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Iran Report: April 19, 2004


19 April 2004, Volume 7, Number 15

TEHRAN CONDEMNS KILLING OF HAMAS LEADER. Less than a month after assassinating the leader and founder of Hamas, Shaykh Ahmad Yassin, missiles fired from Israeli helicopters killed his successor, Abd al-Aziz Rantisi, news agencies reported. Two of Rantisi's bodyguards were killed and bystanders were injured in the incident in Gaza City. Hamas refused to divulge the name of Rantisi's successor, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on 18 April. Hamas spokesman Ismail Haniyeh vowed that the death would be avenged, saying, "This sacrifice will not be wasted." He added, "It is our fate in Hamas, and as Palestinians, to die as martyrs.... This struggle will not weaken our determination or break our will."

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi condemned Rantisi's killing on 18 April, saying such measures undermine stability and will not resolve the basic problems Israel faces, IRNA reported. Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said the killing of Rantisi is an example of Israeli terrorism under U.S. protection, IRNA reported. (Bill Samii)

WHO ASKED TEHRAN TO HELP IN IRAQ? Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi announced after a 14 April cabinet meeting that the United States had requested Iranian assistance in calming the current unrest in Iraq, AFP and Al-Jazeera television reported. Kharrazi said Tehran would help and added that the United States is complicating the situation there. The Foreign Ministry's director-general for Persian Gulf affairs, Hussein Sadeqi, arrived in Baghdad on 14 April, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported.

An anonymous "senior State Department official" said on 14 April that the United Kingdom invited the delegation of Iranian officials to visit Iraq in an effort to reduce tensions there, AFP reported. "Obviously, we did not object," the source added, going on to say that Washington did not ask London to invite the Iranians. "Since Iran does have some influence with the Shi'a community, we hope they would make clear that they are not in any way supporting violence or confrontation and that, in fact, they are supporting the authority of the central government," the source said.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher also denied that Washington asked for Iranian mediation, but he did acknowledge the recent dispatch of messages to Tehran, AFP reported.

"Our intervention is not based on the U.S. request," Iranian presidential adviser Mohammad Shariati said in a 14 April interview with Al-Jazeera. He went on to explain Tehran's reasons for acting at this time and in such a public fashion. "We wanted the world to know our role in solving the problems," Shariati said. "America had prevented us from doing so. Britain was more understanding of the peaceful Iranian role in solving the problems. Now it [the United States] has dropped its objection." Shariati said Iran does not want to interfere in Iraqi affairs, but it "must not leave Iraq and its people alone in their ordeal.... Iran believes the U.S. behavior is wrong."

While in Baghdad, Sadeqi held talks with a number of Iraqi political figures, state radio reported on 15 April. Among the officials that Sadeqi met were Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq's (SCIRI) Abd-al-Aziz al-Hakim, Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) President Mas'ud Barzani, Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr-al-Ulum, IGC member Jalal Talabani, and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. The Iranian delegation also met with Ahmad Chalabi, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported on 17 April.

Nevertheless, the exact role played by Sadeqi and his colleagues remains somewhat unclear. Adnan Ali, a member of the Al-Da'wah al-Islamiya party, said in a 15 April interview with Egyptian radio, "The Iranian delegation led by Mr. Sadeqi had a significant effect during talks with Shi'a clerics and personalities as well as with the office of Seyyed Muqtada [al-Sadr]. I have recently met Mr. Sadeqi, and he assured me that the Islamic Republic seeks to calm the situation to avoid any dissension [among Iraqi factions] under occupation."

But neither the American nor the Iranian side was so forthcoming. CPA spokesman Dan Senor said on 16 March, "It is our position that there is no role for the Iranians to play middleman here in discussions between us and Sadr," RFE/RL reported. "There is no role for the Iranians, from our perspective, in the Sadr situation. And, in fact, we believe that the issue with Sadr and his militia should be resolved by Iraqis, not Iranians."

