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Iran Report: October 2, 2007

U.S. Building Military Base Near Iraq's Iranian Border

By Ron Synovitz

U.S. General David Petraeus, in Baghdad last March

September 28, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. military is launching an intensified effort to stop what it says is Iranian support for insurgents in Iraq.

U.S. forces are building a forward-operations base in Iraq just a few kilometers from the border with Iran. The $5 million project is aimed at improving border security and is part of a broader U.S. effort to stop alleged Iranian support for Iraqi insurgents.

The plan is similar to the U.S. strategy elsewhere in Iraq. It calls for U.S.-led coalition troops to help build up Iraq's border infrastructure as well to train Iraqi forces that eventually would take over border-security operations.

But the task is a difficult one. The 1,500-kilometer-long border between Iraq and Iran is crisscrossed with ancient smuggling routes. And supplying Shi'ite militias in Iraq is now thought to be a major source of income for some tribes along the border.

Iranian Influence

The top U.S. military commander In Iraq, General David Petraeus, said on September 12 that he has solid evidence -- including statements from alleged Iranian agents that have been captured -- proving that Iran has been involved in lethal attacks in Iraq. Petraeus warned the U.S. Congress that the United States already is fighting what he called a "proxy war" with Iran.

He accused Iran of helping Iraqi insurgents by providing them with weapons -- including armor-piercing technology for roadside bombs known as "explosively formed projectiles" (EFPs).

"I'm not blaming Iran for all that is going wrong in Iraq," Petraeus said in his congressional testimony. "What I stated is, in fact, what we have learned about Iranian activity. And it certainly has contributed to a sophistication of attacks that would by no means be possible without Iranian support when it comes to the explosively formed projectiles -- a signature item provided by the Iranians."

U.S. Brigadier General Kevin Bergner has accused the Quds Force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps of providing special combat training to Iraqi insurgents in Iran.

The "Quds Force, along with Hizballah instructors, train approximately 20 to 60 Iraqis at a time, sending them back to Iraq organized into these special groups," Bergner said recently. "They were being taught how to use EFPs, mortars, rockets, as well as intelligence, sniper, and kidnapping operations."

U.S. military officials say they are particularly concerned about a 150-kilometer stretch of border to the southeast of Baghdad in the mostly Shi'ite governorate of Wasit.

There, near the town of Zurbatiya, the U.S. is constructing the centerpiece of its new border-control strategy -- a forward-operations base called Combat Outpost Shocker. The facility is being built just 7 kilometers from the Iranian border -- which would make it the closest U.S. military facility to Iran. It is scheduled to become operational in November.

Patrolling The Border

The outpost would be much smaller than the full-fledged U.S. military bases that supported the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003. Such U.S. military bases are staffed by thousands of troops and include hospitals as well as landing strips for aircraft carrying supplies and providing air support for combat operations.

Combat Outpost Shocker would not have a landing strip for fixed-wing aircraft. And it is designed to house only about 200 soldiers. But the $5 million project would provide direct logistical support to soldiers who patrol the border -- including the equipment needed for a military radio-communications network.

Colonel Mark Mueller, the commander of the border transition team of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division, says surveillance equipment at the outpost eventually will allow border guards to intercept the communications of weapons smugglers.

Combat Outpost Shocker

"As we get more coalition capability down here, we will be able to develop some of that capability," Mueller said. "We can get some of the cell-phone conversations between the buyer and the seller, times [of transport], types of trucks. And we're getting better at that all the time."

Some 300 trucks now cross the border from Iran to Iraq each day near the future outpost. U.S. forces are able to fully search only three or four of those vehicles.

But the location of the new outpost means U.S.-led coalition troops would no longer have to take convoys on a dangerous 80-kilometer journey just to reach the border.

The initial plans call for about 100 soldiers from the republic of Georgia to be garrisoned at Combat Outpost Shocker along with about 70 U.S. soldiers. Some agents from the U.S. Border Patrol also would be based there.

Georgia sent about 2,000 of its troops to the Wasit Governorate in June to help to patrol the city of Al-Kut and the border with Iran.

Georgian Troops

Although those soldiers have not yet begun to patrol the border, Georgian Defense Minister Davit Kezerashvili told RFE/RL's Georgian Service their main assignment is to control arms smuggling.

"There is information available which shows that certain weapons are smuggled from Iran into Iraq via this [Wasit] governorate," Kezerashvili said. "Currently, there is no reaction to this. But the Georgian soldiers will have to react to this, which means that a certain level of tension will be triggered."

