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Iran Report: December 20, 2004


20 December 2004, Volume 7, Number 45

POLITICAL ACTIVISTS SEEK CONSTITUTIONAL REFERENDUM. The chant of "referendum, referendum" rose from the crowd as President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami gave a Student Day speech at Tehran University on 6 December, Fars News Agency and the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported. This is not the first time Iranian students have called for a referendum on the country's form of government. In May 2003, a mock referendum was held at Hamedan's Bu Ali Sina University (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 19 May, 16 June, 8 December 2003, and 9 February 2004). Of the 635 participants in the 2003 referendum, 91.4 percent said they favored the draft constitution that preceded the creation of the Guardians Council, 2.5 percent favored the official 1979 constitution that includes the Guardians Council, and 1.5 percent backed the revised 1989 constitution.

But that is where the similarities stop. This time, the idea of a referendum is being promoted by a newly reinvigorated student organization -- the Office for Strengthening Unity -- and prominent dissident figures, and it seeks to take advantage of an increasingly accessible technology -- the Internet. Moreover, the mock referendum of 2003 elicited an angry response from hard-line vigilantes, whereas the current call for an online referendum is being dismissed by reformist political leaders.

A new effort in support of a referendum, which has its own website (http://www.60000000.com), encourages Iranians to add their name and e-mail address to a petition. This petition calls for "a national referendum with the free participation of the Iranian people, under the supervision of appropriate international institutions and observers, for the drafting of a new constitution that is compatible with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and all its associated covenants." The objective of the campaign is to gather 60,000,000 signatures on the petition.

The organization behind the petition drive is called the Committee to Organize a Referendum, and includes as members such prominent figures as Harvard University professor and human rights lawyer Mehrangiz Kar, national religious activist and former Tehran University president Mohammad Maleki, and journalist Mohsen Sazgara. According to "The New York Sun" on 7 December, the committee is encouraging the involvement of Iranian expatriates in the petition drive. More unexpected, perhaps, is its quest for U.S. involvement in the project.

"We need America to defend the democratic rights of the Iranian people," Sazgara explained in "The New York Sun" report. "We want this right to vote in a referendum, we don't want the current constitution, we want to change it. We need practical help to defend Iranian people. If the Americans can use international policy and sanctions, not against the Iranian people, but against the officials of the regime, this would be good. The people of Iran would like to see the bank accounts frozen for the regime officials. If they publish the bank accounts, the Iranian people will be very happy."

Said Hajjarian, a leading reformist ideologue, dismissed the concept of an online referendum, comparing it to the absurd claims of Ahura Piruz Khalegi Yazdi, a self-styled prophet who appears on California-based expatriate television programs, "Kayhan" reported on 11 December.

"We consider this sort of action neither beneficial nor feasible," former parliamentarian Mohammad Reza Khatami said according to "Sharq" on 7 December. Khatami, who is a leader of the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Party, said his organization opposes the call for a referendum, because "Those who make such proposals make it more difficult for themselves and also add to the bumps and potholes in the way of reforms." Khatami suggested that the reformists' opponents would use this issue as a pretext to act against the reformists themselves.

Let's assume 60 million Iranians sign the petition for a referendum, Mohammad Quchani wrote in an editorial in the 12 December "Sharq." A host government must officially invite international observers, he wrote, and any government that does so has effectively disarmed the supporters of a referendum.

The organizers of the referendum, Quchani continued, have a left a number of important questions unanswered. Among these are: what is the relationship between mosque and state; if Iran is to become a secular democracy, what will be the model for this secular democracy; what will the state's role in the economy be; what about the country's religious minorities (i.e. can a Sunni be president); and where do ethnic minorities stand. Other issues raised by Quchani address the fact that the majority of Iran's current laws are based on Shari'a -- will a new political system consider issues like the dress code?

