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Iran Report: August 23, 2005


23 August 2005, Volume 8, Number 33

HUNGER-STRIKING JOURNALIST ACCUSED OF PLAYACTING. Tehran Justice Department deputy chief Mohammad Salarkia said on 17 August that dissident journalist Akbar Ganji, whose hunger strike has lasted for more than two months, has agreed to cooperate with physicians, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported. Salarkia added that Ganji ended his fast on 16 August. He said Ganji's family will not be granted access to Ganji, due to doctor's orders.

In a 16 August interview with Radio Farda, Ganji's mother said she had not seen him for 20 days and that his wife and son have not seen him for 16 days. Ganji's mother denounced Judge Said Mortazavi's statements about her son's case.

Masumeh Shafii, Ganji's wife, told Radio Farda on 16 August that the authorities do not want her husband to end his hunger strike. Judge Mortazavi said one day earlier that Ganji is only playacting. The Iranian dailies "Aftab-i Yazd," "Iran," and "Sharq" on 16 August quoted Mortazavi as saying that enemies of the state have encouraged Ganji, that Ganji is trying to get attention, and that he is actually eating while his family plots against the state. Shafii said she has not had access to her spouse for more than two weeks and that he is in a news quarantine. She wants to persuade Ganji to break his fast, she said, but Mortazavi wants him to die. (Bill Samii)

DETAINED LAWYER ACCUSED OF ESPIONAGE. Judge Mortazavi has discussed the case of imprisoned attorney Abdolfattah Soltani, according to Iranian newspapers on 16 August. Mortazavi claimed that Soltani is a spy who has provided foreign embassies with classified information, "Aftab-i Yazd," "Iran," and "Sharq" reported. Soltani, who was arrested on 30 July, is representing the defendants in a nuclear-espionage case (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 27 December 2004). (Bill Samii)

BLOGGER'S LAWYER DECRIES DETENTION. Attorney Nemat Ahmadi, who represents detained blogger Afshin Zarei, said on 14 August that his client has been detained for more than eight months, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported. Ahmadi said this continuing detention is illegal. Zarei is charged with "insulting the [supreme] leader and sanctities." (Bill Samii)

PRESIDENT OUTLINES PROGRAM, PROMOTES MINISTERS. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad laid out his plans for the next four years in a 21 August speech at the legislature, and the legislators then began debating the men Ahmadinejad proposed as cabinet ministers one week earlier (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 15 August 2005). Each prospective minister will have 30 minutes to respond, and the entire process could continue until 25 August. Legislators' comments in the last week indicate that three to six of the nominees will encounter resistance.

In his discussion of foreign affairs at the legislature, which was broadcast live on Islamic Republic of Iran News Network, Ahmadinejad adopted a resentful tone and expressed Third World and nationalistic sentiments. He complained that Iranian imports from other countries amount to millions of dollars, but those same countries do not import Iranian goods or buy Iranian oil. He continued:

"Those very countries, which should be thankful for our contribution to their economic success, now act as if we owe them something. In political issues, they have a hostile approach towards us. They are not ready to recognize our legitimate rights. They go as far as to interfere in our domestic politics under different pretexts, including human rights and false accusations. They want to silence us on the important issues that are going on in the region and the world of Islam. They want us to follow their discipline in our foreign policy."

Ahmadinejad said Iran will not accept such "tyranny and injustice."

The Ahmadinejad government's foreign policy program calls for cooperation with other Islamic countries, and lists as its priorities "relations with the Islamic world, the Persian Gulf region, the Caspian Sea region, Central Asia, the Pacific area and Europe," Fars News Agency reported. It backs the Palestinian people. It opposes neocolonialism and efforts at "world domination," and it calls for greater cooperation with non-aligned nations.

Ahmadinejad's foreign policy calls for relations with all countries except Israel -- "forever" -- and the United States -- "as long as it is not prepared to observe the honor and the interests of our nation."

Ahmadinejad said his candidate as foreign minister, Manuchehr Mottaki, is the best choice because of his twenty years experience as a diplomat and his two terms as a member of parliament.

Ahmadinejad said spirituality is on the government's agenda and warned that ethics will be degraded by liberalism. He called for the promotion of Islamic values and principles, and he said the promotion of the Koran and the teachings of Imam Ali (Nahj ol-Balagheh) could strengthen families.

His government program also emphasized the role of Islam in enhancing "national solidarity," and it discussed activities at mosques, religious boards, and the Basij, and also during religious holidays. State broadcast media is to emphasize Iranian and Islamic culture "with the purpose to cause subcultures to adapt themselves to public culture." There should be greater cooperation between seminaries and universities.

