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Iran Report: February 21, 2005

21 February 2005, Volume 8, Number 8

IRAN HAS TROUBLE HANDLING CIVIL AFFAIRS EMERGENCIES. In recent weeks, heavy snow has wrought havoc in many parts of Iran, and the public is getting increasingly annoyed with the government's inability to handle the problem. This is not the first time Iran has had to contend with a nature-induced crisis. Nor is it the first time the government has been unable to meet public needs. This situation is indicative of several deep-rooted problems, including a lack of governmental preparedness, poor management, and the state's indifference.

People in northwestern Iran are not only faced with unseasonably low temperatures, but they also face a lack of resources for heating their homes and cooking their food.

Kurdistan provincial journalist Masud Kurdpur described the challenges in an interview with Radio Farda. Temperatures are minus 25 degrees Centigrade, he said, and natural gas and electricity are not available in the towns of Mahabad, Piranshahr, and Sardasht. Locals in Mahabad demonstrated in front of the governorate, and in Saqez, where gas has been unavailable for days, people protested at the gas utility company. There is also a bread shortage, Kurdpur said, because most bakeries use gas ovens.

Protesters want to know why there is a natural-gas shortage in a country with the world's second-largest gas reserves, Kurdpur said, adding that people in Miyandoab are particularly upset because gas pipelines supplying Turkey pass through the district.

Officials say the cold weather is responsible for low gas pressure and advised locals to reduce their natural-gas usage, Kurdpur continued. The electricity shortage is due to an explosion at a transfer station between Mahabad and Urumiyeh, which occurred because of overloaded capacity due to the usage of electric heaters.

Unseasonably heavy snowfall in Gilan Province, which borders the Caspian Sea, has wrought an unprecedented disaster there. Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari said that 30,000 provincial buildings -- including homes, schools, and offices -- have been damaged so far, "Iran" newspaper reported on 16 February. He promised the people of Gilan that the government will provide them with "serious support." He explained that the government was not adequately prepared because such a heavy snowfall is unprecedented, and he called for better readiness in the future. Musavi-Lari and other officials toured the cities of Rasht, Lahijan, Sangar, Dilman, and Kuchsefahan by helicopter.

Islamic Revolution Guards Corps spokesman Masud Jazayeri said on 16 February that his organization is providing emergency services in Gilan Province, "Kayhan" reported. This includes medical teams and using helicopters to rescue the snowbound, he said.

The government's lack of preparedness has caused a great deal of irritation. Speaking on behalf of the parliamentarians from Gilan Province, Iraj Nadimi said in the 13 February legislative session, "Having so many problems with power and water distribution networks of the villages around Rasht was surprising," "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported the next day. He added that municipal and provincial officials did not help people who lost access to natural gas. Nadimi said the government should learn from this and improve its crisis management.

Newspapers also commented on the situation. The reformist "Aftab-i Yazd" daily commented on 14 February that Tehran was overwhelmed by heavy rains 21 years ago, and it suggested that the situation is the same today while other regional states have progressed. The English-language "Iran Daily" noted on 14 February that the heavy snowfall caused traffic delays and school closures in Tehran. The snow is not the problem, the newspaper commented, it is the lack of planning and "serious failures in the stewardship of public money and the wholesale mismanagement of the lives of millions of people who for long have been waiting for meritocracy and responsibility from powers that be." The ultra-conservative "Jomhuri-yi Islami" said the situation proved officials' lack of readiness and executive branch's weakness.

Public anger with the government's seemingly inadequate response is not unprecedented. After the December 2003 earthquake in the southeastern city of Bam, the international community rushed to provide humanitarian assistance. But more than a year later some people are still living in tents. Locals have demonstrated, provincial officials have resigned, and national officials have promised relief. Yet the situation has not changed for the better.