Iranian Foreign Minister Kharrazi sounded a similar note on 16 April. He asked in a statement faxed to IRNA, "How can one mediate between the Iraqi people and the occupiers?"

The Iranian diplomats ended their visit on 17 April without visiting Al-Najaf or Muqtada al-Sadr, IRNA reported. This is reportedly because the Iraqi cleric refused to meet with the Iranians, the Shi'a news agency (http://www.ebaa.net) reported. (Bill Samii)

LEADERS BLAME COALITION FOR DIPLOMAT'S DEATH. Khalil Naimi, identified by IRNA as the cultural and press attache at the Iranian embassy, was shot dead in Baghdad on 15 April by unknown assailants.

President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami said in a message released the same day, "The current situation in Iraq is undoubtedly the result of U.S. negligence toward the realities and the sentiments of people in the region and the continuation of terrifying policy that has already been proved ineffective," IRNA reported. "It is necessary that the U.S. changes its behavior toward the Iraqi people, stops killing them and leaves the affairs to themselves."

Later that day, Foreign Ministry spokesman Assefi urged Iraqi officials and the Iraqi Governing Council to protect the embassy and its staff, as well as visiting diplomat Hussein Sadeqi, ILNA reported. He added that Iran has been trying to resolve the crisis in Iraq and added, "Unfortunately, America's wrong policies are making the crisis more complicated every day."

After condemning the killing, parliamentary speaker Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi said, "We hold the occupiers [of Iraq] responsible for such incidents, but this does not mean [that we should] overlook the terrorist move of those who carried out the attack," state television reported. "We do condemn their move, although we do not know who they are."

"The attack took place in the region under the control of Paul Bremer, the American governor of Iraq," Iranian state television reported on 15 April. "This is while the occupying American forces have taken no measures to follow up the case," it added.

Addressing mourners at Naimi's 17 April funeral, the supreme leader's representative, Abbasali Akhtari, said, "The occupiers must know that they are directly responsible for the blood of this beloved martyr and others, which is shed each day in Iraq," IRNA reported. (Bill Samii)

SUPREME LEADER EXPECTS AMERICAN HUMILIATION IN IRAQ. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a 14 April speech in Tehran that "an alien power" invaded Iraq in order to fill the pockets of oil companies "and the Zionists," state radio reported. He went on to say that nobody is inciting Iraqis to acts of violence. "There is no need for anyone to incite the Iraqis," he said, adding, "You [Americans] yourselves are the biggest and the filthiest inciters of the Iraqi nation." Khamenei said U.S. policy in Iraq is like Israeli policy in Palestine.

In an apparent reference to the closure of Muqtada al-Sadr's "Al-Hawzah" newspaper that disregarded the nearly 100 press closures in Iran, Khamenei said, "They close down newspapers. They ban the press."

Khamenei predicted, "Sooner or later, the Americans will leave Iraq in wretchedness and humiliation." Khamenei said the Iraqi people can facilitate this through unity and reliance on Islam, and by heeding the clerical authorities. (Bill Samii)

HOLDING PATTERNS ABOVE NEXT CASPIAN SUMMIT. Foreign Minister Kharrazi said on 5 April in Moscow that Iran offered to host the next summit meeting of the Caspian Sea's littoral states -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan -- ITAR-TASS reported. Referring to issues such as the division of the sea's resources, fishing, and military use of the sea, Kharrazi said, "The negotiations on the Caspian problems are moving at a good pace. The sides have reached a number of concrete agreements, and they have to be firmed up now." The official meeting began on 6 April.

Kharrazi said at the 6 April opening session of the foreign ministers' meeting, "This [Caspian] sea belongs to the countries that are bordering it. It is a sea that represents peace and friendship, and it is a symbol of the peaceful coexistence of the countries surrounding it," RFE/RL reported.

The meeting covered issues that include the sea's legal regime, IRNA reported, and Kharrazi expressed the hope that the legal convention currently in progress will meet with all the countries' approval. He also said foreign powers should not interfere in the region and that countries should avoid unilateral measures that cause complications. Kharrazi returned to Tehran on 6 April, according to IRNA.

