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Iran Report: March 23, 2006

23 March 2006, Volume 9, Number 10

QUEST FOR UNITY IN FACE OF NUCLEAR CRISIS OVERSHADOWS POLITICS. A great deal of controversy preceded the semi-annual meeting of the Assembly of Experts in early-March, and this is not surprising because the popularly elected body of 86 clerics supervises and selects Iran's top political and religious leader. Therefore, disputes regarding the eligibility of lay-people as candidates and the possibility of postponing the election are particularly relevant because the next assembly election is scheduled for the autumn. The actual event, however, took place with little fanfare or political commentary, as officials and media heeded calls for national unity in the face of the country being reported to the United Nations Security Council. Indeed the nuclear issue appeared to overshadow other aspects of the assembly's business.

Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani told the assembly on 8 March that this is the time for national unity in the face of the "enemies'" plots, state television reported. He said the U.S. has been unsuccessful in its efforts to create an atmosphere that is hostile to Iran. "They have made a lot of efforts to isolate us, but failed in their mission," he added. "We should move along with solidarity," Hashemi-Rafsanjani continued. "We should be united with respect to the nuclear issue and against the plots of enemy, which we thankfully are." Divisive comments, he said, undermine national unity.

The strident tone of Hojatoleslam Ahmad Khatami's Friday Prayer sermon in Tehran two days later -- in which he reverted to the insider-outsider argument -- shed light on the political coloring of the call for unity. Arguing that nuclear energy is needed because oil and gas will finish in two or three decades, he referred to critics of the quest for a nuclear fuel cycle as "idiots," state radio reported. "You joined the enemy and helped it in the most sensitive time. Our people will never forget these plots and people who carry them out. When the time comes, the great Iranian nation will give a harsh response to the insiders who move in the same direction as the enemies, just as it has given decisive responses to foreigners."

Khatami also noted that the current nuclear policy does not relate to President Ahmadinejad alone and it began some years ago. "And our situation these days is not the outcome of a single decision taken today," he said. "As the supreme leader graciously said, the decision was first taken during the previous government's term of office. The current government is implementing the same decision now."

Political figures interviewed in the following days also stressed the theme of national unity, with the pro-reform "Farhang-i Ashti" daily explaining on March 11, "The nuclear dossier has become an excuse for all political groups to once again sit with one another around the negotiating table to talk to each other." The daily went on to explain that regardless of a person's political inclination, "They all stress Iran's right to gain access to nuclear technology." But if there is unity on this aspect of the issue, there is much less unity on how to proceed. The reformists advocate continued negotiations, whereas the conservatives and hardliners more in line with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad "speak of resistance and new plans to scare the enemy."

The political divisions over the conduct of nuclear negotiations have appeared before. Moreover, the Ahmadinejad foreign policy team has come in for a great deal of criticism for having alienated many other countries and undermined confidence in Iran's intentions. These differences have less to do with international statesmanship than they do with political, ideological, and age-cohort divisions within the country's political establishment.

The president's personnel policies -- the replacement of ambassadors and top officials in the foreign ministry, and the appointment of younger individuals who he finds are ideologically compatible -- also have earned criticism. The comments of Hojatoleslam Abdul-Vahed Musavi-Lari, President Mohammad Khatami's interior minister, illustrate this point. "It is possible for many people to speak of national solidarity, but in practice take a pair of scissors in their hands and try to eliminate the forces that are loyal to the system or expert individuals who are supportive of the system and feel goodwill towards it and deprive them of participating in taking and implementing decisions," he said ("Etemad," March 11, 2006). "This is something that we are witnessing in our society today."

Musavi-Lari added, "We cannot say that we are in favor of national solidarity but exclude the majority of the forces that are faithful to the system from the cycle of taking and implementing decisions."

Concerns about the Ahmadinejad team's foreign policy efforts and the political aspect of those concerns became clear on March 12, when the legislature's reformist faction summoned the president to explain his nuclear policy (Mehr News Agency). The next day, the deputy parliamentary speaker, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, announced that either the president or the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Ali Larijani, would come soon (Islamic Republic News Agency).