The central government's inadequate response can be attributed to a number of factors. The most obvious is a lack of preparedness and the absence of a serious emergency management agency. It appears that every time a natural disaster occurs ad hoc institutions are created to manage the situation and this results in an absence of coordination. Often, furthermore, officials get their jobs through nepotism or connections rather than through their qualifications. They are not trained for such situations. The final reason could be government indifference. There are frequent albeit sporadic demonstrations against shortages, inadequate social services, job layoffs, and the other irritants of life in Iran, but they have never posed a serious threat to the regime. The government knows it can easily coopt a public that is heavily dependent upon it, and if that fails, its control of coercive institutions carries the day. The Islamic Republic claims to care a great deal about its citizens' physical and spiritual well-being; indeed, these are its founding principles. But in the final analysis, the regime is more focused on its own preservation. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN DOWN ON LOVE. Valentine's Day coincided this year with the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, one of the most important events on the Shi'a Muslim calendar. Nevertheless, stores in Iran were selling items connected to the romantic holiday, Radio Farda reported on 14 February. An unnamed shopkeeper told Radio Farda that the Public Establishments Office (Edareh-yi Amaken Omumi), which is affiliated with the police, banned the sale of heart-shaped goods. A young man in Tehran, who was shopping with his girlfriend, told Radio Farda it has become traditional to exchange romantic gifts on this day, although Valentine's Day is not part of the country's culture and traditions. Tehran-based journalist Ebrahim Suleimani said the event took hold in Iran six years ago. At one point, Ebrahimi said, an Iranian cleric proposed organizing an Islamic Valentine's Day that would commemorate the anniversary of the marriage of the first Shi'a imam with the daughter of the prophet Muhammad. Nothing came of the idea. (Bill Samii)

FATAL TEHRAN MOSQUE FIRE CAUSED NO STRUCTURAL DAMAGE. Tehran Police Chief Brigadier General Morteza Talai said at least 59 people were killed and more than 250 were injured in a fire at Tehran's Arg Mosque on 14 February, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. The mosque dates to the Safavid Dynasty and is located in what was once known as Arg Square (renamed 15th of Khordad Square after the revolution).

The blaze started when a female worshipper's chador, or shawl, was ignited by a heater, and the flames transferred to a curtain separating the men's and women's sections of the mosque, state television reported. Witnesses told state television the mosque's narrow exits hampered escape. The injured were taken to four hospitals, and medical authorities called for blood donors.

An official from the Tehran Province Cultural Heritage Organization, Mehdi Memarzadeh, told Radio Farda on 15 February that the Arq Mosque did not suffer any serious damage in the previous day's fire. He acknowledged that many carpets, curtains, and wall hangings were burned, but the building itself only suffered smoke damage and that should not be a problem. If the ceiling beams were damaged, he said, a closer inspection will be necessary. Memarzadeh explained that the women's section of the mosque, which is where the previous day's fire started, is on the second floor, and the ground floor is for men.

A funeral procession for the fire's victims took place on 17 February, IRNA reported. Thirty-four of the victims were buried at Tehran's Behesht-i Zahra cemetery. (Bill Samii)

POLICE COMPLAIN OF INADEQUATE COUNTERNARCOTICS BUDGET. Brigadier General Mehdi Aboui, who heads the national police counternarcotics unit, said on 5 February in Mashhad that the amount of money allocated for drug control is insufficient, IRNA reported. Aboui did not disclose the actual amount of money, but he said that it is good for just three months. Sixty percent of the budget is earmarked for demand reduction, 30 percent is for treatment, and 10 percent is for miscellaneous counternarcotics activities. Aboui went on to predict that drug production in Afghanistan, the world's leading producer of opiates, will exceed 5,000 tons this year. He added that Iran's seizure of 260 tons of narcotics since March 2004 is a 50 percent increase compared to the same period one year ago. Aboui attributed the increase in narcotics trafficking to "mafia gangs...some of whom are even being backed by state governments across the world." (Bill Samii)

