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Iran Report: January 12, 2004

12 January 2004, Volume 7, Number 2

GUARDIANS COUNCIL VETTING SETS OFF STORM OF PROTEST. Although the official list of candidates for the 20 February parliamentary election has not been posted yet, the Guardians Council has disqualified about 25 percent of the applicants. Mohammad Jahromi, who is in charge of election affairs at the Guardians Council, said that 2,033 out of 8,145 candidates were disqualified. He told the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) on 11 January that the rejections were made on the basis of "data collected from reliable sources and the investigations conducted in [applicants'] neighborhoods."

More than 50 percent of the applicants in Tehran (877 out of 1,700, according to the Iranian Students News Agency [ISNA]), 36 percent in Qom (48 out of 134, according to the Iranian Labor News Agency [ILNA]), and 42 percent in Mashhad (148 out of 351, according to ILNA) were rejected.

Most of the rejected individuals are connected with the reformist 2nd of Khordad coalition, which is named after the date of President Khatami's election on 23 May 1997, although that is not the stated reason for disqualifying them. The Guardians Council's reasons for the rejections include applicants' alleged drug abuse, links with banned groups, or lack of Iranian nationality.

A rejected candidate from Mashhad, Mohammad Sadeq Javadi-Hesar, told Radio Farda on 11 January that he was rejected on the grounds that he does not believe in the country's theocratic system (Rule of the Supreme Jurisprudent, Vilayat-i Faqih) and because of support for an illegal group. He told Radio Farda that he never has been a member of a group that was declared illegal by a court, and the only groups he has been a member of are the Islamic Iran Participation Party, the Islamic Iran Teachers Society, and the Council of University Graduates of Khorasan. Javadi-Hesar said that he is falsely accused of supporting the Freedom Movement (Nehzat-i Azadi).

Shiraz representative Jalil Sazgarnezhad said that 80 members of the legislature had their candidacy rejected, ISNA reported. Among the rejected incumbents are Mohammad Reza Khatami and Behzad Nabavi, deputy speakers of parliament, as well as Qom's Mohammad Reza Ismaili-Moqaddam, Mashhad's Ali Tajernia, Shiraz's Reza Yusefian, and from Tehran -- Mohsen Mirdamadi, Mohsen Armin, Ali Akbar Musavi-Khoeni, Elias Hazrati, and Elahe Kulyai.

Mirdamadi said members of parliament would begin resigning if the situation is not resolved, ILNA reported, and he described the disqualifications as a "non-military coup d'etat to change the structure of the system." Mirdamadi complained that individuals are making decisions behind closed doors about the next parliament.

The majority of parliamentarians walked out of the legislative session on 11 January to protest the disqualifications and then held a sit-in.

President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami said that he disagreed with the disqualifications and, "I will use legal channels to deal with this issue, which I hope will bear fruit," IRNA reported. Khatami called on the legislators to stay calm. He expressed the belief that the extent of disqualifications goes against what Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wants. Speaker of Parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi voiced similar unhappiness with the rejections, IRNA reported. Karrubi said that he and the president would consult with the supreme leader, Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, and other officials over the affair. (Bill Samii)

VETTING BODIES AT ODDS. The disqualification of a quarter of the applicants for the parliamentary race is a reversal of earlier vetting developments. Executive Boards, the local bodies charged with vetting candidates, approved the candidacies of nearly 93 percent of the applicants, IRNA reported on 3 January. The Executive Boards rejected 5.4 percent of the applicants, and 1.77 percent of the applicants withdrew voluntarily.

The Central Supervisory Board, which is affiliated with the Guardians Council, announced on 10 January that some of the Executive Boards had ignored documentation and/or the authorities' opinions, state television reported. "The result of this has been that some people have been declared qualified, although the legal authorities have said that they are guilty of financial corruption, being of ill repute, having a record of burglary, having judicial convictions, having supported illegal grouplets, or being addicts."

Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari complained on 4 January that the information provided by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the police, the Justice Ministry, and the Department of Personal Records about potential parliamentary candidates was not always factually based, state radio reported.