Quchani also criticized the diverse make up of the Committee to Organize a Referendum, saying that there no consensus on its membership (which brings together national-religious figures, secular dissidents, and some student activists). On the other hand, he continued, a consensus does exist among the committee's critics -- such as the traditional intellectual Hatam Qaderi, national-religious figure Alireza Rajai, and reformist politicians like Hajjarian and Khatami. Quchani also noted that monarchists, communists, and other members of the expatriate opposition have spoken out against the online referendum, without providing any specific details.

Reformist opposition to the call for a referendum was unexpected, student leaders wrote in the 12 December "Sharq." Nevertheless, it confirms that reformist activists are not in step with popular sentiment, according to the authors, Office for Strengthening Unity leaders Ali Afshari, Akbar Atari, Reza Delbari, and Abdullah Momeni. Hajjarian has misunderstood the call for a referendum, they continued, because it is meant to eliminate the country's political deadlock rather than overthrow the regime. The four men dismissed Hajjarian's belief that the system can be reformed through the current constitution.

The call for an online referendum has not had a tremendous impact to date. Some 25,000 signatories have given permission for public release of their names as of 16 December; it is not known how many people have signed the petition in total. The Iranian government reportedly is blocking access to the site from inside the country.

A referendum on the form of government and the constitution is permissible under the current law. Article 59 of the constitution says there can be recourse to public opinion on "important economic, political, social, and cultural matters" by holding a referendum if two-thirds of the legislature approves; and Article 177 says the constitution can be revised by a referendum if the conditions of Article 59 are met. That said, it remains very unlikely that the current conservative legislature would permit a referendum to take place. (Bill Samii)

NO LET UP IN ELECTION DATE EXCITEMENT. With approximately six months to go before Iran's ninth presidential election, a precise date for the event has yet to be set. The Guardians Council rejected the dates proposed by Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari -- the Interior Ministry runs elections and the Guardians Council supervises them (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 25 October, 15 and 29 November, 14 December 2004). Musavi-Lari said on 14 December that the council's proposal to hold the election after 20 May is unacceptable, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. Musavi-Lari reiterated his stand that setting the date for the election does not fall within the council's purview.

The timing of the election is just one part of a bigger issue, according to Musavi-Lari. "We do not have any major problem with the Guardians Council on the election date. Our problems rather are much deeper," the mid-ranking cleric said. The most controversial aspect of the council's election related activity is its vetting of prospective candidates, and its rejection of more than 2,000 of them in early 2004 caused an uproar. Observers believe, IRNA reported, that the council will confirm many reformist presidential candidates in an effort to emphasize the election's legitimacy. (Bill Samii)

INDEPENDENT ANNOUNCES CANDIDACY. Seyyed Reza Zavarei, who competed in the 1997 presidential election, announced on 12 December that he will again stand, as an independent, in the 2005 race, ISNA reported. Zavarei, who has served on the Guardians Council as one of its jurists, gave as reasons for his decision "God's will," the "country's conditions," and the need to resolve society's problems. If elected, according to Zavarei, his cabinet members will not be chosen on factional grounds. Honesty and competence will be the determining factors, he said. Zavarei also has previous experience as a legislator and a Revolutionary Court prosecutor. (Bill Samii)

ANOTHER WARNING OF SECTARIAN DISPUTES. Speaking in the Sistan va Baluchistan Province city of Zahedan on 12 December, Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi told reporters that the individuals responsible for circulating compact discs that promote Sunni-Shia discord are trying to undermine peace and civil society, IRNA reported. Yunesi said Iran is cooperating with neighboring states to eradicate the causes of insecurity, and he added that that these causes mainly come from outside the country. Yunesi frequently bemoans what he sees as the outside agitation of sectarian strife (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 6 September, 4 October, and 15 and 23 November 2004).