Analysts see the new base as part of a bigger struggle for influence in Iraq between the United States and Iran.

Iran denies it is stoking violence in Iraq. But experts say there is no doubt that Iran's influence on trade and politics in Iraq has grown since the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime.

The U.S. military said last month that it was tracking about 50 members of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in the border area south of Baghdad.

Evidence that supports those allegations also strengthen previous U.S. claims that Iran is meddling in Iraq -- a charge that has the U.S. government considering whether to blacklist the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist group.

As Tensions Rise, So Does Rhetoric

By Jeffrey Donovan

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad

September 28, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- To any reader of the English-language blogosphere, September appeared destined to be the month of the Iran war media blitz.

A first sign of an impending war of words over Iran came in late August. In an Internet blog, professor Barnett Rubin, a highly respected authority on Afghanistan at New York University, said a Bush administration insider told him there would be an "Iran war rollout" in the media in September.

Yet it was in Paris, not Washington, that perhaps the first salvo in the war of words with Iran was fired -- a drumbeat of rising rhetoric over the last month that Admiral William Fallon, the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East, has called "not helpful" and "not useful."

On August 27, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, speaking to a group of French diplomats, called a nuclear-armed Iran "unacceptable." He added: "I underline France's full determination to support the alliance's current policy of increasing sanctions, but also to remain open if Iran makes the choice to fulfill its obligations. This policy is the only one that will allow us to escape an alternative, which I consider to be catastrophic. Which alternative? An Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran."

Iran Media Blitz

As if on cue, the language of U.S. President George W. Bush, speaking the very next day, also took a confrontational turn toward Tehran.

"Iran's active pursuit of technology that could lead to nuclear weapons threatens to put a region already known for instability and violence under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust," Bush told a gathering of U.S. war veterans. "Iran's actions threaten the security of nations everywhere. And that is why the United States is rallying friends and allies around the world to isolate the regime, to impose economic sanctions. We will confront this danger before it is too late."

Publicly, Bush has refused to take military action off the table if Iran does not comply with UN Security Council resolutions demanding that it suspend its uranium enrichment programs.

Led by the United States, the Western powers are seeking to pass a third round of even tougher Security Council sanctions against Iran. However, at a meeting today in New York, the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany agreed to delay a vote on tougher sanctions until late November at the earliest.

That outcome is a setback to U.S. and French efforts, yet their cooperation still signals a key break from the recent past.

Unlike during the Iraq war run-up, when France voiced fierce opposition to toppling Saddam Hussein, this time Paris is backing up Bush with tough talk of its own.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner weighed in with perhaps even stronger words than his boss, stating on September 16 that the world should brace for war with Iran if negotiations to end its nuclear program fail. Although he later tempered his comments, Kouchner and Sarkozy's rhetoric starkly contrasts with that of former French President Jacques Chirac, whose vocal opposition to war with Iraq dealt a blow to U.S.-France relations.

So what’s motivated France to talk tough now? Jean-Pierre Darnis, a political analyst at the University of Nice and Rome's Institute of Foreign Affairs, says the new French leader is partly motivated by a genuine desire to repair relations with Washington. Darnis adds that France clearly wants to avoid war with Iran, but sees its threat as a necessary prod to change Tehran’s behavior.

"Sarkozy said: 'I don't like the word war. I don't want to use the word war,' after Kouchner [used the word]," Darnis says. "But nevertheless, he is very open to a large panel of actions against Iran."

On September 25 at the UN General Assembly in New York, Sarkozy reiterated that an Iranian nuclear bomb would be an "unacceptable risk to stability in the region and in the world." He was echoed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said, “If Iran were to acquire the nuclear bomb, the consequences would be disastrous."

Robert Whitman, who studies European foreign policy at London’s Chatham House think tank, says the tough talk from Paris, and to a lesser extent Berlin, is partly aimed at permanent UN Security Council members China and Russia to persuade them to drop their opposition to new Iran sanctions since the alternative -- namely, war -- should appear so much worse to them.

New France

But Whitman adds that Sarkozy’s rhetoric should also be taken at face value -- that is, it reflects genuine French concern over the danger of Iran’s nuclear program:

"I think that’s partly why the French have been using the language why they have, because they think the Iran case is a very serious test of the credibility of the international nonproliferation regime for nuclear weapons," Whitman says. "And I think that their analysis is that it will have grave consequences for nuclear proliferation in the Middle East if Iran is not stopped. And the French do believe that they are being a responsible international citizen by bearing down on the Iranians."

