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Iran Report: December 7, 2004

7 December 2004, Volume 7, Number 43

IRAN SPLITS HAIRS ON SUICIDE BOMBINGS. An Iranian Interior Ministry official said in late November that his government has not encouraged the Iraqi insurgency and will not allow suicide bombers to cross the Iranian border into Iraq. Yet an organization affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) is registering volunteer suicide bombers; state officials have in the past advocated suicide bombings (a.k.a. martyrdom operations); and the country's top religious figures have defended the practice under specific circumstances.

Deputy Interior Minister for Security Affairs Ali Asqar Ahmadi said at a 28 November news conference that no group in Iran has a law regulating suicide bombers, "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on 29 November. Ahmadi also said, according to AP and Reuters, that Iranian groups are free to theorize about suicide bombings, but they cannot cross borders to put these theories into practice.

The Headquarters for Tribute to the Martyrs of the Global Islamic Movement -- which is affiliated with the IRGC, according to the 28 May "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" -- began enrollment of volunteer suicide bombers in May (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 14 June 2004). Registration forms for suicide bombers are available all over Tehran, AP reported on 29 November -- and the government does not seem to be trying to halt this phenomenon.

The head of public relations for the Headquarters for Tribute to the Martyrs of the Global Islamic Movement, Mohammad Ali Samadi, said on 24 November that his organization will announce the creation of the first company of martyrs on 2 December, the Baztab website reported. Samadi said the move is in sympathy with the people of Al-Fallujah and is being made in response to a message from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The announcement will reportedly take place at Behesht-i Zahra Cemetery, at the same time as the inauguration of a stone tablet commemorating "the biggest martyrdom operation against American occupiers" (see next article). Samadi added that more martyrdom volunteers will be enrolled during the ceremony.

A number of high-ranking individuals have defended the registration of suicide bombers. At a late summer ceremony in the southern Iranian city of Bushehr that was organized by the Headquarters for Tribute to the Martyrs of the Global Islamic Movement, parliamentarian Shokrollah Atarzadeh registered as a martyrdom volunteer, "Ya-Lisarat al-Hussein" reported on 15 September. Hussein Shariatmadari, the managing editor of "Kayhan" newspaper and the Supreme Leader's representative at the Kayhan Institute, said Iranians must be ready to use "martyrdom-seeking operations." He said Israel is vulnerable and added, "You don't know that the wish of martyrdom-seekers is to send the Israelis to hell. You don't know what a fury and vengeance burns in the hearts of each and every Muslim when they see you destroy the houses of Muslims over their heads or when you commit genocide." Shariatmadari asked, "Why should they be in peace and security in European cities while the people of Iraq, Palestine, and other Muslim countries have no security?"

Tehran parliamentary representative Mehdi Kuchakzadeh, military officials, and scholars spoke about topics such as "Martyrdom Operations and Military and Security Strategies" and "Martyrdom Operations -- The Last Weapon" at a 2 June meeting in Tehran, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported on 4 June. Enrollment forms for volunteers were distributed after the meeting.

Support for suicide bombings is not limited to a few parliamentarians. Iran's top official, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has also defended the practice. According to a state radio report, he said during a 1 May 2002 speech that "It is the zenith of honor for a man, a young person, boy or girl, to be prepared to sacrifice his life in order to serve the interests of his nation and his religion. This is the zenith of courage and bravery.... martyrdom-seeking operations demonstrate the pinnacle of a nation's honor." In a 2 May 2003 sermon in Tehran, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati said that the Iraqi people "have no option but to resort to Intifadah [uprising] and martyrdom-seeking operations. That is the only solution. They are learning from the Palestinian experience."

Shi'a Islam's top scholars have spoken out on the issue, too. In April, 2002 the Palestinian Islamic Jihad's representative in Tehran, Abu Jihad, met in Qom with Grand Ayatollahs Mohammad Fazel-Movahedi-Lankarani, Nasser Makarem-Shirazi, Mohammad-Taqi Bahjat, Yusef Sanei, and Abdol-Karim Musavi-Ardabili, as well as Ayatollah Ali Akbar Meshkini-Qomi. Abu Jihad asked these religious scholars about the permissibility of "martyrdom operations," state radio reported on 12 April. In the words of state radio, "the grand ayatollahs reiterated the views that they had already expressed, saying that martyrdom operations were permitted in occupied Palestine." Fazel-Lankarani said, "The Palestinians have no choice but to carry out martyrdom operations."

