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Iran Report: April 25, 2005


25 April 2005, Volume 8, Number 17

FALLOUT FROM AHVAZ UNREST COULD LEAD TO TELEVISED CONFESSIONS. The official Iranian reaction to the 15-18 April unrest in the city of Ahvaz in southwestern Khuzestan Province is following a pattern seen previously in the government's reaction to July 1999 student riots and its reaction to October 2000 violence in Sistan va Baluchistan (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 12, 19, and 26 July 1999, 23 October, and 6 November 2000). In these and other cases, Tehran has resorted to mass arrests, overwhelming force, blaming foreigners, superficial concern from officials about local problems, and false displays of national unity. This pattern suggests a predictable outcome, which could include show trials and televised confessions, followed by imprisonments.

The riots in and around Ahvaz apparently were triggered by a letter, signed by former Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi, that called for the forcible relocation of the local Arab population, to be replaced with Persians. Abtahi described the letter as a forgery. Unconfirmed reports cited on 19 April by Radio Farda said 20 people were killed and hundreds injured. The authorities arrested more than 360 people, news agencies reported on 18 and 19 April (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 18 April 2005).

The first official step called for repression and scapegoating.

On 18 April, Amnesty International identified seven men who had been arrested and said at least 130 others were detained in the Ahvaz region from 15-18 April. Amnesty International went on to cite "unconfirmed reports" that 29 people were killed and that the authorities have cut off water, power, and telephones in parts of Ahvaz. Amnesty International also claimed that there had been extrajudicial killings.

Intelligence and Security Minister Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi said at a gathering of district governors in Tehran on 18 April that unspecified enemies and domestic opponents are using many methods, in vain, to undermine the Iranian state, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 19 April. He accused "some people" of turning ethnic dissatisfaction into "political demands, as has happened in Khuzestan." Unnamed opponents are making false allegations about the government, according to Yunesi, and "presenting political problems as intractable." Certain "people try and get arrested in order to become famous. The Intelligence Ministry... is aware of [their] motives...and will not be trapped," he said. "We have separatist and suspect moves under observation, and can confidently say, do not worry. The enemy has no power to provoke a crisis in collaboration with domestic opponents."

Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari said on 20 April that the Intelligence and Security Ministry has identified the parties mainly responsible for the previous week's unrest, state television reported. He blamed counterrevolutionaries in other countries and irredentist websites. He said a "large number" of people were arrested. Anonymous sources told Mehr News Agency on 20 April that 10 people will be tried as the ringleaders, and 200 of 340 detainees had been released. Ahvaz prosecutor Iraj Amirkhani said on 21 April that most of the detainees were less than 20 years old, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported the same day.

The government temporarily banned broadcasts by the Arabic-language satellite-television station Al-Jazeera -- popular among local Arabs -- accusing it of fanning the unrest, AP reported on 18 April.

Thousands of people were arrested in July 1999, and a 17 July 1999 Intelligence Ministry statement blamed "grouplets" and "counterrevolutionaries." After a bombing in Sistan va Baluchistan on 17 October 2000, local security officials blamed "subservient elements of arrogance" and added that the purpose of the bomb was to distract locals from events in Israel and undermine regional unity.

Then came the sudden display of interest in local concerns.

Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani, who is an ethnic Arab, was dispatched to the Ahvaz area to look into the reasons behind the unrest. He met with local leaders, stressing that ethnic Arabs are an integral part of the country, but acknowledging that Khuzestan Province suffers from "underdevelopment and war destruction problems," IRNA reported on 21 April.

This is what happened after the October 2000 explosions in Sistan va Baluchistan. President Khatami gave local representatives the cold shoulder during a 16 October meeting. The bombing occurred on 17 October; within four days, Khatami sent a delegation to investigate locals' complaints about underdevelopment and drought damage.

The next step was a show of strength and enforced unity by the regime.

This occurred on Friday, 22 April, when the regime organized a massive march in Ahvaz. The march is to commemorate Solidarity Week, ISNA reported. Although "Unity Week" is commemorated annually around this time of the year, it is supposed to mark unity between different schools of Islam, and furthermore, the parade is a new feature. It is probably not a coincidence that the visiting Shamkhani said locals have decided to organize a "grand solidarity gathering," according to IRNA. On 22 March IRNA reported that "hundreds of thousands" participated in the solidarity march.

On 16 July 1999, massive pro-regime rallies were organized in Tehran, Tabriz, and other cities.

It is only a matter of time before some of the detainees appear on television to confess that they are working on behalf of foreigners. Iranian state television broadcast the "confession" of student leader Manuchehr Mohammadi on 19 July 1999. He admitted being in touch with Iranian expatriates, and according to the announcer also admitted receiving financial aid from "spies and fugitive Zionist elements" in various U.S. cities.