Until the call for unity from Hashemi-Rafsanjani, much of the country's political discourse related to the upcoming Assembly of Experts meeting. The assembly held its last meeting in September 2005, and around that time one of the major topics of discussion was membership qualifications. Some members reportedly submitted a motion calling for more advanced theological credentials, and they advocated taking the job of vetting candidates from the Guardians Council and giving it to the country's leading seminarians. Other members of the assembly said it was time to admit laypeople, including women and military personnel.

The next month, another prominent cleric and political figure, former parliamentary speaker Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, also spoke out on this topic. He warned that the effort to limit the choice of candidates would reduce voter turnout ("Etemad," October 23, 2005).

This is a legitimate concern -- overall voter participation figures in Iran have shown a downward trend since the initial enthusiasm of the period immediately after the revolution, and this is particularly noticeable in Assembly of Experts elections. Participation was 77 percent in 1982, 37 percent in 1990, and 46 percent in 1998. The regime, furthermore, bases its legitimacy on public participation in elections, and it sees the regular holding of elections as a sign of its democratic nature.

Karrubi, who has declared that he will not stand in the assembly election ("Hemayat," December 10, 2005), returned to the subject of candidates' eligibility in a letter to the head of the assembly, Ayatollah Ali Meshkini. He wrote that the supreme leader's responsibilities touch on subjects other than theology, so the members of the assembly, who are responsible for supervising the supreme leader, should have expertise in a range of subjects ("Aftab-i Yazd," February 16, 2006). Moreover, Karrubi wrote, vetting of candidates should be the responsibility of prominent theologians. The Guardians Council should not have this responsibility, he explained, because its members usually are candidates for membership in the assembly. Without saying it outright, Karrubi also hinted at the conservative political bias of the Council of Guardians.

In mid-February, reports surfaced that some of these changes had been implemented. Assembly membership reportedly would increase to 120, and 40 members of this group would be experts in areas other than jurisprudence ("Aftab-i Yazd," February 16, 2006). Like candidates in earlier elections, they would have to be pious and have good reputations, but they would also have to be skilled in economics, law, legislative affairs, planning, or politics, or they should hold a military leadership position.

However, it later turned out that these reports were premature. An assembly member, Hojatoleslam Majid Ansari, had presented a proposal on the membership of laymen to the assembly's statutes committee, but the proper procedures were not followed and there was no follow-up on the subject ("Mardom Salari," February 18, 2006).

Moreover, the proposal was unlikely to be welcomed. Ayatollah Mohsen Musavi-Tabrizi, a reformist member of the assembly, said earlier efforts to change the regulations had been rejected ("Sharq," February 18, 2006). "The majority of members are opposed to such plans, and we can see examples of it in other plans, such as the one to change the authority for verifying the credential of candidates and the one for holding open sessions, or the issue of exercising supervision, which is 100 percent related to the domain of the Assembly of Experts," he explained. "All these previous cases faced opposition."

In a not entirely unexpected development, a member of the Guardians Council also spoke out against the proposal to make laymen eligible for assembly membership. Council spokesman Abbasali Kadkhodai initially said the concept is illegal, but he then backtracked and said he was only expressing his personal opinion as a legal expert ("Mardom Salari" and "Etemad-i Melli," February 20, 2005). He added that the Guardians Council is not involved in this issue, and if the assembly decides to include laymen then the council will go along with this. Kadkhodai said in early-March that the topic remains under review, and the Supreme Leader could have the final say ("Mardom Salari" and "Sharq," March 5, 2006).

A member of the assembly, substitute Tehran Friday Prayer leader Hojatoleslam Ahmad Khatami, dismissed the possibility of laypeople as members and urged the media to end its speculation ("Kayhan," March 2, 2006). He also said that such a plan is illegal, and it will not be considered because it was submitted illegally ("Sharq," March 2, 2006). The current members, he added, can perform all the necessary functions.