IRAN, U.A.E. SIGN COUNTERNARCOTICS MEMO. Iran's Deputy Interior Minister Ali Asqar Ahmadi and the United Arab Emirates' Interior Ministry undersecretary, Major General Saif Abdullah al-Shaafar, recently signed a memorandum of understanding on drug control, Abu Dhabi's WAM reported on 8 February. The memorandum addresses the trafficking of drugs and psychotropic substances and the precursor chemicals used to make them. (Bill Samii)

GROUP IDENTIFIES EIGHT PRESS PRISONERS IN IRAN. Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, spokesman of the Association in Defense of Press Freedoms, announced on 15 February that eight people involved in press affairs are currently imprisoned in Iran, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported. Shamsolvaezin said three of the prisoners -- Ensafali Hedayat, Siamak Purzand, and Arash Sigarchi -- are journalists imprisoned for their reporting, while others -- such as Abbas Abdi, Reza Alijani, Hussein Qazian, and Hoda Saber -- are imprisoned for other reasons not directly related to their reporting. Shamsolvaezin said his 100-member organization began its activities in 2001, and its activities include issuing statements, "interacting with institutions that violate freedom of speech," and writing an annual report on freedom of the press.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported on 15 February that two Internet activists were imprisoned. Web logger Mujtaba Saminejad was imprisoned on 12 February; he was free on 500 million rials ($56,447) bail but had to go back after a judge doubled the bail. An appeals court upheld the 46 month sentence of "cyber-dissident" Hojatoleslam Mujtaba Lotfi on 5 February. An aide to Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri-Najafabadi, Lotfi, was originally sentenced in August 2004 but released on bail.

According to a 28 January release from Reporters Without Borders (RSF), journalist Taqi Rahmani has spent the last 19 months in jail without being charged, and he has spent 5,000 days in prison since 1981. Rahmani was tried behind closed doors in May 2003 and given an 11-year prison sentence, plus a 10-year loss of civil rights. RSF has characterized Iran as the biggest prison for journalists in the Middle East.

Asked during his 6 February interview with "USA Today" about the arrest of web loggers and their allegations of prison abuse, Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani said: "I am essentially against any harsh approach to these issues in Iran. There is no need for such actions. Each department and institution has its own authorities and responsibilities, and they act on that basis. It is wrong to even compare such actions to what is done in Guantanamo or elsewhere by the Americans. They do not stand on a high moral platform to preach to others." (Bill Samii)

RUSHDIE FATWA STILL VALID. The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps announced on 12 February that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's religious decree (fatwa) calling for the killing of British author Salman Rushdie remains in effect, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) and IRNA reported. Khomeini issued the fatwa on 14 June 1989 on the grounds that Rushdie's book "The Satanic Verses" insulted the prophet Mohammed. The state-connected 15th of Khordad Foundation subsequently offered a multimillion-dollar bounty for Rushdie's death. President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami said during a 1998 trip to the United Nations in New York that the issue should be considered "finished," but Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said otherwise, IRNA reported. (Bill Samii)

ARGENTINEAN JUDICIARY SAYS IT STILL SEEKS IRANIAN OFFICIALS. Judge Rodolfo Canicoba Corral has informed the Argentinean Foreign Ministry that international warrants it issued in 2003 for the arrest of several Iranians continue to be in force, Panama's ACAN-EFE news agency reported on 12 February. The Iranians are wanted in connection with the bombing in July 1994 of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, which killed 86 people. The wanted individuals are former Intelligence and Security Minister Ali-Akbar Fallahian-Khuzestani; former Argentinean Ambassador Hadi Suleimanpur; former Deputy Chief of Mission Ahmad Reza Asghari; former cultural attache Mohsen Rabbani; former official Ali Akbar Parvaresh; former diplomatic courier Ali Balesh-Abadi; and several other diplomatic couriers. The judge also asked Italy, Lebanon, and Paraguay for information regarding the case, and he again contacted Interpol to ask Brazil, Israel, Lebanon, Paraguay, Syria, and the United Kingdom to supply the same. (Bill Samii)