In some circumstances, such as defending the homeland against foreign attackers, any form of defense might be considered acceptable. Indeed, the summer meeting in Bushehr was organized around the possibility of an attack against the nuclear facility in that city. Moreover, "martyrdom" can be interpreted as a willingness to give one's life in defense of the country.

Yet the registration of suicide bombers to go to Iraq, or the advocacy of suicide bombings in Israel, has nothing to do with defending Iranian territory. Official Iranian claims that it does not back suicide bombers and terrorism, therefore, are patently false. (Bill Samii)

MURDER OF AMERICANS CELEBRATED IN IRAN. The Headquarters for Tribute to the Martyrs of the Global Islamic Movement on 2 December commemorated the 1983 suicide bombing of a U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, in which 241 Americans were killed, Reuters reported. The event took place at Behesht-i Zahra Cemetery, where about 200 men and women chanted "Death to America" and "Death to Israel." The Headquarters for Tribute to the Martyrs of the Global Islamic Movement began enrolling volunteer suicide bombers in May, and more volunteers were enrolled at this event. (Bill Samii)

IRAQ'S POROUS BORDERS FOCUS OF MEETING IN TEHRAN. Deputy Interior Minister for Security Affairs Ali Asqar Ahmadi said on 28 November that Iran is ready to train and equip Iraqi police and border guards, Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. The announcement preceded a 30 November-1 December conference in Tehran of Interior Ministry and security officials from Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey.

The conference in Iran turned into a debate between Tehran and Baghdad over who is more responsible for insecurity in both countries. Iraqi Vice President Ibrahim al-Jafari urged Iran to secure the borders and stop the transit of foreign insurgents, AFP reported. Iraqi delegates also said some of the country's neighbors are putting their political interests ahead of Iraqi interests, MENA reported.

Iranian Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari complained on 1 December that weapons entering Iran from Iraq are causing serious problems, IRNA reported, and he also urged Baghdad to act against the Mujahedin Khalq Organization, an anti-Iranian group that has been based in Iraq since the 1980s. "Nothing can justify the presence in Iraq of terrorist groups who cooperated with the regime of Saddam Hussein and who committed crimes against the Iraqi people and the neighbors of Iraq," Musavi-Lari said, according to "The Daily Star" on 1 December. Musavi-Lari acknowledged the need to work on border security and offered police and border guards training.

A major meeting on Iraq took place in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh on 22-23 November. Iraqi Vice President Ibrahim al-Jafari followed up on this meeting with a visit to Tehran on 26-27 November. Al-Jafari's adviser, Javad Taleb, said al-Jafari requested Iranian assistance in quelling the Iraqi insurgency, AP reported on 27 November. Khatami responded that the key to Iraqi security is holding elections, IRNA reported.

Baghdad sent a special envoy to Tehran on 9 November. Wail Abd al-Latif conveyed a message from interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi to President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, news agencies reported. That message focused on difficulties with border security and the infiltration of terrorists from Iran, and called on Iran to assist Iraq in securing the border, Fars News Agency reported on 10 November, citing an anonymous "informed source."

Security is a major aspect of Iraqi dealings with Iran, but commerce and legal issues are important as well. According to "Aftab-i Yazd" on 8 November, Iraqi Ambassador to Iran Mohammad Majid al-Sheikh has asked Tehran to drop its demand for war reparations. Iran referred to $97.2 billion in nonmilitary damages in a May 2003 letter to the United Nations, and it later submitted a request for reparations to the International Monetary Fund (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 1 November 2004). At a 2 November roundtable in Tehran, al-Sheikh discussed the travel of pilgrims to Shi'a holy sites and stressed the opportunities for reconstruction in his country, IRNA reported. (Bill Samii)

SECURITY OPERATIONS IN KURDISH REGION CONTINUE. The Iranian military has renewed security operations in the country's northwest, "Ozgur Politika" reported on 29 November. According to the pro-Kurdish newspaper, some 15 Iranian villages have been besieged, as locals are forced to participate in civil defense units (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 15 November 2004). Villagers reportedly were urged to inform on militants from the People's Defense Forces (HPG) and the Kurdistan Independent Life Party (PJAK, Partiya Jiyana Azad ya Kurdistan).

