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Iran Report: March 29, 2004


29 March 2004, Volume 7, Number 12

'YEAR OF ACCOUNTABILITY' BEGINS IN IRAN. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in his 20 March Norouz message to the Iranian people that the new year -- 1383 -- will be a "year of accountability" for the government, state television reported. He said the executive, legislative, and judicial branches must inform the public on "what they have done with regard to rendering services to the entire nation, creating science, establishing justice, and alleviating poverty and discrimination in society." He added that they should provide information on "their contribution toward the movement for seeking justice and the movement for combating corruption."

Khamenei preceded these comments with a review of the previous year. He said the year 1382 began with the "jackbooted soldiers [sarbazan-i chakmeh poosh] of Great Satans" on Iran's borders, that in the summer U.S. and Israeli intelligence organizations tried to create social unrest in Iran, in the autumn the United States propagandized against Iran's nuclear efforts, and in the winter an earthquake struck Bam. He said the year ended with people participating enthusiastically in the parliamentary elections, thereby foiling the enemy's plots.

Outgoing Tehran parliamentary representative Fatimeh Rakei on 25 March expressed the hope that state institutions would heed the supreme leader's call for greater accountability, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported. Rakei said that Khamenei's calls for accountability were ignored before and some agencies contented themselves with describing real and imagined accomplishments. She continued, "The authorities are responsible for putting into practice the ideas envisaged by the leader. And government organs must provide the leader and the nation with transparent and clear reports."

Rakei stressed the importance of the legislature in this process, saying, "The government bodies, especially the parliament, must directly supervise the authorities in their efforts to realize the leader's vision."

KHAMENEI WARNS OF 'IMPERIALIST CENTERS.' Ayatollah Khamenei spoke in Mashhad on 21 March and warned that unspecified "imperialist centers" want to create "a tumult in our country," "generate crises," and "cause agitation," state television reported. He went on to repeat his accusation that U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies tried to cause unrest in Iran the previous summer. He said the United States and Israel face a stalemate in Palestine and in Iraq, and warned, "The enemy might make crazy decisions because it is facing a stalemate." He continued: "However, no matter what decision they make, they will fail because they are facing a freedom-loving nation such as the Iranian nation. Our nation is awake." (Bill Samii)

'DIVINE INTERVENTION' AT THE IRANIAN BALLOT BOX? Expediency Council member Habibullah Asgaroladi-Mosalman on 11 March said of the previous month's parliamentary elections, "God guided the hearts of the pious throughout this land in such a way that of the 225 elected representatives, 160 were fundamentalists," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported. Asgaroladi, who is the secretary-general of the conservative Islamic Coalition Party, added, "We witnessed divine intervention in the seventh parliamentary elections, and you must thank God for this blessing with your work." (Bill Samii)

PARLIAMENTARIAN FORBIDDEN TO LEAVE COUNTRY AFTER RESIGNATION. Fatimeh Haqiqatju, whose resignation from the legislature was accepted in late February, said in a 23 March interview with ISNA that she has been banned from leaving the country and thus cannot accept an invitation to visit Great Britain. Haqiqatju said she has no intention of leaving Iran to live elsewhere, and added, "Those who do not have a place among the people are the ones who should flee this country, not the reformists who can rely upon the support of the majority of the people." (Bill Samii)

A RECENT FLOURISHING OF IRANIAN NEWS AGENCIES. The Azad News Agency started producing test dispatches on 16 March and will begin its regular service in May, becoming the latest agency to join in the recent expansion of such agencies. Iran's first news agency was established in 1934, and Azad will be the country's ninth.

The country's official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) began life as Pars Agency in 1934. The Foreign Ministry and then other state institutions ran it until 1963, when the Information Ministry took over and renamed it Pars News Agency. After the Islamic revolution in 1979, the Information Ministry was renamed the Guidance Ministry, and Pars News Agency was renamed the Islamic Republic News Agency. Abdullah Nasseri-Taheri took over as the agency's chief from Fereidun Verdinejad, who had run it for 10 years, in September 2001. IRNA produces several publications, including the Persian-language newspaper "Iran," the English-language "Iran Daily," and a monthly publication about interior design, "Iran-i Azin." IRNA's website is http://www.irna.ir.

The Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), which receives some government funds and is affiliated with the University Jihad, began operations in 1998. The agency writes about issues relevant to students, and ISNA Director-General Abolfazl Fateh complained that in June 2003 police beat him with batons after he objected to their throwing stones at protesting students (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 23 June 2003). Its website is http://www.isna.ir.

The privately owned Fars News Agency received its license in November 1998, Reuters reported at the time. It actually began operating in 2002 and is headed by Said Najar-Nobari, who previously headed the Tehran Justice Department's public relations bureau. Other individuals associated with Fars News Agency have a similarly conservative background. Managing editor Mehdi Fazel is editor in chief of the daily "Javan," and the board of directors includes "Farda" newspaper's Alireza Shemirani, as well as "Resalat" newspaper's Abdullah Moghaddam and Akbar Nabavi. Its website is http://www.farsnews.com.

The Pupils Association News Agency started its operations in September 2002 as a joint effort of the Education Ministry and the Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry. It is affiliated with IRNA and its objectives include training reporters and reporting news that interests students. Its website is http://www.irna.ir/pana.

SHANA (Shabakeh-yi Ettelaat-i Naft va Energi) News Agency, which is affiliated with the Petroleum Ministry, began its activities in early 2003, according to a December dispatch from IRNA. Its website is http://www.shana.ir/pe.

Affiliated with the Worker's House (Khaneh-yi Kargar) labor organization, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) was launched in February 2003. It is headed by Masud Heidari, and a founding member is Ali-Reza Mahjoub of the Islamic Labor Party. Heidari said on 10 December 2002 that the agency would discuss workers' demands, IRNA reported. Its website is http://www.ilna.ir.

Veterans of the Iran-Iraq War founded Mehr News Agency on 22 June 2003. Its managing director, Parviz Ismaili, is a columnist with the conservative "Entekhab" newspaper. Its website is http://www.mehrnews.com.

The establishment of Mowj News Agency was announced in "Iran" in July 2003, while ILNA reported that it began trial operations in September 2003. Its website is http://www.mowjnews.com.

The newest agency to enter the fray, Azad News Agency, is affiliated with the Islamic Open University, according to agency chief Mohammad Reza Karimi. Karimi added that its objectives are communicating with and exchanging information with the world's other universities, IRNA reported on 16 March. Karimi said, "The [Islamic Open University], with over 2.5 million students and graduates, 25,000 scientific staff, and 220 branches across Iran and abroad, is the largest Iranian university and academic complex, and therefore the establishment of a news agency to cover the above-mentioned was an old need for it." Karimi added that the agency will have offices in Ahvaz, Arak, Isfahan, Kerman, Mashhad, Shiraz, Sari, Semnan, Tabriz, and Tehran. Its website is http://www.ana.ir. (Bill Samii)

IRAN TO GET 'RADIO DISCIPLINE.' The head of the Iranian police's ideological department announced on 23 March that Radio Entezam (Radio Discipline) will be launched in about one month, Iranian state radio reported. The unnamed official said Radio Entezam will broadcast police-related news to officers stationed on the borders and in remote regions. (Bill Samii)

AGREEMENT ON IRAN-IRAQ PILGRIMAGES FORTHCOMING. Mohammad Bahr al-Ulum, who is serving as the rotating monthly head of the Iraqi Governing Council and who visited Iran earlier in the month, said on 21 March that the two countries will soon sign an agreement regulating pilgrimage traffic, IRNA reported the next day. Making pilgrimages to shrines is a practice specific to the Shi'a branch of Islam, the majority faith in Iran and Iraq.

The majority of the most important Shi'a shrines are in Iraq. The shrine to Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib is in Al-Najaf, the shrine to Imam Hussein is in Karbala, shrines to Imam Musa al-Kazem and Muhammad al-Jawad are in Kazemiyan, and shrines to Imam Ali al-Hadi and Imam Hassan al-Askari are in Samara. Two other shrines -- to Imam Hassan and Imam Ali Zain al-Abedin -- are in Medina, Saudi Arabia.

There are more than 1,100 shrines and pilgrimage sites in Iran, according to the Library of Congress's "Iran - A Country Study" (http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/irtoc.html). The most important shrine in Iran is the one to Imam Reza, located in Mashhad. The next-most-revered shrine is in Qom and is that of Imam Reza's sister, Fatimeh, known as Hazrat-i Masumeh. A brother of Imam Reza is buried at Shah Cheragh in Shiraz, and another relative is entombed at the Shah Abdul Azim shrine in Rey, a city south of Tehran.