Ahmadinejad said prospective Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance Mohammad Hussein Safar-Harandi is qualified because of his lengthy experience in media affairs, IRNA reported. Hojatoleslam Mustafa Purmohammadi is qualified to be interior minister, Ahmadinejad said, because of his education in Qom and his knowledge of Islamic sciences. Prospective Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Gholam-Hussein Mohseni-Ejei is qualified for the job because he is a specialist in international law and is familiar with the ministry's work.

The parliamentarians began their debate after the president's presentation and comments on the proposed cabinet ministers. Legislators' statements in the days after Ahmadinejad submitted his list indicate that it will not be smooth sailing for all of them.

Mohammad Reza Bahonar, the deputy speaker, predicted on 19 August that the majority of proposed ministers would win votes of confidence, IRNA reported. Speaking two days earlier, Kazem Jalali, rapporteur of the Foreign Policy and National Security Committee, said he believes the proposed ministers of defense and armed forces logistics (Mustafa Mohammad Najjar), of foreign affairs (Manuchehr Mottaki), and of intelligence and security (Hojatoleslam Gholam-Hussein Mohseni-Ejei), will win votes of confidence easily, Fars News Agency reported on 17 August.

The newspaper "Resalat" reported on 17 August that legislators are very critical of four of the prospective cabinet members, "Iran News" reported. The four are: Masud Mir-Kazemi as commerce minister, Mohammad Suleimani as communications and information technology minister, Ali-Reza Ali-Ahmadi as cooperatives minister, and Ali-Akbar Ashari as education and training minister. Opposition to these individuals reportedly is connected with their lack of public visibility in the past.

Malayer's Hassan Zamani said in the 17 August "Aftab-i Yazd" that Ahmadinejad could have done better and predicted that five or six of the candidates may not win a vote of confidence.

A 16 August report in "Mardom Salari," which included interviews with several legislators, made a similar point. It said the majority of the individuals named by Ahmadinejad have no record of activity at such a high level, and the legislators predicted that just three or four of the proposed ministers will win a vote of confidence.

Some hard-line legislators saw Ahmadinejad's list of cabinet ministers one day before he formally submitted it, IRNA reported on 14 August. Elias Naderan, who serves on the parliamentary Energy Committee, said a number of his colleagues objected to the proposed petroleum minister, Ali Saidlu. Another member of the committee, Mohsen Yahyavi, said Saidlu has no experience in the oil sector. (Bill Samii)

AHMADINEJAD APPOINTS TOP OFFICIALS... One day after submitting his list of cabinet choices to the legislature, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad appointed Ali Larijani secretary of the Supreme National Security Council on 15 August, ISNA reported. The president chairs the council. In his letter of appointment, Ahmadinejad expressed his gratitude to the outgoing secretary, Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani, for his service.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei met with council members and staff the same day, state television reported. He also thanked Rohani, describing him as "one of the competent, active, and sympathetic managers of the system," and noting his "rational, open-minded, and steady management" over the last 16 years.

Ahmadinejad appointed Hojatoleslam Gholam Hussein Elham his chief of staff on 15 August, ILNA reported. Elham's duty, according to the letter of appointment, is to "facilitate communication to speed up coordination among ministries and organizations." Ahmadinejad said Elham should reorganize the office if necessary, and no communications should go unanswered. Elham has served as the spokesman of the Guardians Council.

Ahmadinejad appointed Mujtaba Samareh Hashemi as his "senior presidential adviser" on 15 August, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. His responsibilities were not specified.

Ahmadinejad also appointed "Hojatoleslam [first name not given] Moslehi" his adviser for theological and cleric affairs on 15 August, IRNA reported. This is probably Hojatoleslam Heidar Moslehi, the supreme leader's representative to the Basij Resistance Force, and the appointment is possibly his payoff for the Basij's decisive role in Ahmadinejad's victory.

Ahmadinejad appointed Rahim Mashaei as the head of Iran's Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization on 18 August, IRNA reported. Mashaei previously served in the Interior Ministry and the Tehran Municipality arts and culture organization. (Bill Samii)

...AS ONE NOMINEE WANTS TWO JOBS. Jamal Karimirad, who was nominated to be justice minister, announced on 17 August in Tehran that he will retain his current job as judiciary spokesman regardless if he wins a vote of confidence to be minister or not, Mehr news agency. (Bill Samii)

