Iran: Slow Internet Speeds Hinder Web Access
By Farangis Najibullah
Time for a coffee -- or two -- while you wait at this Tehran Internet cafe
Like many young professionals in his native Tehran, Mohammad says he belongs to a new generation of Iranians who cannot imagine their personal and professional lives without the Internet.
The 27-year-old sales and advertising executive uses the Internet at work -- to sell his company's goods -- and at home to stay in touch with friends, meet new people, and keep up with the news.
"Computers and the Internet -- including services such as e-faxes and e-mails -- have become increasingly popular in workplaces, where people use them for communication, searches, and storing data," he says. "The age of using paper and paperwork has passed."
With about 15 percent of the population plugged into the Internet, Iran is home to one of the largest populations of web users in the Middle East.
But Mohammad says the length of time it takes to open websites is extremely frustrating and is the biggest problem for Iranians who have Internet connections at home.
In Iran, only offices and companies are allowed to have high-speed Internet connections.
"It becomes extremely annoying, especially when you want to download a photo," Mohammad says. "Downloading video takes ages ,and sometimes it's simply impossible to open and watch a video on the Internet."
Omid Habibinia, a Swiss-based communications expert, confirms Iranians' complaints about the glacial pace of the Internet in their country. He tells Radio Farda that in many cases, it is 100 times slower than the average speed in the United States or Europe.
Iranian authorities acknowledge the problem and blame it on the country's Internet service providers.
Iranian Communication and Information Technology Minister Mohammad Soleimani, however, insists that the existing speed is perfectly adequate "to use at home and universities and even for downloading a 500-page book from the Internet."
Soleimani told the semi-official news agency Fars earlier this month that there are not enough private Internet users in Iran who are willing to pay for high-speed Internet connections.
But Internet experts and media-rights defenders accuse the authorities of deliberately keeping the Internet speed low in order to frustrate people from downloading photos and video and reducing the amount of information they can access.
While the Internet has become an essential part of the lives of millions of young, tech-savvy Iranians, the authorities "try to restrict people's access to the free flow of information through the Internet," according to Habibinia.
"I don't believe that the problem here is the lack of customers," Habibinia says. "The minister himself once has said the high-speed Internet would create security problems. In reality, the low Internet speed has become a tool to keep the net restricted, it has become a tool to censor the Internet directly and openly."
Specific Targets, Too
Reza Moeni, who is in charge of the Afghanistan, Iran, and Tajikistan desk at the Paris-based organization Reporters Without Borders, notes official bans on websites and unofficial filtering-out of webpages, and he calls the lack of fast Internet connections yet another way for the government to block the flow of information.
Iranian authorities maintain that they only block immoral websites that contradict Iranian society's ethical values -- such as pornographic websites.
In reality, however, they block access to many local and international news websites, the sites of rights activists, and political opponents' blogs and online publications.
"Whether those websites that have been blocked most recently in Iran -- including the websites of the Iranian Women's Society, the One Million Signatures Campaign, and Amir Kabir University -- were against moral values or were they only using freedom of speech to freely distribute information?" Moeni says. "The majority of the websites that face censorship and filtering in Iran are news sites and blogs, the kinds of websites that exist freely elsewhere in the world."
Even social networking sites like Facebook have been filtered in Iran. Online social forums and chats have become increasingly popular among Iranian young people, with many of them finding friends and even spouses through such networking.
Mohammad, the young Iranian professional, says that "nowadays, even music sites are being blocked."
But as the authorities try to limit young people's access to the Internet, Iranian users are finding ways to get through the state's technological barriers.
Some Iranians use so-called proxy sites or antifiltering search engines to access websites that have been blocked by the government. And "proxies," in turn, also slow down Internet access speed.
"Well, we had to find our own ways to use the Internet," Mohammad quips, "because it seems that the authorities want to block every single site on the Internet, apart from the Iranian security services' website."
Radio Farda correspondent Hassan Jafari contributed to this report
New Criticism Of Ahmadinejad Adds To Aura Of Discontent
Ahmadinejad's newest critic
There is harsh new criticism circulating in Iran about President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's economic policies. This time the critic is influential cleric and former President Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who says the government is pursuing policies that are leading to the "impoverishment" of the Iranian people.
Rafsanjani's comments appeared in the "Etemad-e Melli" newspaper and other publications. He says Iran's economy cannot be built on policies that lead to widespread poverty.
Rafsanjani, a prominent political rival of Ahmadinejad, was referring to the president's disputed attempts to redistribute oil wealth among the population. His lavish financial handouts won him popularity in the short term, but soon led to rampant inflation, which has driven up the cost of living.