Reacting to the 2 March Ashura bombings in Iraq, the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq announced on 14 March that it will close 16 of the 19 official crossing points between Iraq and Iran as of 20 March (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 22 March 2003). This does not seem to have had a tremendous impact on the pilgrimage traffic, and on 21 March, Kermanshah Province police chief General Javad Hamed said that 5,000 Iranian pilgrims cross the border every day, IRNA reported. Hamed said 1,500 people cross at the Shalamcheh border crossing in Khuzestan Province and 3,500 people cross at the Mehran border crossing in Ilam Province.

The Mehran crossing was closed on 2 March, because of security concerns after the Ashura bombings in Iraq, but was reopened on 17 March, ISNA reported. On 22 March Colonel Manuchehr Cheraghi, the deputy chief of police in Ilam Province, said that about 14,000 Iraqi pilgrims have entered the country in the last six days, IRNA reported. He added that 1,400 Iranian pilgrims have entered Iraq in the same period.

Iran is trying to regulate border traffic. Ilam Province Governor-General Karim Shurangiz explained, "Only convoys of pilgrims who have obtained permits from the State Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization can go to Iraq via this border post," ISNA reported on 22 March. Shurangiz added that contrary to the past, when only one passport was required for every 37 people, now each person must have a passport.

Colonel Cheraghi on 25 March described the arrest in the last week of five thousand people who have tried to cross the border illegally, IRNA reported. Cheraghi said that pilgrimages to the holy sites in Iraq can only take place through officially sanctioned convoys, while the people who were arrested were trying to make the trip "by going through hard terrain and mountain passes with the help of local guides." Cheraghi warned that the area around the Mehran border crossing is very dangerous because of mines and unexploded ordinance from the 1980-88 Iran Iraq War.

A number of shrines and pilgrimage sites are located in Ilam Province, which borders Iraq. The major shrines in the province are the Aminzadeh Saleh and the Jaber Mausoleum in Dareh Shahr, the Imamzadeh Seyyed Ebrahim (a grandson of Imam Baqer) in Dehloran, and the Imamzadeh Seyyed Mohammad Abed (a son of Imam Musa Kazem and a brother of Imam Reza) in Mehran.

Other pilgrimage sites in Ilam Province include the Seyyed Akbar site near Dehloran, Seyyed Hassan on the Mehran-Dehloran road, and the Seyyed Ebrahim Qatal pilgrimage site on the Mehran border road. The Abbas pilgrimage site is in Dehloran, the Seyyed Fakhredin pilgrimage site is close to Abtaf Waterfall, and the Jaber Ansari pilgrimage site and the Madar Zuleikha pilgrimage site are in Dareh Shahr. The Seyyed Salaheddin Mohammad site is in Abdanan, and the Abbas pilgrimage site and the Baqer pilgrimage site are in Shirvan va Chardavol. The Seyyed Abdullah pilgrimage site is near Sarab Aivan and the Haji Hazer pilgrimage site is in Aivan.

Pilgrims' interest in some of these sites has led to problems. A commentary in the 19 February issue of "Peyk-i Ilam" weekly said that the authorities should pay closer attention to these sites because of the demands imposed by the pilgrimage traffic, and it warned of the danger posed by "the various diseases on the ground and inside the tombs." The commentary warned of a "dysfunctional situation" and said, "the stench aggravates every human being." Pilgrims' donations should be used to clean or replace carpets that have been in use for several years. "Why do the custodians not use all the revenues from these Imamzadehs -- and it is not clear where the money goes after it is collected and deposited in the bank -- and decide to spend it on the sacred sites themselves to provide sanitation, hygienic services, and other things?" The "Peyk-i Ilam" commentary also suggested that a cleric be designated to serve as a guide for the pilgrims at the holy sites. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN SEES OFF HAMAS LEADER. Iranian officials and institutions have strongly condemned the 22 March assassination of Hamas founder and leader Shaykh Ahmad Yassin by Israeli forces, and the Islamic Propagation Organization organized an anti-Israel rally to follow the 26 March Friday prayers in Tehran. Developments said to have occurred during Yassin's April-May 1998 visit to Iran and the U.S. State Department's designation of Hamas as a "foreign terrorist organization" that receives assistance from Iran lead observers to ask if Tehran will limit itself to a verbal reaction.

