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Iran Report: February 17, 2006


17 February 2006, Volume 9, Number 5

GOVERNMENT SPINS NUCLEAR CRISIS AS ELITES QUESTION TEHRAN'S EFFORTS. It is a good time for the Iranian government to appeal to nationalist sentiments. The country is marking the 27th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, devout Shi'ite Muslims are commemorating Ashura, and there is an ongoing furor over the Danish newspaper publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. But Tehran is reluctant to leave anything to chance.

On 4 February, the governing board of the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) voted to report Iran to the UN Security Council over its nuclear program. Wasting no time, the Iranian government the same day instructed the national media on how it should portray the country's nuclear diplomacy.

Some of the country's political elites, however, have raised questions about this issue, suggesting that Iran is heading down a potentially dangerous path.

Offering Comfort Through The Official Line

The media advisory on covering the nuclear issue was issued by the Secretariat of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, roozonline reported. Referring to the IAEA decision, the advisory said the media must not portray the country's diplomatic efforts as unsuccessful or say that the country suffered a loss.

Warning against discouraging the Iranian people, the advisory called for stories that avoid stirring fear or worry, and that in no way suggest diplomatic efforts had reached a dead end.

The impact of the media advisory soon became evident. Mustafa Kavakebian, the managing director of the reformist "Mardom Salari" daily, said on 7 February that Iran was being reported to the Security Council for political rather than legal reasons, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. Kavakebian was cited as adding that "hegemonic powers" were trying to block Iran's rightful access to nuclear technology.

Rajabali Mazrui, the head of the Iranian Journalists Guild, said in a similar spirit that the country had not closed the door to negotiations. IRNA cited him as saying: "We should hold talks with the world and European states. The atmosphere of talks should be one that would build confidence on both sides."

In Vienna on 8 February, Iran's envoy to the IAEA downplayed the issue even more, saying at most, the Security Council would call on Iran to continue its cooperation with the UN nuclear agency, but no more. Ali Asqar Soltanieh went on to say that the council in fact cannot do anything if IAEA Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei's report on Iran is not presented at the March meeting of the agency's governing board, IRNA reported. There has been no indication, however, that the report will not be delivered as planned.

Few Friends In Moscow And Beijing

Soltanieh went on to tell IRNA on 8 February that Russia and China oppose Security Council involvement in the issue. But some observers might have reason to doubt Soltanieh's confidence: Tehran apparently miscalculated by counting on Moscow and Beijing to block its referral.

Nevertheless, it is reasonable for Iran to suggest that, Security Council referral notwithstanding, options still remain. Officials in Russia and China have stressed they would like to keep the issue under the purview of the IAEA. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said on 4 February the Security Council is simply being notified, RIA Novosti reported.

Ivanov also referred to a planned 16 February meeting with Iranian officials to discuss the possibility of uranium being enriched in Russia, used as fuel in Iran, and then returned back to Russia for reprocessing or storage. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made a similar point on 6 February, Interfax reported.

Russian legislator Andrei Kokoshin, who chairs the State Duma CIS Affairs Committee, said on 8 February that Russia and China, as well as India, have not given up on persuading Iran to resolve the situation, Interfax-Military News Agency reported. Kokoshin emphasized the importance of Iran accepting the Russian nuclear fuel proposal, saying, "It is now important that Tehran makes a final decision on this project as soon as possible."

Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing said on 7 February that he hopes for a diplomatic solution, Xinhua reported. Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan added on the same day that Beijing hopes to see the crisis resolved through negotiations that take place within the "IAEA framework," and went on to call for "restraint," patience," and "flexibility," Xinhua reported.

Kong explained China's vote in favor of the resolution, saying, "We believe this resolution is asking Iran to fulfill its obligations and commitments, but it is not transferring the IAEA's responsibility on handling the Iran nuclear issue to the UN Security Council." Kong added that a Foreign Ministry colleague, Zhang Yan, traveled to Tehran on 1 February to discuss Beijing's stance and expectations.

Iranians Question Foreign Policy

Iran's leading officials and political figures are united in the desire to master the peaceful use of nuclear energy. There is less unity, however, regarding the diplomatic efforts of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's administration.

Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani, who was secretary of the Supreme National Security Council for 16 years and who still serves on the council as a representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was for some time Iran's top nuclear negotiator. He made it clear at a 9 February speech in Tehran that he is unimpressed with the current state of affairs.