CALLS MADE FOR GREATER MINORITY REPRESENTATION IN CABINET. Parliamentarian Jafar Ainparast, a Sunni who represents Mahabad, said on 17 August that President Ahmadinejad should have included members of various ethnic minorities in his cabinet, Mehr News Agency. "There are many capable and skilled people among Kurds and we hope that they can be employed in the realm of management as deputy ministers, ambassadors in countries with Sunni Muslims, presidential advisers, governor generals and governors, and that this major ethnic group will not be treated unkindly," Ainparast said. Several of prospective ministers visited the legislature on 17 August, Mehr News Agency reported. Proposed Interior Minister Mustafa Purmohammadi cited ethnic divisions as one of the biggest problems his ministry must address. (Bill Samii)

HUSBAND SEEKS NEWS OF DETAINED KURDISH ACTIVIST. Purya Hajizadeh, the husband of detained Kurdish rights activist Roya Tolui, told Radio Farda on 16 August that he last spoke with her on 10 August. She was fine at the time but he has had no news from her since then. Hajizadeh said he made inquiries at the judiciary but they had no information on her case and, furthermore, the relevant people are on leave.

Tolui was detained on 2 August for her part in a demonstration in Sanandaj (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 9 August 2005). Tolui is the editor in chief of the monthly "Rasan" magazine and created the "Association of the Kurdish Women Supporting Peace in Kurdistan." The police have reportedly summoned her in the past for incitement and creating illegal organizations, "Siyasat-i Ruz" reported on 7 August. She is reportedly a microbiologist by training and runs a laboratory with her husband. (Bill Samii)

KURDISH GRIEVANCES REMAIN A THORNY ISSUE. Iran's ministers of the interior, intelligence and security, and defense came to the legislature on 17 August to describe steps they have taken to reestablish order and security in the country's predominantly Kurdish northwestern provinces, according to Fars News Agency on 13 August.

Legislators are likely to be disappointed. Tehran's response to the recent unrest is following a fairly typical pattern -- initial denials followed by accusations of foreign involvement. Yet the problems are sufficiently worrying that both the executive branch and the legislature have conducted inquiries.

The most recent problems in the northwest can be traced to the early July shooting in Mahabad, West Azerbaijan Province, of a Kurdish activist known as Shavaneh Qaderi. Police reportedly shot him on 11 July when he resisted arrest. This led to demonstrations, shop closures and strikes, damage to buildings, and dozens of arrests. At least one person, a police officer, lost his life.

Expatriate Kurdish sources claimed that after the initial incident in Mahabad the unrest spread to other predominantly Kurdish towns, including Baneh, Bukan, Divandareh, Oshnavieh, Piranshahr, Sanandaj, Saqqez, and Sardasht. Websites posted photographs purporting to show Qaderi's mutilated body, and they made claims of dozens of civilian deaths at the hands of security forces.

Official sources confirmed the extent of the problems. Abbas Khorshidi, the deputy governor-general in West Azerbaijan Province, said four police officers were killed during 26 July demonstrations in Oshnavieh, "Mardom Salari" reported on 28 July. A civilian died as well, Khorshidi said, but the family refused to permit an autopsy and no further information is available. Alireza Jamshidi, the deputy governor-general for security affairs in Kurdistan Province, described a 3 August demonstration in Saqqez in which security forces intervened, "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on 7 August. Two police officers and six civilians were killed, and 142 people were arrested.

Coinciding with these events, which reportedly continued into the second week of August, were violent and fatal clashes between Iranian security forces and members of the Kurdistan Independent Life Party (PJAK) -- which is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) -- along Iran's border with Iraq and Turkey. PJAK personnel attacked a police station in the town of Marivan on 16 August, Fars News Agency reported. One policeman was killed and another wounded.

Also on 15 August, four Iranian police officers who were taken hostage by PJAK on 11 August were released, the Baztab website reported on 16 August. Major Shahnam Rezai, head of public affairs at West Azerbaijan police headquarters, said on 13 August that the four were captured while they were collecting water near Borj-i Sina in Urumiyeh, ILNA reported.

Deputy Governor-General Khorshidi confirmed on 8 August that four police officers were killed in clashes near Urumiyeh the previous day, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported.

In mid-June, security forces in Mahabad clashed with Kurds who were celebrating the election of Ma'sud Barzani as president of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, and early June celebrations of the selection of Patriotic Union of Kurdistan leader Jalal Talabani as Iraq's president led to clashes in which up to 15 police were injured.

Tehran has not been forthcoming on developments at the periphery that might shed an adverse light on its assertions of national unity. Nevertheless, the extent of the unrest and media inquiries has prompted officials to react.

Brigadier General Ismail Ahmadi-Moghaddam, chief of the national police force, dismissed the unrest during a trip to the northwest in the second week of August. He said locals were not involved in what he referred to as isolated incidents. The interference of outside elements, the police chief said, exacerbated the situation. As for Qaderi, Ahmadi-Moghaddam described him as a criminal rather than a political activist, according to Iranian media reports on 11 and 12 August.