Yassin toured Egypt, Iran, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen in mid-1998, arriving in Tehran on 28 April and leaving on 4 May. During that trip, according to IRNA, Yassin met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami. Khamenei stressed the importance of Yassin's activities, Tehran television reported on 2 May. He said, "The Palestinian nation's jihad is a source of honor for Islam and Muslims, and Iran's Islamic system and nation will continue their decisive support for the Palestinian nation despite all the pressures and plots by Zionism and its supporters."

As a sign of solidarity, furthermore, Tehran released four Palestinians who were captured during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, according to IRNA on 12 May.

Yassin was impressed with the reception he got and with the prisoner release. He acknowledged that Hamas has a "strong relationship" with Tehran in which "there is material, moral, political, and social assistance for us," Radio Monte Carlo reported on 2 May. The most important results of the trip were, according to Yassin, "We opened channels of communication and submitted our problems and issues to them, including our Palestinian cause."

Yassin added that the relationship with Iran is good regardless of who is displeased. He explained, "My brother, first of all we wish to state that the United States is the origin of arrogance and tyranny in the world," Radio Monte Carlo reported. Yassin continued: "The United States believes that any party that rejects the Zionist option and program is terrorist. They accused Iran of terrorism and accused us of the same.... We are not afraid of those who say there is terrorism here and there...we will cooperate with our kinfolk and brothers in the Arab and Islamic world, especially Iran, regardless of who is pleased or displeased with this. We mean by this the United States and Israel."

These statements and reports were, essentially, the boilerplate that inevitably accompanies such visits. A more interesting report on Yassin's trip to Iran appeared in the Paris-based Arabic daily "Al-Watan al-Arabi" on 22 May 1998. It stated that a large delegation from Supreme Leader Khamenei's office greeted Yassin at Tehran's Mehrabad airport, led by Islamic Culture and Communications Organization head Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Taskhiri. Yassin reportedly met later with Taskhiri and Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Qorban Ali Dori-Najafabadi, while his companions -- Hamas hard-liners Imad al-Alami, Mustafa Qannu, and Abu-Muhammad Mustafa -- met with leaders of the Qods Force, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps' (IRGC) special operations unit.

The outcome of these meetings allegedly was an agreement creating a "strategic alliance" between Tehran and Hamas, "Al-Watan al-Arabi" reported. The agreement gave Hamas a higher priority that Hizballah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in terms of Iranian support. Hamas would receive $15 million a month, with the money coming from the Imam Relief Committee, the Foundation for the Oppressed and Disabled, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and the Islamic Culture and Communications Organization. Hamas would increase its presence in the occupied territories through the creation of charities, hospitals, schools, and mosques.

Other aspects of the alleged agreement, according to "Al-Watan al-Arabi," focused on military issues. In this arena, agreement was reached for the creation of an entity distinct from the Izzidin al-Qasem Brigades and connected to Hizballah, as well as for the training of Hamas cadres at an IRGC facility.

In light of this alleged agreement, Yassin's comments after his trip to Iran are noteworthy. He suggested that the Iranians are more Palestinian than the Palestinians. He said, "In my negotiations in Tehran, I realized that the Islamic Republic of Iran supports this ideal even more than the Palestinians themselves," Tehran radio reported on 26 May. In the 10 August issue of Beirut's "Al-Shira" he said that Iran is "prepared to extend all kinds of aid to the Palestinian people's struggle for liberation." And in the 26 July issue of "Al-Quds" from Jerusalem he said, "I was not aware that the Iranians are so strongly enthusiastic about Palestine." "I found that the Iranians have an intense desire to liberate Palestine and to endure all the U.S. harassment and difficulties in order to achieve this objective," he added.

While it is difficult to gauge the exact nature of the relationship between Iran and Hamas, reactions from Tehran to the assassination of Yassin are instructive. Supreme Leader Khamenei said on 22 March that the assassination would encourage anti-Israel forces, state television reported. "The blood of Shaykh Ahmad Yassin watered the fecund tree of Islamic resistance and it will also further fuel the fire created by the wrath of the self-sacrificing Palestinian nation." Khamenei said of Israel that "the Zionist regime is a usurper regime and its government is an artificial government," and predicted that "they are doomed to extinction."

