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Iran Report: September 5, 2007

Iran: New Commander Takes Over Revolutionary Guards

By Vahid Sepehri

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made the change

September 4, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed on September 1 a new commander of the powerful Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), a force that exists separately from Iran's regular army.

The appointment has been interpreted variously for its domestic political or strategic significance, although officials have called it routine.

Head Of Controversial IRGC

News agencies report that the supreme leader appointed Mohammad Ali Jafari (also known as Aziz or Ali Jafari) to succeed Yahya Rahim-Safavi as IRGC commander.

Observers appear to regard Jafari as principally a tactician, organizer, and "technical" military man. His appointment appears to be more a response to perceived external threats than a reflection of domestic politics.

It is worth noting that the IRGC has recently become a focus of U.S. criticism for its allegedly disruptive role in Iraq.

Jafari spoke to the press on September 3 and said the IRGC's role is to "expand" the deterrence capability against "the enemies of Iran and the revolution" without an exclusively military role. He said the IRGC will "hasten" to help other institutions in Iran "where necessary," ISNA reported.

Jafari added that Iran's "environmental conditions" have changed, and the IRGC needs to be flexible in facing new threats to Iran. The new commander assured reporters that the IRGC is better prepared than in the past to face these threats, and with the necessary intelligence on "enemies" and a considerable ballistic capability. He urged "the enemies" to leave the Middle East region and choose instead an "interaction" with Islamic states, ISNA reported.

Military Experience

Jafari, born in 1957, was a brigadier-general in the IRGC who now holds the rank of major general. He fought in the 1980-88 war with Iraq, initially as a member of the Basij volunteer militia before rising through the IRGC ranks.

Jafari spent nearly 15 years (from 1991-92 to 2005) as commander of the IRGC land forces, Iranian media have reported, before being appointed as head of a strategic research center to map out new defensive and military strategies in response to what Iran's leadership has seen as evolving threats in the Middle East.

Jafari reportedly developed many of his ideas and experiences on unconventional, or "asymmetrical," warfare -- which officials have not spelled out in detail -- at the research center. In 1999, he was among 24 IRGC commanders who wrote to President Mohammad Khatami, effectively warning him at a time of public unrest in Tehran that Khatami's liberalizing policies were threatening the Iranian leadership, Radio Farda reported on September 2.

The outgoing IRGC commander, Rahim-Safavi, has been appointed Khamenei's senior adviser on the armed forces, "Kayhan" reported on September 3. He told state television on September 2 that he had been informed of the impending shuffle for over a month, and there was nothing unusual about the end of his tenure. He noted that such appointments "do not last more than 10 years," citing the example of current Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani being moved from the leadership of state television and radio.

Radio Farda cited -- which is regarded as close to a senior member of the Expediency Council -- Secretary Mohsen Rezai -- as stating that Rahim-Safavi had expressed a desire to leave his post months ago, given the longevity of his tenure. Ayatollah Khamenei's published note gave no reason for Safavi's removal.

'Asymetrical' Strategies

Radio Farda commented on September 2 that Jafari has extensive fighting experience and reportedly close relations with the commanders of the former Badr force of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). It interpreted the appointment as a response to the recent reports suggesting U.S. plans to place the IRGC on its list of terrorist organizations.

Radio Farda and highlighted on September 2 and 3 Jafari's work on "asymmetrical" strategies -- including the use of Iranian terrain in mobile-defensive operations -- and activities in recent years that included the transfer of the lessons and experiences of the Iran-Iraq War to younger IRGC commanders, and reflections on the strengths and weaknesses of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Jafari said in Tehran on September 3 that, given "the enemy's" numerical or technological superiority, the IRGC would make use of "asymmetrical" warfare capabilities, which he said were developed in the Iran-Iraq War. He said Hizballah used this type of warfare in 2006, when Israel bombarded Lebanon from the air and by land in a bid to destroy the Iran-backed militia.

Observers have speculated on the domestic and foreign-policy significance of the reshuffle. Radio Farda said on September 2 that Jafari is or was thought to be close to the Expediency Council's Rezai, who used to head the IRGC, and to Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, another former IRGC guardsman and currently the mayor of Tehran.

The move might be interpreted as a stimulus from Khamenei to the Rezai-Qalibaf clique -- a conservative subfaction thought to be a counterweight to the radicalizers around President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Radio Farda observed that Rahim-Safavi is perceived to have become too openly sympathetic to the Ahmadinejad government, when officers are obliged to shun politics.