Rafsanjani also complained that Ahmadinejad is replacing experienced officials willy-nilly with others who often are inexperienced. Ahmadinejad has replaced scores of officials with appointees from among his former colleagues in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Tehran City Council.
Only a week ago he sacked Iranian Interior Minister Mostafa Purmohammadi without warning or explanation. That's the ninth cabinet minister he has dismissed since coming to power in 2005.
One of the other ministers who was sacked was Economy and Finance Minister Davud Danesh-Jafari, who had protested in public about what he called unrealistic government policies.
But playing musical chairs with cabinet seats has not helped improve the economy, and the public is becoming exasperated. Inflation is running at over 24 percent, and more than one-quarter of young Iranians are unemployed.
Ahmadinejad also received criticism on May 15 from Central Bank Governor Tahmasb Mazaheri, who said the president's decision to set bank interest rates at between 10 percent and 12 percent -- well below inflation -- is unworkable.
Mazaheri had been advocating increasing interest rates in order to curb excessive lending. But he said the government's economic commission had overruled the bank's recommendations. It is rumored that he may resign.
Tensions Rise As Tehran Expands Regional Influence
Alex Vatanka says Tehran wants to be the regional power in the long term
Alex Vatanka, a Washington-based expert for Jane's Information Group, talks with RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz about rising tensions between Iran and the United States and its allies. Vatanka sees recent Iranian activities in the region as a reaction to outdated U.S. foreign policies as well as setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan that have allowed Tehran to expand its influence and leverage.
RFE/RL: Looking at Iran's alleged involvement in recent violence from the Middle East to Afghanistan, is it accurate to say that confrontation between Iran and the United States is on the rise?
Alex Vatanka: There is no doubt that the recent months have witnessed an escalation in terms of U.S. pressure and allegations against Iranian interventions in different arenas -- primarily, obviously, Iraq. But also, with allegations of Iran supplying militants with weapons in Afghanistan.
Now we have, in the last week, witnessed the use of force by what is probably Iran's biggest ally in the Middle East -- Hizballah in Lebanon -- against the Western-backed Lebanese Prime Minister [Fuad] Siniora. We have had in the last year or so the issue of Arab concerns in terms of the rise of Iranian influence among Sunnis -- which is a relatively novel phenomena -- in particular, in the Gaza Strip where Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt are concerned that Iranian influence is on the rise. And that they haven't been able to tackle that.
So you've got a mixture of U.S. and pro-U.S. Arab states having concerns in terms of what Iran is up to. And the pressure in recent months, in particular, has been escalating. But this is really what Iran wants: to be the regional power long-term. And the question then is whether the U.S. is ready to accommodate Iran on that.
RFE/RL: It hardly seems feasible to talk about Washington accommodating Tehran when the current U.S. foreign policy prohibits any direct, formal diplomatic relations with Iran. Are you suggesting that Washington needs to review its overall policy on formal diplomatic contacts with Tehran?
Vatanka: The United States has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since 1980, which was a product of the [Tehran] hostage crisis. But that was 1980, almost 30 years ago. The U.S. policy remains pretty much the same -- non-relations, hostile relations -- despite the fact that in March 2003 something giant happened on the regional stage: the invasion [of Iraq] and the downfall of Saddam Hussein's regime. I think the U.S. foreign policy on Iran is not in any way reflecting that change in March 2003.
What people are saying in Washington -- those who are advocating for at least negotiations -- [is to] face them. See what they are saying. Tell them how you feel. And don't use the Swiss Embassy in Washington or Tehran for dialogue when you have 165,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and 42,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan -- and you have Iran, the biggest Middle East state in the region -- right between the two scenarios.
The fact that the U.S. is so much more involved on the ground means that whatever policy was relevant in 1980 can no longer be relevant. Or at least, the events of March 2003 and the downfall of Saddam Hussein have to be reflected in policy. And right now, the argument is that [these events] are not [reflected in U.S. foreign policy.] That [the current U.S. policy on Iran] is a continuation of an outdated policy.
RFE/RL: If we focus on just one arena -- let's say Iraq -- then how much of this growing confrontation between Iran and the United States is real and what is illusion?
Vatanka: On the part of the U.S., it is an illusion to think that Iran will not do its best to influence events in Iraq and try to turn events and shape realities in a way that is going to be in its favor. The U.S., in turn, has to turn around and say: "We understand you have some genuine security concerns about Iraq given your history. But that doesn't mean you are going to sit there at a cabinet level in Baghdad and have a say over Iraqi affairs, or try to shape events in Iraq by supporting special groups." I think that's where the debate is right now. What is it that Iran would need to satisfy its needs, the way it sees it? And what is the U.S. government willing to allow Iraqi partners to give to Iran in a bargaining moment?