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expressed extreme concern on 30 November for Iranian Kurds in central Iraq who have been caught up in the fighting there, the UN News Center reported ( According to UNHCR, some 3,000 Kurds in the Al-Tash camp near Ramadi, which is some 50 kilometers from Al-Fallujah, do not have access to water or electricity, and the local health center is not operating. Food has reached the camp, however. Thirteen Kurdish families who fled the camp arrived in the northern Iraqi town of Sulaymaniah, but the fate of the other 1,400 people who fled the camp is not known, the UN News Center reported on 26 November. (Bill Samii)

NAVY DAY COMMEMORATED IN IRAN. "The strategy of the Navy is based on deterrence and, with reference to the capabilities created in the Navy, we let our enemies know that they will pay a heavy price if they violate our waters or territory," Iranian naval commander Admiral Abbas Mohtaj said on 27 November, according to the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), as Iran marked Navy Day. Navy Day celebrates a 27 November 1979 action in which an Iranian missile boat reportedly destroyed two Iraqi oil rigs, seven vessels, and four jet fighters.

Timed to coincide with Navy Day, military exercises in the northern Persian Gulf began on 24 November. Captain Farzadi, deputy commander of the second marine region, said the five-day exercises would include asymmetric warfare, according to state radio. Asymmetric warfare has become a major focus of Iranian military doctrine. The exercises also are to include parachute operations and amphibious operations, he said.

Admiral Mohtaj expressed unhappiness about U.S. policy towards Iran and the U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf. He said that the U.S. and Israeli presence in the Caspian Sea region is a matter of concern and that the Caspian Sea should be a demilitarized zone. Mohtaj added that the regular navy and Islamic Revolution Guards Corps naval forces control the movements of all extraregional entities.

Iran and other countries should not underestimate U.S. military power, U.S. Army General and CENTCOM Commander John Abizaid said on 26 November, Radio Farda reported, citing AFP. Abizaid was responding to a question about the U.S. military's ability to take action against Iran, despite its engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq. "Why the Iranians would want to move against us in an overt manner that would cause us to use our air or naval power against them would be beyond me," Abizaid said. "We have an incredible amount of power." He cited the recent attack on Al-Fallujah as an example of what a relatively limited number of troops could accomplish when supported by air power. "And so we can generate more military power per square inch than anybody else on earth, and everybody knows it," he said.

Admiral Mohtaj also drew attention to Iran's self-sufficiency in meeting the Navy's needs. He attended a 28 November ceremony in Bandar Abbas where a Qadir midget submarine was inaugurated. He added that two more would be launched within six months.

Mohtaj said the regular navy and the IRGC navy complement each other, ISNA reported, noting that there is an effort to avoid duplication of effort. "The Guards' Navy is more active in respect of fast boats and the [regular] Navy made [progress] in terms of subsurface [warfare]," he said. (Bill Samii)

NEW ROUND OF MILITARY EXERCISES IN SOUTHWEST. Brigadier General Nasir Mohammadifar, commander of Iran's regular ground forces, announced on 2 December that the country's largest-ever military exercises will begin on 3 December, state radio reported. Codenamed "Followers of the Rule of the Supreme Jurisprudent" (Payrovan-i Vilayat), the exercises will take place in the southwestern provinces of Hamedan, Ilam, Kermanshah, Khuzestan, and Luristan. Mohammadifar said participants in the exercises will include airborne technicians, artillery units, missile units, and electronic warfare units. Rather than emphasizing conventional warfare, Mohammadifar said, asymmetric warfare will be employed. The purpose of this, according to the state radio, is "so that constant blows will be imposed on the enemy without the enemy knowing from where the blows are coming." (Bill Samii)

DEFENSE MINISTRY FUNDING INFUSION MAY GO FOR ADVANCED WEAPONS, WMD. Minister of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Ali Shamkhani told reporters on 23 November that the defense budget will be augmented with funds from the country's foreign exchange reserve, Fars News Agency reported.

An anonymous brigadier general in the Defense Ministry said that $2 billion was withdrawn from the foreign exchange reserve in March and an additional $2.5 billion was withdrawn from the reserve in October in order to finance a project to equip missiles with nuclear, biological, and chemical warheads, "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on 25 November. These alleged activities are taking place in the Aerospace Industries Organization, which is part of the Defense Ministry.

