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Iran Report: August 14, 2006


August 14, 2006, Volume 9, Number 30

ELECTIONS DELAYED BY ONE MONTH. Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Mustafa Purmohammadi announced on August 13 that the upcoming elections for the Assembly of Experts and for municipal councils will take place on December 15 (Azar 24 in the Iranian calendar), Mehr News Agency and the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported, rather than on November 17, as previously announced. He added that parliamentary by-elections in Ahvaz, Bam, and Tehran will take place in December as well. The main reason for the delay, Purmohammadi explained, is the heavy workload associated with preparations for holding the elections simultaneously.

A little more than a week earlier -- on August 5 -- the Guardians Council approved the holding of simultaneous elections, state television reported. This cleared the way to implement a July 26 legislative decision to hold balloting on November 17.

Former parliament speaker Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi on August 6 described simultaneous elections as a valuable opportunity, Mehr News Agency reported. This will encourage mass participation and save money, Karrubi said. Karrubi, who leads the reformist National Trust Party, said a list of candidates is under consideration.

Other observers are less enthusiastic about the election schedule. The short amount of time before the elections, reformist legislator Iraj Nadimi said in the August 12 issue of "Aftab-i Yazd," means parties must form coalitions if they want to have a serious presence. It is difficult to predict the outcome of the elections, Nadimi continued: "With the nuclear issue, the workings of parties, the divide in society and international developments, one cannot say definitely what impact the coming elections will have on the results of parliamentary and presidential elections."

Another reformist legislator, Hojatoleslam Majid Ansari, said the parties do not have the financial wherewithal to compete in simultaneous elections, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported. He also questioned whether the government would save any money, because the procedures for the different races vary greatly. (Bill Samii)

OFFICIAL'S BROTHER REPORTEDLY ARRESTED FOR NARCOTICS SMUGGLING. The brother of Iranian state inspectorate chief Hojatoleslam Mohammad Niazi has been arrested for drug smuggling, the reformist advarnews.com reported on August 5. Niazi, whose first name was not provided, reportedly had 95 kilograms of opium and 45 kilograms of heroin in his possession when he was detained on the road from Kahnuj to Rudan in Kerman Province. (Bill Samii)

ALLEGED AFGHAN WAHHABI EXECUTED IN IRAN. Kerman Province Deputy Governor-General for Political and Security Affairs Abolqasem Nasrollahi announced on August 7 that one of the robbers responsible for an attack along the Bam-Kerman road would be executed later that night, Fars News Agency reported.

Twelve people were killed during the May incident in the southeastern Kerman Province, and Interior Minister Mustafa Pur-Mohammadi was widely criticized over the security situation in the southeastern part of the country (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 26 May 2006). Nasrollahi said the government is closing in on the responsible parties, adding, "The agents responsible for this crime, who are more than 20, are under siege and we anticipate their arrest soon." Nasrollahi said the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, the regular army's air wing, the Basij, and the national police are participating in the operation against the gang.

The condemned man was an Afghan Wahhabi, Fars News Agency reported on August 8, quoting Bam Governor Majid Etemadi. Najib Karzahi traveled to Iran to find work, but instead Abdulmalik Rigi's gang offered him 10 million rials (approximately $1,100) to kill people, Etemadi said. Karzahi allegedly confessed that the gang had a close connection to the Taliban, Fars reported. Etemadi said all those responsible for the May incident have been killed except the gang's leader, whom he described as Abdulmalik Rigi's brother and who has fled to Pakistan. (Bill Samii)

HUMAN RIGHTS GROUP DEFIES BAN. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi's human rights group declared on August 6 that it will continue its activities despite an Interior Ministry ban, ILNA reported. The Defenders of Human Rights Center's statement claimed the ban violates the law, specifically Article 26 of the constitution, which says that the formation of such entities is legal as long as they do not undermine public order. Appeals against the subsequent ban have not yielded results. The center was created some four years ago, and the statement explained that the group applied for a permit at the time to demonstrate its goodwill. Ebadi noted that many applicants for party permits win approval within several months, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on August 5. (Bill Samii)

TIMES GET TOUGHER FOR NGOS. Facing official restrictions on meaningful participation in political affairs, some Iranians have come to view nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as a way to get involved and help themselves and others. But hard-liners associated with Iran's president have expressed misgivings about NGOs.

The most recent expression of official distrust was the government's ban in early August of a human rights group led by Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi.

There are thousands of such entities currently operating in Iran, with estimates ranging from 8,000 to 20,000. They include charities, as well as organizations that deal with youth affairs, environmental issues, women, human rights, and vulnerable groups.

