11 April 2005, Volume
DATES SET FOR PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE REGISTRATION.
Mujtaba Reshad, head of the Presidential Election Headquarters, said on 3 April that registration of prospective presidential candidates will begin on 10 May and continue for five days, "Iran Daily" reported on 4 April. The Interior Ministry will forward this information to the Guardians Council, which will screen the applications until 24 May. Individuals whose candidacy is accepted can campaign from 27 May until 24 hours before election day -- 17 June.
By-elections for 10 seats in parliament will take place on 17 June as well. Prospective candidates can register for these seats from 10-17 April. (Bill Samii)CORRUPTION A WORRY IN IRANIAN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION.
Widespread Iranian concern about financial and professional corruption is reflected by the fact that most prospective candidates for the upcoming presidential election have addressed this issue. Tehran parliamentary representative Ahmad Tavakoli has said the unity of Iran is threatened by corruption, nepotism, and favoritism, "Siyasat-i Ruz" reported on 4 April, and that the next president's greatest duty is to address these issues.
Coordination Council of the Islamic Revolution Forces candidate Ali Larijani likewise stressed corruption and economic issues during campaign speeches over the Noruz holiday. And Tehran Mayor Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad said during a visit last month to Ahvaz that the government should fight all forms of corruption, "Hemayat" reported on 13 March.
Corruption is not merely a word for candidates to throw around during their campaigns. Iran is rampantly corrupt, according to Transparency International's most recent report (http://www.transparency.org/cpi/2004/cpi2004.en.html#cpi2004). That survey placed Iran 87th out of 145 countries in terms of the degree of corruption "as seen by business people and country analysts." Iran ranked 2.9 on a scale from 10 (highly clean) to zero (highly corrupt).
The Payam Airport smuggling case raises questions regarding the government's seriousness about attacking corruption. Arrests were made in October after authorities learned that Customs Administration officials at Payam Airport, near Karaj, were allegedly cooperating in the illegal shipment of goods from Dubai and other international locations. Tehran parliamentarian Alireza Zakani, however, said that, four months after the arrests, the main defendant in the case remains at large, "Siyasat-i Ruz" reported on 27 February.
The cases of Shahram Jazayeri and Nasser Vaez-Tabasi also raise questions about the government's desire to deal seriously with corruption. Jazayeri was convicted in 2002 in a major corruption case involving 50 defendants, many of them sons of prominent clerics known colloquially as "aqazadeh." In September 2004, his 27-year prison sentence was partially overturned, and he is occasionally released from prison on leave. Vaez-Tabasi, the son of Imam Reza Shrine Foundation (Astan-i Qods-i Razavi) head Ayatollah Abbas Vaez-Tabasi, was released immediately after his July 2001 arrest for allegedly illegally selling shares in a state-owned enterprise. He and his co-defendants were acquitted in March 2003 on the grounds that they were ignorant of the law.
These and other prominent corruption cases grab headlines for a while and then fade away. Kermanshah parliamentary representative Abdul Reza Mesri, according to "Hambastegi" on 20 December 2004, asked on 19 December: "While reports on economic corruption are regularly published in the country, why is nothing heard about the punishment of corrupt persons?"
One reason for the lack of follow-up on these cases is that the press is heavily politicized. Conservative newspapers such as "Kayhan," "Resalat," and "Jomhuri-yi Islami" are quick to accuse reformist political figures of wrongdoing. Often they do this by citing anonymous sources, and in other cases they quote people selectively and out of context. Pro-reform newspapers, motivated by professional ethics or a sense of self-preservation, are more cautious about printing corruption accusations, as the press court is more likely to punish them.
Another reason relates to a general lack of accountability in Iran. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the state took control of the economy and para-statal organizations (bonyad) were created to promote social welfare and restore economic justice. Yet these foundations, as well as some other state institutions, do not answer to the government or to shareholders, and parliamentary investigations into their activities have been less than effective. The findings of a parliamentary investigation into the Oppressed and Disabled Foundation (Bonyad-i Mostazafan va Janbazan) in the 1990s were never released to the public. A May 2003 parliamentary report on Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) ended without result, although it found major infractions, such as concealing revenues and failure to pay duties and taxes. The head of IRIB at the time, the same Ali Larijani who is now running for president, denied all the allegations and nothing came of the case.
