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Iran Report: June 5, 2006


June 5, 2006, Volume 9, Number 20

TEHRAN RESPONDS TO U.S. OFFER OF DIRECT TALKS. One day after the United States outlined its willingness to participate in talks between its EU allies and Iran on the nuclear issue, foreign ministers from the so-called 5+1 group (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, plus Germany) on June 1 decided on a package of "carrots and sticks" for Tehran. The proposal is aimed at encouraging Iran to halt the most highly disputed aspects of its nuclear program.

Yet Tehran has declared its disinterest in negotiating with Washington, and proposals that it suspend uranium-enrichment and reprocessing activities -- on which the United States conditioned its participation -- probably will be rejected. Tehran may believe that it has made irreversible progress and it can withstand international sanctions, but Iranian officials have painted themselves into a corner through repeated appeals to nationalism on the nuclear issue. If Tehran reverses course now, it will be difficult to explain that reversal to the Iranian people.

American Initiative

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on May 31 called on Tehran to "immediately" suspend its uranium-enrichment and reprocessing activities, cooperate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and implement the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Rice mentioned greater economic cooperation as an incentive, as well as a continuing reliance on diplomacy to resolve the issue.

As soon as Iran fulfills these conditions, Rice said, "the United States will come to the table with our EU-3 colleagues and meet with Iran's representatives." The U.S. message was conveyed to the Iranian government through the Swiss ambassador in Tehran and through the Iranian representative at the United Nations.

Iranian state radio on May 31 described the U.S. overture as a victory for Iran, asserting that "Washington is under immense pressure by the American elite and other governments to hold negotiations with Iran."

"Although it was difficult for the American authorities to shift their policies and they are severely under the influence of the Zionist lobby in their decisions, the fact that they agreed to enter talks with Iran is a clear sign that their previous allegations against Iran were untrue," the broadcaster continued.

State radio concluded by saying Washington must accept Iran's decisive regional role because of Tehran's nuclear achievements, its national solidarity, and its economic progress.

The rapporteur for the legislature's national-security and foreign policy committee, Kazem Jalali, called Washington's initial impulse a positive development, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported. But Jalali warned that its preconditions are unsuitable, adding that the suspension of enrichment activities is out of the question.

A June 1 headline in "Kayhan," the daily newspaper associated with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's office, announced the offer as "America's Need Under The Mantle Of A Concession To Iran."

Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki on June 1 rejected Rice's proposal as nothing new, according to Radio Farda. Describing Rice's statement as "ramblings," Mottaki accused Washington of trying "to cover up [U.S.] crimes in Iraq."

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on June 1 that there are no obstacles to such talks if they take place without preconditions, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. He added that the U.S. proposal included nothing new and fails to respect Iran's rights under the NPT. The spokesman also responded to Rice's charge that Iran supports terrorism, saying the terrorism issue turns a spotlight on U.S. relations with Israel and Washington's reactions to what he called Israeli crimes against Palestinians.

State media remained seemingly unimpressed by the U.S. offer. The director of the government's Islamic Republic News Agency, Ahmad Khademolmelleh, accused U.S. officials of using their influence over global media to "play games" in an effort to divert world public opinion from the realities of Iran's peaceful nuclear program. A state-television commentator said the U.S. preconditions bespeak a lack of seriousness about possible negotiations. Washington, he said, is merely "trying to convince others that it has shown flexibility."

Iranian commentators and political officials are likely to formulate their own responses after the Tehran Friday Prayers sermon of June 2 clarifies the views of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said in Malaysia on May 30 that Iran is ready to resume nuclear negotiations with Europe but is not interested in direct talks with the United States. He cited what he dubbed "the bad temperament of the Americans," according to AFP. ITAR-TASS quoted Mottaki as saying that Iran is willing to hold talks with Washington once the U.S. attitude changes.

