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Iran Report: October 9, 2006


October 9, 2006, Volume 9, Number 37

U.S. SANCTIONS AGAINST IRAN STRENGTHENED. U.S. President George W. Bush signed into law the Iran Freedom Support Act on October 1 to discourage major investments in the Iranian energy sector, the "International Herald Tribune" reported. The law was passed by the Senate on September 30 and the House of Representatives earlier in the week, and is based on the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act. The act authorizes the imposition of sanctions on firms or individuals responsible for proliferating weapons of mass destruction. "My administration is working on many fronts to address the challenges posed by the Iranian regime's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, support for terrorism, efforts to destabilize the Middle East, and repression of the fundamental human rights of the citizens of Iran," Bush said.

The Iranian legislature's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee denounced the Iran Freedom Support Act on October 1, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. The committee's statement said the new U.S. law is in violation of the UN Charter and the so-called Algiers Accord of 1975. The statement did not explain what the recent U.S. legislation has to do with a 1975 agreement between Iran and Iraq that was meant to resolve border disputes, demarcate river boundaries, and arrange for noninterference in domestic affairs.

Kazem Jalali, rapporteur for the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said on October 1 that Iranian Foreign Ministry officials will discuss the new U.S. law with that committee on October 3, IRNA reported. Jalali described the Iran Freedom Support Act as a sign of U.S. hostility, and he added that Iran's legislature will make it a priority to approve a law for fingerprinting Americans who seek to visit Iran. (Bill Samii)

WASHINGTON, EU RUNNING OUT OF PATIENCE WITH IRAN. Recent statements by U.S. and European officials have revealed a heightened sense of frustration with Iranian on the nuclear issue. They want Iran to stop all nuclear activities so multilateral talks can begin, while the Iranians want talks to begin before they cede anything. But international frustration with Iran could be misplaced, since Tehran has made it clear that it has no plans to halt uranium enrichment.

The latest statements from Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad on October 9 signal continued intransigence. Ahmadinejad vowed to counter with Iranian sanctions -- against the international community -- if the UN Security Council tries to punish Tehran for its nuclear activities, according to AFP, which cited state media.

Iranian officials have made little secret of their desire to use the drawn-out negotiating process in order to buy time to complete nuclear projects. Iranian officials have admitted that they used earlier negotiations to wrest concessions from the Europeans.

Foreign ministers from the P+1 grouping -- China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, plus Germany -- met in London on October 6 to discuss the Iranian nuclear stalemate. British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett emerged citing "deep disappointment" that "Iran is not prepared to suspend [the] enrichment-related and reprocessing activities" as called for by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and UN Resolution 1696, AFP reported. She said a debate over possible sanctions is next, prompting Ahmadinejad's defiant counterthreat on October 9.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned during a visit to the West Bank on October 4 that "months of negotiations" had failed to convince Iran to suspend its enrichment activities. She said the international community's "patience" was running out, Radio Farda reported.

Rice said such patience could be traced to the Paris agreement of November 2004, and she urged Iran to act. Repeating a point that President George W. Bush has made on several occasions, Rice warned that the time has come "when the Iranians have to make their choice and the international system has to act accordingly."

The same day as Rice's comments, EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana sounded a note of frustration. Solana has held numerous meetings with Iranian officials since June, but he conceded that his "dialogue [with Iran]...cannot last forever." He said it was "up to the Iranians now to decide whether the time has come to an end." If so, Solana warned in a reference to the sanctions debate, the international community would "have to begin to follow the second track by the five [permanent] members of the [UN] Security Council," Radio Farda reported.

Back in Iran, President Ahmadinejad has been standing his ground. He told an audience at Tehran University on October 1 that -- beyond resisting pressure to forego uranium enrichment -- the country intends to expand its enrichment capacity, Fars News Agency reported on October 2.

The president also said Iran hopes to install up to 100,000 centrifuges to enrich nuclear material. The president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in Washington, David Albright, had predicted to Radio Farda in February that it would take 10-20 years to install even half that many centrifuges. Albright said Iranian scientists "don't even know how to put 100 [centrifuges] together and operate them successfully, let alone build that number."

Ahmadinejad suggested to a domestic audience on October 4 in Savojbolagh in Tehran Province, according to state television, that unnamed representatives of the great powers had told him that Iran could become a "role model for other nations" through major scientific advances. Ahmadinejad contended that those same representatives "explicitly said that if the Iranian nation acquires developed technologies and sciences, it [would] become the greatest world power very quickly."

