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Iran Report: March 7, 2005


7 March 2005, Volume 8, Number 10

ETHNICITY BECOMING FACTOR IN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION. Former parliamentarian Mohammad Rezai, who represented Bijar, Kurdistan Province, in the sixth parliament (2000-04), said that several ethnic groups have created a joint headquarters so they can work together to support former Speaker of Parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi's candidacy, "Etemad" reported on 2 March. Rezai said, "One of the goals of such popular headquarters is to increase public participation, and to organize the election activities of various professional, political, and social groups among the many millions of Turkish [Azeri] and Kurdish people who live in Tehran Province."

In Ahvaz, more than 200 ethnic Arab, reformist political activists met to discuss the presidential election and the candidacy of former Science, Research and Technology Minister Mustafa Moin, "Sharq" reported on 28 February.

Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati warned during his 25 February Friday prayers sermon in Tehran that ethnicity should not be an issue during the campaign, state radio reported. He said: "Some candidates are provoking ethnic sensitivities in some places in order to win votes... The survival of this country and this state depends on the unity of all ethnic and [religious] groups." Undermining this unity is tantamount to betraying Iran, Jannati said, urging candidates not to discuss "issues in certain areas" just to gain votes. "If you do so, ethnic sensitivities will be provoked and this will result in discord. That's not the right thing to do." (Bill Samii)

REFORMISTS BEGIN CAMPAIGNING. Iranian reformists, whose election plans were delayed by the quest for a likely candidate for the 17 June presidential election, are getting into gear. Prospective candidates have begun campaigning in the provinces and seeking political support, and interest groups are expressing their interests. These developments, coming amid speculation about a possible coalition between traditional conservatives and reformists, are making a so far lackluster election campaign more exciting.

So far, former parliamentary speaker Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi and former Science, Research, and Technology Minister Mustafa Moin are considered the frontrunners among mentioned reformist candidates. A reformist parliamentarian from Bojnurd, Ismail Gerami-Moghaddam, said Moin's strength is his connection with the universities and their role in the 1997 election, "Etemad" reported on 2 March. This circumstance worries the right wing, according to Gerami-Moghaddam. The conservative-dominated Guardians Council did not allow many reformists to stand as candidates in the February 2004 parliamentary elections, and Gerami-Moghaddam said this tactic will not work in this election, because eliminating one reformist candidate will shift all support for him to the other candidate.

Rasul Montajabnia, who runs clerical affairs for Karrubi's campaign, said there will be several clerical conferences to support the candidate, "Etemad" reported. He added that they are in touch with the grand ayatollahs, and although their explicit support is not expected they should encourage people to participate in the election.

Moin, the presidential candidate of the Islamic Iran Participation Front and the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization, went on his first provincial campaign trip at the end of February. The "Sharq" newspaper website reported on 28 February (http://www.sharghnewspaper.com/831210/html/online.htm) that he is scheduled to visit Tabriz and meet with student organizations, as well as provincial representatives of the political parties. "Sharq" also reported that Moin's election website will go online soon. The newspaper added that Ali Akbar Velayati, Ali Larijani, and Mehdi Karrubi already have websites, although it did not provide their addresses.

Ethnic minorities -- including Arabs and Turkic-speakers -- are also getting involved with the reformist presidential campaigns (see article above).

Another prospective presidential candidate, Vice President for Physical Training Mohsen Mehralizadeh, said during a 2 March visit to Western Azerbaijan Province that the reformist 2nd of Khordad Front will back him, state television reported.

Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani is said to have communicated indirectly with the White House, as well as with European and Arab leaders, in an effort to determine their views on the possibility of his running for president, "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on 24 February. He also asked his close professional and family associates to test public sentiments. According to "Al-Sharq al-Awsat," Rafsanjani's associates have contacted reformist leaders and members of the national-religious movement, and they promised media elites that suspended newspapers would be allowed to resume publication.

"Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported that Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had a serious argument recently, citing an anonymous source close to Khamenei. The newspaper did not provide a reason, but it did say that "Kayhan" newspaper, which is run by an appointee of the supreme leader, has been critical of Hashemi-Rafsanjani in recent weeks.

Hashemi-Rafsanjani�s possible candidacy continues to be a divisive matter. A 1 March editorial in "Farhang-i Ashti"asserted that "traditional and moderate reformists"welcome a rivalry between Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Karrubi. The daily dismissed reports that the Executives of Construction Party and the Participation Front have agreed that Moin would withdraw in favor of Hashemi-Rafsanjani. It explained that Hashemi-Rafsanjani would not have Executives in his cabinet, because they are blamed for the country�s economic problems and because they did not back him convincingly during his 2000 parliamentary race.