Substitute prayer leader Hojatoleslam Ahmad Khatami said during his sermon at the Tehran Friday Prayers on June 2 that Washington's proposal to participate in nuclear talks with Iran is not very significant, state radio reported. Khatami noted the U.S. call for Iran to cease its uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities, although he mischaracterized the offer as "the U.S. would sit at the negotiating table if Iran were to stop all its nuclear activities." Khatami went on to say the abandoning of Iran's nuclear activities has been a long-standing U.S. objective. "This has been their wish for the past 27 years - a wish that has been continuously unfulfilled," he said.

'Carrots And Sticks'

In Vienna, meanwhile, the 5+1 group has agreed on a package of "carrots and sticks" intended to persuade Iran to halt uranium enrichment. British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said on June 1 that the parties to the agreement "believe [the proposals] offer Iran the chance to reach a negotiated agreement based on cooperation," according to Reuters.

Beckett went on to say that efforts to bring punitive action against Iran in the UN Security Council will be suspended if Tehran complies with IAEA demands that it suspend its uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities. On the other hand, she warned, "further steps" will be taken if Iran fails to take the desired steps. Possible sanctions described by AFP on May 30 include an embargo on goods relating to Iran's nuclear and missile programs, travel restrictions for associated individuals, and a ban on Iranians studying these fields. There also could be travel freezes for Iranian officials and the blocking of assets belonging to the regime and its officials.

Iranian officials have repeatedly asserted that they will not forego uranium enrichment. Foreign Ministry spokesman Assefi said on May 30 that the six countries meeting in Vienna on June 1 should not expect Iran to do anything beyond that which is required by the NPT. He said Iran will not suspend its nuclear research -- which is how Iran defines its relatively limited uranium-enrichment activities. Iran currently has a cascade of 164 centrifuges, and Assefi noted that in some cases 3,000 centrifuges are used for research. Assefi also noted that Iran does not recognize international limits on the percentage to which it may enrich uranium.

Supreme Leader Khamenei told legislators in a May 28 speech that Iranian scientists' accomplishments in the nuclear field have guaranteed the country's energy supplies. Any reversals in this field will be a complete loss for Iran, he said, as he praised the legislature's approval of a bill to halt voluntary suspension of enrichment activities if Iran is referred to the UN Security Council.

In a June 3 speech at the tomb of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, father of Iran's Islamic revolution, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan asked him to take his time and not publicize details on the proposal, state television reported. Ahmadinejad said Iran will reveal all the details eventually, and it also "will record all the talks word for word" to keep people apprised.

Iran's ultimate decision, Ahmadinejad continued, will be based on the national interest. Iran is willing to negotiate, but it consider its "nuclear rights - the use of the technology of nuclear fuel production and nuclear technology for peaceful purposes - to be part of our self-evident and legal rights and we will not negotiate about our self-evident rights with anyone." Possible topics for negotiation, he continued, are "mutual concerns," world peace, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN AUTHORITIES DETAIN STUDENT ACTIVISTS. As unrest among ethnic Azeris in Iran settles down, disturbances involving university students are picking up. In the past week several student leaders have been detained by plainclothes security personnel and are being held at unknown locations. Such incidents follow protests triggered by the Iranian government's increasing interference in campus affairs. There are roughly 2.4 million university students in Iran, and student affairs will therefore have an impact on national politics for some time.

Plainclothes And Disappearances

The Iranian government's involvement in university affairs includes dismissing popular professors, appointing unqualified individuals to administrative positions, and manipulating student elections. The most recent incidents involve the detention of student activists by security forces. Much is made of these forces being in plainclothes -- rather than in uniform -- because this makes it difficult to determine the security institution with which they are affiliated. Similarly, the detainees are frequently held incommunicado at unknown locations.

