Without Evidence, the Taliban Refuses to Turn Over bin Laden

By JOHN F. BURNS with CHRISTOPHER S. WREN

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Sept. 21 — The ruling Taliban of Afghanistan today further complicated the status of Osama bin Laden and rejected the ultimatum of the United States that he and his lieutenants be handed over to answer for their suspected role in last week’s terrorist attacks in the United States.

The Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, said at a news conference in Islamabad, “Our position in this regard is that if the Americans have evidence, they should produce it.” If they can prove their allegations, he said, “we are ready for a trial of Osama bin Laden.”

Asked again whether Mr. bin Laden would be surrendered, the ambassador replied, “Without evidence, no.” In response to another question, he said he had no “exact information” as to whether Mr. bin Laden was still in Afghanistan. He said the Taliban would have nothing more to say regarding Mr. bin Laden.

The ambassador spoke in Arabic, suggesting that his comments were intended for Islamic countries and the one billion Muslims around the world.

The United States had created many enemies for itself in world hotspots, Mullah Zaeef contended, and compared to these foes, Mr. bin Laden was a very small one.

The ambassador’s defiant comments quashed suggestions that a decree promulgated on Thursday by the Taliban’s senior Muslim clerics might open the way to the handover of Mr. bin Laden. Mullah Zaeef described the clerics’ decision as a suggestion and not a judicial decision.

On Thursday Afghanistan’s senior Muslim clerics issued an edict that suggested that Mr. bin Laden might be persuaded to leave the country.

The White House quickly rejected the move, saying it did not “meet American requirements” that Afghanistan immediately hand over the prime suspect in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

In a speech on Thursday night to a joint session of Congress President Bush demanded that the Taliban promptly deliver Mr. bin Laden and the rest of his network to American authorities and “immediately and permanently” close down terrorist training camps inside Afghanistan.

“These demands are not open to negotiation or discussion,” Mr. Bush said.

The earlier decision by a grand council of nearly 1,000 clerics in Kabul, the Afghan capital, had come after days of refusals by the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, to surrender Mr. bin Laden or end the sanctuary the Taliban have given him and his armed force, Al Qaeda (pronounced al-KYE-dah). But it was not clear where Mullah Omar stood on the decree — whether he had inspired it, whether he would accept it — or whether Mr. bin Laden would comply.

The decree and the seemingly contradictory statement from the Afghan ambassador served only to intensify speculation as to what the Taliban are up to, or even whether they have any plan to extricate themselves from the crisis.

In any case, they appeared to do nothing to deter the Bush administration from its readiness to use military force if necessary to capture or kill Mr. bin Laden.

In the religious decree, or fatwa, issued earlier Thursday, the Afghan Islamic clerics had left little doubt that they were acting under the pressure of American military threats, and made their own threat, of a worldwide holy war, or jihad, against the United States in response to any American thrust into Afghanistan.

Although Mr. bin Laden declared a jihad against the United States five years ago, calling for the killing of American civilians and military personnel, the Taliban have not threatened a jihad of their own until the United States demanded Mr. bin Laden’s handover last week.

The clerics said: “To avoid the current tumult, and also to allay future suspicions, the Supreme Council of the Islamic clergy recommends to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan to persuade Mr. bin Laden to leave Afghanistan whenever possible.”

To this, they added a conciliatory statement of condolence for the victims of the attacks in the United States. “The ulema,” they said, using an Arabic term for Islamic clergy, “voice their sadness over American deaths and hope America does not attack Afghanistan.”

This, too, was immediately followed by a harsh warning of retaliation. “If infidels invade an Islamic country and that country does not have the ability to defend itself, it becomes the binding obligation of all the world’s Muslims to declare a holy war,” the decree said. It also warned that any Muslim cooperation with the “infidels” — an apparent reference to neighboring Pakistan, among other countries — was punishable by death.

Protests in major cities in Pakistan continued today against the decision by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s military ruler, to agree to United States demands for cooperation in the hunt for Mr. bin Laden. Islamic militant groups linked to Mr. bin Laden and some political parties have promised to do everything possible to disrupt any American military venture involving Pakistan. A general strike is planned for Friday.

All week, reports from Kabul and Kandahar have indicated that the Taliban leaders were engaging in a cat-and-mouse game with the United States, with Mullah Omar saying Mr. bin Laden would never be handed over, then suggesting that he might be under certain conditions. The conditions changed from day to day. It appears clear that there are significant splits within the Taliban movement, although their exact nature is not easy to determine.