Formerly Encouraged

The former administration of reformist President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) encouraged the creation of NGOs and earmarked funding for their establishment. The main goal of the reformists was political development.

And the development of civil-society entities like NGOs was seen as an essential part of this process. Even as his second term in office ended, Khatami revealed his continuing confidence in NGOs by registering a group that would focus on the "dialogue among civilizations," the motto of his presidency.

Not everyone shares this enthusiasm for NGOs.

Some Iranian conservatives regard them as suspicious Western-style institutions that are inappropriate for the Islamic republic. The hard-line Islamic Coalition Party's Hamid Reza Taraqi called it "impossible to deal with the people's demands by setting up NGOs," "Etemad" reported on July 28, 2005. Taraqi offered that such groups "are based on the Western way of thinking and models that are not in tune with [Iran's] cultural structure and civilizations."

Taraqi also criticized the Khatami administration for allocating funds for NGOs. He predicted that President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's administration would adopt a different approach.

"Instead of promoting such formations and Western models," Taraqi said, Ahmadinejad "will try to make use of the mosque and religious teams...in order to pursue public demands." He suggested that such institutions "are more commensurate with the indigenous culture."

Budget Offensive

Taraqi's prediction appeared prescient when the Ahmadinejad administration submitted its budget to the parliament. The amount of money allocated to religious institutions, seminaries, and outreach entities was increased. In some cases, the budget increases surpassed 100 percent, "Etemad" reported on February 15.

The initial impression might be that this change in emphasis reflects the conservative tendencies of the president and his associates, and some legislators objected to these developments.

It is noteworthy that such a shift -- and an accompanying reallocation of resources -- is not peculiar to the Ahmadinejad administration. Other Iranian executives have done the same, and these moves could merely reflect Ahmadinejad's effort to distance himself from the policies of his predecessor. Moreover, shifting funds to mosque-based organizations could be a way of working with those civil-society institutions that are most familiar to the president's political base among the country's more traditional classes.

However, the changes in funding reportedly have had the greatest effect on NGOs working on politically sensitive issues like women's rights.

Legal Environment

Legislation regulating NGOs also presents obstacles. Laws are "overcomplicated and cumbersome," according to attorney Negar Katirai. Writing about the Iranian legal environment for NGOs in "The International Journal Of Not-For-Profit Law," Katirai said the activities of a large number of decision-making centers are not coordinated. Registration and regulation is often inconsistent.

The NGO community and the Interior Ministry met in November 2003 and eventually developed a revised law on NGOs. Katirai noted that the law was reworked several times before its eventual rejection by the legislature. But some of its components were incorporated in "Executive Regulations Concerning the Formation and Activities of Nongovernmental Organizations" of June 2005.

In addition, the country's restrictive media environment makes it difficult to disseminate information about civil-society activities and needs.

But any efforts to eliminate NGOs would likely meet with stubborn resistance. Many of them have helped many Iranians assert greater control over their lives. And they are institutions built on a culture of self-help and mutual assistance. (Bill Samii)

AUTHORITIES INTERVENE DURING ACTIVIST'S MEMORIAL SERVICE. The town of Amol was the site of a memorial service on August 4 for student activist Akbar Mohammadi, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported the next day. Mohammadi died while in custody at Evin prison, and the spokesman for postgraduate members of the Office for Strengthening Unity, Abdullah Momeni, said Mohammadi was interred at Kangmian village. Momeni added that the authorities stopped some of the minibuses transporting mourners to the event and detained a number of people until after the event's conclusion. Khalil Bahramian, Mohammadi's lawyer, told Radio Farda on August 6 that he intends to complain formally to the head of the judiciary about prison authorities, who he suggested had a hand in his client's death.

Mohammadi's family was determined to hold a commemorative service for him at a Tehran mosque on August 10 despite efforts by security forces to stop them, Radio Farda reported on August 10. Nasrin Mohammadi, sister of Akbar Mohammadi, told Radio Farda that security forces told a Tehran mosque not to allow the ceremony and were trying to stop Mohammadi's parents from traveling to Tehran from their home in Amol. She said they were determined to hold a service, although it was not immediately clear if they were successful. Nasrin Mohammadi told Radio Farda that her parents told her "we will set fire to ourselves with a gallon of gasoline" if the "regime stops us." (Bill Samii, Vahid Sepehri)

FORMER INMATE DESCRIBES ACTIVIST'S DEATH IN CUSTODY. A political activist who was in jail along with former student protest leader Akbar Mohammadi when he died has told Radio Farda that he witnessed Mohammadi's recent death in custody. Mohammadi's death, roughly one week into a hunger strike, has renewed criticism of the Iranian government over its treatment of political dissidents -- particularly since he suffered from serious ailments that rights groups blamed on official torture. Former inmate Bina Darabzand's statements appear to confirm the officials' account of events -- that Mohammadi died of an apparent heart attack -- but they also lend weight to family and other observers' charges that he was denied proper treatment when it was clear he was seriously ill.

