October 15, 2001 Special Dispatch No. 286

Terror In America (17): Conservatives And Reformists In Iran: Divided In Condemning The Attacks; United In Opposition To The American Response

October 15, 2001
Iran | Special Dispatch No. 286

Iranian reformists and conservatives responded differently to the attacks on the U.S. While the reformist Iranian leaders and presshastened to condemn the attacks, calling them "terrorist" operations, the conservative leaders postponed issuing a response, andultimately issued a general condemnation of terrorism.

Yet the Iranian leadership is unanimous in its unwavering opposition to the American attack on Afghanistan, and to thecoalition currently being put together by the U.S. As an alternative, it suggests involving the UN in political moves againstterrorism.

Reactions To The Attack

Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, leader of the conservatives, first referred to the attacks a week after they had occurred, and presented them as one of many other "acts of slaughter: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Qana, Sabra and Shatilla, Deir Yassin, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq…" He avoided specifically condemning the attacks, saying instead, "Killing of people, in any place and with any kind of weapons, including atomic bombs, long-range missiles, biological or chemical weapons, passenger or war planes, carried out by any organization, country, or individuals is condemned."[1]

In contrast, immediately after the attack, reformist Iranian President Mohammad Khatami issued a condemnation of "the terrorist attacks" and expressed "deep sorrow and sympathy" for the victims.[2]

The split in the positions of the conservatives and reformists percolated downward as well. While in general the reformist press made sure to immediately condemn the attacks on the U.S.,[3] the conservative press, and conservatives themselves, went so far as to proclaim the end of the United States. For example, the Resalat newspaper ran the front-page headline, "America has collapsed," while Entekhab featured the headline, "America became Hell." [4]

Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani, a Friday preacher at the University of Tehran, itself a central platform for the conservative leadership, condemned the attack much as Khamenei did, calling it a "tragic" terrorist attack, but added: "…It must be a lesson to the U.S., to adopt a new approach." [5]

The main headlines of the Tehran Times daily, mouthpiece of the Iranian foreign ministry and close to Khamenei, were "Horror in the White House" and "Camp David attacked." The paper also reported that eight planes were hijacked, (among them a police plane), and that a number of government buildings were attacked, including the White House.[6]

In an editorial, the conservative Kayhan ridiculed the "Hollywood-style offensive" and the American overreaction to an "isolated terrorist attack." The paper expressed satisfaction at New York's and Washington's transformation into "cities of war" that felt the same feelings as "southern Lebanon… [and the Iranian] Abadan, and Khoramshahr." Under the headline, "The White House is terror-stricken," the paper mocked President Bush's call from his "place of refuge" to pursue the perpetrators of the attack and ridiculed the American military, technological, and intelligence might that could not stand up to "a few knives."[7] Identifying the Perpetrators and Their Motives The conservative press dismissed the possibility that Muslims, particularly bin Laden, were responsible for the attack. These papers blamed various non-Arab and non-Muslim elements, among them the Americans and Israel, for the attacks, while at the same time contradicting themselves by claiming that it was America's support for Israel that had led to the attacks.

The Iranian press and leadership also weighed the matter of the perpetrators' identity. Khamenei maintained that "the reason of the recent events is the expansionist policies of the United States in the world and if this country had abandoned these policies and dealt with its internal affairs, such problems and events would not have taken place." He claimed that there were many indications that the Zionists might have been the designers and directors of the recent attacks. [8]

Majlis (parliament) Speaker Mehdi Karrubi considered whether the perpetrators "came from Afghanistan, or whether it was the Zionists in Israel who plotted the terror action in order to blacken the faces of the Muslims, or whether the events in America had been consolidated inside America and reached the stage where suicide perpetrators were required…"[9]

In contrast, the conservative press pinned the motives for the attack on the "blind policy" of U.S. support for the "racist Zionist regime" which, with the attack, "is finally paying the price," and added that the "tragedy has been brought about by the Zionist lobby."[10]

Along the same lines, the Tehran Times presented the U.S. walkout during the Durban racism conference as almost direct grounds for the attack: "If the Americans had accepted the majority vote in that conference instead of opting for supporting the Zionist regime, maybe the unfortunate incidents of yesterday would have been avoided... When a government is prepared to go against all internationally accepted principles and support a racist, criminal regime, it cannot expect to escape unscathed."