"Shouting alone will not help us to achieve our goals," he said, according to the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA). He added, "To stand up to our enemies, we need a multidimensional, proactive and dynamic strategy." Rohani recommended widening Iran's "circle of consultants" -- in other words, bringing in people with better experience, diplomatic skills, and negotiating abilities.

This is not the first time that Rohani has disparaged the diplomatic gaffes of Ahmadinejad's team. Rohani and Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani raised similar doubts about the executive branch in October, giving voice to the concerns of many Iranians.

And these two are not alone. The National Trust Party, which was established by former Parliament Speaker Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi after the 2005 presidential election, has held several meetings recently to discuss the nuclear issue.

The outcome, National Trust spokesman Ismail Gerami-Moqaddam said in the 7 February "Etemad-i Melli" party newspaper, is that the country can resolve its diplomatic difficulties by turning to elder statesmen like Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Karrubi, and Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, the former president.

National Trust also called for a switch from the policies initiated by the current Supreme National Security Council secretary and chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, to the previous policy of "active diplomacy."

Even before the 4 February IAEA decision, concern in Iran was palpable. The reformist minority in the legislature met with Hashemi-Rafsanjani on 31 January and urged him to act. Parliamentarian Mohammad Reza Tabesh said he and his colleagues told Hashemi-Rafsanjani they believed that under the previous administration, the nuclear issue had been developing normally, "Sharq" reported on 1 February. "At a time when an opportunity to reach some agreements was starting to [take] shape, the process was disrupted... and previous strategies were disregarded as new developments unfolded," Tabesh said.

Another prominent reformist, Mohsen Armin of the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Party, also spoke dismissively of Iran's diplomatic efforts. "It was perfectly obvious from the start that countries like Russia and China would advertise support for Iran until the last minute to take the greatest possible concessions from America and Europe and ultimately make deals with the two powers and advance their national interests," he said in the 1 February edition of the reformist "Sharq" paper.

Armin said anybody with a basic knowledge of international relations could have figured this out, and added the Ahmadinejad government must adopt the strategies followed by its reformist predecessor.

Concern emanated from the other side of the aisle, as well. A conservative legislator from Tehran, Mohammad Khoshchehreh, said the country's diplomacy and crisis management must be reviewed, the reformist paper "Etemad" reported on 1 February. Management should be the primary concern, he said, because this will facilitate threat-reduction efforts.

Khoshchehreh called for amending the "optimistic perspective that believes nothing will happen" and reviewing the "group that speaks in simplistic terms of world affairs." It is simplistic, he continued, to think of Russia and China as Iran's allies. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN LIMITS NUCLEAR COOPERATION... Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board voted on 4 February to report Tehran to the UN Security Council that his country "has stopped all voluntary measures it had undertaken in the past 2 1/2-to-three years," Radio Farda reported. "We have no commitment to the Additional Protocol any more and our activities will continue our peaceful, nuclear activities based on the NPT [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty]." President Mahmud Ahmadinejad sent a letter the same day to Atomic Energy Organization of Iran chief Gholamreza Aqazadeh in which he calls for suspension of the country's "voluntary implementation" of the Additional Protocol to the NPT, state television and IRNA reported. However, the letter continues, Iran's cooperation with the IAEA will continue within the framework of the NPT and the Safeguards Agreement, as will the country's peaceful nuclear activities. Legislation passed by the Iranian legislature in November calls for a resumption of all enrichment-related activities should the country be reported to the Security Council. Ahmadinejad said in Tehran on 5 February that he will not permit inspections of military installations, state television reported. Ahmadinejad added that there will be a pro-nuclear rally on 11 February, which coincides with Ashura, the commemoration of Imam Husayn's martyrdom. (Bill Samii)

...AFTER IAEA REPORTS IRAN TO UN SECURITY COUNCIL... The IAEA governing board decided in a 27-3 vote on 4 February to report Iran to the UN Security Council, international news agencies reported. Cuba, Syria, and Venezuela were the only countries on the 35-member board who opposed the resolution, while Algeria, Belarus, Indonesia, Libya, and South Africa abstained. In order to reassure the international community that its nuclear program is "exclusively peaceful," according to the resolution, Iran should suspend all activities related to uranium enrichment and reprocessing; reconsider building a heavy-water reactor; ratify and implement the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and behave until that time as if the protocol were in effect. The resolution also urges Iran to comply with earlier IAEA calls for improved transparency by providing access to individuals, procurement documentation, dual-use equipment, and military workshops. (Bill Samii)