RFE/RL: What about Arab countries in the region that you mentioned -- Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for example? Do they have any input on the issue of Iran becoming, in the long run, the Middle East's main regional power?
Vatanka: The Iranians are extremely assertive in the sense that they are saying that the power game in the Middle East currently does not have more than two players -- namely, Iran and the United States. They are totally ignoring the fact that there are Arab states in the arena who might want to have a say in the game -- who might want to have an input in terms of where the region is going. This is a major shift from where Iran was in, say, May 2003, when the Iranians desperately were trying to get some sort of grand bargain with the United States. When they witnessed the decimation of the Iraqi military by the U.S. armed forces, they panicked. They provided what has been labeled a "grand bargain." But events since then have, in the main, worked in Iran's favor. The Iranians have witnessed the situation not work out in favor of the United States, particularly in Iraq.
RFE/RL: Recent editorials in newspapers controlled by the Iranian regime suggest that the United States is too bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan to launch military strikes into Iran over its controversial nuclear program or its alleged manipulations in nearby countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Lebanon. Is this view contributing to confrontation with Washington by emboldening Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad?
Vatanka: I would say this is one particular line of thinking in Iran. And it would be a mistake to think that the regime which is hanging on to power is unanimous in its views when it comes to how to tackle the United States. If you read those statements, and read between the lines and listen to what is being said quietly, you will hear that there is a significant debate inside Iran about the dangers of Iran overplaying its hand in arenas like Iraq. And if the retaliation comes, how hard would that retaliation be? And would the regime be able to withstand it?
The hard-liners in Iran believe that there will be no retaliation -- that there is no "stick," because the United States, they say, is involved in a quagmire in Iraq and is not in a position to come after them. So they are saying, "Just play it well and you will get the best sort of concessions." But there are other positions in Iran. There are moderate voices who are not happy with the style and, very often, the substance of [Iran's] present foreign-policy discourse.
Tehran Opens Controversial Women-Only Park
By Farangis Najibullah
The "Mother's Paradise" park in Tehran
In an official ceremony in Tehran this week, Mayor Mohammad Baqir Qalibaf opened a new, sex-segregated park designed exclusively for women's leisure and sport.
In the new park, called "Mothers' Paradise," women can walk, jog, and engage in other athletic activities without having to cover their heads.
Men can reportedly not see inside the park since it is surrounded by green walls and covered by bright-colored materials.
Some Tehran residents welcomed the launch of the park as an opportunity for women to act freely. Many others, however, criticized it as yet another step in what they call widespread discrimination against women.
Sex segregation -- which has been a controversial issue in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution -- increased after hard-liner Mahmud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005. Before becoming president, Ahmadinejad was mayor of Tehran. One of his first decisions as mayor was to introduce female- and male-only elevators. Later, Iran launched women-only buses and taxis.
Nasrin Sotodeh, a Tehran-based lawyer and women's rights activist, tells Radio Farda that such moves represent clear discrimination against women.
"They set up separate taxis for women, separate parks for women, separate hospitals for women," Sotodeh says. "Female patients can only be attended to by female medical workers. In the short-term future, we may see entire cities being divided into women's sections and men's sections. Or how about creating women-only and men-only cities? The [sex-segregated park] contradicts the international convention on human rights."
Recreation or discrimination? (courtesy jamejamonline.ir)
"Mothers' Paradise" is not the only sex-segregated park in Iran. Similar parks exclusively for women have already been established in other Iranian cities, including Mashhad and Qom.
When the development of a new, 110-hectare women's park in the northeastern city of Mashhad was announced three years ago, Iranian officials were quoted as saying that men can't even see inside the park from above.
"According to the studies that we have carried out, even from an aircraft flying over the park, women will not be seen because of the special arrangement of plant and trees," said Sedigheh Ghannadi, the head of the National Council of Women. "We have chosen trees that have greater covering and they will be planted in four rows and form a green wall."
Likewise, men in Tehran cannot easily see inside the "Mothers' Paradise" park since its fencing is covered with white and orange canvas.
Tehran resident Ali says some curious men go to great lengths to try to take pictures of women inside the park, however. "Some men film women-only swimming pools using long-lens cameras or other means," he says. "It's going to be the same with the new women's park."
It is not clear if only female gardeners have been hired to take care of the park grounds.
Radio Farda correspondent Farin Asemi contributed to this report
Ahmadinejad Says Israel Is 'Dying'
U.S. President George W. Bush (left) holds talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
As Israel marks the 60th anniversary of its creation, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad says the Jewish state is "dying" and that the celebrations are a failed attempt to prevent its "annihilation."
