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    Middle East
     Mar 22, 2006
A frenzied Persian new year
By Pepe Escobar

TEHRAN - March 20 was to have been the day that Iran was attacked by either the United States or Israel, according to countless doomsday predictions. The fateful date has come and gone, and there has been no replay of "shock and awe".

March 20 was also meant to see the inauguration of the Kish oil bourse, on which Iranian oil will be traded in a basket of currencies, including the euro. But because of "technical

glitches", according to the Ministry of Petroleum, the launch has been postponed, with no new date set.

No shock and awe, no oil-bourse shock. Iran, anyway, has come to a standstill. Not because of geopolitics; it is just reconnecting with its rich, pre-Islamic history.

Hardly anything has moved in Iran since Monday night, except a reduced staff at the Ministry of Foreign Relations and a special cell at the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) monitoring the nuclear debate at the United Nations Security Council, where members can't agree on how to respond to Iran.

It's ironic that this heated debate in New York happens exactly at the onset of Nauroz (literally "new day"), the Persian New Year. This is not only a celebration for all Iranians, but for all the Iranian world, from the Caucasus to Central Asia, and for Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iraq as well. Fifteen centuries after the arrival of Islam, the rhythm of time remains influenced by Zoroastrianism. And more than 27 years after the Islamic Revolution, clerics gave up fighting with tradition; this past weekend they were all hitting the shops buying gifts and sweets.

Nauroz in Iran is the beginning of the legal year in the solar calendar. Practically the whole country shuts down, in many cases until early April. Everybody buys new clothes and cleans up his house. Families gather around a ritual table where seven fruits, dishes or objects with names starting with an "s" are disposed; vegetables are always present, or lentils, which should be thrown into a waterway on the 13th day of the new year. On this particular day, every family sets out in a sort of massive national picnic.

The destabilization game
Just before Nauroz, the political temperature was no picnic; it was as feverish as the shopping. A terrorist attack convulsed one of Iran's sensitive borders, the desert province of Sistan-Balochistan, with at least 23 dead, six injured and 12 missing.

Journalist Akbar Ganji, a freedom-of-expression icon, was released after six years in prison and quite a few hunger strikes - although the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) was reporting that would only happen at the end of the month. This past Saturday, the combative newspaper Shargh printed a magnificent photo on its front page of an emaciated Ganji smiling alongside his wife. Ganji is not making any political comments; he said he could be again thrown in jail. His early release was later spun as a "compassionate leave", so he could be with his family for Nauroz.

Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, trying to defuse the nuclear tension, was saying that the government expected "fair, logical and comprehensive decisions" from the Security Council over its handling of Iran's nuclear dossier, while SNSC Secretary Ali Larijani acknowledged Iraq's call, via the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, of a high-level dialogue between the US and Iran on Iraq.

Larijani, along with his brother, are extremely influential on high-level policy and close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Larijani is like an anointed prince, although he lacked the charisma to muster enough votes and win last summer's presidential elections. But in matters of supreme national interest, he wields more power than President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

The proposed Iran-US talks on Iraq have done nothing to erase suspicions on both sides. In diplomatic and government circles in Tehran, the chronology making the rounds is telling. Afghan-born Zalmay Khalilzad, the powerful US ambassador in Iraq, wrote a letter to Iranian high-level officials requesting a negotiation. The letter was written in Persian; Khalilzad speaks Dari, a Persian dialect. Only afterward, SCIRI leader Hakim publicly invited Iran to hold talks with the Americans.

The point is that Iran does not need to destabilize Iraq or to perform an "unhelpful role" - as the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department claim non-stop. Iranian influence remains strong whichever of the Islamic parties - SCIRI or Da'wa - leads the next Iraqi government. Hakim's move, nonetheless, entails the possibility of the SCIRI positioning its prime-ministerial candidate, Abdul Adel Mahdi, in opposition to the current preferred United Iraqi Alliance candidate, Ibrahim al-Jaafari. Mahdi has been to Washington and has good US connections. Unlike Jaafari, he would be acceptable to both Kurds and Sunnis.

Larijani has already stated that the Iranians will appoint a delegation to talk to Khalilzad. But that implies the Iranians will negotiate in a position of force. Government spokesman Gholam-Hussein Elham stresses that "the Americans have long been asking us to hold talks on Iraq" - not exactly the spin coming from Washington. He adds that "what is important for us is to bring an end to the Iraqi occupation".

Though certainly not on an Iraqi scale, Iran is also a victim of terrorism. Last Thursday, a heavily armed group disguised as policemen set up a mock roadblock on the Zabol-to-Zahedan road in Sistan-Balochistan, near the sensitive borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan, and attacked an official convoy. People were dragged out of their cars and gunned down.

The Iranian government is playing down the possibility of a drug-related raid. Hardline Interior Minister Mostafa Purmohammadi said the perpetrators were the same ones who conducted a series of bombings in Ahvaz, in oil-rich Khuzestan province, months ago. The minister told the Iranian Students' News Agency (ISNA) that "according to our reports, US and British security chiefs met with rebel leaders and provoked them to commit the attacks". Iranian officials are adamant that British and US operatives are active in destabilizing Khuzestan - which Saddam Hussein called Arabistan - in a series of black operations, although Washington and London have rejected the accusations.

Separatist Arabs and Balochis provoking unrest looks like a classic "divide and rule" tactic of trying to destabilize the central government in Tehran. When the long Nauroz party is over, one wonders whether the players in the Iran-US talks on Iraq will really address the hard questions - who's helping whom in the regional-destabilization game.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)

Regional vultures circling Iraq
(Mar 21, '06)

Iran and irrationality (Mar 21, '06)

Irreversible Iranians
(Mar 18, '06)


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