The previous day, President Khatami sent a letter to the Constitutional Supervisory Board in which he noted that "some institutions have gone beyond the purview of their prerogatives" when describing potential applicants, state television reported. Khatami wrote that electing and getting elected are rights, and that "such principles cannot be interpreted on the basis of guesswork or one's own biased interpretations.... Such rights can only be denied to an individual on the basis of strong documentary and legal evidence." (Bill Samii)

REFORMIST PARTIES RESUME THREAT OF ELECTION BOYCOTT. Hojatoleslam Rasul Montajabnia is a member of the central council of the reformist Militant Clerics Association (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mubarez), and according to ISNA on 11 January, Montajabnia's candidacy was disallowed.

Montajabnia referred to the Guardians Council's rejection of such a large number of potential candidates as a "tragedy" that has no legal or religious standing, ILNA reported. Montajabnia called on Supreme Leader Khamenei to take action by punishing the individuals who have "questioned the honor of these respected individuals." He went on to say that the reformist political groups will meet to determine a course of action -- "This is not something that can be left quiet. We shall show an appropriate action to this great tragedy."

A possible course of action is an election boycott, which is what the reformists had threatened to do in case of massive disqualifications.

Deputy Speaker of Parliament Mohammad Reza Khatami, who is the secretary-general of the Islamic Iran Participation Party (IIPP), warned on 7 January that the IIPP might boycott the election if too many candidates are disqualified, IRNA reported. "If rejection of eligibility of the candidates gets an extent to which we could not defend legitimacy of the election, we will not give a list for candidates," he said.

Khatami, who has been talking about a possible boycott for almost a year, added that the IIPP would do such a thing with the greatest reluctance. "The more candidates are disqualified, the less legitimate the election will be and certainly public participation will drop and the political parties will lose their motives, which will ultimately damage the government's legitimacy," Khatami explained. The 12-man Guardians Council is the ultimate arbiter of candidate eligibility, and Khatami observed, "The idea that several dignitaries come together and decide what attitudes should be confirmed and what should not will damage the status of the constitutional body rather than the dignitaries themselves and will damage the legitimacy of the system as well," IRNA reported.

Behzad Nabavi of the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization (MIRO) voiced a similar threat on 7 January. Nabavi told a news conference that reformist parties might boycott the February poll if hard-liners create unfair voting conditions by disqualifying too many candidates, RFE/RL reported.

Montajabnia, meanwhile, had previously seemed optimistic about the outcome of the election. He predicted in the 5 January "Nasim-i Saba" that the composition of the legislature would not change in the upcoming election if the reformists stick together. If the 2nd of Khordad coalition stays united, he said, the reformists would continue to be the legislature's majority. There could be some changes in the individuals, but their affiliations would stay the same. "If all candidates do not become united and if there is a split among the groups," Montajabnia warned, "then the opposing faction would be able to win the majority with the minimum of votes." (Bill Samii)

GUARDIANS COUNCIL OFFERS 'RELIABLE' VOTE-COUNTING SOFTWARE. A recent letter from the Guardians Council, which is tasked with supervising elections, to the Interior Ministry stated that the latter organization has yet to present it with acceptable vote-counting software for use in the February parliamentary election, "Iran" reported on 5 January. The letter went on to say the deadline for this has been extended three times. It concluded by noting that the Central Supervisory Board has developed "reliable software" that the Guardians Council is prepared to let the Interior Ministry use. (Bill Samii)

KHOMEINI'S GRANDSON RETURNS TO IRAN. Hojatoleslam Seyyed Hussein Khomeini, the 46-year-old grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of Iran's Islamic Revolution, has returned to Iran, Al-Jazeera satellite television reported on 2 January. In late July and early August 2003, Khomeini gave several interviews from Iraq in which he criticized the Iranian regime, prompting allegations that assassins from the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps were after him (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 11 August 2003). In late September, Khomeini reiterated his comments at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, D.C. However, according to the Al-Jazeera report, Khomeini "crossed the border without any problems and has not been exposed to any interrogation or harassment by the Iranian authorities."