Darabzand told Radio Farda that he was being held in the same prison block with Mohammadi at Tehran's notorious Evin prison.

He says he saw Mohammadi around 8 in the evening on July 30, shortly before Mohammadi died.

RFE/RL could not independently corroborate his account of the hours leading up to Mohammadi's death, but family members and rights groups are calling for an independent autopsy and investigation.

Awaiting Autopsy

Tehran's deputy prosecutor, Mahmud Salarkia, has said prison physicians believe Mohammadi died of a heart attack. But he added on August 1 that the exact cause of his death should be determined by coroners, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).

Iranian authorities said that Mohammadi received treatment at the prison's infirmary, including serums.

Prosecutor Salarkia said that Mohammadi -- who was hunger striking in a bid to secure his release -- had personally demanded to be transferred back to his cell.

Inmate Account

Darabzand told Radio Farda a different story. He claimed that prison authorities denied Mohammadi adequate care.

"I remember after he went on hunger strike on [July 23] that on [July 27] he felt ill three times. They hospitalized him only after the third time he felt ill," Darabzand said. "On [July 30], when they returned him to the block, he told us during the last hour of his life that on [July 29] he had a heart attack in the prison infirmary."

Mohammadi reportedly suffered from serious health problems -- including internal bleeding, lung and kidney infection, and injury to his spinal cord.

Tortured Past

Rights advocates and relatives said those complications were the result of torture he had endured during prison interrogations.

In July 2004, Mohammadi was released from prison to receive medical care.

About two years later, on June 11, he was rearrested at his family home in northern Iran and transferred to Evin prison.

Iranian authorities said Mohammadi was returned to prison to complete his 15-year prison term in connection with Tehran's 1999 student protests.

A few weeks later, Mohammadi launched a hunger strike to protest his imprisonment and win his release.

Hunger Strike

Darabzand said prison doctors had warned that Mohammadi's continuing hunger strike could endanger his life.

"The head of the prison infirmary had warned the prison management that [Mohammadi] had a syncope (a loss of consciousness, often from a lack of blood flow to the brain), although he survived it. But he had said, 'If we don't react to his conditions -- since he doesn't even drink water and doesn't accept medication -- whether we want to or not, we'll face a corpse here. The prison authorities said to return him to his cell and let him die there. The next day, they again told him to stop his hunger strike -- there are many witnesses. But he had said, 'I won't stop until you meet my demands.' Then [prison authorities] told him that they would return him to the cell block so that he could rot."

Darabzand -- who was released on August 6 after two years in prison -- said Mohammadi was in poor health when he was returned to his block.

"They returned him to the block by ambulance -- he couldn't move," Darabzand said. "[Other inmates] had to bring him in on a stretcher; it was clear that he hadn't received medical care. Some inmates volunteered and took him to the bathroom to change his clothes and wash him with a sponge. There his face turned black and his jaw locked up. I wasn't there -- I was on the phone when I saw that they were carrying him on the stretcher toward the infirmary. They had called for an ambulance, but the infirmary didn't send one."

Darabzand said the 36-year-old Mohammadi died on the way to the infirmary.

Some Discrepancies

Iranian authorities have given a slightly different version of Mohammadi's final hours.

Deputy prosecutor Salarkia said that Mohammadi had a heart attack while taking a cold shower. He said he was rushed to the infirmary but that doctors' efforts to save him were futile.

Some observers have described Mohammadi's death as suspicious and called for an independent investigation to determine the cause of death.

Darabzand placed the blame squarely on the authorities.

"I disagree that it was suspicious -- because for those of us who were there, what [the authorities] did was very obvious. First of all, based on a recommendation made by [medical authorities], Mr. Mohammadi went on an unlimited leave two years ago because he couldn't stay in prison with all his health problems. Our question is: Who ordered that he be returned to prison, illegally and over his protest?"

He also dismissed as "rumor" a report that suggested Mohammadi was forcibly given some sort of medication.

"We witnessed his heart attack," Darabzand said. "We think that the fact that he had a heart attack and then was returned to the block so that he died there is enough to condemn this establishment. There is no need to spread rumors that [Tehran General Prosecutor] Mortazavi poisoned him. Those who spread these rumors apparently want to show that Iran's Islamic establishment has only one evil -- and that is Mr. Mortazavi -- and that if you remove a few people like Mortazavi, then there won't be any problems with the regime. No! they're all the same in this establishment."