Ahmadinejad also dismissed Western claims of opposition to nuclear weapons, citing the existence of weapons stockpiles in other countries and their testing of such weapons. He called the global powers' claims of backing nonproliferation lies and accused them of opposing Iran's progress. He said that if those countries were serious about nonproliferation, they "would not have armed" what he described as "fake and rootless regimes in [the] region with [nuclear] weapons."

Tehran has consistently sought to create divisions among Security Council members.

Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani and EU foreign policy chief Solana held two days of talks in Berlin on September 27-28. Larijani met separately with Russian Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov in Tehran on October 3, again to discuss the nuclear issue.

Moscow is concerned about the Iranian nuclear issue not merely because it is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and thus a major participant in the sanctions debate. Russian engineers are building a nuclear power plant at Bushehr in southwestern Iran. Iran's vice president for atomic energy, Qolam Reza Aqazadeh-Khoi, was in Moscow in early October to warn that if the Russians do not finish the project on time -- the scheduled commissioning date is September 2007 -- the Iranians can complete the job. Russia already intends to supply Bushehr with fuel, and it has offered a joint uranium-enrichment venture with Iran on Russian territory. Tehran has already dismissed that Russian overture.

Iranian officials have countered with an offer that could well have been aimed at throwing the international community off-balance. Mohammad Saidi, deputy director of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, said on October 3 that his country has proposed French participation in its uranium-enrichment program, France Info radio reported. Saidi said the participation of France's Areva nuclear company -- through subsidiary Eurodif -- would enable French monitoring of Iranian enrichment activities. Eurodif enriches uranium for use in roughly 100 reactors in France and abroad.

Paris appeared to reject the unexpected Iranian proposal. A French Foreign Ministry spokesman, Jean-Baptiste Mattei, said such dialogue would have to go through the European Union, AFP reported on October 3. But he also stressed that it was up to Tehran to suspend its enrichment activities. "It is on this point," Mattei said, that the international community "awaits an Iranian response." Mattei opened to the door to possible "negotiations where each party will be free to bring to the table the proposals they want" if Tehran halted enrichment.

Russia's Atomic Energy Agency head, Sergei Kiriyenko, said on October 4 that Moscow's offer to host a joint uranium-enrichment project remained on the table if Iran abandoned domestic uranium enrichment, RIA-Novosti reported. He stressed that the Russian proposal should be seen in the context of international efforts to defuse tension over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

But he cautioned Tehran against thinking it could pick and choose among aspects of international cooperation on the nuclear issue, however. Kiriyenko said the joint enrichment scheme "does not work individually -- it works only as a package...and should not be snapped out of the package like raisins teased out of a muffin." (Bill Samii)

FORMER PRESIDENT KHATAMI ADVOCATES NUCLEAR TALKS. Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, who served as president from 1997-2005, said in an October 2 speech that the country's officials should employ tact when discussing the nuclear issue, IRNA reported. He added, "We should negotiate Iran's nuclear issue, and if certain parties say they [the foreigners] cannot be trusted, this will become evident during the negotiation." Khatami and several other senior officials, such as former Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani, have decried the Ahmadinejad administration's foreign policy as excessively confrontational and ultimately unproductive. (Bill Samii)

PROSPECTIVE CANDIDATES BEGIN REGISTERING FOR DECEMBER ELECTIONS. Prospective candidates for the Assembly of Experts election, which is scheduled for December 15, began registering on October 5. Registration will continue until October 11.

Just one person signed up in Khuzestan Province, Ahvaz Governor Abdul Aziz Fadami said, before adding that this is normal because most people wait until the last day, provincial television reported. Nationally, 25 people had registered by the end of the first day, state television reported.

In a related development, Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Mustafa Purmohammadi appointed the new deputy interior minister for political affairs, Mujtaba Samareh-Hashemi, as head of the Election Headquarters, and deputy interior minister for legal and parliamentary affairs Mohammad Hussein Musapur as head of the Elections Supervision Headquarters. (Bill Samii)

FREEDOM HOUSE CALLS IRAN 'NOT FREE.' Freedom House assigned Iran "not free" status -- with scores of 6 (7 is worst) in the "Political Rights" and "Civil Liberties" categories -- in its annual assessment of political rights and civil liberties in 192 countries on September 29, called "Freedom in the World 2006." In the subcategories for political rights, Iran rated 3 in the categories of "Electoral Process," "Political Pluralism and Participation," and "Functioning of Government." In the civil-liberties subcategories, Iran rated 5 for "Freedom of Expression and Belief," 4 for "Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights," 3 for "Associational and Organizational Rights," and 3 for "Rule of Law"; Freedom House said these ratings represent a person's ability to participate in the political process unhindered, to vote in legitimate elections, and to have accountable political representatives. The ratings also are based on an individual's right to express him/herself freely, assemble or associate with others freely, participate in an equitable legal system, and enjoy equal access to economic opportunities.

