to Lebanon's Hizballah movement via Syria.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Sharafudeen Stanikzai has documented Iranian-produced land mines and other weapons that are being used by militants in western Afghanistan near the border with Iran.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said Washington suspects but cannot prove direct involvement by Iran's government.

The Iranian government denies it has provided military support to militants in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, or the Palestinian territories.

(Radio Farda and RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report.)

EU Talks With Iran On Nuclear Program 'Constructive'

Solana (left) and Larijani, seen here in Munich in February, are to meet again in three weeks (file photo)

June 24, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- European Union foreign-policy chief and Iran's top nuclear negotiator have described their latest talks as constructive and agreed to meet again in three weeks to further discuss Iran's contentious nuclear program.

"We will continue on this path," AFP quoted the EU's Javier Solana as saying after the four-hour talks in Lisbon, Portugal, on June 23. He said he and Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani would meet again in three weeks, but did not say where.

Making Progress

Larijani said the talks in Portugal "helped us to make progress toward negotiations and to clarify our positions," the French new agency reported. "I think it is possible to lay the ground for negotiations," Larijani added.

Solana and Larijani's meeting was their second in less than a month and followed talks between Larijani and International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei on June 22.

During their talks in Vienna, el-Baradei and Larijani agreed to draw up a plan on how to resolve questions about Iran's nuclear program within two months.

The program has placed Iran at odds with the West, which fears that Iran intends to produce nuclear weapons. Iran counters that its nuclear program is intended only for civilian purposes only.

Stronger Sanctions?

Solana welcomed Iran's recent cooperation with the IAEA. "I hope very much that that cooperation between Iran and the [IAEA]...will contribute also to create a climate that will allow us to continue our contact," he said in Lisbon. "We will do the utmost to cooperate in that direction."

Larijani, for his part, said he looks forward to resolving the dispute through negotiation.

But the talks were held under the shadow of reports that United States and the United Kingdom were preparing proposals to strengthen current UN sanctions against Iran if no progress was seen.

The two countries are permanent members of the UN Security Council, which has repeatedly ordered Iran to halt its uranium-enrichment program.

Referring to the prospect of more sanctions, Larijani told reporters after his talks with Solana that they could harm the negotiation process.

"If some adventure-seeking countries want to interrupt the process of diplomacy, this may have some effects," Larijani said. "I think that for the big powers the prevalence of tranquillity would be more important."

Kabul Investigates Reported Militant Movement From Iran

By Ron Synovitz

Afghan President Hamid Karzai says relations with Tehran are good (file photo)

June 22, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- An Afghan border guard commander has told Western and Afghan journalists that armed militants have been seen crossing from Iran into Afghanistan. But when questioned by RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan shortly after his comments were published, the commander said he couldn't confirm the intelligence reports until an investigation is completed.

Afghan officials have confirmed they are investigating intelligence reports about gunmen in two pickup trucks crossing into Afghanistan's western Farah Province from Iranian territory on June 18.

Increased Military Activity

Colonel Rahmatullah Safi, an Afghan border guard commander for three provinces that border Iran, told the German news agency dpa on June 19 that about 20 armed men had crossed the border from Iran.

"Karzai needs all the friends he can get in the international sphere. His relationship with Pakistan is quite troubled. So I think he does not want to make any more enemies on his border and he is trying to keep the relationship with Tehran on as even a keel as possible."

DPA quoted Safi as saying that intelligence reports indicated the gunmen were heading to a part of Farah Province that has seen escalating militant activity in recent months.

Safi made similar comments in an interview that was broadcast by Afghanistan's Ariana TV.

But when questioned by RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan shortly after the German news agency published his remarks, Safi said he could not comment while an investigation is under way.

"We had some reports that two vehicles entered our country from the border areas," he said. "There were only some reports. We have not seen them personally. We have ordered our forces to control such movements. However, we did not find any other incidents."

Safi also has told Western and Afghan journalists that remnants of Iranian ammunition were discovered on the ground in Herat Province after fierce clashes last weekend between Taliban and Afghan police. He said five antitank mines with Iranian markings were also seized at the border two weeks ago.

No Evidence

But Safi told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that there is no evidence proving the weaponry has been sent by the Iranian government.

"So far we don't have any evidence which would satisfy our government and the international community that our neighboring countries have been undermining our country’s [laws]," he said. "We would need evidence to prove it. We have ordered our military units to check the reports. We will see what results we are getting after the investigation and assessments in the area."

Earlier this month, Afghan President Hamid Karzai rejected allegations that the Iranian government may be sending weapons to Taliban fighters in an attempt to destabilize his country.

"We don't have any such evidence so far of the involvement of the Iranian government in supplying the Taliban," he said. "We have a very good relationship with the Iranian government. Iran and Afghanistan have never been as friendly as they are today."

But U.S. officials have accused Tehran of shipping advanced weaponry to militants who are trying to bring down Karzai's government.

Earlier this month, U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said Washington has "irrefutable evidence" that Iran's Revolutionary Guard is arming Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.

'Difficult To Believe'

But later, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Washington has suspicions but no hard evidence of a direct link between the Iranian government and weapons used in Afghanistan by the Taliban.

"I haven't seen any intelligence specifically to this effect, but I would say, given the quantities we are seeing, it is difficult to believe that it is associated with smuggling or the drug business or that it is taking place without the knowledge of the Iranian government," Gates said.

Tehran on June 21 categorically denied that it was sending any aid or weapons to Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.

Iran's state news agency, IRNA, quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Safari as saying that the allegations are "so unfounded and irrational that independent officials" in both the United States and the United Kingdom has assessed the claims as "unsubstantiated and unreal."

Karzai Under Attack

Jean MacKenzie, the Afghanistan country director of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, says Karzai and his administration may be downplaying the issue in order to maintain good diplomatic relations with Tehran.

"Hamid Karzai is in a very difficult present," MacKenzie said. "He is under attack from all sides within Afghanistan -- people in the government who are not supporting him, a new political front dedicated to undermining Karzai's position and overthrowing him if possible, and then, of course, he has got the Taliban always making problems. Karzai needs all the friends he can get in the international sphere. His relationship with Pakistan is quite troubled. So I think he does not want to make any more enemies on his border and he is trying to keep the relationship with Tehran on as even a keel as possible."

MacKenzie says she is unsure if Karzai or his administration would publicly announce any "irrefutable evidence" that proves the involvement of Iran's government in weapons shipments to Taliban fighters.

"We have got reporters who are trying to run down the weapons link," she said. "There are many reports, much more than anecdotal evidence, that weapons are coming into Afghanistan from Iran. Specifically, into Herat and the other western provinces -- but mostly into Herat. It is very difficult to get people to go on the record on such a topic as weapons shipments, particularly when it involves a foreign government."

(Contributors to this report include RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Rashteem Qadiri in Herat and RFE/RL correspondent Farangis Najibullah in Prague.)