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Iran Report: January 24, 2005


24 January 2005, Volume 8, Number 4

SYNTHETIC DRUGS MORE PREVALENT IN IRAN. Mohammad Hadi Mokhber, a police officer in Torbat-i Jam, Khorasan Province, on 16 January announced the seizure of 5.1 kilograms of a synthetic drug called "crystal," the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. Mokhber said the substance is highly addictive.

Police in Isfahan reported the increasing popularity of "crystal," IRNA reported on 21 November 2004. "This narcotic is imported from Japan and its users are mainly well-to-do people," an unnamed police spokesman said.

It is not unlikely that he is referring to crystal methamphetamine (also known as "batu," "ice," "crystal," "glass," "kaksonjae," "quartz," "shabu," and "tina;" the cheapest form of this drug is called "crank").

The Iranian authorities should take this problem very seriously. Crystal methamphetamine is highly addictive and its use can cause a stroke or death. Making crystal methamphetamine in a home laboratory or in the kitchen is a fairly simple process, which is probably why one of its nicknames is "stove top." Indeed, as its popularity increases Iranians probably will stop importing it and will manufacture it domestically instead. (Bill Samii)

OPIUM CULTIVATION IN IRAN ON THE RISE. Alireza Naderi, a counternarcotics official in Fars Province, said on 18 January that more than 32 million opium poppy plants were destroyed during the last two years, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported. That number of poppy plants could have yielded 3,000 kilograms of opium. According to Naderi, opium is mostly cultivated in the mountainous areas of Firuzabad, Kazerun, and Nurabad Mamessani. Fars Province police chief Ahmad Alireza Beygi said the cultivated areas are identified from helicopters and then troops are dispatched to destroy the plants.

A 1993 U.S. survey of the Iranian poppy crop estimated that 3,500 hectares of opium poppy were under cultivation and produced up to 70 tons of heroin each year (http://www.state.gov/www/global/narcotics_law/1997_narc_report/fs_iran.html).

In 1996, the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs described Iran as a transshipment country for morphine base and opium from Afghanistan to refineries in Turkey, and added that Kurdish and Baluch clans supervise these shipments (http://www.state.gov/www/global/narcotics_law/1996_narc_report/swasi96.html).

In 1999, the State Department reported that the opium poppy crop in Iran was "negligible" and added that "Iran no longer fits the statutory definition of a major drug-producing country" (http://hongkong.usconsulate.gov/pas/pr/1999/0226b.htm). (Bill Samii)

COUNTERNARCOTICS AGENCIES ENGAGED IN BUREAUCRATIC STRUGGLE. Brigadier General Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, who heads Iran's national police force, told reporters on 15 January that the authorities have seized more than 200 tons of drugs in the last nine months, the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. Dispatches from the state news agency in the first two weeks of January emphasize the extent to which narcotics smuggled from Afghanistan, the world's biggest opium producer, spread throughout Iran: in East Azerbaijan Province police reported seizing 1,291 kilograms in the first nine months of the year, or four times the amount from the previous year; in Kerman Province, police seized 50 tons of drugs; in Khuzestan Province, police found 4.5 kilograms of heroin in a woman's handbag. In Markazi Province, which includes Tehran, smugglers offered police a 2 million rial (approximately $250) bribe when they found 51 kilograms of hashish in a car, and a shoot-out ensued when police refused the bribe. In the last two weeks of December 2004, there were similar reports from Bushehr Province, Fars Province, Isfahan Province, Yazd Province, and Zanjan Province, as well as the eastern provinces of Khorasan Razavi, South Khorasan, North Khorasan, and Sistan va Baluchistan.

