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Iran Report: December 14, 2004


14 December 2004, Volume 7, Number 44

NO RESPITE IN ELECTION DATE CONTROVERSY. President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami told the legislature on 2 December that Iran stands "on the brink of another historical moment, namely the elections, and we must meet the conditions for a massive and hopeful participation of the people in order to hold a lively election," the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. Khatami went on to say that a "totalitarian culture" precludes fulfilling public demands and achieving democracy.

In a 5 December letter to Khatami, Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari called for a meeting between his ministry and the Guardians Council to set a date for the next presidential election, IRNA reported on 6 December. The Interior Ministry runs elections and the Guardians Council supervises them -- and thus far the council has rejected two of the dates proposed by the Interior Ministry: 13 May and 20 May (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 25 October, 15 and 29 November 2004). In the letter, a copy of which was sent to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Musavi-Lari said that since his ministry runs these events it should set the date for elections.

On 4 December, the Guardians Council agreed to the Interior Ministry's proposal to hold the presidential election and parliamentary by-elections on the same date, IRNA reported. The by-elections will take place in constituencies where results for the February 2004 elections were cancelled or in which balloting did not take place. (Bill Samii)

CONSERVATIVE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES SPEAK UP... Three conservatives have announced their intention to be presidential candidates even though a date for the election has not yet been announced. Continuing controversy over who should or should not be a candidate demonstrates that Iran's right wing is not as monolithic as the conservatives' domination of the February 2004 parliamentary election would lead one to believe.

The first person to announce his candidacy for the 2005 presidential election is former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, who is currently an adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Radio Farda reported on 27 November. Velayati, considered a conservative, met with leaders of the hard-line Islamic Coalition Party just days before announcing his candidacy (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 29 November 2004).

During that meeting, according to a commentary in the 24 November "Farhang-i Ashti," Velayati emphasized the need for unity among the conservatives -- implying that the differences between young right-wingers and middle-aged ones (fundamentalist vs. pro-values) are too great for them to agree on a candidate. Velayati falls somewhere in the middle of the rightist current, according to the commentary, between Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Tehran Mayor Mahmud Ahmadinejad. The commentary notes that Velayati represents the "middle-aged right."

Another prospective conservative candidate is Tehran parliamentary representative Ahmad Tavakoli. "I hope to be able to run in the presidential election," Tavakoli said at a 6 December rally at Tehran University, IRNA reported. Two days earlier, Tavakoli said in Tehran, "I am serious about participating in the presidential election," Mehr News Agency reported. Tavakoli ran for president in 2001 and in 1993, according to the agency.

A third prospective conservative candidate is former Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting chief Ali Larijani, who currently represents Supreme Leader Khamenei at the Supreme National Security Council. Followers of Imam and Leadership Front official Maryam Behruzi said on 11 December that Larijani has agreed to be a candidate in the 2005 presidential election, Mehr News Agency reported. The conservative group's Behruzi said that her organization will meet with other prospective candidates.

Prospective candidates do not actually register until some five weeks before the election -- a date that has yet to be determined. The conservatives can bide their time, as a result, until they throw their collective weight behind a candidate. This may explain Islamic Coalition Party Secretary-General Mohammad Nabi Habibi's 2 December statement in Tabriz, when he said his organization will not back a candidate other than the one backed by the overall "fundamentalist trend," IRNA reported.

There is little question, however, that the possible candidacy of Hashemi-Rafsanjani is foremost in the minds of political observers. Some Iranians, even beyond conservative circles, seem excited about this prospect.

"We support Hashemi-Rafsanjani in the presidential elections," Saber Mir-Atai, deputy secretary-general of the Islamic Homeland Party (Hizb-i Mihan-i Islami), said on 6 December, according to the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA). Mir-Atai said the party's support depends on the candidate's continuation of President Khatami's reforms, the inclusion of reformists in the cabinet and government, and "moderation of economic programs." Mir-Atai did not explain what this means.

