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Iran Report: September 26, 2006


September 26, 2006, Volume 9, Number 35

IRAN MAJOR SUBJECT OF UN GENERAL ASSEMBLY MEETINGS. In his September 19 address to the UN General Assembly, U.S. President George W. Bush directed some of his comments to "the people of Iran," according to the White House website and Radio Farda. Bush told Iranians that the "greatest obstacle" to determining their own futures, having a rewarding economy, and a society that lets them fulfill their potential is their "rulers," who "have chosen to deny you liberty and to use your nation's resources to fund terrorism, and fuel extremism, and pursue nuclear weapons."

Bush said Iran must abandon "its nuclear weapons ambitions," adding that the United States does not oppose Iran's having a peaceful nuclear program. "We look to the day when you can live in freedom -- and America and Iran can be good friends and close partners in the cause of peace," Bush said.

Bush went on to advise the Syrian people that "your government is turning your country into a tool of Iran," adding, "This is increasing your country's isolation from the world."

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad addressed the UN General Assembly on the evening of September 19, "The New York Times" reported. Ahmadinejad said the UN Security Council, of which China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States are permanent members, is not impartial. "Excellencies, the question needs to be asked, if the governments of the United States or the United Kingdom commit atrocities or violate international law, which of the organizations in the United Nations can take them to account?" Ahmadinejad asked.

In discussing the recently concluded conflict in Lebanon, Ahmadinejad said, "Apparently the Security Council can only be used to ensure the right of the big powers." He criticized the Security Council for not demanding a cease-fire in Lebanon more quickly. Ahmadinejad made repeated references to the council's legitimacy.

Ahmadinejad addressed similar themes during a September 21 press conference in New York. He said, "Some root causes of today's problems of humanity are coming from the world order that we believe remained since World War II," RFE/RL reported. Ahmadinejad continued: "This is an old system, it leads a few to see themselves as the owners of the world and see others as their belongings. Some like to rule the whole world and this has led to injustice in world relations." Ahmadinejad repeated his earlier criticism of the Security Council, and he called for a change in the status quo, saying, "All nations should have equal rights, all peoples and nations are respected, all have the right to have a respectable life, all have the right to access justice, all have the right to peace and calm."

Earlier, Ahmadinejad attended a two-day summit of the Nonaligned Movement in Havana that concluded with a September 16 statement supporting a peaceful nuclear program in Iran, international news agencies reported. The statement also proposed a nuclear-free Middle East and urged Iran to cooperate with the UN nuclear inspectorate verifying the peaceful nature of its program, AP reported.

Ahmadinejad held talks with participating statesmen on the sidelines of the summit, including the presidents of Algeria, Belarus, Venezuela, Sudan, and Bolivia, and the crown prince of Qatar, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported on September 17. Ahmadinejad's program reportedly included signing five agreements with Cuba, and the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported that he also met with ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

On September 17, Ahmadinejad traveled to Venezuela, where he was greeted by President Hugo Chavez and a 21-gun salute, IRNA and Fars News Agency reported. Ahmadinejad is expected to sign 25 agreements to form joint ventures in the oil, petrochemicals, mining, and farming sectors to produce medicines, train steel-industry workers, and produce surgical equipment and plastic packaging, EFE and globovision.com reported on September 17. Ahmadinejad said shortly after his arrival in Caracas that Iran and Venezuela have "common ideas" and "interests" as they fight "global hegemony," globovision.com reported. (Bill Samii, Vahid Sepehri)

U.S. REPORTERS BANNED BY IRAN. Iran's Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry announced on September 20 that U.S. reporters will not be allowed to work in Iran, state television reported. The move reportedly came in response to Washington's alleged refusal to issue visas for all the reporters wishing to accompany President Mahmud Ahmadinejad during his visit to the United States to address the UN General Assembly.

The State Department, however, denies refusing visas to the journalists, RFE/RL reported on September 21. It says Iranian officials withdrew the visa applications. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN BANK SEEKS TO COUNTER U.S. OFFICIAL'S ALLEGATIONS. The Bank Saderat Iran announced on September 10 that all its activities comply with Islamic law and with international regulations, IRNA reported. The announcement added that the bank's extensive ties with foreign financial institutions make it immune to any actions by the United States.