IRAN STRENGTHENS PRESENCE IN HORN OF AFRICA. Sudan's ambassador to Tehran, Hamid al-Tani, said President Umar al-Bashir will visit Tehran in the next few days, "Al-Anba" newspaper reported on 16 February. Al-Tani added that the two sides intend to sign energy and petrochemical agreements. Tehran also has agreed to sponsor Ethiopian peacekeepers who will be deployed in Somalia, Somalia's Radio Shabeele reported on 16 February. In addition, the two sides agreed to cooperate in agriculture and trade. This development occurred during a visit to Tehran by Ethiopian Finance and Economic Development Minister Ahmad Sufian, which began on 14 February. Radio Shabeele also reported the two countries will establish a radio and television station that will broadcast in various languages to the whole region. Sufian met with President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami on the first day of his visit, IRNA reported. (Bill Samii)

PROSPECTIVE IRANIAN PILGRIMS TO IRAQ FACE RESTRICTIONS. Mr. Ismaili, governor of the southwestern city of Mehran, announced on 18 February that approximately 100 Iranians were arrested that day for trying to enter Iraq illegally, state radio reported. He added that Iraqi security personnel have orders to shoot people who cross the border illegally.

Tasua and Ashura -- the commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein and his followers in Karbala 1,400 years ago -- take place on 19 and 20 February. As RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill notes, faithful Shi'a mark this event by holding mourning processions in which they flagellate themselves. In 2004, 170 people were killed when terrorists attacked Shi'a commemorating Ashura in Baghdad and Karbala.

Ilam Province police chief Brigadier-General Jafar Darabi said on 17 February that Iraqi officials have taken steps to reduce pilgrims' access to holy Shi'a sites, Baztab website reported. Darabi said Iranian and Iraqi officials are discussing this issue, and he urged Iranians to respect these restrictions. Darabi also warned of the dangers of mine fields left over from the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, as well as general insecurity in Iraq.

Ilam Province's deputy-governor general for security affairs, Ali-Asqar Jamshid-Nejad, warned that people who enter Iraq illegally will be arrested and imprisoned for up to six months, Baztab reported.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry announced on 15 February that Iranians should visit Iraq only after securing visas, IRNA reported.

Despite these and other security measures, on 18 February two Shi'a mosques in Baghdad were bombed. More bombings occurred the next day. (Bill Samii)

RUMORS FLY AROUND IRANIAN NUCLEAR REACTOR. International concern about Iran's nuclear intentions, coupled with cautionary statements from Washington and news reports of U.S. military activities in the region, led to a brief scare in mid-February.

The week started with "The Washington Post" reporting on 13 February that U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles have overflown Iran for about one year in a quest for information about Iran's nuclear activities and in an effort to examine its air-defense network. An anonymous Iranian official said Iran has not reacted to these incursions so as not to disclose those capabilities.

U.S. Defense Department officials denied on 14 February that unmanned aircraft are flying in Iranian airspace, CNN and Fox News reported. The Central Intelligence Agency has its own fleet of such aircraft, and intelligence community officials have refused to comment, Fox reported. Senator Pat Roberts, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, denied on CNN's "Late Edition" that U.S. drones are overflying Iran.

Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi said on 16 February that because its military activities are legal, Iran has nothing to hide from U.S. satellites that are spying on it, IRNA and ISNA reported. Yunesi warned that Iran will shoot down any spy planes or drones that get too close.

On the same day, 16 February, reports from the Arabic language Al-Alam, Al-Arabiyah, and Al-Jazirah television networks attributed an explosion in southern Iran's Bushehr Province to the presence of unknown aircraft and the response of antiaircraft artillery, and there was media speculation this was connected to an attack on the nuclear facility at Bushehr.

Supreme National Security Council public affairs official Ali Aqamohammadi said the Interior Ministry has investigated reports of an explosion and determined it was connected to road construction in Deilam, Al-Alam reported. Aqamohammadi was careful to say nothing had happened near the nuclear plant and blamed someone for spreading rumors.