Mohammad Baqer Nobakht, secretary-general of the politically pragmatic Moderation and Development Party (Hizb-i Ettedal va Toseh), said on 3 December that his party also backs Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Mehr News Agency reported. On 10 December, Nobakht said 22 parties, political groups, and guilds -- which he termed an "unwritten coalition" -- support Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Fars News Agency reported. Nobakht predicted that the former president will run again.

"Opinion polls show that Hashemi-Rafsanjani is ahead of Velayati, Ahmadinejad, and Larijani, and he can win the presidential election if he decides to enter the election race," Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Fallahian-Khuzestani said during a question-and-answer session at the Al-Hadi seminary in Qom on 2 December, Fars News Agency reported. Fallahian said Tehran Mayor Ahmadinejad is a competent official who is viewed more favorably than Velayati or Larijani, but the conservatives have not decided whether to back or reject his candidacy. If Hashemi-Rafsanjani decides against being a candidate, Fallahian speculated, the conservatives probably will back Velayati.

Other Iranians are reluctant to see Hashemi-Rafsanjani as a candidate. Conservative Mashhad representative Teimur Ali Asgar said Hashemi-Rafsanjani could be a strategist, but "the people have become modernist and would like Mr. Hashemi to leave the field to younger people," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 7 December. Asgar predicted that Velayati would withdraw his candidacy to support Hashemi-Rafsanjani's candidacy, Mehr News Agency reported on 6 December. Mustafa Kavakebian, secretary-general of the reformist Mardom Salari party, said on 4 December that Hashemi-Rafsanjani is one of the country's leading figures, ILNA reported, but it is better for somebody who has completed two presidential terms to let a new candidate fill the slot. Kabutar-Ahang representative Reza Talai-Nik predicted that Hashemi-Rafsanjani's candidacy would reduce the overall number of candidates by 70-80 percent, "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on 25 November.

Robin Wright provided a very useful classification of Iran's conservative groupings in the 29 November "The Washington Post." The most puritanical group is the "ideological conservatives" or Kayhanis, whose views appear in the "Kayhan" newspaper. The most influential group is the "new right," or neoconservatives, who dominated the February 2004 parliamentary polls and whose platform mixes theocracy and modernism. The "pragmatic conservatives" are connected with the Moderation and Development Party and the Executives of Construction Party. "Traditional conservatives," Wright noted, tend to be less involved in political affairs than the other groups.

The controversy over candidates goes beyond the 2005 presidential election and will have a direct impact on Iran's political future. The country's reformists find themselves in the background, trying to regain the momentum they lost after the February 2004 parliamentary election. If the conservatives seem unsure of their preferred candidates, the reformists are even more confused. No reformist has come forward yet as a serious candidate and, the initial first choice, Mir Hussein Musavi, has declared that he is not interested (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 25 October 2004). (Bill Samii)

...AND REFORMISTS ARE UNSURE. Support for Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani is not confined to the center-right or the "pragmatic conservatives." An editorial on 4 December in "Farhang-i Ashti" said that reformists such as Mashallah Shamsolvaezin and Sadeq Zibakalam openly support Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization and the Islamic Iran Participation Party support him implicitly. The editorial ascribed the support for the ex-president to age-cohort divisions within the reformist front, and added that the younger reformists favor Hashemi-Rafsanjani. The "middle-aged reformists" oppose a Hashemi-Rafsanjani candidacy.

An article in the 4 December "Sharq," on the other hand, asserted that the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization and the Islamic Iran Participation Party support the candidacy of former Science, Research, and Technology Minister Mustafa Moin. Government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh announced on 15 November that Moin had agreed to be a presidential candidate (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 29 November 2004). Mustafa Derayati, a leading figure in the Participation party, said in the 5 December "Sharq" that his organization has chosen Moin.

These announcements may have come as unwelcome news to Moin, who said on 5 December in Shiraz: "I have not made a decision about participating in the presidential election," the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported. Moin added in his speech that people should not expect a repetition of the 23 May 1997 elections, when dark-horse reformist candidate Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami won a surprise landslide victory.