Student activists told Radio Farda that on the morning of May 31 plainclothes security forces detained Abdullah Momeni, spokesman of the majority wing of the Office for Strengthening Unity (Daftar-i Tahkim-i Vahdat, DTV). Reza Delbari, another DTV member, told Radio Farda that the security forces have been after the organization's members for some time. The security forces, he continued, see no need to operate within a legal framework because any action on the part of the students prompts a disproportionate reaction.

On the same day, students at the Amir Kabir University of Technology in Tehran held a lunchtime rally to protest the detention of two classmates, ISNA reported. Yashar Qajar, the head of the Islamic Students Union at Amir Kabir University, and blogger Abed Tavancheh, who wrote about recent campus protests on his weblog, were detained the previous week.

Student Abbas Hakimzadeh told Radio Farda on May 30 that there is no news of Qajar's whereabouts and no one answers calls to his mobile telephone. The authorities told Tavancheh's family that he would be released after answering a few questions, Hakimzadeh said, but that was days ago. Hakimzadeh claims that the University Basij wants to bring the hard-line pressure group Ansar-i Hizbullah onto the campus. Hakimzadeh predicted that the situation will quiet down with the approach of exams and the summer holiday.

A Week Of Unrest

The detentions in Tehran follow violent demonstrations at Tehran University and Amir Kabir University on May 22-23.

Demonstrating students at Tehran University objected to "the prevalence of a police atmosphere at the university," "Mardom Salari" reported on May 23. This has been a concern for some time. Last November there were accusations of universities becoming "garrisons" if the personnel responsible for physical security of the facilities were given more extensive powers that might relate to intelligence-gathering. More recently, students objected to plans to bury veterans of the Iran-Iraq war on campuses.

Tehran police chief Morteza Talai said on May 24 that some 20-30 people were behind the previous night's unrest at Tehran University, and he estimated that some of these people were not students, IRNA reported. Eyewitnesses reported some injuries and damage to parked vehicles, and Talai said 40 police were hurt. Students told Radio Farda that some students are missing and others were injured when police and paramilitaries attacked them.

Tehran police spokesman Mohammad Turang said on May 26 that eight people were arrested for damaging dormitories. Turang referred to "thugs" who make trouble, and added that foreigners are involved: "Investigations show that a current from outside the university was involved in the recent turmoil in the Tehran University dormitory. It seems that these people are related to foreign sources."

Tehran was not the only place where disturbances involving university students occurred during the last week in May. Students at Chamran University in Ahvaz and at Kermanshah University complained of interference in campus elections. The ones in Ahvaz also complained that university authorities would not allow outside speakers who were critical of the government, ISNA reported on May 23. Kermanshah University students also complained that the university authorities refused to permit a seminar at which pro-reform politicians would discuss the economic situation, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on May 23.

In other incidents, students in Kerman reported cases of harassment, students in Zanjan and other places demonstrated over the publication of the "cockroach" cartoon deemed insulting to Azeris, and those in Shiraz reported restrictions on their activities.

The protests continued in the last days of the month. Students at the Iran University of Medical Sciences staged a sit-in on May 29 to protest against the refusal of the chancellor's office to permit elections for the Islamic Students Union. Students Union head Mustafa Vafai said efforts to hold the election began seven months ago. He added that on May 28 the union was advised that it cannot hold elections until its activities conform with "the regulations regarding Islamic organizations." Vafai said the union was told at an earlier meeting that its Student Day rallies, its statements on the 2005 presidential election, and its publications are objectionable.

Anger Over Election Interference

The main concern at Amir Kabir University related to elections in the DTV, which now has two wings -- the more radical majority in the Neshast-i Allameh and the more traditional minority in the Neshast-i Shiraz (on student politics in Iran, see "Youth Movement Has Untapped Potential").

Members of the two DTV wings got in a brawl at Amir Kabir University on May 22, state television reported. The next day, the conservative "Kayhan" newspaper reported that the Allameh wing was trying to hold an illegal election and its members attacked another student group.