The "Farhang-i Ashti"editorial also described a possible coalition between the traditional reformists and the right wing. The objective of such a coalition is to guarantee victory for the conservatives and retain a place in government for the reformists. (Bill Samii)

NEW REFORMIST FRONT BEING CONSIDERED IN IRAN. "Etemad" managing director and former legislator Elias Hazrati has announced that he is considering forming a new political entity called the National Confidence Front, state television reported on 2 March. Hazrati was a member of the reformist Solidarity (Hambastegi) Party. (Bill Samii)

LEGISLATURE LACKS QUORUM. The parliamentary session scheduled for the afternoon of 3 March did not take place because there were not enough legislators present to form a quorum, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported. Deputy parliamentary speaker Mohammad Reza Bahonar said the names of absent legislators will be read on radio and television. (Bill Samii)

GUARDIANS COUNCIL SECRETARY ALLEGES LEGISLATURE STINKS. Government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh on 28 February criticized Guardians Council secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati's comments about corruption in the legislature, Radio Farda reported. Ramezanzadeh said this is not the first time Jannati has accused legislators of impropriety without offering proof.

"Something smells bad," Jannati said during the 25 February Tehran Friday Prayers sermon, Iranian state radio reported. He claimed that people who want something from legislators try to entice them by "throwing dinner parties, by making promises, and by offering assistance... they buy influential people." Jannati advised, "Do not accept gifts and do not accept pre-mediated aid packages."

Isfahan representative Mohsen Kuhkan responded to Jannati by saying, "If it is said that certain odors are arising from the seventh parliament, then the gentleman must certainly say what he has smelled," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 27 February. Several legislators expressed concern that the public will suspect that all parliamentarians are corrupt. (Bill Samii)

PROVINCIAL LAND DISPUTE ENDS VIOLENTLY. Chalus and Noshahr parliamentary representative Anushiravan Mohseni-Bandpey complained on 2 March that the police shot at demonstrators in his constituency, wounding 20, ILNA reported. People from the villages of Salaheddin-Kala, Tajeddin-Kala, and Pey-Kala were protesting a grant of 70 hectares of village land to the Oppressed and Disabled Foundation, which is in charge of building the Tehran-North freeway, when the shooting began. Mohseni-Bandpey asked the interior minister, who is responsible for the police, who gave the order to shoot.

Previously, Mohseni-Bandpey was eager for construction to begin. On 9 June 2004 he complained there was hardly any progress on the freeway, which will connect the capital with the Caspian coast more safely than the existing roads, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN PLEDGES EARTHQUAKE AND SNOW RELIEF FUNDS. President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami said on 26 February in Tehran that the government has earmarked $250 million to help victims of heavy snowfall in Gilan Province in early February and a 22 February earthquake in Kerman Province, IRNA reported.

Washington has offered to provide assistance for the earthquake victims, with Assistant Secretary of State William Burns telephoning the Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on 23 February to make the offer. According to Reuters, Zarif rejected the offer. A spokesman for Zarif, however, said, "Iran did not refuse the help but said we can handle it domestically." In response to a reporter's question, Khatami agreed that the U.S. should unfreeze Iranian assets in the U.S. if it wants to help the earthquake victims. (Bill Samii)

CREATION OF NEW PROVINCE UNDER CONSIDERATION. Karaj parliamentary representative Rashid Jalali said some national level officials have "implicitly announced their agreement" with the creation of a new province, "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on 16 February. Alborz Province would be located west of Tehran, Jalali said, in an area that includes the towns of Karaj, Nazarabad, Robatkarim, Savojbolagh, and Shahriar. According to Jalali, the new province's population of 4.5 million will exceed that of several existing provinces. (Bill Samii)

FUEL SMUGGLERS ARRESTED. The Ministry of Intelligence and Security has arrested 14 members of a gang that, over the last two years, smuggled millions of liters of gasoline and diesel fuel to Pakistan and Afghanistan, "Iran" reported on 21 February. The smugglers were arrested in Iran's southeastern Sistan va Baluchistan province, and since the arrests provincial fuel consumption has fallen sharply. Petroleum products in Iran are subsidized and therefore very inexpensive. The smugglers purchase the products in Iran, transport them to neighboring states, and make a profit by selling them at higher prices. (Bill Samii)