Militant Clerics Association (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mobarez) Secretary-General Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi is also being promoted as a possible candidate. One of the members of the association, Mohammad Baqer Zakeri, said on 1 December that Karrubi is the strongest potential reformist candidate, Mehr News Agency reported. At the Mardom Salari party's 2 December congress in Tehran, Karrubi said that he still has not made up his mind on running for president, IRNA reported.

Karrubi repeated his position that he has yet to make up his mind during an interview that appeared in the 5 December "Sharq." He predicted that the reformist 2nd of Khordad Front could win the election if it coordinates its actions and if public participation is high.

Choosing a candidate is not the only difficulty the reformists are facing. They must also choose one who will survive the Guardians Council's vetting process.

Presidential adviser Hojatoleslam Mohammad Ali Abtahi said a strong reformist candidate has not come forward because potential candidates fear having their candidacies disallowed by the Guardians Council, "Sharq" reported on 5 December. A member of the Guardians Council should run for president, Abtahi recommended, as a test of public support for the institution that makes decisions on behalf of the people.

The reformists should choose a presidential candidate who is "committed, capable, competent, powerful, insightful, and prudent to the extent that he will not be doubted and disqualified," according to a letter from Qom reformists that was published in the 29 November "Aftab-i Yazd." The letter stressed the importance of unity in the 2nd of Khordad Front and suggested that the reformist groups should meet and take a common stance on what they can do to meet public demands.

"Reaching consensus on one candidate is the only way the reformists can win," Mardom Salari party Secretary-General Mustafa Kavakebian said, according to the 20 November "Mardom Salari." Consensus, he went on to say, would "minimize the chances of disqualification."

Former parliamentarian Hussein Ansari-Rad expressed similar concerns in the 22 November "Farhang-i Ashti." After the mass disqualification of candidates for the 2004 parliamentary election, he said, a lot of people think that conditions for a free election no longer exist. Reformists want a candidate who will be allowed to run. Their choices are limited.

Who the reformists pick as their leading candidate remains to be seen -- Moin, Karrubi, or somebody else. The candidates still have some time to decide, as a date for the election has not been set. They need to hurry, however, as the unofficial campaign period -- marked by party meetings and get-out-the-vote speeches by big name political figures -- will begin in January. (Bill Samii)

BLOGGERS' LETTERS OF CONTRITION THE RESULT OF TORTURE. Omid Memarian, Shahram Rafizadeh, and Javad Gholam-Tamimi, who are among the online journalists and webloggers who were arrested in September and October, all have written letters of contrition that were subsequently published in Iranian newspapers, AFP reported on 5 December. Another online journalist, Ruzbeh Mir-Ibrahimi, has done the same thing (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 December 2004).

Memarian said in his letter, "I was brainwashed by hard-line elements [a reference to allegedly radical reformists] to destroy the image of the regime by relating with counterrevolutionaries and talking to foreign radio." All the letter writers expressed gratitude for the excellent treatment they received while in detention. Gholam-Tamimi noted the merciful nature of the Iranian government, saying, "If I committed this crime in another country, I would have been sentenced to death or life in solitary confinement, but under the indulgent Islamic system, people in charge of my case and prison officials are convinced that I converted honestly."

Gholam-Tamimi also expressed revulsion for Journalists Guild chief Rajabali Mazrui, "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported on 5 December. He accused Mazrui of misusing Gholam-Tamimi's name, and he said that those who disturb the public in this way should be prosecuted.

Responding to criticism about the bloggers' letters of contrition, Judiciary spokesman Jamal Karimirad said that the authors wrote them freely and of their own accord, Radio Farda reported on 9 December. He asserted that the weblog writers who have been arrested are "baleq va mokhtar" (of adult age and responsible for their actions by Islamic law).