These eye-catching reports and the accompanying statistics can be confusing--and misleading. A report in the 1 January issue of "Kayhan" newspaper questioned police counternarcotics unit chief Colonel Mehdi Aboui's claim that the number of drug addicts in Iran has remained fairly constant since 1978. Twenty-five years ago, according to Aboui, there were 1.5-2.5 million addicts (in a total population of 33-34 million). Two million continues to be the most frequently cited number, although the overall population is nearing 70 million. Moreover, Drug Control Headquarters (DCHQ) chief Ali Hashemi said the 2 million figure is from a 1999 survey and is used as a baseline for planning purposes, and there is no more up-to-date figure, "Sarab" reported on 1 December 2003.

Hashemi has also questioned the drug seizure figures provided by the police. Aboui claimed that 310 tons of narcotics were seized in 1382 (2003-2004), Radio Farda reported on 29 December, whereas Hashemi said only 221 tons were seized.

These claims reflect an ongoing conflict between police and the DCHQ. A January 1989 law that outlined punishments for drug traffickers and addicts also created the DCHQ, the secretary that serves as Iran's "drug czar." Presiding over this body is Iran's president, and its other members are the health minister; interior minister; intelligence and security minister; Islamic culture and guidance minister; prosecutor-general; police chief; head of state broadcasting; and the head of the Basij militia, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps.

Aboui complained that while the rest of the world praises Iran's counternarcotics efforts, the DCHQ is preventing Iran from achieving its stated goals, "Kayhan" reported on 29 December 2004. Officials from the DCHQ who do not have any practical experience come up with impractical theories and undermine the drug control campaign, he said.

Over the last decade, 80 percent of the DCHQ's decisions have not been implemented, Aboui said. As an example, Aboui discussed camps for drug addicts. Three years after the decision to create such camps, he said, not one exists. The decision to balance narcotics interdiction with rehabilitation of addicts has also not been implemented.

For that matter, the DCHQ does not meet very often, Aboui said, and the president should be present at its meetings. According to Aboui, the country needs a more aggressive information campaign and families should deal with addicted relatives more firmly. Addicts have to be taken off the streets and placed in treatment and rehabilitation camps, Aboui recommended.

Iran's handling of the drug problem may well be in for some major changes soon. State prosecutor Hojatoleslam Qorban-Ali Dori-Najafabadi, who also is a member of the Expediency Council, said recently that Iran might resume cultivation of opium, Radio Farda reported. This would be used for making pharmaceuticals such as codeine, cough syrup, and even painkillers for cancer patients. The government is also considering making narcotics available to addicts, according to Radio Farda.

As Iran wrestles with its domestic efforts to reduce demand for drugs and the suffering caused by drug abuse, it continues to address the supply side of the problem. Iranian Ambassador to Afghanistan Mohammad Reza Bahrami met with Afghan Counternarcotics Minister Habibullah Qaderi on 1 January and expressed his country's readiness to help, Mashhad radio reported. The next day, a delegation of Iranian parliamentarians visited Sistan va Baluchistan Province to inspect the eastern border, Mehr News Agency reported. Alaedin Borujerdi, who serves on the legislature's National Security Committee, said visits such as this are a regular part of the committee's responsibilities. (Bill Samii)

PROVINCIAL UNREST REVEALS GRIEVANCES, INFLUENCE OF FACTIONAL POLITICS. Western media coverage of Iran concentrates on issues such as press freedom or reformist vs. conservative political clashes. These issues echo throughout Iran, but resonate most in Tehran, where most of the correspondents are based. Iranians in the periphery have more mundane concerns, such as the provision of social services and hospitals, and although these issues receive scant attention, they do influence voting behavior. Recent unrest in a southern Iranian town illustrates this point.

Violent protests erupted in the southern Iranian port of Genaveh on 24 August 2004, apparently directed against the district governor, Iranian and other media reported in September. Protestors vandalized local government buildings and water and electricity installations, the daily "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported on 15 September, although it did not specify the cause of discontent. People chanted antiregime slogans during several hours of rioting, until Iranian security forces stepped in and made many arrests, according to an unconfirmed report from an exiled opposition group's website (http://www.iranncrfac.org). The group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, is a front for the Mujahedin Khalq Organization -- a U.S. State Department and EU-designated terrorist group.