According to the paper, the U.S. inflamed the enmity towards it by blocking Palestinian access to UN channels, and this is what led to "this tragedy." Accordingly, the paper warned the U.S. "to reconsider its evidently failed policy… before it may have to suffer even greater loss for the mistakes made by their politicians."[11]

The Kayhan also discussed the identity of the perpetrators. "Were they American Robin Hoods who developed because of [America's] 'racist,' 'class' and 'geographical' rifts… or American [workers] of Satan who trained in the violent cowboy culture of Hollywood…?"[12]

The conservative Jumhori-ye Eslami newspaper also weighed the question of who carried out the attacks, stating that "everyone knows that the Palestinian elements, bin Laden, and their ilk are incapable of carrying out a number of simultaneous airplane hijackings in the heart of America, under the eyes of America's intelligence and security organizations, and of attacking the most sensitive financial, political, intelligence, and security centers of this country… [Furthermore,] in America itself there are more than enough opposition elements with specific motives and goals to attack the imperialist entity…"[13]

In an editorial, the Khorasan newspaper stated, "the Zionist regime is the one behind the attacks" and demanded that the "CIA also be tried… because it trains terrorists and interferes in the domestic matters of other states."[14]

Deputy Majlis Speaker Mohsen Armin, a member of the reformist camp, called for the establishment of an international investigative committee, adding that in such a case "not only Iran but also other Muslim states in the region could play a part in identifying the agents responsible for this act."[15]

The Tehran Times dismissed the claim that bin Laden was involved in the attacks, but added, "Even if it is determined that bin Laden was involved, it will be difficult to accept that he carried them out without help from inside the U.S." The paper warned that the situation was reminiscent of media coverage immediately after the Okalahoma City bombing, recalling that the U.S. media at that time "were promoting anti-Islamic hatred. Muslims were attacked, and one was even killed in Oklahoma. Two days later, when it was discovered that the main suspect was Timothy McVeigh… the media stopped its anti-Muslim rhetoric but offered no apologies, although their actions could be regarded as hate crimes."

The paper suggested identifying the guilty parties using the criteria of "who would benefit from such an act." According to the paper, "the only ones to benefit from any action that would serve to discredit and demonize the Islamic movement are the Zionists and certain anti-Islamic elements in the West."[16]

The Attack's Implications For Islam's Relations With The West

Apprehensions about accusing all Muslims of terrorism were evident among reformists and conservatives alike. Khamenei maintained that "the fact that there are some Muslim names which are not known how [they] have entered the terrorist network cannot be a permission for oppression against the Muslims and attack on the people of Afghanistan… How can you accuse the Muslims who have been oppressed in the world and even in the United States, and how can you generalize the accusation against a Muslim, which has not yet been proved, to all Muslims?"[17]

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, and others[18], tried to present the Islamic connection with the attack as an Israeli plot, saying that the Zionists were trying to link terrorism with Islam and pointing out that their efforts to target Islam have been far more than their condemnation of terrorism.[19]

Expediency Council chairman and former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani blamed the U.S. for disseminating "accusations against the Muslims, inciting public opinion, escalating the crisis, and fanning the winds of war because it is cannot find the main agents behind the crime."[20]

The head of the International Institute for Dialogue Between Civilizations head Ataollah Mohajerani, a reformist and crony of President Khatami, warned of "a plot aimed at presenting the Muslims as supporters of terrorism and murder" who demonstrate joyfully in response to the attacks.[21]