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have said Mohammadi's death is a black mark on the entire Iranian justice system and called for independent inquiries. (By Golnaz Esfandiari; Radio Farda correspondent Shirin Famili contributed to this report.)

DISSIDENT'S CONDITION CONCERNS POLITICAL PRISONERS. A group of political prisoners have in an open letter expressed concern for the condition of fellow prisoner Ahmad Batebi, jailed for his part in 1999 student demonstrations in Iran, Radio Farda reported on August 9. Batebi was arrested while on prison leave on July 29, shortly before the death in custody of another dissident, Akbar Mohammadi. The prisoners wrote in their letter that "it seems people are waiting for Ahmad to die, before they react," Radio Farda reported. They criticized the EU for not formally condemning Mohammadi's suspect death in prison. "I do not know where Ahmad Batebi is being detained," Batebi's lawyer, Khalil Bahramian, told Radio Farda on August 9. Batebi's wife, Somayeh Binat, also told Radio Farda she has written to the head of the UN human rights agency asking for help. "We are really worried about Ahmad, and that what happened to Mr. Mohammadi should happen to Ahmad," she said. Batebi reportedly began a hunger strike after his recent arrest, Radio Farda stated. (Vahid Sepehri)

GOVERNMENT BALKS AT GASOLINE RATIONING. Balancing economic and fiscal responsibility with campaign promises can be a problem for any elected official. For Iran's populist president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, this has proven especially difficult. Ahmadinejad frequently tours the provinces and lends a sympathetic ear to locals. But when it comes to the public consumption of artificially cheap gasoline, his government has found further funding more palatable than taking unpopular steps like rationing or ending subsidies.

Earlier this year, Iran's central government began considering gasoline rationing and other measures that affect gasoline use. The development was largely motivated by the fiscal concerns. Consumers currently pay $0.09/liter because the government subsidizes gasoline. But Minister of Economy and Finance Davud Danesh-Jafari has estimated that a liter costs more than six times that amount, or 5,000 rials (about $0.57), "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on July 11.

Drivers used 67 million liters a day in the last Iranian year, and the government expects they will use 73 million liters daily in the current year. This is not high in comparative terms. According to Iran's Energy Information Administration, gasoline consumption is well below that in the United States, Japan, or China, to name a few.

But while Iran is a major oil exporter, its refineries cannot meet domestic demand. They can only refine 60 percent of the gasoline Iranians use, and must import the rest. The situation is further complicated by the smuggling of cheap gasoline from Iran to neighboring states, where it can be sold at a profit.

Recognizing A Problem

At the end of June, speaker of parliament Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel announced that Iran's legislature had approved gasoline rationing -- as called for in the executive branch's annual budget. Haddad-Adel also made it clear that he and his colleagues recognize how unpopular rationing would be. He said cooperation was continuing with the government "to find the best way to economize" within an appropriate time frame, Islamic Republic of Iran New Network television reported on June 29.

It soon became clear that the possibility of a public backlash had stayed the government's hand. During President Ahmadinejad's discussion of economic affairs with cabinet members and provincial governors-general on July 9, he had dismissed rumors that there were imminent plans to increase gasoline prices through rationing, Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. He also reassured them that "if the government decides to ration gasoline," its decision would be "transparent and announced to the nation with the aim of controlling [its] excessive use."

The same day, Deputy Interior Minister for Development Affairs Seyyed Mehdi Hashemi called energy management a major aspect of the meeting, according to Mehr News Agency. He said fuel subsidies cost the government $13 billion annually. Hashemi added that a committee consisting of a presidential envoy, the cabinet secretary, and the head of the Management and Planning Organization would soon address the subject of gasoline. He pledged that legislation would be introduced to the parliament for approval in the coming year.

The legislature's Budget and Planning Committee also met the same day in early July to discuss the possibility of gas rationing, Fars News Agency reported. The committee announced that lawmakers had determined that gasoline requirements for the latter half of the year would be met through imports -- obviating the need for rationing.

The Government Blinks

But a little more than a week later, government spokesman Gholam-Hussein Elham said the government had not yet reached a decision on gasoline rationing. The spokesman added that the government intended to promote the use of cars that burn natural gas and facilitate the use of public transport, Mehr News Agency reported on July 18. Elham said the government also wanted to get old, inefficient cars off the road.