Twenty-two people were later convicted on public disorder-related charges, given jail terms of between seven months and four years, and also variously sentenced to be whipped between 10 and 74 times, "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported on 15 September, citing an unnamed judiciary official. In total, 70 people were charged over the unrest, the official said on 14 September.

According to the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), one reason for the unrest involved "rumors" that a hospital in Genaveh was to be transferred to another town, Dashtestan. Qasem Moradi, a deputy governor of Bushehr Province in charge of security affairs, said on 5 September that "villains and rascals" exploited concern over the rumors to provoke unrest, attack government buildings, and cause "irreparable and great" damage, IRNA reported. His comments cited the conclusions drawn by a provincial investigating committee, which also criticized unspecified local government bodies for failing to "convince public opinion," ignoring grievances, and failing to respond firmly to the unrest.

A separate letter to the Bushehr provincial governor, Ismail Tabadar, published on 14 September in "Bushehr Lian," a local paper, hints at the scope of the violence by stating that the Genaveh district governor appointed by Tabadar took refuge in a "security institution." It adds that government and municipal offices and the local electricity plant were "the scene of...plundering, but neither your governor nor the [police] were brave enough to go among the people."

The provincial governor was finally forced to call on the "mobilization force," which ended the unrest in "the fastest possible time," according to the "Bushehr Lian" letter. This is presumably a reference to the Basij militia, a paramilitary unit attached to the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps that is often used to stem civil disturbances.

The open letter stated that Genaveh residents were angered by the district governor's refusal to address unspecified grievances. Its author accused provincial governor Tabadar of making a politically motivated appointment in choosing a man rejected, on an unspecified occasion, as unfit for public office by the Guardians Council (the body that vets electoral hopefuls). "This [district] governor of yours has a record of confrontation with the people of Tangestan, and his [administration] of Bandar-i Reeg [a port] is famous," the letter stated. Had the provincial governor "mingled with the people and listened to local clerics," the letter added, he would not have appointed "an incompetent person for political reasons."

In the past, the conservative-led Guardians Council has been accused of barring numerous reformers from running for elected bodies, though formally it rejects people on legal grounds, such as having a criminal record. Iran's provincial governors are appointed by the Interior Ministry, currently in reformist hands. The criticism in the "Bushehr Lian" letter of the appointment of a man rejected by the Guardians Council is an indication of the newspaper's conservative inclination. The letter also deplored Tabadar's rejection of other nominees for the post who were proposed by the local member of the current, conservative-dominated parliament.

Whether he is a reformist or a conservative, the Genaveh district governor's actions angered some locals. Nor is incompetence the preserve of one or the other political tendency. At a provincial level, reformist and conservative labels are less significant than they are in national politics. The labels merely identify local cliques or individuals with shifting loyalties, who seek the rewards of administrative posts in a country where such jobs are -- for many -- an economic necessity.

Mohammad Baqer Abbasi, a local representative of the reformist 2nd of Khordad Front, suggested in a commentary in the 12 September "Nasir-i Bushehr" that unemployment, interventionist policies that disrupt economic and farming activities in Bushehr, and official incompetence contributed to local dissatisfaction in Genaveh. Abbasi advised officials to reconsider their own record before accusing local residents of being "rascals."

Iran "is one of the safest countries in the world," Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi declared in Tehran on 24 August, according to the Iranian Students News Agency. In fact, the country intermittently witnesses expressions of public discontent. These range in size from large-scale rioting, as in the 1999 student and public demonstrations in Tehran and other major cities, to small gatherings that sometimes degenerate into more serious unrest. Unpaid wages among state-sector employees, or provincial or district boundary changes that may affect public services and budget allocations, often prompt such gatherings. The anger, as in Genaveh, is often symptomatic of Iranians' frustration at the perceived distance between officials and ordinary people, and the reluctance of those officials to account for their actions.