But what about the Iranians? Are they, too, somehow served by all the war talk?

Speaking on September 25 at the UN, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad vowed Tehran would continue to defy any UN resolutions on Iran’s nuclear program. He said the nuclear question was "closed" as a political issue and that Iran would pursue the monitoring of its nuclear program "through its appropriate legal path," the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog.

British analyst Whitman says the media circus that accompanied Ahmadinejad’s trip to the United States, along with the hard-line rhetoric against him, may actually be helping him in his domestic political battles back home. "Certainly, in terms of external criticism of the regime, and particularly criticism in the U.S., this will obviously assist him in terms of his struggle against moderates in Tehran," Whitman says.

Others have noted that every time the Iranian crisis escalates, the price of oil increases, further filling petroleum-rich Tehran's coffers.

The war drums have also been beating in the right-wing U.S. media, particularly among those "neoconservative" pundits who pushed successfully for the Iraq invasion and now reportedly seek to topple the clerical regime in Iran. Reports say their pro-Iran war views may be shared at least in part by Vice President Dick Cheney and others in the Bush administration.

According to the U.S. magazine "Newsweek," in its October 1 edition, David Wurmser, a former adviser to Cheney on the Middle East, was considering a plan to press Israel to strike Iranian nuclear targets in a move that could bring the United States into a war with Tehran. Wurmser, in remarks today to the "New York Sun" daily, categorically denied those allegations.

But in a clear signal of the mood in Washington, this week the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill that would tighten sanctions on Iran. The bill, which passed by a vote of 397 to 16, also calls on the U.S. government to list Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist group. The bill calls for sanctions against foreign companies that have U.S. subsidiaries who invest in Iran's energy sector.

A day later, the U.S. Senate passed a similar nonbinding resolution on Iran. Critics such as Democratic Senator Jim Webb of Virginia said the motion "could be read as a tantamount to a declaration of war on Iran."

But if the martial rhetoric serves the interests of "hawks" in Washington, some say it also aides "hawks" in the Middle East opposed to Iran’s ascendance in the region.

Independent author Robert Baer, who spent two decades in the Muslim world as a case officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, predicted in a recent article for the website of the U.S. magazine "Time" that there would be a military strike against Iran "within six months."

Military Caution

Last week, U.S. Admiral Fallon told Al-Jazeera television that he believed there would not be war with Iran, and called the war talk unhelpful. Similiarly, General John Abizaid, Fallon's predecessor as chief U.S. commander in the Middle East, said this month that while every effort should be made to stop Iran's apparent march toward nuclear weapons, the world could live with and deter a nuclear-armed Iran.

Baer, for his part, contends that part of the Bush administration, led by Cheney, wants to strike Iran for a number of reasons including the nuclear threat, Shi’ite Iran’s growing influence in Iraq and the region, its ties to terrorism, and its alleged threat to Sunni regimes friendly to Washington, such as Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis "are saying basically, if you want to keep your 10 million barrels or 9 million barrels [of oil] a day flowing freely in international markets, and keeping the price relatively low on oil, you better come to our protection," Baer recently said. "You better do something about Iran. And they’re telling us, or what they’re telling me, is that you have to decapitate the Iranian regime."

Today's UN talks in New York effectively gave the green light for IAEA chief Muhammad el-Baradei to carry on in his efforts to try and clear up doubts about Iran's past nuclear activities. El-Baradei recently gave Iran three months to clear its record in a move criticized by Washington as a tactic to stall sanctions and evade the key issue of halting enrichment.

Reports say the Western powers are considering their own economic and political sanctions against Iran, should efforts to pass a new resolution in the Security Council prove fruitless.

Where the Iran story ultimately goes is anyone’s guess. But as September 2007 draws to a close, some have recalled a famous remark by former White House chief of staff Andrew Card.

About Washington’s Iraq media blitz in September 2002, a half-year before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Card said, "From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August."

Former Inmates Shed Light On Secret Prison Ward

One of Evin prison's cells (file)

September 27, 2007 (Radio Farda) -- Three Iranian-Americans who were released from Iranian detention in September were reportedly all held in section 209 of Tehran's Evin prison.