Mohammadi, as well as other students arrested in July 1999, is still in prison. Young people from Ahvaz may join them soon. (Bill Samii)

AHVAZ UNREST FELT OVERSEAS, DOMESTICALLY. The events in Ahvaz drew international reaction. At a Washington press conference on 19 April, U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli called on Tehran to practice restraint in dealing with the unrest and said the rights of peaceful demonstrators should be respected, Radio Farda reported. "The group is an Arab group -- my understanding -- and that suppression of minority rights is obviously to be denounced. And it is not the first time that Iran has practiced this kind of human rights violations and I think it's reflected in our human rights report on Iran," he said.

The events also affected domestic politics. Radio Farda reported on 20 April that, in Tehran, 180 legislators called on President Mohammad Khatami to dismiss the officials responsible for security in Khuzestan Province. The provincial governor is a member of the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Party and the legislators want all party members removed from their posts and the party closed down. Vice President for Legislative and Parliamentary Affairs Mohammad Ansari said this is unreasonable, Radio Farda reported. Referring to the incitement caused by the counterfeit letter from Abtahi, Ansari said it is not feasible for the government to react to every bogus letter and warned that such an overreaction would make things worse. (Bill Samii)

LEGISLATURE TOUGH ON REFORMIST PRESS, LENIENT TOWARDS STATE MEDIA. Two recent incidents indicate the politicized nature of Iranian media affairs and reveal the impact of conservative domination of the legislature and the resulting absence of oversight. In the first case, a reporter lost her access to the parliamentary beat, while in the second case, state television is serving as a platform for a conservative presidential candidate's campaign speeches. Conservative control of the executive branch, which is a possibility after the June presidential election, could make the situation worse.

In the most recent media-related incident, parliamentarians voted to block a correspondent's access to the legislature. Masih Ali-Nejad, who works for the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) and pro-reform "Hambastegi" newspaper, reported on the pay slip of a parliamentarian that showed his salary, a new-year payment, and a $1,250 bonus. Subsequently, according to ILNA on 4 April, some parliamentarians and the conservative press accused Ali-Nejad of stealing the pay slip from the legislator's pigeonhole, and guards prevented Ali-Nejad from entering the parliament building. Mohammad Reza Tabesh, the reformist parliamentary representative from Ardakan, however, said one of his reformist colleagues gave the pay slip to Ali-Nejad.

Reformist members of parliament invited Ali-Nejad to enter the building, ILNA reported on 6 April, but the guards blocked the way again.

Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, spokesman of the Association in Defense of Press Freedoms, said that expelling a reporter prevents her from doing her job, ILNA reported on 5 April. Shamsolvaezin expressed concern that the legislature is joining the judiciary in restricting correspondents.

News Pressure

Approximately 350 news people signed a petition against the ban on Ali-Nejad, ILNA reported on 15 April. The petition noted that journalists already face financial and professional pressures, and now are encountering problems stemming from political disputes. While this is harmful to journalists, it also undermines the free flow of information, which is indispensable for official accountability.

Most observers would agree that when an official's salary is paid from the public coffer, then the public has a right to know how much that person is paid. This is especially true when that official is an elected representative of the people. The legislature's desire to be unaccountable is a bad sign, as this is the same institution that is supposed to examine the financial activities of other state entities. If members of parliament refuse to be forthright about their own salaries, then they will have little credibility when investigating other state institutions. Likewise, their calls on the public to endure hardship will seem far-fetched if they are embarrassed to show how much they are earning.

The other recent media dispute relates to the presidential campaign and broadcast media.

Exploitation 'Until The Elections'

A number of prospective candidates refused to appear on a state television program called "Until the Elections" in late March. One exception was Tehran parliamentary representative and prospective conservative candidate Ahmad Tavakoli, who appeared on the show and criticized the executive branch and state officials. He also inaccurately attributed several remarks to President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami.

Khorasan parliamentarian Hojatoleslam Mohammad Shariati-Dehqan, who serves on the committee that oversees state radio and television (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, IRIB, aka Voice and Vision of Iran), reacted to this incident on 2 April, ISNA reported. Shariati-Dehqan criticized IRIB officials for not heeding regulations relating to the election, referring specifically to an absence of "fairness and justice in news bulletins."

Shariati-Dehqan also noted that parliamentary supervision and oversight of IRIB has fallen drastically since the conservatives assumed control of the legislature. State broadcasting officials are exploiting this situation, he said, and have ignored letters and warnings from the committee.