One new condition that appeared in the decree Thursday was that President Bush apologize to Muslims for using the word “crusade,” derived from the Christian military campaigns that overran Muslims 1,000 years ago, to describe his plans to fight international terrorism.

The United States has repeatedly refused to negotiate with the Taliban over Mr. bin Laden. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, speaking in Washington, said that “voluntarily, or involuntarily,” Mr. bin Laden had to be brought to justice. “The sooner he is brought to justice, the better off the world will be, and the better off the Afghan people will be,” he said.

The clerics’ decree came less than 12 hours after President Bush ordered heavy bombers and other forces deployed to bases within striking range of Afghanistan.

Islamic specialists and experts on Afghanistan had various interpretations of the latest developments. One was that Mullah Omar, and the wider clergy, wanted to try to rid themselves of responsibility for Mr. bin Laden without explicitly breaking previous assertions that Islamic injunctions would not permit them to endanger their “guest.”

Perhaps, too, these experts suggested, the Taliban thought that by allowing Mr. bin Laden to slip out of their control, they could escape the full weight of American wrath.

Other views were less complex: that the Taliban leaders were confused, considering that their own harsh form of Islamic rule has eliminated television in the parts of Afghanistan they control, and restricted the state-controlled radio and newspapers to “Islamic” news.

Most simply, some experts felt that Mullah Omar and the clerics were simply playing for time, hoping that a growing tide of reluctance to join in or endorse American military action across the Muslim world might yet get them out of a corner.

Officials in Pakistan, which sent a high-ranking military delegation to Kandahar and Kabul earlier in the week to tell Mullah Omar to surrender Mr. bin Laden or face being toppled from power, said they had left officers behind in case the Taliban had a change of heart.

The Pakistan generals who led the delegation said they hoped realists in the Taliban government in Kabul might prevail over unworldly clerics in Kandahar, where Mullah Omar and other members of the Taliban’s supreme council spent much of their time reading the Koran.

One senior government official in Kabul, Education Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, said after the clerics’ meeting that Mullah Omar would follow the “guidance” of the clerics and encourage Mr. bin Laden to leave, but implied that this would not be soon. “It will take time,” he said. “You know that Osama bin Laden has a lot of opponents. It can’t be that he goes out on the street and catches a taxi to go to another roundabout.”

In Islamabad, a Taliban official at the Afghan Embassy said Mr. bin Laden was ready to give himself up, if the United States provided evidence of his involvement in the attacks in the United States. “He said, `I am not involved in this terrorist action. I am a guest in Afghanistan. But if they have evidence, I am ready for a trial,’ ” Suhail Shaheen, the deputy ambassador said. “We are telling the Americans, if he has violated his commitment, please prove it.”

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

F.B.I.’s Inquiry in Cole Attack Nearing a Halt

By John F. Burns

Tuesday, August 21, 2001

SANA, Yemen, Aug. 17 — More than 10 months after two Arabic- speaking suicide bombers attacked the destroyer Cole in Aden, killing 17 American sailors, an F.B.I. investigation has virtually ground to a halt because Yemen has refused repeated American requests to widen the inquiry to include Islamic militant groups in Yemen.

The effect of the Yemeni decision has been to frustrate efforts by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to link the bombing conclusively to Osama bin Laden, the fugitive Saudi, who has declared a worldwide “holy war” on the United States.

After the Cole bombing on Oct. 12, F.B.I. investigators immediately suspected that Mr. bin Laden, from a sanctuary in Afghanistan, had inspired the attack, if not actively directed it. But appeals from senior American officials, several of whom have flown to Yemen to appeal directly to President Ali Abdallah Salih, have been unavailing.

Senior bureau investigators say Yemen has denied them access to prominent Yemenis whom the Americans want to interview in their bid to link the attack to elements of Mr. bin Laden’s network in Yemen, which became a key base for him in the early 1990’s.

Now, senior Yemeni officials have indicated that they plan to close the case by trying six men who were arrested soon after the bombing.

“Yemen is as committed to combating terrorism as the United States,” the foreign minister, Dr. Abu Bakr al-Qurbi, said in an interview, “because the damage caused in the Cole attack was not only to the American ship and its crew, but to Yemen’s security, too. It is therefore in our interests to trace the attack to its ultimate source, and I don’t think that any wise person can say that Yemen is withholding information.

“But as things stand now, we believe that the investigation is complete, and that it is time to hand over the file in the case to the prosecutor.”

Dr. Qurbi said additional interviews proposed by the F.B.I. would be a breach of Yemen’s sovereignty because they would involve strictly domestic matters. In any case, he said, Yemen’s investigation, including the questioning of some individuals cited by the bureau, had shown convincingly that there were no Yemenis involved in the bombing other than those held in Aden.