The Iranian bank was responding to a September 8 speech by U.S. Treasury Department Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Stuart Levey at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Levey announced that Bank Saderat is prevented access to the U.S. financial system because its activities aid terrorist organizations. "Iran provides Hizballah with hundreds of millions of dollars each year, which is why I have said that Iran is the central banker of terror," Levey said. "It is remarkable that Iran has a nine-digit line item in its budget to support Hizballah, Hamas, and other terrorist organizations at the expense of investing in the future of its young people." Levey went on to say that he and other U.S. officials will travel to the Middle East and Asia to discuss "measures we should all be taking to protect ourselves from Iran's use of the international financial system to advance its dangerous policies."

In Singapore on September 16, U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson discussed Iran with finance ministers from the G-7 (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States), international media reported. Paulson reportedly warned against the activities of companies that are suspected of serving as fronts for Iranian weapons programs and which are reputedly used to support terrorism, "The New York Times" and "The Wall Street Journal" reported on September 18.

Ibrahim Sheibani, governor of the Central Bank of Iran, announced on September 16 that Iran is converting some of its dollar reserves to other currencies, state radio reported. Sheibani said the step is a reaction to U.S. sanctions against the Bank Saderat, announced by Washington in early September. "We intend to pursue all legal means and we expect the International Monetary Fund to adopt an appropriate stance against this unilateral and illegal move," Sheibani added. (Bill Samii)

U.S. CRITICIZES IRANIAN RELIGIOUS DISCRIMINATION. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Seyyed Mohammad Ali Husseini said on September 17 that the most recent "International Religious Freedom Report" from the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, which was released on September 15, is politically motivated, Fars News Agency reported. Husseini said the reports shows that Washington is not really interested in human rights or religious liberty, and he claimed the report's real purpose is to further U.S. foreign policy objectives. Husseini said the report is of "no value."

The State Department report accuses the Iranian government of "restricting religious freedom" (http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2006/71421.htm). Shi'ite Islam is Iran's state religion, and the report referred to difficulties faced by the Baha'i, evangelical Christian, Jewish, Sufi, and Zoroastrian minorities: "There were reports of imprisonment, harassment, intimidation, and discrimination based on religious beliefs." The situation has worsened since the election of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, the report alleges. (Bill Samii)

EX-PRESIDENT KHATAMI GETS COURT SUMMONS DURING U.S. VISIT. Seven Jewish-Iranian families filed a lawsuit in a New York federal court on September 7 claiming that the Iranian government kidnapped their relatives as they tried to escape Iran in 1994-97, Radio Farda reported. One day later, a summons relating to the case was delivered to Iran's former president, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, at a reception hosted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Arlington, Virginia. The lawsuit alleges that Khatami's policies precluded a trial and these same policies prevented the provision of information on those missing. One of the attorneys in the case, the Los Angeles-based Pooya Dayanim, told Radio Farda that U.S. law allows foreign victims of torture to file cases against the torturers in U.S. federal courts. (Bill Samii)

IRAN SENDS MIXED MESSAGES ON URANIUM ENRICHMENT. After the second day of talks in Vienna between Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani and EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana, unnamed diplomats reportedly told AP on September 10 that the two sides have reached a compromise in which Tehran would suspend uranium enrichment for a month or two if this can be portrayed in a face-saving way.

However, Iranian envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Ali Asqar Soltanieh said on state television on September 10 that reports of a suspension are false. "Suspension, or as some news agencies say, 'a suspension for one or two months,' was not discussed in the talks and, based on my information from the meeting, I denied this," he said.

Aside from that seemingly significant discrepancy, both sides were publicly enthusiastic about the discussions. RFE/RL quoted Larijani as saying that "we have made constructive progress" and adding: "We have reached common points of view on a number of issues that we have. And, as was mentioned by Solana, many of the misunderstandings were removed." Solana described the "hours of work" as "productive" and said some "misunderstandings" were "clarified." Solana said another meeting will follow within a week.

Alaedin Borujerdi, the head of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, told ISNA on September 11 that talks between Larijani and Solana have shown that "the only way to come out of the present situation is to negotiate, and pressure on Iran" will not work. He said that in contrast to previous talks, the latest talks were held "in a suitable environment," and focused on Iran's response to a Western package of proposals on its contested program "and questions" EU states have. The two sides are set to continue talks, showing that EU states now favor talking to Iran, Borujerdi said. He said that EU states have concluded that "using political pressure and the [UN] Security Council lever will lead nowhere," ISNA reported. He accused the United States of trying to block a negotiated solution to the issue. U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton is a "radical, irrational agent," he said, working against talks, "and it was repeated in the UN...that the draft of a second resolution [against Iran] is in Bolton's pocket." VS

The governing board of the IAEA met in Vienna on September 13 to discuss Iran's controversial nuclear program, RFE/RL's Radio Farda and news agencies reported. The board was to consider a statement drawn up by France, Great Britain, and Germany mildly critical of Iran's failure to suspend nuclear fuel-making and related activities in response to repeated Western requests, AP reported. The text of the statement uses "toned-down" language that will not jeopardize scheduled September 14 talks with Iran, AP quoted unnamed diplomats as saying.