Ahmadinejad's comments came on May 14 as several world leaders -- including U.S. President George W. Bush -- gathered in Israel to take part in the anniversary celebrations.
Speaking in northern Iran, Ahmadinejad said, "The Zionist regime is dying. The criminals assume that by holding celebrations they can save the sinister Zionist regime from death and annihilation." Iran does not recogize Israel, and Ahmadinejad was internationally condemned in 2005 when he said in a speech that Israel should be "erased from the world map."
Ahmadinejad has also downplayed the Holocaust, suggesting it is a "myth." He even called for Israel to be moved to another part of the world, saying, "Well, if you have committed a crime [against the Jewish people, such as the Nazis did during World War II], then give them a part of your own territory -- a part of the U.S. or Europe or Canada or Alaska -- so they could create their state there."
Such statements have been strongly condemned by the West. The Australian government said on May 14 that it is contemplating a case at the International Court of Justice against Ahmadinejad for inciting violence against Israel.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said the Iranian leader's "extraordinary statements -- which are anti-Semitic and express a determination to eliminate the modern state of Israel from the map -- are appalling by any standard of current international relations."
The Hague-based UN court settles disputes between states in accordance with international law.
Rudd said his government is taking legal advice on the launching of a criminal case. He told Australian television, "It's not just a hyperbole from the bully pulpit of Tehran. It's the roll-on effect across the Islamic world, particularly those who listen to Iran for their guidance."
Israel considers Iran a threat because of Tehran's controversial nuclear program and its arsenal of long-range missiles, including the Shahab-3, which is capable of striking the Jewish state. Shahab-3 missiles, which can be fitted with nuclear warheads, have a range of 2,000 kilometers. Israel is about 1,000 kilometers from Iran.
Iran denies the accusation that it is trying to build nuclear weapons and says its nuclear activities are only for peaceful purposes. Israel is also widely believed to have a stockpile of nuclear weapons but has neither acknowledged nor denied having a nuclear-weapons program.
Tehran, Riyadh Face Off Over Lebanon
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad speaks during a press conference in Teheran on May 13
Saudi Arabia has charged Iran with seeking a coup in Beirut, and Tehran is sharply rejecting the charges. The war of words, which directly follows the recent street fighting in Lebanon, highlights a growing sense in Riyadh and some other Mideast capitals that Iran is building its influence in the region at their expense.
Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran are already at odds over Iraq, where both accuse each other of supporting co-religionists to advance their own interests. But this week, the sense of rivalry spilled much deeper into the Arab world as Saudi Arabia accused Tehran of supporting what Riyadh called an attempted coup by the Shi’ite Hizballah Party in Lebanon.
“Of course, Iran is backing what happened in Lebanon, a coup, and supports it,” Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal told reporters in Riyadh on May 13, adding, “This will affect [Iran’s] relations with all Arab countries, if not Islamic states, as well.”
The Saudi statement reprised a charge by Lebanon’s Prime Minister Fouad Siniora that Shi’ite fighters of the Hizballah and allied Amal militias tried to overthrow his government.
Iran responded sharply to Riyadh’s charge.
"Iran is the only country not interfering in Lebanon," President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said on May 13. "Who are those that call, support, encourage [what is happening]? Whose ambassador is running away?"
The reference to a fleeing ambassador was to the top Saudi diplomat in Beirut, who reportedly left the city when the street fighting began on May 6.
Ahmadinejad put responsibility for the fighting between Hizballah and supporters of the Sunni-led government on the United States and Israel.
Some 65 people died in Lebanon’s week of violence, the worst since the end of the country’s 15-year civil war in 1990. The fighting, which began after a government move to shut down Hizballah’s private telephone network, saw Shi’ite militiamen sweep through Sunni neighborhoods of western Beirut that support Siniora.
Riyadh’s accusation that Tehran supported an attempted coup in Lebanon underlines an increasing feeling of confrontation in the Sunni Arab world with Iran. The charge is among the most intense to be leveled by an Arab state at Iran since the nadir of Arab-Iranian relations during the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war -- a war many Arab capitals saw as a regional struggle with Tehran.
The new sense of confrontation showed itself clearly in March as half of the Arab governments boycotted an Arab League conference hosted by Syria, Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world. The mostly Western-leaning states which refused to go to Damascus accuse Syria and Iran of seeking a proxy state in Lebanon.
The tensions over Lebanon now look likely to move Arab states critical of Iran closer to Washington’s argument that Tehran is a threat to Mideast stability. U.S. President George W. Bush has arrived in the Mideast on a trip partly intended to bolster that argument.