Hussein Shariatmadari, the supreme leader's representative at the Kayhan Institute and the managing editor of "Kayhan" newspaper, said, "The martyrdom of Shaykh Ahmad shows that the only way to deal with the Zionists is to wage armed struggle against them." Shariatmadari predicted, "Shaykh Ahmad's martyrdom will lead to the escalation of the armed struggle against the Zionists."

The U.S. State Department in its annual "Patterns of Global Terrorism" report has designated Hamas as a "foreign terrorist organization." It furthermore asserts that Iran provides Hamas with financial assistance and Iran is the top state sponsor of terrorism. Hamas has vowed to retaliate for Yassin's death. Tehran's reaction, therefore, should be a matter of some concern. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN CONDEMNS U.S. IN CONNECTION WITH HAMAS LEADER'S DEATH. President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami criticized Israel for the killing of Shaykh Ahmad Yassin and in this connection he also criticized the United States, IRNA reported. "I expect that the international associations react against the criminal Zionist regime and its ill-intentioned supporters, the U.S. in particular," he said.

The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) condemned the assassination in a 22 March statement and pinned some of the responsibility on the United States, ISNA reported. "Today, no one is unaware of the fact that the Zionist regime has increased its savagery as a result of the all-out support it was given by the Great Satan, the criminal America," according to the IRGC statement. It went on to say that this incident will revive the Palestinian uprising against Israel. (Bill Samii)

MOSCOW SAYS NUCLEAR COOPERATION WITH IRAN TO CONTINUE. Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency deputy chief Vladimir Asmolov said on 24 March that commissioning of the nuclear-power plant at Bushehr was delayed because much of the preexisting equipment was not fit for use, RIA-Novosti reported. He said that only 10 percent of the equipment installed by the German Siemens company could be used. He said most of the Siemens equipment has been replaced and the rest is on order. Asmolov said the equipment checks took 2 1/2 years.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko said on 23 March that Russia has no intention of stopping work on the nuclear-power plant that it is building in Bushehr, RIA-Novosti reported. Russia's only condition for continuing its work with Iran in the nuclear field is that spent fuel must be returned to Russia, Yakovenko said.

Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency Director Aleksandr Rumyantsev said on 22 March that his country's plans on nuclear cooperation with Iran have not changed, ITAR-TASS reported. He said the signing of a protocol on the return of spent fuel has been delayed due to financial issues, but added that the protocol will be signed "soon."

Anonymous sources at the Russian Foreign Ministry said on 23 March that Russia might build a second reactor at Bushehr, ITAR-TASS reported. Atomstroyeksport, the contractor for the Bushehr project, has already submitted the relevant feasibility studies. (Bill Samii)

NUCLEAR INSPECTORS FACE NEW CHALLENGES. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said on 24 March that a team of inspectors from the agency would arrive in Iran on 27 March, RFE/RL reported. Fleming said the inspectors would visit the Natanz gas-enrichment-centrifuge facility and the Isfahan nuclear research center. The inspectors' visit was scheduled for 12 March, and "a number of Western diplomats" cited by Reuters on 24 March believe that Tehran delayed the visit so it could hide its undeclared activities.

On the same day, IAEA Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei said he will travel to Iran early in April to meet with local officials, and he said, "complete and transparent cooperation" is needed from Iran, RFE/RL reported. El-Baradei added: "As for Iran, there is a lot of work that we have to do because the Iranian [nuclear] program is more complicated [than Libya's] and there was a difficult delay at first in Iran's work. But I think that the situation returned to normal with Iran's cooperation."

The inspectors immediately headed for Natanz, some 250 kilometers south of Tehran, after their arrival, IRNA reported on 28 March.

They will have their work cut out for them. In 2003 Tehran established a committee consisting mainly of senior Atomic Energy Organization officials that would coordinate efforts to conceal the country's nuclear activities, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on 27 March, citing "Western diplomats and an intelligence report." Moreover, the IAEA inspectors will only be allowed to visit sites that were declared previously.