Less than a week earlier, seven alleged drug traffickers were hanged in a public park in Zahedan, "Kayhan" reported on 7 December. The U.S. State Department has expressed concern that some of those being executed for drug offenses are political dissidents (see Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, "International Narcotics Control Strategy Report," April 1994). (Bill Samii)

DIVISION OF NORTHEASTERN PROVINCE LEADS TO FINANCIAL DIFFICULTIES. In April, the Iranian legislature voted to divide the northeastern Khorasan Province into three distinct provinces -- Khorasan Razavi, South Khorasan, and North Khorasan -- in order to facilitate budgeting and institutional efficiency; the Guardians Council approved this measure in May (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 3 May and 14 June 2004). President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami stressed this point in a 13 December meeting with governors-general and legislators from the three provinces, IRNA reported. According to Khatami, "Administrative division of Khorasan Province has been aimed at elimination of deprivation, fair distribution of allocated resources, strengthening the infrastructures, and improving people's living standards." Khatami added that the new southern and northern provinces are relatively less developed and thus require greater attention.

The frictions caused by these issues were noted in "Farhang-i Ashti" on 4 December, which reported that, according to the legislation, financing for the new provinces was supposed to be channeled through the original Khorasan Province's budget. Bojnurd parliamentary representative Musalreza Servati said, however, that North Khorasan's governor-general still lacks the necessary equipment and staff and proposed the transfer of 30 experienced people from Khorasan Razavi to North Khorasan to bolster the governor-general's staff. (Bill Samii)

KHATAMI VISITS UNDERDEVELOPED PROVINCE. President Khatami made a one-day visit to Birjand, the capital of South Khorasan Province, on 15 December, IRNA reported. In a speech to locals, Khatami said that 10 billion rials ($1,136,500) has been allocated for development projects in the province, and adding that the private sector will receive $100 million from the foreign-exchange reserve fund for participation in provincial projects. Khatami noted the potential of the mining sector and described plans to release funding for the construction of a gas-powered 700-megawatt power plant.

Before leaving, Khatami told reporters that the government's priority is the province's water shortage, IRNA reported. A remedy to this problem, he said, is a project to bring in water from the Alborz and Zagros mountain ranges, which are on the other side of Iran. Khatami also noted that unemployment in South Khorasan is higher than the national average, and he ascribed this to urban migration by inhabitants of areas affected by drought.

During his 13 December meeting with officials from the northeastern provinces (see above), Khatami told them that provincial agriculture, construction, and road-building are sectors that need attention. Tourism in the shrine city of Mashhad also needs help, he said. (Bill Samii)

UNEMPLOYMENT HOLDS STEADY IN IRAN. The unemployment rate in Iran now stands at 10.4 percent, according to a Central Bank of Iran (CBI) report cited by state television on 15 December. Deputy Labor and Social Affairs Minister for Planning and Policy Affairs Mohammad Reza Sepehri cited the same figure during an 11 December meeting in Tehran on youth employment, IRNA reported, and President Khatami noted a 10.4 percent unemployment rate in October (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 1 November 2004). Describing government policies on job creation, Sepehri noted an emphasis on private sector participation, legislative reforms, and the provision of employment-boosting facilities. Sepehri added that the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry wants to increase job opportunities for women and is cooperating with the International Labor Organization.

At an earlier conference on the role of employers in social welfare issues, Minister of Welfare and Social Security Mohammad Hussein Sharifzadegan provided data on poverty in the country, "Kayhan" reported on 6 December. About 10 million citizens live below the poverty line and more than 1 million of them are suffering from "absolute poverty," he said. The eradication of poverty, Sharifzadegan said, is his ministry's most important duty. (Bill Samii)

IRAN BECOMES SELF-SUFFICIENT IN WHEAT PRODUCTION. The director of Iran's Wheat Plan, a Mr. Eskandari, said in Shiraz on 11 December that the country plans a 10 percent increase in output as a result of plentiful winter snowfall, Mehr News Agency reported. Eskandari added that he hopes Iran becomes a wheat exporter in the coming years.

A 16 November ceremony marked the new self-sufficiency. The country produced 14 million tons of wheat, according to the "Tehran Times" on that day, and local demand is 11.04 million tons. Speaking at the 16 November ceremony, President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami said the achievement of self-sufficiency in wheat production has implications for national security, not just the economy, IRNA reported. Khatami said major powers use wheat and other foodstuffs as a way of imposing their will on other countries.