Other officials tried to put these rumors to rest as well. The Bushehr facility's manager, Nasser Shariflu, said he was at the plant all day and that nothing had happened there, ILNA reported. He added that Deilam is 250 kilometers from the nuclear plant. Provincial Governor General Ismail Tabadar said the explosion was nowhere near the nuclear facility, IRNA reported.

Muddying the waters somewhat was a statement from the Interior Ministry, whose spokesman, Jahanbakhsh Khanjani, said "friendly fire" could be behind the explosion and that there have been several such incidents lately, AP reported on 16 February, but he did not provide more details.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan also denied the involvement of U.S. aircraft or assets, the State Department reported (

These incidents come on the heels of a report in "The New Yorker" about American commandos and local agents infiltrating Iranian territory. The White House has made statements that could be perceived as aggressive in nature, too (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 24 January 2005).

On 17 February, in Washington, President George W. Bush said the United States would support Israel if it reacts to an Iranian threat, according to the State Department website. He explained, "[I]f I was the leader of Israel, and I listened to some of the statements by the Iranian ayatollahs...that regarded my security of my country, I'd be concerned about Iran having a nuclear weapon." Bush continued, "We will support Israel if...their security is threatened."

Tehran is not standing by idly, anticipating an attack or other action. A legislative committee on 12 February approved funds for discovering and countering alleged U.S. plots and interference in Iranian internal affairs, state television reported.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi warned the United States on 13 February about its stance toward Iran, state radio reported. He said: "In our talks with the Europeans, we clearly told them to tell their American allies not to play with fire." Assefi went on to denounce Washington's statements about Iran. He said: "The very essence of the remarks made by American officials indicates American interference in the affairs of other countries, including Iran. The very essence of the remarks and the reports proves that the Americans have violated the Algiers Accord, according to which America had pledged not to interfere in the domestic affairs of Iran. This again shows the violation of international law by America."

The January 1981 Algiers Accord concluded the 444-day Iranian hostage crisis. According to that agreement, the U.S. agrees "not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran's internal affairs" (see Congressional Research Service, "Iran: U.S. Policy and Options," 14 January 2000; (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN, MOSCOW ANNOUNCE DATE FOR NUCLEAR-FUEL-TRANSFER AGREEMENT. Iranian Atomic Energy Organization official Asadollah Saburi said on 17 February that an agreement on the return of spent nuclear fuel to Russia for reprocessing will be signed on 26 February, Iranian state radio reported. Russian Atomic Energy Agency head Aleksandr Rumyantsev is scheduled to visit Iran in late February. The fate of fuel used in the Bushehr reactor that originated in Moscow has been a bone of contention for some time, and disagreements over financial issues have delayed signing of the agreement. This is the first time a specific date has been mentioned. One part of the agreement, Saburi said, touches on when the fresh fuel will be sent to Iran. He said this will occur about three months after the signing. Saburi said the fuel will be flown to Iran.

Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani arrived in Moscow on the evening of 16 February, state television reported. Rohani said the two sides will discuss regional issues, as well as nuclear matters. He said they will discuss the completion of the nuclear power plant in Bushehr.

Rohani and Russian President Vladimir Putin met on 18 February. During that session Rohani described the importance of the meeting, saying, "Along with our negotiations with the three EU countries [Britain, Germany, France], we also attach great significance to the important role of Russia and we believe that Russia's constructive role can be very effective for the advancement of these talks," RFE/RL reported.