Fars News Agency reported on 13 August that Iranian security forces recently arrested two individuals connected with Al-Qaeda -- reportedly Arabs from an unspecified country bordering Iraq -- who infiltrated Iran from an area in Iraq controlled by the United Kingdom. The two reportedly were present during the unrest in the Kurdistan and West Azerbaijan provinces.

Some Iranian sources blamed the United States for the clashes involving the PJAK. Parliamentarian Mahmud Nabirudaki said on 9 August that "one of the main reasons for the unrest" was a purported meeting between PJAK members and U.S. military personnel in Iraq's Salah Al-Din, IRNA reported. After this meeting, he continued, leaflets calling for shop closures and for protests against the killings of Kurds were distributed in Mahabad, Oshnavieh, and Sanandaj. Nabirudaki said the legislature's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee has asked the president to put the Kurdish issue on the agenda of the Supreme National Security Council.

The majority of the Iranian population of approximately 68 million is ethnically Persian, and about 89 percent of the population practices Shi'ite Islam. The constitution asserts that the state religion is Shi'ite Islam and the official language is Persian. Kurds comprise 7 percent of the total population, some 4.8 million people, and are mostly Sunni Muslims.

The constitution grants equal rights to all ethnic minorities and to practitioners of other schools of Islam. It says laws in parts of the country where these minorities predominate may reflect specific, non-Shi'ite schools of Islam. The constitution says minority languages may be used in the media and schools. Nevertheless, Kurds and other minorities frequently complain of inattention to their economic, social, and cultural needs, as well as of discrimination and inadequate representation in the government.

The legislature has been proactive on the Kurdish issue. Its National Security and Foreign Policy Committee met on 5 August with the governors-general and parliamentarians from the West Azerbaijan and Kurdistan provinces, as well as high-ranking representatives of the Interior Ministry, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and the police.

The committee's rapporteur, Kazem Jalali, told ISNA afterward that one of the factors contributing to the unrest is the comparatively high level of economic development in Kurdish areas of Iraq and Turkey. Jalali referred to poverty, unemployment, and smuggling. "Growing demands and sentiments and the comparison of social, ethnic, and religious status of the border area [with other regions] have prepared the ground for disunity and encouraged the residents to search for solutions outside [the country]," he said.

The extent of the unrest in the northwest was such that a government inquiry took place, but its findings were not made public. Mahabad's parliamentary representative, Jafar Ainparast, regretted this lack of openness and warned that such problems will occur again, "Siyasat-i Ruz" reported on 7 August. "How come the foreign media criticized this event fully and completely and we were not even able to give people the necessary information?" Ainparast asked.

The parliamentary representative of Saqqez and Baneh, Fakhredin Haidari, called on President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to look into the factors that contribute to unrest in the Kurdish areas, "Siyasat-i Ruz" reported on 7 August. He called for fair and speedy hearings for arrested individuals, sympathy for the families of the deceased, and the improvement of "security conditions in the Kurdish regions of Iran."

Sanandaj's Hushang Hamidi said on 9 August that government officials have been informed of the shortcomings in the Kurdish areas, ISNA reported. "We have no problem raising the issue, but, although our demands are legal, we have problems coming up with solutions and removing the shortcomings," he added. "We have civil demands. We want citizenship rights. We want welfare and the observation of legal rights and equality in various aspects including management and meritocracy in the Kurdish regions. These are the areas in which Article 48 of the constitution has not been observed." Hamidi went on to say that his request for a meeting with the president has gone unanswered, and he warned that a failure to address such issues could lead to further unrest.

"The real root and origin of these disturbances was the promises that the officials have given when they have come face to face with the demands of the Kurds but, up to now, these promises have remained unfulfilled," Sanandaj representative Amin Shabani said, according to "Mardom Salari" on 13 August. He said the superficial reason for the unrest was the distribution of doctored photographs of Qaderi's corpse, but he added that the police used excessive force. Shabani also criticized state radio and television for not providing accurate information and thereby contributing to the unrest.

Shabani added that young jobless people in the Kurdish provinces are angry, too. "Unemployment is, in fact, one of the factors which made it possible for certain elements to incite the young people of the province," he added. Another grievance, he said, is the absence of Sunni cabinet members.

Few Iranian minority group members advocate separatism, and they mostly endorse the country's territorial integrity. What they are calling for is greater attention to their economic needs and their political rights. Most of the country's officials, at least in their public comments, appear to recognize this, even if they are unwilling to act on it.