The oversight committee met on 10 April to review "Until the Elections." The head of the committee, Khorasan parliamentarian Gholam Hussein Mozaffari, said afterward that having prospective candidates appear on the show is causing problems, ISNA reported on 11 April. The committee decided, therefore, to invite the candidates to speak in their roles as political experts and activists.

The Interior Ministry also criticized IRIB for its lack of impartiality. A letter from the ministry said, "The programs being aired by IRIB are clear examples of publicity for specific candidates," IRNA reported on 11 April. The letter added that "Until the Elections" essentially provided publicity for some candidates, citing in particular appearances of Ali Larijani, Mohsen Rezai, and Ahmad Tavakoli. The Interior Ministry noted that the Election Law requires that all candidates should have equal access to campaign facilities.

The Guardians Council supervises elections and would be expected to express a view on this issue. However, Mohammad Jahromi, the Guardians Council's deputy director of elections, was noncommittal. He said the law is "silent" when it comes to early campaigning by prospective presidential candidates, "Mardom Salari" reported on 5 April. This kind of early campaigning is acceptable as long the individuals are not referred to as candidates, Jahromi said. He added the Guardians Council will not investigate the issue unless it receives an official request from the legislature.

Voice And Vision

Accusations of a hard-line bias on the part of the Voice and Vision are not infrequent -- they are heard before and after most elections and major political crises. So the most recent complaints are not a surprise. The legislature's oversight of state broadcasting is supposed to keep such incidents in check. However, many members of parliament have a background in the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, as does IRIB chief Ezzatollah Zarghami. These personal ties and their similarly conservative ideological tendencies would indicate that the current parliamentarians will do little to control Voice and Vision.

The combination of these media-related events suggests that, although the public is entitled to information about the parliament as well as impartial parliamentary oversight of state institutions, it is unlikely to get them. And this situation will only get worse if conservatives gain control of the executive branch as well. (Bill Samii)

LEGISLATORS COMPLAIN OF TELEVISED ANTI-SEMITISM. Maurice Motamed, who represents Iranian Jews in the legislature, complained on 13 April that state television is broadcasting anti-Semitic programs, IRNA reported. "Insulting Jews and attributing false things to them in television serials over the past 12 years has not only hurt the feelings of the Jewish community but has also -- it can be said with conviction -- led to the emigration of a considerable percentage of the Jewish community," Motamed said. He added that repeated complaints about this problem have not had the desired effect.

Speaker of parliament Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel said he also noticed the anti-Semitic nature of some programs and urged broadcasters "to respect the rights of religious minorities in the programs that they produce," IRNA reported.

Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) replied, in a letter read out to the legislature, that its programs are based on "research and documentary evidence," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 21 April. IRIB went on to say that the programs entitled "The Plot" and "The Great Escape" had positive and negative Jewish characters, and they gave greater attention to the positive characters.

Samples of Iranian television programs are available at http://memri.org. In "Zahra's Blue Eyes," "Zionists" kidnap Palestinian children and harvest their organs for transplantation. (Bill Samii)

IMPRISONED IRANIAN JOURNALIST VERY ILL. According to a 21 April press release from Reporters Without Borders (RSF), journalist Akbar Ganji, who has been imprisoned for five years, is very ill. Prison doctors have said for the last three years that Ganji must be hospitalized, but the judiciary has ignored their advice, RSF reported. Ganji is being held in solitary confinement, where he is not allowed to telephone his wife. (Bill Samii)

ROHANI DELAYS ANNOUNCING PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDACY. Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani said on 20 April that his decision on running for president depends on the other candidates, Mehr News Agency reported. Specifically, he said, it depends on the decision of Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. Rohani added that some prospective candidates have already said they want to quit, and he will not decide until it is clear how many candidates there will be. Rohani is a conservative, but he is viewed as relatively pragmatic. He has gained great prominence lately due to his role in the nuclear negotiations with other countries. Rohani is not the only person biding his time; Rafsanjani has indicated he will be a candidate only as a last resort. (Bill Samii)

CONSERVATIVE COUNCIL ANNOUNCES ITS CANDIDATE. The Coordination Council of the Islamic Revolution Forces has officially chosen Ali Larijani as its candidate for the 17 June presidential election, a leader of the group said on 19 April, according to Mehr News Agency. The Coordination Council is a mainstream and traditional conservative grouping. Parliamentarian Mohammad Reza Bahonar, who serves on the council's central committee, said that Larijani has all the desirable personal, familial, and spiritual qualities, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei believes in him. Indeed, Larijani is Khamenei's representative in the Supreme National Security Council.

