Advantage, Norway!

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Iran Focus: London, Nov. 8 – When Iran is angry, it shows. You can tell by the way senior officials and clerics renew their tirades against the West, and cloned articles appear simultaneously in two dozen state-run newspapers and news agencies denouncing a new ploy against the Islamic Republic. Iran Focus

London, Nov. 8 – When Iran is angry, it shows. You can tell by the way senior officials and clerics renew their tirades against the West, and cloned articles appear simultaneously in two dozen state-run newspapers and news agencies denouncing a new ploy against the Islamic Republic.

The target of Tehran’s diplomatic fulmination this time is not U.S. President George W. Bush, just off the long campaign trail in the midterm elections that gave Iran’s rulers a breathing space as Iraq monopolized America’s headlines and debates.

Nor are the Iranian clerics venting their wrath at Security Council diplomats huddling right now in New York to hammer out an agreement on the text of another Iran resolution. The ayatollahs are not too perturbed by the prospects of fickle sanctions that may survive in the text after repeated Russian and Chinese objections and amendments.

The radicals occupying the seat of power in Tehran are directing their fury at the serene and peaceful nation of Norway, an unlikely adversary for Iran’s Islamic theocracy. But Norway has aroused the ayatollahs’ wrath, because lawmakers in the oil-rich Scandinavian nation have invited an Iranian opposition leader, Maryam Rajavi, to Oslo for talks on Iran.

Rajavi heads a coalition of dissident groups that Tehran regards as its bete noir, and hosting her, in the ayatollahs’ books, is the closest thing in diplomatic gestures to cardinal sin.

The Norwegian ambassador was immediately summoned to the Foreign Ministry to hear an angry harangue, while the Iranian envoy in Oslo took the unusual step of issuing threats against Norway at a meeting with Olav Akselsen, who chairs the parliament’s foreign affairs committee. Inviting Rajavi, the ambassador warned a startled Akselsen, would lead to “a serious deterioration of relations” between Tehran and Oslo.

The Norwegian parliamentarian took no comfort in hearing these words from the mouth of a man representing what the United States calls “the world’s most active state sponsor of terrorism”. When words of the meeting reached the media, the Norwegian government felt obliged to react.

“No embassy has the right to interfere in the meetings planned by Parliament or any other body; this is unacceptable”, Norway’s Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Raymond Johansen, told reporters, adding that such “threats” would “lead to nothing”.

Johansen ridiculed Tehran’s threat by saying that there wasn’t much Tehran could retaliate against. “We do not have particularly cordial ties [with Tehran”>. They have an ambassador here and we have one there”, he said.

For Rajavi, Tehran’s frantic efforts to have the visit called off might have been a blessing in disguise. Her visit, which began on Monday, has drawn unusual media coverage, with Norway’s state-run television channel reporting her arrival at the top of its evening news bulletin.

The Norwegian news agency NTB quoted Rajavi as telling members of the foreign affairs committee in Norway’s parliament on Tuesday, “The mullahs and their regime are not just a threat to the Iranian people, but a threat to all humanity”.

In Tehran, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki was visibly dismayed. He told a visiting French politician on Tuesday that Rajavi’s group was “attempting to undermine relations between Iran and France”, the official Iranian news agency reported.

Asking Paris to crack down further on Rajavi, Iran’s top diplomat voiced alarm that “some EU member states have hosted meetings” with the opposition leader.

The Foreign Minister’s concern was echoed by an array of other Iranian officials, including the Speaker of parliament, the Minister of Justice, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s spokesman.

The angry statements came in the wake of another diplomatic incident that broke out between Tehran and Brussels last month, when Rajavi was hosted by the Belgian Senate.

Tehran is clearly feeling the heat. Last month, Kazem Jalali, a senior deputy in Iran’s Majlis, announced that the parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee had completed a review of the Islamic Republic’s policies on the People’s Mojahedin, the principal group in Rajavi’s coalition.

“We have studied the group’s activities and Iran’s policies towards it, and we studied the arrangements and measures that Iran can adopt to enhance the country’s security against these counter-revolutionary moves”, Jalali told reporters after committee members held a long meeting with the chief of Iran’s secret service and his deputies.

On another front, Iran has been pressing its allies in the Iraqi government to expel several thousand members of the People’s Mojahedin who are under U.S. guard in a camp in eastern Iraq.

Iran’s anxiety is real, and justified. Contrary to the image of strength that Iranian leaders strive to cultivate, the clerical regime stands on shaky grounds. The faltering economy has failed to alleviate the daily suffering of the average Iranian, despite all-time record oil revenues. Discontent, spurred by government incompetence and stifling repression, is on the rise. On the international scene, Tehran has never found itself in such isolation since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. The last thing Iran’s rulers can afford is to see their charismatic foe under the limelight.

Norway is not a major European power, and not a member state of the European Union. But in refusing to give in to Tehran’s diplomatic bullying this week, Oslo set a refreshing example for other Western governments.

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