Washington 'applauds' protests in Tehran

By Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran, Guy Dinmore in Washington and,Roula Khalaf in London
Published: June 13 2003 5:00 | Last Updated: June 13 2003 5:00

The US yesterday con-gratulated Iranians for holding anti-government protests in Tehran, saying it supported their "aspirations to live in freedom".

Washington's encouragement, which followed two nights of protests and clashes involving students backed by a few thousand residents of the capital, reflects an increasingly confrontational tone adopted by the US towards Iran's Islamic rulers.

Richard Boucher, US State Department spokesman, said it was "basic policy" towards Iranians that the US "fully supports their aspirations to live in freedom".

Calling on the Iranian authorities to release those arrested, he added: "We applaud the Iranian people for calling attention to the destructive policies of the Iranian government that do such a disservice to its population."

Earlier Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, blamed the US for attempting to provoke chaos. He said: "The US wants to create trouble in Iran, divide the people and create a chasm between the system and populace."

In an effort to restore calm, he called on his loyalists not to confront protesters, warning that violence was what the US was seeking. But he also warned that the Islamic system would be "pitiless" towards "the mercenaries of the enemy".

Some of the protesters said they had responded to calls by exiled opposition activists broadcasting programmes from the US that are picked up in Tehran with banned satellite dishes.

Some of the opposition groups calling for revolt support Reza Pahlavi, the US-based son of the last Shah of Iran. In a recent interview, he said he was opposed to violence and did not want to encourage students to take to the streets.

Behind the scenes, Iran's powerful conservatives are sending signals that they could temper their opposition to domestic reforms demanded by President Mohamed Khatami, in an apparent attempt to fend off rising US pressure and mounting public frustration.

According to sources close to the Islamic establishment, a bill boosting presidential powers is likely to be passed by the Guardian Council, the conservative-dominated constitution watchdog.

Another bill on guaranteeing free parliamentary elections appears to be under consideration, though its chances of being accepted by the council are not thought to be as high.

Mr Khatami, facing declining popularity, sees the two bills as critical to regain his standing among the public.

Hardliners have also been worried by a strongly worded letter recently sent by 135 reformist parliamentarians to Ayatollah Khamenei. The letter demanded that he choose between democracy and dictatorship and be accountable for the actions of institutions under his authority, including the Guardian Council.

US pressure has been mounting amid rising international concerns over Tehran's alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons, and accusations by the Pentagon that Iran is harbouring activists of the al-Qaeda organisation.

Iran yesterday denied reports it had prevented a team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from visiting a Tehran power company where inspectors were hoping to take samples to verify the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities. Under its present agreement, Iran was not under obligation to allow access.

The IAEA board of governors meets next week to consider an agency report that found Iran had failed to meet its "safeguards" obligations by processing nuclear material without notification.

In Tehran, analysts warned that while indirect pressure by the US on issues such as political freedoms could strengthen the reform movement, overt pressure would backfire and provide hardliners with an excuse to step up repression.

"The US has twice directly intervened in favour of dictatorship in Iran - in the 1953 coup attempt to put [the former] Shah in power, and in the [1979] Islamic revolution. If they do the same this time, it would be their biggest mistake," said Mostafa Tajzadeh, a reformist and ally of President Khatami.

"Unrest would neither benefit Iran nor US. It would only help the growth of Shia fundamentalism in Iran."