Putin vowed that his country will continue its nuclear cooperation with Iran, RFE/RL reported. He added, "Iran's latest actions convince us that Iran indeed does not intend to produce nuclear weapons, and it means that we will continue our cooperation in all areas, including in nuclear power generation. Of course we hope, dear Mr. Rohani, that Iran will strictly adhere to all of its obligations." (Bill Samii)

IRAN-EU NUCLEAR TALKS ACHIEVE MIXED RESULTS. Nuclear talks between Iran and the European Union in Geneva ended on 11 February with an agreement to meet again in March, Reuters reported. "Etemad" newspaper reported on 13 February that the Europeans have proposed constructing a light-water reactor for Iran because this would be difficult to use for military purposes. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on 13 February that Iran will not agree to the substitution of a light-water reactor for its heavy-water facility, state television reported. Assefi said Iranian negotiators tried to convince their European counterparts that Iran needs to master the complete nuclear fuel cycle for economic reasons. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN, DAMASCUS, AND THE HARIRI ASSASSINATION... The 14 February bombing in Beirut that claimed the lives of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and at least nine other people is shrouded in mystery, not least because of the Byzantine politics of the country. A previously unknown group took credit for the bombing, but many observers suspect a Syrian hand lit the bomb, and Washington recalled its ambassador to Damascus after the incident. Tehran, however, believes that Israel is responsible for the bombing. Moreover, it has indicated its solidarity with Damascus in a very public way.

Al-Jazirah's Beirut bureau reported that it received a telephone call from the heretofore unknown group Al-Nasr wa Al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Sham (Victory and Jihad in the Greater Syria) claiming responsibility for the attack. The caller, who reportedly spoke Arabic poorly, described the incident as a suicide bombing.

But Syria, which pulls many strings in Lebanon and which has troops stationed there, is viewed as a prime suspect.

Nadim Shehadi, director of the Center for Lebanese Studies at Oxford University and a fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, told RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan that Hariri had a nuanced relationship with Damascus which set him apart from other political leaders. "Hariri and [Druze leader Walid] Jumblatt were always allies of the Syrians. But the difference is, in political terms, whether you are pro-Syrian because you perceive the need to accommodate Syria for your own political ends or whether you are pro-Syrian by conviction because you see that this is necessary for the security and stability of the country. I think that the Jumblatt and Hariri camp, if you like, were more accommodating to the Syrians."

Shehadi continued: "So for a man like Hariri, who has a contractor's mentality, the relations with Syria are a hurdle that needs to be accommodated in order to get the job done, rather than for a man like [President Emil] Lahud who thinks in security terms, that the formula that used to maintain Lebanon's security before the war, which was based on Western protection and balancing regional powers at a time when there was a Cold War happening and when most of the regional powers were in the Soviet camp except for Saudi Arabia -- that sort of formula has completely collapsed. You have to replace that with a very firm alliance with Syria and also by having a very strong army."

Hariri resigned after the Lebanese legislature voted to extend the presidency of Emil Lahud. Furthermore, his opponents saw him as an instigator of UN Resolution 1559 in October 2004, which called on Syria to withdraw its 14,000 troops from Lebanon and the disarming of militias there. Even after the resolution's passage, however, Hariri maintained relations with Damascus. (On these developments, see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 13 September and 11 October 2004.)

Shehadi described the significance of this situation. "The real main division in Lebanon is between President Lahud's camp and the prime minister's camp, Hariri. This is a division that's been dominating Lebanese politics since 1998, since the election of President Lahud. This is a fundamental clash, in the sense that it's a clash of two opposing agendas that have a political content in them that goes back to the interpretation of the way Lebanon should be reconstructed after the war, the way society should be reconciled and all that." Shehadi added that this division is not based on sectarian ties or the civil war period. (Bill Samii)

...IRANIANS BLAME ISRAEL... Tehran's position towards Hariri is similarly unclear. He visited Tehran in June 2001 (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 25 June 2001). Tehran, however, was very critical of UN Resolution 1559. When President Mohammad Khatami visited Damascus in October, he condemned the resolution as U.S. and Israeli "pressure on Syria, Iran, and Lebanon." Khatami offered his condolences in a cable to his Lebanese counterpart, IRNA reported on 15 February.

Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said the bombing that killed Hariri would "only benefit the Zionist regime," IRNA reported. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said, "An organized terrorist structure such as the Zionist regime has the capacity for such an operation, whose aim is to undermine the unity of Lebanon," AFP reported. Assefi urged the Lebanese people to "prevent the Zionist regime from carrying out its sinister and expansionist projects in the region."

Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani condemned the assassination on 15 February, IRNA reported. He attributed the bombing to the opponents of Lebanese unity and solidarity.

A commentary in the 15 February issue of "Etemad" newspaper said Israel is the prime suspect for a number of reasons. First, making it appear that Hariri was assassinated due to differences with Damascus and Hizballah will contribute to ethnic strife, and Israel wants to create a distance between Syria and Hizballah. Second, apparent sectarian disputes in Lebanon will undermine the Shi'a revival in Iraq. Third, the assassination will somehow contribute to Israeli efforts to have Europe add Hizballah to its list of terrorist organizations. Finally, according to "Etemad," because Israel is withdrawing from the Gaza Strip it wants to create problems for outside states that support Palestinian groups.

The killing aims to fan the flames of disunity, "Jomhuri-yi Islami" said on 16 February. "It is not important who may burn in this fire, but it is important that this fire should be inflamed in Beirut so that America and the Zionist regime reach their objectives in the region. The common plot of CIA-Mossad has targeted the region from Baghdad to Beirut."

"Israel cannot tolerate Lebanon's power," "Hamshahri," said on 16 February. "So [the] Israelis killed Hariri in order to eliminate one of the economic backbones of Lebanon. They killed Hariri in order to eliminate his huge facilities and international relations that were all at the service of Lebanon."

"All the evidence indicates that the Israeli intelligence service Mossad killed Hariri, since it had previously plotted to assassinate important Lebanese politicians," "Tehran Times" reported on 16 February. (Bill Samii)

...AND EXPRESS UNITY WITH DAMASCUS. Tehran is offering advice to Syria on dealing with possible economic sanctions as Damascus faces mounting U.S. pressure in the wake of the 14 February assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. "Iran will share its experiences, those of sanctions in particular, with Syria, given the situation Damascus is facing at the present time," Iranian Vice President Mohammad-Reza Aref-Yazdi said at a 16 February press conference in Tehran, as he welcomed Syrian Prime Minister Muhammad Naji al-Utri, IRNA reported.

Al-Utri, who is accompanied by his country's ministers of culture, economy, electricity, housing, industries, irrigation, and transportation, said the visit stems from a desire to improve mutual ties. He said in Damascus that the two sides would discuss establishment of an Iran-Syria free-trade zone, SANA reported. He said Iranian electricity, industry, petroleum, and transportation projects in Syria currently total $600 million.

In Berlin, meanwhile, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi told reporters on 16 February, "Iran and Syria have some common interests. This does not mean they are going to establish a united front [against the United States]," he said according to RFE/RL. "But we all have to help and cooperate with each other, from the European side, from countries in the Middle East, to solve the problems and crises that the whole Middle East is facing."

At a 17 February ceremony in Tehran, al-Utri and Aref-Yazdi witnessed the signing of four documents, state radio reported. One was an agreement on customs issues, and the others were memorandums of understanding relating to oil, research, and technology.

Earlier that day, al-Utri met with President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, IRNA reported. Khatami remarked on the two countries' common stance on many issues. Khatami said that Iran supports the Lebanese people's resistance because it is against occupation. Khatami added that certain countries have a double standard on terrorism, and he said the "Zionist regime" practices state terrorism. Those who try to liberate their land are called terrorists, he said, but it is Israel that commits terrorist acts. Khatami told al-Utri that Iran respects Syria's position at, in IRNA's words, "the forefront of the struggle against the Zionist regime." (Bill Samii)

LEGISLATURE ALTERS MOBILE-PHONE DEAL WITH TURKISH FIRM. The Iranian legislature on 15 February approved a bill that would reduce from 70 percent to 49 percent the Iranian affiliate of a Turkish firm's share of a mobile-telephone network, IRNA reported, Radio Farda reported. The majority of shares will be in Iranian hands. The Guardians Council must approve the bill before it becomes law. Communications and Information Technology Minister Ahmad Motamedi warned that Turkcell, the Turkish firm that originally held the majority of the shares, could file a complaint at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Radio Farda reported. Motamedi added that the legislature's action could discourage other foreign firms from entering deals with Iran. (Bill Samii)

NATURAL GAS PIPELINE DEAL WITH INDIA FORTHCOMING... Iran's ambassador to India, Siavash Yaghoubi, handed a check for $1 million to India's Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar on 11 February, IRNA reported. The money is for tsunami relief.