Although the summit's final communique stressed such positives as stability and cooperation, the summit did not achieve any breakthroughs on the thorny issue of demarcating the Caspian's waters and seabed, RIA-Novosti reported on 6 April. Summit participants agreed that differences remain on a number of key issues.

An analytical article in the 5 April "Sharq" noted that, in the absence of a legal regime accepted by all five littoral states, they are turning more frequently to bilateral agreements. Azerbaijan, Russia, and Kazakhstan have reached agreements without Iran's or Turkmenistan's approval, and Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan have begun trilateral negotiations. Even Iran, according to the article, has entered bilateral negotiations with Azerbaijan.

Iran's advantage, according to the "Sharq" analysis, is that it is far less dependent on Caspian energy resources than the other littoral states. It can concentrate on transporting oil and gas for the other countries, and they must therefore heed its interests.

International law expert Yusef Molai said in the 6 April "Jomhuri-yi Islami" that the Russia-Kazakhstan bilateral agreement has replaced the Caspian legal regime. He said Iran has forsaken a number of opportunities and predicted that the forthcoming summit meeting would not accomplish anything. (Bill Samii)

IRAN HOSTS ARMENIAN FOREIGN MINISTER. Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian was in Tehran on 12-13 April, IRNA reported, where he met with Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani, Vice President Mohammad-Reza Aref-Yazdi, and Foreign Minister Kharrazi.

The need for expanded bilateral relations was discussed in every meeting, and Rohani noted that the two countries' long-standing cultural connection contributes to such cooperation. The natural-gas pipeline from Iran to Armenia was also discussed at every meeting, as was construction of a dam on the Aras River. Kharrazi told his guest that tradesmen and public and private firms would be more motivated to engage in trade exchanges by improved facilities.

Aref told Oskanian that Iran would like to help in a negotiated and consultative solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. In the same vein, Rohani said, "Regional stability is prerequisite for economic development and without settlement of the regional crisis, the ground for extensive investment would not be prepared." Oskanian said upcoming negotiations with Azerbaijan on this issue are important. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN ATTACKS U.S. HUMAN RIGHTS RECORD. Foreign Ministry spokesman Assefi said on 12 April that U.S. criticism of the Iranian human rights record is "invalid" and its definition of the terms "human" and "rights" is at odds with that of the rest of the world, IRNA reported. He said the United States is not qualified to comment on human rights issues because its actions in Palestine, Iraq, and elsewhere cost lives and make people miserable and homeless.

A 12 April commentary on Iranian state television said that while "American forces are busy mercilessly slaughtering the Iraqi people in front of the eyes of the world, and while the regime occupying Jerusalem [Israel] is also continuing its barbaric and inhumane crimes against defenseless civilians in the occupied Palestinian territories," the United States has published a "repetitive" report on human rights violations in Iran.

These are presumably references to a 9 April U.S. State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor and Bureau of Public Affairs Fact Sheet, titled "Iran: Voices Struggling To Be Heard" (http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/31261.htm). The fact sheet notes that unelected government institutions are rebuffing and trying to stifle Iranians' calls for respect for their beliefs. It cites the case of Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, who was detained outside Evin Prison in Tehran in June 2003 and who died three weeks later of head injuries suffered, it is suspected, in a beating she underwent at the hands of her jailers.

This State Department publication notes the closure of up to 85 newspapers, as well as the detention, physical punishment, and the fining of journalists. The continuing persecution of practitioners of the Bahai faith is described as well, citing data on four Bahais currently in prison for practicing their religion.

Other topics addressed in this State Department publication are the failure of political reform at the hands of unelected government institutions, particularly the Guardians Council; Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi; and the pro-democratic mobilization of the country's young people. (Bill Samii)

NEW DATE FOR SECOND ROUND OF PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS. The Guardians Council has agreed to an Interior Ministry proposal to hold the second round of the parliamentary elections on Friday, 7 May 2004, state television reported on 12 April. An Interior Ministry official had announced previously that the second round would take place between 20 and 30 April (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 5 April 2004).

Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati added in a letter to Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari that only an amendment to the election law would allow further delays in the scheduled voting in the Tehran, Rey, Shemiranat, and Islamshahr constituencies, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported on 15 April.

The first round of the elections took place on 20 February, and a Guardians Council member explained in late March that there will be a second round of voting in 39 constituencies where candidates did not earn a sufficient number of votes to win outright. Sixty-four candidates will be elected in the second round, and the seventh parliament will begin work on 27 May. (Bill Samii)

LEGISLATURE FORMALLY APPROVES WITHDRAWAL OF 'TWIN BILLS.' In a letter to parliamentary speaker Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi that was read out at the end of the 13 April open legislative session, President Khatami formally withdrew two pieces of legislation submitted in August and September 2002, IRNA reported. Known as the "twin bills," the first would have amended the election law by reducing the role of the Guardians Council, and the second would have increased the authority of the president.

Khatami's letter noted that the Guardians Council rejected the election-law amendment and added that the Guardians Council and supervisory boards broke the current election law. His letter concluded, "I predict that keeping these bills on the parliamentary agenda in the future will have a detrimental impact on the people's rights and interests and the president's position." Khatami had announced the bills' withdrawal in mid-March (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 22 March 2004).

On 18 April, the legislature formally agreed to hand the bills back to the executive branch, IRNA reported. Vice President for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Hojatoleslam Mohammad Ali Abtahi attended that session and said that the Guardians Council must account for the president's inability to do his job.

Conservative columnist Hussein Shariatmadari praised Khatami's decision to withdraw the "twin bills" in the 14 April "Kayhan" newspaper. Shariatmadari, who is the supreme leader's representative at the Kayhan Institute, said Khatami's decision clears his record and eliminates the danger of reducing freedom. Shariatmadari wrote that the bills would have eliminated people's right to prevent unqualified individuals from serving in parliament and would have invested the president with dictatorial power. Shariatmadari wrote that Khatami was ill advised to have submitted the legislation in the first place, and he hinted that the bills were imposed on the president by spies and agents of foreign countries.

Shariatmadari wrote that Khatami's criticism of the Guardians Council, which rejected the bills several times, was unjustified and unfriendly. (Bill Samii)

LEGISLATURE REJECTS ONE PARLIAMENTARIAN'S RESIGNATION, ACCEPTS ANOTHER'S. Parliamentary speaker Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi said on 14 April that he is glad the Iranian legislature did not approve a parliamentarian's resignation request, IRNA reported.

Some 120 parliamentarians submitted their resignations in February to protest the Guardians Council's rejection of incumbents' candidacies for the parliamentary elections, and to date the resignations of Tehran representatives Mohsen Armin and Fatemeh Haqiqatju and Urumiyeh representative Mahmud Yeganli have been accepted (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 16 February and 22 March 2004).

The legislature rejected Isfahan representative Rajabali Mazrui's resignation, however. The request needed 98 "yes" votes to be accepted by the 174 of 194 parliamentarians in the chamber who voted on it; only 92 did so. Seventy-seven voted against Mazrui's resignation, and five abstained. Deputy parliamentary speaker Mohammad Reza Khatami said on 17 April that nothing could stop his colleagues from resigning, IRNA reported. Asked about Mazrui's abortive attempt to quit, Khatami explained that he is needed because of his important role in the budget committee.