An October 5 press release from the European Union's Finnish presidency has expressed "grave concern" about press freedom in Iran, noting specifically the closure of "Sharq" and other publications in September (http://www.eu2006.fi/news_and_documents/cfsp_statements/vko40/en_GB/1160042302794/?u4.highlight=Iran). The statement also decried "continued harassment of journalists."

In Iran, international criticism has had no effect on the government. Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Mustafa Pur-Mohammadi announced on October 3 that his ministry intends to give greater attention to countering counterrevolutionary media propaganda, Mehr News Agency reported. Satellite receivers have been illegal since the 1990s, and the regime recently renewed its effort to confiscate the equipment and block Iranians' access to outside media.

Brigadier Nabiullah Heidari, chief of police in Iran's Markazi (Central) Province, announced on October 1 that helicopters will be used in the campaign to spot and seize satellite-reception equipment in the city of Arak, the Iranian labor News Agency (ILNA) reported. Heidari said that in the year beginning March 21, police have seized more than 2,000 satellite dishes in the province; this is almost three times as many as in the previous year. Heidari said satellite television leads to "decadence," including divorce and extramarital relations.

The anti-satellite campaign is not working everywhere. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's representative in Kurdistan Province, identified only as Hojatoleslam Musavi, noted recently that an increasing number of satellite-television programs are being broadcast into the province from abroad, alborznews.net reported on October 3. Musavi reportedly attributed the development to an absence from the airwaves of Iranian state-television programs. Many provincial residents have installed satellite dishes to receive Iranian television shows, and, according to alborznews.net, 550 provincial villages cannot receive state television.

Meanwhile, Iranian state television's plans to broadcast an all-day English-language news program are progressing, with state broadcasting's deputy head for external services, Mohammad Sarfaraz, saying on October 4 that the service will be launched within months, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported. Sarfaraz said the 24-hour news channel -- called Press -- will use presenters trained by the BBC and whose skills "surpass" those of BBC or CNN presenters. He said the reason for creating the channel is to present a different perspective on regional news.

In some cases, government bans on news outlets have only had a temporary effect. "Sharq," the newspaper banned by the Iranian government in mid-September, will be replaced by a new daily called "Ruzegar," The new publication allegedly will have a different editorial and journalistic perspective, according to the website, and it will focus more closely on popular politics than on elite politics. Although "Ruzegar" will pursue a different approach, the editorial staff is largely the same as "Sharq," including Editor in Chief Mohammad Quchani. The first issue is scheduled for October 7.

The Advar News website -- which is connected with the Office for Strengthening Unity student group and was shut down in late September -- resumed operations under a new name on October 4. The new website is advarnews.us. (Bill Samii)

DETAINED CHRISTIAN COUPLE'S FAMILY SEEKS ANSWERS. The detention of an Iranian Christian couple in eastern Iran from September 26-October 6 caused a great deal of concern among relatives.

Relatives say they were unable to meet with them, and authorities refused to specify the charges against them. Fereshteh Dibaj and her husband Reza Montazami -- known as Amir to family and friends -- led an independent church in the city of Mashhad.

Plainclothes security agents arrested 28-year-old Dibaj and 35-year-old Montazami early on September 26 after searching their home and confiscating the couple's computer, Christian books, and other belongings.

One of the agents told Montazami's mother that her son was being taken to a local police station. But when relatives went to the police station, a policeman on duty said he was unaware of the detentions.

After hours of search and inquiry, the family learned that the Ministry of Intelligence and Security was holding the couple for questioning.

More Questions Than Answers Authorities refused to comment on the reason for the detentions or the charges against the couple.

Fereshteh's brother, Issa Dibaj, lives in the United Kingdom.

"In Iran they first arrest people, then they look for charges," Issa Dibaj told RFE/RL shortly after the couple's disappearance. "So far [authorities] have not announced charges against them -- they said, 'We are investigating and questioning them.' They let Amir make a short call to his family to say he is well. But Fereshteh has not been allowed to telephone, and, since her detention a week ago, we have had no news from her and we are very concerned. They haven't even let her talk to Christine, her 6-year-old daughter."

Montazami converted to Christianity in his early 20s.

His wife, Fereshteh, was born into a Christian family. Her father Mehdi Dibaj was a well-known priest of the Jamiat-i Rabbani Church, the Iranian branch of the Assemblies of God. He spent more than nine years in prison and was sentenced to death in 1993 for his faith. He was freed in January 1994 in the face of an international outcry. But a few months later, he was abducted and later found murdered -- one of at least three priest killings that activists blame on Iranian authorities.