An extreme exception is Hojatoleslam Gholam Reza Hassani, the supreme leader's representative in West Azerbaijan. ILNA reported on 10 August that Hassani, known for his colorful turns of phrase, said: "I warn the relevant authorities to put the bandits in their place as soon as possible. They must put down the provocation of the counterrevolutionaries, for if they fail to do so, I shall wear my own death shroud to command the volunteering public in the war against bandits and counterrevolutionaries. I deem it necessary to pick up my weapon and tear open the chests of the counterrevolutionaries." (Bill Samii)

BLAMING BRITISH FOR ARAB UNREST HAS HISTORICAL ROOTS. Southwestern Iran -- home to many ethnic Arabs (3 percent of the total population of approximately 68 million) -- has witnessed violent unrest in recent months. Most of Iran's crude-oil reserves are located in giant onshore fields in this part of country, so the regime is particularly sensitive about developments there.

Tehran's reaction to the unrest has been to blame it on foreigners, particularly the British. Accusations of British interference in the southwestern part of the country have historical roots, but they might also be connected with Iranian hard-liners' isolationist tendencies. As a recent UN study notes, however, Tehran's policies contribute to the problems in the southwest.

British involvement in the southwest dates to early in the previous century. In 1901, Englishman William Knox D'Arcy obtained an agreement from the Iranian monarch, Muzaffar al-Din Shah Qajar, to explore for oil. D'Arcy made his first commercial discovery in Masjid-i Suleiman in 1909, and the next year the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) was created. APOC bought British Petroleum (BP) in 1917, and it merged with Shell in 1932. The company was renamed Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) in 1935, and Tehran nationalized its assets in Iran in 1951, triggering a major international crisis that resulted in the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq. The Iranian oil industry went back on stream in 1954, and in the same year AIOC was renamed The British Petroleum Company.

Royal Dutch/Shell was one of the original companies in the 1954 consortium, along with BP, Esso, Gulf, Mobil, Chevron, and Texaco from the United States and Compagnie Francaise des Petroles. Currently, Shell Oil is involved with several projects in Khuzestan Province.

Concern about British intentions arose shortly after the inauguration of the now hard-line parliament in 2004. Legislators connected with the Developers Coalition (Abadgaran) expressed concern over Shell's activities and threatened to interpellate the minister of Islamic culture and guidance, "Mardom Salari" reported on 12 June. Among Shell's objectionable activities, the newspaper reported, were its sponsorship of teams of deaf athletes, sponsoring the international travel of top students for academic Olympiads, sending the Iranian philharmonic orchestra to Abu Dhabi, and building schools in the less developed areas of south Tehran and Zahedan.

Large-scale riots in Ahvaz in mid-April followed rumors of a government plan to forcibly replace local Arabs with Persians from other parts of the country. The government acknowledged making numerous arrests, and dissident websites alleged that there was wide-scale bloodshed.

At that early stage there were allegations of involvement by Shell and other foreign agencies. Abadeh representative Mahmud Mohammadi said the legislature's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee would look into Shell's possible role in the unrest, "Siyasat-i Ruz" reported on 19 April. Another legislator, Tehran's Mehdi Kuchakzadeh, warned that some European countries have a policy of stirring up ethnic unrest in resource-rich provinces. "Siyasat-i Ruz" went on to report that the World Bank has allocated $150 million for development projects in areas that include Khuzestan Province. "The policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund created commotion and crises in different countries, especially Argentina," the newspaper warned.

Shahrud representative Kazem Jalali, rapporteur of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, decried British involvement in the Khuzestan unrest, "Kayhan" reported on 25 April. He called on the Foreign Ministry to stop British interference.

Ahvaz prosecutor Iraj Amirkhani announced on 24 April that the five people mainly responsible for the 15-18 April unrest in that city had been arrested. The authorities also arrested Iranian-Arab activist and journalist Yusef Azizi Bani-Taraf at his home in Tehran on 25 April.

"Kayhan" newspaper -- whose reports frequently precede related government crackdowns -- announced on 26 April that another detained Arab activist, Ibrahim Ameri, was a negotiator for Shell. Ameri, the hard-line daily reported, worked for the Ahvaz mayor's cultural-affairs office.

Unrest in Khuzestan continued despite the government crackdown. Arab irredentists took credit for June bombings in Ahvaz that targeted government facilities or officials.

Akbar al-Sadat, the head of the Khuzestan Province Justice Department, said on 22 July that the Ministry of Intelligence and Security was investigating the June bombings due to the possible involvement of foreigners, ILNA reported. "Obviously, in such incidents some domestic agents are manipulated by foreign agents," al-Sadat added. Turning to the arrests that followed the events in April, al-Sadat said all but one of those arrested had been freed. Indeed, Bani-Taraf was freed in late June.