The letter to the provincial governor that was published in "Bushehr Lian" states that Genaveh residents were incensed when the district governor rudely refused to listen to their grievances because the governor claimed he had a meeting to attend. This is a particularly ironic rationale, because Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has dubbed this the Year of Accountability. (Vahid Sepehri)

PRICE CONTROLS GET MIXED RECEPTION. "Young physicians in our country live below the poverty line," Dr. Iraj Khosronia, head of the General Practitioners Society, said in a 15 January interview that appeared the next day in "Resalat." He said they earn less than 1.5 million rials (about $190; per month, presumably). After completing medical school, the young physicians do their compulsory military service, Khosronia said, but then some of them leave the medical profession to work in other, more lucrative, fields.

One of the means by which the government is trying to reduce the adverse impact of low earnings is by implementing price controls. On 11 January, the legislature approved a bill to stabilize prices during the year starting March 2005, Mehr News Agency reported. This measure is intended to confront inflation and will affect the price of gasoline and other petroleum products, gas, electricity, water, telephone, and postal services. One day later, the bill was modified so that gasoline rationing would not take place during the second half of the Iranian year (21 March 2005-20 March 2006), "Sharq" reported. Every day, 63 million liters of gasoline are consumed in Iran and 23 million liters of gasoline are imported. Deputy Speaker of Parliament Mohammad Reza Bahonar predicted that rationing would be required if imports were stopped, and he recommended postponing this measure.

Price controls appear to be popular. A survey by the parliamentary research center found that 72.6 percent of 1,300 respondents in Tehran said this measure would control inflation, "Kayhan" reported on 10 January. Some 81 percent of respondents also objected to the proposal to increase gasoline prices to 2,000 rials per liter (25 cents).

Gasoline currently costs 800 rials (about $.10) per liter. Each liter of imported gasoline costs 2,800 rials and each liter of domestically produced gasoline costs 2,500 rials, Deputy Oil Minister Mohammad Aqai said on 28 July 2004, according to IRNA.

Gasoline consumption in Iran is very high, because many autos are old and poorly maintained, and because there are not enough new autos available. Moreover, much of the inexpensive gas that is available is smuggled out of the country. Deputy Oil Minister Aqai said on 21 September 2004 that 1.5 million liters of gasoline are smuggled across the border daily, IRNA reported.

Not everybody welcomes the idea of price controls, particularly the executive branch and reformist legislators. Reformist parliamentarian Iraj Nadimi said, prior to passage of the price stabilization bill, that this is not a new plan and it is not even a very good one, "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on 10 January. He went on to describe the discussions on formulating the plan as more political than economic. "Sharq" on 12 January described the price stabilization plan as a measure intended to earn public support during the upcoming presidential election.

Speaker of Parliament Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel denounced critics of the bill as demagogues motivated by the election, "Resalat" reported on 12 January. Speaking in populist terms, he asked, "Is this policy advantageous to the poor and the people?"

Reports from the eastern part of the country, where a six-year drought has compounded the situation, indicate the difficulties some Iranians are facing. A neighborhood in Birjand, the capital of South Khorasan Province, consists of "half finished houses built with tin and fruit boxes," "Ava-yi Birjand" reported on 5 September 2004. There is one water tap to serve the neighborhood, and the municipality reportedly demanded 2-3 million rials from each family if they want water service. A resident said that some homes have no electricity and local sanitation is "very limited." Garbage collection takes place just once a week. A teacher from the city said many of her students are malnourished, "Ava-yi Birjand" reported on 19 October 2004.