...BUT IMMEDIATE SECURITY COUNCIL ACTION IS UNLIKELY. The Security Council is unlikely to act before March, when the IAEA governing board will meet to discuss the details of how to proceed on the issue. "The Washington Post" on 4 February quoted Western diplomats who said sanctions are not currently being considered. "This sends a further strong message to the Islamic Republic of Iran," Radio Farda quoted the British ambassador to the IAEA in Vienna, Peter Jenkins, as saying on 4 February. "It's a message of concern at developments in Iran since early January, and of continuing lack of confidence in Iran's nuclear intentions." (Bill Samii)

RUSSIAN DEFENSE MINISTER CALLS FOR TALKS WITH IRAN. Russia continues to favor a diplomatic approach to dealing with Iran, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said in Munich on 5 February, arguing that "nothing beats the IAEA mechanism," Russian news agencies reported. He argued that it nonetheless would be "a very bad sign" if international inspectors were expelled from the country. "Iran is our neighbor, and we are not interested in aggravating the situation in that region, which is already explosive," Ivanov stressed. When asked by the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" whether he agrees with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's observation that Iran is the foremost sponsor of terrorism, Ivanov replied that this is a matter for debate. He argued that it was not Iranian nationals who carried out the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, and that Iran does not sponsor "terrorist activities" in Chechnya, as some other, unnamed countries in the Middle and Near East do. Meanwhile, unnamed sources close to Russian-Iranian negotiations told Interfax in Moscow that Federal Atomic Energy Agency head Sergei Kiriyenko will visit Iran in late February. An Iranian delegation is expected in Moscow on February 16 to discuss Russia's uranium-enrichment proposal. (Patrick Moore)

RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER WARNS AGAINST 'THREATENING' IRAN. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on a visit to Athens, Greece, on 6 February that "at the current stage, it is important not to make guesses about what will happen and even more important not to make threats" in the dispute regarding Iran's nuclear program, Russian news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 February 2006). "What we must underline is that...the International Atomic Energy Agency [has made its decisions]. The UN Security Council has been informed, and it will not take any action in the immediate future," he added. (Patrick Moore)

PUTIN CALLS DECISION TO REPORT IRAN 'BALANCED.' Russian President Vladimir Putin told journalists in Moscow on 7 February that the International Atomic Energy Agency's recent decision to report Iran to the UN Security Council is "balanced," Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 and 7 February 2006). He added: "We will explain the essence of these decisions to our Iranian partners." Putin stressed that "an essential point" of the matter is that the IAEA has not yet actually referred Iran to the high UN body. "The Security Council will be briefed on [the state of] joint work on the Iranian [nuclear] dossier. The...dossier [itself] has not been referred to the Security Council. This...offers an opportunity to keep looking for ways of settling this issue," he said. Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry said in a 7 February statement that Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Saltanov and Iranian Ambassador to Russia Gholamreza Ansari discussed the need for solving problems in the Middle East by political means, mosnews.com reported. (Patrick Moore)

RUSSIA'S UN AMBASSADOR WANTS PROOF OF IRAN'S NUCLEAR CAPABILITY. Russian Ambassador to the UN Andrei Denisov called on unnamed governments on 9 February to provide "strong evidence" that Iran has nuclear-weapon capability so that the Security Council can take measures to protect nuclear nonproliferation, international news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 February 2006). He stressed that no action should be taken against Iran until the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) submits its report, which is expected by 6 March. Meanwhile in Moscow, Vladimir Kuchinov, who heads the Federal Atomic Energy Agency's foreign-relations section, noted that "the latest steps taken by...the government of Iran -- including announcements and hidden threats -- cause us a certain disappointment.... The problem must be resolved calmly, by achieving certain compromises." Elsewhere, Middle East envoy Kalugin told Ekho Moskvy radio that "certain forces" in the Tehran government might be using the controversy over the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad "to show the world community what could happen if Iran is ostracized." (Patrick Moore)