Yet more riots took place in Ahvaz in late July. A local official, Said Saadi, said the riot was the angry reaction of people who paid for goods but failed to receive them, and he added that a local bank was set on fire and 30 arrests were made. Arab separatists cited by the Reuters news agency, however, said the riots mark the 100 days since April protests in Khuzestan.

The April allegations of foreign involvement in the southwestern unrest came to fruition in mid-August. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on 14 August that the people responsible for the unrest trained at British bases in southeastern Iraq, IRNA reported. The Ministry of Intelligence and Security announced on 15 August that the leaders of the Khuzestan unrest were on foreign intelligence services' payrolls, "especially Britain," according to state television. An anonymous source on Iran's Arabic language Al-Alam television said on 17 August that Tehran has complained to the British Embassy.

It is not out of the question that some Iranian-Arab irredentists are operating from Iraq. A number of Arabs who left Iran in 1979 describe fleeing forcible relocations and express regret about an inability to return, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on 10 July. Such individuals refer to "Arabistan," and some of them advocate violence and separatism.

However, the Iranian government arguably is not helping the situation by blaming foreigners. Government policies only add to the trouble. A preliminary United Nations report by special rapporteur Miloon Kothari notes discrimination all along the Western border regions, Reuters reported on 30 July. Kothari said Arabs in oil-rich Khuzestan live in squalor, and he said land confiscation by the state appears to have a disproportionate impact on ethnic and religious minorities.

Tehran, therefore, is the party most responsible for the problems in Khuzestan. Greater attention to local demands for economic development and political representation will be more effective than blaming foreigners. (Bill Samii)

NEW NORWEGIAN INVESTIGATION INTO IRANIAN CORRUPTION. SINTEF Petroleumforskning is being investigated by the Norwegian National Authority for Investigation and Prosecution of Economic and Environmental Crime (OKOKRIM) for corrupt practices involving a contract with Iran, NRK and AP reported on 12 August. The trade union Nopef raised the corruption complaint on 24 June.

SINTEF paid approximately $101,000 to a company in the Virgin Islands, Hinson Engineering, Ltd., and another $12,000 to the Iranian company Behinenh Part Pouya to help it win contracts in Iran. The contracts would have been with the government-owned Research Institute of Petroleum Industry.

SINTEF says it canceled the deals in 2003 after investigating their propriety, adding that the decision was based on a corruption case involving STATOIL and a London-based consulting company called Horton Investments (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 22 and 29 September 2003, and 5 July 2004). Horton Investments was associated with Mehdi Hashemi, the managing director of the Organization for Optimization of Energy Consumption, which is a subsidiary of the National Iranian Oil Company. Hashemi is the son of former Iranian President Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. (Bill Samii)

OIL MINISTRY IS FOCUS OF ANTICORRUPTION BID. Iranian conservatives often denounce corruption and cronyism in the state, and newly inaugurated President Ahmadinejad believes he won many votes in June because of his pledge to fight corruption. But this vice is difficult to pinpoint in Iran's extensive and secretive governing system, and corruption allegations are often vague. The oil sector, which handles the bulk of Iran's revenues, has faced its share of corruption charges, notably those made by Guardian Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, who threatened in 2001 to reveal the alleged beneficiaries of suspect fortunes.

Recently, a conservative-dominated parliament has said it will investigate the affairs of the Oil Ministry, which is run by Oil Minister Bijan Namdar-Zanganeh, although already there is talk that such investigations are motivated by politics.

In February 2005, parliament approved a motion to conduct an inquiry into the ministry and its business, and on 20 June Mohammad Said Ansari, the chairman of the parliamentary committee investigating the Oil Ministry affairs, invited individuals and bodies to submit relevant information, including complaints, to the committee. Parliamentary Energy Committee Chairman Kamal Daneshyar said on 16 July that a legislative committee was preparing a report on breaches of "technical principles" in deals signed by the ministry, "Kayhan" reported on 17 July. The present stage of investigations is not clear: "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 24 July that this parliament had yet to read out in the chamber a single completed report of any of its planned inquiries into various government agencies.

The issue, say proponents of scrutiny, is the lack of transparency in business involving billions of dollars of oil revenues. A Finance Ministry report cited by the daily "Siyasat-i Ruz" on 28 June estimates that oil companies manage some $54 billion of public money. The daily was presumably referring to the four main, ministry-affiliated companies: the National Iranian Oil Company, the National Iranian Gas Company, the National Petrochemical Company, and the National Iranian Oil Refining and Distribution Company. In addition, there are a number of smaller companies affiliated with these four majors, and all of their assets and revenues are considered publicly owned.