Weaknesses in the law are another reason for extensive corruption. There are many loopholes that corrupt individuals can exploit. The involvement of state officials in business affairs, furthermore, is not forbidden.
This last area is one that could be in for a change. Hojatoleslam Abdolreza Izadpanah, spokesman for the Headquarters for Fighting Economic Corruption, said in mid-March that efforts to reform laws on trade, taxation, foreign investment, and money laundering reflect an effort to attack corruption, "Mardom Salari" reported on 17 March. A proposed bill on privatization, he said, would prohibit the involvement of public-sector employees -- including those from the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, the Guardians Council, the Expediency Council, the military and provincial organizations -- in government transactions.
Iranians are likely to welcome serious efforts to end corruption, but the government has failed to produce any so far. Public pressure on elected officials, especially during the months before the presidential election, could change this situation. (Bill Samii)OBSERVERS FEAR MILITARIZATION OF POLITICS.
The possibility that an individual connected with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) could be elected as Iran's next president is causing some consternation in Iranian political circles.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accepted 43-year-old police chief Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf's resignation on 5 April, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported. Before succeeding Brigadier General Hedayat Lotfian as police chief in June 2000, Qalibaf was commander of the IRGC Air Force. Another prospective candidate with a serious background in the IRGC is Mohsen Rezai, who commanded the corps for 16 years.
Qalibaf's plan to be a candidate in the presidential election indicates the militarization of the political process, several articles in the 4 April issue of "Eqbal" newspaper suggest. "Eqbal" and "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on 4 April that younger conservatives associated with the Islamic Revolution Devotees' Society (Jamiyat-i Isargaran-i Inqilab-i Islami) and the Islamic Iran Developers Council (Etelaf-i Abadgaran-i Iran-i Islami) support Qalibaf.
Interestingly, there are allegations that another former IRGC official and current presidential candidate, Larijani, is supported by the military. The Baztab website reported on 17 March that a clerical official in the IRGC has a high position in the Coordination Council of the Islamic Revolution Forces, the mainstream conservative body that backs Larijani.
The Developers themselves have not been very forthcoming on their choice. A recent Developers press conference turned out to be something of a bust, "Etemad" and "Eqbal" newspapers reported on 5 April. The many reporters at this event expected to learn something about the conservative organization's preferences in the upcoming presidential election, but Developers' spokesman Mehdi Chamran, who is a member of the Tehran municipal council, was not very specific. Previously, Larijani appeared to be their favorite, but Chamran said a choice has not been made yet and added, "We support all those who adhere to fundamentalist thinking." He continued: "If they [the candidates] select a particular candidate among themselves, we will support their choice. We do not wish to act as a council that selects the candidate. We want the people to make the final choice." He said the Developers were created at a stage when the fundamentalists were "in a state of despair and uncertainty." Chamran described his organization as "an ideology and an intellectual movement."
Reformist politician Mustafa Tajzadeh wrote in "Eqbal" on 4 April that if Larijani or Tehran Mayor Mahmud Ahmadinejad wins the election, a militarized administration will emerge and it will try to reassert the revolutionary and religious values that existed in the early years of the revolution. Tajzadeh compared this to prewar Germany and the Nazi Party's actions.
Reformist presidential candidate Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi said in a late March meeting with officials from his election headquarters that in recent years he has warned of the military's involvement in political affairs, the daily "Etemad" reported on 3 April. "[I] have repeatedly condemned it and have openly criticized them," he said. Karrubi said it is a mistake to ignore the actions of the IRGC, the Basij, the Guardians Council, the judiciary, the Special Court for the Clergy, and agencies affiliated with the supreme leader. Karrubi said his attitude toward these institutions includes "strong reactions" when he was not in office and a "respectful but firm stance" when he was speaker of parliament. "I am confident that if people elect me I will solve many of the existing problems by making use of the same methods," he said.