The next day, the legislature approved the resignation of Tehran's Behzad Nabavi, IRNA reported. There were 154 votes in favor of his quitting and 22 votes against it. (Bill Samii)

TWO NEW CABINET MEMBERS INTRODUCED. In a letter to the speaker of parliament, President Khatami introduced two new cabinet members, IRNA reported. Khatami named Safdar Husseini to replace Finance and Economic Affairs Minister Tahmasb Mazaheri. Husseini currently serves as labor and social affairs minister. Isfahan parliamentarian Nasser Khaleqi was introduced as Husseini's successor as labor and social affairs minister. (Bill Samii)

KHATAMI VISITS EARTHQUAKE SITE. President Khatami arrived in the southeastern city of Bam on 13 April to inspect the progress of reconstruction efforts since the 26 December earthquake there, IRNA and state radio reported. Housing and Urban Development Minister Ali Abdol-Alizadeh, Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari, Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Ahmad Masjid-Jamei, and Health Minister Masud Pezeshkian accompanied Khatami.

Construction of 800 housing units began that day, and Khatami visited other housing projects. Locals asked him to speed up the construction of homes, IRNA reported. He also inspected work on a 96-bed hospital, the completion of which is expected by the end of the summer.

At a meeting of the aid headquarters, Khatami said the government allocated 2.1 trillion rials (about $256 million) for the city's reconstruction in the March 2003-March 2004 year, and another 2.4 trillion (about $292 million) for the March 2004-March 2005 period, state radio reported. Khatami vowed that nobody will be living in a tent by 20 May 2004.

Meanwhile, Bam Governor-General Ali Shafei said on 13 April that Interior Minister Musavi-Lari has accepted his resignation and he will leave within 48 hours, ISNA reported. His resignation was reported in March (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 15 March 2004). Shafei explained that the interior minister and the provincial governor-general had opposed his resignation. He added that a Bam native identified as Dr. Makarem will succeed him. (Bill Samii)

IRAN'S NEW INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT UNUSABLE. Supreme Leader Khamenei declared this Iran's year of accountability (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 29 March 2004). He could start by determining why Tehran's newest and grandest international airport remains unusable, almost three months after being inaugurated amid much fanfare.

The Imam Khomeini International Airport near Tehran cost a total of 2.6 trillion rials plus $60 billion, IRNA reported on 31 January. It is intended to handle about 6 million passengers its first phase, 15 million in the second phase, and 40 million a year when the third phase is complete; IRNA did not specify when this would be.

President Khatami inaugurated the airport on 1 February at a ceremony attended by the Roads and Transport Minister Ahmad Khoram; Housing and Urban Development Minister Ali Abdol-Alizadeh; Post, Telegraph, and Telephone Minister Ahmad Motamedi; and foreign dignitaries, IRNA reported at the time.

Yet the airport still cannot be used, according to Radio Farda on 14 April, because construction on the project is below par and does not conform to international standards. The original project engineers quit after the end of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, and the government at that time allowed the Oppressed and Disabled Foundation (Bonyad-i Mostazafan va Janbazan) to take over the airport project. The foundation changed many of the original specifications. As a result, the runways were made with asphalt instead of cement and must be repaved; neither the electrical power nor the runway lighting function properly; and the aircraft refueling equipment is inadequate. Until these problems are resolved, Radio Farda reported, the airport cannot be used.

Meanwhile, a new airport was inaugurated in the West Azerbaijan Province city of Khoi on 8 April, state radio reported. Built at a cost of 40 billion rials, its runway is big enough to handle medium-sized aircraft. Roads and Transport Minister Khoram said at the inauguration that plans are under way to build airports at Ahvaz, Bandar Abbas, Isfahan, Mashhad, Shiraz, and Tabriz. (Bill Samii)

IRAN COOPERATES WITH GLOBAL COUNTERNARCOTICS EFFORTS. Iran plays an active role in the international effort to stem the flow of narcotics from Afghanistan, the world's biggest producer of opium. Iran, Afghanistan, and Afghanistan's other neighbors -- China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- on 1 April signed an agreement on creating a "security belt" around Afghanistan that will clamp down on narcotics trafficking, the "Financial Times" reported on 2 April. The agreement calls for more border troops, tighter border controls, coordinated counternarcotics strategies, and more information exchanges. The concept of a "security belt" has been promoted since 2002 (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 20 May 2002).