Speaking at the Nur Mosque in Tehran on 18 April, Larijani told the audience that he has identified 110 critical national problems that require urgent attention, Mehr News Agency reported. Larijani said he and a group of experts have decided that a plan is required. (Bill Samii)

CONSERVATIVE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE STRESSES INDEPENDENCE. Former national police chief Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf told university students in Mashhad on 20 April that the first thing he would do as president is change the government structure, Mehr News Agency reported. He promised to encourage public participation and resolve national issues on the basis of "collective judgment." He did not specify what he meant by this, but presumably he meant polling data will be used more to formulate government decisions or that referenda will be resorted to more frequently. Qalibaf stressed that he is an independent candidate. The previous day, Qalibaf told reporters in Mashhad that, although he is an independent candidate, he would welcome any party or group's support, Mehr News Agency reported. (Bill Samii)

KHATAMI BRIEFS NATIONAL OFFICIALS ON ELECTION. President Khatami said, in a 17 April speech to provincial governors and Interior Ministry officials, that they must prepare the way for mass participation in the upcoming presidential election, IRNA reported. Khatami said the Guardians Council -- which vets candidates' eligibility and supervises elections -- has an important role to play in conducting free and fair elections. He said, "With all respect I have for the system's bodies, I want to say the Guardian Council plays the leading role in holding competitive and free elections." Khatami advised against disallowing any candidate and thereby discouraging that individual's supporters from voting. (Bill Samii)

CANDIDATE CALLS FOR RENEWAL OF RELATIONS WITH U.S. Prospective reformist presidential candidate Mohsen Mehralizadeh said on 16 April, "We should do away with the severance of diplomatic relations with the United States," IRNA reported. He said Tehran made a mistake by not reacting positively to Washington's apology for its part in the 1953 coup d'etat. He said optimistically: "Despite prejudice and sensational slogans, I think we have a good opportunity to resolve the problem with the United States to support national interests. The Iranian nation is strong enough to advance its national interests in the international community within the framework of diplomatic relations." (Bill Samii)

KARRUBI OPEN TO RELATIONS WITH UNITED STATES... Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Mohtashami-Pur, who heads Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi's election headquarters, hinted in a recent interview that his candidate does not rule out the resumption of relations with the United States. "One can establish relations with any country, except with the usurping Israeli regime," he said, according to "Etemad" on 21 April. "A wolf and sheep relationship will not be at all acceptable to anyone. One should remove the wall of mistrust between America and Iran." (Bill Samii)

...AND WILL REPLACE SUBSIDIES WITH CHARITY. Mohtashami-Pur said that Karrubi's plan to pay everybody 500,000 rials ($62.50) per month can be realized with the implementation of a more efficient social-security system and elimination of state subsidies. He added that billions of rials in subsides benefit the rich and he cited gasoline subsidies as an example. Karrubi intends to eliminate gasoline subsidies, Mohtashami-Pur said. (Bill Samii)

STUDENTS COMPLAIN OF RENEWED CRACKDOWN. Iranian officials are encouraging young people to vote in the upcoming presidential election. At the same time, government repression of student political organizations is taking place.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei met with members of two student organizations -- the Office for Strengthening Unity (DTV) and the Islamic Association of Universities -- in Tehran on 14 April, IRNA reported. Khamenei praised the student movement as responsible, innovative, and pioneering, and he tried to discredit U.S. efforts to promote democracy in Iran.

Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani met with DTV representatives on 15 April and discussed the presidential election, ISNA reported.

Meanwhile, DTV member Said Habibi was recently arrested and reportedly charged with making statements hostile to Iranian government officials, Radio Farda reported on 19 April. DTV public relations chief Reza Delbari told Radio Farda this is intended to put pressure on potentially disaffected students before the June presidential election. The government, he said, wants "elections with maximum turnout" and intends "to respond to those it feels may cause problems in that respect." Akbar Atri, another DTV member, said more arrests might follow, Radio Farda reported on 19 April.

The DTV issued a statement in Tehran on 19 April calling the June polls a mere "display" and "undemocratic," Radio Farda reported. Voting, it said, would merely "legitimize" the "exclusive" conduct of Iranian "power centers." Iranian politicians have urged Iranians to vote and unite in the face of international pressures. But the student group said that elections that "do not lead to democracy" will "not only not prevent foreign interference" but destroy domestic hopes for change, and make people look "outward." (Bill Samii, Vahid Sepehri)

TEHRAN REFUSES TO REPATRIATE CANADIAN'S REMAINS. Iranian government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh discussed the case of Zahra Kazemi, the Canadian photojournalist who was beaten while in custody at Evin Prison in June 2003 and subsequently died of her injuries, at an 11 April news conference in Tehran, ISNA reported. Recently, a man claiming to be the physician who treated Kazemi when she was hospitalized said in Ottawa that her body bore evidence of torture and rape. Ramezanzadeh said the physician is not mentioned in reports by the attending medical team or by the Health Ministry, and he accused the Canadian government of having been duped.