The Iranian ambassador to the IAEA, Pirooz Hosseini, rejected these allegations in an interview with the "Los Angeles Times." "We have adopted a policy of full transparency, and we have declared all of our nuclear activities to the IAEA," he said. (Bill Samii)

EU ENCOURAGES IRANIAN NUCLEAR OPENNESS... European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on 22 March urged Iran to be more cooperative with the IAEA, AFP and Reuters reported. Their statement said Iran should be more proactive and it should act "in a spirit of full transparency." Worries over Iranian nuclear activities prompted the EU not to resume trade talks with Tehran that were put on hold last year. Cristina Gallach, EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana's spokeswoman, said, "The ministers did not resume discussions on the trade talks given that it is considered premature until Tehran makes more progress on the nuclear question and other political aspects," Reuters reported. (Bill Samii)

...AS IT APPRAISES ITS RELATIONSHIP WITH TEHRAN. Tehran-EU relations are facing other difficulties, as European Union foreign ministers on 23 February condemned the parliamentary elections in Iran. Senior EU officials say the bloc will adopt a "wait-and-see" attitude to determine if further cooperation with Iran remains possible after the parliamentary elections, which were widely condemned as seriously flawed. This means talks on a trade accord, sought by Iran, will remain on ice after having been disrupted in June 2003 in response to fears that the country is developing nuclear weapons. Similarly, the parallel discussions pursued by the EU to encourage democratic reforms in Iran will not be resumed.

Ireland's foreign minister, Brian Cowen, who chaired the 23 February EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, said that the elections were undemocratic. "In the conclusions [of the meeting], we express deep regret and disappointment that large numbers of candidates were prevented from standing in the parliamentary elections, thus making a genuine democratic choice by Iranian people impossible. Ministers stressed the importance the European Union attaches to developing its relations with Iran and recalled that it wishes to support the reform process. We expressed disappointment over the slow progress in the human rights situation in Iran."

One EU diplomat told RFE/RL that EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana said a "cooling-off" period is necessary in relations with Iran. Meanwhile, a report on Iran's nuclear program delivered by IAEA head Muhammad el-Baradei on 24 February was expected to make little difference to this assessment (see http://www.iaea.org/NewsCenter/Focus/IaeaIran/index.shtml, and it resulted in a critical resolution by the IAEA's board of governors, see http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Board/2004/gov2004-21.pdf).

However, the foreign ministers of Spain and France -- Ana Palacio and Dominique de Villepin, respectively -- strongly suggested on 23 February that the EU must not slam the door on dialogue with Iran. This is seen, among other things, as essential to maintain Iran's observance of its nonproliferation commitments, exacted by Britain, France, and Germany in October last year.

Solana told RFE/RL on 23 February that the EU will have to "wait and see" what positions the country's new parliament adopts. "We will have to see, what interlocutors [emerge], how the situation evolves. It's too early to say that at this point. You know, we're working with them on some very tricky issues, difficult issues, like the nuclear issue, and we're going to continue with that," Solana said.

Irish Foreign Minister Cowen also stressed the importance of maintaining Iran's engagement with the UN's nuclear watchdog: "We also discussed the state of play regarding the nuclear program. Ministers encouraged Iran to continue its positive engagement with the IAEA and the suspension of its enrichment activities. We will continue those discussions in the light of the IAEA Director-General el-Baradei's upcoming report and the meeting of the IAEA board of governors."

Iran has displayed little readiness to make progress on other remaining key EU concerns besides the nuclear issue. The human rights situation is said not to have improved since last autumn, and Iran is seen as continuing to support terrorist organizations outlawed by the EU. (Ahto Lobjakas)

JAPANESE BANKS CONSIDER BILLION-DOLLAR LOAN TO NIOC. A syndicate that includes the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi, Mizuho Financial Group, Inc., Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group, and UFJ Holdings, Inc. is considering a $1.2 billion loan to a subsidiary of the state-run National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), Nikkei Telecom 21 news service reported on 24 March and "Oil and Gas Journal Online" reported on 25 March. Loan payments will be made from the money the NIOC makes by selling crude oil to Japanese companies, and the Japanese companies will pay the banks directly, thus bypassing the NIOC. Securing this financing is important to the success of the Azadegan oil-field development deal, which was signed on 18 February and is worth $2.8 billion (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 1 March 2004). (Bill Samii)

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