An editorial in the 5 December "Jomhuri-yi Islami" commended the Agriculture Jihad Ministry on this achievement in wheat production and suggested the same can be done in other areas, including rice production. However, the daily warned, much agricultural land is being converted to residential usage. (Bill Samii)

MARTYRS' WIDOWS PROTEST IN TEHRAN. About 50 widows of men killed in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) staged a protest in front of the legislature in Tehran on 15 December, "Sharq" newspaper reported. The protestors claimed that the Martyrs Foundation is ignoring them and demanded money owed to them as well as the deeds for property given to them by the foundation. The demonstrators also asked to meet with Speaker of Parliament Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel. (Bill Samii)

NUCLEAR SPY CASE TAKES UNUSUAL TURN. Commenting on the reported trial of nuclear spies in Iran, Revolutionary Court official Hojatoleslam Ali Mobasheri said that, in fact, a trial date has not been set yet, ISNA reported. Mobasheri explained that the Ministry of Intelligence and Security's investigation of two of the cases continues. The accused are being held for 10 to 20 days, so they can provide information on their accomplices or any other details they might have omitted earlier, Mobasheri said. Until then, he added, a trial date cannot be announced. He said that two of the accused, who are in detention, were employees of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization.

Iran announced the arrest of several suspected nuclear spies in late August; the trial reportedly began in mid-September, and Mobasheri said at the end of November that the trial was underway (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 6 September, 23 November, 7 December 2004). (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN, EUROPEAN OFFICIALS MEET TO DISCUSS ENRICHMENT FREEZE. An Iranian team led by Iran's ranking nuclear negotiator, Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani, met with the foreign ministers of Britain, France, and Germany in Brussels on 13 December to discuss the mechanics of a recently agreed freeze by Iran of all uranium enrichment and related activities, news agencies reported the same day. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said in Brussels after one 90-minute meeting that the parties can now move on to long-term arrangements "to provide objective guarantees" that Iranian nuclear activities will be strictly civilian, AP reported. Rohani said separately that the talks herald a new chapter in Iranian-European relations, AFP reported on 13 December.

Iranian officials have already stated that Iran will only suspend enrichment for a few months, contrary to European hopes for a lasting cessation of enrichment. Iranian state radio quoted a member of the Iranian team, identified as Aqamohammadi, as saying in Brussels on 13 December that Iran will seek to steer the talks toward ending the suspension.

Straw said three working groups will discuss for at least three months the implementation of the November accord, beginning on 13 December, AFP reported. (Vahid Sepehri)

U.S. REJECTS IRANIAN ENTRY INTO TRADE REGIME. The United States has, for the fourth consecutive year, prevented Iran from initiating negotiations to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), Reuters and Radio Farda reported on 13 December. The United States is officially "studying" Iran's application and has blocked the WTO General Council, whose decisions must be unanimous, from initiating accession negotiations, Reuters reported on 13 December. The United States accuses Iran of aiding terrorists and running a secret nuclear-bomb program.

The rejection prompted the head of the Iranian parliament's committee on national security and foreign policy, Alaedin Borujerdi, to say that the Europeans must now "reconsider" their ability to meet some of the commitments they made to Iran in the 15 November Paris agreement, Radio Farda reported. Britain, France, and Germany agreed at the time to "actively support the opening of Iranian accession negotiations at the WTO," according to iaea.org, the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) official website. "They should bear in mind that they are effectively unable to meet certain commitments," Radio Farda quoted Borujerdi as saying. "When one side does not honor its commitments, there is no reason for the second party to [do so]," Borujerdi said. (Vahid Sepehri)

PALESTINIAN LEADER MEETS IRANIAN OFFICIALS. Palestinian Foreign Minister Faruq Qaddumi, who arrived in Tehran on the evening of 12 December, met with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi and Iranian parliamentary speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel on 13 December, IRNA reported. Kharrazi criticized U.S. backing for Israel, which he said has ensured Israeli "audacity and the continuation of its invasive policies" against Palestinians. "America wants Israeli dominance over the entire region," he said. Iran, Kharrazi said, will continue to provide "moral support" to "legitimate" Palestinian "demands and struggle against the occupiers," IRNA reported. Qaddumi said past negotiations have shown that Israel "does not respect any agreement."