On September 13 in Vienna, U.S. envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency Gregory Schulte said Iran's "refusal to suspend" uranium enrichment and related activities that could one day serve military purposes "and its refusal to cooperate is a choice of confrontation over...negotiation," AFP reported.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Husseini said in Tehran on September 14 that "talks and negotiations are the only solution" to the diplomatic impasse over Iran's nuclear program, ISNA reported. He accused the United States of "intensifying pressure to damage the existing atmosphere and obstruct the current process of talks." The United States is using "threats and forcefulness to pursue its unilateral aims," and resorting to "blackmail by publicity" to "infect" the atmosphere against Iran and "sidetrack" talks, he said. Husseini said Iran and "the other parties" are trying to "find a solution" through talks; he urged Washington "to be a little patient" to "prove its sincerity in welcoming negotiations," ISNA reported.

Gholam-Reza Aqazadeh-Khoi, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, met on September 19 in Vienna with IAEA Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei, state television and IRNA reported. Aqazadeh said afterward that the IAEA does not appreciate Iran's extensive cooperation. Aqazadeh added that he briefed el-Baradei on Iran's talks on the nuclear issue with the EU's Javier Solana.

In New York on September 19, President Ahmadinejad criticized the United Nations' stance on the nuclear issue, state television reported. "The UN approach toward global issues is an illogical one which manifests itself in various forms in Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, and Sudan," he said. "The UN behavior toward Iran's nuclear program is also another example of this unjust behavior which should be corrected," the president added.

Ahmadinejad again addressed the nuclear issue in a September 21 press conference. He dismissed international concern over Iran's nuclear program during his September 21 press conference, and he ascribed this concern to alleged U.S. hostility and efforts to retard Iran's development, RFE/RL reported. "U.S. leaders have opposed our nation for the past 27 years, they are against any progress by our nation," he claimed. "They imposed eight years of war on us and the United States supported the aggressor [Iraq]. We hadn't done anything wrong, we had just been freed from a dictator who was supported by America [a reference to the Iranian monarch]."

According to Reuters, Ahmadinejad also said Iran is willing to negotiate over the possibility if its suspending uranium-enrichment activities, and he added that negotiations with the European Union are going well. "We have said that under fair conditions and just conditions we will negotiate about it," he said. (Bill Samii, Vahid Sepehri)

TOP SHI'ITE CLERIC CHALLENGES POPE TO DEBATE. The papal nuncio in Tehran, Cardinal Angelo Michela, was summoned to the Iranian Foreign Ministry on September 17 to hear Iran's displeasure at remarks made by Pope Benedict XVI in mid-September and interpreted as linking Islam with violence, IRNA reported. A speech by the Roman Catholic pontiff quoted 14th-century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus's assertion that Islam brought the world only "evil and inhuman" things, such as "the command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

The director-general for Western Europe at the Iranian Foreign Ministry, Ibrahim Rahimpur, told the cardinal, "We do not expect the pope...to make comments one hears from [U.S. President] Bush on the anniversary of the September 11" attacks, IRNA reported. Rahimpur said the pontiff's conduct belies his stated interest in dialogue among religions, and complained that he had made an "incomplete" reference to a historical discussion. Rahimpur wondered aloud why Pope Benedict said nothing about the Persian scholar's reply to the controversial 14th-century quotation. "Clearly the Islamic world collectively interprets the pope's remarks as insulting, and he must show more awareness of his religious and political responsibility," Rahimpur said.

Separately, Tehran's Armenian bishop, Sabouh Sarkissian, and Armenian members of Iran's parliament on September 17 condemned the pope's remarks, IRNA reported. Iranian seminaries also closed down in protest at the remarks, RFE/RL's Radio Farda and AFP reported on September 17.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei criticized the pope in a September 18 speech, state radio reported. Such comments result from ignorance and are insulting, Khamenei said. Khamenei said these statements are part of an effort to create crises and misrepresent Muslims. "I think the pope himself has been deceived in this case," Khamenei added.

Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem-Shirazi on September 20 invited Pope Benedict XVI to a debate at any time or place, Fars News Agency reported. "The hostile remarks made by the pope are a clear example of the growing violence in the world," Makarem-Shirazi said.