Judiciary spokesman Jamal Karimi-Rad told reporters in Tehran on 12 April that Iran will not send Kazemi's remains to Canada, IRNA reported. Karimi-Rad said the Canadian request is illegal. (Said Khalaji, Bill Samii)

IRAN'S HIV-POSITIVE COUNT SURPASSES 10,000. The Iranian Health Ministry estimates that 10,265 Iranians were infected with HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS, at the end of the year to 20 March, news agencies reported on 18 April. A ministry report says about 9,700 of those infected are men, "Sharq" reported on 19 April. Three hundred and sixty of those infected have developed full-blown AIDS, or "entered the terminal phase of the illness," AFP and "Sharq" reported, citing the ministry. Slightly fewer than 6,000 contracted the virus by injecting drugs, it added, and fewer than 700 through sexual intercourse, "Sharq" added.

But Amir Reza Moradi, an AIDS activist working with UNICEF in Tehran, told Radio Farda on 19 April that the calculations were inaccurate and mainly based on the prison population, which includes a greater proportion of male drug addicts. He said the World Health Organization estimates the actual number of HIV-positive individuals in Iran at 40,000-50,000. Social restrictions and reticence are preventing many women from going to clinics for blood tests, he added. (Vahid Sepehri)

RETIRED SAVAK EMPLOYEES DEMONSTRATE IN TEHRAN. Approximately 300 retired employees of the Iranian monarchy's intelligence and security service (Sazeman-i Ettelaat va Amniyat-i Keshvar, or SAVAK) demonstrated for two hours outside the Ministry of Intelligence and Security to protest the failure to pay their pensions, the Baztab website reported. (Bill Samii)

AGRIBUSINESS WORKERS IN KHUZESTAN PROVINCE CONTINUE SIT-IN. A House of Labor official, Gholam-Reza Talebi, said on 16 April that 4,000 agribusiness workers in Khuzestan Province are staging a sit-in to protest the government's privatization of two factories, ILNA reported. Talebi said the two factories are worth some $90 million, and the government wants to cancel their debts by transferring the factories to the creditors. Talebi added that the government has rejected an offer by the workers to buy the factories. (Bill Samii)

IMPRESSIVE WATERMELON EXPORTS AMIDST RISING PRICES. In the period from March 2004-March 2005, Iran exported 99,000 tons of watermelons at a value of $16.1 million, iranmania.com reported on 21 April, citing ISNA. Some 70 percent of the watermelons went to Iraq and the United Arab Emirates, and the rest went to Bahrain, Kuwait, and Turkey. Statistics comparing these figures to those of the previous year were not available.

Simultaneously with the rise in fruit exports, domestic fruit prices are also on the increase. Bandar Abbas and Qeshm parliamentary representative Ali Dirbaz said in the 4 April legislative session that fruit prices have gone through the roof, "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported on 5 April. Lanjan representative Mohsen Kuhkan added, "Can we easily overlook the unreasonable increase in prices of fruits and other goods during the New Year holidays?" He continued: "Has not the time come that senior officials of the Islamic system should humbly confess to their errors instead of taking the pose of innocent persons?" Speaker of parliament Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel said fruit prices increased 100 percent during the holiday period, adding, "The recent increase in prices has extended to imported fruits including bananas."

Tehran parliamentary representative Gholam Reza Mesbahi-Moqaddam said the fruit dealers' "wheeling and dealing" has blocked efforts to curb prices, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 21 April. He went on to allude to government collusion, which in turn has reduced fruit supplies. (Bill Samii)

IRAN FACES ELECTRICAL BLACKOUTS. Masud Hojat, deputy chief of the state power-generation and transmission-management company TAVANIR, said on 9 April that Iran faces "vast blackouts" in the coming year, because the budget for power plants, transmission lines, and related infrastructure is too small, Mehr News Agency reported. Hojat said TAVANIR does not have enough money, citing a Management and Planning Organization estimate that the budget shortfall could be in the range of 8 trillion to 12 trillion rials (about $1 billion-$1.5 billion). Given the increasing demand for electricity, Hojat said, 3,000 megawatts a year of electricity should be added to the grid. (Bill Samii)

