Accessibility links

Breaking News

Iran Report: October 29, 2007

Iranian Diplomat's Removal Highlights Battle At The Top

By Vahid Sepehri

Ali Larijani: not quite a last goodbye (file)

October 29, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Ali Larijani's sudden departure from the post of Iran's top nuclear negotiator has caused consternation abroad and political repercussions at home.

Comments by politicians in Tehran indicate that Larijani was essentially forced to resign as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council on October 20 as he could no longer work with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

The departure of a prominent conservative politician from a key state position has been viewed by some as Ahmadinejad's latest attempt to strengthen his position inside the Iranian power structure. The fact that a close Ahmadinejad associate succeeded Larijani -- a political heavyweight and potential rival to the president -- lends weight to that hypothesis.

But it seems Ahmadinejad might have incurred the displeasure of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in his ousting of Larijani in favor of Said Jalili. And Khamenei holds ultimate political and religious authority in Iran.

Down But Not Out

In fact, Khamenei wasted no time in responding to Ahmadinejad's move, immediately naming Larijani his special representative to the talks on Iran's nuclear program, and Larijani was present at further talks with EU leaders in both Rome and Hamburg in the past week.

Larijani is a prominent member of what might be regarded as Iran's political family of traditional conservatives, and long described as close to Khamenei. Larijani also was Ahmadinejad's chief traditional-conservative rival in the first round of the presidential election in 2005. His appointment as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council may have been a compromise choice for a new president who faced pressure from the traditional-conservative camp.

His removal was described as badly timed and unnecessary by Ayatollah Khamenei's foreign affairs adviser, Ali Akbar Velayati. In a country where politicians very rarely criticize each other publicly, Velayati was unusually outspoken, telling ISNA that "it would have been better" for "officials" to use a little self-restraint and resolve their mutual differences privately at a time of great international pressure on Iran. He said "it would definitely have been better" if Larijani had not been replaced.

'Rise Of The Right-Wingers'

The reformist daily "Etemad" viewed Larijani's departure as a sign of the continuing decline of traditional conservatives and their increasing exclusion from key positions in favor of "radical" right-wingers allied with Ahmadinejad.

The daily added that Larijani had increasingly shown moderation and pragmatism in the nuclear discussions, and "this was precisely the spirit that clashed with the aggressive and radical spirit of" the president. The change, the daily noted, indicated "the real decline" of traditional conservatives, and it stated that administrative and government changes made so far by the president are "in line with the wishes of radical statesmen. Right now, statesmen who believe in diplomatic methods are losing their position."

Commentator Jafar Golabi wrote in the same paper that the "unification" of the ninth government -- meaning the exclusion of those who essentially disagree with Ahmadinejad's radical current -- had reached a "surprising" level: "experienced factions" in the country "no longer know what to expect or what the country's fate will be," he wrote.

In the press there has been -- as there often is with surprising developments -- a contrast between public postures of reassurance and more honest commentaries.

Both Jalili (left) and Larijani took part in talks with EU leaders last week (AFP)

The pro-government daily "Iran" reported some of the reassuring statements on October 23. It quoted Mahmud Mohammadi, a member of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, as saying that the Larijani dismissal had no effect on "national strategy." He said it was the "president's right as the head of the Supreme National Security Council to take decisions" on its personnel. Mohammadi said "we all have a duty" to back the president in his decision and "the Europeans" should interpret the appointment of diplomat Jalili as a sign of Iran's inclination to talk and negotiate, not of a hardening of positions.

The daily quoted Tehran-based academic Ibrahim Mottaqi as saying that the Europeans have "a pragmatic approach" and know they are dealing with institutions, not individuals. Another member of the parliamentary committee, Javad Jahangirzadeh, said that with Ayatollah Khamenei's "total familiarity" with the nuclear program, strategies are unlikely to change very much.

Larijani 'Too Popular'

The reformist daily "Etemad" reported an "extensive wave" of objections among legislators to the change on October 22. The parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee met in an extraordinary session on October 21, at which legislators expressed concern at the EU's possible negative reactions to the reshuffle, committee member Darius Qanbari said. He commented on the possible reasons legislators had cited in the meeting for the removal: Larijani was an expert on the nuclear issue, he said, and "paid little attention to the president's comments, and this...made the conditions for their continued cooperation difficult."