The Vatican issued several statements expressing "regret" that Muslims found the speech offensive, and Pope Benedict on September 20 stressed his "deep respect" for Islam and said the "polemical nature" of the 14th-century emperor's statement "does not reflect my personal conviction." (Vahid Sepehri, Bill Samii)

FOREIGN MINISTRY GETS NEW SPOKESMAN. Seyyed Mohammad-Ali Husseini was named the Iranian Foreign Ministry's new spokesman in a September 10 directive from Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki, Mehr News Agency reported. Previously director of the Supervision and Assessment Department in the Foreign Ministry, Husseini also has served as charge d'affaires in Jordan, Syria, and Tajikistan. He succeeds Hamid Reza Assefi, who has served as spokesman since 1999. (Bill Samii)

IRAQI PRIME MINISTER VISITS IRAN. Nuri al-Maliki arrived in Tehran on September 12, where he held an initial round of talks with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, ISNA and IRNA reported. Ahmadinejad said at a press conference that Iran is ready to help with Iraqi reconstruction and development, and specifically water-resources management, ISNA reported. Ahmadinejad said a secure and independent Iraq will benefit all regional states, and Iran will stand by its neighbor "to the end...we support the popular government derived from the people's vote and the Iraqi Constitution," IRNA reported.

The same day, Iranian Trade Minister Masud Mirkazemi met in Tehran with trade and banking officials, the governors of four provinces bordering Iraq, and Iran's trade attache in Baghdad to discuss ways of boosting exports to Iraq, IRNA reported. Mirkazemi urged "cohesive, precise, and clear" policies to increase imports, a coordinated trading policy for frontier provinces, and closer controls over frontier markets, IRNA reported.

Al-Maliki met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran on September 13, receiving the cleric's pledge that Iran will give Iraq "practical support," IRNA reported. Khamenei said the "happiness and progress" of Iraqis constitutes the same for Iranians. "The Islamic Republic...considers itself obliged to provide the Iraqi people and government its practical support," he said. He expressed hope that the "daily suffering" of Iraqis, which he blamed "partly" on the previous "diabolical regime" and partly on "the presence of occupiers," will end soon. "With the departure of the occupiers, many of Iraq's problems will be resolved," Khamenei said.

Al-Maliki thanked Khamenei for Iran's supportive stance, and said, "the expansion of relations with friendly and neighborly states is one of Iraq's foreign-policy priorities," IRNA reported.

Al-Maliki met on September 13 with Expediency Council Chairman Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani, ISNA reported. Rafsanjani told him it is the "shortcomings" of the "occupying power" that are causing instability in Iraq: "the people of Iraq can rely on internal capabilities to resolve many problems." He said Iranians will do everything to help Iraq's government restore security to the land, but also help with reconstruction and development. "In suitable conditions, Iranians can swiftly help so the problems of the Iraqi people are resolved," he said.

Larijani said separately that Iraq is Iran's "natural ally" and this alliance could take "evident" form now under al-Maliki's government. Iran's "fixed policy," he said, is to help assure Iraq's security and territorial integrity, ISNA reported. (Vahid Sepehri)

IRANIAN, BRITISH CONSULATES ATTACKED IN IRAQ. The Iranian and British consulates came under attack in separate incidents in the southern Iraqi city of Al-Basrah on September 19, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. Police sources in the city said that two rockets hit the outer wall of the Iranian Consulate, and a third rocket landed on a nearby police car. A British military spokesman said one mortar shell landed inside the consulate's compound. There were no apparent injuries in either attack. Police in Al-Basrah said they arrested 130 suspected insurgents on September 19, dpa reported on September 20. An unidentified police spokesman said the arrests were part of a new security crackdown on the city. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

IRAQ-BASED EX-MKO MEMBERS SEEK WESTERN ASYLUM. The new UN Human Rights Council is meeting in Geneva for the next two weeks, and some former members of the Mujahedin Khalq Organization gathered outside the meeting place to demand that 160 other former members be given refuge in the West, Radio Farda reported on September 18.

The Mujahedin Khalq Organization (commonly known as the MKO or MEK, and which uses a variety of cover names including People's Mujahedin of Iran) is listed as a "foreign terrorist organization" by the U.S. State Department. The MEK was based in Iraq and operated against Iran at Saddam Hussein's behest; many of its members now reside in Camp Ashraf (100 kilometers from Baghdad) where they enjoy the Geneva Convention's "protected person" status, and some members have returned to Iran voluntarily.