Qalibaf is an interesting candidate for president. "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on 4 April that under his command the previously unpopular police force earned a much better reputation. He created the 110 rapid-reaction system (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 8 April 2002, and http://www.police.ir/), which made the force operate more efficiently, and he also eliminated the influence of political factions in the police.
Yet Qalibaf's respect for civilian leadership of the government is limited, He is one of the 24 IRGC commanders who in July 1999 sent a letter to President Mohammad Khatami warning that if he did not act to quell student unrest, they would not stand by idly and would take matters into their own hands (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 26 July 1999).
Qalibaf is not the only person the young conservatives are considering as a presidential candidate. Tehran Mayor Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad, Tehran parliamentary representative Ahmad Tavakoli, former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, and Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai have their backers. If the young conservatives do not select Qalibaf, "Farhang-i Ashti" reported then he could be tapped as a conservative victor's interior minister. (Bill Samii)QALIBAF RESIGNATION COULD AFFECT WAR ON DRUGS.
The daily "Siyasat-i Ruz" reported on 5 April that police chief Qalibaf, who has resigned, will be succeeded by his deputy, General Ali Abdullahi. The daily questioned Abdullahi's ability to meet the position's responsibilities for counternarcotics efforts and intercepting smugglers. "Siyasat-i Ruz" urged Qalibaf not to leave the police force and to continue to serve the country. (Bill Samii)CONSERVATIVE CANDIDATE DISCUSSES ECONOMIC POLICIES.
The conservative Coordination Council's likely candidate for the 17 June presidential election, Larijani, described the economic policies of his prospective government during a 31 March press conference in Mazandaran Province, Fars News Agency reported. He said he would encourage privatization by issuing shares in state-owned enterprises, and he would reduce economic activities that take place through officials' connections. Larijani said the government must be streamlined so it can satisfy the needs of public-sector workers and still fulfill its role. Larijani said his government's economic policies would be based on Islam and public participation. (Bill Samii)CONSERVATIVES SET TO ANNOUNCE THEIR CANDIDATE.
Mohammad Reza Bahonar, a leading member of the Coordination Council, said that the main conservative group will announce its candidate on 21 April, "Mardom Salari" reported on 3 April. "The final decision has already been announced inside the organization and the name of our final candidate has been submitted to the Coordination Council of the provinces." He added, "Although we have chosen our candidate, the opinion polls will continue until the final days."
Kashmar representative Ahmad Bloukian said the Coordination Council has informed its provincial offices that Larijani is its candidate and has begun activities on his behalf, "Mardom Salari" reported.
Guilds and Bazaar Association Secretary-General Ahmad Karimi-Isfahani said on 3 April that Larijani is the leading candidate in the conservatives' opinion polls, ISNA reported, but there will be more polls.
Conservative legislator Mohsen Kuhkan was quoted by "Mardom Salari" on 3 April as saying that there probably will be three different conservative groupings -- Larijani's supporters, the Islamic Iran Developers Council (Etelaf-i Abadgaran-i Iran-i Islami), and the coalition of "fundamentalist" candidates (Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad, Mohammad Qalibaf, Mohsen Rezai, Ahmad Tavakoli, and Ali Akbar Velayati). (Bill Samii)PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE LOOKS SOUTH FOR SUPPORT.
The South United organization will back the candidacy of Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai, "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on 7 April, citing an unnamed parliamentarian. According to the newspaper, there are 11 million potential voters in the southern provinces, and the organization is being created to secure their support for Rezai. Presidential candidates increasingly are trying to gain the support of provincial voters. (Bill Samii)FILM MAKER WANTS TO BE IRAN'S PRESIDENT.
Karim Atashi, who manages the Honar-i Haftom movie studio and who has made some 50 films, said on 3 April that he intends to run in the 17 June presidential election, Mehr News Agency reported on 4 April. (Bill Samii)LEGISLATURE TO LOOK INTO FATAL SOCCER RIOT.
