Wednesday, December 15, 2004

TEHRAN — The 300 men filling out forms in the offices of an Iranian aid group were offered three choices: Train for suicide attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq, for suicide attacks against Israelis or to assassinate British author Salman Rushdie.

It looked at first glance like a gathering on the fringes of a society divided between moderates, who want better relations with the world, and hard-line Muslim militants hostile toward the United States and Israel.

But the presence of two key figures — a prominent Iranian lawmaker and a member of the country’s elite Revolutionary Guards — lent the meeting more legitimacy and was a clear indication of at least tacit support from some within Iran’s government.

Since that inaugural June meeting in a room decorated with photos of Israeli soldiers’ funerals, the registration forms for volunteer suicide commandos have appeared on Tehran’s streets and university campuses, and there is no sign that Iran’s government is trying to stop the shadowy movement.

On Nov. 12, the day that Iranians traditionally hold pro-Palestinian protests, a spokesman for the Headquarters for Commemorating Martyrs of the Global Islamic Movement said the movement signed up at least 4,000 new volunteers.

Spokesman Mohammad Ali Samadi told the Associated Press that the group had no ties to the government.

And Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi told reporters recently that the group’s campaign to sign up volunteers for suicide attacks had “nothing to do with the ruling Islamic establishment.”

“That some people do such a thing is the result of their sentiments. It has nothing to do with the government and the system,” Mr. Asefi said.

Despite the government’s disavowal of the group and some of its programs, there are indications that the suicide attack campaign has some legitimacy within the government.

The first meeting was held in the offices of the Martyrs Foundation, a semiofficial organization that helps the families of those killed in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war or those killed fighting for the government on other fronts. It drew hard-line lawmaker Mahdi Kouchakzadeh and Gen. Hossein Salami of the elite Revolutionary Guards.

“This group spreads valuable ideas,” Mr. Kouchakzadeh said.

“At a time when the U.S. is committing the crimes we see now, deprived nations have no weapon other than martyrdom. It’s evident that Iran’s foreign policy-makers have to take the dignified opinions of this group into consideration,” said Mr. Kouchakzadeh, who also is a former member of the Revolutionary Guards.

Iranian security officials did not return calls seeking comment about whether they had tried to crack down on the group’s training programs or whether they thought any of Mr. Samadi’s volunteers had crossed into Iraq or into Israel.

In general, Iran portrays Israel as its main nemesis and backs anti-Israeli groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah. It says that it has no interest in fomenting instability in Iraq and that it tries to block any infiltration into Iraq by insurgents — while pleading that its porous borders are hard to police.

In 1998, the Iranian government declared that it would not support a 1989 fatwa against Mr. Rushdie issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But the government also said only the person who issued the edict could rescind it. Ayatollah Khomeini, angered at Mr. Rushdie’s portrayal of the Islamic prophet Muhammad in “The Satanic Verses,” died in June 1989.

Mr. Samadi described the movement as independent, with no ties to groups such as al Qaeda.

Despite its very public canvassing for volunteers, the group can be secretive. Mr. Samadi agreed only reluctantly to an interview and insisted that it be held in the basement of an unmarked building in central Tehran — not the Martyrs Foundation offices.

Mr. Samadi refused to identify any of his volunteers or the wealthy sympathizers who he says underwrote their efforts. Asked to describe the training programs, he would say only that classes were sometimes held in open spaces outside cities but more often inside, away from prying eyes.

Mr. Samadi said that 30,000 volunteers have signed up and that 20,000 of them have been chosen for training. Volunteers already had carried out suicide operations against military targets inside Israel, he said.

But he said discussing attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq “will cause problems for the country’s foreign policy. It will have grave consequences for our country and our group. It’s confidential.”

As devoted Muslims, members of his group were simply fulfilling their religious obligations as laid out by Ayatollah Khomeini, he said.

In his widely published book of religious directives, the ayatollah said, “If an enemy invades Muslim countries and borders, it’s an obligation for all Muslims to defend through any possible means: sacrificing life and properties.”

Mr. Samadi said: “With this religious verdict, we don’t need anybody’s permission to fight an enemy that has occupied Muslim lands.”

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