'Iran Causes A Lot Of Problems'
Bush said in an interview with the BBC's Arabic Service earlier this week that his trip, which begins in Israel, is to advance the Israel-Palestinian peace process and also to warn about Iran.
“A lot of my trip is to get people to focus not only on Lebanon, to remember Lebanon, but also to remember that Iran causes a lot of the problems,” he said. “I view [Iran] as a serious threat to peace. And, therefore, I spend a lot of time trying to convince other nations, other leaders, to join in this common concern.”
U.S. concerns focus on Iran’s nuclear program and its support for Hizballah and Hamas, which Washington lists as terrorist groups. Some U.S. policy experts see an integrated Iranian strategy in these diverse activities. Columnist Thomas Friedman of "The New York Times" observes that Iran is now in a position to respond to any attack on its nuclear facilities with bitter fighting by its allies on the Lebanese, Palestinian, and Iraqi fronts. He calls this “a sophisticated strategy of deterrence.”
Washington’s view of a regional standoff with Iran is publicly reciprocated in Tehran. In a May 11 editorial, the daily "Kayhan" wrote: “In the power struggle in the Middle East, there are only two sides -- Iran and the United States.”
The war of words is likely heat up further as Bush heads for Saudi Arabia and Egypt later this week. In Sharm al-Sheikh, he is due to meet with regional leaders including Lebanon’s Siniora.
Are Iran, Syria Playing Any Roles In Lebanon Fighting?
A masked militant of the Shi'ite Amal militia holds a position during heavy clashes with pro-government fighters in the Druze mountains southeast of Beirut on May 11
The resurgence of violence in Lebanon has again raised the question of the motives and aims of Iran and Syria
, which support Hizballah, one of the groups involved in the fighting. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully put these issues before Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Cordesman is a leading Middle East authority who has served as an intelligence analyst for the U.S. State and Defense departments.
RFE/RL: The divisions in the current fighting in Lebanon are, as usual, along sectarian lines. The chief opponent of the Lebanese government is the Shi'ite group Hizballah, supported by Iran. Is the Lebanon fighting political or sectarian?
Anthony Cordesman: You have at least 17 -- perhaps more -- sects and confessions as political entities in Lebanon, so when you talk about politics and religion in Lebanon, you can't possibly separate the two. The Shi’ite bloc in Lebanon also was a group that had the least power and influence of the major groups in Lebanon at the time that the Maronites (Christians) and Sunnis shared power. It is the group which, in the south [of Lebanon], found itself in most direct confrontation with Israel. So it has now emerged as the most influential power bloc, but it is a rival of the Christian and Sunni factions to at least some extent, and you can't separate these out.
What's happening is, at this point in time, a struggle which is largely Sunni and Shi’ite, with the Christians really split in terms of alignment, which has been typical of the shifting alliances here.
Now, you certainly have Iran playing some kind of role in supporting Hizballah and [the smaller, allied militia] Amal. This is as much a matter of opportunism in dealing with Israel as anything else, and the same is true of Syria. Whether [the Syrians] really have any true religious alignment here, as distinguished from both sides using each other, is a question which is very difficult to resolve.
RFE/RL: Just how does Syria fit in here? Syria is predominantly Sunni, though its government seems to be secular. What's its interest in Lebanon?
Cordesman: I think in the case of both Iran and Syria this is much more a matter of politics, of pressure on Israel, than it is a matter of deep religious conviction. The Alawite minority inside Syria is not by any normal standard Shi’ite, although they have claimed to be Shi'ite since they became more closely tied to Iran, and also because Alawites, at least in terms of the internal belief structure, have a long history of tension with other Muslim groups as to whether they are Muslim at all. This division is a very important one within Syria, but the government isn't so much secular as dominated by the Alawite minority, and it has used Lebanon as a proxy for a struggle with Israel since 1982, and it is very unlikely this relationship will change.
RFE/RL: Some observers have noted that Sunni Muslim countries in the Middle East resent the ascendancy of Iran in recent years, and these observers have expressed concern that it may lead to a regional conflict between Sunnis and Shi'as. Can the current fighting in Lebanon be seen as a preface to such a conflict?
Cordesman: Before we make this kind of leap, we need to remember how many times people have made it and fallen flat on their face. The power struggles that you're watching inside Lebanon have been going on since the 1950s. The seeds of the [Lebanese] civil war were sown in the early 1970s. The power struggles internally between Maronite factions, Sunni factions, and Shiite factions have dominated the country's politics for most of its recent history.