Writing in "The New York Sun" on 6 January, however, AEI's Michael Ledeen writes, "sources close to the Khomeini family suggest that he was lured back by a combination of threats and promises." Security agents reportedly threatened Khomeini's wife and children, who had not been allowed to leave Iran. Khomeini's wife was told, "if your children suddenly die in the streets, you must know that it was not our doing." Moreover, Khomeini reportedly received a message from his grandmother "a few days ago" containing a promise that the regime would not harm him. "Thus, according to the family sources, Mr. Khomeini was blackmailed into returning," Ledeen writes. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN FORGOES AN OPPORTUNITY... Most Iranian officials have spoken dismissively of the White House's recent gestures of goodwill toward their country. This might be expected as a face-saving device or as a bargaining gambit, or it could just as easily be attributed to their intense dislike of the United States and everything it stands for. Yet some reformist politicians have suggested that now is the time to begin bilateral dialogue with Washington, while they concede that the restoration of relations will take some time.

Supreme Leader Khamenei in an 8 January speech in Qom dismissed American aid to victims of the Bam earthquake, saying it was a "small amount" and politically motivated. Khamenei said the aid is not connected with "America's continuous, permanent, deep, fundamental, and never-ending animosity towards Iran."

After that opening, Khamenei went on to accuse the United States of tyrannizing Iran "for many years" and of plotting against the Islamic system. He continued, "They have continuously defended the usurper and occupying Zionist regime...carried out oppressive measures in Iraq and Afghanistan, [and] have ominous intentions towards the Islamic system, the people's beliefs and our interests." "Its intention is to have a powerful presence in Iran and to devour Iran's vital and financial resources," he added. For good measure, Khatami threw in a warning about "phony posturing" and "a phony smile."

President Khatami said during a 6 January meeting with visiting Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi that Iranian mistrust of the United States would decrease only if the U.S. makes more concessions, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. He was referring to the White House's instruction to the Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control temporarily to allow U.S. individuals and NGOs to transfer funds to organizations involved with humanitarian activities connected with the Bam earthquake (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 5 January 2004).

Khatami went on to dismiss U.S. concerns about Tehran's interference in the internal affairs of neighboring states and about Tehran's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. "How can we trust the U.S. while our responsible measures and policy of detente towards Afghanistan [are] met with baseless allegations," he asked, adding that "in response to our logical position toward Iraq, the U.S. showed its animosity toward the Islamic Republic by raising false charges that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons programs." Khatami advised, "The U.S. should rather approve Iran's proper behavior, and recognize Iran's right to possess peaceful nuclear technology under the supervision of the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency]."

Khatami responded on 30 December 2003 to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's statement in "The Washington Post" that same day about "encouraging" moves by Tehran and the possibility of dialogue with Iran. Powell is quoted by the newspaper as saying, "There are things happening, and therefore we should keep open the possibility of dialogue at an appropriate point in the future." Powell referred to "a new attitude in Iran."

Khatami reacted by saying he did not know how to interpret Powell's comments -- "I do not know whether this is praise or censure" -- state television reported. Khatami went on: "America must fundamentally change its words and deeds towards Iran. America has behaved with animosity towards us. It has always harassed us." Khatami also said that talks between two sides are meaningless if one side speaks from a position of strength. "We have seen little goodwill from the Americans," he said.

Minister of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Ali Shamkhani was even more underwhelmed by the U.S. measures to assist Iran after the Bam earthquake, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported on 6 January. He told reporters that day that the suspension of sanctions will have "a limited impact" and is insufficient.

Shamkhani also took exception to U.S. President George W. Bush's comments about the provision of aid to Iran. Bush said on 1 January that restrictions were eased to facilitate the provision of humanitarian aid, but that "the Iranian government must listen to the voices of those who long for freedom, must turn over Al-Qaeda that are in their custody, and must abandon their nuclear-weapons program," according to "The Washington Post" on 2 January. Shamkhani said, "When someone gives a flower as a gift to a garden, he should not add thorns to it." Shamkhani went on to accuse the United States of fomenting unrest in Iran on 9 July 1999 and in May-June 2003. Shamkhani said the U.S. actions are connected with its 2004 elections, but Iran is too strong and stable to succumb to them.