A prominent pro-reform cleric and university professor, Hojatoleslam Mohsen Kadivar, also spoke out on the issue of assembly membership. He noted that the Iranian constitution does not specify that members must be experts at interpreting religious law or must be sources of emulation, and there is no law prohibiting the membership of non clerics ("Sharq," March 7, 2006). Kadivar, who has shown in the past that he is not averse to taking controversial positions, said there are currently three problems with the Assembly of Experts -- all members are men, all members are clerics, and all members are Shi'a.

There are occasional calls for delaying the Assembly of Experts election and holding it at the same time as another one. In mid-February, Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Mustafa Purmohammadi recommended holding the assembly election and the 2007 municipal council elections at the same time ("Etemad," February 15, 2006). Last year, a member of the Guardians Council said the election should coincide with the 2008 parliamentary elections ("Farhang-i Ashti," July 23, 2005).

Such demands usually are part of broader calls for consolidating elections and do not get farther than media speculation. However, the committee responsible for the Assembly of Experts' internal regulations did hold a meeting on February 12 to discuss the most recent proposal, although its outcome was not revealed ("Etemad," February 15, 2006). The political advantage of delaying the assembly's election is not immediately apparent. It may reflect, as its proponents say, an effort to save money and reduce disruption. It is also possible that proponents of such a delay hope there would be a bigger turnout if citizens are voting for people whose duties -- such as parliamentarians or municipal council members -- affect their daily lives.

The Assembly of Experts met on March 7 and 8, and as always, the actual business of the two-day meeting took place behind closed doors. Indeed, it would appear that the reporting of Iran's nuclear program to the United Nations Security Council overshadowed some of the assembly's business. Hojatoleslam Ansari complained that everything but matters within the assembly's responsibilities was discussed, and his proposal to widen the membership did not come up ("Aftab-i Yazd" and "Etemad," March 9, 2006). Ansari recommended greater openness about the normally closed sessions of the assembly, and he said a public report on the leader's performance should be made available. The Assembly did reject the Interior Ministry proposal that the elections of the assembly and municipal councils should coincide (Fars News Agency, March 10, 2006). Hojatoleslam Ahmad Khatami said the assembly election will take place in the autumn. (Bill Samii)

INTERVIEW: IRANIAN NOBEL LAUREATE EBADI ON WOMEN'S RIGHTS. The European Training Foundation held an international conference on "Women in Education and Employment" (March 7-8) in the Italian city of Turin, and Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner, Shirin Ebadi presented the journalists with their prizes. She later gave an interview to one of the winners, RFE/RL Tajik Service's youth correspondent, Abdulfattoh Shafiev.

RFE/RL: You have been very active in the struggle for women's rights in your country -- could you tell us about the situation of women in Iran?

Ebadi: In Iran the number of educated women is higher than men; according to the latest figures that were released this year more than 65 percent of Iran's university students are girls. But, unfortunately, women haven't had the possibility to really demonstrate their capabilities and more men have entered the labor market. The unemployment rate among women is three times higher than among men.

RFE/RL: What is the reason for [the high unemployment rate among women in Iran]?

Ebadi: In my opinion it is the patriarchal culture that gives men priority in all issues; some say because men have to respond to the financial needs of their family, it's better if we hire men. But when it comes to hiring somebody and employment, the focus should not be on the money issue; the emphasis should be put on one's capabilities and expertise.

RFE/RL: Islam has given women and men equal rights but in most Islamic countries women face discrimination. Why is that?

Ebadi: With a correct interpretation of Islam we can have equal rights for women. But the problem is that there are wrong interpretations of Islam, which cause discrimination against women. That is why the situation for women in various Islamic countries is different. For example, in Saudi Arabia women can't even drive, but in countries such as Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh women have been able to become prime minister or president. Or, for example, in some countries -- like Iran -- men are allowed to have several wives (eds. up to four) while in other countries, such as Tunisia, it has been banned. This is because there is not a single interpretation of Islam. We need an interpretation of Islam that recognizes women's rights.