Milad Ariai, who left the MEK after 20 years, told Radio Farda that many of the 160 asylum seekers are citizens of Western countries. Because the MEK is regarded as a terrorist organization by many countries, he continued, the former members are having problems going to the West. (Bill Samii)

DAMASCUS RECEIVES IRANIAN SECURITY OFFICIAL. Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani arrived in Damascus on September 20 for a one-day visit, SANA reported. Larijani met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Vice President Faruq al-Shar'a, and topics of discussion reportedly included the international standoff over the Iranian nuclear program, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine. (Bill Samii)

INSURGENTS IN SOUTHEAST IRAN REPORTEDLY HALTED. South Khorasan Governor-General Seyyed Solat Mortazavi told a September 10 meeting of provincial officials in the provincial capital of Birjand that the actions of Baluchi insurgents led by Abdulmalik Rigi have been stopped, Mehr News Agency reported. "With the grace of God and owing to an unprecedented action, all active members of the Rigi revolt have been arrested and full security has been [restored] in eastern Iran," he said.

Rigi's group, called Jundullah, was blamed for a March 16 attack on a motorcade traveling between the cities of Zahedan and Zabol in which more than 20 people were killed and seven others injured; in early April, it released a videotape in which it claimed to have killed an officer in the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," March 29 and April 18, 2006).

Mortazavi attributed the actions of Jundullah to foreign powers, saying, "The arrogant powers, bent on undermining the security of the Islamic republic, seek to exacerbate ethnic and tribal differences and in so doing commit all sorts of crimes by using operatives like Rigi." (Bill Samii)

MAN ARRESTED FOR PROTESTING DEATHS OF POLITICAL PRISONERS. Fazael Azizan was detained by Iranian authorities on September 18, Radio Farda reported on September 20. Azizan was protesting outside the Ardabil provincial governorate against the mysterious deaths of political prisoners Akbar Mohammadi and Valiollah Feyz-Mahdavi. Talash Kobra Ghorbanzadeh, Azizan's wife, told Radio Farda that her husband is in solitary confinement and has launched a hunger strike. Ghorbanzadeh said she was taken to see a prosecutor who asked about Azizan's associates and wanted to know who was behind his protest. Ghorbanzadeh reportedly responded that Azizan acted of his own accord but said the judge was not convinced. If Ghorbanzadeh does not cooperate, she said the prosecutor warned, her husband could be subjected to harsh measures. (Bill Samii)

REFORMIST DAILY CLOSED. "Sharq," one of Iran's prominent reformist dailies, was ordered temporarily closed by the Press Supervisory Board for an allegedly insulting cartoon and editorial discrepancies, RFE/RL's Radio Farda and local media reported on September 12. The board ordered the closure because the license holder failed to name a new editor who would have "greater supervision" of the daily's contents, as the board had earlier asked.

It also deplored an offensive cartoon published on September 7, interpreted as a reference to President Ahmadinejad. The cartoon reportedly depicted a donkey surrounded by a halo; Ahmadinejad has claimed that light surrounded him when he spoke once to the UN General Assembly in September 2005.

Exiled cartoonist Nikahang Kosar told Radio Farda on September 12 that the system in Iran effectively obliges "legal mechanisms" to take action whenever any "small group" of people which he said are regime insiders find an article or cartoon offensive.

Journalist Mashallah Shamsolvaezin told Radio Farda on September 11 that the government and Press Supervisory Board are violating press laws, and there is no legal basis for banning the daily.

Editors and managers of several "nongovernmental" dailies met with Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani in Tehran on September 13, and heard his views on responsible reporting. He said newspapers are a "strategic" necessity in Iran, but need to respect truthful reporting and consider state interests, IRNA reported. Rafsanjani said "supra-legal restrictions on the press go against the interests of the revolution and country," and it is "practically impossible" to block the news in a "global village" and amid an "information explosion." But he urged the press to "respect the interests of the people, regime, and country, and commit themselves to reporting realities and respecting" their "professional principles." He deplored the "bad tradition" of "insults and calumny" against politicians, "especially at elections," IRNA reported. (Vahid Sepehri)

DISSIDENT'S LAWYER FACES COURT ACTION. Khalil Bahramian, a lawyer defending a student activist who died in Tehran's Evin prison in late July, is now charged with "insulting the system," apparently for remarks he made after his client Akbar Mohammadi's death (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," August 10, 2006), RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported on September 11. Bahramian told the broadcaster that Evin prison authorities are taking legal action after unspecified comments he made on the constitutional rights of citizens and inmates. He said he has already attended one session in which he explained his statements to interrogators.