Minister of Economic Affairs and Finance Tahmasb Mazaheri said on 7 January that there would be no trade deals with the U.S. "until Washington changes behavior towards Iran," IRNA reported. Mazaheri said that the resumption of economic ties depends on the resumption of diplomatic ties.

Islamic Revolution Guards Corps spokesman Masud Jazayeri said on 5 January that accepting aid from every country is unacceptable, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported, and in the American case, the aid is "politically motivated." Jazayeri added, "The individuals who have become excited by America's meager and hypocritical aid are nothing but political dwarves."

Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati in his 2 January Friday Prayers sermon thanked those who provided aid to the earthquake victims, but he complained that the U.S. "tried to take advantage of the situation by trying to discuss relations," state radio reported. The United States should "help those whose homes [it has] destroyed in Palestine" and "help those whom [it has] hurt in Iraq." "Death to America," the congregation chanted in response. (Bill Samii)

...TO REFORMISTS' REGRET. Negative comments such as the ones above will not sit well with some Iranian parliamentarians. These legislators had bemoaned Tehran's refusal to permit a U.S. delegation to visit Iran that would have included North Carolina Republican Senator Elizabeth Dole.

Deputy Speaker of Parliament Mohammad Reza Khatami said on 1 January that the legislature is evaluating the U.S. government's "positive behavior" and that "goodwill will be answered with goodwill," "The Daily Times" from Pakistan reported.

"The Americans have taken a small but positive step towards eradicating the tension and enmity which exists between the two sides," Tehran representative Mohsen Mirdamadi said on 3 January according to ILNA. Mirdamadi acknowledged that the depth of Iran-U.S. enmity is such that it will take quite a while to overcome. Nevertheless, he said, "a positive response has to be given to the positive steps taken by White House leaders. We mustn't lose this opportunity by giving repetitive and routine responses. On the contrary, we have to do our utmost to use the prevailing atmosphere to build trust and eradicate tension."

"Opportunities should not be lost any further than has been already," Elahe Kulyai of Tehran said according to the 3 January "Mardom Salari." "The Iranian nation's interests take precedence over anything else." The current situation is harmful to Iran and to the U.S., she said, and it has provided other countries with opportunities."

Tehran parliamentary representative Mohsen Armin said on 4 January that Tehran's failure to respond positively to recent U.S. actions could be attributed to competition between Iran's conservatives and reformists, ILNA reported. Armin said the White House's lifting of "economic sanctions against Iran must be interpreted as a positive move." Armin acknowledged that there are many factors hindering the resumption of relations but said this is a positive first step. Armin said President Khatami started off well in the foreign affairs arena but was inconsistent and his efforts faltered. "The same power centers, which do not have any responsibilities, did not want Mr. Khatami to get the credit for foreign policy successes, particularly the issue of the improvement of relations between Iran and America," Armin said.

Two reformist political parties also advocated taking advantage of this opportunity to engage the United States. The Islamic Iran Participation Party (IIPP) urged the government to "use this a means to destroy the wall of mistrust that exists with certain nations, including the United States of America," ILNA reported on 4 January. The IIPP said this would "take the initiative away from the war-mongering faction in America."

"The United States took the initial but extremely important step towards an effective detente policy," according to a 7 January statement from the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization (MIRO) that was faxed to IRNA. The MIRO statement went on to say the recent developments could serve as the grounds for Tehran and Washington to solve their problems. (Bill Samii)

RAFSANJANI SEES WHICH WAY THE WIND BLOWS. "I am not sure but there are signals to that effect," Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani answered to a question about recent signals on the resumption of Iran U.S. ties, IRNA reported on 1 January. Yet two days earlier he was heaping scorn on the United States, saying, "the fact that America has been caught up in quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan [is one of the] rewards which Almighty God had promised our nation," state television reported.