"Iran continued to vigorously pursue indigenous programs to produce nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons," according to the Central Intelligence Agency's "Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions -- 1 July through 31 December 2003," which was released on 23 November ( "Iran is also working to improve delivery systems as well as ACW. To this end, Iran continued to seek foreign materials, training, equipment, and know-how."

The CIA report notes the U.S. conviction that, in violation of its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty commitments, Iran is pursuing a clandestine nuclear-weapons program. It is working to produce nerve agents and may have stockpiled blister, blood, and choking agents, report says. It "probably" maintains an offensive biological warfare program and "probably" can produce small quantities of biological warfare agents. The report also notes that the Iranian ballistic missile inventory is "among the largest in the Middle East."

Much of the foreign know-how, according to the CIA report, comes from China, Europe, North Korea, and Russia. Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan's nuclear proliferation network provided Iran with "significant assistance." "The A.Q. Khan network provided Iran with designs for Pakistan's older centrifuges, as well as designs for more advanced and efficient models and components."

Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Masud Khan denied this allegation, according to Radio Farda ( Referring to a "New York Times" article about the CIA report, Khan said, "The writer of the report has spun a strange web based on flimsy evidence, hearsay and snippets of conversations," AP reported on 27 November. "The CIA report does not mention any 'designs for weapons or bomb-making components.' Weapons and bomb-making are the writer's own creative insertions."

A 27 November article in "The Los Angeles Times" may cast doubt on the CIA report. The daily cites current and former U.S. intelligence community personnel who say the U.S. does not have many reliable sources on illicit arms activities in Iran. One former official said Tehran strictly controls secrecy about its nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs. Iranians who travel to and from the West are viewed as a valuable source of information. Iranians in Iraq are viewed as potential informants, furthermore. U.S. technical means for gathering information on Iran were undermined, according to "The Los Angeles Times," when Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi allegedly leaked to Tehran that the U.S. has broken an Iranian communications code. (Bill Samii)

FREED ONLINE JOURNALIST EXPRESSES REMORSE. Released last week after a 60-day imprisonment, online journalist Ruzbeh Mir-Ibrahimi announced in a letter published in the 1 December "Etemad" that he has seen the error of his ways. Mir-Ibrahimi wrote that he was used as part of an "evil project," and he regretted that his interviews and writings misrepresented the realities of Iran and the country's political system. Mir-Ibrahimi said that "foreigners and counterrevolutionaries" supported a secret "network" that operated in and out of the country. This alleged network, which consisted of reformist politicians in Iran and "fugitives" who left the country, was waging psychological warfare against Iran. Mir-Ebrahimi said he cooperated with "many illegal sites" and he was a source of reports and interviews for radio stations that included Radio Farda.

These allegations about an international anti-Iranian network are very similar to some that appeared in a 29 September editorial in the "Kayhan" newspaper titled "The Spider's Web" (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 25 October 2004). Mir-Ebrahimi also wrote that he experienced "nothing but kindness and respect" during his detention. (Bill Samii)

KHATAMI LOOKS NORTH. President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami met with the governors-general of Gilan, Gulistan, and Mazandaran provinces on 1 December, state radio reported. He urged them to reach the government's development targets and called for greater industrial investment in the region. Khatami told the officials, furthermore, that the provinces' tourism potential should be exploited. The tropical northern part of the country is a popular tourist destination, and Iranian families visit cities like Ramsar so they can enjoy the Caspian Sea beaches. (Bill Samii)

ALLEGED 'NUCLEAR SPY' ARRESTED IN IRAN. Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) announced on 1 December that it has arrested an alleged "nuclear spy," state television and IRNA reported. This individual, identified as "Asqar S," reportedly created a fake company that manufactured uranium-enrichment centrifuges. His intention was to show that, despite its commitment to freeze such activities, Iran has not stopped assembling the centrifuges. The MOIS went on to say that the accused has "a record of espionage for foreigners," that he hoped to earn money through the company, and that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency is behind this scenario.

This arrest coincides with a trial in Tehran of other alleged nuclear spies.