RUSSIA TO GO AHEAD WITH IRANIAN MISSILE DEAL. Mikhail Dmitriyev, who heads the Federal Military-Technical Cooperation Service, said in Moscow on 9 February that the value of Russian arms exports in 2005 was just over $6.1 billion, which is a record for recent years, Russian news agencies reported. Total arms contracts amount to "$23 billion, which is comparable to the Soviet era," he added. He also said that Russia will go ahead with plans to sell Tor-M1 ground-to-air anti-aircraft missile systems to Iran. "As you know, we have a contract on the delivery of anti-aircraft missile systems to Iran. There is no reason not to fulfill this contract," he said. Dmitriyev argued that "the contract on the supplies of air-defense systems, which are of a purely defensive nature, has been concluded. No other talks are being held." The United States, the EU, and Israel have sharply criticized the missile deal, which is reportedly valued at $700 million and was concluded in December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7, 12, and 16 December 2005). Russian officials have repeatedly denied media reports that they have also negotiated with Iran over the sale of S-300 air-defense systems. (Patrick Moore)

IRAN CALLS FOR EMERGENCY CARTOON SUMMIT. Referring to a Danish newspaper's publication in September of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki has called in a 6 February letter to Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, whose country currently chairs the Organization of the Islamic Conference, for an emergency meeting to discuss alleged western Islamophobia, IRNA reported. Mottaki described insults to Muslim values as "a main challenge" confronting Islamic states. Iranian parliamentarian Mohammad Taqi Rahbar, who serves on the legislature's Culture Committee, said ambassadors of several European countries will be invited to hear the legislature's protest against the cartoons, Fars News Agency reported. He added that Iranian delegations might be sent to these countries to complain as well. Rahbar recommended trade restrictions, and then added that Saudi Arabia should "shoulder greater responsibility." (Bill Samii)

MOB ATTACKS AUSTRIAN EMBASSY IN TEHRAN. University students who are members of the Basij gathered in front of the Austrian Embassy in Tehran on 6 February to protest what they see as sacrilege towards the Prophet Muhammad, IRNA reported. The protest relates to a Danish newspaper's publication of images of the prophet; Austria currently holds the rotating European Union presidency. According to ILNA, the protestors also objected to the international community's decision to report Iran to the UN Security Council for its nuclear activities. The demonstration became violent, ILNA added, after the demonstrators attacked the embassy. Police reportedly intervened and dispersed the mob. In Vienna, Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik advised Austrian embassies in countries -- including Iran -- that could experience heightened tensions over the cartoons to request enhanced security measures from their host governments, according to the official website of the Austrian Presidency of the European Union (http://www.eu2006.at). (Bill Samii)

MOB ATTACKS DANISH EMBASSY IN TEHRAN... Some 200-400 people throwing rocks and incendiary devices attacked the Danish Embassy in Tehran on 6 February, Danmarks Radio P1 reported. Only one of the 20 "petrol bombs" reportedly cleared the embassy wall. (Bill Samii)

...AND TRADE BAN INTRODUCED. Also in Tehran, Commerce Minister Masud Mir-Kazemi said the government has decided to halt trade with Denmark, ISNA and IRNA reported. He said the trade balance is $280 million (per year, presumably), and only $4 million of that consists of Iranian exports to Denmark. "Denmark was the first country to publish the cartoons, but the Danish authorities exploited freedom of speech as an excuse to do nothing," Mir-Kazemi said. "President Ahmadinejad, therefore, issued instructions for setting up a special committee to decide how we should respond to these countries." He added that no more Danish goods will be ordered and the Iranian customs authorities will not release Danish goods that are already in ports. According to IRNA, furthermore, negotiations with Danish firms will be suspended and existing contracts will be reviewed. Fees on ships docking in Iran will be raised. IRNA added that Iranian firms have three months in which to find substitutes from other countries before the regulations will be enforced. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN MOB ATTACKS NORWAY'S EMBASSY... A group of Iranians angered over the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a number of European newspapers attacked the Norwegian Embassy in Tehran on 7 February, NRK and other news agencies reported. They threw stones and a Molotov cocktail that caused a fire inside the building. They also chanted anti-Norwegian slogans. According to dpa, Iranian security personnel prevented the mob from entering the embassy compound. (Bill Samii)

...AND OCCUPIES DENMARK'S... For the second day in row, the Danish Embassy in Tehran was attacked by people protesting the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, international news agencies reported. According to IRNA, 300 slogan-chanting demonstrators attacked the embassy, throwing stones and incendiary devices, and then occupied it. The police told IRNA they forced the occupiers to leave. According to an IRNA dispatch that came out 10 minutes earlier, Tehran Governor Vajiollah Aqataqi persuaded the crowd to disperse, while a few people stayed behind to repair the damage. Tehran journalist Fariborz Soroush told Radio Farda that the 7 February demonstration was not on the same scale as the previous day's, and he added that police are in control of the situation. (Bill Samii)