"Mardom Salari" reported on 5 August 2004 that the drought's destruction of farmland and rising unemployment have forced many people in Birjand to earn a living through fuel smuggling. (Bill Samii)

COOKIE MAKERS PROTEST FOR BACK WAGES. Nearly 2,000 employees of the Pars Minu cookie and chocolate factory gathered in front of the company headquarters in Tehran on 18 January to demand payment of unpaid wages, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported. Workers said they would continue to demonstrate until state officials respond. (Bill Samii)

EBADI CRITICIZES IRAN'S USE OF SOLITARY CONFINEMENT. Shirin Ebadi, the winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, said on 17 January that solitary confinement should be banned and called it a form of "white torture" (presumably meaning psychological torture), Radio Farda reported. Present at the press conference were national-religious activist Ezzatollah Sahabi, student leader Ali Afshari, and online journalist Hanif Mazrui, all of whom have been subjected to solitary confinement.

Ebadi told Radio Farda that judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi should enforce his earlier ban on this practice. "Isn't it time we take a look at our prison system?" Ebadi asked.

Judiciary spokesman Jamal Karimirad said on 17 January that solitary confinement does not occur in Iran, although it exists in other countries, ISNA reported. Karimirad said people are sometimes confined separately at the beginning of an investigation but only for "a limited time" and on a judge's orders. Solitary cells existed until Hashemi-Shahrudi ordered they be dismantled, Karimirad said, and the cells were "transformed into spacious suites with special facilities in case it was necessary for a person to spend a short time apart from other prisoners." (Bill Samii)

ALLEGED EBADI SUMMONS A MISUNDERSTANDING. Tehran Province Justice Department official Hojatoleslam Abbasali Alizadeh said on 17 January that a court summons had been issued to Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi accidentally, IRNA reported (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 17 January 2004). The Revolutionary Court summoned Ebadi to respond to a private complaint, but private complaints are not in the Revolutionary Court's jurisdiction. Alizadeh predicted that the judge would rescind the summons.

Hojatoleslam Ali Mobasheri, head of the Revolutionary Court, said on 19 January that a complaint against Ebadi has not been filed at all and that there is no reason to summon her, IRNA reported. Mobasheri claimed that Ebadi and her lawyers misunderstood a communication from the court. (Bill Samii)

LEGISLATURE APPROVES BILL TO INVESTIGATE JUDICIARY. One-hundred and sixty-five of 233 parliamentarians approved a bill authorizing legislative investigations of the judiciary on 18 January, Radio Farda reported. If the bill becomes law, the legislature can look into the judiciary's anticorruption campaign, moral and ethical issues, budgetary matters, and implementation of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's orders, Radio Farda reported.

The previous legislature, which was dominated by reformists, failed to secure these investigative powers, Radio Farda reported. The current conservative dominated legislature may get more cooperation from the judiciary, according to Radio Farda, but so far judiciary officials have not looked favorably on the matter.

Both the judiciary and the legislature now are considered to be in the hands of conservatives, but there are age-cohort divisions among the conservatives that have resulted in the emergence of competing factions. The legislature's push to investigate the judiciary may be related to these divisions. (Bill Samii)

JUDICIARY DEVELOPING ANTICORRUPTION PLAN. Ibrahim Raisi, deputy head of the judiciary, said on 18 January that a plan to confront economic corruption is being developed, IRNA reported. This plan will be made available to the public, he said, as will information on all the corruption cases on the courts' dockets.

Judiciary official Vahid Sharifi described a corruption case in which individuals invoked the name of Assembly of Experts member Ayatollah Ali Urumian from East Azerbaijan Province in order to issue false documents, embezzle money, sell government property illegally, make illegal arrests, and interfere with judiciary affairs, "Iran" reported on 2 January. The main defendant, Reza Madhi Tazehkand (a.k.a. Husseini), claimed that he was Urumian's office manager and security adviser.

Incidents related to the case occurred in Tabriz and on Kish Island. In Tehran, the defendant persuaded a judge to issue an arrest warrant for a nurse from Mehr Hospital, and then illegally detained and questioned her after she rebuffed his marriage proposal.