The three -- academics Haleh Esfandiari and Kian Tajbakhsh and peace activist Ali Shakeri -- are only a few of those who have been held there. They also include Amir Kabir University students Ahmad Ghasaban, Majid Tavakoli, and Ehsan Mansuri, who remain in Evin.

Radio Farda broadcaster Mohammad Zarghami spoke to several people who had been detained in that same ward of the notorious prison to learn more about the conditions there.

The ward is the detention center for Iran's political prisoners and is said to be run by Iran's Intelligence Ministry. It is also thought to be beyond the control of bodies like Iran's prisons authority.

In recent months, numerous reports of harsh conditions in section 209 have led Iranian officials to comment on the situation there.

A top judge within the prosecutor's office, Hassan Hadad, told Iran's official news agency IRNA earlier this month that section 209 is the best detention center in the world. He added that "some prisoners tell us they want to be transferred to the section 209."

'Torture In The Basement'

Sudabe Ardavan is a former political prisoner who was held in section 209 during the early years after the Iranian revolution. She gives a daunting account of her experience in prison.

"At about 4 or 5 p.m. they would turn off the lights in our cells," Ardavan says. "Only a little bit of light would get in from a tiny window near the ceiling. After sunset, we were left completely in the dark, so we could do nothing but sleep. But when we put our heads down, we heard voices from the basement, where prisoners were tortured. At night, when things quieted down, they came to collect the death-row inmates."

She said she has never been to the basement of section 209, but she recalls a cellmate who was taken there for interrogation.

"One of my cellmates was a 15-year-old girl," she says. "Every day, they would take her down to the basement and interrogate her. She described the place as resembling a bathroom, with dirty walls and a mix of blood and water on the floor."

Following the 1998 student unrest, many young student activists were jailed in section 209.

Human rights activist Shiva Nazar Ahari was kept at Evin for one month in 2001.

"Before we entered the ward they blindfolded us and filmed us," she says. "I was waiting there for one of my friends so that we could go up the stairs together, but [prison guards] confronted me and told me, 'You have no right to do these things here.' He dragged me."

At night "we could do nothing but sleep. But when we put our heads down, we heard voices from the basement, where prisoners were tortured." -- former political prisoner Sudabe Ardavan

Ahari adds that the cell was about two by three meters and that there was a bright lamp there that shone on the prisoners 24 hours a day. After three or four days in the prison she says she was left in complete isolation. She remained in solitary confinement for about one month and was denied permission to contact her family for the first three weeks of her detention.

Fatemeh Haghighatju, a former member of the Iranian parliament's Committee for the Establishment of Truth who now lives in the United States, says that committee never succeeded in learning how many security prisons exist in Iran.

"We couldn't fully oversee the security operations because there was always the possibility that even if we knew about all the prisons in the country, the security forces would turn a house into a prison," says Haghighatju.

"I've met a youth of about 20 years, who had been interrogated on the anniversary of the student unrest," she says. "He told me that before he was transferred to Evin prison, the security forces took him to a temporary location in the basement of a Basij headquarters."

Kianush Sanjari, a former inmate of ward 209, claims to know prisoners who committed suicide under the pressure that they had to endure at Evin.

"I know prisoners who committed suicide because of the pressure in that ward, including Hamid Reza Mohammadi, who was in touch with an opposition television station based outside Iran," he says.

Sanjari recalls how Mohammadi, who he says was imprisoned for contacts with Iranian opposition media, died. Sanjari says that after enduring five months in solitary confinement, Mohammadi could no longer bear the situation and cut his veins with a spoon. According to Sanjari, another prisoner he knew hanged himself with his own clothes.

Solitary Confinement

But not all former Evin inmates recount the same gruesome stories. Bahare Hedajat, a member of Iran's largest pro-reform student group, Daftare Tahkim Vahdat, was recently released from Evin's ward 209. Hedajat says she never witnessed physical torture at Evin. But she stresses that solitary confinement causes great psychological distress.

The families of Amir Kabir students held in section 209 have alleged that the three have been subjected to physical and psychological torture.

Officials have denied reports that prisoners held in Evin are pressured or abused.

Amnesty International reported on September 26 that the families of the three Amir Kabir students were asked to go to the office of Tehran's chief prosecutor, Said Mortazavi, on 19 August. Mortazavi reportedly warned the families, saying they should not have given interviews or divulged information about section 209. As a result, he is said to have told them that the students would be held in solitary confinement and forbidden from family visits or telephoning them.

(Radio Farda's Azadeh Sharafshahi contributed to this report.)