RFE/RL: What is your assessment of women's situation in European countries? Do you think women also face problems in Europe?

Ebadi: Unfortunately, yes. Women face problems in Europe and also in the U.S. Their problems are different from the problems women face in Islamic countries. In the U.S., until now, they haven't had a woman president; and there are less women ministers [than male ministers]. It's the same in Europe; in the Italian parliament, where we are speaking now, only about 10 percent of the deputies are women.

RFE/RL: You said that in Europe and the U.S. there aren't enough women leaders. Do you think the leadership of a country should be based on gender?

Ebadi: I don't think that women should by all means lead the society; I believe that capable and experienced people, be it a woman or man, should lead society. It means that if a woman is capable, then she should not be deprived [of leading] only because she is a woman.

RFE/RL: Could you also tell us something about yourself and your private life?

Ebadi: I am an attorney at law [and] my law office is in Tehran. In addition to my work as an attorney, I also manage three NGOs that I have established. Regarding my private life, I am married and I have two daughters. As a traditional Iranian woman it is my duty to take care of the housework and the children and I'm still doing it. I'm happy about it because when I finish my work outside -- and being an attorney is a rough profession -- I enjoy coming home and cooking for my husband and daughters. My husband has always supported me and without his help and support I couldn't have worked so much. (Translation by Golnaz Esfandiari)

IRAN GETS NEW SUBMARINE. A domestically produced submarine called the Nahang-1 (Whale 1) has joined the Iranian navy's fleet, state television reported on March 6. Iran has three Kilo-class submarines it bought from Russia and a number of mini-submarines. Details on the submarine were unavailable. (Bill Samii)

RUSSIA TO 'ADJUST' ITS POSITION ON IRAN. A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman said on March 12 that it will "study" the recent statement by its Iranian counterpart that Tehran is no longer considering Russia's proposal to enrich uranium for it on Russian territory, RIA Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 8 and 10, 2006). He added that Moscow will then "adjust its position on this issue." The spokesman stressed that Russia still wants a "peaceful and diplomatic settlement of the Iran nuclear issue." The following day, however, an unnamed "Russian diplomatic source" told Interfax that unnamed "Iranian officials have informed Russian diplomats that the Russian proposal on setting up a joint venture remains in force. To put it bluntly, the Iranian Foreign Ministry has made a statement, and [Tehran's] Supreme National Security Council has denied it." (Patrick Moore)

MOSCOW'S NUCLEAR OFFER NO LONGER INTERESTS TEHRAN. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on March 12 that Iran is no longer considering Moscow's offer to enrich uranium on Russian soil for use in Iran, Fars News Agency reported. He explained that circumstances have changed and Iran is waiting for the outcome of the UN Security Council meeting on its program. An anonymous "Russian source familiar with the negotiation process" said on March 12 that Moscow's proposal for the establishment of a joint Iran-Russia uranium enrichment project is no longer feasible, ITAR-TASS reported. Moscow has advised Tehran of this, according to the source. (Bill Samii)

OFFICIALS HINT AT FUTURE NUCLEAR STANCE. Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki on March 12 refused to rule out further negotiations on the nuclear issue, state television reported, though he did rule out the possibility of limiting oil supplies in retaliation for being referred by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to the UN Security Council. Mottaki said international concern over his country's desire to master the nuclear-fuel cycle relates to efforts to control energy resources. Mottaki went on to say that Iran would like to benefit from its 30-year membership in the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), but if that does not yield results then Tehran must reassess its policies. Also on March 12, Foreign Ministry spokesman Assefi said that the IAEA's decision to report Iran is a political one, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. He said Iran is protecting its rights as defined by the NPT, and he stressed the country's independence. Assefi said Iran would cease its "voluntary actions," although he did not identify the actions, if the Security Council seeks to pressure Iran. He continued, "Iran is interested in extending a moratorium on uranium enrichment if it comes out of negotiations. If the U.S. and European states want to exert pressure on Iran, Iran would be forced to take unilateral action." (Bill Samii)