The Shiraz wing of the DTV at Amir Kabir University submitted a letter to the Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology in which it claimed that the other wing is trying to dominate the student organization, "Kayhan" reported on May 23. It accused the rival group of "denying the Islamic nature of Islamic associations and questioning the principles of the Islamic Revolution and the religion of Islam." It added that the Allameh wing has "been taking positions in conflict with the Iranian nation's national interests and in accordance with the country's foreign enemies at different junctures and during the country's political crises." The letter added, "they invite foreigners to interfere and meddle in Iran's internal affairs."

Two University of Tehran students who were members of the DTV central council explained in a letter to university Chancellor Ayatollah Abbas Ali Amid-Zanjani that because neither wing of the DTV could gain a majority in campus elections in spring 2005, they signed an agreement in which five of the traditionalists and four of the reformers would serve on the student council. Since that time, however, the traditionalists have squeezed out the reformers, "Sharq" reported on May 30. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN OFFICIALS BLAME FOREIGN POWERS FOR NORTHWESTERN UNREST. As unrest among ethnic Azeris in Iran continues for the third week following the publication in the official "Iran" newspaper of a cartoon showing an Azeri-speaking cockroach, Iranian officials are accusing foreign powers of fomenting the unrest. Government spokesman Gholam Hussein Elham said on May 29 that foreigners are encouraging ethnic differences in an effort to undermine national security, state radio reported. Such efforts will fail, he continued, because "Iran has been able to create a united Islamic identity and culture by respecting the ethnic identities, values, cultures and languages." Elham added, "The people in this country are united, especially in Azerbaijan."

Ali Nikzad, governor of Ardabil Province, also said on May 29 that foreigners are behind the unrest, Fars News Agency reported. Many residents of Ardabil are ethnic Azeris and, Nikzad added, "Some people arrested after recent disturbances were neither from the city of Ardabil nor from the province. They were unknown people supported by foreign [intelligence] services."

President Ahmadinejad told the cabinet in Tehran on May 28 that Iran's enemies are trying to incite ethnic unrest because Iran will not back down on the nuclear issue, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported.

Supreme Leader Khamenei made a similar accusation in a speech to legislators on May 28, state television reported. He said, "The last arrow in the quiver of the enemy against the Iranian nation and the Islamic Republic is to sow tension and stir ethnic and religious unrest."

Interior Minister Mustafa Pur-Mohammadi told a May 30 seminar of provincial governors-general that the United States is behind recent incidents of unrest in northwestern Iran, ISNA reported. "With information available to us," Pur-Mohammadi said, "Americans would leave no stone unturned in order to create division in the country." Pur-Mohammadi charged that "our enemies have plans for every small or major incident in the country," adding, "The American government is trying to exert more pressure on Iran and create more obstacles and predicaments for the country."

In the Republic of Azerbaijan, meanwhile, four organizations -- the Movement for the National Revival of Southern Azerbaijan, "Whole Azerbaijan," and both wings of the World Congress of Azerbaijanis -- have formed a committee to support ethnic Azeris in Iran, day.az reported on June 1. Opposition politicians from several political parties attended the meeting; National Democratic Party Chairman Iskander Hamidov advocated sending a parliament delegation to Iran to assess the situation there. (Bill Samii, Liz Fuller)

CARTOON PROTESTS POINT TO GROWING FRUSTRATION AMONG AZERIS. The past few days have seen a string of deadly protests in predominantly Azeri northwestern Iran. What officially triggered the turmoil was the publication in the May 19 weekly supplement to the Tehran-based "Iran" newspaper of a controversial cartoon showing an Azeri-speaking cockroach. Although "Iran" is a government-owned periodical, authorities blame alleged "enemies of the country" -- a term generally used to describe the United States, Israel, and Britain -- for the ethnic unrest. But regional observers believe the controversial cartoon served as a catalyst for Iran's Azeris to press anew for social, economic, and political demands.

The publication of the controversial cartoon prompted a swift response from Iran's central authorities.