...PROMPTING DEMANDS FOR PROTECTION, COMPENSATION. In Copenhagen, Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller telephoned his Iranian counterpart, Manuchehr Mottaki, to demand better protection of the embassy, Danmarks Radio reported. An anonymous Danish official described Moeller as protesting "in the strongest possible terms over the lack of protection despite warnings," and reminding Mottaki of a host country's responsibilities. Mottaki responded by demanding compensation for the harm done to Muslim sensitivities, IRNA cited Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi as saying. In Brussels on 7 February, the European Commission condemned a state-imposed Iranian boycott of trade with Denmark, AFP reported. The commission added that Iran-EU trade talks will remain suspended until the controversy over the Iranian nuclear program is resolved. (Bill Samii)

VIENNA CALLS FOR EXPLANATION FROM TEHRAN. The Austrian Foreign Ministry on 7 February summoned Iranian Ambassador Mohsen Nabavi for an explanation of the previous day's attack on the Austrian Embassy in Tehran, IRNA reported. Nabavi reportedly expressed his regrets and said he will follow up on the event. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN LEADERS REMAIN CRITICAL OF CARTOONS. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on 7 February that the continuing Muslim protests are against "some diabolical hands involved in this diabolical affair," dpa, radio Farda, and Iranian state television reported. Khamenei described the cartoons as a "conspiracy by the Zionists to cause tensions between Muslims and Christians." He said these are not anti-Christian protests. He questioned why the denial of the Jewish Holocaust is not protected as freedom of speech, whereas "insulting more than 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide" is protected in these terms. Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani on 7 February described the cartoons as part of an anti-Muslim conspiracy, IRNA reported. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi demanded a European apology, as well as compensation, IRNA reported, but he also called on his compatriots to control themselves. On 6 February, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad described the leaders of countries that defend publishing the controversial cartoons as "prisoners of a bunch of blood-sucking Zionists," IRNA reported. (Bill Samii)

PROTESTS CONTINUE IN FRONT OF DANISH EMBASSY IN TEHRAN. Radio Farda reported that on 8 February a group of people referring to themselves as members of the Basij militia, which is connected with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at the Danish Embassy in Tehran. The protests, which took place outside the embassy on 6 and 7 February as well, reflect public anger over the publication in Denmark in September of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, which many Muslims have criticized as blasphemous. But Radio Farda cited Finnish television correspondent Eva Vix as saying 99 percent of the Iranian people do not back such actions, and the issue is not very important to them. Fars News Agency described the 8 February protest outside the Danish Embassy as simply comprising "dozens of young Iranians" staging a demonstration. The agency said demonstrators called for the closure of the embassy, and police prevented their effort to enter the compound. The demonstrators also shouted "Death to America" and "Death to Israel." (Bill Samii)

NEW THREATS LEVELED AGAINST DENMARK IN IRAN. The spokesman for the hard-line Hizbullah pressure group in Iran, who was identified only as Bigdeli, said the firebombing of the Danish Embassy in Tehran has nothing to do with his organization, emrouz.info, a website linked with the Islamic Iran Participation Party, reported on 8 February. He said the attack on the embassy is just the beginning, and people will hear about international threats to Danish assets. Bigdeli added that his organization is not involved with international activities. He concluded by saying Hizbullah is readying plans for a response to the enemies of Islam. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER DOWNPLAYS DANISH TRADE BAN. Referring to the Commerce Ministry announcement that it is banning trade with Danish firms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 February 2006), Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said in Tehran that the government cannot force the private sector to engage with a specific country, IRNA reported. He went on to say that it is up to Iranians to decide with whom they will have trade relations, and Iranian merchants decided independently to cut commercial ties with Denmark as a reaction to the publication of the controversial caricatures. Regarding the violation of Danish Embassy property by Iranian demonstrators, Mottaki said, "People were angry and it was natural for them to stage their protest." (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN PRESIDENT SEES DIRE END FOR COUNTRY'S ENEMIES... Mahmud Ahmadinejad said at a 9 February Ashura commemoration at the shrine of Abd al-Azim Hassani, south of Tehran, that enemies of Iran face "death and annihilation," state radio reported. Rather than surrender when confronted by overwhelming forces, Imam Hussein and his army of 72 men died in a 680 A.D. battle over Islamic succession. "The entire Iranian nation, young and old, are full of Hussein's fervor today," he said. "And our enemies are not much different from Yazid [the Muslim leader who killed Imam Hussein] and his ilk. Their destiny definitely will be death and annihilation. And we can see that the signs of their annihilation have appeared." (Bill Samii)