Speaker of parliament Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel said on 4 April that the legislature's Culture Committee should investigate the fatal events following a Tehran soccer match two weeks earlier, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. About seven people were trampled to death and some 40 others were injured after a World Cup qualifying match between Iran and Japan at Azadi Stadium on 25 March ("RFE/RL Iran Report," 30 March 2005). Talesh parliamentary representative Bahman Mohammadyari said during the 4 April session that security officers prevented spectators from leaving the stadium and used water cannons against them, IRNA reported.
Radio Farda reported on 4 April that a commission has been selected to investigate these events, but it has not issued a report yet. It is not clear who ordered the closure of exit doors to Iranian fans, whereas the doors for Japanese fans remained open. The brother of one of the injured spectators said fans began leaving around the 80th minute of the match, Radio Farda reported, but the doors remained closed. But an official from the Physical Training Organization insisted that all the doors were open.
Daily newspapers in Tehran reported on 6 April that the security forces were responsible for the post-match deaths, Radio Farda reported. Citing judiciary spokesman Jamal Karimi-Rad, the newspapers reported that there were 120,000 spectators in the stadium, whereas it only has room for 100,000 people. Moreover, a helicopter was used to channel spectators into an exit hall that was 60 meters long but only 7 meters wide. (Bill Samii)SCHOOL HOSTAGE INCIDENT DEFUSED.
A 25-year-old man armed with an AK-47 rifle held students at the Razi boys' school in northern Tehran hostage for several hours on 7 April, Radio Farda reported. He gave up after speaking with his mother and police officers. The hostage taker was wearing military fatigues, and one of the young hostages told Radio Farda that the name on the uniform was Mahmud Rahimi. The man complained of mistreatment by his superiors, according to a hostage. Dr. Hamedian, the school's principal, said the hostage taker complained that financial and personal difficulties led to his actions. Several students told Radio Farda that the hostage taker was very sympathetic and gentle, and they indicated that they felt sorry for him. One student said all but two of the teachers fled, and the two who remained spoke with the hostage taker and calmed him down. (Bill Samii)JOURNALISTS' GUILD CHIEF'S FOREIGN TRAVEL BARRED.
Journalists' Guild head Rajabali Mazrui was prevented from leaving the country to attend a conference in Denmark, ISNA reported on 6 April, citing guild Secretary Masud Hushmand. No reason for the ban was provided, Hushmand added, and he opined that this will prompt an adverse reaction from the international press community. Hushmand demanded an explanation from the relevant authorities.
The managing director of "Sharq" newspaper, Mehdi Rahmanian, appeared at the prosecutor's office on 6 April to face 32 complaints, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported. He faces accusations of trying to agitate the public by publishing lies.
The Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance closed the monthly "Karnameh" on 7 April for publishing allegedly "immoral" news and poems, Reporters Without Borders reported, and it closed the pro-reform intellectual magazine "Jameh-yi No" on 8 March. (Bill Samii)IMAM KHOMEINI AIRPORT TO REOPEN THIS MONTH.
Deputy Roads and Transport Minister and Civil Aviation Organization Chief Nurollah Rezai-Niaraki told Iranian state radio on 5 April that the Imam Khomeini International Airport will reopen on 30 April. All flights to and from the United Arab Emirates will begin using the airport on that date, and other international carriers will be invited to use the airport after that date. Domestic flights will continue to use Mehrabad Airport.
Islamic Revolution Guards Corps personnel closed the Imam Khomeini airport on its first day of operation in the spring of 2004 on the grounds that the role of a Turkish firm -- TAV -- in operating the facility posed a security risk (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 19 April and 17 May 2004). The legislature interpellated Roads and Transport Minister Ahmad Khoram after the airport's closure concerning the giving of the contract to the Turkish company.
Current Roads and Transport Minister Mohammad Rahmati said on 5 April that the cabinet has not decided what to do about the TAV contract, iranmania.com reported, citing ISNA. After the airport reopens, he said, Iran Air and another firm with majority Iranian shareholders will operate it. (Bill Samii)WORKERS HAVING PROBLEMS.
Police were called in to disperse employees of the Alborz carpet company, located in Sari, Mazandaran Province, who were demonstrating on 6 April against the factory's recent closure, ILNA reported.