Charges against Urumian will be handled by the Special Court for the Clergy, because he signed all the illegal documents used by the main defendant. (Bill Samii)

JOURNALIST ARRESTED AFTER GIVING INTERVIEWS TO FOREIGN RADIOS. "Gilan-i Imruz" Editor in Chief Arash Sigarchi was arrested on 16 January after responding to a court summons in the northern city of Rasht, "Sharq" reported on 20 January. The summons reportedly is for giving interviews to Radio Farda and the BBC. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Sigarchi spoke out against the recent arrests of online journalists and Internet activists on the banned "Panjareh-yi Eltehab" weblog. Access from within Iran to Sigarchi’s website (http://www.sigarchi.com/blog) reportedly is blocked. RSF goes on to report that bail for him is 200 million rials (approximately $22,600) and his mother was pressured to deny that her son was arrested. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN'S BRAVADO MASKS FEAR OF U.S. Allegations of U.S. military intentions towards Iran have been background noise in Washington since at least January 2002, when President George W. Bush referred to Iran as a member of the "Axis of Evil" in his State of the Union address. Iranian officials have at times reacted by making outrageous claims -- in February 2002, for example, Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Deputy Commander Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr threatened to attack Persian Gulf oilfields if the U.S. attacked Iran. At other times they have reacted by staging war games that are based on observation of U.S. tactics, and by declaring a new emphasis on asymmetric warfare.

The situation has changed a little recently, but not much. Washington has given Iran a new label -- "outpost of tyranny." Iranian officials have responded to these most recent U.S. statements about their country, as well as reports about alleged U.S. military operations in Iran, less imaginatively and with the usual defiance.

Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh's article titled "The Coming Wars," which appeared in the online edition of "The New Yorker" on 16 January, asserted: "The [U.S.] Administration has been conducting secret reconnaissance missions inside Iran at least since last summer. Much of the focus is on the accumulation of intelligence and targeting information on Iranian nuclear, chemical, and missile sites, both declared and suspected. The goal is to identify and isolate three dozen, and perhaps more, such targets that could be destroyed by precision strikes and short-term commando raids."

Hersh also wrote: "The Pentagon's contingency plans for a broader invasion of Iran are also being updated."

The Pentagon dismissed Hersh's article. Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita said on 17 January that Iran's nuclear ambitions and terrorist activities should be treated more seriously than Hersh described, Reuters reported. The article, DiRita said, was "so riddled with errors of fundamental fact that the credibility of his entire piece is destroyed."

After hearing this reassuring comment, Tehran felt it was safe to react. Ali Aqa-Mohammadi, a public affairs official from the Supreme National Security Council, on 18 January dismissed "The New Yorker" article as "psychological warfare," state radio reported. "It is not so easy for American commandos to enter Iran for espionage purposes, and it is simple-minded to believe this [report]."

White House observations on Iran also caused concern in Tehran. President George W. Bush discussed the possibility of military action against Iran because of its nuclear program in a 17 January interview with David Gregory of NBC News. "I hope we can solve it diplomatically, but I will never take any option off the table," President Bush said. Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani said on the same day that no country would dare attack Iran because of its unknown military strength and potential, Mehr News Agency reported.

Iran was a topic during Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice's confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In her opening statement on 18 January, Rice assigned Iran to a grouping that is reminiscent of the "Axis of Evil" described by Bush two years earlier. She said, "In our world, there remain outposts of tyranny, and America stands with oppressed people on every continent, in Cuba and Burma, and North Korea and Iran and Belarus and Zimbabwe."

She went on to say that future Iran-U.S. relations would depend on two issues -- Iran's support for terrorism and its nuclear activities -- as well as human rights, Radio Farda reported.