Presidential adviser Hojatoleslam Mohammad Ali Abtahi, on the other hand, has written on his weblog that the letters are the result of torture, Radio Farda reported. Moreover, according to Radio Farda, Human Rights Watch stated on 7 December that secret squads connected with the judiciary are behind the detentions and torture (see also http://hrw.org/english/docs/2004/12/06/iran9785.htm). HRW said these squads are made up of Ministry of Intelligence and Security personnel purged in the late 1990s (on the existence of these parallel organizations, see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 16 July 2001, 15 September 2003, and 19 January 2004). (Bill Samii)

BAHA'IS FACE CONTINUING HARRASSMENT. Some 300,000 Baha'is live in Iran, where their religion was founded in the mid-19th century. Iran is also where Baha'is have long faced harassment and persecution for their beliefs (for earlier reports on the Baha'is' plight, see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 23 February, 19 April, 17 August, and 13 September 2004).

Abdolkarim Lahiji, vice president of the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues, described the situation in an interview with RFE/RL: "Baha'is have no rights in the Islamic republic, even rights that other recognized [religious] minorities enjoy in Iran. For example, a Baha'i teenager cannot enter Iran's universities; either he would have to lie and say that he is not a Baha'i, or else be deprived of the right to higher education. The Baha'i community of Iran had organized computer-based correspondence classes for youth, the authorities have repeatedly disrupted these [classes] and confiscated teaching materials and generally they have made life for the Baha'i minority difficult."

Further details were provided by Diane Alai, the United Nations representative of the Baha'i International Community. According to Alai, "For 20 years, Baha'is have been imprisoned, condemned to death. Their properties have been confiscated. People have been expelled from their jobs. Elderly people are not receiving their pensions. Baha'i properties have been confiscated. Baha'i holy places have been demolished, cemeteries desecrated."

The Baha'i faith was founded by Mirza Hussein Ali Nuri, known as "Bahaullah" -- Arabic for "the Glory of God." The unity of all religions, the unity of humanity, and the equality of man and woman are among the main teachings of Bahaullah.

Some Muslims consider Baha'is to be heretics. Many see theological conflicts with Islam as the main motive for the persecution of Baha'is. Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad is "the end of prophesy." The Baha'i faith, founded several centuries after Islam, states that divine revelation will continue.

"People are free to choose their way, and the Holy Koran has clearly stated: 'There is no compulsion in the religion,'" Abbas Mohajerani, a London-based professor of Islamic theology and philosophy, told RFE/RL. "The Baha'is or any other sect are free to take the direction they want, but when it comes to the principles of a religion and law you have to bear in mind that Islam explicitly says that Muhammad is the last prophet sent by God and whoever does not believe it is not a Muslim."

Baha'is believe that God has revealed himself to humanity through a series of divine messengers. The messengers have included Abraham, Krishna, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad. According to the Baha'i faith, Bahaullah is the latest of these messengers.

The Baha'i faith has about five million followers in more than 200 countries and territories throughout the world. In Iran, the situation of the Baha'is worsened after the 1979 revolution. In the early 1980s, authorities banned the Baha'i religious and spiritual administration and declared membership in it to be crime. Diane Alai, the Baha'i International Community's UN representative, says harassment of Baha'is became systematic after the revolution in Iran. However, she adds, executions and long-term detentions of Baha'is have decreased in recent years. Alai said, "Since the beginning of the Islamic Republic, we can say that there are approximately 200 Baha'is that have been executed only for their beliefs, thousands that have been jailed. But in recent years, we have seen a great decrease in the number of executions and long-term detention."

Iran's Baha'i community, in a 2 December letter to President Mohammad Khatami, called for their human rights to be respected.