Bus drivers in Semnan Province went on strike on 6 April and gathered at bus terminals and the provincial transport department, ILNA reported. They were protesting one company's decision to use chartered buses to take riders outside city limits, although the news dispatch did not explain why this is controversial.
Labor House Secretary Alireza Mahjub on 3 April denounced a recent meeting of the Supreme Council for Labor, ILNA reported. The meeting was held to discuss changing the minimum wage, he said, but the government and employers' representatives did not stand by their obligations. Mahjub said that in the last few years workers have not received their wages or their bonuses, and that this appears to be a customary practice. Mahjub said the labor minister ignored a requirement that the minimum wage must exceed the poverty line by 1 million rials (about $122), and he also ignored adjustments for inflation. As a result, Mahjub said, the minimum wage for office workers should be 2 million rials and 1.22 million rials for laborers. Mahjub argued that laborers should receive at least 2 million rials.
Some Iranians, meanwhile, lack employment altogether. On 4 April, "Iran Daily" reported that many female residents of the earthquake-stricken city of Bam need jobs. About 4,000 women are the sole breadwinners in their households, and charity from the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee and the State Welfare Organization does not meet their needs. (Bill Samii)WAR GAMES BEGIN IN NORTHERN PERSIAN GULF.
The Morvarid war games in the northern Persian Gulf have commenced, state television reported on 6 April. Submarines, missile boats, and troop carriers, as well as aircraft, are participating in the two-day exercises.
Major General Mohammad Salimi, commander of the regular armed forces, visited the Second Naval Base in Bushehr on 7 April and said the navy's presence in the south shows the military's vigilance, Fars News Agency reported. Salimi also visited the 6th Shahid Yasini air base, visited an S-200 missile site, a Hawk medium-range missile site, and air defense installations. (Bill Samii)NUCLEAR PROGRAM THE FOCUS OF KHATAMI'S EUROPEAN TRIP.
Iranian President Khatami visited Europe in the first week of April, and during the trip the predominant issue was the status of Iran's nuclear program.
Khatami met with Austria's President Heinz Fischer and Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel during a 4 April visit to Vienna, IRNA reported, while Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi met with his counterpart, Ursula Plassnik. The two sides discussed bilateral ties, commercial issues, and events in the Middle East.
The nuclear issue appeared to be a major topic as well. Khatami said at a joint press conference with Fischer, "Nobody in the world wants to have weapons of mass destruction, and Iran does not want to have such weapons, but we need to use nuclear power for electrification, and therefore we ask the whole world and the European Union to help us keep those power plants," Reuters reported. At the meeting with Schuessel, he said Iran is trying to resolve concern over Iranian nuclear activities through cooperation with the EU and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Kharrazi told Plassnik, "We are having very good cooperation with the [IAEA]," IRNA reported.
Khatami flew to Paris from Vienna on 4 April and met with French President Jacques Chirac the next day, Radio Farda reported. The main topic of the meeting was the nuclear impasse. Khatami told reporters afterwards that Iran and the European Union have made progress in their discussions on this subject, saying, "I think we have taken steps forward." He also said that the ultimate agreement between Iran and the EU must recognize what Iran sees as its right to develop nuclear power. Tehran insists on mastery of the complete nuclear fuel cycle, whereas Europe and the U.S. want Iran to forego the enrichment of uranium. Khatami said he hopes serious progress will be made at a 29 April meeting of officials from Iran, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
Also in Paris on 5 April, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi and his counterpart, Michel Barnier, discussed the nuclear issue, AFP reported.
Before his meeting with Chirac, Khatami attended a meeting at UNESCO headquarters in Paris on 5 April, international news agencies reported. Khatami gave the opening speech at the International Conference on the Dialogue among Civilizations, Cultures and Peoples, according to the UNESCO website (http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=26761&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html).
The terrorist attacks of September 2001, Khatami said, proved that "dialogue among civilizations had become a political and economic emergency." Khatami said "dialogue" implies an active process of communication. "Dialogue is at once beautiful, moral, and a guarantor of truth," Khatami said. He added: "As a Moslem, I have a firm conviction that the beauty of religion stems from justice... any understanding of religion that, in one way or another, justifies injustice stands against the true sense of religion." He condemned violence. Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika spoke after Khatami, and said that, "dialogue among civilizations is one of the motors of progress." He said terrorism is not part of Islam.