...ASSESSES INSULT TO PROPHET. President Ahmadinejad on 9 February disparaged the individuals behind the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper in September, Al-Alam television reported. He said, "Insulting prophets is an act only perpetrated by ignorant, narrow-minded, reactionary, and primitive people." Ahmadinejad appeared to praise the riots and other acts of violence perpetrated by individuals angered by the cartoons, saying, "I think the most effective response to this insult is what you are now witnessing in the behavior of the Iranian people and the other peoples of the world, as well as the return to religious education." Ahmadinejad said "this insult" also calls for a political protest, so people's beliefs are not ridiculed. (Bill Samii)

IRANIANS CONTINUE PROTESTS OUTSIDE EUROPEAN EMBASSIES. Protests that began on 6 February continued for a fourth day, as groups outside the embassies of Denmark, Norway, and the United Kingdom demonstrated on 9 February against the publication of cartoons of Muhammad, Fars News agency reported. Abdullah Roshan, the deputy governor-general of Tehran for political affairs, said there were no major incidents and the protests were smaller than on previous days. Iranian state television described the protestors as "zealous Iranian youth and Muslim students." (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN OFFICIAL SAYS CARTOONS PART OF CONSPIRACY. Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai discussed during a 7 February roundtable on Iranian state television the publication of Muhammad cartoons that is currently causing protests around the world. Rezai said their publication was a test in a bigger U.S. conspiracy: "This was a test. They wanted to know before embarking on their next adventure." He continued, "The Islamic world sent a good message." Rezai said there is possible Zionist involvement in the conspiracy and he referred to a "probable plan to spark a conflict between Christians and Muslims." This conflict, he explained, would divert Muslims from taking action against Israel. Rezai added, "the Zionists are planning something." (Bill Samii)

FORMER JAILED CARTOONIST DISCUSSES MUHAMMAD CARICATURES. In the growing protest over the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, journalists and cartoonist have had two reactions: some believe the cartoons crossed the bounds of good judgment, while others have argued in favor of press freedom and reprinted some or all of the 12 Danish cartoons. Iran's best-known cartoonist, Nikahang Kowsar, who was jailed in Iran in 2000 for several weeks and faced prosecution for drawing a cartoon deemed offensive by the government, is among those cartoonists who believe that religious sensitivities should be respected and that these cartoons -- because of their offending nature -- should not have been printed. Kowsar, who now lives in exile in Toronto, is, however, critical of some of the Muslim reactions to the issue, such as making threats and burning the Danish flag. RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari interviewed Kowsar.

RFE/RL: European papers are split in their reaction to the row over the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad; several dailies have reprinted the cartoons in defense of freedom of expression while others argue that the issue of freedom of speech does not justify [publishing] these cartoons, which are considered by most Muslims to be very offensive. What is your view as a caricaturist, since you have spent some time in jail in connection to your work?

Nikahang Kowsar: Since yesterday I've been contacting caricaturists in North America to get to know their views on this issue. An interesting view is the one expressed by Brian Gable, the cartoonist of the Canadian daily "Globe And Mail," which was published today. He says that one should avoid doing things that are for sure going to cause hatred. He has said that, as a cartoonist, 'I won't attack people's beliefs.' These are sensitivities that a press cartoonist should respect and some of the North American cartoonists believe that despite freedom of expression, an act that causes hatred is considered a crime in many countries. For example in Germany, where there is [also] freedom, if you campaign in favor of Nazis and against Jews, what is going to happen to you? You will face problems for causing hatred.

RFE/RL: What is your personal view? Are you against the publishing of cartoons that could be considered offensive by some people?

Kowsar: I can speak from two positions. As a board member of the world association that defends the rights of cartoonists and, as such, I should defend the cartoonists who have been threatened -- and I do so as an artist. On the other hand, I am critical of what they did: when you do something that you know will create hatred and annoy people who are a minority in Europe, this can be very insensitive and can cause uneasiness among them. I would personally never do such thing.

