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As economy struggles, Iranians losing faith in president

Anna Badkhen, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, January 28, 2007

"The clerics share the strategy with Ahmadinejad, but they have different tactics," said Assad Homayoun, a Washington-based Iranian dissident and president of the Azadegan Foundation, which advocates a secular democratic government in Iran.


While the United States continues to regard Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the biggest threat to the West these days, Iranians are losing patience with their flamboyant president, to the point of undercutting his power.

After unprecedented anti-government demonstrations by Iranian students -- some of whom openly heckled Ahmadinejad at Tehran University -- the public dealt him a stinging setback in municipal elections, electing more moderate conservatives and reformists. In a separate election to the country's most senior religious body, Ahmadinejad's man was soundly defeated, while his biggest rival was elected.

Soon after, 150 parliamentarians signed an open letter critical of Ahmadinejad's policies -- including his closeness with Venezuela's leftist president, Hugo Chavez -- and imposed conditions on the budget he is drawing up for next year. Meanwhile, a newspaper close to Iran's supreme religious leader told Ahmadinejad to tone down his fire-breathing nuclear rhetoric.

"They think that it's childish behavior, and it's very detrimental to the Iranian" political interests, said Kamran Bokhari, senior analyst for the Middle East at Strategic Forecasting, a Texas-based private security consulting group.

The recent attacks on Ahmadinejad may not mean Iran will soon backpedal on its nuclear aspirations or geopolitical ambitions. But they indicate that the ruling clerics, who hold ultimate power in Iran, may be ready to strike a more conciliatory tone with the West, regional analysts say.

Iran's clerics "really want to be around in five years, in 10 years, and the best way for them to do that is to bargain with the United States that there won't be a regime change," said Ilan Berman, vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council. "Under Ahmadinejad, this is not possible." Despite the caustic rhetoric between Washington and Tehran, this presents an opportunity for the United States to negotiate on critical issues ranging from nuclear proliferation to Iran's role in fueling Iraq's sectarian fighting, analysts say.

"If the more pragmatic (forces) win out, then the United States has much to gain," said Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian studies program at Stanford University.

At least for now, Ahmadinejad does not seem to be backing down in the face of rising domestic criticism. Last week, Iran conducted missile tests, barred some U.N. nuclear inspectors from the country and confirmed that it had received a shipment of Russian Tor-M1 mobile air defense missile launchers, intended, according to one Russian news agency, to defend Tehran's major nuclear facilities.

And on Saturday, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of parliament's Foreign Policy and National Security Committee, said Iran has begun installing 3,000 centrifuges at its nuclear facility in Natanz.

While Iran portrays its uranium enrichment program as a peaceful means of generating electricity, the United States and other nations view it as a step toward developing nuclear weapons.

But in a sign that Iran's ruling elite may be willing to yield to international pressure, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pillar of Iran's political establishment, told the British ambassador to Iran on Wednesday that Tehran will agree to "any verifying measures by the responsible authorities" to prove that it is not pursuing nuclear weapons.

Much of the dissatisfaction with Ahmadinejad is rooted in his failure to deliver on his main campaign promise: to improve Iran's embattled economy, analysts said.

The average Iranian salary is $100 a month, and about 40 percent of Iran's 70 million people live below the poverty line, according to media reports. State-subsidized industries often don't pay their workers for months on end. Inflation continues to rise, reaching an estimated 15.8 percent last year, according to the CIA.

Clerics blame Ahmadinejad's confrontational rhetoric for alienating many of Iran's traditional allies abroad, which paved the way for U.N. sanctions against Iran, imposed Dec. 23, said Michael Connell, an analyst at the Center for Naval Analysis, a think tank that conducts research for the Department of the Navy.

The sanctions ban the trade of goods related to Iran's nuclear program, and the U.N. Security Council has threatened tougher economic measures if Iran does not stop enriching uranium within two months. At the same time, Washington has persuaded Western banks to cease doing business with Iran.

"On the economic front, Iran has been losing ground," Connell said, "and that's what is really bothering the supreme leader," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khamenei has been at least indirectly pressuring Ahmadinejad to tone down his inflammatory oratory. Earlier this month, Iran's most widely read newspaper, Hamshahri, whose editorial position is endorsed by Khamenei, blamed Ahmadinejad's "fiery speeches" for encouraging the U.N. sanctions.

The United States has demanded that Iran stop its uranium enrichment program and has warned Tehran to back off from what it sees as Iranian interference in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East.

On Friday, President Bush said he had authorized U.S. forces in Iraq to take any actions necessary to counter suspected Iranian agents there. Also last week, U.S. officials confirmed that the Pentagon had sent the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis toward the Persian Gulf. It will join, in late February, the carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower already in the region and become part of a buildup designed to deter Iran's perceived regional ambitions.

The Bush administration continues to rule out direct negotiations with Iran until Iran halts uranium enrichment. But Milani warned that such policies embolden Ahmadinejad.

"The confrontational policy that Bush has picked out will ... help the most radical and the most warmongering" elements in Iran, Milani said. "It gives them an excuse for the calamities in domestic politics, the economy."

For all their unhappiness, the clerics probably will not seek to unseat Ahmadinejad, because that would make Iran "look very weak internationally," said Bokhari, of Strategic Forecasting.

But Iran's legislators are considering a proposal to move up by a year, from 2009, Iran's presidential election, to coincide with scheduled parliamentary elections in 2008, a move clearly intended to curtail Ahmadinejad's presidency, Bokhari said. For now, the clerics most likely will find other ways to rein in the president -- or bypass him when they feel the need to, Bokhari said. Washington should exploit these "internal differences," he said. Connell agreed: "We can press our advantage on the diplomatic front. On Iraq, I think we can negotiate, to a limited degree."

The opening for Washington is limited, because while Khamenei or Rafsanjani may be less likely to openly confront the United States, this does not mean they will give up on making Iran a nuclear power or pursuing its interests in the region.

"The clerics share the strategy with Ahmadinejad, but they have different tactics," said Assad Homayoun, a Washington-based Iranian dissident and president of the Azadegan Foundation, which advocates a secular democratic government in Iran.

"It doesn't mean that if Rafsanjani comes to the United States for discussion of nuclear issues, he will succumb to the will of the United States. (The) policy of terrorism and the nuclear issue will continue."

Original article: Sanfransico Chronicle



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The text of Speech by Dr. Assad Homayoun, cultural nationalism
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