Eventually, the government decided not to take the unpopular step of rationing gasoline. Kamal Daneshyar, head of the parliamentary Energy Committee, said the government would ask to withdraw $4 billion from Iran's foreign-currency reserves to spend on fuel imports, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on July 23.

Hussein Nejabat, another member of the Energy Committee, said the government had also decided to change the current gasoline distribution system, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on July 23. He described the government's overall objective as reducing gasoline consumption below that of the previous year. "But," he added, "the methods and means of achieving that goal [were] still being debated." He noted that the purchase of buses that run on natural gas had already been approved.

At the end of July, government spokesman Elham stressed that "reducing consumption is one of the government's definite policies," according to IRNA on July 24. He went on to add that the government had yet to develop any strategy that called for rationing or curbing imports.

Petroleum Minister Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh confirmed on July 30 that there would be no rationing, according to Reuters on July 31. Imports, the minister said, will continue as before. (Bill Samii)

UN REPORTS IRAN'S QUEST FOR AFRICAN URANIUM. A shipment of uranium-238 mined in Congo and destined for Bandar Abbas was intercepted by customs officials in Tanzania in October, "The Sunday Times" reported on August 6, citing a July 18 United Nations report. U-238 has nuclear-weapon applications.

The uranium was hidden in a shipment of coltan, which is used to make chips for mobile telephones. High radiation levels were found in a routine Geiger-counter scan of the shipment. "The container was put in a secure part of the port and it was later taken away, by the Americans, I think, or at least with their help," a Tanzanian customs official was quoted as saying. "The Sunday Times" added that the report has been submitted to UN sanctions committee Chairman Oswaldo de Rivero and the Security Council will soon take it under consideration.

Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani said on August 6 that this report is "untrue" and is an example of U.S. "psychological war," state television reported. "We do not need uranium, we have uranium mines and the facilities to convert the uranium to yellowcake; therefore, under such circumstances, it is not logical for us to ship such cargos."

Congolese government spokesman Henri Mova Sakanyi denied that his country sold U-238 to Iran, Radio France Internationale reported on 10 August. He described the allegation as a part of an effort to implicate the Congo in the Iranian nuclear issue. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN HINTS AT WILLINGNESS TO DISCUSS NUCLEAR TOPICS AND ISSUES VEILED ECONOMIC THREAT. Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani said on August 6 that Iran will reject UN Security Council Resolution 1696 of July 31, which orders Iran to halt sensitive nuclear activities by the end of August or face possible economic sanctions, Radio Farda, IRNA, and state television reported. Larijani described the resolution as "illegal" because the country is not in violation of its Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations. Larijani said Iran wants to resolve the situation through negotiations and that a change in Western behavior could persuade Iran to change its policy.

However, Larijani said Iran will not suspend its uranium-enrichment activities, adding, "We will expand nuclear technology at whatever stage it may be necessary, and all of Iran's nuclear technology, including the [centrifuge] cascades, will be expanded."

Larijani questioned the logic of submitting a proposal to resolve the issue in early June and then issuing the resolution before Iran has completed its review of the proposal. Tehran has declared that it will respond by August 22 to the incentives package delivered by EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana on June 6.

Larijani said on August 6 that the imposition of sanctions against Iran would have consequences that could hurt the West, state television reported. "There are so many repercussions in the international domain and they [those imposing sanctions] will lose more than us," he said. "They should not think that they can hurt us and that we will not react." In an apparent reference to withholding oil exports, Larijani said: "They should not force us so that they shiver in the cold themselves or suffer other problems.... We will respond in a way that will be sufficiently painful for them."

U.S. Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Gregory Schulte rejected Iranian claims of the illegality of Security Council Resolution 1696 in an interview with Radio Farda on August 8. Schulte said the resolution reflects Iran's conduct of activities that are counter to its NPT obligations. The resolution is not directed against the Iranian people, Schulte insisted, but is the result of actions by the country's leadership.

Piruz Mujtahedzadeh, a professor of geopolitics at Tehran's Tarbiat Mudariss University and chairman of the London-based Urosevic Research Foundation, told Radio Farda that the Security Council does not have the authority to pass Resolution 1696. (Bill Samii)

ENVOY SAYS IRAN STUDYING RUSSIAN FUEL PROPOSALS. Iranian Ambassador to Russia Gholamreza Ansari said in Moscow on August 9 that Tehran is still studying a Russian offer to have fuel made for its nuclear program inside Russia, Mehr agency reported, citing ITAR-TASS (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," December 14, 2005). The proposal "made last year...is being discussed and has been approved by Iranian leaders," Ansari said. He claimed that "unfortunately developments with the [atomic dossier] prevented us from finding suitable conditions to discuss this in detail." Ansari added, "We have no problem buying fuel from Russia or other international centers, but we intend to use this technology, because this is an issue closely related to the independence and future of our country." Iran says it wishes to make fuel for a program strictly designed to generate electricity and for research, although some governments fear it will use fuel-making know-how to make bombs.