NUCLEAR WORKERS STAGE PROTEST. Bushehr House of Labor official Issa Mohammad Kamali said on 9 April that workers from the Bushehr nuclear facility are protesting the dismissal by plant managers of 25 of their colleagues, ILNA reported. Managers said the dismissed workers can work at affiliated service companies for up to two months, adding that it is possible that another 28 workers will be sacked soon. The House of Labor has contacted the provincial governor-general's office to seek assistance. At a subsequent meeting, the governorate's director-general for political and security affairs promised to look into the matter. (Bill Samii)

IRAN HONORS PALESTINIAN 'OLIVE GIRLS.' Female Palestinian suicide bombers, known as "olive girls" (Dokhtaran-i Zeytun), were honored at a 20 April conference in Tehran, Radio Farda reported. The event was organized by the Headquarters for Tribute to the Martyrs of the Global Islamic Movement -- which has been registering suicide-bombing volunteers -- and two other state-affiliated entities.

Participants included students and state officials, local Hamas representative Abu Osama, and the representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei at the Martyr's Foundation, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Hassan Rahimian, Radio Farda reported. Female parliamentarians Marzieh Dabagh, Fatimeh Elias, Effat Shariati, Laleh Eftekhari, and Eshrat Shayeq, as well presidential women's affairs adviser Zahra Shojai, also attended.

Political scientist Davud Hermidas Bavand told Radio Farda that the event is more symbolic than practical and Iranian women who volunteer for suicide missions out of solidarity with the Palestinians will not be asked to take part in operations. Commentator Alireza Nurizadeh told Radio Farda that, in Islam, having a woman commit such an act is very bad.

Headquarters' spokesman Mohammad Samadi told Mehr News Agency on 21 April that 35,000 people have volunteered to kill themselves. Samadi also said some volunteers have conducted suicide attacks against Israeli military targets, according to AP. (Bill Samii)

LEBANESE PRIME MINISTER GETS IRANIAN BACKING. Lebanon's designated prime minister, Najib Mikati, met on 20 April with Iranian Ambassador to Beirut Masud Edrisi to discuss the future of Lebanese Hizballah, IRNA reported. Edrisi told reporters afterward that Iran supports the Lebanese people's decision on this issue and expressed Tehran's pleasure with the choice of Mikati.

The day before, an official from Amal, Lebanon's other predominantly Shi'ite party, said in Tehran that the United States and Israel are trying to prevent an Islamic revival, Mehr News Agency reported. Abu Yasser Adel Aoun, who represents Amal in Tehran, said that Amal and Hizballah would confront such conspiracies together. Aoun ridiculed the U.S. "interpretation" of democracy and said it is not appropriate for Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Sudan, or Syria. He said Amal opposes UN Security Council Resolution 1559 -- which requires the withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon and the disarming of militias in the country -- and pledged support for Syria. (Bill Samii)

OFFICIALS DENY IRANIAN INVOLVEMENT IN IRAQI HOSTAGE INCIDENT. Iranian officials have rejected Iraqi charges of Iranian involvement in a hostage-taking incident on 15 April in Mada'in in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 and 19 April 2005), news agencies reported on 18 April. Outgoing Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib and an influential Sunni cleric, Sheikh Rafi al-Ani, had reportedly accused Iranian intelligence agents and "their Shi'ite politician agents" of provoking such events, AFP reported on 18 April.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi condemned the "suspect" incident and said the charges are "ridiculous," iranmania.com reported. Assefi said the incident was the work of "those opposed to stability" in Iraq, and intended to maintain "the continuing presence of foreign forces," iribnews.ir reported on 18 April. Iranian Intelligence and Security Minister Ali Yunesi said on 18 April that Naqib is "spending his last days in office and thinks as he did in the past. The claims are false." (Vahid Sepehri)

IRAN, EUROPEAN NEGOTIATORS MEET IN GENEVA. Negotiators from Iran and from Great Britain, France, and Germany met in Geneva on 19 April to discuss technical aspects of Iran's nuclear program, IRNA reported the same day. The meeting of working groups is a part of ongoing efforts to clarify the nature of Iran's nuclear program. Senior diplomats are expected to meet on 29 April to assess the talks so far, AFP reported on 19 April.

Cyrus Nasseri, an Iranian diplomat, told AFP that Iran is waiting for Europe to respond to an Iranian proposal to engage in the limited enrichment of uranium. Some governments, including the United States, want Iran to cease all activities related to fuel production. Iran has informally proposed being allowed to assemble, install, and test 3,000 centrifuges at a site in Natanz, near Tehran, AFP reported on 19 April, quoting an unnamed diplomat close to the talks. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies' Gary Samore, 2,000 centrifuges could enrich enough uranium for a nuclear bomb in one year, AFP added.