IRAN TO HAVE A SPACE COUNCIL. Government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh said on 21 February in Tehran that the cabinet has decided to establish a Supreme National Space Council, Mehr News Agency and state television reported. The council's objective is to peacefully use space technology, protect Iran's national interests, and develop economically, culturally, and scientifically. Iran's president will chair the council, Ramezanzadeh said, and the head of the national space agency will be its secretary. Other members will be the ministers of communications and information technology, defense and armed forces logistics, foreign affairs, mines and industries, science, as well as the director of the Management and Planning Organization, the head of state broadcasting, and four "space experts." (Bill Samii)

NOBEL LAUREATE DOES NOT ATTEND TRIAL. Nobel Peace Price winner Shirin Ebadi said on 22 February that she will be tried in court on 23 February, ILNA reported. Ebadi explained that the trial relates to an earlier court summons, adding that the judge told her to come to court and find out what the charges are. Ebadi said she will not appear because the court does not have the right to summon people in this way.

Judiciary spokesman Jamal Karimirad said on 17 January that the summons for Ebadi relates to the case of an audiotape made several years ago, "Iran" reported. He added that several other people were summoned, and her appearance is probably unnecessary. This case relates to a videotape in which former Ansar-i Hizbullah member Amir Farshad Ebrahimi described the activities of hard-line pressure-groups in attacking reformists. In 2001, Ebadi and another attorney, Mohsen Rahami, were banned from practicing law for five years and received suspended jail sentences for videotaping Ebrahimi.

"Eqbal" reported on 24 February that the trial took place without Ebadi. The judge reportedly said he had not had the opportunity to study the case, adding that he had asked the plaintiff and the defendant to come to court to shed light on what is a complicated case. (Bill Samii)

PRESS COMMUNITY ENCOUNTERS LEGAL CONFUSION. Tehran Justice Department chief Abbas Alizadeh said on 28 February that judiciary chief Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi has issued guidelines that appear to slightly ease restrictions on reporters, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported. In the first instance the reporter should be cautioned, and when that is not sufficient he or the publication's managing editor should be summoned. Journalists Guild head Rajabali Mazrui welcomed this development, ISNA reported, but he said that this will not remedy the earlier abuse of the media. Association in Defense of Press Freedoms spokesman Mashallah Shamsolvaezin said that Shahrudi's statement shows that the previous arrests of journalists were illegal, and the judiciary should acknowledge this officially.

Apparently the Tehran media interpreted Alizadeh's statement to mean that press restrictions have been loosened.

Press Court prosecutor Said Mortazavi on 2 March asked Alizadeh to clarify his earlier statements on press regulations, ILNA reported on 2 March and IRNA reported on 3 March. Mortazavi wrote in a letter to Alizadeh that the clarification is necessary because newspapers and news agencies have interpreted his comments in a number of ways. Mortazavi wrote that limits on the press are specified in the constitution and the civil code, IRNA reported. Everything the Justice Department has done, he said, is in accordance with the law and with people's rights. Nobody is immune from prosecution if there is an offense, if individuals are insulted, or if national security is threatened.

Alizadeh responded with an open letter on 3 March, that all he had said is that the head of the judiciary wants to limit press closures as much as possible, IRNA reported.

As this dispute over press laws continues, so do the prosecutions of people involved with the media. "Aban" publisher Mohammad Hassan Alipur received a six-month suspended sentence and a two-year ban on press activities for "publishing fabricated reports," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 2 March. His lawyer, Mohammad Sharif, said the sentence relates to an article entitled "People Will Prevail" and a caricature in the newspaper, ISNA reported. (Bill Samii)

BLOGGERS GET JAIL SENTENCES. Justice Minister Ismail Shushtari said, after the 28 February cabinet session, that he eagerly awaits learning the fate of web-log writers from judiciary spokesman Jamal Karimirad, "Sharq" newspaper's website reported on 28 February (http://www.sharghnewspaper.com/831210/html/online.htm).

The same day, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) announced that the prison sentence of Mohammad Reza Nasab Abdullahi, who edits a blog called "Webnegar" (http://www.iranreform.persianblog.com/), has been confirmed. Abdullahi was sentenced on 23 February to six months' imprisonment and a fine of 1 million rials (approximately $127). RSF condemned Tehran's crackdown on bloggers. Abdullahi edits a student newspaper, and according to RSF he is being punished for posting a letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on his blog.