In Tehran, a member of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Hamid Reza Haji-Babai, said on August 9 that any resolution by UN Security Council members to "restrict politically" or impose sanctions on Iran will prompt parliament to vote to restrict UN inspections of Iran's atomic installations, ISNA reported. (Vahid Sepehri)

U.S. SLAPS SANCTIONS ON RUSSIAN ARMS FIRMS. The U.S. State Department on August 4 announced sanctions against Russia's main arms exporter, Rosoboroneksport, and the aircraft manufacturer Sukhoi for alleged violations of the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000, thereby barring U.S. companies from dealing with the two Russian firms for two years, as of July 28, Britain's "Financial Times" and "The Moscow Times" reported on August 6. Two companies each from North Korea and India, as well as one from Cuba, are also covered by the ban.

Boeing is working with Sukhoi to develop a 100-seat regional aircraft, and Boeing gets up to 40 percent of its titanium from VSMPO-Avisma, which Rosoboroneksport is seeking to acquire, Reuters reported. An unnamed U.S. government official told the news agency that Washington has "credible information" that Russia has supplied equipment and materials that could assist Iran in manufacturing unspecified weapons of mass destruction (WMD). It is not clear whether Russia will take any measures in retaliation.

Following the U.S. announcement of sanctions, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on August 5 that Russian companies act within the law and have supplied Iran only with defensive weapons "that are not capable of destabilizing the situation in the region," Russian media reported. A spokesman for Sukhoi said that his company has not sold anything to Iran for "the last eight to 10 years." A spokesman for Rosoboroneksport argued that his firm acts according to international law and has conducted deals not much different from those made with Tehran by unnamed Western countries.

An unnamed Defense Ministry official suggested to RIA Novosti that Washington wants to punish Moscow for its recent arms agreements with Venezuela, worth about $3 billion.

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said in St. Petersburg on August 7 that "these sanctions have nothing whatsoever to do with the issue of nonproliferation," Interfax reported.

Several Russian experts told ITAR-TASS that the U.S. motive is one of commercial rivalry with Russian competitors. Other observers suggested that Washington's move is linked to other trade issues. Some writers argued that the U.S. decision is tied to the current Middle East crisis and specifically to Russia's links to Hizballah. The daily "Kommersant" wrote on August 7 that Washington's decision marks "the end...of the era of strategic partnership" between the two countries.

On August 7, Defense Minister Ivanov dismissed the U.S. charges, while the Foreign Ministry called the sanctions "unacceptable." Rosoboroneksport chief Sergei Chemezov said that "the sanctions will in no way affect [his company] because we have no contracts with the United States on arms supplies or purchases of any weapons by them." He added that "the sanctions are a purely political action." Vyacheslav Bresht, who is co-owner of VSMPO-Avisma, which Rosoboroneksport is seeking to acquire, said that his company's sales of titanium to Boeing will not be affected because Boeing is a private firm, while the sanctions apply only to U.S. government agencies. The light metal is in demand by aircraft manufacturers, who seek to build lighter planes that will consume less fuel.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov condemned the sanctions against Rosoboroneksport and Sukhoi on August 8, Reuters reported. He said that "this looks like unfair [business] competition. It was an unfriendly act towards Russia and was not done in a spirit of cooperation. If we are to speak about possible consequences of this act for bilateral relations, of course it has not contributed to a further strengthening of the partnership. Among other things, we cannot rule out further negative consequences for this relationship."

The Moscow daily "Izvestia" argued on August 7 that the U.S. sanctions against the two Russian firms amount to "almost an economic declaration of war against Russia."

Commentator Pavel Felgengauer wrote in "Novaya gazeta" of August 7-9 that the sanctions are in retribution for recent tough talk against U.S. interests by two of President Vladimir Putin's "partners." Felgengauer referred to comments by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad about destroying Israel and by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez about using Sukhois to sink U.S. aircraft carriers in the Caribbean. The commentator noted that the two Russian companies do little direct business with the United States. He added, however, that they nonetheless stand to lose "billions" because they will not be able to use U.S. banking services or their New York bank accounts to process deals funded in dollars. The two companies will now have to use indirect alternative channels, which are more expensive. Felgengauer noted that Rosoboroneksport is run by Putin's former colleagues in the KGB and that the Kremlin will accordingly regard the sanctions as an insult to Putin, who appointed them.