The Indian official subsequently told reporters that on 14 February the two countries will conclude an agreement regarding construction of a natural gas pipeline from Iran to India via Pakistan. Initial talks on this issue began in 1996, but conclusion of the agreement has been hindered by poor India-Pakistan relations and related security concerns. Aiyar reportedly said the pipeline agreement will be concluded independently of India-Pakistan relations. He added that he will go to Iran in June. The India-Iran agreement relates to the delivery of gas and is not connected with construction, maintenance, or operation of the 2,775-kilometer pipeline, AP reported. Pakistan could earn approximately $600 million in transit fees. India's Oil Secretary S.C. Tripathi said work on the pipeline could start in about two years, and that gas should reach India by 2009, Schlumberger Limited ( reported.

In New Delhi on 15 February, Iran and India extended for two more years a memorandum of understanding on energy issues, IRNA reported. The signing took place on the sidelines of the Third Asia Gas Buyers Summit 2005. National Iranian Gas Export Company board member Mohammad Hadi Rahbari represented Iran, and Gas Authority of India Chairman and Managing Director Proshanto Banerjee represented India. Banerjee said the two sides will study a plan for a natural-gas pipeline from Iran through Pakistan to India, and if all goes well the deal will be concluded in June 2005, when India's Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar visits Iran.

...AND OIL DEALS UNDERWAY. Oppressed and Disabled Foundation chief Mohammad Foruzandeh signed an agreement on 11 February that would permit Tatneft, a firm from the southern Russia republic of Tatarstan, to explore for oil in Iran, IRNA reported. The contract reportedly is worth $500 million. Bojnurd parliamentary representative Musa Servati announced on 15 February that Austria's OMV energy company has won a contract to explore for oil in the Raz oil block in North Khorasan Province, ISNA reported. OMV discovered oil in Khuzestan Province's Mehr block on 15 January, IRNA reported. OMV signed a $42 million contract to work the Mehr block in 2001, "Sharq" reported on 16 January, and it accepted all related risks. If oil was not discovered, therefore, OMV would not get paid. (Bill Samii)

IRAN MAJOR SUBJECT OF SCHOLARLY INTEREST THIS YEAR. Iran is the subject of several upcoming scholarly conferences.

The University of Durham in the United Kingdom will host a conference on "Iran's Foreign Policy Since the Revolution" on 21-22 March. The event is organized by Durham's Center for Iranian Studies (CIS) and Tehran's Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS); for more information contact Mahjoob Zweiri at the Center for Iranian Studies (

The 23rd Annual Conference of the Center for Iranian Research and Analysis is to take place on 6-8 May at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania. The conference theme is "Post Khatami Iran," and individuals interested in participating should contact the organizer, Hamid Zanganeh (

A conference on U.S.-Iran relations -- organized by the University of Utah (Middle East and Central Asia Conference Committee), the Middle East Technical University (METU-Ankara, Department of International Relations), and World Security Network ( -- is scheduled for 9-10 September in Salt Lake City, Utah. The deadline for paper proposals is 25 April, and information is available from

The Centenary Conference on the Iranian Constitutional Revolution -- organized by the Iran Heritage Foundation and the University of Oxford -- is scheduled for 30 July-2 August 2006 at Oxford. The deadline for proposals has passed, but information is available at

The Sixth Biennial Conference on Iranian Studies is scheduled to be held at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, on 3-5 August 2006. The deadline for submitting proposals is 1 October, and they should be sent to (Bill Samii)