Now, outside players have used this in different degrees. At one point, Israel occupied southern Lebanon and sponsored what was a supposedly Christian group in southern Lebanon, of which at least 70 percent was actually Muslim. We have to be very careful about whether this [current fighting] is going to be a preface to anything. It has almost been a problem which hasn't stopped, and certainly since the Israeli invasion in 1982, which triggered a great deal of the shift in terms of Shi’ite attitudes and helped create movements like Amal and Hizballah. This really has not spilled over as anything other than a local proxy conflict both inside Lebanon and on the border with Israel.
RFE/RL: Israel keeps recurring in your comments. Is Israel the real focus of the strife in Lebanon and the support that Iran and Syria give to Hizballah?
Cordesman: Nothing in the region is that simple.
Iran does have historical ties to the Shiites in Lebanon. The clergy that came to convert Iran from Sunni to Shi’ite beliefs came from Lebanon. There are some ties of religion which really do matter. Syria basically has never really fully recognized Lebanon as an independent country. It still sees it as territory stolen from Syria by France after World War I. It also sees Lebanon as a critical security buffer to Syria. And you look at the alignments here, and it is important to note that you have countries like Saudi Arabia who see this basically as the creation, under Iranian and Syrian pressure, of something which has gravely weakened the Sunni faction inside Lebanon. And there many other Arab states who see this as a problem.
When you talk about how this game is being played, it is essentially a game of three-dimensional chess in which the players have no clear rules and often seem to be wearing blindfolds. So you can't simplify it without misunderstanding it.
RFE/RL: So what does Iran expect to achieve in backing Hizballah in this conflict and others? Does it merely want to help a like-minded group of Shi'as, or does it expect to get more?
Cordesman: I think first, Iran has understood that this is an area where it can use a proxy against Israel. It also understands that it minimizes, to some extent, Arab concerns with Iran by backing the Hizballah in putting pressure on Israel. It has been a way of deflecting concerns in the Gulf and political pressure on Iran. It is not, however, something where Iran has made this into a major objective, and the current fighting [in Lebanon] is very clearly much more an internal power struggle than anything that Iran and Syria have been directly involved with.
The problem for the [Lebanese] government -- which is essentially Sunni and at least Christian in part -- is it does not want to have a strong military rival [in Hizballah]. The problem for Hizballah is that its power consists, to a great extent, of its military capabilities, and this gives it much of the strength it has politically. So when we talk about outside players, they are certainly interested, but we need to understand that Lebanon's problems are a self-inflicted wound. They're not something caused by outside nations.
Iran: From Germany, Rap Group Challenges Male-Dominated Society
By Antoine Blua
Tapesh 2012 performs last year at the "Creole 2007" festival
Not allowed to sing in Iran about the harsh treatment of women in society, the Iranian rap group Tapesh 2012 (Pulse 2012) is doing just that -- from its base in Germany. The group's latest song, "Ma Mard Nistim" ("We Are Not Men"), focuses on the Iranian feminist movement and its struggle to overcome violence against women.
The band's founder, Omid Pur-Yusofi, says "We Are Not Men" is a critique of Iran's traditional male-dominated society and the harsh conditions many Iranian women face.
He says those difficult conditions exist even in his own family, which has lived in Germany for 20 years.
"My parents are educated, but I can feel patriarchy in my family," he said. "After all these years [living in Germany] there is still a sense of patriarchy in my father's heart. It's been a problem for my mother even after more than 50 years of living with him."
A quick look at the comments posted on YouTube about the song shows that it has thus far attracted a lot of praise -- and has been viewed more than 32,000 times since it was posted on that website just a little over one week ago.
But the group's lyricist, 27-year-old Shahin Najafi, says he expects some negative reaction from Iranian men about the song. He admits that the title, "We Are Not Men," is provocative, as "men" refers to males' power in the traditional Iranian society.
"This is the reality," he said. "If you are cross-eyed and somebody reminds you about it, you'll get angry because that is the reality. When somebody of the same gender talks about your faults as a man, you will get angry."
Concert In Iran?
Najafi started his career in Iran as a poet. He also was the leader of an underground music band before moving to Germany three years ago following what he describes as increasing pressure from Iranian authorities.
Tapesh 2012 -- which also includes German and Russian members -- wants to hold a concert in Tehran by 2012. Pur-Yusofi says he is optimistic about this goal despite the uncertainty of the current regime in Iran allowing such a thing to take place.
"Imagination is more important than knowledge," he said. "Because if we believe in something we may eventually realize it."
Tapesh 2012 has recorded two albums, "We are Iran" and "From Tehran to Berlin." It is currently working on its third album. They also have recorded a song called "The Power Of Students In Iran" that talks of about the plight of progressive Iranian students in today's Iran and the harrassment they face.
"We Are Not Men" was released amid increased pressure from authorities on the Iranian women's-rights movement, especially the campaign to collect 1 million signatures in support of equal rights for men and women.