These companies are supposed to deposit their profits into the treasury but, the daily added, "they have a free hand" and it is not clear -- at least to parliament -- how they actually dispose of their revenues and profits. Another problem, it added, is that parliament has not seen their articles of association to determine if their activities match their legal purpose.

Parliament wants to know, among other issues, how oil contracts are given out, and what monies oil companies spend and earn. How are equivalent rates set in oil-swap deals? What obligations do these companies, and effectively the state, face pursuant to their contracts?

More specifically, parliamentarians claim certain recent contracts have broken Iranian laws. The head of the parliamentary research center, legislator Ahmad Tavakoli, said it had observed legal violations in the tender process for the development of two petrochemical plants, "Kayhan" reported on 17 July. He has asked the state inspectorate and auditing body to check the contracts for violations of two laws, respectively, on regulating tenders and on the efficient use of domestic technical and engineering capabilities. One contract, the parliamentary research center found, was taken from an Iranian consortium and given to a foreign contractor, although it is not clear why. The other had its terms changed, but not all companies were invited to bid for what was effectively a new contract, "Kayhan" reported.

Oil Minister Namdar-Zanganeh said in Tehran on 16 July that the center was not legally competent to declare those tenders illegal, ISNA reported. Legislator Mohammad Said Ansari said on 17 July that this disagreement was clearly "political," since the law gives parliament the right to supervise all public affairs, Mehr reported that day. Mohsen Yahyavi, a member of the parliamentary Energy Committee, said on 19 July that the research center's public criticisms were "inciting opinion," and the National Petrochemical Industries Company, which handled the tenders, could take legal action, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 20 July.

Parliamentarian Hassan Moradi said on 29 July that unspecified oil contracts were against "national interests" and the Oil Ministry and affiliated companies were signing them without "expert" advice, Fars reported the same day. He suggested "teams of experts" examine all aspects of contracts, and the government tighten rules to prevent influence peddling by interested parties in the tenders and bidding processes.

In addition to the legal issues, the concern shown by conservative parliamentarians could be motivated by economic or even nationalist concerns. Energy Committee Chairman Daneshyar said on 4 July that the oil sector should be downsized and made more profitable, and "parallel systems" merged to "reduce costs." Tavakoli told ISNA on 17 July that he hoped the new government will prioritize working with Iranians: this is an echo of parliament's concerns with two earlier transport and communications contracts with Turkish firms, which showed the non-free market and protectionist tendencies of some conservatives.

Or it may be politically motivated, as echoed by a 9 July editorial in "Kayhan," which denounces a "triangle" of diplomats and oil and banking officials who allegedly wield excessive influence over state policies to the detriment of national interests. The article urges the new government to tackle this "monster." Its aggrieved tone suggests that, contrary to the impression of many in Iran and outside, it is not the conservatives who wield power, but a discrete class of "affairistes" -- people with a finger in every pie -- who pocket millions, though the paper makes no specific allegations against the "famous and infamous" people it cites.

Some in Iran might identify them as centrist forces and business-oriented pragmatists associated with former President Hashemi-Rafsanjani. He has not been named in recent disputes, but he complained he was the target of a systematic campaign of calumny in the June presidential elections. He may perhaps be an indirect target in the reported arrest of senior executives of Oriental Oil of Kish for alleged financial malfeasance, as reported by Fars on 27 July. The company is reportedly closely linked to or owned by Rafsanjani family members. In Tehran on 10 August, state corruption investigator Hamid Reza Movahed said four people from Oriental Oil have been charged with taking bribes in the course of their business with an unspecified oil company, "Etemad" reported the next day. The suspects, Movahed said, include company directors and shareholders, though he did not name them. "Etemad" reported that the alleged bribes amounted to $700,000-$750,000.

A 20 July editorial in "Jomhuri-yi Islami," another right-wing paper, denounces the "smear campaign" against government bodies, including the Oil Ministry, and suspects the "true aims" of the publicized anticorruption drive of "one faction." This faction might be the radical conservatives associated with the Developers (Abadgaran) grouping in parliament, who have echoed the new president's pledge to stamp out corruption. It urges caution and strict legality on the new government in its stated desire to fight a "power mafia" in the ministry. The impression of political motivations may be boosted by the absence of such initiatives against other vast but opaque money-making bodies like the Foundation for the Oppressed, an ostensible charity associated with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Namdar-Zanganeh defended his ministry's record on 1 August, but admitted that "in a place where $300 billion are handled, the devil will also be present to confuse people," "Etemad" reported the next day. He said nobody in the ministry had pocketed "a single dollar" of the $190 billion the ministry had earned in eight years from the sale of oil and oil products, and the money "has been entirely returned to the country." He said he issued a directive three years ago to make the tender process "very clear," without giving details. The state auditing body, he said, "oversees our small and large contracts in an orderly and continuous way," he said, and oil industry activities "are relatively clean."