Separately, Haddad-Adel told Qaddumi that the U.S. presence in Iraq has distracted international attention from Israeli "crimes" in the occupied territories, IRNA reported. He added that "continued struggle and resistance" are the only way to free those territories and Jerusalem.

Qaddumi met with President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami on 14 December, IRNA reported. Khatami expressed his disappointment that those who claim to support human rights do not protest the repression of the Palestinians. He pledged that Iran will always support the Palestinians, saying, "We wish establishment of a free Palestine with an independent government and the holy Qods [Jerusalem] as its capital."

One day earlier, an Iranian state radio Middle East expert calling himself "Mr. Kazemzadeh" said that the coincidence of Qaddumi's trip to Iran and PLO Chairman Mahmud Abbas' (Abu Mazen) visit to other regional states is important, state radio reported. What this shows, Kazemzadeh said, is an effort to emphasize the continuing relevance of the PLO within the context of militant groups, as well as recognition of Iran's attention to the Palestinian issue.

Qaddumi said, according to the 16 December "Al-Hayah" from London and the 15 December Saudi-based "Al-Watan," that his trip to Iran reflects the Palestinian leadership's desire to free the Palestinian economy and improve relations with neighboring states. Asked about the Iranian stand on creation of a Palestinian state, Qaddumi said, "Iran believes that if the Palestinian people want to establish their Palestinian state on Palestinian land this issue is up to them," "Al-Watan" reported. He continued: "However, Iran believes that all of Palestine must be liberated. This does not mean that they want to expel the Jews. To the contrary, they want the Palestinians and the Jews to coexist within one state. This position coincides with the basic position of the Fatah Movement." (Bill Samii, Vahid Sepehri)

TOP IRANIAN SECURITY OFFICIAL VISITS AZERBAIJAN. President Ilham Aliyev met on 16 December with visiting Iranian Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi, Turan reported. Aliyev positively assessed bilateral relations and said his visit to Iran, scheduled for next month, will serve to boost them. Yunesi predicted that Aliyev's visit will serve to promote "peace and stability" in the region. He also noted the high level of cooperation between the two countries' intelligence services. (Liz Fuller)

TEHRAN REFUTES REPEATED IRAQI ALLEGATIONS OF INTERFERENCE. Minister of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Ali Shamkhani denied in Tehran on 14 December that Iran is interfering in Iraqi affairs, ISNA reported. "Those who accuse the Islamic Republic of Iran of interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq are political amateurs," he said. Shamkhani was reacting to Iraqi President Ghazi Al-Yawir and Jordanian King Abdullah's statements about Iranian activities (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 14 December 2004). What Iran wants, Shamkhani said, is "the quick transfer of sovereignty to [Iraq's] real owners, namely, the Iraqi people."

Fresh from a trip to Tehran, Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim on 13 December rejected King Abdullah's comments, IRNA reported. "I wish the Jordanian monarch had never said such ridiculous remarks," he said.

A 12 December statement from the Hawzah Ilmiyeh in Al-Najaf condemned King Abdullah's statement that Iran seeks to create a "Shi'a crescent" stretching across Iraq to Lebanon, Al-Najaf News Network reported (http://www.alnajafnews.net/). The statement explained that Iraqi Shi'a do not want the Velayat-i Faqih (rule of the supreme jurisprudent) system that exists in Iran, noting that Al-Najaf is the world's highest Shi'a authority.

