TEHRAN, Iran- 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, train for suicide attacks against Israelis or 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.
Mohammad Ali Samadi, the spokesman, said the group had no ties to the government.
And Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said recently that the group’s campaign to sign up volunteers for suicide attacks had “nothing to do with the ruling Islamic establishment.”
Yet despite the government’s disavowal of the group and some of its programs, there are indications the suicide attack campaign has at least some legitimacy within the government.
“That some people do such a thing is the result of their sentiments. It has nothing to do with the government and the system,” Asefi said.
Since June, the registration forms for volunteer suicide commandos have appeared on Tehran’s streets and university campuses, with no sign Iran’s government is trying to stop the shadowy movement.
On Nov. 12, the day Iranians traditionally hold pro-Palestinian demonstrations, a spokesman for the Headquarters for Commemorating Martyrs of the Global Islamic Movement said the movement signed up at least 4,000 new volunteers.
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,” 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 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 believed any of Samadi’s volunteers had crossed into Iraq or into Israel.
In general, Iran portrays Israel as its main nemesis and backs anti-Israeli groups like Lebanon’s Hezbollah. It says 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.
Samadi described the movement as independent, with no ties to groups like al-Qaida.
Samadi claimed 30,000 volunteers have signed up, and 20,000 of them have been chosen for training. Volunteers had already carried out suicide operations against military targets inside Israel, he said.
As devoted Muslims, members of his group were simply fulfilling their religious obligations as laid out by Khomeini, he said.
In his book of religious directives, Khomeini says: “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.”