Najmeh Omidparvar, Abdullahi's pregnant wife, has been imprisoned as well, RSF reported on 3 March. She maintains a weblog called Dawn of Freedom (http://www.faryadebeseda.persianblog.com) and is accused of defending her husband too openly.

"Gilan-i Imruz" editor-in-chief Arash Sigarchi, who condemned the recent arrests of online journalists and Internet activists on the banned "Panjareh-yi Eltehab" weblog (http://www.sigarchi.com/blog), has received a 14-year jail sentence from a provincial Revolutionary Court, Reuters reported on 23 February. He was arrested in mid-January for giving interviews to Radio Farda and the BBC. Sigarchi's family reportedly has asked Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi and human rights defender Mohammad Saifzadeh to represent him when he appeals the verdict. (Bill Samii)

CHRISTIAN SENTENCED TO PRISON. Hamid Purmand, a pastor in the Assemblies of God and a former officer in the Iranian army, has received a three-year jail sentence, www.bosnewslife.com reported on 17 February. Purmand was tried by a military court and found guilty of "deceiving the armed forces" because he did not declare that he was a convert to Christianity. Not only are Muslims considered apostates if they leave the faith, but Purmand also faced allegations of espionage. Purmand reportedly presented documents that showed his military superiors knew of his Christian beliefs, but the court rejected these documents as forgeries. Not only will Purmand be jailed, he will be discharged from the military and lose his pension and housing for his family, www.bosnewslife.com reported. (Bill Samii)

STATE DEPARTMENT CRITICAL OF IRANIAN HUMAN RIGHTS RECORD. The U.S. State Department released its annual report on human rights on 28 February, and according to Radio Farda, Iran figured prominently this year. According to the report, "The [Iranian] Government's poor human rights record worsened, and it continued to commit numerous, serious abuses." The report described abuses such as summary executions; politically motivated killings and executions; torture; floggings and amputations; arbitrary arrest and detention; and a frequent absence of fair trials. The right of the Iranian people to change their government is restricted, the report states -- the Assembly of Experts, a body of clerics, selects and can dismiss the supreme leader, and the Guardians Council vets candidates for elected office. The report covers developments in 196 countries (http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2004/index.htm). (Bill Samii)

RUSSIA-IRAN FUEL DEAL WORRIES U.S. SENATOR. Russian Atomic Energy Agency chief Aleksandr Rumyantsev and his Iranian counterpart, Gholamreza Aqazadeh-Khoi, signed an agreement on the provision of fuel rods for the Bushehr nuclear facility on 27 February during a visit to the site, international news agencies reported. Under the agreement, the spent fuel must be returned to Russia for reprocessing and storage. This measure is intended to eliminate the possibility that the materials will be used for making nuclear weapons.

Rumyantsev said in Bushehr on 27 February that fuel delivery will take place six months before the facility's completion, which should occur at the end of 2006, ITAR-Tass reported. He predicted delivery of 100 tons of fuel.

Iranian official Mohammad Saidi said the Russians' proposed schedule is too slow, IRNA reported, "but we will try to reach an agreement on time schedule."

Duma International Relations Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachev (Unified Russia) told ITAR-TASS on 27 February that the agreement will not harm U.S.-Russia relations. Kosachev said that the agreement, under which Iran pledged to return all spent nuclear fuel to Russia, "responds to complaints from the [International Atomic Energy Agency] and the United States" and means that "we can now go even further in our cooperation."

Rumyantsev said that U.S. President George W. Bush's statement in Bratislava on 24 February that Moscow and Washington share a common view of Iran's nuclear program means that "the Americans have recognized that our cooperation [with Iran] meets all international rules," ITAR-TASS reported on 27 February.

U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) said on 27 February that the United States should exclude Russia from the July meeting of the Group of Eight (G-8) leading industrialized countries in Scotland, Reuters reported. "This latest step of the Russians vis-a-vis the Iranians calls for sterner measures to be taken between ourselves and Russia," McCain said. "It has got to, at some point, begin to harm our relations." McCain accused President Vladimir Putin of acting "like a spoiled child" and carrying out "aberrational" policies, both internationally and domestically.

In Russia, meanwhile, an anonymous spokesperson at Novosibirsk's chemical concentrates plant said on 1 March that fuel for the nuclear facility at Bushehr is ready and can be delivered at any time, ITAR-Tass reported. Citing security concerns, the spokesperson would not disclose where the fuel is stored. (Rob Coalson, Bill Samii)

REVELATIONS ABOUT IRANIAN NUCLEAR PROGRAM PRECEDE IAEA MEETING. The International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) board of governors began discussing Iran's nuclear program on 28 February.