Others had spoken of an argument between the two at a meeting. Some said that "Ahmadinejad aides had warned" Larijani about his increasing "popularity" due to his perceived successful handling of nuclear negotiations.

Mohammad Reza Bahonar, the deputy speaker of parliament whom "Etemad" described as a supporter of Larijani in the 2005 elections who became an Ahmadinejad supporter in parliament, said on October 21 that Iranians' speculation on the matter was in line with Western wishes.

Perhaps for this reason, those involved in the discussion have sought to move on. The president told the press in Tehran on October 24 that Larijani had tendered his resignation many times before. Larijani told the press in Rome on October 24 that Iran is simply a democratic country where officials circulate between jobs, and voiced support for his successor.

But EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana said after the talks in Rome with Jalili and Larijani that having too large a negotiating team could complicate the situation. He also stated that Larijani seemed more in charge of the negotiations.

Larijani Urged To Run For Election

In spite of public assurances, Larijani's removal is seen by some as a move by the president to further consolidate his grip within the executive branch, following several ministerial changes.

Ahmadinejad has shown he wishes to implement his own ideas, and prefers compliant administrators to dissenting specialists. The change also reveals some of the political workings of Iran's nomenklatura: it shows that offices or titles do not by themselves confer power. If you are pushy enough, you can get people out, and Ahmadinejad has just pushed a political veteran off of his chair.

If one perceives power in Iran to reside in shifting coteries and in perceptions of their power, then Ahmadinejad has for the past two years been placing his associates in key positions and forging his own coterie -- one he hopes will be seen as strong. But every maneuver prompts responses.

In addition to making Larijani his special representative to the nuclear talks, Khamenei has ensured that Larijani retains an institutional position as his representative on the Supreme National Security Council, as he did with his predecessor Hasan Rohani.

Khamenei may also be inclined more toward Ahmadinejad's political rivals -- the mainstream conservatives/political center that surround Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani -- to ensure some equilibrium. The traditional conservatives themselves have been consulting in preparation for parliamentary elections set for March.

Larijani could return to electoral activity and compete against Ahmadinejad's radical conservatives in that context.

Deputy parliament speaker Bahonar said on October 25 that the "fundamentalists," or traditional conservatives, hope to make use of Larijani. "We are trying so that he will enter parliament, and we believe Larijani should be in parliament," ISNA quoted him as saying. Larijani may be down for now, but he certainly is not out as the battle between the supreme leader and the president continues.

Radio Farda Listeners React To New U.S. Sanctions

Iran's Revolutionary Guards (file photo)

October 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The announcement of new U.S. sanctions against Iran, including the designation of the elite Quds Force as a terrorist group, has spurred a wave of strong responses from Iranians across the political spectrum.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson announced the measures on October 24, singling out Iran’s Defense Ministry, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and its elite Quds Force.

In e-mails and phone calls to Radio Farda, some listeners and web users have welcomed the move as a step in the right direction -- while others have voiced concerns that ordinary Iranians will be hurt by the U.S. sanctions, which also apply to a number of banks and companies linked to the IRGC and its Quds Force.

In comments on Radio Farda's Persian-language website, Amir from Mahabad wrote that he opposes the sanctions "because the people will become the victims." One woman who spoke to broadcasters agreed: “These sanctions that the U.S. has announced against the Iranian regime will only put pressure on the Iranian people,” she said.

“I don’t understand how can an Iranian support sanctions against his country or an attack against his country. I really don’t understand it,” writes Mehran from Tabriz. Another respondent, Ahmad, opposed the measures because he believes the IRGC is devoted to defending Iran.

While making the announcement, Rice spoke directly to the Iranian people to address concerns about the sanctions' potential impact. "We in the United States have no conflict with you," she said. "We want you to have every opportunity to develop and prosper in dignity, including the peaceful use of nuclear power. So, we hope that your government will embrace the path of cooperation that we and the international community continue to offer."

Other critics warned that the sanctions would have little effect. Saeed, writing from Tehran, believes that the sanctions will only harm Washington's interests, arguing that Iran has made economic progress in recent years even “under the shadow of U.S. sanctions.” Mohsen, also from Tehran, says that the experience of the past 30 years has shown that “these measures do not have any effect on the will of the Iranian people and officials.”

Another listener, Hadi, said that instead of enforcing sanctions against Iran, Washington should hold direct talks with Tehran.