Alai hopes that international pressure on the Islamic establishment of Iran will help improve the situation of Baha'is living there. "This is why we are appealing both to the Iranian government and the Bahai's in Iran are appealing to the Iranian government and we at the international level are calling upon the international community to put pressure on the Iranian government to basically emancipate the Baha'is in Iran.... They don't want more rights than any average Iranian citizen, but they want the right of an Iranian citizen and the right to practice their faith." (Golnaz Esfandiari)

SUSPENSION OF ENRICHMENT, SITE ACCESS UNRESOLVED. Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani suggested, during a 9 December visit to Semnan, that Iran's suspension of uranium enrichment could be short-lived, ISNA reported. "We do this for confidence-building and for two or three months," he said. In his 2 December Friday Prayers sermon, Hashemi-Rafsanjani said the suspension could last longer, state radio reported. He said, "For the time being we are speaking about several months. Our interpretation of several months is two-three up to six months, during which parts of our activity can remain suspended." International Atomic Energy inspectors, Hashemi-Rafsanjani added in his 9 December comments, are welcome to inspect "any place they like and we will answer all of their questions."

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on 5 December that his country is not obliged to allow inspectors to visit military sites suspected of carrying out secret nuclear-weapons work, AFP reported on 6 December. "It is not a matter of unlimited commitments and unlimited inspections," Assefi said.

On 1 December, IAEA Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei said that his agency is seeking access to two secret military bases, "The New York Times" reported the next day. The IAEA has asked to visit the Parchin military base southeast of Tehran, where the military may have tested conventional explosives that can be used to detonate nuclear weapons. The other site is Lavizan II in northeastern Tehran. The high-tech equipment that is reportedly there has piqued inspectors' curiosity. An Iranian opposition group has alleged that the Lavizan II location is also involved in enriching uranium. (Bill Samii)

IRAN WRAPS UP WAR GAMES. General Nasir Mohammadifar, commander of Iran's regular ground forces, told state television on 7 December that the main phase of the "Followers of the Rule of the Supreme Jurisprudent" (Payrovan-i Vilayat) military exercises in southwestern Iran, which began on 3 December (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 7 December 2004), would occur on 8 December.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei watched the final day of the war games on 8 December, IRNA and state television reported. During the exercises, Khamenei was briefed by regular armed forces commander in chief Major General Mohammad Salimi, ground forces commander Brigadier General Mohammadifar, and the regular air force commander, Brigadier General Karim Qavami. The Rapid Deployment Force of the regular armed forces, which appears to be a new unit, reportedly participated in this final phase of the exercise.

On 6 December, the exercises focused on a night assault by air and ground units of the regular armed forces, state television reported. Another aspect of that day's activities was defense against chemical warfare and use of decontamination equipment. State television also reported that naval exercises took place in the northern Persian Gulf that day.

In the third phase on 5 December, infantry, artillery, and armor units participated in an air-assault. Combat engineers, according to state television, put up temporary suspension bridges. (Bill Samii)

ROHANI: NO PROSPECT FOR RAPPROCHEMENT WITH U.S. Hassan Rohani, the secretary of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council, told London's "Al-Hayat" that he sees no prospect for improved relations between Iran and the U.S., the daily reported on 5 December. "The U.S. administration realizes that Iran's possession of the nuclear fuel production cycle is not only technologically important for Iran and its independence, but also gives this country a special political stature. They do not want Iran to have this capability and this stature," Rohani said. He called on the U.S. to "descend from [its] ivory tower and talk to us." "If we sense a change on their side, we can make a decision, but in the current circumstances, I do not see hope," he said. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

IRAN FEARFUL OF ENCIRCLEMENT. Iranian discomfort over the regional presence of U.S. military forces could be sensed as early as October 2001, when it became clear that Afghanistan would be attacked in retaliation for the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. Recent developments will contribute to Iranian concerns.

Iranian state radio's Mashhad-based Dari-language service and "The New York Sun" reported on 6 December that U.S. military personnel have been scouting Afghanistan's Herat Province in order to establish a base there. The radio station cited locals, who noted the more frequent presence of U.S. soldiers, as well as Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zaher Azimi, who confirmed that the U.S. has chosen a location in the province. American officials confirmed in 5 December interviews with "The New York Sun" that the area they have been scouting is in Herat Province, some 45-50 kilometers from the Iranian border. They said this would mainly be an Afghan army base, but that American aircraft "would probably be deployed there as well."