Cabinet ministers condemned the caricature, describing it as "an offense to the Iranian people as a whole."

A Foreign Plot?

On May 23 -- the day after the first protests broke out in Tabriz -- the country's judiciary ordered the indefinite closure of "Iran" and the arrest of its editor in chief and its cartoonist.

But this did not help defuse tensions in the northwest.

As new protests were reported, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad alleged in a May 25 television address that the unrest was part of a foreign plot aimed at disrupting Tehran's efforts to acquire "peaceful nuclear technology."

On May 28, it was the turn of the country's supreme leader to enter the fray.

In an address to Iran's parliament, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested a link between developments in the northwest and a recent announcement that U.S. President George W. Bush's administration is seeking a multimillion-dollar bill in Congress to promote democracy in Iran.

"This tumult -- these ethnic and religious instigations -- are the last arrow left in the quiver of the enemies of the People's Islamic Republic of Iran," he said. "They are wrong when they plan to spend money with a view to stirring ethnic groups, social classes, and the youth. As a rule their plans are based on a wrong assessment of the situation. And now they've decided to turn to Azerbaijan."

Stirring Up Arabs And Kurds, Too

This is not the first time Iranian authorities have blamed domestic unrest on foreign countries.

Tehran accused Britain last year of instigating bomb attacks in the southwestern Khuzestan Province, a region with a large Arab population. It also blamed the United States for allegedly stoking unrest among ethnic Kurds.

Touraj Atabaki teaches at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. This expert on Iran's Azeri minority says there might be some truth behind Iran's claims of a foreign plot. Yet, he tells RFE/RL he believes responsibility for the unrest lies first and foremost with the central government.

"Of course one cannot confirm that foreign agencies or [individuals] from [neighboring] Azerbaijan or Turkey, or from the U.S., are involved," he said. "This is very difficult to [make such accusations]. There might be some foreign involvement. But one can neither confirm nor deny this. Yet, the [approach] of the Iranian [authorities] toward social protests is very security-oriented and based on conspiracy theories. They immediately come to the conclusion that protests are instigated by foreign powers and they don't want to see the social, local [reasons] of these protests."

Ever since Tehran quelled the short-lived autonomous government of Tabriz in 1946, Azeris -- who make up to one quarter of the country's population -- have been demanding more rights in line with Iran's Constitution.

In the late 1990s, President Mohammad Khatami introduced reforms aimed at giving ethnic minorities more control of their respective regions' political life. But Atabaki says Ahmadinejad, who took office in August of last year, is in the process of reversing this policy.

Ahmadinejad Reverses Policy

"What Khatami did was to try to bring more local people into the political establishment. Governors, mayors, and local officers were elected or appointed from [amongst] various ethnic groups and that was a trend that started some eight years ago. But now, [under] the presidency of Ahmadinejad, we see that those officials who were appointed [over] the past eight years [are being] replaced with people coming from [other] geographic areas. Those are mostly people who have links with the Revolutionary Guard."

Ali Hamed-Iman is the director of "Shams-e Tabrizi," a reformist electronic newspaper that has its office in the capital of East Azerbaijan Province. He tells Radio Farda the controversial cartoon served as a catalyst for the country's Azeris.

"This caricature became an excuse for Turkic-speaking students and people all across Iran," Hamed-Iman said. "It was a spark that blew up the gunpowder of the Azerbaijani national movement. It was like a knife stuck in the back of the [Azeri] people, or to put it differently, in the back of the Azerbaijani national movement."

That Azeri protests are going beyond the cartoon controversy is confirmed by reports from Tehran.

As Khamenei was preparing to address the legislature on May 28, dozens of Azeris marched on the parliament before being dispersed by police. Iran's student news agency (ISNA) said they were demanding that their language be taught in Iranian schools and that an Azeri-language television channel be established.

Difficult To Determine Meanwhile, what really happened in Iran's northwest remains shrouded in secrecy.