Against The Regime

But some Iranians are welcoming the U.S. sanctions as an effective weapon against the regime of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. One respondent writes that the regime is "against its people," and that "all true Iranians and Muslims" should therefore welcome any move that puts pressure on the government, adding that the sanctions came "very late."

"The sanctions have nothing to do with [ordinary] people and their well-being,” writes another supporter.

A reader from Khoramabad says he not only supports the sanctions, but he would also support military action against Iran. "We people of Iran are nothing but walking dead. I can’t support this regime anymore,” he writes.

It remains uncertain whether the latest measures are in fact a prelude to military action, as some suggest, or represent genuine efforts to solve the crisis through diplomatic means.

One caller from Sweden called on Iran’s supreme leader to find a solution to the current crisis. Iran "is moving toward a real crisis, Iran is slowly entering a swamp, we’re actually into it up to our waist. I hope things will not get any worse and Ayatollah [Ali] Khamenei will create a council to find a solution that is in the national interests of Iran," he said.

Iran: U.S. Sanctions Sharpen Confrontation

By Jeffrey Donovan

Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps

October 25, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- With one fell swoop of the U.S. government’s pen, Washington has hit Iran with some of the strongest U.S. unilateral sanctions since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, singling out Iran’s Defense Ministry, Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and its elite Quds Force in a move that sharpens the confrontation over Tehran’s controversial nuclear program.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson announced the much-anticipated move at a news conference in Washington today. They said the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush had designated the IRGC as a proliferator of weapons of mass destruction and the Quds Force as a supporter of terrorism. They said the steps aimed to punish Iran for supporting terrorism in Iraq and the Middle East, as well as for its missile sales and nuclear activities.

Rice said Iran “continues to spurn our offer of open negotiations, instead threatening peace and security by pursuing nuclear technologies that can lead to a nuclear weapon, building dangerous ballistic missiles, supporting Shi'ite militants in Iraq, and terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories." She added that Washington remains open to a “diplomatic solution.”

Financial Pressure

The United States has long labeled Iran as a state supporter of terrorism. But the latest designations appear to be the first ever taken by Washington against a branch of the armed forces of a sovereign nation. The sanctions themselves will target more than 20 Iranian entities, including individuals and firms tied to the IRGC, so that they won’t be able to work within the U.S. banking system. The U.S. Treasury previously had excluded two of Iran’s biggest banks from conducting transactions in U.S. dollars. The new sanctions also will impact the international banking community, some of whose members have also taken steps to financially isolate Iran.

One effect of the moves may be to raise pressure on European countries to take unilateral sanctions of their own against Iran, which would build on recent steps in Germany, for example, to scale back the export credit guarantees it issues for trade with Iran. Britain’s biggest bank, HSBC, said no dollar transactions are being conducted for Iranian clients and that its business links with Tehran are now minimal.

But what the moves might portend more generally -- whether they might hinder or hasten military conflict -- is set to remain at the center of a growing international debate over the coming weeks.

Paulson characterized the new sanctions as a logical step in a series of punitive measures taken recently by the international community to prevent Iran from mastering the techniques of uranium enrichment -- a key step in bomb-making. Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful and within its international rights, but the United States and other Western nations are convinced that it masks a secret drive to develop nuclear weapons.

"Iran exploits its global financial ties to pursue nuclear capabilities, develop ballistic missiles, and fund terrorism,” Paulson said, adding that IRGC economic activities are so extensive that it is hard to know with whom one is doing business in Iran. “Today, we are taking additional steps to combat Iran's dangerous conduct and to engage financial institutions worldwide to make the most informed decisions about those with whom they choose to do business."

A Military-Industrial Conglomerate

The IRGC was founded after the 1979 revolution to protect the new Islamic establishment and prevent a military coup. Today, in its role as protector of the revolution, the IRGC has morphed into a huge military and economic conglomerate, with personnel in all the major state organizations. It is also heavily involved in Iran’s oil industry, construction, and other key sectors.

It boasts its own military units with ground forces, navy, air force, intelligence, and special forces. The Quds Force is alleged to train and finance Hizballah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and Shi’ite militias in Iraq. Many IRGC veterans play a prominent role in government, including President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

Rasool Nasifi, a Washington-based expert on Iran who has researched the IRGC, believes the new sanctions will be a blow to the organization’s status, prestige, and economic activities.

