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Iran Report: February 24, 2003


24 February 2003, Volume 6, Number 8

CAMPAIGNING BEGINS IN 2003 MUNICIPAL-COUNCIL ELECTIONS... Iran will stage its second-ever municipal-council elections on 28 February. Campaigning for the elections began on 20 February and will continue until midnight on 26 February, according to state television. Candidates are competing for some 168,000 positions in cities, villages, and townships. Campaigning candidates are banned from writing on walls, forming campaign convoys, and covering traffic signs with posters. The state election headquarters said in a 15 February statement that it had received reports of early campaigning in some provincial constituencies, ISNA reported.

Article 100 of the 1979 Iranian Constitution calls for the creation of such councils. In 1982, the parliament enacted legislation relating to councils that was amended in 1986 and 1990, and in 1996 more legislation -- "The Structure, Organization, Duties, and Elections of the Nation's Islamic Councils, and Election of Mayors Act" -- was enacted, Borazjan's "Ittihad-i Jonub" reported on 6 January. It was on this basis that the February 1999 elections took place. The southern daily warns that, as a result of all this regulation, the councils are "practically incapable of playing the role of a good and effective critic of the institution of urban management."

There are several known facts about these elections, such as the number of eligible voters, the approximate number of candidates, and the general regulations. Other more variable factors, such as the role of political parties, will also influence the results. These factors are examined below -- but the final product of this algebra is not clear. (Bill Samii)

...VOTERS AND VOTING... President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami told the heads of the administrative headquarters for the council elections during a 17 February speech, "The higher the turnout in these elections, the stronger the mandate of the candidates who are elected to govern their cities or villages on behalf of the people," state television reported the next day.

Between 35 million eligible voters (according to the Plan and Budget Organization) and 39 million eligible voters (according to the State Registration Office and IRNA) were eligible to vote in the previous municipal elections in 1999. The voting age at that time was 16. The voting age was subsequently lowered to 15, and more than 44.5 million Iranians -- everyone born before 8 June 1986 -- were eligible to vote in the May 2001 presidential election, according to IRNA.

Now, every Iranian born before 28 February 1988 will be eligible to vote. As of July 2002, the population was estimated to be 66,622,704, and 68.4 percent of the population is estimated to be 15 or older (see http://www.odci.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/ir.html). This means that there are approximately 45.6 million eligible voters.

The director-general of law enforcement in the Tehran governorate, Ali Talai, said that a security headquarters would be set up at the governorate-general and in provincial cities, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 22 January. These headquarters will gather data and statistics, analyze events in the run-up to the elections, and determine sensitive areas.

The voting is scheduled to take place on 28 February. The opening hours of polling stations in the large cities are usually extended to accommodate the tremendous number of keen voters. In smaller communities, the voting and vote counting should be completed fairly quickly.

The results of the 1999 elections were announced in about one week. Disputes continued beyond that time over the Tehran council on the basis of candidates' eligibility, however, and in Ahvaz, Ardabil, Bandar Abbas, Qom, and Shiraz there were disputes about the vote count. The final results for Tehran and 15 other provinces were announced on 26 April 1999.

Several commentators have offered predictions and tried to explain voter turnout for the upcoming municipal elections.

Seyyed Javad Husseini, the director-general for Social and Electoral Affairs in the Khorasan Governor's Office, said on 5 February that a recent survey found that 74.4 percent of voters would participate in the election, "Iran Daily" reported on 6 February. Rural residents will be more active than urban ones, the survey found, and women will be more active than men.

Mustafa Tajzadeh commented in the 16 January "Iran" newspaper that reducing the number of nonvoters indicates an increase in the number of people who believe the system can be changed. He wrote that about one-third of the population did not vote in the 2001 presidential election and that if this figure grows it means that more people have become disillusioned with the Islamic republic's system.

Isfahan parliamentarian Ahmad Shirzad said in the 18 February "Aftab-i Yazd" that there is less dynamism now because people are less motivated to make changes. Shirzad said that many people would make up their minds at the last moment. (Bill Samii)

...CANDIDATES AND ELIGIBILITY... The director-general of the Interior Ministry Office of Election Affairs, Mohammad Ali Moshfeq, announced on 6 January that more than 210,000 people had signed up as candidates, according to IRNA. The Guardians Council vets candidates for all national elections, e.g., president, parliament, Assembly of Experts; but not for the council elections. For the council elections, executive election boards affiliated with the Interior Ministry vet the candidates on the basis of information from the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, local Justice departments, registry offices, and the police. This process was completed by 22 January, and less than 3 percent of the candidates were disqualified.

An editorial in the 7 January "Gilan-i Imruz," a pro-reform daily, said that the relatively low level of enthusiasm on the part of potential candidates was based on the councils' weak record. Most of the councils, the daily said, were unable to perform their duties and did not exhibit any power over municipal administrations. "Hambastegi" daily newspaper, which is the mouthpiece of the Islamic Solidarity Party, reported on 26 January that the councils need "efficient, brave, honest, and politically intelligent men."