Rafsanjani's 9 January Tehran Friday Prayers sermon was as critical of the U.S. as were the statements of other Iranian officials. He said President George W. Bush's stated concerns about Iran are based on his fear of "Zionists and Israeli lobbyists," state television reported. "We have always maintained that America -- before and after the revolution -- has been unfair to us.... It has acted against Muslims in Palestine, Lebanon, and other places in the world." Rafsanjani said these are the issues that must be discussed, and if American wants to have a dialogue it should not repeat the "same unfounded allegations." (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN DENIES HOSTING AL-QAEDA LEADERSHIP. Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi denied on 3 January that Al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri is in Iran, state television reported. "Al-Qaeda knows Iran is no safe place to take shelter in," he said. Two days earlier, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi denied that an aide to al-Zawahiri had been arrested, according to state radio.

"Al-Sharq al-Awsat," an Arabic-language daily based in London, had reported on 29 December 2003 that according to fundamentalists in the British capital, Al-Qaeda special action committee head Ahmad Hassan Abu-al-Khair had been detained in Iran. Abu-al-Khair (a.k.a. Muhammad Rajab Abd-al-Rahman) was tried in absentia in Egypt in 1999; his name was on a list of 107 Islamists who had been in Albania. Mamdu Ismail, an attorney for the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, told "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that the U.S. sees Abu-al-Khair as a high-value target because of his long-time relationship with Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and various "Arab Afghans."

Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) spokesman Masud Jazayeri denied in the daily newspaper "Resalat" on 1 January that Osama bin Laden is in Iran and the IRGC is facilitating his movements. Jazayeri described a report to that effect as a fabrication intended to sully Iran's international reputation. Jazayeri was responding to a 26 December 2003 report in the "Financial Times" that an unidentified person with links to the IRGC and the MOIS said he saw bin Laden and al-Zawahiri at an IRGC guesthouse west of Tehran on 23 October 2003. (Bill Samii)

RENAMING OF STREET PAVES WAY FOR NORMAL TEHRAN-CAIRO RELATIONS. Vice-President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Abtahi said on 6 January that only a few protocol and administrative matters are delaying the resumption of full diplomatic relations between Cairo and Tehran, Al-Jazeera satellite television reported. Ties between Tehran and Cairo have been strained since 1979, when Egypt provided Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi with refuge. The naming of a Tehran street after Khalid Eslamboli, the man who assassinated Egypt's President Anwar Sadat in 1981, and Iranian hostility to Egypt's participation in the Camp David Accords only worsened the situation.

Abtahi claimed the next day, according to ISNA, that the relationship between the two countries was severed due to the Palestine issue, and "In these circumstances, the establishment of ties with Egypt will be a big help to the establishment of good relations with the Palestinian nation." Abtahi added, "When the two big countries of Iran and Egypt cooperate, they can solve the problems of the world of Islam much better and support Palestine better."

The Tehran City Council decided on 6 January, in response to a written request the previous day from Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi, to change the name of Khalid Eslamboli Street to Intifada Street, IRNA reported. Assefi attended the council meeting and said afterward, "The changing of the street name has taken place on the basis of the new atmosphere created between Iran and Egypt," IRNA reported.

As for the Camp David Accords, Assefi told the council on 6 January, Egypt believes they are a "thing of the past," ISNA reported.

Tehran and Cairo have had contacts for many years and have maintained diplomatic relations at the charge d'affaires level. Normalization appeared on the horizon when President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami and President Hosni Mubarak met in Geneva in early December on the sidelines of the World Electronic Media Forum (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 15 December 2003). A remaining point of contention is the status of Egyptian Al-Qaeda members whom Tehran allegedly has detained. (Bill Samii)

U.K. REPRESENTATIVE TO IRAQ VISITS TEHRAN. Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the U.K. special representative to Iraq, met in Tehran on 5 January with Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi and officials from the Ministry of Intelligence and Security and the Ministry of Petroleum, IRNA and other news agencies reported. Greenstock reportedly stressed London's interest in continuing its dialogue with Tehran and said Iran plays a decisive regional role. The two sides discussed the reconstruction of Iraq, the pilgrimage trade, border issues, and Iraqi politics. Greenstock reportedly said that Tehran does not want to recreate an identical Islamic republic in Iraq, and opinion polls in Iraq show only about 15 percent of Iraqis want a religious government. (Bill Samii)