The signing of the "Good Neighborly Relations Declaration on Narcotics Control" coincided with the 31 March-1 April Berlin conference on Afghanistan, at which time UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) chief Antonio Maria Costa released a statement stressing the importance of drug control in Afghanistan and welcoming the agreement.

Speaking at the same conference, Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai said, "Drugs in Afghanistan are threatening the very existence of the Afghan state," "The Union Leader" of Manchester, New Hampshire reported on 1 April. Furthermore, Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali said at an 18 March news conference that drug enforcement is his ministry's top issue for the coming year, Kabul's Afghanistan Television reported.

Iran's Drug Control Headquarters (DCHQ) chief Ali Hashemi met with European Union officials on the sidelines of 47th Session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna on 18 March, IRNA reported. Both sides concurred that the situation in Afghanistan is the most intractable problem facing Iranian, regional, and European drug control efforts. Hashemi said that Iran hoped the end of the Taliban would reduce the drug threat, adding, "But after more than two years, we are still witnessing a daily increase in the production and trafficking of illicit drugs from the country."

The next day, UNODC's Maria Costa told Hashemi that his organization is impressed with Iran's efforts along its eastern border, IRNA reported.

A delegation of Italian counternarcotics personnel visited Iran in late February. The head of the delegation, identified by IRNA on 24 February as Francesco Petroka, said in a meeting with Deputy Interior Minister Ali Asqar Ahmadi that Italy's counternarcotics agency eventually would like to set up a branch office in Iran, IRNA reported on 24 February. In Italy, the Central Directorate for Antidrug Services runs narcotics-enforcement activities. This is a multiagency body established in the Public Security Department with personnel from the State Police, the Carabinieri Corps, and the Guardia di Finanza (Customs and Excise Police) (see http://www.poliziadistato.it/pds/english/drugs.htm).

DCHQ chief Ali Hashemi met with his Italian counterpart, identified by IRNA on 24 February as Peter Kaba. Hashemi stressed the need for controlling narcotics production in Afghanistan, and he added that Iran's strategy is to establish a stable government there through economic assistance. Kaba expressed interest in an information exchange on demand-reduction activities, and he suggested that Italy's experience might be useful for Iran.

There have been more recent meetings. Iranian Ambassador to Moscow Gholam-Reza Shafei and Russia's Federal Drug Control Service chief Viktor Cherkesov (a colonel general of the Federal Security Service) discussed cooperation in the counternarcotics field on 15 April, IRNA reported. Shafei said narcotics production in Afghanistan is on the increase "because of the lenient approach of the coalition forces, mainly the U.S., toward the issue." Shafei suggested that Tehran, Moscow, and the United Nations work together to stop the production of drugs in Afghanistan and prevent drug trafficking. He added that Iran is ready to sign a counternarcotics agreement with Russia and Tajikistan.

DCHQ chief Hashemi and the head of the Indonesian drug-control agency met in Tehran on 14 April, IRNA reported. They discussed preparations for a memorandum of understanding on drug control cooperation that is due to be signed in Jakarta in May, IRNA reported.

Such meetings do not seem to be making much of an impression on some Iranian officials. Deputy Foreign Minister Mohsen Aminzadeh said in Moscow on 13 April, "European countries and the United States give little attention to this problem while narcotics production is rapidly growing in Afghanistan," ITAR-TASS reported. He said that drug trafficking and terrorism are connected, and the money from the Afghan narcotics trade goes to terrorists, especially Al-Qaeda.