But Namdar-Zanganeh accused an unspecified "set of dealers," who "seem respectable but are not honest," saying they have come to him in the past asking for concessions or permits. When he refused, he said, "they went the next day and said swap deals were very confused and ambiguous," the daily reported.

Asked to name violators, Namdar-Zanganeh said: "If I name a person or body...I stand accused, because I do not have an information system to find out who is a suspect." Many of those who denounce thievery in the ministry, he said, "are themselves thieves."

Former President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami said in Tehran on 20 July that the "regulatory problems and practices" that allow corruption must be tackled before individuals are accused and reputations ruined, according to "Aftab-i Yazd" the next day. Zanganeh deplored on 1 August that calumny is "not considered an offence" in Iran. Of course, one powerful antidote to calumny and corruption is open and accountable government. But the government and parliament that have vowed to fight corruption have shown little inclination for openness or accountability to civil and public institutions such as the media. (Vahid Sepehri)

CHOLERA CASES IN IRAN ON THE RISE. The Iranian Health Ministry's Dr. Mahmud Sorush announced on 18 August that there are now 626 cholera cases in Iran, ISNA reported, and eight people have died from the disease.

Sorush gave a breakdown of the disease's spread: one case in Babol, one in Bushehr, four in Gilan, 85 in Gulistan, 94 in Hamedan, three in Isfahan, 33 in Kashan, eight in Kermanshah, one in Kurdistan, two in Luristan, 72 in Qazvin, 142 in Qom, five in Sari, three in Semnan, three in Shahrud, two in Sistan va Baluchistan, two in Zabol, and 17 in Zanjan. Sorush went to say there are three reported cases in Central or Markazi Province. In the Tehran megalopolis, he described 24 cases in the city's eastern districts, 116 cases in Karaj, Savojbolagh, Robat-i Karim, Shahriar, and the city's western districts, and 24 cases in the city's southern districts.

It is believed that the consumption of unwashed vegetables is contributing to the outbreak. The Health Ministry has banned the sale of green vegetables for two months, according to AFP on 18 August, and this has cost farmers a minimum of $55.5 million.

Sorush announced on 17 August that the number of cholera cases in Iran has risen to 560, state television reported. He said the disease is most commonly transmitted through the consumption of contaminated water and vegetables. (Bill Samii)

RUSSIA OFFERS ANTI-SHIP MISSILES TO IRAN. Russia is offering Iran the Novator 3M54 Club-S (SS-N-27 "Sizzler") multirole anti-ship missile system, according to the September issue of "Jane's Missiles and Rockets." The system is for use on the Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines Iran purchased from Russia in the late 1990s. The deal is worth an estimated $80-90 million per submarine. Directors of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency have warned in congressional testimony in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2005 that Iran has the most capable regional navy and could disrupt maritime traffic through the Strait of Hormuz using mines, its submarines, and ship- and shore-based anti-ship cruise missiles. (Bill Samii)

ISRAEL RENEWS WARNINGS OF IRANIAN NUCLEAR PROGRESS. Israeli Defense Forces intelligence chief Major General Aharon Farkash-Ze'evi told the Knesset on 16 August that he believes Iran will be able to make a nuclear warhead within three years, "Hatzofe" reported on 18 August. "The Iranians may reach the point of no return of nuclear fission as early as the end of 2005 or the beginning of 2006. From there, it is a very short step to producing nuclear weapons," he said. A little less than one year ago, Ze'evi said that at the current rate Iran will be able to independently achieve nuclear-weapons capability by the spring of 2005, "Ha'aretz" reported on 13 September 2004. "This does not mean that it will have a bomb in 2005. It means that it will have all the means at its disposal to build a bomb," he added. (Bill Samii)

IRAN ANNOUNCES PLAN TO LAUNCH MICROSATELLITE. The deputy director of the Iranian aerospace association, Mehran Mirshams, announced on 15 August that "Iranian specialists are building a missile that is capable of carrying lightweight objects," ISNA reported. "In the not-too-distant future, we will see the first Iranian missile that is capable of carrying such objects." Mirshams explained that microsatellites weigh less than 100 kilograms and are placed at an altitude of 900 to 1,000 kilometers. Such satellites are for telecommunications and research, and he predicted that the launch will take place in September. (Bill Samii)

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