“Just because you have an Islamic connection does not mean that you have any relationship to the Cole bombing,” he said.

Since November the government has repeatedly said it wanted to hold the trial, only to defer it under American pressure. The F.B.I. position has been that the men jailed in Aden were minor players and that a trial in Yemen now could prejudice any later trial in the United States of those who planned and financed the attack.

The impasse has its roots in the first days of the Cole investigation, when the bureau complained of obstructionism by Yemen. But after President Clinton demanded a “genuine joint investigation,” the Americans were eventually allowed to attend interviews with suspects and witnesses identified by the Yemenis and pose questions.

But sources inside the F.B.I. say much about the way the Yemenis have conducted the investigation has been troubling.

The core of the dispute lies in possible links between the bombing and a wide array of militant Islamic groups in Yemen. In the late 1980’s Mr. bin Laden, with American encouragement, recruited widely among young Yemenis for the guerrilla struggle against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Although he was born in Saudi Arabia, Mr. bin Laden’s ancestral homeland is in Yemen.

A list of individuals the investigators would like to interview, first presented to Yemen late last year, includes a firebrand Muslim cleric, an army general with family ties to President Salih and a long-standing relationship with Mr. bin Laden, and others with similar links, including a tribal leader who trained as an Afghan guerrilla with Mr. bin Laden.

When the Afghan struggle ended, some of those men helped Mr. bin Laden set up a terrorist network in Yemen, using thousands of Afghan war veterans who later supported President Salih’s forces in a civil war against Communist secessionists in 1994.

Bureau investigators say they have little doubt that the six men held by Yemen, in a grim, neon-lit fortress on the Aden waterfront, were involved in the Cole bombing — helping to acquire both a fiberglass skiff and a four-wheel-drive vehicle, installing explosives in the skiff and obtaining false documents used by the conspirators.

But those Americans say the prisoners were just henchmen, not the men who directed the bombing.

With Mr. bin Laden untouchable for now in Afghanistan, the F.B.I.’s view is that a wider inquiry in Yemen is crucial to learn how the Cole bombing was organized, and to deepen the bureau’s understanding of Mr. bin Laden’s terrorist organization, Al Qaeda.

In a videotape made by Mr. bin Laden that was posted on the Internet this summer, he appeared to claim credit for the Cole bombing, saying that Allah “made us victorious the day we destroyed the ship on the sea.” But there was little else on the tape to substantiate the claim.

A leading Yemeni newspaper editor said American pressures ran counter to Yemen’s interest in striking a balance between improved relations with Washington and popular backing for Mr. bin Laden’s attacks. Closer American ties in the late 1990’s yielded increased American aid, and the port refueling agreement that brought the Cole into Aden.

“It was clear from the start that the accessories to the attack would be tried, convicted and executed, but that the people inside Yemen who financed it, and used their power to facilitate it, would never be brought to book,” the newspaper editor said, in remarks made on a guarantee of anonymity.

“That’s the way things are done here, and the Americans were naïve to imagine that it could ever have been any other way.”

American investigators have long suspected that Yemen planned to follow the pattern set by Saudi Arabia after Islamic militants mounted the truck bombing in 1996 at the Khobar Towers military housing, which killed 19 Americans.

After denying the F.B.I. access to suspects in the bombing, Saudi Arabia tried and executed them.

Dr. Qurbi, the foreign minister, implied that Yemen’s refusal to allow a wider inquiry was partly the bureau’s fault because the F.B.I. had refused to tell Yemen what it had learned about any connection between the Cole and Mr. bin Laden.

“Maybe there is an element of distrust in their not wanting to pass on information to us about bin Laden, in case the information is abused,” he said.

American investigators also believe that some of the suspects and witnesses they have been allowed to interview were thoroughly coached in Yemeni jails before meeting the F.B.I. That assertion was vigorously denied by Dr. Qurbi, who said, “This kind of allegation alienates any kind of cooperation between the two sides.”

As for Yemen’s determination to hold a trial soon, the foreign minister said it was a question of “human rights” to take prisoners to court after their many months in jail.

“Some of our people are becoming very critical of our delay in holding a trial, because it involves a country which is always strongly demanding the protection of human rights,” he said.

For months Yemeni officials have said the only bin Laden link to the Cole bombing they have uncovered involved Muhammad al-Harazi, a Saudi Arabian citizen of Yemeni parentage who has been identified by the Yemenis as the man who oversaw preparations for the Cole attack, then left Yemen before the bombing.