Ali Mobasheri, head of the Revolutionary Court, said on 28 November that the trial of individuals accused of spying on Iran's nuclear program continues, Fars News Agency reported. He refused to divulge any more information before a verdict is issued. The second part of the case, Mobasheri added, is being organized by the MOIS. Iran announced the arrest of several suspected nuclear spies in late August and the trial began in mid-September (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 6 September and 23 November 2004). "Sharq" reported on 18 November that the alleged spies appear to be members of the Mujahedin Khalq Organization.

"Sharq" also noted that, in 2002, reformist journalist and research institute director Abbas Abdi was accused of passing the same kind of nuclear information to foreign countries. Abdi was acquitted of that charge but was imprisoned for the activities of the Ayandeh Research Institute, whose polling showed that a majority of respondents favored a restoration of Iran-U.S. relations (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 7 October 2002, 9, 16, and 23 December 2002, 6 and 20 January, 10 February, and 21 April 2003). (Bill Samii)

GERMAN MAGAZINE DESCRIBES SECRET IRANIAN NUCLEAR FACILITY. Germany's "Der Spiegel" magazine announced on 27 November that it has acquired documents describing a secret underground facility near Isfahan that could be used for producing uranium hexafluoride (UF6), Reuters reported. The documents reportedly come from an unnamed intelligence agency. According to "Der Spiegel," Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a directive for construction of the underground facility. (Bill Samii)

IAEA GOVERNING BOARD GOES EASY ON IRAN. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board of governors on 29 November passed a resolution on the Iranian nuclear program ( It noted Iran's "good progress" in correcting "breaches" in fulfilling its obligations, saying that all declared nuclear material is accounted for and has not been diverted to prohibited activities, although the IAEA cannot conclude if undeclared activities or materials exist in Iran. The only slightly negative note came in the expression of "concern" that Iran continued enrichment activities, including the production of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) despite a board of governors' request in September for the suspension of such activities.

On 30 November, "The New York Times" described the resolution as "mildly worded" and, on the same day, "The Washington Post" said it "praised Iran."

The IAEA resolution welcomed the Iranian decision to suspend uranium-enrichment activities and said that the "full and sustained implementation of this suspension is essential to addressing outstanding issues."

Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani said at a 30 November news conference in Tehran that the Iranian suspension of enrichment activities will continue for months, rather than years, and it will last only for the duration of Iran-Europe trade negotiations, Radio Farda reported. "We've clearly said [to the European countries] that negotiations should not take long. We've clearly said we're not talking about years. We should reach an agreement within months," Rohani said. The Iranian official insisted that his country should be rewarded. "The Europeans should give the Islamic Republic of Iran serious guarantees regarding their cooperation in [accessing] modern technologies, including nuclear technologies, [as well as] long-term economic cooperation and also political and security cooperation," he said. (Bill Samii)

IAEA RESOLUTION ENDORSES IRANIAN FREEZE OF SUSPECT NUCLEAR ACTIVITIES. The IAEA resolution (see article above) is only mildly critical of Iran's cooperation with international arms inspectors. The resolution is reported to call for "continuing investigations into sensitive aspects of Iran's nuclear program." It also mentions "many breaches of Iran's obligations to comply" with previous IAEA demands to fully disclose its nuclear activities. But it notes that Tehran has taken "corrective measures" since coming under closer IAEA scrutiny in October 2003.

The resolution's wording, proposed by the EU, is considered likely to disappoint Washington, which had been pressing for the IAEA to take a tougher stand against Iran during its current review of the Iranian nuclear crisis. Washington has repeatedly urged that the UN nuclear agency refer Tehran to the UN Security Council for possible discussion of punitive measures, including economic sanctions. Washington charges Iran with pursuing efforts to develop a nuclear-weapons capability under the cover of operating a commercial nuclear-energy program. Iran denies the charges.

The IAEA passed the resolution shortly after agency head Muhammad el-Baradei said on 29 November that inspectors had verified Tehran's claim to have fully suspended its uranium-enrichment activities. "This [suspension] is clearly a positive step in the right direction," el-Baradei said. "It would help mitigate international concern about the nature of the Iranian program and, over time, should help to build confidence with regard to Iran's nuclear program."