Hussein Musavian, a member of the Supreme National Security Council, said in Moscow on 19 April that Iran will use its "legitimate and evident" rights within the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which it says include the production of nuclear fuel, but cooperate to reassure the world that it would not make nuclear bombs, IRNA reported the same day. The problem, Musavian said, "is not [uranium] enrichment, [which is] the...right of every" member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). He said the United States and Israel, which suspect Iran's program includes efforts aimed at bomb making, have partially succeeded in provoking international suspicion of Iran's program. "If the concern is over nuclear weapons, Iran is cooperating with the international community," Musavian said. "We...embrace confidence building with the international community." Iran, he added, believes "the time has come to normalize [its] nuclear dossier, and there is no reason for delay."

Musavian was in Moscow to prepare for a visit to Iran "soon" by Russian President Vladimir Putin, IRNA reported. He said officials have been discussing building a joint communications satellite and Iran's purchase of an unspecified number of Russian Tu-204 civilian transport planes, RIA-Novosti reported on 19 April. (Vahid Sepehri)

ISRAEL PREDICTS IRANIAN BOMB CAPABILITY WITHIN A YEAR. Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said at a Likud Party rally in Ramat Gan on 17 April that Iran will be able to produce a nuclear weapon in six to nine months, the Voice of Israel reported. He said Israel is doing its utmost to persuade the international community to prevent this development. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN OPPOSES U.S. PRO-DEMOCRACY INITIATIVES. U.S. interest in Iranian domestic politics has increased recently. The State Department is looking for democratic organizations or activists to support, and Congress is considering legislation relating to Iran. Iranian opposition groups, meanwhile, are soliciting U.S. support. Tehran does not see these developments in a positive light and claims that the United States has always opposed Iranians' democratic efforts.

Pursuant to a $3 million Congressional appropriation, the U.S. State Department is soliciting proposals from "educational institutions, humanitarian groups, nongovernmental organizations, and individuals inside Iran to support the advancement of democracy and human rights," "USA Today" reported on 11 April, citing the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. According to "USA Today," the U.S. government already spends approximately $15 million per year on Persian-language broadcasting to Iran.

Iranian Ambassador to the UN Mohammad Javad Zarif denounced the U.S. effort as a violation of the Algiers Accords (which prohibit interference in Iranian internal affairs) and hinted at referring the United States to an international tribunal, "USA Today" reported.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said on 11 April that "none of the activities that are mentioned in the announcement or the ["USA Today"] article are inconsistent with our commitments to the Algiers Accords," according to the State Department website (http://www.usinfo.state.gov). "Supporting democracy and human rights around the world is something the United States does everywhere," Boucher said. "It's not an attempt to decide somebody else's internal affairs."

Iranian state radio commented on 12 April that Washington already supports "isolated and rejected groups or elements" but that this only leads to embarrassment for the United States or these groups. It added that not only have U.S. efforts to cause "anarchy and domestic unrest" in Iran over the last 20 years failed, but they have in fact caused "increased public anger and hatred against America." The commentary concluded, "It seems that the American officials have thrown themselves in a fatal abyss by financing opposition Iranian groups."

Foggy Bottom is not the only place where people are thinking about Iran. Iran is of great interest on Capitol Hill, too.

Two Congressmen, Bob Filner (D-California) and Tom Tancredo (R-Colorado), chaired a 6 April Capitol Hill meeting of a "think tank" called the Iran Policy Committee, U.S. Newswire reported. Filner described the meeting as an effort by the Iran Human Rights and Democracy Caucus of the House of Representatives to learn more about Iran and to consider ways to confront it. Tancredo called for an end to the State Department's designation of the Mujahedin Khalq Organization as a terrorist group.

Radio Farda reported that the Middle East Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives discussed legislation relating to Iran on 13 April in Washington, D.C. The Iran Freedom Support Act (HR 282) defines its purpose as "to hold the current regime in Iran accountable for its threatening behavior and to support a transition to democracy in Iran." The legislation calls on the White House to support pro-democracy forces that oppose the Iranian regime.

The legislation is supported by 140 members of the House of Representatives and is stricter in some ways than the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act of 1996. The bill calls for mandatory sanctions to be imposed on those who help Iran's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, Radio Farda reported. The legislation also says that independent expatriate Iranian broadcasters should receive funding, and it calls for assistance to pro-democracy forces and groups in the country.

The full International Relations Committee now will consider the legislation, Radio Farda reported, and if it is adopted the entire House will debate it.