CLOSING OF IRANIAN STUDENTS ASSOCIATION ELICITS PROTEST. The Office for Strengthening Unity (Daftar-i Tahkim-i Vahdat, DTV) student group has requested a reversal of the government's closure of the Islamic students association at the medical sciences university in Shahr-i Kurd. DTV official Mohammad Hashemi told Radio Farda on March 12 that the organization has known since the previous year that the government is trying to get it to leave the campus. Hashemi said a hostile tide has rolled in with the government of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, and student associations in Mazandaran, Luristan, and Shahr-i Kurd have received notices that their charters are improper. An inadequate amount of time has been provided to make the required changes, he said. (Bill Samii)

INFLATION PREDICTION AND IRAN-U.S. TRADE FIGURES DISCUSSED. Zahedan parliamentary representative Peyman Foruzesh, who also serves on the legislature's Economics Committee and the Trade Systems Committee, predicts that there will be 20 percent inflation in the coming year, "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on March 11. Foruzesh explained that although the large hard-currency expenditures in President Ahmadinejad's budget were reduced to about $3 billion and other anti-inflationary measures were implemented, too, there will be problems nevertheless. He added that the current inflation rate is 17 percent. Also on March 11, Fars News Agency cited figures from the U.S. Data Center on Iran-U.S. trade. In January, there was $25.4 million in bilateral trade, which is 20 percent more than the same time last year. The U.S. exported $8.8 million worth of goods to Iran and imported $16.6 million in Iranian goods. (Bill Samii)

HAVE TEHRAN AND MOSCOW RESUMED NUCLEAR TALKS? An anonymous Russian source said on March 13 that Iranian-Russian talks on the nuclear issue took place that day in Moscow, RIA Novosti reported. The source said the Iranian side is represented by Ali Husseinitash, deputy secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, and added that the talks will continue on March 14. But another unidentified source told the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) that the talks will resume on March 15-16, while yet another told ITAR-TASS on March 13 that Husseinitash may travel to Moscow the next day to discuss the possibility of an Iran-Russia uranium-enrichment joint venture. Also on 13 March, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that Moscow and Tehran will resume talks on the nuclear issue, Interfax reported. Previously, the Iranian Foreign Ministry had announced that nuclear negotiations with Moscow were at an end, but an anonymous Russian Foreign Ministry source said Iran's Supreme National Security Council contradicted the country's Foreign Ministry, Interfax reported on March 13. In Tehran on March 13, Supreme National Security Council spokesman Hussein Entezami said the Russian proposal to enrich Iranian uranium on Russian soil should be reconsidered, IRNA reported. (Bill Samii)

AHMADINEJAD DISCUSSES INTERNATIONAL OUTREACH. In a 13 March meeting with Iran's ambassadors and other diplomats, Mahmud Ahmadinejad announced that Iran wants to expand its relations with all other countries, state television and IRNA reported. There are two possible exceptions to this rule, he said. The first exception is Israel, and the second one is the United States, as long as the U.S. maintains a hostile stance towards Iran. Ahmadinejad also stressed that Iran will not reverse its pursuit of a peaceful nuclear capability. He said, "Because only a few countries, unfairly and cruelly, order us to forego the rights of the nation, we will not give in to what they impose on us," state television reported. Ahmadinejad continued: "We know well that taking even one step back from one's inalienable rights can lead to total loss of the state territorial integrity in some cases." Ahmadinejad also addressed regional issues, saying, "There will be no peace and tranquility in the region as long as the Zionist regime continues to exist," IRNA reported. (Bill Samii)

RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER STILL CONCERNED ABOUT IRAN. Foreign Minister Lavrov discussed the need for an unspecified "common strategy" on Iran with his French counterpart Philippe Douste-Blazy by telephone on March 15, Interfax reported. Lavrov subsequently made an apparently similar phone call regarding Iran and the Middle East to his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, but no details have been reported. The Moscow daily "Izvestiya" wrote that Russia's policy in the Middle East is aimed at establishing a special role for itself in that region independent of the Western powers and as an intermediary between them and the Muslim states, which has become "an obsession." The daily also noted Russia's interest in selling nuclear power plants to Iran and arms to several states in the region. The paper warned that Russian policy will be shown as "irrelevant" if it fails to produce results in its dealings with Iran and Hamas. (Patrick Moore)