RIA-Novosti's Viktor Litovkin suggested on August 7 that the U.S. sanctions against two Russian firms are in retaliation for Russia's recent $3 billion arms deal with Venezuela. Litovkin added that Sukhoi stands to lose because it has been working with Boeing to develop a 100-seat regional aircraft, and Rosoboroneksport will most likely lose an expected $200 million contract for Kalashnikovs for the Iraqi military and police. He suggested that the U.S. State Department and some unnamed "conservative politicians in the White House and the U.S. Congress" are behind the "undeclared trade war on Russia." Litovkin added that the dispute "will not allow American firms to make the short list of Gazprom's partners in the Shtokman project" to develop gas fields in the Barents Sea and thereby ease U.S. dependence on Venezuelan hydrocarbons. (Patrick Moore)

AHMADINEJAD AND AL-ASSAD DISCUSS LEBANON. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad telephoned his Iranian counterpart on August 5 to discuss developments in Lebanon, SANA reported. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told his interlocutor that Israel and its allies are surprised by Hizballah's strength, IRNA reported. "The Zionist regime thought by savage attacks on Lebanese civilians and infrastructure, it could defeat the popular Islamic resistance while the resistance hit back at them in a way that Israel and its masters are still in a state of confusion," Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying. He also said the United States cannot be a disinterested mediator because of its support for Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on August 7 in a statement taped in his office in Jerusalem for broadcast to a meeting of U.S. Jewish organizations that Hizballah is an instrument in the hands of Iran and Syria, Radio Farda reported. "I know you are all thinking [that] we are fighting against Hizballah," he said, "but let's face it, the state of Israel is fighting against the Iranians and the Syrians, who are using Hizballah in order to attack Israel from the north."

"Defending Lebanon's Hizballah is a duty for the entire Islamic community," Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei said in an August 8 speech marking the birth of Imam Ali, state radio reported. He accused the United States ("that American arrogance"), United Kingdom ("one of the most disgraced and ill-reputed governments in the region"), and Israel ("the cruel and savage Zionists") of trying to rid the region of Islam because it defies their ambitions. Israeli attacks against Lebanese civilians are encouraged by silence on the part of the United States, United Kingdom, and United Nations, Khamenei said. Such behavior "encourages the aggressors and oppressors," he charged. Khamenei accused the UN of "incompetence" and its members of being "cold-hearted, two-faced hypocrites." (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN DISCOURAGES HIZBALLAH DISARMAMENT. Both Israel and Lebanon indicated their willingness to comply with UN Security Council Resolution 1701, agreed on which has brought a halt to nearly five weeks of fighting.

Hizballah accepted the cease-fire but refused to disarm. As a main sponsor of Hizballah, Iran could use its leverage to encourage compliance with the UN-brokered resolution. Tehran is criticizing the resolution, however -- whether due to its heavy ideological and material investment in Hizballah or because of its desire to use the Lebanese conflict to boost its own credentials.

The cease-fire resolution includes references to two previous resolutions (1559 and 1680) that call for the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon. It also notes that the Lebanese government must exercise full sovereignty in the country.

'Winners' And 'Losers'

As the only remaining militia of any consequence in Lebanon, Hizballah is referred to -- directly or indirectly -- in all three resolutions. Earlier this year, the Lebanese cabinet identified Hizballah as "the resistance" -- wording that obviates the disarmament requirement.

Hizballah initially announced that it accepted the resolution. But a Lebanese cabinet session on August 13, the eve of the cease-fire, was adjourned for a day after Hizballah announced that it would not disarm in the area where international peacekeepers and Lebanese army forces should deploy, Al-Arabiyah television reported.

Iran's Foreign Ministry responded to Resolution 1701 by saying it was "not balanced," and suggested its delay in ratification undermined the Security Council's credibility. Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said Iran was "happy" that the resolution was passed but stressed its failure to condemn alleged Israeli "crimes," according to Iran News Network. Assefi also described "Lebanon's resistance movement, [its] people, and Hezbollah" as the "absolute winners" in the conflict. Israel, he claimed, "was the total loser."

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad described the resolution as one-sided, state radio reported on August 14. In a reference to Israel, Ahmadinejad added that "the myth of the invincibility of this contrived and decayed regime crumbled thanks to the faith and self-belief of Lebanon's Hizballah."

Iranian Involvement

Iran's role in the region is never mentioned explicitly in the UN resolution. But it is arguably alluded to in clauses on disarmament related to the conflict.