A leading figure in that campaign, Parvin Ardalan, said this week that an Iranian court had given her a suspended jail sentence for her role in a protest in Tehran in 2007.
At least three other Iranian women's rights activists -- Nahid Jafari, Nasrin Afzali, and Marzieh Mortazi-Langarudi -- received suspended flogging and jail sentences earlier this year for their participation in the same protest.
(Radio Farda correspondent Amir Zamani Far contributed to this report)
Afghanistan: Two Iranian Men Detained On Suspicions Of Spying
Two Iranian men have been detained in Afghanistan in separate incidents on suspicion of spying near NATO and Afghan military installations.
Ghulam Dastagir Azad, the governor of Afghanistan's southwestern province of Nimroz, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that one of the detained men was captured with documents and photographs that prove he had links with militants.
Azad said the man was captured trying to enter the city of Zarang, on the border with Iran. "He had a camera that had photographs of weaponry indicating clear ties with [Afghanistan's] enemies," Azad said.
In a second incident, near Afghanistan's southeastern border with Pakistan, authorities say they detained an Iranian man who was preparing information for what they believe was an attack against NATO and Afghan security forces.
No Passport, Documents
Wazir Pacha, the assistant police chief in the southeastern Afghan province of Khost, said the man was not carrying any passport or documents and that he initially had pretended to be mentally ill. But Pacha says the man later confessed that he was on an information-gathering mission.
Police in Khost played an audio recording for journalists in which the man confesses he was preparing maps of NATO and Afghan military installations in Khost, which lies just across the border from Pakistan's volatile tribal region of North Waziristan.
In that recording, the man says he is from the town of Shiraz and entered Afghanistan from the Iranian border city of Mashhad. He says he arrived in Khost after passing through the Afghan cities of Herat and Kabul.
Meanwhile, Afghan security forces say they discovered a large cache of weapons in the western Afghan province of Herat, just 10 kilometers from the Iranian border. Authorities say they suspect the weapons were sent from Iran and were intended for the Taliban.
Ramatullah Safi, chief of border police in western Afghanistan, told Radio Free Afghanistan that some of the weapons contained Iranian markings.
"The cache contained one mortar shell, 785 land mines, and 445 tripod-mounted machine guns," Safi said. "There also was a lot of ammunition -- 2,400 boxes of ammunition for Kalashnikov assault rifles, 85 rocket-propelled grenades, and other ammunition."
'Interfering' In Different Ways
The Afghan government has not commented on the significance of the arrests or the discovery of the weapons cache. But Richard Boucher, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for south and Central Asia, told reporters in Paris on May 6 that Iran is interfering in Afghanistan in "a variety of different ways -- perhaps not as violently as they sometimes do in Iraq."
Boucher concluded that Iran is seeking to keep Afghanistan weak and unstable by delivering weapons to the Taliban while ostensibly supporting the central government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. He said Washington sees "Iranian interference politically" in terms of money that Tehran channels into Afghanistan's political process, as well as interference aimed at undermining the Afghan state by playing off local Afghan officials against Karzai's government.
Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents Sharafuddin Stanakzai and Reshtin Qadiri in Herat; Amir Bahir in Khost; and Ajmal Seddique in Prague contributed to this report
Iraq: Foreign Fighters Continue To Wreak Havoc
By RFE/RL analyst Kathleen Ridolfo
Iraqi family views scene of Baghdad suicide bombing (file photo)
A Sunni Arab tribal leader in restive Diyala Governorate announced this week that tribal fighters obtained Al-Qaeda records documenting the names of 6,000 suicide bombers who have carried out attacks in Iraq since the fall of the Hussein regime.
The revelation comes amid reports that three Kuwaiti nationals -- one who served time in the Guantanamo Bay detention center -- blew themselves up in Mosul last week.
Sheikh Sabah al-Shammari, spokesman for the Awakening Council of Ba'qubah Clans, told Iraqi media outlets that the documents revealed that the majority of the suicide bombers were foreign Arab nationals. He said the documents also revealed that widows of suicide bombers were present in training camps set up by Al-Qaeda in the Hamrin mountain area of Diyala. At least 15 women were being trained for suicide operations, he said.
The continuing reports of foreign fighters infiltrating from Arab states come as some neighbors have moved more aggressively to secure their borders, but they might also highlight problematic frontiers with other countries, including Syria and Iran.