Authorities initially said the protests were limited to Tabriz and that one person was wounded and another 54 people arrested during the unrest.

Subsequent reports, however, suggest the disturbances were on a much broader scale.

On May 28, the top security officer of West Azerbaijan Province, General Hassan Karami, said four people were killed in the town of Naqadeh, some 150 kilometers southeast of Tabriz.

Various Accounts Offered This official death toll pales in comparison to that given by the Southern Azerbaijan National Awakening Movement (Guney Azerbaycan Milli Oyanis Harekati -- or GAMOH).

The Baku-based GAMOH advocates unification of Azeris living on both sides of the Araxes River, which separates Iran from Azerbaijan.

The group says unrest spread across Iran's north and that deadly clashes in Tabriz, Urumiyeh, Ardabil, Maragheh, Zanjan, Khoy, Bukan, and other towns left at least 20 dead and scores of wounded. It also claims security forces made hundreds of arrests and sustained a few casualties at the hands of protesters.

The World Azeri Congress last week released a list of casualties that indicated that some of the deadliest clashes took place in Sulduz (Fesanduz, in Persian), a town GAMOH claims fell briefly into the hands of insurgents.

Given the political agenda of those two organizations, independent observers may find it hard to give credence to their claims.

Yet, Atabaki -- who has just returned from Iran -- says the protest movement "is spreading everywhere" and has reached Farsabad, near the border with Azerbaijan. He also says the government seems unable -- or unwilling -- to respond to the unrest other than through coercion.

"They have mobilized mobs against the crowds that took to the streets," Atabaki said. "They also started mass repression, [with] arrests and imprisonments. They think this is the best way to tackle the crisis. The point is that the government did not expect such a [protest] movement, [that it would develop] on such a scale." (Jean-Christophe Peuch)

AFGHAN PRESIDENT MEETS IRANIAN LEADERS. Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited Tehran from May 27-28, Iranian news agencies reported. The Afghan delegation included national security adviser Zalmay Rasul, Agriculture Minister Obaidullah Ramin, acting Culture and Information Minister Sayyed Makhdum Rahin, acting Economy Minister Amin Farhang, Energy, Water, and Power Minister Mohammad Ismail Khan, Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta, Interior Minister Moqbal Zarar, Public Works Minister Surab Ali Safari, and Transportation Minister Enayatullah Qasemi, IRNA reported. Governors from Farah, Herat, and Nimroz provinces, which border Iran, were also in the delegation.

After his first meting with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Karzai said Afghanistan would like to expand its trade and economic relations with Iran, IRNA reported, and he noted Iranian contributions to his country's reconstruction.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told Karzai that American and European interference in Afghan affairs is harmful to Afghan progress, Fars news Agency reported. Khamenei also referred to the flow of narcotics from Afghanistan, the world's biggest opium producer, and the continuing dispute over the quantity of water from Afghanistan's Helmand River that flows into Iran's Sistan va Baluchistan Province.

Karzai also met with parliament speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel and Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki.

Also during the visit, agreements and memorandums regarding prisoner exchanges and criminal extraditions, railway construction, and cooperation in other fields were signed. (Bill Samii)

TAJIK OFFICIALS ALLEGE MILITANTS TRAINED IN IRAN. Zokir Nazarov, deputy prosecutor of Sughd Province, told a meeting of provincial security officials on May 27 that terrorists trained in Iran are threatening Tajikistan's security, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. "In the course of investigating the murder of the Nov (Spitamen) District head, the security services identified a large, centralized group of terrorists," Nazarov said. He added that group members "polished their terrorist skills in military schools in Qom, Iran. Apart from the individuals who have been detained, there are more than 400 other individuals from the group trained in Qom with various specializations who are active in Sughd Province." Akipress.org reported that Tajik officials believe Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) members from this group were responsible for the recent incursion by armed militants from Tajikistan into Kyrgyzstan. (Daniel Kimmage)

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