RUSSIA-IRAN NUCLEAR TALKS TAKE PLACE. Closed-door bilateral talks between Iran and Russia took place in Moscow on March 14, ITAR-TASS reported. Supreme National Security Council Deputy-Secretary Ali Husseinitash represented the Iranian side and Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov represented Russia. The Russian Security Council reaffirmed Moscow's desire to settle the Iranian nuclear crisis diplomatically and said the "consultations" will continue. (Bill Samii)

BUDGET WINS APPROVAL. The Guardians Council on March 16 approved the budget for the year starting on March 21, Fars News Agency reported. The legislature had approved the budget earlier in the week, and all legislative measures must win Guardians Council approval on constitutional and Islamic grounds before becoming law. The council began its examination of the budget on March 15, IRNA reported, and Management and Planning Organization official Mohammad Kurdbacheh predicted there would be disagreements over regulations affecting contracts with foreign entities. Indeed, the council approval only came after the legislature addressed 15 specific "issues of concern" and clarified five "ambiguities."

Iran's parliament approved on March 14 the budget for the year beginning on March 21, IRNA reported. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad submitted the budget in mid-January, and the legislature approved its general outline in early-March. Out of 226 votes, 155 were in favor of the budget and 35 were against it.

The legislature approved on March 13 a 12.5 billion rial ($1.73 million) budgetary allocation for U.S. plots against Iran, IRNA reported. This money also will be used for pursuing Iranian cases in international courts.

The legislature has approved the money that was budgeted for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, state television reported on March 12. The actual amount of money was not disclosed. The legislature also authorized the establishment of firms connected with the production of nuclear energy and nuclear fuel, state television reported, and instructed the executive branch to commence surveys and feasibility studies on locations for future nuclear plants for electricity production.

Two legislators -- Mamasani's Ali Ahmadi and Nishabur's Gholam Hussein Mozaffari -- submitted their resignations as protests against the budget, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported on March 14. Mozaffari explained, "I am protesting because during the debate yesterday evening the parliament approved the allocation of some budget to unspecified projects from dubious revenue sources." He continued: "And it is not clear how the government is hoping to realize such revenues and how to spend it. I therefore prefer to resign in protest." Previously, legislators objected to excessive reliance on oil revenues for funding the budget. (Bill Samii)

IRAN SEEKS TO INCREASE OIL PRODUCTION. Hojjatullah Ghanimifard, executive director of international affairs at the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), said in a March 15 interview with Reuters that the current controversy over the Iranian nuclear program will not have an impact on the country's oil exports.

Iranian officials previously threatened to use the oil weapon -- Interior Minister Mustafa Purmohammadi had said, "If [Security Council members] politicize our nuclear case, we will use any means. We are rich in energy resources. We have control over the biggest and the most sensitive energy route of the world," the London "Times" reported on March 13; and Supreme National Security Council official Javad Vaidi had said, "We will not do so now, but if the situation changes we will have to review our oil policies," "The Los Angeles Times" reported on March 9.

Ghanimifard, however, said, "We will not harm end-users of our crude oil by cutting exports."