Khatami flew on to Rome to attend the funeral of Pope John Paul II. Khatami met with Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi on 7 April, Iranian state radio reported. Khatami reportedly emphasized that his country's cooperation with the IAEA demonstrates that Iran is not violating its international commitments. (Bill Samii)IRAN AND ALGERIA SIGN AGREEMENT.
Minister of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Ali Shamkhani and Algerian Interior Minister Yazid Zerhoumi signed a memorandum of understanding on bilateral cooperation on 4 April, IRNA reported. Shamkhani arrived in Algeria on 2 April for a three-day visit. Shamkhani met with President Bouteflika, Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, and parliamentary speaker Abdelkader Bensalah. (Bill Samii)KHATAMI CHATS WITH ISRAELI COUNTERPART AT POPE'S FUNERAL.
President Khatami and Israeli President Moshe Katsav shook hands and chatted at the 8 April funeral of Pope John Paul II, international news agencies reported. Khatami and Katsav, who was born in Iran, spoke in Persian about their mutual hometown, Yazd. Hagit Cohen, a spokesperson for Katsav, described this as a "historic moment and unique opportunity," reported "The Jerusalem Post." The next day, Khatami denied this. "These allegations are false...I have not had any meeting with a personality from the Zionist regime," he said according to the BBC.
Khatami expressed his condolences on the pope's death in a 3 April message, IRNA reported. Khatami met the Holy Father in March 1999 in a symbolically important meeting of the heads of the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Roman Catholic Church (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 15 March 1999).
Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri-Najafabadi also expressed condolences over the pope's death and encouraged members of all faiths to work for peace and justice, "Etemad" reported on 5 April.
Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani expressed his condolences during his 8 April sermon in Tehran, IRNA reported. He urged the Christian community to follow the teachings of Jesus more closely. He added, "The approaches pursued by the world Christians today differ drastically from the authentic teachings of Christ, since the followers of Jesus -- peace be upon him (PBUH) -- cannot remain Christians and at the same time remain silent and indifferent toward the crimes committed by the United States and the other superpowers around the globe." Hashemi-Rafsanjani continued, "The world's Christians should shout in protest against the United States and tell the White House leaders that their conduct has defamed Christ (PBUH)."
Iranian state radio also commented on the pope's funeral on 8 April. "The massive turnout at the Pope's funeral clearly reflects the world community's strong opposition to war-mongering America and its unilateralist approach on the international scene," according to the commentary. "Without a doubt, this message will not be lost on the American President George Bush, who is attending the Pope's funeral." (Bill Samii)SYRIA TO WITHDRAW FROM LEBANON BY END OF MONTH.
UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen said, after meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara, that Damascus has pledged that the last of its troops will leave Lebanese territory by 30 April, Radio Farda reported on 3 April. The Syrian pullout from Lebanon will slightly reduce Iran's ability to influence events there, although its close relationship with Hizballah means that it is not completely left out.
The Syrian pullout is called for in UN Resolution 1559, a measure that prompted Iranian condemnation last autumn (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 11 October 2004). In the wake of the 14 February assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and the resulting international pressure on Syria, furthermore, Tehran offered advice on dealing with possible economic sanctions and expressed unity with Syria (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 21 February 2005).
Foreign Minister Kharrazi met al-Shara and al-Assad in Damascus on 2 April to discuss Lebanese affairs, Iranian state radio, IRNA, and SANA reported. Kharrazi noted that Tehran-Damascus relations are expanding, and he and his counterpart condemned U.S. support for Israel. Iran and Syria have had some of their "most fruitful cooperation" in Lebanon, an Iranian state radio analyst calling himself "Mr. Kazemzadeh" said on 2 April. This should continue because "one of the main objectives of the foreign players in the political crisis in Lebanon...is to change the traditional political and military balance in their own favor."