Deputy Interior Minister Ahmadi complained to a 12 March meeting of Iranian and Afghan officials in Herat Province's Taleh Mush region that European countries and the West generally are not very serious in the global war on drugs, IRNA reported. If they are serious, he added, they must assist Iran's counternarcotics campaign. Ahmadi said that narcotics mafias are taking advantage of Afghan farmers' economic needs. He said Iran is ready to help Afghanistan in any fashion, and he cited Iran's experience in police training, local and municipal councils, issuing passports, and anything else. (Bill Samii)

UN REFUGEE AGENCY CHIEF IN IRAN. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Ruud Lubbers arrived in Tehran on 13 April as part of a trip that will take in Afghanistan and Pakistan, irinnews.org and IRNA reported. Some 2.5 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan since the Taliban's fall in December 2001, and UNHCR intends to help another 400,000 go home in 2004. Just this year, according to irinnews.org, 26,000 Afghans have "spontaneously" returned from Iran.

Lubbers met with Iranian Foreign Minister Kharrazi and reportedly told him that the Afghan security situation is suitable for the refugees' return, according to IRNA. Kharrazi expressed the hope that repatriations would be facilitated by the cooperation of the UNHCR and the Afghan interim administration. Kharrazi added that international organizations should be more active in the refugees' repatriation. International refugee agencies working in Iran recently complained to RFE/RL that the Iranian government impedes their work, driving some to leave the country (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 22 December 2003). (Bill Samii)

LEGISLATURE BRIEFED ON NUCLEAR ISSUE. Officials from the Foreign Ministry and Atomic Energy Organization on 13 April briefed members of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Affairs committee on the progress of the country's talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), IRNA reported.

Committee spokesman Jafar Golbaz said they were apprised of the government's discussions with IAEA Director-General Mohammad el-Baradei and on "U.S. pressure on the IAEA." Golbaz said the United States is trying to obstruct Iran-IAEA talks but that these obstructions can be removed. Legislators have complained that they are out of the loop on the nuclear issue and are forced to conduct their own research to know what is going on.

One day earlier, five inspectors from the IAEA arrived in Iran, Mehr News Agency and AP reported on 12 April. The IAEA personnel were scheduled to meet with representatives of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization and to supervise the suspension of uranium enrichment and the making of uranium centrifuges, Mehr reported. AP added that the inspectors intend to confirm whether or not Iran has a covert nuclear program. Atomic Energy Organization chief Gholamreza Aqazadeh-Khoi said on 16 April that Iran expects its nuclear dossier to return to a normal status on the basis of its negotiations with the IAEA, state television reported.

Meanwhile, Minister of Science, Research, and Technology Jafar Tofiqi-Darian told visitors to the Arak heavy-water installation that it would start test production "in the coming months," Iranian state television reported on 16 April. The output will be stored until a 40-megawatt research reactor is built at Arak. (Bill Samii)

UNEMPLOYMENT FIGURES CONTINUE TO RISE. Farshid Yazdani, director-general of the social and economic planning department at the Social Security Organization, said on 12 April that the number of unemployed in Iran has doubled in the past four years, "Iran Daily" reported on 13 April. Yazdani attributed this increase mainly to mismanagement and added that management shortcomings are ignored while the blame for unemployment is shifted to the workforce. Yazdani said the government's industrial renovation plan will render another 30,000 people jobless.

Minister of Mines and Industries Ishaq Jahangiri said on 17 April that privatization and less government intervention in the economy are the keys to creating more jobs, IRNA reported. (Bill Samii)

NORTHERN TEA FACTORIES FACE CASH CRISIS. Ghasem Rezaiyat, who heads the association of tea factories in northern Iran, said in the 13 April issue of "Entekhab" newspaper that the factories do not have enough money to buy green tea from the growers. Gilan Province tea factories have a 150-billion toman (about $187.5 million) debt, he said.

Meanwhile, Iran is planning to export tea to Germany, Japan, and Kuwait, "Iran Daily" reported on 13 April, citing the previous day's "Sobh-i Eqtesad." The article described the creation of a tea factory in the northern city of Lahijan, and it quoted tea industry official Abdosamad Gharavi as saying that exports will begin once the factory becomes operational. Gharavi said the factory will make 5,000 kilograms of tea essence, 1,000 kilograms of tea powder, and 200,000 tea bags during the first phase of the project, which should become operational in a month. (Bill Samii)

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