Iranian Ambassador to Afghanistan Mohammad Reza Bahrami declined on 8 December to comment on the construction of the base in Herat Province, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. "We cannot express our views as long as the issue is not clear whether the base belongs to the U.S.-led coalition or the Afghan National Army," Bahrami said. General Azimi explained that at "the Ghorian military base [45 kilometers from the Iranian border], the coalition forces and the Afghan National Army are working together, but this base is [being] built by the leadership of the United States." Azimi, however, did not explain whether U.S. forces will use the base once it is completed. The U.S. already maintains a military presence in Herat, mainly at Shindand Air Base, situated southeast of Ghorian District and farther from the border with Iran.

"Farhang-i Ashti" newspaper reported on 17 November that occupation forces in Iraq are refurbishing military outposts along the eastern border and will deploy Iraqi intelligence personnel and Mujahedin Khalq Organization members in them. Citing an anonymous "informed source," the Iranian newspaper reported that troops from the United Kingdom and northern European countries would be involved in surveillance activities.

"The New York Times" had reported on 20 April 2003 that the U.S. hopes to a have a "long-term military relationship" with Iraq, have access to bases there, and be able to project influence in the region; during a 21 April 2003 press conference, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissed the suggestion that the U.S. is planning a permanent military presence in Iraq as "inaccurate and unfortunate" (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 28 April 2003). (Bill Samii, Amin Tarzi)

IRAN DENIES EXTRADITING TERROR SUSPECT TO EGYPT... Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi denied on 6 December that Tehran has extradited an Egyptian national -- Mustafa Hamza -- to his home country, IRNA reported. Assefi added that Hamza is not in Iran.

AP reported on 5 December that Tehran handed Hamza -- the alleged mastermind of a 1995 failed assassination attempt on President Hosni Mubarak -- to Egyptian authorities. Hamza has been sentenced to death in absentia three times in Egypt since 1992: for training militants in Afghanistan and sending them to Egypt to carry out attacks, for terrorist attacks, and for the attempted assassination of an Egyptian cabinet member, AP reported. He is believed to have been held under house arrest in Iran since October 2003. Hamza is a member of the Islamic Group.

Hani al-Siba'i, a former leader of the outlawed Egyptian Islamic Jihad, told AP that Hamza was handed over "a few weeks ago" in exchange for security information about Iranian opposition members in Egypt. Al-Siba'i told "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that Hamza was "kidnapped and handed over against his will," the daily reported on 5 December. "Iran now is not like Khomeini's Iran. Now Iran is like any secular country. It's just using Islam as a slogan. This is a low deal," he told AP, which reported that Iranian-Egyptian relations appear to be improving and that the two states may soon resume full diplomatic ties.

An anonymous "Egyptian security source" on 5 December denied that Hamza had been extradited to Egypt, Al-Jazeera television reported. (Kathleen Ridolfo, Bill Samii)

...AND DENIES EGYPTIAN ESPIONAGE ALLEGATIONS. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi on 8 December dismissed reports from Cairo about an Iranian diplomat's plotting against Egyptian officials, IRNA reported.

The previous day, according to Radio Farda, Egyptian state prosecutor Mahir Abd-al-Wahid said that Iranian diplomat Mohammad Rezadust tried to recruit Egyptian national Mahmud Id Mohammad Dabus as an agent. According to the Egyptian prosecutor, Rezadust asked his agent to gather information on a third country, and Dabus agreed to work for the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps and to conduct terrorist actions in Egypt. Dabus provided information, Abd al-Wahid said, and agreed to attack targets in Saudi Arabia in an effort to disrupt Riyadh-Cairo relations.

Assefi described the charges as a "sheer lie," IRNA reported on 8 December, adding that "Iran is itself a terrorism victim and our stance against terrorism is fully clear and transparent."

Greater detail on the allegations against the Iranian diplomat and his agent appeared in the 8 December edition of "Al-Ahram," an Egyptian state-owned daily. Dabus confessed that he contacted the Iranian interests section in Cairo, claimed he is affiliated with the Islamic Group, and applied for a scholarship to study in Iran in 1999 on the grounds that he wanted to study Persian and Persian literature. In late 2001 he was awarded a scholarship to study at Imam Khomeini University. In his contacts with Rezadust, Dabus offered to report on Egyptian developments.