RFE/RL: But any cartoon or satirical view of any issue can cause irritation and anger among some. What about freedom of expression? Where are the limits?

Kowsar: Why are such cartoons not printed in North America, where there is freedom of the press? The cartoonists in North America don't even make such jokes about Jesus. These are very sensitive things; it depends on the sensitivity of the journalist himself because a press cartoonist is a journalist. A journalist knows what issues can be touched upon and what issues should not be touched upon. I think the chief editor [of the Danish daily that first published the cartoons] did not do the right thing.

RFE/RL: So where do you draw the line? How do you see the boundaries of the freedom of the press versus [causing] religious offense?

Kowsar: In one or two of the cartoons, the wrong deeds of Muslims extremists are connected to their leader, the Prophet Muhammad, who lived some 1,400 years ago; is it right if we say that the bad things that were done by Christians in the Middle Ages were also the fault of Jesus Christ? We have to draw some lines; there are differences between the behavior of a prophet and the behavior of his followers. I think such acts are expressing hatred and opposition rather than freedom of expression.

RFE/RL: Some say that the current crisis is a small clash between the East and the West, what is your view?

Kowsar: I believe this is the case; here [Samuel] Huntington's theory has been proven and [Muhammad] Khatami, [who promoted dialogue among civilizations] has lost.

RFE/RL: Do you think the Muslim reactions have been excessive?

Kowsar: I think the harsh and threatening reactions of many Muslim societies have been very wrong. I think they could have reacted through legal ways. In European countries some acts that cause hatred are considered a crime; [Muslims] could have brought a case through lawyers and justify that such an act should be considered illegal. I think this is more reasonable than causing more [problems] and, for example, boycotting Danish products and burning the Danish flag. The editor of a newspaper has done something, why should a country [be targeted]?

IRANIAN DRAFT BUDGET CRITICIZED. Radio Farda reports that an increasing number of domestic observers and politicians have criticized the government's draft budget for the Persian year beginning on 21 March, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported. Critics say the draft contradicts the provisions of a 2005-10 state plan to curb inflation and shrink the state sector. Others have criticized projected withdrawals from Iran's foreign-reserve account -- a fund containing Iran's excess petrodollars -- and there is a view that Iran should be saving money in case it faces sanctions over its nuclear dossier. The draft would contract out several development and construction projects to the Basij militia affiliated with Iran's revolutionary guards, Radio Farda reported, citing a "Hamshahri" daily interview with an unnamed expert who called such a process noncompetitive. On 1 February, economist Mehdi Sahraian told ISNA that the government should have drafted a budget more cautious with spending and less dependent on oil revenues. The budget forecasts revenues based on a price per barrel of $40. Sahraian said projected spending will totally deplete Iran's foreign-exchange reserves when Iran needs "sufficient foreign-exchange reserves" in anticipation of "challenges" like possible economic sanctions. (Vahid Sepehri)

REFORMIST POLITICIAN CRITICIZES IRANIAN PRESIDENT. Hojatoleslam Mohammad Ali Abtahi, who served as vice president for parliamentary affairs under President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, said in an interview in the 23 February issue of "La Repubblica" that President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's foreign policy gaffes are isolating Iran. Abtahi referred to Ahmadinejad's public statements about the Holocaust, asking rhetorically: "Why do we have to talk about the Holocaust? What do we Iranians have to do with the Holocaust? Does doing so improve our country's position?" Abtahi said people will "rapidly lose faith" in Ahmadinejad if economic sanctions are imposed in connection with the nuclear issue. Abtahi also criticized Western powers, saying, "I reproach the United States for understanding nothing about this part of the world: nothing about Iran, nothing about Iraq, and nothing about Afghanistan, as we can see." He added, "And I reproach Europe for having continued to raise the stakes, thus weakening Khatami." (Bill Samii)

IRAN HALTS GAS SUPPLIES TO GEORGIA AS RUSSIAN SUPPLIES RESUME. Azerbaijan has stopped exporting gas to neighboring Georgia as Russian supplies have resumed following the completion of repairs to the main Russia-Georgia pipeline, which was damaged by sabotage on 22 January, Interfax and Caucasus Press reported on 6 February, quoting a spokesman for Azerigas. That spokesman added that Azerbaijan is no longer transporting Iranian gas to Georgia as Iran is no longer supplying any. Iran too offered to provide Georgia with gas to compensate for the shortfall caused by the hiatus in supplies from Russia; the price Georgia agreed to pay for the 30 million cubic meters of Iranian gas it has received was never disclosed. (Liz Fuller)