Iraq has witnessed a surge in female suicide bomb attacks in recent months. At least two of those attacks were carried out in Diyala. A May 1 attack in Diyala was carried out by a woman who wore an explosives-filled vest and was pretending to be pregnant. She blew herself up outside a cafe and a children's shoe store. A male accomplice blew himself up at the scene as police and medical personnel tried to assist the wounded. At least 29 people were killed and 52 others wounded. While it remains unclear whether those attacks were perpetrated by foreign fighters, it is clear that insurgent bomb attacks in Diyala Governorate, which lies northeast of Baghdad, have not subsided despite the growing presence of Iraqi and coalition security forces.
Meanwhile, a former detainee from the Guantanamo Bay detention center reportedly carried out a suicide bomb attack in Mosul on April 30. According to Kuwaiti and pan-Arab media reports, Kuwaiti national Abdallah Salih al-Ajmi was released from Guantanamo in late 2005 and, upon returning to Kuwait, appeared to have been rehabilitated. Family members said they were shocked to learn that he carried out a suicide attack along with fellow Kuwaiti national Nasir al-Dawasari some three weeks after disappearing from home.
Al-Ajmi's cousin, Salim al-Ajmi, told Al-Arabiyah that his family was surprised when people in Iraq telephoned the family to say Abdullah was in Iraq. "His recent behavior was normal; we never expected him to go back to his past behavior," Salim al-Ajmi said. "We noticed that he would disappear every now and then. He would not return home or socialize after his return [from Guantanamo] like he used to do in the past."
He added that the Kuwaiti government "did not fail to give those young men [who were in Guantanamo] the chance to return to society," noting Abdullah and others "were offered assistance." Al-Ajmi said that Abdullah had an excellent financial situation and was married following his release from Guantanamo, with one child and another on the way.
The Kuwaiti website "Al-Siyasah" quoted sources on May 6 as saying a third Kuwaiti national was involved in the April 30 Mosul attack, identifying him as Badr al-Harbi. According to the website, al-Harbi had spent time in Afghanistan and was later jailed in Kuwait on unknown charges. The report said the Interior Ministry was looking for him when he disappeared, apparently fleeing to Syria for Iraq alongside the other two Kuwaitis. The sources told "Al-Siyasah" that al-Harbi was in a second suicide vehicle.
Meanwhile, a Yemeni state security court of appeals this week reduced a jail term for a national convicted of trying to go to Iraq for jihad. Bashir Muhammad Nu'man was sentenced last week to five years in prison for using a forged passport to travel to Syria with the intention of joining Al-Qaeda. The appeals court reduced the sentence to two years in prison for Nu'man, who was said to have been arrested in Syria and extradited to Yemen in February 2007, reportedly without offering any explanation.
The continuing flow of foreign fighters from Arab neighboring states to Iraq raises concerns that Iraq's neighbors are not abiding by pledges to help improve security in the war-torn country. Foreign ministers from Iraq's neighboring states reiterated commitments to help stem the flow of foreign fighters at a recent security meeting in Kuwait. The meeting came on the heels of increased U.S. and Iraqi pressure for neighboring states to do more. It also came just one week after officials from neighboring states met in Damascus for a security cooperation meeting that focused on the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq, in which participants endorsed the view that Iraq's security was the joint responsibility of all regional states.
Delegates in Damascus vowed to follow up on pledges made at the November security meeting in Kuwait and to "quickly name the liaison officers [on border security] who have not yet been named, to exchange information, and to hold another meeting on the sidelines of [an upcoming] interior ministers' meeting in Amman" in October. As RFE/RL reported at the time, that point demonstrates the snail's pace at which recommendations are being carried out, if they are being carried out at all.
Kuwaiti Interior Minister Jabir Khalid al-Sabah told the website "Al-Jaridah" last week that the men definitely did not enter Iraq via the Kuwait-Iraq border. He said the Interior Ministry does not restrict people from traveling abroad, and suggested the men had obtained visas before going to Syria. "The whole blame should be put on those who established these groups [such as Al-Qaeda], who took money from domestic and foreign destinations to destroy the sound human ideology, spoil it with falsehood, and call on Kuwaiti youth to [carry out] jihad," al-Sabah said. He added that the ministry does its best to keep suspected persons under surveillance and refer them to the authorities for arrest when appropriate.
Some neighboring states have taken the initiative to secure their borders with Iraq. Indeed, it does not appear that Arab foreign fighters have had any success in crossing the Kuwaiti, Saudi, or Jordanian borders into Iraq.
Syria has long been considered the main access point for foreign fighters, and despite some claims that the Syrian authorities are taking steps to control that flow, it is clearly not doing enough. Likewise, Iran has been reported to be another entry point for foreign fighters, particularly for Arabs entering Iraq from Afghanistan. Until Iraq can improve security along its porous borders with Iran and Syria, the problem will remain a major impediment to Iraqi security for years to come.