IRGC Influence

It quoted observers saying that Rahim-Safavi's almost partisan positions had caused unease or even rifts in the IRGC ranks, and the appointment is meant to resolve that.

The Ahmadinejad government has placed a number of IRGC officers in key executive positions. The most recent such appointment was of Alireza Afshar to be deputy interior minister for political affairs and head of the ministry's election headquarters.

But exiled analyst and IRGC founding member Mohsen Sazegara offered a differing interpretation in comments to Radio Farda on September 2. Sazegara associated Jafari with IRGC commanders who have been given key posts in past months. (Those individuals include Alireza Afshar and Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr, another deputy interior minister and brother-in-law of Jafari.)

Sazegara said Jafari's appointment strengthens the IRGC's access to political power and deepens its involvement in -- rather than distancing it from -- politics. This interpretation suggests the move is not designed to strengthen one conservative grouping against another, but rather tighten the IRGC's grip on institutions, as a recent state -- not Ahmadinejad -- policy.

In terms of strategy, Sazegara called the appointment akin to putting the IRGC on a war footing -- given Jafari's work in recent years on strategy and the perception of increasing threats against Iran and the IRGC.

The IRGC conducting maneuvers in February

Journalist Hossein Bastani told Radio Farda that the IRGC strategic research center and the Imam Hossein University, a military college, have been engaged in research on regional and military threats to Iran. He said those groups had concluded -- observing Iraq in recent years -- that Iran must not allow itself to be disarmed by UN bodies or the international community, as this would weaken it without assuring its protection from a Western attack. Bastani said Khamenei's appointment of Jafari as the IRGC chief indicates his approval of this conclusion and line of thinking, while the timing means he believes them relevant to Iran's situation. Bastani cited Jafari as one of the IRGC's less political commanders, albeit one who is a partisan of the Basij militia's ever-closer affiliation and cooperation with the IRGC.

The IRGC's 'Periods Of Duties'

The reformist daily "Etemad" observed on September 3 that the IRGC has had three broad periods of duties since 1979. Its first was to defend the Iranian system and Iran's territory after the 1979 revolution and the Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980.

The second was participating in reconstruction activities after the war's end in 1988. Now, the third, with Jafari's appointment, signals it is once more playing a defensive role in the face of perceived threats from Western states.

The daily quoted Mohammad Nabi Rudaki, a former senior member of the inspectorate of the joint armed forces headquarters, as saying on September 2 that Jafari's appointment could lead to changes among the IRGC officers' corps and to more "tactical" and "lighter" fighting units. Rudaki said he expects the corps to increase its fighting capabilities under Jafari. (It was not immediately clear if this was Mohammad Nabi Rudaki, a member of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee.)

Observers appear to regard Jafari as principally a tactician, organizer, and "technical" military man. And his appointment appears to be more a response to perceived external threats than a reflection of domestic politics.

It might be that Jafari belongs to one or another clique, and rivalries could well exist within the military as they do inside conservative ranks. But the Iranian military is not -- in the manner of some Latin American states in the past or Turkey -- prominently involved in domestic politics. Those officers who go on to fill political or administrative positions do so as civilians and are seen as elements with an assured loyalty to the political system more than to the IRGC as a corps. Their appointments are made by civilian or clerical officials, even if the multiplication of these former military men may be said to strengthen a certain mindset -- unquestioning, loyal, tough in the face of potential pressures -- within a system that has often seen itself as besieged by hostile forces.

Moreover, periodic rotation ensures that no official comes to see himself as permanently entrenched in any position or as indispensable. It reminds such officials that they are dependent on those to whom Iran's postrevolutionary constitution has given formal powers.

Iran: Journalist Urges World To Prioritize Human Rights In Dealing With Tehran

September 4, 2007 (Radio Farda) -- Akbar Ganji is a prominent Iranian journalist and pro-democracy activist who spent six years in prison for his critical views. He is currently in the United States to draw attention to the human-rights situation in Iran.

Ganji is considered one of Iran's leading investigative journalists; his 2000 book, "Dungeon Of Ghosts," implicated leading conservative figures in what were dubbed the "chain murders" of Iranian writers and intellectuals in 1998. Ganji was arrested after participating in the 2000 Berlin Conference. In an interview with Radio Farda correspondent Sharan Tabari on August 29, Ganji talked about his recent call for the UN to make human rights its highest priority in dealing with Tehran.