F.B.I. officials say that Mr. Harazi is now in Afghanistan, and that he has links not only to the Cole bombing but also to the 1998 bombings of two American Embassies in East Africa, which killed 224 people.

Another sign that Yemen might not be keen to help the bureau link the Cole bombing to Mr. bin Laden emerged earlier this year.

American officials placed full- page announcements in Yemeni newspapers advertising a $5 million State Department reward for information leading to the arrest of those responsible for the Cole attack. But the Telecommunications Ministry changed the telephone numbers given in the announcement — for the American Embassy here — twice in one month. Each time, the reward had to be announced afresh in the newspapers, with the new numbers.

Arrests Shake Ancient Roots of Iran’s Jews

October 17, 1999

By JOHN F. BURNS

TEHERAN, Iran — At the Yousuf Abad synagogue in Teheran, the packed congregation gathered for the Sabbath was approaching the end of Friday prayers. It was the moment one worshiper had been waiting for, when the rise of hundreds of fervent voices made him inaudible to all but a stranger beside him.

Suddenly, urgently, the man spoke, of the chill that has spread through the small Iranian Jewish community since the arrest in March of 13 Jews who have been accused of spying for Israel. Although the United States and dozens of other countries have appealed for the case to be dropped, the Jews, and a group of Muslims arrested with them, face the prospect of trial in a revolutionary court in the southern city of Shiraz, at a date yet to be set.

Human rights groups outside Iran have suggested that the charges have been trumped up for political reasons. In Iran, spokesmen for Jewish organizations have mostly avoided discussing the case, saying that protests from Jews, here or abroad, would only make matters worse. But the man in the synagogue, dapper and bearded, a merchant of about 50, had bottled-up feelings he wanted the stranger to understand.

“This is my country, my Iran,” he said, pressing close, speaking clear English despite years of little use. “When the mullahs made their revolution 20 years ago, I could have left, like many Jews, but I decided not to go. And why? Because my family came here 2,500 years ago.”

The man looked quickly at the rows of small boys and girls, teen-agers in T-shirts and sneakers, men and women, doctors and lawyers and engineers and businessmen and university professors, as well as merchants from the bazaars and janitors and taxi drivers and off-duty soldiers. Filling the balcony and every row of chairs in the hall, they were a cross section of a community that traces its origins to Jewish slaves freed by an ancient Persian ruler, Cyrus the Great, after he conquered Babylon in the sixth century B.C.

Survivors of countless upheavals through the ages, the Jews who remain here have endured an Islamic revolution that gave the country a Government that was, at least until the rise of a powerful reform movement in the last two years, the most militant and anti-Western in the Muslim world. Although recognized as an official minority in the Islamic Constitution, and allowed to observe their religious practices and traditions, the Jews of Iran have rarely known more difficult times.

“Imagine, 2,500 years!” the bearded man in the synagogue continued. “My father, his father, and his father before him, for centuries and centuries we have been here, always loyal to whoever has ruled. And now, because of Shiraz, I know I must take my family, and lock my house, and leave.”

Afterward, as worshipers gathered in tight groups before heading into the Teheran night, the same anxiety found a dozen muffled voices. In English or Persian, the same word, Shiraz, surfaced again and again — shorthand now, among Jews, for events in the city 550 miles south of Teheran where the 13 Jews were arrested, and where they now face a trial that Jews here see as a direct threat to the community’s survival.

Among Jewish scholars outside Iran, the Shiraz case is being compared to the last time any large group of Jews in a Muslim country in the Middle East faced such serious charges. That was in Baghdad, a few months after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, when a group of Iraqi Jews were convicted on charges of spying for Israel, then hanged from lampposts in a Baghdad square. That nightmare was the last straw for Iraq’s once-flourishing Jewish community. From 140,000 Jews in 1948, there are fewer than 100 now.

In Iran, fewer than 30,000 Jews, perhaps only 25,000, remain of the 85,000 who were here at the time of the Islamic revolution in 1979. But even after the migration of the last 20 years, mostly to Israel and the United states, Iran’s Jewish population remains by far the largest in any Muslim country in the Middle East, except for Turkey, a country allied to the West. Elsewhere, from Morocco to Iraq, Jewish residents are numbered in the dozens or low hundreds, where there are any Jews left at all.

The Jews arrested in Shiraz included a rabbi, two university professors, several teachers in private Hebrew schools, a Government official, a kosher butcher and a 16-year-old youth. Some, Iranian officials said, were brought to the jail in Shiraz from Isfahan, a city midway between Teheran and Shiraz. At least seven Muslims were arrested, too, a point Iranian officials have emphasized to support the contention that the case has nothing to do with religion. None of the accused have been allowed to see families or lawyers, although some are said to have had contacts by telephone.