Separately, judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi told a gathering of judiciary officials in Tehran on September 11 that Iranian judges give out too many jail sentences, a practice he said is inspired by Western systems and against Islamic legal principles, Mehr reported. He said laws should be changed to allow judges to order the conditional release of many more inmates who have completed half their sentences, after due consideration. Prison, he said, is not "the solution or treatment for crimes" and "the basis of imprisonment as a penalty...must change, and substitute penalties should be used," Mehr reported. VS

CONCERNS PERSIST ON STATE OF PRISONERS. Relatives have expressed concern about the condition of two detainees, former legislator Ali Akbar Musavi-Khoeini and former student Ahmad Batebi, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on September 12, citing Iranian agencies. Tehran Province prison chief Sohrab Suleimani told ISNA on September 11 that Batebi enjoys a "suitable physical state" and is currently in Evin prison. Batebi's father says he has not seen him on a list of Evin prisoners.

Suleimani added that another detainee, Valiollah Feyz Mahdavi, died in prison recently "after hanging himself in the prison bathroom." In spite of "security elements, sometimes there are suicides in prison," Suleimani said, "and we do everything to minimize cases of such deaths," ISNA reported. The suicide version of his death is disputed.

Separately, Zohreh Islami, Musavi-Khoeini's wife, told the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) on September 11 that she spoke by phone to her husband once in the last seven days, but has been prevented from visiting. She said he has been under arrest "for 92 days" and the judiciary has rejected his lawyer's request for a meeting with Musavi-Khoeini or his release on bail, ILNA reported. VS

ACTIVIST SAYS FEMALE ADDICTS, PROSTITUTES PROLIFERATING IN CITIES. There is a rising number of "abused" women turning to drugs and prostitution in Iran, and this is becoming a grave problem in cities, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported on September 14, citing rights activist Mehrangiz Kar. She said more women she termed "vulnerable" for their precarious financial conditions and difficult home conditions are turning to drugs and prostitution, and at an increasingly young age. They can expect very little support from the government or society, she added. She cited a recent report in which a woman staying at a state shelter or health-care facility killed her "illegitimate" child to rid herself of the "shame." Kar said some social workers chide the women in their care for their lifestyles and help bring about such crimes. Kar said the woman told the health-care worker that by killing her child she "wiped away the stain of shame and sent it to God." Kar said this statement effectively "put the government, society, and even social workers on trial." She urged the government to provide job training for such girls. VS

IRAN PREPARES FOR 'SACRED DEFENSE WEEK.' Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Minister Mustafa Mohammad Najjar announced on September 18 that several defense projects will commence in the coming days, Fars News Agency reported. Iran marks the annual "Sacred Defense Week" -- the commemoration of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War -- in late September. Najjar said some of the MODAFL's new products will be displayed during a September 22 parade.

Also on September 18, Admiral Sajjad Kuchaki, commander of the Iranian navy, announced domestic manufacturing of the Joshan missile boat, state radio reported. He also introduced the 76-millimeter Fajr gun that can be used against surface vessels at a range of 16 kilometers or aerial targets at altitudes up to around 7,000 meters. The gun's rate of fire can vary from 10 rounds per minute to 85 per minute. (Bill Samii)

IRAN READIES FOR HOLY MONTH OF RAMADAN. Mohammad Reza Shafei, the Agricultural Jihad Ministry's director-general for domestic commerce, announced on September 21 that red meat and chicken will be distributed at lowered prices in the coming month, IRNA reported. The holy month of Ramadan is expected to begin on September 23 or 24, and it will conclude with the festival of Eid al-Fitr. During Ramadan, devout Muslims fast during daylight hours and consume meals only during the night. Shafei said 10,000 tons of frozen chicken will be distributed and consumers will face only a 400-rial-per-kilogram markup. The ministry is considering the distribution of 20,000 tons of red meat, and possibly an additional 12,000 tons of imported red meat. (Bill Samii)

EARLY RACE FOR CLERICAL ASSEMBLY GETS BITTER. Early competition to head the Assembly of Experts, the influential assembly that oversees the work of the supreme leader, pits a pragmatic former president against a fundamentalist seminarian with close ties to the current president. Another possible choice, ex-president and reformist Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, lies somewhere in the middle.

The race could have serious long-term implications -- particularly for would-be reformers.