Iraqi Defense Minister Hazim al-Sha'lan al-Khuza'i on 15 December repeated his earlier allegations of Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs, Radio Farda, Al-Sharqiyah television, and other news agencies reported (for his previous statements on the subject, see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 9 August, 13 and 27 September, and 15 November 2004). Al-Khuza'i said Iran is Iraq's most dangerous enemy and is the source of terrorism there. He added that Ayatollah Ali Sistani's list of candidates for the January 2005 Iraqi presidential election is actually an Iranian list, and he accused nuclear scientist Hussein al-Sharistani of being an Iranian agent who worked in an Iranian nuclear facility for two years. Al- Khuza'i said the Iranian and Syrian intelligence services, as well as the former Iraqi regime's intelligence service, are cooperating with Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi to encourage terrorism in Iraq.

Iranian government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh told reporters in Tehran on 15 December that al-Khuza'i's allegations are only for domestic consumption and that he will retract them later, IRNA reported. Ramezanzadeh added that Iran is the biggest contributor to stability and security in Iraq. (Bill Samii)

HASHEMI-RAFSANJANI SAYS IRAQ CRUCIAL TO REGION. Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani met with Syrian Vice President Abdullah al-Hamar in Tehran on 13 December and told his guest that it is important for regional states to help Iraq hold "timely, nationwide" elections, IRNA and iribnews.ir reported. Local and national Iraqi elections are currently scheduled for the end of January 2005. Hashemi-Rafsanjani said Iraq and "its future" are "fateful" for a region that will face a "fate worse than Palestine's" if Iraqis do not take control of their affairs, IRNA reported. Iran and Syria, he added, must maintain their "necessary" collaboration to help resolve an unspecified "regional problem" and "support the peoples of Palestine and Iraq." Al-Hamar was in Tehran at the invitation of the Islamic Coalition Society, a conservative political group, IRNA added.

Separately, interim Iraqi President Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir repeated in an interview with "Al Sharq al-Awsat" his earlier assertions that Iran is meddling in Iraqi affairs (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 14 December 2004), adding that this is not merely a charge and that Iraq has firm evidence of such activities, Radio Farda reported on 13 December. He told the BBC on 13 December that insurgents are entering Iraq from Iran and Syria, intent on violently disrupting Iraq's January elections, bbc.co.uk and Radio Farda reported. (Vahid Sepehri)

TOP RUSSIAN LEGISLATOR VISITS IRAN. During an 11-12 December visit to Iran, Russian Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov met with Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, and Speaker of Parliament Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, international news agencies reported. Among the topics of discussion were the Caspian Sea, Chechnya, terrorism, regional security, and Iran's nuclear activities.

Khatami told his guest that Iran opposes the interference of outside powers in the Caspian and said Iran and Russia should restore security in the Caucasus. "We call for an all-out campaign against the indecent phenomenon of terrorism and at the same time reject the double standard in the international campaign against terrorism," Khatami said on 12 December according to IRNA.

Rafsanjani told his guest that Russia can play a bigger role in global affairs, and he expressed irritation over delays in the completion of the Bushehr nuclear facility, state television reported on 12 December. Rafsanjani also warned of alleged U.S. ambitions in the Caspian region. Mironov noted that bilateral trade between Iran and Russia for the last year reached $1.4 billion. Mironov also told Iranian legislators that Russia appreciates support for its territorial integrity, ITAR-TASS reported. (Bill Samii)

KANDAHAR GETS NEW IRANIAN CONSUL. The Iranian Foreign Ministry announced on 19 December that Hussein Sheikh Zein-ed-Din has been appointed consul to the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, IRNA reported. Zein-ed-Din previously served as ambassador to Colombia. Zein-ed-Din was in Bogota in late 1999, when Colombian authorities became concerned about Iranian activities in the demilitarized zone and raised questions about Iranian military advisers working on a slaughterhouse in a region that had few cows and was controlled by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas. Zein-ed-Din claimed that area was chosen because Iran wants to contribute to the Colombian peace process (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 27 December 1999). Colombian officials later expressed the belief that Iran was training FARC personnel in the use of explosives (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 28 August 2000 and 29 April 2002). (Bill Samii)

MAGAZINE'S USE OF 'ARABIAN GULF' UPSETS IRANIANS WORLDWIDE. Iranians around the world are up in arms over the publication of the National Geographic Society's new "Atlas of the World," which includes "Arabian Gulf" as a secondary name for the "Persian Gulf," the body of water that lies between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula. Iran insists the area has for centuries been called the Persian Gulf. In protest, the government in Tehran has banned the sale of "National Geographic" magazine until the secondary name is removed from the atlas.