The previous day "The Washington Post" and the "Los Angeles Times" carried reports about the clandestine and possibly weapons-related aspects of that nuclear program. They both traced its origins to 1987, when representatives of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the so-called father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, offered to sell the components of a nuclear weapon to Iran. The Iranians bought "a starter kit for uranium enrichment" and centrifuge designs, according to "The Washington Post," but they reportedly turned down the equipment necessary for a bomb. Instead, they took the Pakistanis' list and in the early 1990s bought the equipment for less money from Chinese, European, and Russian dealers. "The New York Times" reported on this on 28 February.

Pakistani Foreign Office spokesman Masood Khan on 27 February rejected that day's report in "The Washington Post," the "Pakistan" daily reported on 28 February. Khan said this is an old claim and there is no new evidence. (Bill Samii)

IRAN STRESSES RIGHT TO PEACEFUL NUKE ACTIVITIES... Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani said, in his sermon at the 4 March Tehran Friday Prayers, that Iran has developed its technological capabilities, despite international sanctions and embargoes, "thanks to the efforts undertaken by our scholars, influential and sympathetic forces," state radio reported. He hoped that the international community will change its attitude toward Iran's nuclear pursuits. Hashemi-Rafsanjani continued, "Through the realization of such a hope, Islamic Iran -- which will definitely not give up its right -- will be able to benefit from this industry that has dozens of peaceful applications." This will contribute to the country's progress, he said.

Cyrus Nasseri, Iran's representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in Vienna on 1 March that Iran will not permanently suspend uranium enrichment despite European Union and United States demands, dpa reported. Nasseri said Iran has a right to enrich uranium, but it will guarantee that these activities will have peaceful applications.

Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of a conference in Tehran, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said on 1 March that Iran will not give up mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle in exchange for concessions from Europe, Fars News Agency reported. He said, "This is not a right to be exchanged with economic concessions." Kharrazi also said, according to IRNA, that Iran needs 20 nuclear power plants to generate 20,000 megawatts of electricity.

Russian Atomic Energy Agency chief Aleksandr Rumyantsev said in Moscow on 28 February that Iranian mastery of the complete nuclear fuel cycle is inadvisable, ITAR-Tass reported. The fuel cycle -- uranium extraction and enrichment; fuel production; loading the reactor with fuel; and then unloading, reprocessing, and storing the spent fuel -- is only economically viable if a facility has an 8,000-10,000 megawatt capacity, he said. He added that Iran is planning for the Bushehr plant to have a capacity of only 7,000 megawatts. (Bill Samii)

...AS IAEA CALLS FOR IRANIAN COOPERATION... IAEA inspectors visited sites at Isfahan, Natanz, and Tehran, Safeguards Chief Pierre Goldschmidt told the agency's Board of Governors on 1 March in Vienna, according to the IAEA website (http://www.iaea.org/NewsCenter/Statements/DDGs/2005/goldschmidt01032005.html). Inspectors were allowed to visit one of the four sites they wanted to see at Parchin. Goldschmidt reported that, "As a result of its limited scope visit to Parchin, the Agency is able to inform the Board that it saw no relevant dual use equipment or materials in the location visited. The Agency is awaiting the results of environmental sampling analysis to ascertain whether any nuclear material had been used in the area visited."

The previous day, 28 February, Director General Mohammad ElBaradei asked Iran for "additional information that can accelerate our work," the agency's website reported. He said there has been progress on "the substance of important issues -- like contamination; like the nature of the enrichment program." Efforts to understand the nature of the program in the past are continuing. He said Iran is entitled to use nuclear energy peacefully, but there is concern about Iran's capability to enrich uranium. Confidence-building must continue, ElBaradei said, as must efforts to make sure there are no undeclared activities. The almost 20 years of clandestine activities delays this process, he said.

"If I say there are three more important things Iran needs to do, I should say transparency, transparency and more transparency," ElBaradei told reporters on 2 March, according to the IAEA website. (Bill Samii)

...AND WASHINGTON EXPRESSES CONCERN. The U.S. Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, Jackie Wolcott Sanders, who is the special representative of the president for the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, accused Iran of hiding its nuclear activities in a statement to the Board of Governors of the IAEA in Vienna on 2 March, according to the U.S. State Department's website (http://usinfo.state.gov). "Given Iran's history of clandestine nuclear activities and its documented efforts to deceive the IAEA and the international community, only the full cessation and dismantling of Iran's nuclear-fissile-material production can begin to give us any confidence that Iran is no longer pursuing nuclear weapons," she said.