IRAN NOT PART OF NEW SHI'ITE-CHRISTIAN ALLIANCE IN LEBANON. Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and Lebanon's Free Patriotic Movement leader General Michel Aoun gave a joint press conference in Beirut on 6 February, Al-Manar television reported. Nasrallah said they discussed the possibility of cooperation between their two organizations. Asked if this is "an alliance" and if his organization is becoming part an "Iran-Syria alliance," Aoun said Lebanese Christians are mature and appreciate dialogue and understanding. He added that there is no "alliance with Syria and Iran," although "normal and sound relations with Syria" were addressed. Aoun is a possible candidate for the Lebanese presidency. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN ENLISTS BEIRUT'S SUPPORT ON NUCLEAR ISSUE. Iranian Ambassador to Beirut Masud Edrisi met on 7 February with Lebanese Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants Fawzi Salloukh to convey an Iranian request for support on the nuclear issue, the Lebanese National News Agency reported. Edrisi said afterward the two sides are in agreement that major international powers -- "particularly the United States" -- have double standards on all international issues, particularly with respect to Iran's peaceful use of nuclear energy. He added that he and Salloukh discussed bilateral relations and regional developments. (Bill Samii)

HAMAS LEGISLATOR SAYS IRAN PROMISED FINANCIAL AID. Hamas member Muhammad Jamal al-Natshah, who was elected to the Palestinian legislature in late January, was imprisoned shortly before polling took place. Responding to warnings that numerous countries have threatened to cut funding for the Palestinian Authority if Hamas does not renounce violence and recognize Israel, al-Natshah said there are other sources of money, "Al-Hayah al-Jadidah" from Ramallah reported on 7 February. He claimed that Iran said it is ready to replace aid from international donors, and Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf states are ready to help Hamas as well. Al-Natshah said Hamas does not recognize the Middle East "road map" to peace drafted by the negotiating quartet of the United States, European Union, Russia, and the United Nations because it calls for recognizing Israel, and Hamas cannot recognize Israel. (Bill Samii)

IRAN DISCOURAGES TRAVEL TO IRAQ... An Iranian Interior Ministry statement discourages would-be pilgrims from going to Iraq during the Ashura mourning period, Mehr News Agency reported on 6 February. The statement referred to unrest in Iraq and a warning from the Iraqi Embassy in Tehran that the border is closed. Ashura marks the martyrdom of Imam Hussein on the plains of Karbala in 680 A.D., as he and his followers -- a total of 72 men -- confronted the massive army of Yazid in a fight over leadership of the Islamic community. (Bill Samii)

...AND CLOSES BORDER CROSSING... Mohammad Ali Shirali, governor of the southwestern city of Khorramshahr, said on 8 February that the Shalamcheh border crossing between Iran and Iraq will be closed for two days during the Tasua and Ashura mourning period, IRNA reported. He said prospective pilgrims who wish to visit the holy sites of Karbala should not go to Shalamcheh, and the normal travel regime will resume on 12 February. These regulations apply to business travelers as well. In a 7 February meeting in Baghdad, Iranian special representative for Iraqi affairs Ali Asqar Khaji met with Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Sa'd al-Hayani, IRNA reported. Al-Hayani said Iraq would like even more pilgrims from Iran to visit his country, security conditions permitting. (Bill Samii)

...AND CONTINUES WARNINGS. Iranian officials are continuing to discourage prospective Iranian pilgrims from traveling to Iraq during the Ashura period (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 February 2006). Hussein Zolanvar, the deputy chief of mission in Baghdad, said on 8 February, "The illegal entry of [Iranian] pilgrims into Iraq will be met with various difficulties and serious danger," IRNA reported. He said Iraqi police already have arrested 20 Iranians who want to participate in the Ashura processions, and many Iranians have contacted the embassy in an effort to find family members. Zolanvar described future plans in which Iranian pilgrims will be allowed to visit Al-Najaf and Karbala, but will not be allowed to visit Khazimiyah and Samara due to poor security. Those who visit the banned locations will be arrested, he said, and there are more than 100 Iranians in Iraqi jails already on a variety of charges. (Bill Samii)

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