The Assembly of Experts is a powerful institution whose 86 clerics' supervisory role includes the power to remove Iran's supreme leader from office. The fact that its members are popularly elected every eight years highlights the significance of the decision that faces voters in the December 15 ballot.

One of the most controversial aspects of this election is the competition for the assembly's leadership.

Reluctant Candidate?

Ex-President Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, already a deputy speaker of the assembly, is largely backed by reformists, centrists, and mainstream conservatives. Leading figures in a conservative clergymen's association, the Tehran Militant Clergy Association (Jameh-yi Ruhaniyat-i Mobarez-i Tehran), visited Hashemi-Rafsanjani in mid-September to encourage his candidacy. One of those clerics, Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi-Kani, advised Hashemi-Rafsanjani that he is "still one of the principal mainstays of the system and leadership," the Aref website reported on September 19. He said such status carries a responsibility to "stand and serve the system at sensitive junctures."

Hashemi-Rafsanjani is a seasoned politician who served as president for two terms in 1989-97, was a legislator, and currently heads the Expediency Council. He reportedly told the clergymen's group that his participation is unnecessary and would make no real difference. He said he was already being criticized, and he pointed to his unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2005, which included personal attacks against him and his family. Similar attacks -- many of them centered on allegations of financial corruption -- have continued against Hashemi-Rafsanjani's associates. They smack of an effort to weaken the informal network through which he wields his considerable influence.

...And The 'Crocodile'

The man whom many view as Hashemi-Rafsanjani's likely rival is Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi. Mesbah-Yazdi is punningly referred to by detractors as "Ayatollah Crocodile" ("Temsah") due to his hard-line views. He is current President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's spiritual guide and a founder of the conservative Haqqani seminary, with numerous associates in the executive branch of government.

Two Haqqani alumni serve in the current cabinet -- Intelligence and Security Minister Hojatoleslam Gholam-Hussein Mohseni-Ejei and Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Mustafa Pur-Mohammadi. Mesbah-Yazdi now heads the Imam Khomeini Educational and Research Institute, and several of its associates now work in the executive branch, including government spokesman Gholam Hussein Elham, First Vice President Parviz Davudi, and presidential adviser for clerical affairs Hojatoleslam Mohammad Nasser Saqa-yi Biria.

A conservative weekly associated with Mesbah-Yazdi, "Parto-i Sokhan" from Qom, has published a number of attacks on Hashemi-Rafsanjani. A lengthy piece on August 23 purports to be seminarians' response to a letter from Hashemi-Rafsanjani. The ex-president is portrayed as questioning Iran's theocratic system and employing "distorted and truncated quotes" from the founder of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to substantiate his views. The article goes on to imply that Hashemi-Rafsanjani has comforted Iran's enemies by voicing support for a Leadership Council to replace the current figure of the supreme leader.

The same article suggests that allies of Britain sought to pass a constitutional amendment that would have extended Hashemi-Rafsanjani's term as president beyond 1997. It also condemns his failure to call for the death of a scholar who criticized the clergy in 2003 and his support for women's rights. The article goes on to attack the think tank associated with the Expediency Council, the Strategic Research Center, which includes perceived reformers on its staff like former President Khatami and former Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani.

Occasional hints of reconciliation between the hard-line Mesbah-Yazdi and Hashemi-Rafsanjani generally prove not to be true. The two reportedly bumped into each other at recent meeting of the Assembly of Experts and had what one observer described as a "very friendly and warm encounter," "Sharq" reported on September 4. The hard-liner was quoted as saying he has "no blood feud with anyone" and stressing his long friendship with Hashemi-Rafsanjani. But he reportedly rushed to add that he and Hashemi-Rafsanjani "differ...on certain issues" and that their "religious responsibility" dictates that "friendship will play no role."

Pro-reform activists have reacted to fundamentalist attacks against their favorites in many ways -- including downplaying Mesbah-Yazdi's prerevolutionary activities against the shah. He also has been linked with a banned millennialist entity, the Hojjatieh Society.

A former interior minister and legislator better-known for his role in establishing the Lebanese Hizballah in the 1980s, Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Mohtashami-Pur, recently likened Mesbah-Yazdi's followers to the Hojjatieh Society -- calling them "a movement within an organized cult...[that seeks] control of the Assembly of Experts," "Aftab-i Yazd" quoted him on August 26 as saying. Mohtashami-Pur warned that "a movement that thinks like the Hojjatieh always poses a danger to the people and the system."