El-Baradei said the verification includes putting 20 disputed uranium-enrichment centrifuges under agency surveillance. Iran had earlier said it reserved the right to continue work with the 20 centrifuges, but then abandoned that demand on 28 November. Iran's earlier insistence on operating 20 centrifuges had threatened to torpedo a two-week-old deal between Tehran and three key EU states -- Britain, France, and Germany -- intended to lower international concern over Iran's nuclear program.

The EU-Iran deal calls on Iran to give up activities that could support a nuclear weapons development effort in exchange for European technical help with Iran's commercial nuclear-energy program. The deal revives a similar but less precisely worded accord in 2003 that later fell apart amid disagreements over the terms.

Wrangling over terms has also characterized the bargaining over the new EU-Iran deal. It is unclear whether all the differences have been fully resolved. Hussein Musavian, chief of the Iranian delegation in Vienna, told journalists on 29 November that Tehran has agreed with the Europeans drafting of the resolution in which Iran's decision to suspend uranium enrichment is not a "legal obligation" but a voluntary step under their deal. Musavian said the resolution makes Tehran's position clear. "The major issues with which we were concerned, you can find in this resolution. We emphasized that the suspension should be a voluntary suspension, just for confidence building and not as a legal obligation for Iran. Fortunately, this is very clear in this resolution."

Such insistence on the voluntary nature of Iran's suspension of dual-use activities could leave room for future bargaining by Tehran over whether they can be restarted in the future. Washington has said it is skeptical of Iran's good faith in negotiating with the Europeans. But the U.S. has not rejected the "EU Three's" efforts. A U.S. State Department official told reporters that "we've seen this kind of commitment from Iran before...follow up is very important."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair downplayed those concerns on 29 November, saying it is the Europeans' intention to assure that Iran engages in a process of giving up dual-use activities in a verifiable way. "I think the most important thing is to make sure that [the Iranians] are in a process where the [International] Atomic Energy [Agency] has got the ability to hold them to account for the [pledges] that they are giving," Blair said. (Charles Recknagel)

LEGISLATORS DUBIOUS ABOUT NUCLEAR DEVELOPMENTS. Speaker of Parliament Gholamali Haddad-Adel said on 30 November in Kashmar, Khorasan Razavi Province, that the IAEA resolution on Iran is unsatisfactory, IRNA reported. He said the legislature demands access to peaceful nuclear technology.

The deputy speaker, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, said on 30 November in Tehran that the course of Iran-Europe negotiations in the coming months will determine the legislature's stand on the nuclear issue, IRNA reported. The legislature, he added, "does not regard as positive the strict policies pursued by the European states in the recent draft resolution issued by the [IAEA] Board of Governors and interprets it as a reflection of the U.S. political attitude towards Iran's nuclear program." Bahonar said the legislature will "oblige the government to gain access to nuclear technology and complete the fuel recycling process." (Bill Samii)

CONSTRUCTION OF IRAN-ARMENIA GAS PIPELINE BEGINS. Construction of a natural gas pipeline connecting Iran to Armenia began in the southern Armenia village of Agarak on 30 November, Mediamax and IRNA reported. The agreement on the construction of the pipeline was signed in May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 May 2004) and the 41-kilometer section in Armenia is expected to cost $210-$220 million. More pipeline-related agreements were signed when President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami visited Yerevan in September (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 13 September 2004). Participants in the ceremony marking the beginning of construction included Iranian Energy Minister Habibullah Bitaraf, Armenian Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, and Armenian Energy Minister Armen Movsisian. (Bill Samii)


"No Al-Qaeda leaders are in Iran," Iranian Deputy Interior Minister Ali Asqar Ahmadi said at a 28 September news conference in Tehran. "Iran has never permitted the transit of terrorists to Iraq or any other country from its own territory," he added.

Although Tehran has repeatedly issued such denials, two separate Iranian officials confirmed in 2003 and early 2004 that Iranian authorities are holding Al-Qaeda members in custody, and that they will be brought to trial as they constitute a threat to Iran's national security, ONASA news agency reported on 15 February 2004. But to date, no such trial is known to have taken place.