Kharrazi confirmed in the 7 April issue of France's "Le Monde" and London's "Al-Hayat" daily that Syrian forces are withdrawing from Lebanon, and he insisted that Syria is serious about the withdrawal. He agreed that France and Iran can influence events there, and he indicated that this is a natural role for Iran. However, he was adamant that external interference in Lebanese affairs must be avoided and outsiders should not try to fill the vacuum left by Syria.
The disarmament of Hizballah, as called for in Security Council Resolution 1559, is a form of external interference, Kharrazi said. It is too soon for Hizballah to disarm, he said, because of the continuing threat from Israel.
Enthusiasm about the Syrian withdrawal may be premature. The Lebanese opposition, as well as U.S., European, and UN officials, asserts that covert Syrian assets in Lebanon are working to ensure that Syrian domination will continue after the withdrawal, "The Washington Post" reported on 31 March. (Bill Samii)TALABANI ELECTION LEADS TO UNREST IN IRAN.
President Khatami congratulated Patriotic Union of Kurdistan leader Jalal Talabani on 7 April on his election as Iraq's president, IRNA reported. Khatami said this development shows that Iraqis are determined to run their country without outside interference, and he added that Iran is ready to cooperate with and assist Iraq. (On Talabani's election and on the new prime minister, Ibrahim al-Ja'fari of the al-Da'wah al-Islamiyah party, see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 8 April 2005.)
In Iran, joyful young Kurds in Mahabad and Piranshahr celebrated in the streets on 6 June by igniting fireworks and displaying Kurdish flags, Baztab website reported. Fifteen police officers were injured in resulting clashes, and 40 demonstrators were arrested. The Student Movement for Coordination Committee for Democracy in Iran reported that demonstrations and clashes also occurred in Baneh, Marivan, Saqez, and Sanandaj. Security forces allegedly used rubber bullets and tear gas against the demonstrators, who were shouting anti-regime slogans. (Bill Samii)IRAN, IRAQ SIGN CONSULAR AGREEMENT ON PILGRIMS, BUSINESS PEOPLE.
Iranian Foreign Minister Kharrazi met with Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Sa'd al-Hayani in Tehran on 7 April, IRNA reported. The two signed consular documents on the exchange of pilgrims and on facilities for businessmen and industrialists. They also discussed the future signing of agreements on cultural and religious cooperation.KYIV EYES IRAN'S GAS FOR USE AND TRANSSHIPMENT.
In early February, Interfax announced that Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko will make an official visit to Iran in the "first half of the year." The topics to be discussed during the visit were listed as bilateral relations and joint projects in the energy sector.
The announcement of Yushchenko's trip to Iran, coming so soon after his inauguration, served to underscore the importance that Kyiv attaches to finding alternative energy supplies while seeking to wean itself away from its dependence on Russian oil and gas.
Tehran has been on the Ukrainian energy compass for the past few years as a potential supplier of oil and gas. Kyiv also sees Iran as a country where Ukrainian companies can provide considerable expertise in energy related construction projects, and as a market for oil drilling equipment and large diameter pipes.
Iran, according to the International Energy Administration of the United States (http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/cabs/iran.html) has proven reserves of 28 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. That is 18 percent of the world's proven gas reserves and second only to Russia. Around 62 percent of Iranian natural-gas reserves have not been developed.
Ukraine also sees itself as a possible transit route for Iranian gas destined for European Union markets -- primarily in Central Europe and Germany. As such, Ukraine could earn considerable money on transit fees, that could in turn be used to purchase Iranian gas for the Ukrainian domestic market.
During Yushchenko's visit to Germany in March, Deutsche Bank agreed to provide Naftohaz, the Ukrainian oil and gas monopoly, with a credit line of $2 billion. The Ukrainian side will decide how this money is to be spent. Some analysts in Kyiv believe that it might be allocated to renovating the aging Soyuz pipeline and preparing it for the task of delivering Iranian gas to Germany.The Turkmen Connection
Interest in Iranian gas was renewed in Kyiv after Viktor Yushchenko was elected president and Turkmenistan unexpectedly raised the price it charges Ukraine for natural gas in January by 32 percent, that is, to $58 per 1,000 cubic meters.