Radio Farda: Since you traveled to Europe and the United States about a year ago, you have given a number of talks and interviews and have written articles and letters. In them all, you have consistently emphasized the importance of the issue of human rights in Iran and argued that, in dealing with Iran, the international community should give this matter the highest priority. Now in a letter to UN Secretary-General [Ban Ki-moon], you have reiterated this argument. Would you please tell us more about the content of your letter [to Ban]?

Akbar Ganji: In the letter, I explained the systematic, organized, and ongoing violation of human rights in Iran. I gave specific examples of the violation of the rights of women, workers, students, teachers, academics, and intellectuals and demanded direct intervention by the secretary-general on this issue.

I strongly believe that Iran's violation of human rights should be the first and foremost priority for the international community, instead of Iran's nuclear program.

Iran is a member of the UN and has signed the UN's Charter of Human Rights, and therefore it has to abide by it.

Two hundred prominent writers, intellectuals, and academics from all over the world signed this letter and supported my argument for giving this matter the highest priority.

Radio Farda: What do you think the UN could do in this respect?

Ganji: Let me explain that I understand the UN's position. The UN is more an organization of governments than of nations. Among its members, many undemocratic governments are not the real representatives of the people they govern; therefore, it is not easy to reach a consensus over human rights issues when it has to rely on the votes of such governments.

For example, on the present Human Rights Commission there are member countries like Russia, China, Iran, and Syria, who support one another and block any real progress of cases referred to the commission.

To address this problem, I believe the UN's secretary-general should use the authority of his position to set up an organization like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to preside over the issue of human rights, which could then influence the issue of human rights in countries like Iran. This is what we asked for in this letter. We also asked the secretary-general personally to demand the freedom of all political prisoners in Iran.

Radio Farda: As you mentioned, the United Nations does not have any decisive executive power. Do you think it can give any practical response to your request?

Ganji: Although I believe it is difficult to reach a consensus over issues as such in the UN...if there is enough resolve on this matter, the UN Security Council can pass resolutions with international legal ramifications and enforcement attributes.

Radio Farda: The UN can pass resolutions, but what if they are ignored -- as some have been in the past?

Ganji: Well, this is the main issue. I believe there are mechanisms for enforcing these resolutions. The problem is that, at present, "human rights" is not the primary issue in dealing with Iran. Had it been -- like Iran's nuclear program -- the UN could find ways of dealing with it effectively.

Radio Farda: You are not the first person to write to the UN regarding Iran. What do you think makes your letter more important?

Ganji: It is true that a number of people have already written to the UN regarding the violation of human rights in Iran. Iran is a member of the UN and has signed the UN's Charter of Human Rights, and therefore it has to abide by it. However, what gives our letter a different weight is the signature of 200 of the most prominent international dignitaries, including three Nobel Prize winners under it. We decided this is one of the best ways to draw attention to this matter and make it an urgent case.

Iran: IAEA Notes 'Significant Step' On Nuclear Crisis

Iran is continuing to install centrifuges at its Natanz nuclear facility (file photo)

August 31, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The IAEA says a timetable agreed with Tehran to answer questions about Iran’s nuclear program is a "significant step forward."

The statement from the UN nuclear watchdog comes in a report, made public on August 30, that evaluates Iran’s behavior since May. IAEA chief Muhammad el-Baradei is to submit the report to the agency’s board of governors in Vienna at a meeting starting September 10.

The report refers in large part to a timetable agreed between IAEA and Iranian negotiators in Tehran last week. Under that timetable, Iran agreed to answer by November most of the IAEA’s questions about its past nuclear activities.

The IAEA report welcomes that agreement, noting that "if Iran finally addresses the long-outstanding verification issues, the Agency should be in a position to reconstruct the history of Iran’s nuclear program."

Standoff Far From Over

But the report also makes it clear that these steps are still far from enough to defuse the crisis over Iran’s nuclear work.

"Iran has refused to comply with its international obligations, and as a result of that the international community is going to continue to ratchet up the pressure," the U.S. State Department said.

Significantly, the report notes: "Once Iran’s past nuclear program has been clarified, Iran would need to continue to build confidence about the scope and nature of its present and future nuclear program."

Key Western players are already making it clear that they do not regard cooperation in answering past questions as sufficient to end their calls for new UN sanctions against Iran.

U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said on August 30 that "Iran has refused to comply with its international obligations, and as a result of that the international community is going to continue to ratchet up the pressure."