Even reformers like Kamal Kharrazi, the Foreign Minister, have said that the origins of the case have “nothing to do” with the defendants’ religion, that it is “closely related to Iran’s national security,” and that Iran will not be pressured by outside powers into abandoning its legal processes. Among Jews in Teheran, there have been many rumors, mostly involving possible actions by the Jews that overzealous investigators might have interpreted as spying.

One is that investigators found that the 16-year-old youth had been sending E-mail messages to Israel. Another is that one of the defendants worked on a secret aircraft project. Still another, that several served as conscripts in Iran’s armed forces, and could have discussed their experiences in international telephone calls. Still another, that several of the accused may have visited Israel secretly, as many Iranian Jews do, despite laws forbidding it. But so little has been divulged about the case by prosecutors that much of this is surmise.

The prosecutors’ initial explanations, before the spying charges were brought, were different — that some of the accused had violated exchange controls, and that others, in Hebrew schools, defied rules requiring separation of male and female students in classrooms. The shift was one reason that led human rights groups abroad to conclude that the arrests were a tactic by clerical hard-liners out to embarrass President Mohammad Khatami, a reformer, and to foster anti-Western feelings among Iran’s population of 62 million ahead of February parliamentary elections that will be a crucial test for his supporters.

In a letter last month to the new head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, a Khatami supporter, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch put the matter bluntly. The letter appealed to Shahroudi not to allow the Jews to become “innocent casualties of political forces.”

It added: “We are particularly concerned that these members of the Jewish minority may have been singled out for persecution to make a political point, as a gambit in what is widely described as a struggle within Iran’s leadership.” After receiving the letter, Shahroudi confirmed that the Shiraz trial would go ahead.

The plight of the 13 has been made grimmer by the fact that their case is to be heard by a revolutionary court. Commonly used in security cases, revolutionary courts are headed by Muslim clerics judging according to Islamic laws — often men who have little or no grounding in ordinary criminal law. Trials are usually brief, often with scant opportunity for defense, and death sentences have been common.

In June, Iran’s Chief Justice, Ayatollah Mohammed Yazdi, pronounced the Jews held in Shiraz guilty, and implied that execution was a foregone conclusion. But Yazdi has since been dismissed, and high-level officials have said in recent weeks that the men will not be hanged. Kharrazi, the Foreign Minister, told reporters in New York on Oct. 2 that Iran does not execute spies in peacetime, and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright has said that the United States has been given similar assurances.

The man to whom many Iranians now look for relief from the arbitrariness of Islamic rule, President Khatami — a moderate Muslim cleric elected 29 months ago on a pledge to make Iran a democratic country, with respect for human rights and law — has also attempted to allay fears. At a meeting two weeks ago with women’s groups, he was asked about the Shiraz case by Farangis Hassidim, the nursing matron of the 102-bed Jewish hospital in Teheran, which uses Jewish charitable donations to help treat a patient load that is more than 90 percent Muslim.

Khatami reproved Mrs. Hassidim for not asking about the Muslims in the case. But he went on: “It’s the court that will decide if the facts are proven. If the facts are not proven, the accused will be acquitted. The court must decide their fate and give its ruling in all fairness.”

A few days earlier, addressing ethnic minorities in the shrine built to the cleric who led the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Khatami said Jews were equal citizens in Iran. “Anti-Semitism and fascism are a Western phenomenon, not an Eastern one,” he said.

Senior Iranian officials say privately that the 53-year-old Khatami is caught in a difficult position, as he is caught in a wider political struggle with the conservatives clerics and his powers are limited by constitutional provisions that leave most authority, including control of the courts, to Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Still, officials close to the President say that he can help the Shiraz Jews, and possibly even assure their acquittal. “The situation is very different from what would have been even two years ago,” a high-ranking official said. “The revolutionary courts can still come up with cases that are politically motivated, but now they know that they at least have to have a case. They can’t just make any allegation and convict. Now, there are people loyal to President Khatami who will hold them to account.”

The situation is full of paradox for Jews here, who, like many other Iranians, had just begun to breathe more easily in the wake of Khatami’s election. Although being a Jew in a militant Islamic state has posed special problems, many Jews say their situation was not much worse during the most zealous years of Islamic rule than that of most other Iranians.

If some Jews have been persecuted in the past, they note, so too were hundreds, even thousands, of Muslim Iranians. Much is made of the fact that Ayatollah Khomeini, although fierce in his condemnations of Israel, met early on after 1979 with Jewish leaders, and promised the community protection.