In response to Senator Joseph Biden's (D-Delaware) question about "regime change," Rice said: "The goal of the administration is to have a regime in Iran that is responsive to concerns that we have about Iran's policies, which are about 180 degrees antithetical to our own interests at this point." She continued, "That means that the regime would have to deal with its nuclear weapons obligations, deal with the fact that there are Al-Qaeda leaders who have been there, deal with the fact that they're supporting Hizballah and terrorism against -- and Palestinian rejectionists against the Middle East peace process. That's what we're seeking." Rice added, "I do want to say that the Iranian people, who are among some of the most worldly, in a good sense, that we know, do suffer under a regime that has been completely unwilling to deal with their aspirations, and that has an appalling human rights record."

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on 19 January that Rice's comments, as well as earlier ones by President George W. Bush, are indicative of a troublesome agenda, IRNA reported. Assefi referred to policies and approaches he claimed were promulgated by "extremist neoconservatives" and advised Rice to review her country's past actions so she can avoid repeating previous mistakes. He said Iran has the diplomatic potential, popular support, and military capability to respond to any unwise actions.

An Iranian state radio analyst using the name "Mr. Kheratmand" said on 19 January that Rice was repeating administration policy from the last three years. He said the U.S. supports the European nuclear initiative because it has no alternatives. Kheratmand went on to say that Iran-EU talks are making progress, even though the U.S. wants to refer Iran to the UN Security Council. He predicted that the change in leadership at the State Department would not result in tangible changes in U.S. global policies.

During a 20 January appearance on MSNBC's "Imus In The Morning" talk show, Vice President Dick Cheney said that when "you look around the world at potential trouble spots, Iran is right at the top of the list." In his interview with syndicated talk-show host Don Imus, which came just hours before he was sworn in for a second term, Cheney expressed concern that Israel will stage a preemptive strike against Iran. "If, in fact, the Israelis became convinced the Iranians had significant nuclear capability, given the fact that Iran has a stated policy that their objective is the destruction of Israel, the Israelis might well decide to act first and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterward." Cheney said the administration does not "want a war in the Middle East," and added that diplomacy is the key. "Certainly, in the case of the Iranian situation, I think everybody would be best suited by or best treated and dealt with if we could deal with it diplomatically" (for a full transcript of the show, see http://msnbc.msn.com/id/6847999/).

President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami said on 20 January in Kampala, Uganda: "I do not think that America is in a position to resort to the madness of attacking Iran," state radio reported. Khatami described the possibility of a U.S. attack as "very negligible." Nevertheless, Khatami said, "we have prepared ourselves and will prepare more, should they -- God forbid -- resort to an act of aggression; and we have plans for such a day."

Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said on 20 January that American officials' threats to attack Iran are only "psychological warfare," IRNA reported. Kharrazi said Iran would defend itself.

Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi on 20 January described Hersh's report as "ridiculous," IRNA reported. Three days later, Yunesi said the comments from Washington are meant to influence Iran-EU negotiations, IRNA reported. (Bill Samii)

AFGHANS UNWELCOME IN IRAN. The Iranian judiciary has announced an amnesty for imprisoned Afghans, including those on death row, Mashhad radio's Dari service reported on 20 January. Afghans who are being sued by other people will not be released, unless the complainant pardons them. Supreme Court official Ali Qahramani said that the released Afghans will be repatriated. If they return to Iran and commit a new crime, the remainder of the previous sentence will be added to the new sentence. Qahramani said he does not know how many Afghan prisoners there are. He described the amnesty as a measure intended to improve friendly relations between two countries with a common majority religion.

"Furthermore, this act will encourage Afghan refugees to return to their country," Qahramani said. Refugees have become a major issue recently.

Deputy Interior Minister and Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs chief Ahmad Husseini said on 19 January that Afghan refugees can no longer stay in Iran because there is no more aid from international organizations with which to support them, IRNA reported. Husseini said Iran cannot bear the cost alone. According to Husseini, one million Afghan refugees remain in Iran. On 17 January, IRNA reported that Husseini dismissed accusations that Iran is forcibly repatriating Afghan refugees.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) chief Ruud Lubbers said in Kabul on 15 January, "We think that the Iranian authorities have gone too far...we are not going to be instrumental in forced repatriation," AFP reported. If the forced repatriations continue, Lubbers said, the UNHCR will not renew its agreement with Iran and Afghanistan.