The U.S. representative to the IAEA, Ambassador Gregory Schulte, noted in a statement that the IAEA report "makes clear that Iran continues to install centrifuges at Natanz and build a heavy water research reactor at Arak."

Schulte earlier told RFE/RL in an interview on August 3 that as long as those activities continue, Washington will continue to seek a third round of sanctions from the UN Security Council.

The United States and its allies want another set of sanctions, Schulte said, "because Iran has not complied with previous Security Council resolutions that require it to suspend these activities -- like uranium enrichment and production of the heavy-water reactor at Arak -- that they don't need for civil purposes, but that countries generally believe are part of a military program."

France’s Foreign Ministry this week said that until Iran makes a clear decision about suspending its enrichment activities, Paris also will continue to look into the feasibility of further sanctions.

Opposition On Sanctions

Still, as Western powers seek further sanctions, they face reluctance from Russia and China, which would like to see the crisis resolved through the IAEA rather than the Security Council.

Possibly for this reason, Tehran has sought this week to portray the recently agreed timetable as the end to much of the conflict over its nuclear activities.

On August 28, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad declared that Iran’s "nuclear file is closed."

Shannon Kile, a senior nonproliferation expert at the Stockholm International Peace Institute in Sweden, said Iran's strategy is first to try to alleviate the international pressure it is facing.

"By committing itself to resolving all the outstanding issues, I think it helps countries such as China and Russia, which are reluctant to impose more stringent sanctions on Iran," Kile said. "It allows those countries to argue that Iran should be given more time. So to some extent, I think this is an attempt by the Iranians to deflect Security Council consideration of further sanctions over its enrichment program."

Washington, which accuses Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons, has warned that it will push for a third round of sanctions that are tougher than the current ones.

Tehran maintains that its nuclear activities are entirely peaceful and only intended to develop energy.

Iran: Campaign Against Discriminatory Laws Marks First Year

By Golnaz Esfandiari

Iranian women at an Internet cafe in Tehran (file photo)

August 29, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A campaign by Iranian women's rights advocates to gather 1 million signatures to protest discriminatory laws marked its first anniversary this week.

Organizers of the "One Million Signatures" campaign hope to pressure lawmakers and demonstrate that many Iranians are unhappy with gender discrimination in Islamic law as it is applied in Iran.

They hope to change mindsets and achieve equality before the law despite government pressure.

Simin Behbahani, one of Iran's leading modern poets, was among the first people to join the campaign. She thinks believes campaigners have been successful so far in bringing women's rights issues to the attention of Iranian society and the international community.

"We have been able to contact a big number of people [and] we have talked to many women and gained their support," Behbahani says. "I think this is a major achievement. We had to do something to get decision-makers and the world to hear our demands. I believe that Iranian women should exercise their rights as soon as possible."

The campaign targets laws that organizers say treat women like second-class citizens and deny them equal rights in divorce, inheritance, child custody, and other areas.

It includes 400-500 volunteers who have been collecting signatures online and in person in public places like parks and beauty salons.

Organizers told RFE/RL that they are opting not to say how many signatures they have gathered since the campaign began a year ago.

The campaign followed a peaceful protest in Tehran in June 2006 against discriminatory laws, during which some 70 people were arrested.

Quiet Pressure

Since then, government pressure on women's rights advocates and campaign members has continued. A number of campaigners have been threatened, summoned to court, charged with security crimes, and sentenced to prison in recent months. The campaign's website has been also blocked several times.

But campaign participants remain determined to push their fight against gender discrimination in Iranian law.

Poet Behbahani says rights activists know that they need to withstand pressure in order to succeed in their effort.

"So far, five of the people who were gathering signatures have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from two to several days, and they've been under pressure," she says. "Some are facing suspended prison sentences. This is not important for the campaign members -- we will do our best and continue our work, and I hope we will succeed."

Activists campaigning for gender equality in Iran have been accused of seeking a "velvet revolution" and receiving money from the United States and other countries.

State pressure on women's rights activists comes amid a broader crackdown on students, intellectuals, and workers.

Concerns In Tehran

Nayereh Tohidi, professor of women's studies and chair of the Women's Studies Department at California State University, Northridge, tells RFE/RL that one of the reasons for the increasing pressure on the women's movement is the Iranian government's view of security.

Tohidi says international and U.S. pressure on Tehran over its nuclear program and its role in Iraq and Afghanistan has led to concern among Iranian leaders, who have taken a tougher line on dissent.