“The movement of IRGC members abroad would become very, very hard -- especially in neighboring countries. They could easily be detained as terrorists,” Nasifi told Radio Farda recently. “Secondly, because it is a large conglomerate with a tremendous amount of assets and is involved in business, it would not be able to do business with Afghanistan, with Iraq, with neighboring countries; and that's going to be another major issue. Thirdly, if you look at the fact that a large organization like that is put on the [U.S.] list of terrorist organizations and if Interpol accepts that, then it's going to be a major issue for the IRGC, as a legitimate Iranian institution.”

Others, however, are more skeptical of U.S. motives.

Scott Ritter, a former United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq during the 1990s, was a critic of the Bush administration’s pre-war claims about Baghdad’s alleged threat. Ritter now believes that the new moves give Bush a freer hand to eventually take military action against Iran. “It frees the president up to strike the IRGC, and in doing so, to expand the strikes to include the nuclear infrastructure and other forces,” Ritter told RFE/RL in an interview conducted prior to today’s announcement. “Then, the president can claim that he’s not waging war against Iran but only those rogue elements inside Iran.”

In an interview with RFE/RL, Stuart Levey, who has led the Iran sanctions efforts as undersecretary for terrorism at the U.S. Treasury, flatly rejected that view. “We take action based on the evidence, not to somehow lay a pretextual groundwork for anything else,” Levey said at RFE/RL’s Washington headquarters on October 16.

The Iraq Connection

And what is the evidence? The U.S. military in Iraq has repeatedly accused elements connected to the IRGC of training and equipping Shi’ite militia forces in southern Iraq and elsewhere in that country. In particular, the accusations have focused on alleged Quds Forces assistance in training and equipping Shi’ite militias in the fabrication and battlefield use of Explosively Formed Projectiles or EFPs, which rip through tanks and armored cars and reportedly are responsible for most U.S. troop fatalities in Iraq this year.

Most analysts don’t disagree that Shi’ite militants in Iraq have support from within Iran. Rather, the question is more about where that support may be coming from -- whether it can be clearly traced to the Quds Forces -- an organization controlled directly by Iran’s senior political leadership, and which reportedly oversees the country’s nuclear program -- or instead perhaps originates in “rogue elements” tied to the IRGC. Critics say the distinction is vital because it could mean the difference between eventual limited military action aimed at specific targets or a much broader attack perhaps aimed at regime change in Iran.

Speaking on September 27 in Baghdad, U.S. Brigadier General Kevin Bergner said it’s clear who supports the so-called “special groups” -- the splinter Shi’ite militias blamed for many attacks on U.S. forces. The "Quds Force, along with Hizballah instructors, train approximately 20 to 60 Iraqis at a time [in Iran], sending them back to Iraq organized into these special groups.” Bergner said. “They were being taught how to use EFPs, mortars, rockets, as well as intelligence, sniper, and kidnapping operations."

Michael Knights, a British analyst who has spent months studying the Shi’ite special groups in Iraq and their ties to Iran, believes IRGC support for them is obvious. He also believes drawing a fine distinction over whether that support is from Quds or the IRGC in general is beside the point. But he says the Bush administration’s pre-Iraq intelligence record is now coloring perceptions of U.S. policy toward Iran.

“The understanding we have of the Iranian-backed special groups is of an order of magnitude or more beyond what we understood about the internal workings of the [Iraqi] Ba’athist regime,” said Knights, who is the director of risk analysis and assessment at the Olive Group. “But no matter how much evidence you tend to adduce, you hit the credibility barrier. So that’s the ultimate irony, which is that when you didn’t know anything you were believed and wrong, and when you do know quite a lot, you are doubted, even though you are right.”

Pakistan/Iran: The Baluchi Minority's 'Forgotten Conflict'

By Abubakar Siddique

Baluchi militants in Pakistan are waging an insurgency for greater autonomy

October 25, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Baluchi minority in southwestern Pakistan and southeastern Iran is increasingly marginalized, discriminated against by the state, and suffers from limited access to the benefits of citizenship, according to political observers and human rights groups.

Although the 6 million-8 million ethnic Baluchis in both countries live in a strategic location atop untapped hydrocarbon and mineral deposits and possible trade routes, it looks unlikely that their grim conditions will improve soon.

A report released on October 22 by the International Crisis Group argues that only free and fair elections are likely to encourage Baluchi participation in Pakistani politics. The Brussels-based think tank predicts that in the absence of political reconciliation, violence will continue unabated between Pakistan's military and Baluchi nationalist militants demanding political and economic autonomy.