MOVING OR REBUILDING -- TEHRAN'S FUTURE IS SHAKY. The late December 6.8 magnitude earthquake in Bam, which killed more than 30,000 people, has revived the idea of moving the Iranian capital of Tehran -- home to some 12 million people. Moreover, the fact that only a handful of people died when an earthquake of similar magnitude to the one in Bam hit California four days earlier has led to questions about the disparity in fatalities.

Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani said on 4 January that the SNSC concluded at its last meeting that a plan to change the location of the capital because Tehran lies on a seismic fault merits consideration, state television reported. Rohani said the last time the SNSC proposed moving the capital -- discussions in 1989 were prompted by Tehran's heavy pollution, overcrowding, and risk of earthquakes -- other state institutions refused to cooperate. "Therefore, the plan was left in abeyance," he said. Rohani said the SNSC will debate emergency measures and other long-term plans at its 9 January meeting, and its study of those long-term plans will be completed by 20 March.

Iran is among the most earthquake-prone countries in the world, and experts say it's only a matter of time until a major tremor strikes Tehran.

Manuel Berberian is a senior seismologist who published the first complete study on the seismology of Tehran some 20 years ago. He says the likelihood of a major earthquake hitting Tehran is great. "[My colleagues and I] have clearly mentioned there [in the report] that the city, as well as the [city of] Rey to the south, has been devastated by several earthquakes, and the city itself is located by the North Tehran Fault, which is to the north, and several faults to the south, as well as numerous faults crisscrossing the city. So we know the hazard of the city, but we cannot predict the time of the earthquake."

Tehran experienced its last major earthquake in 1830, when an estimated 45,000 people were killed. Experts say the fault lines around Tehran have been slipping and gathering energy ever since. The International Seismographic Research Center of Iran's Ministry of Science puts the probability of an earthquake above 7 degrees on the Richter scale hitting Tehran in the next 10 years currently at around 65 percent.

Tehran University geophysics professor Bahram Akasheh agrees that the probability of a strong earthquake hitting Tehran in the near future is high. "Based on the earthquakes that have occurred in the region of greater Tehran, and also based on historical earthquakes we've had in this region, I have estimated that the possibility of an earthquake measuring more than 6 on the Richter scale occurring now in Tehran is about 90 percent, and the possibility of an earthquake measuring more than 7 is about 60 percent. But these are mathematical estimates, and the complications of geology and seismology do not let us exactly know whether these estimates are correct or not."

A major earthquake would devastate Tehran. According to a study by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency, 80 percent of the buildings in some of Tehran's districts would be destroyed. According to Iranian newspapers, the destruction would likely include most public buildings.

"An earthquake in Tehran would have millions of victims," according to "Sharq" newspaper. "Only five out of 32 fire stations in Tehran are earthquake-proof. So the same people who are supposed to rescue us at the time of the disaster will be devoured by it." "Aftab-i Yazd" quotes the Health Ministry as estimating that an earthquake measuring 7 on the Richter scale would destroy 90 percent of the city's hospitals.

Specialists agree. Berberian, the seismologist, compares an earthquake in Tehran with the catastrophic one that struck the city of Tangshan in northern China on 26 July 1976. "Just to remind you that during the 1976 earthquake in Tangshan, China, approximately half-a-million people were killed. For Tehran, with 12-million-and-plus population, heaven knows. It's easy to guess, but it is scary. I don't want to think about that."

Professor Akasheh said, "Because the buildings are not [earthquake] resistant, the human and financial costs [of earthquakes in Iran] are very heavy." He continued, "Regarding Tehran, because the population of greater Tehran is more than 15 million, and all the buildings are built on unstable ground, we have to expect heavy destruction from an earthquake measuring 7 on Richter scale -- devastation that would be irreparable." He added, "If a similar earthquake [as the one in Bam] happens in the Tehran region, the city itself will probably top the death toll list [of earthquakes] in the world."