Sanders referred to the previous day's report by IAEA Deputy Director-General Pierre Goldschmidt, which she described as a "startling list of Iranian attempts to hide and mislead, and delay the work of IAEA inspectors." After going through a list of Iranian misdeeds, Sanders said, "there remain an alarming number of unresolved questions about Iran's nuclear program...The IAEA is still not able to provide assurances that Iran is not pursuing clandestine activities at undeclared locations -- as it had been doing for years."

Washington continues to show an interest in a diplomatic solution to this problem. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on 3 March in Washington that Iran-EU nuclear discussions are going well, Reuters reported. She said, "We believe that the EU negotiations are leading in the right direction, because what they are doing is they are confronting Iran with a choice about whether it is prepared to give the international community the kind of confidence it needs about Iranian activities." There is speculation that Washington will back European offers of incentives to Iran for forsaking its nuclear ambitions. This could include support for Iranian membership in the World Trade Organization and tolerance of European airplane-part sales to Iran. Rice said Iran seems unenthusiastic so far.

In a 2 March interview with NBC News in London, Rice said there is no timetable. "The most important thing is that the Iranians need time to understand that they are the ones that need to perform," she said. The United States and EU should have a common strategy, she added, "so that Iran knows there is no other way."

Washington assumes, however, that these talks will not be fruitful, "The Washington Post" reported on 4 March. The belief is that Iran will not concede to a permanent agreement that allows "unrestricted verification measures." The White House therefore wants guarantees from its European allies that they will support sanctions against Iran if the diplomatic approach fails. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN DENIES COOPERATING WITH U.S. IN IRAQ. During the first Tehran Friday Prayer sermon on 4 February, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani congratulated the Iraqi people on the outcome of their recent National Assembly election, state radio reported. Hashemi-Rafsanjani then urged Iraqis to resist U.S. forces and misrepresented the U.S. objective in liberating Iraq. He said, "We hope that they will continue their resistance to stop the Americans from considering and becoming covetous that they could also control the parliament and government by relying on their military presence and occupation of Iraq. Because that is the reason the Americans have entered Iraq, to bring the country under their control."

The previous day, President George W. Bush and Iraqi Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi spoke on the telephone. White House spokesman Scott McClellan described the conversation at a 3 March news briefing in Washington: "Leaders of the interim government in Iraq have expressed concerns that Iran is trying to influence the shape of the transitional government. We take those concerns very seriously. That's why you're hearing not only us, but leaders in Iraq saying to Iran: stop trying to influence internal politics in Iraq. It's for the Iraqi people to decide who their leaders are."

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on 22 February that Iran has not cooperated with the United States in Iraq, IRNA reported. He went on to say that Iran has utilized its own capabilities to stabilize and secure Iraq.

Assefi added that Iran's ambassador to London, Mohammad Hussein Adeli, was recently misquoted on this subject. Adeli reportedly told a 16 February Reuters forum in Tehran that Iran and the U.S. cooperated in order to get Shia and Sunni Iraqis to support their country's election. He said, "For the recent elections, there was not only implicit but explicit indirect and direct cooperation between the two, Iran and the United States, in order to keep the majority calm and in favor of the election." Adeli reportedly added that Tehran is willing to cooperate with Washington in the future in the pursuit of regional stability. (Bill Samii)

POSSIBLE U.S. BASING IN AFGHANISTAN WORRIES IRAN. A 23 February commentary on Mashhad radio denounced U.S. regional activities the day after an American legislator called for a "long-term strategic partnership" with Afghanistan that would include "permanent bases." Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) explained, while visiting Kabul, "We mean by that economic assistance, technical assistance, military partnership -- including, and this is a personal view, joint military permanent bases," RFE/RL reported.

Mashhad radio accused the U.S. of seeking control over China, India, Iran, and Russia. American forces have been in Afghanistan for 3 1/2 years, Mashhad radio exaggerated, but they have failed in fighting terrorism and have actually seized the country. Security has deteriorated, and "the U.S. troops' presence in Afghanistan has created social and cultural problems for the Muslim community." Mashhad radio warned that U.S. use of bases in Afghanistan to implement its plans against neighboring states will have a "negative impact on ties between Afghanistan and neighboring countries."