Petroleum Minister Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh said during a March 14 visit to the southwestern city of Ahvaz that Iran intends to produce more oil, and it intends to introduce up-to-date methods to extract more oil from its wells, Ahvaz television reported. "Currently, we are producing just over 4 million barrels per day," he said. "We are planning to increase production to over 5 million barrels per day by the end of the Fourth Development Plan [2010]." He also said the ministry is prioritizing the recovery of oil through gas injection and more modern means, and it also wants to modernize installations and pipelines. Turning to the possibility of Iran facing international sanctions as a result of being referred to the UN Security Council over the nuclear issue, Vaziri-Hamaneh said Iran would revise its international oil contracts, IRNA reported. (Bill Samii)

AHMADINEJAD DISCUSSES FOREIGN CLAIMS AGAINST NUCLEAR PROGRAM... Ahmadinejad said during a March 14 speech in the northwestern city of Gorgan that "several powers" are using "bullying and harassment" in an effort to block Iran's progress, state television reported. This explains the opposition to Iranian nuclear efforts, Ahmadinejad said. He went on to accuse these foreign powers of "brainwashing the nations of the world with their cowardly propaganda," but the expenditure of billions of dollars on "evil propaganda" has not worked, he said. He added that the foreign powers are insinuating that the nuclear program is not beneficial to the Iranian people and is a waste of time and money. (Bill Samii)

...AND POSSIBLE INTERNATIONAL SANCTIONS. Ahmadinejad went on to say during his March 14 speech in Gorgan that the Iranian people had a revolution "in order to be free from having to listen to stand on our own feet...[and so] the Iran government would take orders from the dear Iranian nation." Ahmadinejad said he is not bothered by the possibility that Iranian officials' ability to travel internationally would be curtailed by international sanctions. "I would like to tell them that basically, we are not at all interested in seeing your faces!" (Bill Samii)

UN SECURITY COUNCIL UNDECIDED ON IRAN. The UN Security Council is scheduled to resume discussion of a joint statement on the Iranian nuclear program on March 16, Radio Farda reported, after the council's 15 members met informally in New York on March 14 to discuss the subject. Washington, London, and Paris are hoping for a presidential statement from the Security Council that calls on Iran to halt its uranium-enrichment activities and to cooperate with international nuclear inspectors, but Moscow and Peking are resisting this. Peking believes the draft presidential statement leaves "insufficient room for diplomacy" and would like to see the International Atomic Energy Agency handle the issue, "The Financial Times" reported on March 15. If the Security Council does not take what Washington sees as a sufficiently decisive approach on this matter, then unnamed "U.S. officials" are suggesting the creation of a "coalition of the willing" that will impose sanctions on Iran, "The Wall Street Journal" reported on 15 March. (Bill Samii)

OFFICIAL SURVEY FINDS BROAD SUPPORT FOR GOVERNMENT'S NUCLEAR STANCE. Of the 15,679 Iranians surveyed by the Tebyan Institute, Fars News Agency reported on March 15, 76.8 percent back the regime's current nuclear stance. Only 3.2 percent of those surveyed recommended complying with International Atomic Energy Agency requests for greater cooperation and the suspension of uranium enrichment activities. Some 53.1 percent foresaw a diplomatic solution to the crisis, while 21.9 percent saw this as only remotely possible. About 74 percent expected the imposition of sanctions against Iran. Broken down further, 71 percent expected only political and diplomatic sanctions, 22 percent expected economic sanctions, and 7 percent said military action is possible. The Tebyan Institute is connected with the official Islamic Publicity Organization, which may explain why the findings of its survey back the government position. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN ACCUSES LONDON OF USING 'GOBBLEDYGOOK.' At his weekly press conference on March 15, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi criticized a recent speech by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, Iranian state television reported. Straw had spoken about the need to increase the flow of information to Iran in a March 13 speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, "The Daily Telegraph" reported the next day. He also said, according to AP, "If the Iranian regime chooses not to heed the concerns of the international community, it's going to damage the interests of the Iranian people." Assefi said the speech is "a load of gobbledygook," and he added that he is certain Straw's "brains have seized up and they have ended up blabbering nonsense." Assefi predicted more nonsense and said the world is full of "gibberish and claptrap." Asked if the Foreign Ministry would summon the British ambassador, Assefi retorted, "When they are talking nonsense, there's no point in summoning anyone." (Bill Samii)