In 2003, according to "Al-Ahram," Dabus went to Saudi Arabia and secured employment at the Koran Teaching Charity Society in the city of Daba. Rezadust instructed Dabus to collect information on the nationalities and residences of foreigners working in Saudi Arabia and also on foreign companies operating in the city. Dabus also provided information on the petrochemical complex at Yanbu for which he received a $50,000 payment from an Iranian woman in Medina. Dabus returned to Egypt in August 2004. He reportedly intended to go back to Iran from there.

"We consider that what has been fabricated in this connection are pure lies," Iranian presidential adviser Mohammad Shariati said in an 8 December interview with Al-Arabiyah television. "There is nobody in Iran that wants to harm relations with Egypt." Shariati claimed that the U.S. and Israel are behind this story because they want to undermine Iran-Egypt relations. (Bill Samii)

ISRAEL ARRESTS ALLEGED IRANIAN SPY. Israeli police arrested Mohammad Ghanem, an Israeli Arab from Baka al-Gharbiya, on 9 November for alleged membership in Iranian intelligence and for recruiting other Israeli Arabs to participate in terrorist activities, "The Jerusalem Post" reported on 7 December.

Ghanem allegedly was recruited by Nabil Mahzuma -- with whom he had done time in prison in 1973 and who is an operative with the People's Front for the Liberation of Palestine -- General Command (PFLP-GC) -- during a 2001 trip to Mecca. The two met again in Mecca in August 2003. During the second trip, an Iranian identified as Abu Osama allegedly told Ghanem to recruit Israeli Arabs for Iranian-funded terrorism training in Jordan.

Israel has complained previously of Iranian recruitment of Israeli Arabs as a fifth column (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 22 December 2003, 19 January 2004). "Hopefully, the publicity of this investigation will deter other Israeli Arabs from joining the Iranians," according to Lieutenant Commander Amichai Shai of Israel's International Crimes Unit. "Israeli Arabs who think they can make easy money should think again, since we are always watching." (Bill Samii)

AL-QAEDA SYMPATHIZERS REPORTEDLY TRIED IN IRAN. Tehran Province Justice Department official Abbasali Alizadeh said on 6 December that a number of Al-Qaeda members were tried in a special court and a verdict was issued, Fars News Agency reported. Alizadeh did not say when the trial or trials took place, he did not say how many defendants there were or what charges they faced, and he did not describe the verdicts. As for the number of Al-Qaeda detainees in the country, he said, "I don't know the exact number but there are many."

Two days earlier, Kurdistan Province Justice Department chief Mohammad Mehdi Khamesi told reporters on the arrest of fewer than five Al-Qaeda members, Fars News Agency reported. Khamesi said the cases have been referred to Tehran, where special judges deal with Al-Qaeda cases. Khamesi did not say when the suspects were arrested.

Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi appeared to contradict these reports on 8 December. He speculated, RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari reports, that the Tehran Justice Department official may have been talking about Al-Qaeda "sympathizers," rather than actual members. Yunesi went on to say that cases involving suspected Al-Qaeda members continue to be under review.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on 12 December that only a few Iranian sympathizers of Al-Qaeda were tried in Iran, Mehr News Agency reported. He put the number at less than 10, and he stressed that these were not Al-Qaeda members. (Bill Samii)

SCIRI LEADER VISITS IRAN... Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) chief Hojatoleslam Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim visited Iran on 4 December, where he met with Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and President Mohammad Khatami, IRNA and SCIRI's Voice of the Mujahedin reported. Khatami reportedly told his guest that the holding of elections in Iraq and the establishment of a permanent government would contribute greatly to security there. Khatami added that that Iranian policy is to not interfere in Iraqi domestic affairs. Rafsanjani voiced similarly enthusiastic comments about the election, which is scheduled for January. Al-Hakim last visited Iran in late September (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 4 October 2004).