Opponents of the Iranian regime -- under the umbrella of the National Convention for a Democratic Secular Republic in Iran -- met in Washington on 14 April to demand U.S. support for their activities. Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO) leader Mariam Rajavi addressed the event via a video link from France. She is not allowed to enter the United States, because the MKO is considered by the U.S. government to be a terrorist organization. Rajavi accused the United States and EU of appeasing the Iranian regime, and she demanded recognition of her group as a government-in-exile. Several U.S. legislators attended this event. Representatives Filner, Dennis Moore (R-Kansas), Ted Poe (R-Texas), and Tancredo were there, as were staff members for Senators Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) and James Talent (R-Missouri).

Not surprisingly, Tehran has reacted angrily to these developments.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said on 14 April that U.S. statements about promoting democracy in Iran reveal that Washington has a specific timetable in mind, IRNA reported. Khamenei said anonymous "certain individuals" should not be allowed to help what IRNA termed an "interventionist conspiracy."

Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani also spoke dismissively about the pro-democracy initiatives in the United States. "There is sufficient democracy in Iran," he said in an interview that appeared on the "Financial Times'" website on 19 December. "Whenever we have wanted to extend democracy, the Americans have opposed it." (Bill Samii)

IRAN GOVERNANCE NEAR BOTTOM OF WORLD BANK REPORT. A new World Bank report says surging oil revenues have created an economic boom for much of the Middle East, but adds that states in the region still lag behind on economic reforms and governance.

The World Bank's report says states ranging from Morocco to Iran must diversify their economies and reduce the role of government in economic activity.

The report -- released on 17 April during the World Bank/International Monetary Fund spring meetings -- says that during the last two years economic growth in the Middle East and North Africa averaged more than 5.6 percent per year. That marks the strongest growth in a decade.

Some states have reduced trade barriers and unemployment during the oil boom. But the bank says overall progress on improving the business climate has been the weakest in the world.

The bank's chief economist for the region, Mustapha Nabli, told reporters that the oil-rich Mideast states continue to fall far behind the rest of the world in important governance issues, such as public accountability. "There has not been much progress in terms of governance and this is extremely important, because this is critical for the progress of reforms, in general, structural reforms," Nabli said. "And when we look at this slow progress of structural reforms in general, this is not very good for the long term prospects."

Bank economists point to the region's high population growth and say an expansion of non-oil sectors is crucial to provide an estimated 100 million jobs needed in the region over the next 20 years.

The World Bank says that international experience with structural reforms suggests that they have been successful in countries with "strong coalitions for change." But Nabli said these coalitions -- such as civil society -- have been weakened by the growth of state budget revenues from oil. "We argue are that the oil revenue is what I call a soft-budget constraint, which is not very helpful in terms of pushing for reform and letting constituencies for reform operate," Nabli said.

The World Bank report cites Iran as an example of this diminishing enthusiasm for reform. It said Iran had shown some initial progress with reforms in the trade and financial sectors. But during the last two years, the report says, progress has slowed significantly. It says the economy has yet to address reforms needed to improve the business environment, such as privatizing public enterprises. The report ranks Iran near the bottom in key governance areas.

One of the report's authors, Jennifer Keller, told RFE/RL the region's poor record in public accountability deprives countries of the internal debate needed to drive successful reforms. "People do need certain rights, [a] certain ability to mobilize to process information, to be able to form coalitions for change," Keller said. "So this is why I think we would say that the governance agenda is critical to moving forward to second generation reforms."

The World Bank report also includes a section on Iraq's challenges in the post-Saddam Hussein era. It says the country faces high unemployment, widespread poverty, and weak social protection systems, further aggravated by the volatile security situation.

But World Bank officials told reporters that unexpectedly high oil revenues had allowed Iraq to fund some essential areas.

The World Bank's Iraq country director, Joseph Saba, told RFE/RL that oil revenues have been used to maintain salaries for state employees and help restore the civil service. That has freed some donors to concentrate on capital investments on infrastructure and trade.

But the oil sector itself needs major investment, Saba said.

"It's obviously clear that Iraq's oil sector needs a great deal of refurbishment, the fields need to be reworked, a great deal of investment has to be done for Iraq to meet its potential not only in oil but also in gas," Saba said.

The World Bank report focused on economic developments, but it complements in some ways the series of UN-sponsored Arab Human Development reports of the last three years. Those reports criticized the prevalence of authoritarianism in the Middle East region.

The latest Arab Development report called for freely elected legislatures, an end to discrimination, and independent judiciaries. Otherwise, it said, Arab governments would face internal conflict or reforms imposed by outside powers. (The full report is available at http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTMENA/Publications/20451730/ MENA%20Economic%20Developments%20and%20Prospects%202005.pdf) (Robert McMahon)

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