The conservative press also warned the U.S. leaders against sweeping accusation against Muslims, saying that the anti-Islamic rhetoric adopted by the West following the crisis is "meant to justify repression of Muslims and the entire Islamic movement."[22] It also warned the U.S. not to launch an offensive against Afghanistan, as such a move would lead to "extreme hatred on the part of the Muslim nation that would add to America's domestic woes."[23]

Reactions To The U.S. Planned Response

The Iranian leadership is united in its opposition to an offensive against Afghanistan. Khamenei rejected the position of the U.S. leaders regarding terrorism, calling it "false" and "unacceptable."[24] He warned, "…if the Americans intend to expand their power in the region by presence in Pakistan and sending forces to Afghanistan, it will just add to their own problems."[25] He added, "Iran does not consider the U.S. to be competent… for leading the global anti-terrorism drive and will not participate in any measure taken by the U.S. against terrorism."[26]

Khatami also warned against a "hasty and indiscreet" American response[27] and suggested, as an alternative to the coalition being formed by the U.S., an international coalition under the auspices of the United Nations that would use political measures.[28] He indicated "the need for the Arab and Muslim states, particularly Iran and Egypt, to close ranks so as to prevent a human calamity in Palestine and Afghanistan."[29]

Foreign Minister Kharrazi called on the Americans to exercise "self-restraint" and "prudence" and that "before any hasty reaction, world public opinion, especially that of the Muslims, should be taken into account."[30] He too dismissed the idea of Iran joining the war coalition against terrorism led by the U.S.[31] Rafsanjani also warned against a "hasty, illogical, and miscalculated"[32] American response.

It should be further noted that for the first time since the establishment of the Islamic regime in 1979, there have been demonstrations in Iran, held by young people to show solidarity with the U.S. One was attended by some 200 students; another, according to the Associated Press, was 4,000 strong, and the demonstrators shouted slogans condemning terror and lit candles to symbolize their identification with the victims of the attacks. According to Iranian sources, the police had prohibited this gathering.[33] The Persian daily Iran reported that 30 demonstrators were arrested at a rally for solidarity with American families who were victims of the attacks. During that rally, demonstrators clashed with security forces, who claimed that they did not have a permit for the gathering.[34]


[1] IRNA, September 17, 2001; also expressing this position was the Association of Instructors of the Theological School of the holy city of Qom, IRNA, September 23, 2001.

[2] Kayhan, September 12, 2001.

[3] For example, the government daily Iran News, September 12, 2001.

[4] Resalat, September 12, 2001; Entekhab, September 12, 2001.

[5] Kayhan, September 15, 2001.

[6] Tehran Times, September 12, 2001.

[7] Kayhan, September 13, 2001.

[8] IRNA, September 17, 2001.

[9] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, September 30, 2001.

[10] Tehran Times, September 12, 2001.

[11] Tehran Times, September 12 and September 15, 2001.

[12] Kayhan, September 13, 2001.

[13] Jamhuri-ye Eslami, September 15, 2001.

[14] Khorasan, September 15, 2001.

[15] IRNA, September 18, 2001.

[16] Teheran Times, September 15, 2001.

[17] IRNA, September 18, 2001.

[18] See also, inter alia, Rafsanjani's reaction.

[19] IRNA, September 18, 19, 2001.

[20] IRNA, September 14, 2001; Kayhan, September 15, 2001.

[21] Hamshahri, September 15, 2001.

[22] Tehran Times, September 15, 2001.

[23] Jomhuri-ye Eslami, September 15, 2001.

[24] Iran Daily, September 27 2001.

[25] IRNA, September 17, 2001.

[26] Iran Daily, September 27, 2001.

[27] IRNA, September 19, 2001.

[28] IRNA, September 24, 25, 2001.

[29] Al-Hayat, September 25, 2001.

[30] IRNA, September 18, 2001.

[31] IRNA, September 29, 2001.

[32] IRNA, September 17, 2001.

[33] Al-Hayat, September 20, 2001.

[34] Iran, September 27, 2001.

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