Monday, June 13, 2005

5 Days Before Iran Election, Bombs Kill 8

Eli Lake, NY Sun:
A string of bombings in Iran yesterday killed at least eight people and wounded at least 75, five days before the country's presidential elections, according to wire reports.

Four bombs exploded at government buildings in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, including the governor's office for the oil-rich province of Khuzestan and a housing complex for members of the state-owned press. A fifth bomb exploded hours later in a garbage bin in Tehran.

An Arab separatist group known as the Popular Democratic Front for Ahvaz said in a statement that an unknown group called the Ahvazi Revolutionary Martyrs' Brigades was behind the attacks, according to Reuters. Iranian government spokesmen yesterday, however, said the bombings were the work of a violent opposition group labeled terrorists by the State Department, the People's Mujahadin Organization. More than 2,000 of its members are under custody at Camp Ashraf in Iraq under the supervision of American soldiers.

The People's Mujahadin yesterday condemned the attacks in a statement to Agence France Press. "The mullahs' objective in churning out these lies is to create mischief between the People's Mujahedeen Organization of Iran and the Iraqi government," the statement read in part.

The bombings yesterday in Iran were atypical of many of Iran's opposition groups, which in recent months have called for nonviolent protest of the June 17 elections.

After Iranian authorities began sealing off the bombed-out areas of Tehran and Ahvaz, hundreds of protesters from more than 30 organizations gathered in front of Tehran University to call for the Islamic Republic to restore the rights women enjoyed under the Shah before the 1979 revolution. Student groups staged sit-ins in front of the home of recently rearrested dissident writer Akbar Ganji. Mr. Ganji was carted off to Evin prison Saturday after having been released last month. Last week, he called for Iranians to boycott Friday's election.

Iran has not been free of organized violence from underground organizations and rowdy mobs. In recent years, during the festival of fire that precedes the Persian New Year, Iranian revelers have taken to lighting police cars on fire and throwing homemade bombs at officials sent to disburse the crowds.

"There have been many violent acts against regime people and regime symbols like mosques and government buildings largely unreported except by the bloggers," an American Enterprise Institute scholar, Michael Ledeen, said yesterday. "This could be anything from Potemkin attacks staged by the regime itself, to real attacks by enemies of the regime. Nobody that I know knows the answer."

A New York-based Iranian activist, Banafsheh Zand Bonazzi, said yesterday that she suspected the bombings were the work of the regime, with the goal of vilifying opposition movements and America.

"The mullahs are using this to get regular Iranians to think the opposition is in favor of separatism," she said. "They are trying to vilify the regular anti-regime activists. The nature of the Iranian movement has never been about violence or terrorism or physical confrontation. This is why the activists have engaged in civil disobedience." READ MORE

A former president and current presidential candidate, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, said in an interview on state-run television yesterday that the wave of bombings were meant to discourage Iranians from voting. "These terrorist acts would have the reverse effect," he said.

Mr. Rafsanjani has been accused by Mr. Ganji and others of approving several murders of dissidents in 1998. He is also named in a German court document as a conspirator in a 1992 attack on Iranian Kurdish dissidents at Mykonos Restaurant in Berlin.

In the last two months, many regime officials and leading clerics in Iran have urged Iranians to vote in Friday's election in an effort to bolster negotiations with Europe over the country's nuclear program. Perhaps in an effort to boost turnout, the foreign ministry yesterday said it was opening polling stations in

France, the United Arab Emirates, and even America to allow Iranians living abroad to cast their ballots.

There are currently eight candidates for the presidency, including Mr. Rafsanjani and a former higher education minister, Mostafa Moin. Mr. Moin has described himself as a reformist in the tradition of President Khatami, who promised greater freedoms at home but often found his reforms vetoed by an unelected council of clerics headed by Mr. Rafsanjani. Last month, hundreds of candidates were disqualified from the election including Mr. Moin. Mr. Moin was allowed to run after Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, urged what is known as the guardian council to let him stand for office. Nonetheless, the largest student organization in the country, known as the Office to Consolidate Unity, urged him to stand down from the election last month in an open letter and join in their boycott.

The regime allowed 70 foreign journalists to fly into Iran this week to cover the elections, including actor and anti-war activist Sean Penn. Mr. Penn will be covering the elections for the San Francisco Chronicle. In December 2002, he joined the Global Exchange's Medea Benjamin on a "solidarity visit" to Baghdad to protest the pending war. Ms. Benjamin is a founder of Code Pink, an organization that in March disrupted the Senate hearings for John Bolton and has raised money for the victims of America's campaign against fighters in Fallujah.

Reuters reported on Saturday that Mr. Penn was seen at Friday prayers, where Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati in his sermon urged his congregation to vote in order "to make America angry."

A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hamid Reza Asefi, yesterday warned against American "fortune-telling" in advance of the June 17 elections, accusing the Bush administration of attempting to suppress turnout for Friday's vote.