Reformist Target

The fundamentalists are attacking other prospective leaders in the Assembly of Experts, too. One of their apparent targets is a symbol of the reformist movement, former President Khatami (1997-2005). A reformist party leader, National Trust Party head Ebrahim Amini, accused Khatami's opponents of "trying by various means to create doubt in public opinion about the positions of the reformists," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on September 16. He accused those same elements of resorting to "character assassination."

A leading figure from the center of the political spectrum, senior Executives of Construction Party member Mohammad Hashemi, echoed that accusation, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on September 16. He said the bullying began after the 2000 parliamentary elections and has "gradually turned into an unethical tradition" through which fundamentalists stopped pressing solutions and started relying solely on political attacks on their opponents.

The most vicious recent attacks on Khatami have come from Fatemeh Rajabi, the wife of government spokesman Gholam Hussein Elham and the head of the "Nosazi" website. In an open letter published in "Etemad-i Melli" on September 4, Rajabi suggested that a U.S. visa for Khatami's recent trip to the United States is his "reward for eight years of efforts from the Americans, and especially from .the Black House."

Rajabi attacked Khatami's "presence and parading in America's cities" and disparaged his views on "modern Islam" She accused Iran's most prominent proponent of reform of distorting religion -- calling Khatami's Islam "the Islam of a life of pleasure, the Islam of doing business, the Islam of aristocracy, the Islam of seeking comfort, the Islam of seeking welfare, and in a word: American Islam." She called it "a lame excuse for someone who is dressed as Shi'ite clergy?"

Criticized by reformists and by conservatives, and her brother, Mohammad Hassan Rajabi, according to "Kargozaran" on August 1, Rajabi lashed out again. She said Khatami's ascribing of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States to Muslims "delivered a major blow against Islam." She suggested that recent remarks by Pope Benedict XVI that elicited widespread condemnation among Muslims were "a natural echo of Khatami's remarks," "Aftab" reported on September 17.

Strong-Armed Conservatives

The role of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) could further cloud prospects for potential rivals to any but the most conservative candidates. The IRGC was accused of interfering in the 2003 municipal elections on behalf of fundamentalists. The Basij, a branch of the IRGC, was accused after the 2005 presidential election of having behaved like a political party.

Such allegations coincide with accusations of Guards Corps political activism that are either denied or refuted with references to Article 150 of the Iranian Constitution that tasks the IRGC with defending the revolution and its achievements.

Recent statements by Guards Corps leaders are consistent with a pattern favoring the hard-liners. The chief of the IRGC joint staff, General Yadollah Javani, told a meeting of corps commanders that there are major political movements involved in the upcoming elections that have different interpretations of Iran's theocratic system (vilayat-i faqih), "Hemayat" reported on September 10. He characterized opponents as believing that the popular vote legitimizes the system and that the theocracy's responsibility is satisfying the people. That movement is opposed by those who -- like revolutionary founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and presumably, himself -- believe God legitimizes the vilayat-i faqih system. Javani went on to say that the reformists are intent on returning to power, and they are trying to create divisions among fundamentalists.

The supreme leader's representative in the IRGC counterintelligence department, Hojatoleslam Ahmad Salek, sounded a more ominous alarm. He warned that there is an effort afoot to undermine the vilayat-i faqih, "Kayhan" reported on September 17. He alleged that an unidentified five-member committee is trying to "infiltrate" individuals into the Assembly of Experts "in order to create deviations in that institution." He said their goal is to "bring about the disintegration and collapse of the Islamic political system."

Are The Reformers Ready?

Pro-reform parties are not standing by idly. They are trying to form a coalition to compete with the fundamentalists. "Aftab-i Yazd" on September 16 quoted Mohammad Salamati of the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization as saying the reformist coalition has been finalized.

But there also are questions about a draft election law that many observers fear would extend the hard-liners' considerable ability to restrict candidates for elected office. A former interior minister, Hojatoleslam Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari, noted that the group conducting the election -- the Interior Ministry -- is from the same political camp as the Guardians Council, which is supervising the election, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on August 14.

Musavi-Lari noted that the Guardians Council's power to vet candidates represents reformists' "main concern," since that body can decide "whether or not they will be allowed to remain on the scene."

The Assembly of Experts held its semi-annual meeting on August 29-30. Little information emerges from those closed-door affairs -- highlighted by the fact that final statements are remarkably similar from year to year.

But as the current group prepares to give way to a new Assembly of Experts, it appears that a fundamentalist victory would cement the hold of President Ahmadinejad's allies over all elected branches of government. On the other hand, reformist gains would signal that a group that has been in disarray since 2003 has returned to the political fray -- and is not completely marginalized. (Bill Samii)

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