Reports of possible U.S. basing on Iran's border in Herat province elicited an earlier Iranian response (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 14 December 2004). (Bill Samii)

IRAN MAIN TRANSIT COUNTRY FOR AFGHAN OPIATES. Brigadier General Mehdi Aboui, who heads the national police counternarcotics unit, announced on 2 March that, during the previous 11 months, a record amount of more than 250 tons of drugs were seized, state radio reported. In the eastern part of the country during the same time, armed clashes with gangs of smugglers resulted in the deaths of 267 smugglers and capture of another 1,310, while 39 security officers lost their lives. Throughout the country, 111,300 smugglers were captured and 263,000 addicts were arrested.

The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), an independent agency that monitors the UN's drug conventions, reported in its annual survey on 2 March (http://www.incb.org) that Iran and Pakistan are the main transit countries for drugs originating in Afghanistan, in spite of Iranian government efforts. Traffickers use the Afghanistan-Iran-Pakistan border area more than before, the report notes. Demand-reduction activities increasingly accompany law enforcement activities, and counter-narcotics legislation has been revised. The INCB called for more demand-reduction activities, more cooperation with nongovernmental organizations, and greater attention to countering money laundering.

The INCB report notes Iran's role in cooperative regional counter-narcotics efforts.

On 1 March, two Kuwaiti security officials arrived in Tehran to participate in bilateral meetings on counter-narcotics and Interpol, KUNA reported. (Bill Samii)

REVOLUTIONARY GUARDS AGENT PLANNED TO ASSASSINATE EGYPTIAN PRESIDENT. An Egyptian identified as Mahmud Id Dabus, who is charged with espionage on behalf of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), has confessed that the IRGC was plotting to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, "Al-Misri Al-Yawm" reported on 20 February. Dabus said the IRGC instructed him to devise a plan for the assassination and to select the individuals who would conduct the operation. Although the IRGC was ready to finance the operation, he said, he failed to find the appropriate co-conspirators. Dabus confessed that he communicated with the IRGC via the Internet. The next hearing in Dabus' trial is scheduled for 26 February. (Bill Samii)

INDIA-PAKISTAN-IRAN GAS PIPELINE NEARING FRUITION. After Russia, Iran has the world's second-largest proven natural-gas reserves -- an estimated 26.6 trillion cubic meters, according to the Energy Information Administration. Yet a relatively small amount of this potential is currently being exploited -- Iran produced about 76.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas in 2002.

Most gas is used domestically, and Iran exports gas to Armenia and Turkey. One of the bigger natural-gas customers could be India, but in the Indian case Iran is facing competition from Qatar, and possibly from Russia and Turkmenistan.

A Long Time Coming

Iran and India signed an agreement for an overland natural gas pipeline in 1993, and in 2002 Iran and Pakistan signed an agreement on a feasibility study for such a pipeline, according to the Energy Information Administration. Pakistan could earn $600 million in transit fees annually once the pipeline is built, and it will have the right to buy gas if and when it needs to. India-Pakistan tensions and related security concerns have delayed the project, but recent diplomatic efforts on the part of all three countries indicate that the project could get under way soon.

Pakistani Petroleum and Natural Resources Minister Amanullah Khan Jadoon announced that Islamabad, Tehran, and New Delhi will sign an agreement on a natural-gas pipeline connecting their countries on 18 March, Lahore's "Daily Times" reported on 1 March. Jadoon said discussions on the pipeline will coincide with the two-day South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation ministerial conference that begins on 17 March.

Shuttle Diplomacy

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi arrived in New Delhi on 21 February for a three-day visit, All India Radio Home News Service reported. Upon arrival, Kharrazi told reporters that he is encouraged by New Delhi's attitude toward the 2,700-kilometer Iran-Pakistan-India natural-gas pipeline, Mehr News Agency reported. Kharrazi added, "The signing of a document in January 2005 on Iran selling 7.5 million tons of LNG [liquefied natural gas] a year to India for 25 years and India's participation in developing Iranian oil fields and extracting some 100,000 barrels of oil per day from them was one of the most significant results of the strategic agreements reached by the two countries so far."

While Kharrazi was in India, important Pakistani visitors were in Iran. Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz arrived in Tehran on 22 February for a three-day visit, international news agencies reported. According to IRNA, Aziz was accompanied by Petroleum and Natural Resources Minister Jadoon and Narcotics Control Minister Ghaus Mahar. Aziz met with President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami and First Vice President Mohammad-Reza Aref-Yazdi on the first day of his visit. Aziz met on 23 February with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Islamabad's PTV World and IRNA reported.