IRAN IS FOCUS OF U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY STRATEGY. A strategy document released by the White House on March 16 said the Iranian people endure tyranny, which it identified as "the combination of brutality, poverty, instability, corruption, and suffering, forged under the rule of despots and despotic systems" ( The document continues, "We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran." The document discusses the regime's lack of cooperation with international nuclear inspectors and its lack of transparency, as well as the "aggressive" anti-Israel statements of its president. The strategy document says the U.S. will continue to emphasize diplomacy in trying to resolve the nuclear issue. There are other areas of concern: "The Iranian regime sponsors terrorism; threatens Israel; seeks to thwart Middle East peace; disrupts democracy in Iraq; and denies the aspirations of its people for freedom." U.S. policy's "ultimate goal" is to have Tehran make "the strategic decision to change these policies, open up its political system, and afford freedom to its people." The strategy makes a distinction between the Iranian regime and the country's people and emphasizes its desire to expand "our engagement and outreach to the people the regime is oppressing." (Bill Samii)

WANTED BALUCHI LEADER REPORTEDLY FLEES TO IRAN. Nawab Muhammad Akbar Khan Bugti, a prominent Baluchi leader in Pakistan who is wanted for his alleged sponsorship of attacks against government forces and gas and rail facilities, has fled to Iran, reported on March 17. He reportedly headed for Zahedan in Sistan va Baluchistan Province. Amanullah Qamberani, spokesman for the Jamhoori Watan Party that Bugti heads, denied that Bugti has left the country and described this as wishful thinking on the part of his enemies and the government's handiwork. Senator Shahid Bugti said Nawab Bugti is in Dera Bugti. Raziq Bugti, adviser to the chief minister of Baluchistan, also said Nawab Bugti is in Dera Bugti. (Bill Samii)

IRAN-PAKISTAN-INDIA PIPELINE TALKS TO CONTINUE. Representatives from India, Pakistan, and Iran ended talks in Tehran on March 16 on a natural-gas pipeline connecting the three countries, Associated Press of Pakistan news agency reported. The next round will take place in Islamabad on April 30. Among the topics that await resolution is the gas price set by Tehran. Discussions on building the pipeline began in the mid-1990s. (Bill Samii)

IRAN REACHS OUT TO U.S. ON IRAQ. Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani told reporters in Tehran on 16 March that Iran is willing to hold talks with the U.S. on Iraq, Radio Farda reported. He went on to say that Tehran is very skeptical about Washington's previously stated desire to hold such talks, and he portrayed the issue in terms of Washington's perceived inability to resolve Iraqi affairs. "The Americans have made this demand [for talks] for some time," he said. "The U.S. ambassador [to Iraq] has also announced several times that they would like to [hold talks] since they cannot solve the problems there and need to have discussions with Iran. But, we don't trust these U.S. words." Larijani said Iran will act so it can help the Iraqi government. "We will [appoint] some people to hold these discussions on Iraq so that they can help put Iraq's future government in a better position to deal with problems," he said.

Larijani said Tehran's decision is based on a request from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq's Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, who heads the United Iraqi Alliance. Al-Hakim called for the dialogue between Iran and the United States in a March 15 speech in Baghdad's Shi'ite-populated Al-Sadr City district, KUNA reported on March 16. Al-Hakim said neighboring countries help Iraq by controlling their borders and exchanging information with the Iraqi government on terrorists.

Supporters of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr criticized the proposal, calling al-Hakim's statements "inappropriate," Al-Jazeera television reported on March 16. Al-Sadr representative Abd al-Hadi al-Darraji told the satellite news channel: "Such statements [by al-Hakim] might give a clear indication that there is real Iranian interference in Iraq, or that Iran might interfere in Iraq in the future. While respecting our neighbor Iran...we reject any interference in Iraqi affairs by neighboring countries." He contended that al-Hakim's statements either reflect current Iranian interference in Iraq or a desire on the part of Iran to interfere in Iraq in the future. "The fate of the political process [in Iraq] should only be determined by the Iraqi people, not by an Arab or Islamic country," al-Darraji added. (Bill Samii, Kathleen Ridolfo)