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Iranians Unaware Castro Has Taken Up Their Cause

HAVANA (AP) -- Fidel Castro's warnings of a looming war between the United States and Iran have Cuba buzzing with fears of nuclear Armageddon. But the revolutionary icon's alarming predictions have barely registered in the place where it might matter most: Iran.

The former Cuban leader emerged from four years of seclusion in July, at one point predicting that war would break out before the end of the World Cup soccer tournament, which is now nearly two months past.

Since then, he has described U.S. and Israeli efforts to ensure Iran cannot build a nuclear weapon -- and Iran's defiant insistence it is merely developing nuclear energy, and has a right to do so.
Castro noted some Israeli and U.S. analysts have hinted at a pre-emptive strike on Iran, and he says the standoff has put the world on the brink of annihilation.

"Even a nuclear conflict between two of the weakest nuclear powers would be enough," Castro wrote, "and the human species would disappear."

The nuclear alarms have put the 84-year-old ex-president back in the world's gaze. but the doomsday discussion has received almost no coverage -- official or otherwise in Iran itself. Of 20 people interviewed in Iran's capital over several days, none was aware of Castro's campaign, and many didn't know what to make of it.

Masoud Kermani, a 29-year-old teacher, said it could mean the former Cuban leader had found God.

"When people get old and are approaching death, they talk about doomsday more than before," Kermani said in downtown Tehran. "Castro, after a long period of denying religion, now is talking like a saint."

Others said they had not heard about Castro's predictions, but did not dismiss the threat.

"Iran should take any comments seriously, no matter who is talking about it," said Mohammed Reza Razeqi, a 23-year-old university student.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast offered a diplomatic response, saying it was understandable that some were unnerved, but, "We see no chance of there being a military operation in the region."

"Our friends need not be concerned," Mehmanparast insisted. "Iran is powerful enough."
While Iranians might be sanguine, Cubans say they are concerned.

"Yes, of course I am worried," said Roberto Moreno, a 47-year-old worker at a state-run shop in Havana. "Fidel is not crazy, and in political matters he is seldom wrong."

Castro is a longtime ally of Iran, and visited the country in 2001. But he is little known by younger Iranians, and Iranian media coverage in recent years has been mostly limited to speculation about his health.

Castro stepped down -- first temporarily, then permanently -- in July 2006 after an illness that nearly killed him. He stayed almost entirely out of the public eye for four years while his now 79-year-old brother Raul took the reins of power.

Since his sudden reappearance, Castro has urged Cuban diplomats, economists -- even workers at the state aquarium -- to join his crusade.

Even Elian Gonzalez, who as a 6-year-old boy was at the center of a nasty international custody battle pitting Cuba against his U.S. relatives, made a televised plea to U.S. President Barack Obama to stave off nuclear war.

Cuban state media have published every word -- often illustrated with nuclear missiles and headlines that warn of "The Looming War."

Castro says this week is particularly dangerous because of a report Monday by the International Atomic Energy Agency in which it complains that its monitoring of Iran's nuclear activities is being hampered, which the ex-Cuban president says could lead to U.N. sanctions.

Castro told thousands of students assembled on the steps of the University of Havana on Friday that such sanctions could give the U.S. and Israel the right to intercept and search Iranian ships. He says Iran will never accept that, and the resulting confrontation that could go nuclear.

It fell to this distant Caribbean island, Castro said, to save the world.

"Faced with the skeptics, our duty is to keep up the fight," Castro told the crowd. "I am convinced that a good number of people are becoming conscious of the reality."
Even in Cuba, there are doubters.

"We have so many problems here and he is talking about over there," said Nelson Rojas, a 57-year-old teacher. "I don't even know where that country is, and I don't care." Many Cubans, however, said they were taking the warnings seriously.

Belkis Perez, a 38-year-old museum worker, said Castro's speeches had unnerved her 12-year-old daughter Maria, who was walking alongside her on a Havana street.

"I am scared it may be true that the world is coming to an end," said the girl. "I think we should all do whatever makes us happy. We should enjoy ourselves in case we are in the Last Days."