Since the Islamic revolution, Jews have been a recognized minority, with guaranteed civil rights, freedom to keep Jewish traditions and to run Jewish schools. In Teheran, there are 27 synagogues, several of them modernized with help of donations from American Jewish groups. Like Christians, Zoroastrians and other minority groups, they have a reserved seat in Parliament, currently held by Manucher Eliassi, a 58-year-old Teheran doctor who has been in the forefront of efforts to help the Shiraz Jews.

In an interview, Eliassi appealed to American Jewish groups not to be vociferous.

“I think the case of the Shiraz 13 is just a misunderstanding, and it will be solved soon,” he said. “The American Jewish community should not worry. It is a domestic problem, and we can handle it ourselves.”

For years, Jews speaking formally for the community have been careful to accentuate the positive, praising the ruling clerics for their tolerance and encouraging Jews everywhere in Iran to do likewise, to the point of posting Ayatollah Khomeini’s picture in their offices and clinics and shops. Eliassi is no exception. “From the beginning of the revolution, we have never had any problems with the revolutionary Government,” he said.

“We can listen to our own music, we can wear our traditional clothing, we can even have wine at our weddings and religious ceremonies. There is no problem. We are 100 percent free. ”

He added: “Jews have deep, deep roots in this country, and I am very sure that there will never be an Iran without Jews.”

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

October 2, 1999 > Top Leader in Iran Tries to Calm Rage Of Its Hard-Liners

FOREIGN DESK

Top Leader in Iran Tries to Calm Rage Of Its Hard-Liners

By JOHN F. BURNS (NYT) 1345 words
Published: October 2, 1999

Iran’s supreme religious leader moved decisively today to head off a fresh confrontation with the country’s reformist President, instructing hard-line Muslim clerics and their loyalists among the police not to ”take matters into their own hands” in a potentially explosive dispute involving university students.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a conservative cleric who wields paramount religious and political power here, used a major sermon to defuse tensions over a recent satire in a Teheran campus magazine that hard-liners had denounced as insulting to one of Islam’s most revered saints. His appeal came 10 weeks after student protests had touched off the worst rioting in Teheran since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979.

”I have heard that some people in some quarters have said that they will take matters into their own hands and will mete out punishment,” Mr. Khamenei said. ”Never! Never! In an Islamic system, punishment is the authorities’ prerogative.”

”Any such act from any person is forbidden,” he continued, ”and now that I have forbidden it, it is not only legally barred but religiously forbidden.”

Equally stunning, Mr. Khamenei gave effusive backing to President Mohammad Khatami, his rival in a tense power struggle between conservative clerics and a reform bloc led by Mr. Khatami, a leading cleric himself, who won a landslide election in 1997 on a promise to make Islamic rule more democratic.

Until now, most Iranians have seen Mr. Khamenei as the main obstacle to President Khatami’s efforts to make Government accountable, to subordinate the police and courts to an impartial legal system, and to broaden freedoms of speech and press.

In wording with a broad resonance among the conservative clergy, Mr. Khamenei said that President Khatami ”is pious; he loves the household of the Prophet Mohammed, and he is working for the rebirth of Islam.”

Among reformers, the reference to the President working for a renewal of Islam was taken as particularly significant, since it appeared to be an acceptance, even if only tactical, of Mr. Khatami’s insistence that what he wants is a more tolerant Islamic state, not Western-style secularism in which the Muslim faith is relegated to the private domain.

In other remarks, Mr. Khamenei hinted that his shift of tone, after months of pronouncements that appeared intended to isolate President Khatami, resulted from concern that a showdown might not end in a triumph for the hard-liners, given Mr. Khatami’s strong popular support.

Even in the senior clergy, the hard-liners have suffered major defections, including several high-ranking clerics who were enthusiastic supporters of the event that traumatized Americans 20 years ago — the Islamic militants’ seizure of the United States Embassy, and the holding of American diplomats as hostages for 444 days.

Mr. Khamenei said he had met with ”leading officials” of the conservative and reform factions within the Government in recent days in an effort to reduce tensions, and claimed that his efforts had been successful. Failing to find common ground, he implied, could lead to both sides losing out to more radical elements who favor sidelining Islam.

”The country and the revolution need unity,” he said. ”The regime’s two main forces, both faithful to the revolution, must reconcile themselves so as to isolate those who do not belong to us.”

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks were assured of maximum impact by virtue of their having been delivered at the shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the forbidding cleric who imposed a puritanical Islamic regime on Iran after 1979 that began to moderate only after Mr. Khatami won the Presidency, with more than 20 million of the 29 million votes cast.