There is less agreement on ways to resolve the danger. Moving the capital, as the SNSC recommends, is not unprecedented. After reunification, Germany moved its capital from Bonn to Berlin. In the late 1990s, Kazakhstan moved its capital from Almaty to Astana, in part because of its location in an earthquake-prone area.

Professor Akasheh says that, in a letter to President Khatami, he recommended moving the capital to a safer place such as the city of Isfahan in central Iran, which was the capital until the late 19th century. Even if the process is long and costly, he thinks it is the best solution. "The moving of the capital is not something that can be done in a year or two. We need 20 to 30 years for gradually moving the population out of the capital. We can't move the capital in one night. This needs a lot of time and a huge budget, but we shouldn't allow ourselves to be caught off-guard against a fait accompli, that in one night during 10 to 20 seconds Tehran will be turned to zero."

Berberian, on the other hand, says such a move is not much of a solution because there is an earthquake risk to many of Iran's other major cities. "What about the other cities -- provincial capitals like Tabriz, Mashhad, Shiraz and so forth? I mean, the whole country is seismic."

Berberian says engineering codes should be enforced and buildings, especially public buildings, should be made safe. He maintains that since Iran is prone to earthquakes, it should learn how to prevent such disasters, as Japan and the United States have done. "It's not easy and it's not cheap, but moving cities will not resolve the issue. We have this problem [of frequent earthquakes]. We know the sources of seismicity, which are the earthquake faults. We have to learn how to live with earthquakes. That's the only thing we haven't learned yet."

Akasheh, however, says it's impossible to make all Tehran buildings earthquake-resistant. "First of all, we have to make the buildings of the leadership resistant, then the government buildings, then the museums, the hospitals -- and this process [for a city such as Tehran] is impossible. How do we want to do it in streets whose width is only 5 meters and where there are buildings with several floors?"

Other solutions have been proposed, including the use of more modern construction materials and methods. Mud bricks, which crumble easily and suffocate those who are trapped beneath them in an earthquake, are commonly used to build homes and other dwellings.

Sharif University of Technology's Ali Reza Khaloo, who is a professor of structural engineering, says the use of traditional building materials and construction methods must end and this requires government involvement. "Some people believe in the old ways of constructing their houses, and it is difficult to change their attitudes and make them interested in using new building materials. In major cities, of course, we can upgrade, but in the villages we need to have a national will to get involved in building cheap and strong houses. People will not be able to do it themselves. They need strong guidance and strong financial support."

However, Khaloo says that is only part of the problem. "In Iran, we have very good designers who can design buildings to resist earthquakes [of] great intensity. However, when it comes to construction, people are not trained well. So the construction procedure is poor, even though the design may be perfect. The buildings [are] weak in major areas -- let's say connections, joints [and] columns. And the concrete quality may be poor. So when there is an earthquake, the load will concentrate on the weak parts of the structure and the structure will fail."

Khaloo contrasts Iran with California, which is one of the most well-prepared regions of the world in terms of earthquakes. Over the past 30 years, many structures have been built specifically to withstand earthquakes, which are quite common in that part of the country. U.S. engineers closely follow strict building codes. Khaloo explains, "[In California,] you may feel some shaking and vibration of the structure, but the roof will not fall and the walls will [remain] in position. That's because everything has been designed according to building codes, and it is also constructed based on the building codes."

Iran has regulations that obligate engineers to make buildings that are resistant to strong earthquakes, but according to Tehran-based urban architect Taraneh Yalda, there is little actual policing of construction. Yalda points out that no authorities control whether new construction in Iran respects the norms, and contractors often ignore regulations with impunity. "Unfortunately in Iran, people speculate because of our sick [corrupt] economy. They build houses the cheapest way possible and sell them at the most expensive price possible. They do not pay attention to the norms and forget to implement them. So, if an earthquake happens in Tehran, millions of people will die." (Golnaz Esfandiari, Antoine Blua, Jean Khakzad)