Warning Signs Issa Dibaj said the couple had received a warning in connection with their religious activities.

"[Authorities] had told them that they should not have prayer meetings in their house. But how is that possible?" he asked. "Just as Muslims are free anywhere in the world to go and pray in a mosque, Christians should have the same right -- this is a [fundamental] right. Maybe one reason [for their arrest] is that they continued having these sessions as before."

For some, the case highlights the plight of Christian converts living in Iran.

Islamic law -- as applied in Iran -- says a Muslim who converts to another faith can face the death penalty. In recent years, there have been no reported cases of execution of converts.

But there are signs that pressure on Christians has increased.

Official Harassment? Several Christian converts have been arrested in Iran in recent months before being freed on bail. There have also been allegations by religious and rights groups of harassment and intimidation targeting Christians.

In its annual report on religious freedoms in September, the U.S. State Department accused the Iranian government of enforcing its prohibition on proselytizing by evangelical Christians by closely monitoring their activities, closing their churches, and arresting converts.

The report said that in November 2005, unidentified attackers killed a man, Ghorban Tori, who had converted to Christianity more than 10 years earlier. Tori, a pastor at an independent house church of converted Christians, had reportedly been receiving death threats.

Issa Dibaj said he thinks the recent pressure and persecution of Christians is unprecedented since a string of killings of priests in the mid-1990s.

"In the last two years, maybe with the coming to power of a new president [Mahmud Ahmadinejad in 2005], pressures have increased in an unprecedented way," he said. "We had not seen anything like that since the chain killings that happened in 1994 and afterward -- Christians have lived relatively in peace. But in recent years, pressure has increased. There are arrests, threats, and sometimes they fire [Christians] from their jobs."

'They Cannot Fully Live Their Lives' Prague Roman Catholic Bishop Vaclav Maly told RFE/RL after a September trip to Iran that many of Iran's Christians are leaving the Islamic republic because of restrictions -- and because "they cannot fully live their lives as Christians."

"There is a danger that Christians could completely disappear from Iran, which would be a great spiritual and cultural pity -- because Christians were on Iranian territory before Islam was, and there are very old churches there whose histories go back to the first century of Christianity," Maly said.

Religious and rights groups say the persecution of Iran's Christians stepped up following the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The number of Armenians, Iran's largest Christian minority, has significantly declined.

There are no reliable figures on the number of Muslim-born Iranians who convert to Christianity, and many practice their faith clandestinely for fear of state persecution. Christian groups claim the ranks of converts to Christianity is increasing nevertheless.

The perceived trend of official harassment is likely to add to the mounting concerns as family and friends worry over the fate of Fereshteh Dibaj and her husband. (Golnaz Esfandiari)

GOVERNMENT PRESSURES STUDENT ACTIVISTS. Student activists in Iran say authorities have prevented dozens of students from studying by refusing to enroll them for the new academic year. The students have reportedly been involved in on-campus political and press-related activities. Iranian Education Minister Mohammad Mehdi Zahedi says claims that students are being kept out of school due to their political activism are "lies" and that the government is tolerant of such students.

There was a time when teachers in Iran's schools used to give students golden paper stars to encourage them. Nowadays it seems that stars are being given for punishment: the term "students with stars" is used to describe students who have been expelled or suspended from a university.

In recent months dozens of liberal university professors have been forced into early retirement. Many student activists have been summoned to court and several have been arrested.

Bad Stars The term became prevalent after several students said university officials had refused to register them for the new academic year and told them that they have "two or three stars."

Student groups and activists say more than 100 students have been affected.

Ali Nekunesbati is a spokesman for Iran's main reformist student group, Daftar Tahkim Vahdat (the Office for Strengthening Unity). He says many student activists and members of his group have been marked with stars.

"Beside the names that were announced to the universities for enrollment, there was another list in which individuals are marked with either one star, two stars, or three stars," he said. "Who grants these 'stars'? As the head of the admission committee has said the Intelligence Ministry -is involved. We reiterate again that these 'stars' exist."

Journalists Expelled

Earlier this week a student told the daily newspaper "Etemad" that because of his past activities as the editor in chief of a banned student publication he has been marked with two stars. He said university authorities had told him that his enrollment will be possible only with a letter from government officials.

Ali Azizi, the deputy head of the Islamic student association at Amir Kabir University, says university students who -- according to officials -- have "the potential to engage in future protests for their rights" have been barred from classes.

"They include 73 students who had been involved in activities such as press or political activities or even cultural activities and other student-related activities," he said.