Reports nonetheless persist that hundreds of Al-Qaeda operatives, along with some 18 senior leaders -- including Saif Adel, Al-Qaeda's military commander, and Osama Bin Laden's son, Saad -- are living in Iran. Spain's top counterterrorism judge has dubbed this Al-Qaeda's "board of managers," according to the 1 August "Los Angeles Times." A French counterterrorism official says that these leaders have "controlled freedom of movement" inside Iran, AFP reported on 15 July, and the London-based Arabic daily "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reports that some are even living in villas near the Caspian Sea coast town of Chalus, AFP reported on 28 June.

Other accounts of their activities are far more disturbing. U.S. communications intercepts indicate that the 12 May 2003 attacks on the expatriate compounds in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, were orchestrated from Iran, according to the 1 August "Los Angeles Times," and though others may be involved, European government officials reportedly point to Adel as the primary suspect.

Moreover, French government officials are reported to suspect that the Al-Qaeda leadership based in Iran played a role in the suicide bombings that targeted Western and Jewish interests in Casablanca, Morocco, that occurred four days after the Riyadh attacks and resulted in the death of 33 civilians as well as 12 suicide bombers.

Al-Qaeda members in Iran are also said to have funded the Istanbul bombings in November 2003, in which two synagogues, the British Consulate, and a London-based bank were bombed and 63 people were killed, according to court testimony provided by Adnan Ersoz, one of 69 charged in connection with these incidents, AFP reported on 13 September.

Spanish investigators believe that even the 11 March commuter train bombings in Madrid were at least partially planned from the Al-Qaeda base in Iran. Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, named by Spanish police as a primary suspect, is suspected of having operated from Iran, as is another suspect, Amer Azizi, who is believed to have spent time in Iran before returning to Spain to carry out the attacks, according to Spanish communications intercepts cited in the "Los Angeles Times."

These intercepts indicate that Azizi met with then-Al-Qaeda-affiliate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian terrorist believed to be behind various assassinations, car bombings, and beheadings in Iraq. It is widely reported that he too has used Iran as his base of operations, where he was able to extend his reach as far as Europe, and where he remains the primary suspect in terror plots involving chemical and biological weapons attacks on targets in Europe that were foiled in 2002 and 2003, according to law enforcement authorities in London and Paris cited by the "Los Angeles Times" article.

U.S. government officials are said to believe that al-Zarqawi had more contact with the Iranian government than he ever did with former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, according to "Newsweek" of 25 October. Although some U.S. analysts remain skeptical of the notion that al-Zarqawi could have established a close relationship with the Shi'ite regime, given his alleged hostility toward Shi'ites in general, Jordanian intelligence have corroborated the existence of such links, the weekly reported.

That al-Zarqawi was indeed allowed to operate from Iran was confirmed by a commander of the elite Al-Quds unit of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), General Qasem Suleimani, who reportedly said that the IRGC provided assistance and refuge to al-Zarqawi in order to prevent the establishment of a pro-U.S. regime in Iraq, according to "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" on 11 August. The general's remarks contrast with the official position of the Iranian government, which is that it has "no affinity" with Al-Qaeda and has from time to time arrested and extradited various Al-Qaeda suspects to their home countries.

In August, the Iranian Intelligence Ministry foiled a series of assassinations allegedly being planned by Al-Qaeda's Adel along with a high-ranking leader of the IRGC, "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on 19 August. The plot, which was revealed in recorded telephone calls, targeted U.S. military, CIA, and FBI personnel in the former Soviet Republics that neighbor Iran. According to the Arabic daily's source, the plot was apparently conceived in order to force a confrontation with both the United States and Iran's northerly neighbors -- Armenia, Azerbaijan and its Nakhichevan exclave, and Turkmenistan -- and it furthermore shows the deep divisions between the hard-line and reformist factions in determining Iranian foreign policy.

Many Iran experts are not surprised that the IRGC might provide assistance and refuge to Al-Qaeda members at the same time that other elements of the Iranian government, such as the Intelligence Ministry, are arresting and extraditing Al-Qaeda suspects. Many experts believe the IRGC operates beyond the control of elected politicians in Tehran and answers only to the hard core of the unelected clerical elite. As a top French law enforcement official told the "Los Angeles Times," "Iranians play a double game. It is a classic Iranian style of ambiguity, deception, manipulation. Everything they can do to trouble the Americans, without going too far, they do it. They have arrested important Al-Qaeda people, but they have permitted other important Al-Qaeda people to operate."

(Sharon Chadha is an independent analyst of Persian Gulf affairs)