"Women are collecting signatures in public places," Tohidi says. "This is the most peaceful and transparent way to express civic demands. Being afraid of this shows the weakness and lack of self-confidence of that establishment."

Tohidi says that what she describes as a close relationship between the current Iranian government and hard-line clerics is contributing to the pressure on women's rights activists.

Marking the first anniversary of the "One Million Signatures" campaign on August 27, Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi said she has asked the United Nations to investigate the situation of women in Iran. She said about 50 people have been detained in the past year for involvement in women's rights protests.

Iranian officials deny accusations of discrimination and say women in Iran enjoy equal rights.

Activists counter that Iran is a male-dominated society where -- because of the laws -- women face difficulties in getting divorces and a woman's testimony in court is worth half that of a man.

More Than Names

Campaigners have given themselves two years to reach their goal of 1 million signatures.

But Tohidi thinks there is more to the campaign than collecting names.

"It's not important how many signatures they gather," Tohidi says. "It's symbolic -- what is important is that [campaign members] have learned to talk to people face to face, to teach people and to learn from them. They learn about people's attitudes regarding these issues -- what do they think? [Or] whether [women's issues] are among their priorities. So the main purpose of this movement is to raise awareness and promote equality ideas. It is in fact about building civil society."

Campaigners have said that after the signature drive, the next phase of their drive would focus on proposing news laws.

(Radio Farda's Tara Atefi contributed to this report from Washington)

Iran/Iraq: Tensions Rise As Bush, Ahmadinejad Trade Jabs

August 29, 2007 (RFE /RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush said in a speech yesterday that what he called Iran's "murderous activities" in Iraq must stop.

In a speech to U.S. war veterans in Reno, Nevada, Bush added that he has authorized the U.S. military in Iraq to confront alleged Iranian attempts to destabilize that country.

But he repeated charges that Iran -- which he called the world's biggest state backer of terrorism -- is behind much of the violence in Iraq.

An archive of RFE/RL's coverage of Iran's nuclear program.

"Shi'a extremists, backed by Iran, are training Iraqis to carry out attacks on our forces and the Iraqi people," Bush said. "Members of the Quds Force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are supplying extremist groups with funding and weapons, including sophisticated IEDs [improvised explosive devices]. And with the assistance of Hizballah, they've provided training for these violent forces inside of Iraq."

Bush warned that the United States has no intention of backing away from the turmoil in Iraq.

"America does not give in to thugs and assassins," Bush said. "And America will not abandon Iraq in its hour of need."

Iranians Detained In Baghdad

Shortly before Bush spoke, U.S. troops in Baghdad detained the seven members of an Iranian delegation at the Sheraton Hotel and took them away blindfolded and handcuffed to an undisclosed destination.

The incident is reminiscent of the U.S. seizure of five Iranians in January in the northern Iraq city of Irbil. Washington accuses those of being members of the Quds Force and has not released them.

Reports say the seven Iranians picked up on August 28 were released in the morning. Media reports describe them as officials from Iran's Energy Ministry in Baghdad to negotiate contracts on power stations.

President Bush speaking in Reno on August 28 (official photo)

Bush's criticism of Iran appeared to leave little room for compromise. But comments from the U.S. State Department, indicate that Washington has some flexibility.

"We very much hope to see that [the Iranian] government plays a positive role in Iraq," State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said. "And as you know, we have had conversations involving Iranian officials, not only between [U.S.] Ambassador [Ryan] Crocker and his counterpart in Iraq, but also through the broader group setting of the neighbors' conferences -- because we do believe it's important that all of Iraq's neighbors play a positive role in that country. But the way to do that isn't with this kind of rhetoric or with any kind of rhetoric, but through real concrete steps to help the Iraqi people and help the Iraqi government achieve stability and security and ultimately see that country move forward."

Iran Ready 'To Fill The Gap'

Bush and Casey's comments came the same day that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad played an unusually bold card, confirming that Iran wants major influence in a future Iraq.

He told journalists that U.S. political power in Iraq is "collapsing," and that there will soon be a power vacuum in that country. He said Iran is "prepared to fill the gap," along with its "friend" Saudi Arabia and other neighbors, and with the help of the Iraqi people.

Ahmadinejad likely singled out Saudi Arabia because it is a key Sunni Muslim state, whereas Iran is a Shi'ite power. The Iraqi population is largely divided between these two branches of Islam.