Husseini said on 17 January that the UNHCR does not have the right to interfere in Iranian affairs, and he added that the UNHCR has not provided any funding "since last summer," IRNA reported. He said that the repatriation of Afghan refugees has been suspended for three months because of the cold weather. Since April 2002, Husseini said that 1.3 million Afghans have gone home.

Also on 17 January, Yazd Province Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs chief Mohammad Kazem Sadeqi said 31,600 Afghan refugees have left the province since April 2002, IRNA reported. Another 27,000 Afghans still live there and are expected to go back to Afghanistan in the coming year, he said. (Bill Samii)

IRAN AND IRAQ HOLD TRADE DISCUSSIONS. Iraqi Finance Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi met with Iranian Commerce Minister Mohammad Shariatmadari on 20 January in Tehran to discuss the expansion of bilateral trade, IRNA reported. Shariatmadari referred to the need for free-trade agreements, cooperation in banking, trade exchanges, and border markets. He also mentioned letters of credit and insurance cover. Abd al-Mahdi expressed an interest in learning from Iran's postwar reconstruction experience, and he described legal reforms and Iraqi Central Bank independence as recent measures implemented in his country. (Bill Samii)

IRAQIS CONTRADICT EACH OTHER ON ALLEGED IRANIAN INTERFERENCE. The level of rhetoric about alleged Iranian interference in Iraq is rising as the country's elections -- scheduled for 30 January -- approach (see http://www.rferl.org/specials/iraqelections). However, two high-level Iraqi officials have taken exception to Defense Minister Hazim Sha'lan al-Khuza'i repeated allegations of interference in their country's internal affairs (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 17 January 2005). In Iran, meanwhile, the country's top official is voicing a great deal of skepticism about the motives driving the election process.

Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said in the 18 January issue of "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that his colleague's statements "are not useful for us." "We do not deny that there is interference by some countries, but the way of raising and dealing with them should not be through the media and satellite channels," Zebari added. He also dismissed allegations of a plan to create a Shi'a crescent from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to Beirut.

Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi told Al-Arabiyah television on 17 January that Iran has no control over the names on the United Iraqi Alliance list. Chalabi described Defense Minister al-Khuzai's statements as "reckless and unrealistic." Chalabi then claimed that the Defense Ministry transferred a $500 million cash withdrawal from Iraq's Central Bank to Beirut by airplane.

Al-Khuzai responded to these accusations by saying that Chalabi "reacts on behalf of Iran and launches such campaigns because I reveal facts on the Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs," "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on 21 January. As for the claims of cash transactions, al-Khuzai said $100 million was released through the proper legal entities to purchase helicopters and weapons from Poland.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, meanwhile, suggested in an 18 January message to Hajj pilgrims in Saudi Arabia that Iraqis want the elections to take place in order to end the military occupation and alleged U.S. and British political control, as well as the "vicious presence of the Zionists, who have alighted on the banks of the Euphrates in the shadow of American arms," IRNA reported. For Iraqis, he said, elections will result in a transition from sectarian and ethnic conflict to national unity.

The occupiers have a different objective, Khamenei said. They want to "impose" their own "mercenaries" who are "abject and docile puppets," and will thereby pay for military expenditures with the Iraqi people's oil revenues.

Khamenei warned that fraud and manipulation of the election, which he termed "a specialty of the Americans," is a danger. He added that "the enemies" are behind Shi'a-Sunni sectarian differences, as well as Arab, Kurd, and Turkoman ethnic differences. The enemy's intelligence services, he added, are planning and promoting insecurity in Iraq. (Bill Samii)

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