Mr. Khamenei’s sermon at Friday prayers, rebroadcast across Iran, capped 10 days of commemorations marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Mr. Khomeini, who died in 1989.

In his references to the student satirists, Mr. Khamenei appeared to take a leaf out of President Khatami’s book, saying that it would be wrong to ”defame all students” because ”two or three, either deliberately or through ignorance,” had insulted Islam.

In demanding that the students not be subjected to summary justice, as many opponents of Islamic rule have been since 1979, Mr. Khamenei described his instruction that they be given a proper trial as a fatwa, a religious decree that is considered binding on all Muslims.

But he coupled this with a demand for a policy change by the Education and Culture Ministers, Khatami allies who have licensed reformist newspapers, broadened intellectual freedoms in schools and colleges, and otherwise worked to soften Islamic rule.

”I expected more from the country’s cultural managers,” he said. ”I do not want the cultural atmosphere to be such that a person feels he can offer insults with impunity, even where such insults occur through carelessness.”

He added: ”I seriously call on the cultural officials to rethink and revise their policies.”

The mixed signals left Iranians to ponder where the balance of Mr. Khamenei’s message lay. Among Khatami supporters, the prevailing view was Mr. Khamenei and his allies saw profound dangers in a new showdown. In this, the reformers said, there were echoes of 1979, when the Shah decided not to fight for his throne. Like the Shah, they said, the clerics in power now either abhor the prospect of a bloodbath, or fear that trying to settle the issue by force could end with the army, the police and even the Revolutionary Guards, the main bulwark of Islamic rule, splintering between conservatives and reformers.

In any case, Mr. Khamenei’s decision to hold out an olive branch came as a relief to Iranians, who had braced themselves for a new showdown on Teheran’s campuses after the conservatives took up the issue of the student satire.

After quelling the July riots by busing tens of thousands of supporters into Teheran for a show of force, Islamic hard-liners went on a broad offensive, holding secret trials of some student leaders, banning a leading reformist newspaper, and warning of further crackdowns through the speeches of hard-line conservative clerics.

Last week, they appeared to have found a pretext for a new crackdown in the publication of a satire in an obscure campus magazine. The magazine, Wave, was circulated among students at the Amir Kabir University in Teheran, a scientific college, and took the form of an imaginary dialogue between a student and the Imam of the Age, an Islamic saint whose reappearance on earth ushers in a new age of justice, which is a major tenet of belief among Iran’s Shiite Muslims.

In the dialogue, the student asked the Imam to delay his re-appearance for a few days to allow the student to complete exams and other chores.

The affair quickly mushroomed, with hard-line newspapers running banner headlines, conservative students staging protests demanding that the authors be hanged, and a senior police commander saying he would personally carry out any sentence imposed by Muslim clerics.

Sensing the risk of a replay of July’s events, when police units joined with Islamic militia gangs in an attack on a student dormitory, killing at least two students, President Khatami stepped in with a condemnation of the satire as ”insulting” to Islam, but said the greater offense was the hard-liners’ efforts to turn ”a small wave into a storm.”

After Mr. Khamenei’s sermon today, the risk of the affair getting out of hand appeared to have been contained. But there were doubts as to how long a truce could last, given the countdown to parliamentary elections in February, when President Khatami hopes to win a majority that would strengthen the reform drive. In recent weeks, conservative clerics have vowed to use their powers in a powerful overseer body, the Council of Guardians, to reject any reformist candidates they deem threatening to Islamic rule.

Growing Uncertainty in India About Nuclear Testing

By JOHN F. BURNS

May 28, 1998

NEW DELHI, India — Only two weeks after India detonated the last of five underground nuclear tests to popular acclaim, the Hindu nationalists who lead the government ran into a storm of protest in Parliament Wednesday that reflected growing disquiet among Indians about the risks and costs of acquiring nuclear weapons.

“The nuclear tests are a great achievement for India, no doubt, but we can’t even supply ordinary drinking water and electrical power to the people of this country,” said Indrajit Gupta, a Communist who was interior minister in the coalition government that ruled for 20 months until March, when a new, 14-party coalition headed by the Hindu nationalists was voted into power. “Where does all this lead to, how does it all add up?” he said.

The scene in Parliament, meeting for the first time since the tests, appeared to dismay Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and other senior Hindu nationalists, who listened in stony-faced silence. Other signs that the wave of support for the Hindu nationalists since the tests might be breaking have included several incidents in the capital in which angry crowds in areas deprived of electrical power for days attacked electricity sub-stations, smashing equipment and beating employees.