Another factor contributing to interest in the Iranian route is that the contract for Turkmen gas to Ukraine ends in December 2006. After this date, Ukraine will be forced to buy Turkmen gas from Gazeksport, a subsidiary of Russia's Gazprom.
On 28 March, RIA press agency reported that a Ukrainian delegation led by Fuels and Energy Minister Ivan Plachkov and the head of Naftohaz were given assurances by Gazprom head Aleksei Miller, who stated: "We support the Ukrainian side's proposal to move to monetary payments for the transit of gas through Ukrainian territory and to raise the tariff rates to the European level." Miller added: "Gazprom, for its part, can fully meet Ukraine's requirements in Russian natural gas at European-level market prices."
The Ukrainian side is approaching this promise with caution, given Gazprom's history of manipulating the gas market in order to promote the Kremlin's political agenda. There is also considerable doubt that Gazprom is capable of meeting long-term commitments for gas deliveries to the West.
On 6 March, IRNA reported that the Ukrainian deputy minister of oil and energy held talks in Tehran with Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister for International Affairs Hadi Nejad Husseinian during the third meeting of the two countries' energy commissions. At this meeting, the Ukrainian side proposed buying 15 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas from Iran, to be delivered via a proposed pipeline whose route has still not been agreed upon.
The currently proposed routes for this pipeline are:
-- Iran to Armenia and then on to the Georgian port of Supsa, and from there along the bottom of the Black Sea to Feodosia in the Crimea. Once in Ukraine, the gas can enter into the Ukrainian "Soyuz" trunk pipeline for delivery to the EU. According to a recent estimate done by a Ukrainian energy think tank, the cost of this 550 kilometer route would be some $5 billion and it would be able to transport some 60 bcm per year.
-- Alternately, the pipeline can run from Iran to Armenia then to Georgia, on to Russia and end up in Ukraine. No cost estimate has been announced for this route.
The IRNA report mentioned that Ukraine and Iran are to hold an expert meeting in Tehran in May to discuss the financial aspects and construction and implementation of the project as well as the amount of gas to be exported. "Tehran and Kyiv will then make the final decision," IRNA reported.Two Powerful Opponents
Opposition to a Ukrainian gas deal with Iran is likely to come from two countries -- Russia and the United States.
On March 19, Interfax reported that deputy CEO of Gazprom Aleksandr Ryazanov stated that he does not consider the transit of Iranian gas through Armenia to Ukraine and onward to Europe to be viable.
"I can't even image how this could be done at all," Ryazanov said, adding that the Iran-Armenia-Georgia-Russia-Ukraine and Iran-Armenia- Georgia-Ukraine transit routes mentioned in the press are unrealistic and economically unsound.
Ryazanov did not specify why the routes are unrealistic. The Ukrainian side is likely to view his objections as being more political then economic.
The way the United States views the pipeline proposals are still unknown.
But in the case of a proposed gas pipeline from Iran to supply Pakistan and India, the United States took a rather dim view.
"Washington warned Pakistan not to go ahead with its Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project, saying that this project will strengthen Iran and thus negatively affects the United States economically," Al-Jazeera reported on 19 March.
It is likely that the Iranian-Ukraine pipeline project was discussed in Washington during Yushchenko's first official visit as president to the United States, from 4 - 7 April).
U.S. concerns will most likely be centered on the potential problems that could arise if the EU should become overly dependent on Iranian gas, instead of being overly dependent on Russian gas.
As an alternative route, the United States has been backing the idea of an energy corridor for moving Caspian-basin energy to the West. That corridor would include a gas pipeline that would bypass Russia and its pipeline system. The downside of this project is the role that Turkmenistan would play in it and the reliability of its often erratic leader Saparmurat Niyazov.
While the United States does not want to "strengthen Iran," it has also been urging Ukraine to diversify its gas supplies. Given Ukraine's limited options for such diversification -- the Norwegian gas fields are rapidly being depleted and Ukraine's demand for gas is not decreasing -- the Iranian pipeline might be one of the few possible options open to Kyiv. (Roman Kupchinsky).