"The Baluch people think their resources are being monopolized by the government, that their land and their resources are not their own, and that there is no freedom to express their opinions." -- I.A. Rehman, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan

Baluchi leaders claim to be fighting for autonomy and control over their people's abundant natural resources, but Islamabad regards them as revolutionaries bankrolled by regional archrival India. Years of armed insurrection have killed hundreds of Baluchi militants, Pakistani troops, and civilians.

I.A. Rehman, the director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent group that monitors human rights abuses, says the fighting has displaced thousands of Baluchis in the insurgency-plagued districts of Dera Bugti and Kohlu. Rehman told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that the government's strong-arm tactics to suppress the insurgency have created a troubling human rights situation.

"There is the question of the suppression of all dissent. The cases of the disappeared people are only the tip of the problem," Rehman said. "The real issue in Baluchistan is that the Baluch people think their resources are being monopolized by the government, that their land and their resources are not their own, and that there is no freedom to express their opinions."

Displaced Or Missing

The International Crisis Group calls the Baluchi plight a "forgotten conflict." It maintains that the fighting has so far displaced 84,000 people, while thousands of Baluchi nationalist activists languish in jails and hundreds remain missing.

The Pakistani government meanwhile claims to be pouring billions of dollars into major infrastructure-development projects, including a new port on the Arabian sea coast at Gwadar, along with the construction of major roads, rail networks, dams, and new cantonments. Other ambitious projects are aimed at extracting gold, copper, oil, gas, and minerals in Baluchistan Province, which accounts for nearly half of Pakistan's territory and is home to some 8 million people, about half of them ethnic Pashtuns.

But many Baluchis oppose such projects and regard them as unfair efforts to exploit their land. Mariana Baabar, an Islamabad-based journalist and political commentator, says the Baluchis are among the most impoverished groups in the country, and require assistance to meet basic needs as well as longer-term development efforts.

"They do not have clean drinking water. They are not being provided with [basic] health care or education. And they are even regarded as not being part of Pakistan," Baabar said. The Pakistani government "is trying to build a port in Gawadar, but, again, non-Baluchis from Punjab and other regions are being taken there [to settle]. So that is why the people of Baluchistan are unhappy."

Poverty, Discrimination

Across the border in neighboring Iran, Baluchis are enduring similar woes. There some 2 million Baluchis concentrated in Iran's southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan Province, representing about 2 percent of the country's total population.

Baluchi insurgents at a camp south of Quetta, in Pakistan's Baluchistan Province (AFP)

Drewery Dyke, a Middle East researcher for human rights watchdog Amnesty International in London, told Radio Free Afghanistan that Iran's Baluchi population is subject to economic and cultural discrimination. Sistan-Baluchistan is "certainly one of the poorest and most deprived provinces in the country. And it has suffered droughts and extreme weather conditions. And certainly -- with respect to the situation of women and schooling for girls -- there are shortcomings that the state really needs to address," Dyke said.

In a September report that Dyke helped research, Amnesty International documented rights abuses by Iranian authorities and the armed Baluchi and hard-line Sunni group Jondallah (which has reportedly been renamed the Iranian Peoples' Resistance Movement). Since 2005, Jondallah appears to have carried out lethal attacks on Iranian security forces, and taken and executed hostages. Iranian authorities have blamed Jondollah for other attacks that resulted in civilian casualties, but the group has denied responsibility.

Amnesty International has criticized the arrest of suspected Baluchi militants who might have been subjected to torture to produce forced confessions. The group has expressed concern over special judicial procedures put in place by Iranian authorities, and a steep rise in the number of Baluchis who have been targeted.

Dyke said the Iranian authorities "have established a special court...almost like a security court to deal with what is obviously a very severe situation -- in some respects, an insurgency in the country. It appears to [have led] to a decline, an erosion of the safeguards, [of] the fair-trial standards and a massive rise in the implementation of the death penalty against the Baluchis."

The plights of their respective Baluchi minorities are unlikely to improve in the short term. In the best-case scenario, human rights advocates in Pakistan maintain that the coming national elections in Pakistan -- if they are sufficiently transparent -- might boost Baluchi participation in mainstream politics. That, they say, could provide incentives that help defuse militancy.

In Iran, Amnesty International warns that heightened global attention to the Iranian nuclear program might push attention to rights abuses off the international agenda.