In one attack on Monday that was reported by many Indian newspapers Wednesday, a mob in a northern district of New Delhi that had gone without power for 15 days, in temperatures above 115 degrees, ransacked a local office of the main Hindu nationalist organization, the Bharatiya Janata Party, whose parliamentary leader is Vajpayee. The attack came 24 hours before the United States, implementing economic sanctions announced after the nuclear blasts, forced a delay in $865 million in World Bank loans for the upgrading of India’s badly outdated, vastly underpowered electricity grid.

Vajpayee entered Parliament in a subdued mood that contrasted with the triumphalism displayed by many Hindu nationalists after the tests. He noted that his government had declared a “voluntary moratorium” on tests, and renewed an earlier offer by India to sign a pact with Pakistan that would bind each nation not to be the first to use nuclear weapons against each other. He also repeated a longstanding Indian offer to foreswear nuclear arms as part of a global pact binding the United States and other nuclear powers to abandon their arsenals.

“India is now a nuclear weapons state; this is a reality that cannot be denied,” the Indian leader said. “It is India’s due, the right of one-sixth of human kind. Our strengthened capability adds to our sense of responsibility. We do not intend to use these weapons for aggression or for mounting threats against any country; these are weapons of self-defense, to insure that India is not subjected to nuclear threats or coercion. We do not intend to engage in an arms race.”

Immediately after the tests, with polls showing popular support for the blasts running at more than 90 percent, opposition politicians offered only mild dissent. But in today’s speeches, carried throughout India on live television, they accused the government of abandoning Gandhi’s legacy of nonviolence, of isolating India in the international community, and of courting economic disaster because of the trade, banking and aid sanctions imposed by the United States and other nations.

The opposition leaders also accused the Hindu nationalists of “inventing” the threats posed to India by Pakistan and China to justify the tests, and to artificially increase their popularity with a view to holding a new election. In so doing, several opposition spokesmen said, the Vajpayee government had forged an anti-India axis of three nations, the United States, China and Pakistan, that had all shown signs of wanting stable, friendly relations with India.

“Before the mushroom cloud had died down, you and your ministers were talking about nuclear weaponization, about mounting warheads on missiles, about unfinished agendas, and about a fourth war with Pakistan,” said Palianappan Chidambaram, a Harvard-educated lawyer who served as finance minister in the previous government. “And if anybody asks why, where is the threat, they are branded as a traitor. That is the depth of your political cynicism.”

In the March vote, the nationalists registered their best result in 50 years of campaigning. But they won only 26 percent of the popular vote and a little more than a third of the seats in Parliament, forcing them to round up a dozen smaller parties in a ruling coalition. Their minority status made them vulnerable to parliamentary maneuvering by the Congress Party and other long-established groups that oppose the nationalist creed of Hindu supremacy, considering it a threat to India’s minority groups, especially the country’s 120 million Muslims.

In today’s debate, leading opposition figures even accused the government of risking war through a spate of aggressive warnings about India’s enhanced military power that leading Hindu nationalists, including Lal Krishna Advani, the interior minister, have issued to Pakistan.

Advani said last week that the tests had “brought about a qualitatively new stage” in relations between India and Pakistan, and that India would adopt a more “pro-active” policy in its dealings with Pakistan, especially over the long-running war that Indian troops have been fighting with Pakistan-backed insurgents in the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Chidambaram, the former finance minister, spoke of “people in this government who would travel down the road to war.” And Natwar Singh, a senior Congress Party leader who is a former foreign minister, noted that one of Vajpayee’s ministers had suggested that India was prepared to send troops on “hot pursuit” operations into the part of Kashmir that has been held by Pakistan since the partition of British India in 1947.

“Do you know what the consequences will be?” Singh said. “The United Nations Security Council will be summoned within minutes, and mandatory sanctions will be imposed on India.”

But the central theme of many attacks was that the Hindu nationalists have betrayed the interests of the 350 million Indians who live in dire poverty, as well many others in this nation of 980 million people who struggle with the daily consequences of India’s economic backwardness. While some speakers dwelled on the possible cost of sanctions to India, which some Western economists have put as high as $20 billion, others cited the huge costs involved in developing, deploying and maintaining an arsenal of nuclear missiles.

Singh quoted from an Indian newspaper commentary describing India after the tests as “a poor country with a few troublesome toys,” and said that the Hindu nationalists were inviting the same fate for India that befell the Soviet Union. “The Soviet Union had 10,000 nuclear warheads; you have, what, 5, maybe 6?” Singh said. “And yet the Soviet Union disintegrated. Why? Because the economic cost of nuclear weaponization was too great.”

Copyright 2004 New York Times Company