The first signs of protest came in the form of e-mails, after several Iranians living in the U.S. noticed "Arabian Gulf" as a parenthetical secondary name for the Persian Gulf in the new edition of the National Geographic Society's "Atlas of the World." Alarmed, these Iranians abroad informed activists and reporters inside Iran.

Pejman Akbarzadeh, a young journalist and member of Artists Without Frontiers in Tehran, explained how the protest began. "This issue actually started with e-mails by several Iranians living in Virginia, who have a subscription to National Geographic's atlas. Then a lengthy article was published in the reformist daily "Sharq" in Tehran. After that, a wave of protests was generated against this move by the National Geographic Society in Iran's main dailies with different political affiliations." More than 70,000 Iranians have signed an Internet petition titled "The Persian Gulf Will Remain Persian." It calls the new map "fraudulent and distorted" and demands an immediate correction.

Akbarzadeh adds that the issue is being discussed in the streets of Tehran. "Many [people talked about it], in shops, in taxis, places you wouldn't even think of. Most Iranians referring to historical and geographical documents and also statements by the UN are calling for the correction of this mistake and the re-publishing of the atlas."

Meanwhile, the Iranian government has banned "National Geographic" reporters from traveling to Iran and prohibited the sales of its publications until the company corrects this latest, eighth edition of its world atlas.

Throughout history, the body of water between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula has been known as the "Persian Gulf." Most countries and international organizations still employ that name, though Arab nations tend to use "Arabian Gulf." The United Nations adopted two documents -- one in 1971, the other in 1984 -- officially recognizing the area as the "Persian Gulf."

The National Geographic Society says in a statement on its website that it considers "Persian Gulf to be the primary name, but it has been the society's cartographic practice to display a secondary name in parentheses when the use of such a name has become commonly recognized.

Protest e-mails from Iranians living in America reportedly have flooded the society's website. There are also reports of Iranians canceling their subscription to National Geographic Society publications. The Internet contains other examples of pro-Persian Gulf activism. Type in "Arabian Gulf" in the popular Google search engine and up pop several web pages with messages such as: "The Gulf you're looking for does not exist .The correct name is Persian Gulf, which always has been and will remain, Persian."

Some Iranians consider the map offensive to Iran's ancient past. Said Peyvandi, a sociology professor in Paris who specializes on Iran, explains: "The people of Iran have always been very sensitive to any move to change this name or use a Persian Arabic name because they consider it a transgression on their historical memory and historical past and from this angle we can say that it has a scientific dimension and also a strong symbolic value because it is interconnected with the identity of a great civilization."

Mohammad Ala is a professor of business in California and Iran and the president of the "Persian Gulf Taskforce" (http://www.persiangulfonline.org), which seeks to preserve the gulf's heritage and sovereignty. He tells RFE/RL that there has been an outcry among Iranians across the world. "We have received more than 4,000 e-mails from all over the world; surprisingly, we have received e-mails from China, we have a lot of e-mails from Canada, several from France, Japan, we have several from the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait. In total, more than 40 countries are represented in the e-mails."

Iranians generally have a lot of national pride. Observers such as Professor Peyvandi say that Iranians' already strong sense of national pride has grown stronger since the establishment of the Islamic Republic. He explained: "Since after the 1979 revolution, there has been a tendency to 'Arabize' the country -- for example, the re-introduction of Arabic courses in schools. This has always caused sensitivity among people and they have become more concerned with preserving their national identity and past, especially because this identity has so often been criticized by the Islamic establishment of Iran and because of that, people are even more sensitive." (Golnaz Esfandiari)

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