Specifically, the Security Council calls for an embargo on arms not destined for the Lebanese military, and says UN personnel will back efforts to prevent such smuggling. Iran is believed to have supplied Hizballah with a variety of missiles. Hizballah has used one such missile against an Israeli naval vessel and has fired many others at Israeli population centers.

Iran has historically denied supplying Hizballah with arms.

But an Iranian official with extensive involvement in Hizballah affairs, Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Mohtashami-Pur, acknowledged in an extensive interview in the August 3 issue of "Sharq" that Hizballah "has used" Iranian-manufactured missiles (Zelzal-2), in addition to Katyushas. Mohtashami-Pur heads the Support for the Palestinian Intifada conference series and was a leader in the creation of Hizballah when he was Tehran's ambassador to Damascus in the 1980s. After noting Hizballah's use in the current conflict of Zelzal-2 missiles, Mohtashami-Pur warned that "there is no place in Palestine that is occupied by Israel which cannot be the target of the Hizballah missiles."

"Janes' Defense Weekly" claimed on August 7 that Iran intends to supply Hizballah with several types of handheld surface-to-air missiles. Quoting anonymous "Western diplomatic sources," the British-based weekly said those weapons include Russian-made missile systems -- specifically, the Strela-2/2 (SA-7 Grail), Strela-3 (SA-14 Gremlin), and the Igla-1E (SA-16 Gimlet). "Jane's" also suggested that Iran intends to provide Hizballah with a low- to very-low-altitude surface-to-air missile system (Mithaq-1) that is a model of the Chinese QW-1 system.

Iranian Training

Mohtashami-Pur also said that Hizballah personnel have been trained by Iranians in Lebanon, and have received training in Iran. He boasted that "many of the experienced Hizballah forces...were on [Iran's] fronts" in its eight-year war with Iraq, adding that "they carried out operations directly or under our cover."

"It is true that, at the beginning, the Hizballah forces were trained in Iran and Lebanon by the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps," Mohtashami-Pur said. He added that Guards Corps personnel fought in Lebanon in the early 1980s, but then Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini said it would be wiser to train the Lebanese. "At that moment, a new phase began, which was the training of the Lebanese forces; and it resulted in the establishment of the Hizballah and the resistance; and we saw that after 18 years Israel was defeated in the face of such a force and left Lebanon."

Sheikh Naim Qasim, the deputy secretary-general of Hizballah, acknowledged the Iranian role in statements that appeared in "Le Monde" on August 11. He noted the establishment of Guards Corps training camps in the Bekaa Valley in the early 1980s, adding that the end of the Israeli occupation in 2000 benefited from "effective Iranian support."

It is possible that Hizballah personnel continue to receive training in Iran. A purported Hizballah fighter captured by Israeli forces acknowledged during interrogation that he received military training in Iran, Reuters reported on August 7, quoting Israeli military sources. The man, who reportedly identified himself as Mahmud Ali Suleiman, said he was accompanied by 40-50 other men when he went to Iran via Damascus airport to receive training on the use of antitank weapons.

Brothers In Arms?

There have been several reports in Israeli media suggesting that Iranian Guards Corps personnel have fought alongside Hizballah in the current conflict. This seems unlikely, because Tehran almost certainly recognizes the repercussions of an Iranian being captured and displayed on television. But this awareness does not rule out the presence of Guards Corps personnel who married into Lebanese families. Nor does it rule out the actions of deniable special-operations forces.

Hizballah's reluctance to disarm is to be expected. It has refused to do so since the Security Council issued Resolution 1559 in late 2004, although Israeli forces had withdrawn from Lebanon. Having drawn Israel into open warfare in the current situation, its retention of arms now appears justified. There is now little chance of Hizballah becoming merely another political organization representing one of the country's religious or ethnic communities.

Hizballah is not directed from Tehran. But as its main benefactor and ideological inspiration, Tehran is in a strong position to discourage Hizballah's cooperation with Resolution 1701.

There are several reasons why Iran might be tempted to pursue such a policy. Continuation of the current conflict could provide Iran with a moral high ground in regional affairs -- as it points accusingly at Western support for Israel and the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

The Iranians could argue that armed resistance is the only language the enemy understands. Moreover, in a predominantly Sunni Muslim world, it is the Shi'ite "Party of God" -- Hizballah -- that is seen to be standing up to Israel. And it is Iran that inspired and still backs Hizballah, while most other countries do nothing. (Bill Samii)

CORRECTION. The article "Preparing For A Defining Election" in the August 10 issue of the "RFE/RL Iran Report" contained an error. In fact, "absolute ijtihad" qualifies one to issue religious decrees, whereas "relative ijtihad" permits the interpretation of Islamic law.

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