Jalaledin al-Saqir, al-Hakim's secretary, said on 10 December that al-Hakim is the leader on a list of Shi'a candidates, AP reported. He is part of a coalition called the United Iraqi Alliance that is backed by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Other top candidates in this coalition are Ibrahim al-Jaafari of the Al-Da'wah al-Islamiyah party and Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress. (Bill Samii)

...AMIDST IRAQI COMPLAINTS ABOUT IRANIAN INTERFERENCE. Iraqi officials have complained frequently about combatants infiltrating their country from Iran. They also have complained about Iranian assistance to insurgents. During a meeting in Tehran last week, Iraqi officials noted their neighbor's inattention to border security, while Iranian officials have consistently responded to Iraqi complaints with denials and counteraccusations.

Yet the reports of Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs continue. A delegation from the theological center in the Iranian city of Qom has come to Iraq and is based at Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's office, "Al-Ufuq" reported on 5 December. The delegation from Iran reportedly intends to help unravel election-related issues. The contacts between Shi'a clerics in Iran and Iraq reportedly are being facilitated by the Qom-based and Iraqi-born Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri.

Police in the Iraqi city of Karbala have closed the offices of six Iranian tourism companies and ordered their staffs to leave Iraq, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on 7 December. The police did not explain their actions. Moreover, police reportedly arrested 210 people, most of them Iranians, who did not hold proper passports.

Iraqi President Ghazi Al-Yawir and Jordanian King Abdullah described Iranian activities in interviews that appeared in the 8 December "Washington Post." "Iran has very obvious interference in our business...especially in the southeast side of Iraq," Yawir said. He said Iran is advising the parties sympathetic to Tehran and is spending a lot of money to produce a Shi'a theocracy similar to its own. King Abdullah said more than 1 million Iranians have entered Iraq to vote in the 30 January election, that Tehran is spending money on social services and welfare to create pro-Iranian sentiments, and that some people have been trained by the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps.

The Jordanian monarch also warned that this Iranian interference could have dire consequences for the region: "If Iraq goes Islamic republic, then, yes, we've opened ourselves to a whole set of new problems that will not be limited to the borders of Iraq."

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on 8 December that al-Yawir's comments about Iranian interference in his country were "regretful," IRNA reported. He also dismissed King Abdullah's comments on the same subject.

Qasim Dawud, the Iraqi minister of state for national security affairs, said in a 9 December interview with Al-Arabiyah television that Iran is interfering in his country's affairs.

Iraqi Vice President Ibrahim al-Jaafari denied that Iran is trying to create a crescent of Shi'a countries covering Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, Al-Jazeera television reported. He also dismissed King Abdullah's assertion that one million Iranians were encouraged to infiltrate Iraq to vote in the elections. (Bill Samii)

PHILLIPPINES REQUESTS IRANIAN HELP IN SAVING HOSTAGE. Foreign Minister Alberto Romulo told a 9 December press conference that Manila has requested Iranian and Saudi assistance in securing the freedom of a Filipino hostage in Iraq, AFP reported. Filipino accountant Roy Tarangoy, an American named Roy Hallun, a number of Iraqi guards, and a Nepali were kidnapped by Iraqi militants on 1 November. The Iraqis and the Nepali were released, but Manila announced at the end of November that it is negotiating with the kidnappers, who allegedly are demanding $12 million to release Tarangoy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 2004). Romulo made the request during separate meetings with visiting Iranian Commerce Minister Mohammad Shariatmadari and Saudi consultative council president Sheikh Saleh bin Abdullah Bin Humaid, AFP reported.

Other aspects of Shariatmadari's trip were more commerce-oriented. He met with Philippines Energy Secretary Vincent Perez on 8 December, IRNA reported and, on 7 December, Shariatmadari chaired the opening session of the Iran-Philippines Joint Commission for Economic and Commercial Cooperation. Philippines' Trade and Industry Secretary Cesar Purisima headed his country's delegation at the meeting. (Bill Samii)

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