Iranian parliamentary speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel and other legislators arrived in India on 28 February, IRNA reported. In Bangalore on 3 March, Haddad-Adel addressed Indian security concerns and desire for insurance guarantees, saying, "Fortunately, some solutions for the guarantee have been found and some suggestions have been made in this respect," IRNA reported. He added, "The suggestion generally is that Iran undertakes to bring the gas to India's boundaries and then it seems on the basis of this suggestion, there will be no problem."

Not Just Gas

Although the natural-gas pipeline was the main topic of discussion during these official visits, it was not the only one. Kharrazi mentioned the possibility of a common market including Afghanistan, the Caucasus, Central Asian states, Iran, India, Pakistan, and Turkey, Mehr News Agency reported. He also commented on the value of a North-South transport corridor (India, Iran, and Russia) as well as an East corridor that connects Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. Kharrazi called for better bilateral trade relations, as well as direct flights between Mashhad and Hyderabad.

On the second day of his visit to India, Kharrazi discussed the nuclear issue in a lecture at Sapru House, headquarters of the Indian Council of World Affairs, IRNA reported. He said Iran will not forsake its right to develop a nuclear capability, but will continue discussions on confidence building measures with the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Kharrazi said India plays an important part in Iranian foreign policy. Kharrazi said unilateral U.S. policies are responsible for the upswing in terrorism in West Asia. Alleged U.S. militarism is a threat to states in the region, he added.

The pipeline was a major topic during Aziz's trip to Tehran, but the two sides also discussed the export of electricity from Iran to Pakistani Baluchistan. Aziz also told reporters that Islamabad supports Iran's right to a nuclear capacity, but his country does not intend to intercede on Iran's behalf, IRNA reported.

On 23 February, the two sides signed memorandums of understanding on agricultural quarantine procedures and on the Iran-Pakistan Investment Company, and they amended a trade agreement. PTV World's correspondent reported from Tehran that under the trade protocol, "Initially, a trade of $400 million would be done by both the countries, and it again would be increased to $1 billion in a year." Moreover, the investment company is worth $25 million, and according to the memorandum on the Tehran meeting of the two countries' joint economic commission, Iran will provide a $200 million credit for infrastructure development. According to PTV World, Iran is currently supplying Pakistan's Baluchistan with electricity and this will increase, and Iran will import Pakistani mangoes and citrus.

Aziz went from Tehran to Isfahan and from that city to Mashhad, where he reportedly prayed at the shrine of Imam Reza, the eighth Shi'ite imam. Aziz returned to Islamabad on 24 February, PTV World reported.

Iranian parliament speaker Haddad-Adel said on 3 March at the Iran Culture House in New Delhi that the United States is threatening Islamic unity and encouraged unity among Muslims, IRNA reported.

Other Markets, Too

India is not the only potential market for Iranian natural gas. Deputy Foreign Minister Hadi Nejad Husseinian was in Kyiv on 6 March to participate in the third meeting of the Iran-Ukraine energy commission, IRNA reported. The two sides discussed the possibility of Ukraine purchasing 15 billion cubic meters of Iranian natural gas annually. Two pipeline routes are being considered -- Iran-Armenia-Georgia-Russia-Ukraine or Iran-Armenia-Georgia-Black Sea-Ukraine. The two sides will discuss financing, construction, and gas volume in Tehran in May, and according to IRNA they will make their final decision afterwards.

Other countries that have signed gas-related memoranda or at least discussed the topic with Iran include Austria, Bulgaria, China, Greece, Italy, and Turkey.

But as the recent round of official visits indicate, the pipeline to India via Pakistan is very important to Iran. This importance relates to its financial value and the duration of the contract. The pipeline is politically important, too, as it reduces Iranian isolation and may well serve to increase international dependence on its energy resources.

Competition may be giving Iran a sense of urgency, too. India's cabinet recently authorized discussion of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan Natural-Gas Pipeline Project (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 25 February 2005). India may be interested in Russian gas, too, and the Indian petroleum minister visited Moscow in late February to discuss the possibility of India's Oil and Natural Gas Corporation and Gazprom cooperating on natural-gas projects.

Iran also faces competition from Qatar, which has the world's third-largest natural-gas reserves (14.4 trillion cubic meters). India's Petronet and Qatar's Ras Laffan LNG Company (Rasgas) signed an agreement for the provision of 10.3 trillion cubic meters per year of LNG, and deliveries began in January 2004, according to the Energy Information Administration. (Bill Samii)

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