Peyman Aref is a well-known student activist who has been expelled from the law faculty at Tehran University. He told Radio Farda that many of his colleagues have received notice that they have been suspended.

"There are other individuals who have not been registered for undergraduate studies in the past 10 days," Aref said. "In addition, more than 100 postgraduate students have been summoned to the disciplinary committee in relation to student protests in May and June. Harsh sentences have been issued to them."

Iranian Education Minister Mehdi Zahedi has, however, denied that students are being prevented from studying because of their activism. He said those who make such claims should publish a list of names of such students.

Pledging Not To Protest But activists are concerned that issuing such a list could aggravate the situation and worsen the prospects for those banned students.

Authorities have reportedly told students with stars that they should refrain from political activities in order to be able to continue with their studies.

Morteza Nurbakhsh, the head of the Education Ministry's admission committee, denied reports on September 19 that students have to sign pledges not to engage in political activities. However, he added that some students are being asked "not to act outside norms, university laws, and conduct befitting a student." He said some 50 to 60 students have committed themselves to this.

Several legislators have criticized the restrictions and said its is against Iran's Constitution to prevent students from studying because of their opinions.

Many say the move is a violation of a student's rights.

A New 'Cultural Revolution'? Nekunesbati said he believes the government's move against student activists is part of an increasing crackdown against critics.

"The government made some promises but it has not been able to fulfill them in the least. Instead of overcoming its weaknesses it has begun a crackdown on critics; and because students, professors, and the student movement are among the most critical groups, it is acting against them," he said. "The existence of students with stars is the latest sign [of the pressure on students]."

The outspoken student group Daftar Tahkim Vahdat said in a statement that the new crackdown coincided with remarks by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who said on September 6 that universities should be rid of liberal and secular influences from professors. The group said that the comments mark the beginning of a new "cultural revolution" with the aim of eliminating critics in universities.

In recent months dozens of liberal university professors have been forced into early retirement. Many student activists have been summoned to court and several have been arrested.

There is growing concern over their health and general safety in prison.

The concerns have increased following comments by former legislator and student rights activist Ali Akbar Musavi Khoeini, who said last week during a short prison leave that he's being tortured to "repent." People who have seen him say there are bruises on his neck and head. (By Golnaz Esfandiari; Radio Farda contributed to this report.)

LEGISLATURE APPROVES FUNDS FOR GASOLINE IMPORTS. The legislature on October 2 approved the withdrawal of $3.5 billion from the country's foreign-exchange reserve to fund gasoline imports, IRNA reported. The bill was passed with a vote of 136 in favor, 57 against, and 13 abstentions, and it must win approval from the Guardians Council. Parliamentary talks on gasoline imports grew heated on September 5, "Kayhan" reported the next day. Legislators objected that gasoline is used excessively because it is sold very cheaply at subsidized prices, and Management and Planning Organization Director Farhad Rahbar said consumption would be limited through the distribution of smart cards. Out of 202 legislators who were present in the chamber, only 94 voted that the bill is urgent, which would have moved it to the head of the queue. (Bill Samii)

ISFAHAN: CSI HELPS REDUCE CRIME RATE. Col Abbas Ali Mohammadian, deputy chief of police in the city of Isfahan, announced on October 5 that the city enjoyed a 17 percent reduction in the crime rate over the first five months of the Iranian year, which began on March 21, compared to the same timeframe one year earlier, provincial television reported. Seizures of illegal goods increased by 18 percent he added. The deputy police chief said using a crime lab contributed to these developments. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN WEIGHTLIFTERS SUSPENDED OVER FAILURE TO PAY DOPING FINE. The International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) has suspended Iran's weightlifting federation for two years because it has not paid a $400,000 fine for doping, Reuters reported. Last week in the Dominican Republic, nine of 11 Iranian lifters tested positive when tested for drugs before the world championships, and the team was forced to withdraw. One of the athletes, Mohsen Davudi, is banned permanently due to repeated failures of drug tests, as is the team's Bulgarian coach, Georgy Ivanov. The IWF claims Ivanov is the person most responsible for the athletes' drug abuse. (Bill Samii)

IRAN APPOINTS NEW VETERINARY HEAD. Apparently as part of the shakeup in the leadership of governmental bodies (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 3 October 2006), President Mahmud Ahmadinejad appointed Seyyed Mohammad Aqamiri on October 3 to head the country's Veterinary Organization, which is part of the Agriculture Jihad Ministry, IRNA reported. The Veterinary Organization is the state entity contending with a bird-flu outbreak in parts of Iran. (Bill Samii)

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