"Seda-yi Idalat" on 26 January tried to encourage candidates by saying that, from an individual perspective, membership on a council expands one's horizons and worldview, makes one aware of one's rights and duties, and socializes people. On the other hand, "Seda-yi Idalat" complained two days later that "second-rate" and "unfamiliar" names were being introduced as candidates just so the factions could get absolute majorities on the councils. The daily called for people skilled in urban management.

Supervisory election boards affiliated with the parliament make the final decision on disqualified candidates' appeals. Hamid Reza Taraqi of the conservative Islamic Coalition Association said that the candidate-approval process is unfair because the Interior Ministry and the legislature have similar political inclinations, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 3 February. Such partisanship does not exist in the Guardians Council, Taraqi said.

The final announcement of candidates was scheduled for 16 February, but the 19 February "Entekhab" pointed out that "no official announcement has yet been made about the number of people whose credentials for participating in the election have been approved." The daily said that about 20,000 people have been declared ineligible. Moreover, 2,000 villages will not have elections because not enough people registered, the daily said. (Bill Samii)

...PARTY ACTIVITIES AND ENDORSEMENTS... There are more than 100 registered political organizations in Iran. Many of these groups focus on just one issue or have little real political involvement. Moreover, political affiliations are unlikely to have much significance in most of the council contests. In smaller constituencies, voters will have fewer choices, and their choices are more likely to be based on local interests.

Parties and factions have a greater significance in the major cities, where voters must choose from large lists of candidates, and ideological considerations will be more relevant in their selections. Political organizations publish lists of the candidates they prefer as a guide for voters. Candidates themselves rarely claim a political affiliation, so an individual's name could appear on several different lists. There was a great deal of speculation about these candidate lists in the run-up to the 2003 elections.

There are two main conservative political groups:

(1) Islamic Coalition Association. Habibollah Asgaroladi-Mosalman leads this group, which was formed as a coalition of grassroots, local Islamic clubs and a joint venture of conservative bazaaris and clerics. Interwoven with the Resalat Foundation, it supports the supreme leadership;

(2) Tehran Militant Clergy Association (Jameh-yi Ruhaniyat-i Mubarez-i Tehran). This group originated in 1936, and it was active in the 1963 riots in Iran. Members favor a market economy and are very conservative culturally. This group strongly supports Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the doctrine that ultimate decision-making power should rest with the supreme leadership.

The conservatives are reluctant to participate in the council elections. They hope that a low level of public participation will indicate dissatisfaction with this experiment in participatory democracy. They also assert that the dissolution of the reformist-dominated Tehran council in January can be traced to its concentration on political rather than municipal affairs.

Islamic Coalition Association's Hamid Reza Taraqi said, "Our campaign policy is not to publish any statements or posters... we do not wish to politicize the situation," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 8 February. He added, "we are trying not to support those individuals who have greater political inclination than professional expertise."

Mohsen Armin of the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization said that the conservatives' lack of participation in the elections means that the reformist groups will compete with each other, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 8 February.

The reformist groups are identified as the 2nd of Khordad coalition, which is named after the day of President Khatami's election in May 1997. There are 18 groups in this coalition. Listed alphabetically, they include:

(1) Executives of Construction Party (ECP). A party formed by associates of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, including his brother Mohammad; former Tehran Mayor Gholamhussein Karbaschi; and 16 ministers and vice presidents. This group has a strong technocratic core.

(2) Islamic Iran Participation Party (IIPP). Former members of the Executives of Construction Party and the Tehran Militant Clergy Association, as well as Students Following the Imam's Line member Abbas Abdi, founded this organization in autumn 1998 as a pro-Khatami party.

(3) Islamic Labor Party. This party announced its formation in February 1999, and its initial platform was described as "protecting the rights of workers and laborers." Spokeswoman Soheila Jelodarzadeh is also an advocate of women's issues. Founding members were part of the Workers House (Khaneh-yi Kargar), which supported Khatami's presidential bid.

(4) Militant Clerics Association (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mubarez). This group's leadership consists of Hojatoleslams Mehdi Mahdavi-Karrubi, Mohammad Asqar Musavi-Khoeniha, and Ali Akbar Ashtiani. This group broke away from the original Tehran Militant Clergy Association (Jameh-yi Ruhaniyat-i Mubarez-i Tehran), and it is now considered the left-leaning clergy association.

(5) Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization. This group is led by parliamentarian Behzad Nabavi-Tabrizi and Mohammad Salamati, and it advocates government intervention in the economy and in development.

(6) Office for Strengthening Unity. This loose grouping of pro-Khatami Islamist student associations was very active, but in the last year or so it has split into two factions and has declared its withdrawal from political activism. The group's passivity unintentionally plays into the hands of monarchists based abroad, who are calling for a boycott of the election, and conservatives at home, who are trying to stir up disputes in the reformist coalition, according to a 30 January commentary in "Mardom Salari."

(7) Islamic Solidarity Party.

(8) Groups Following the Imam's Line.

The 2nd of Khordad coalition currently is beset by infighting. Majid Farahani of the IIPP described a dispute between the ECP and the Solidarity Party, "Toseh" reported on 7 January, but then went on to say that the IIPP would have to reconsider its support for the 2nd of Khordad's list if it included certain names as candidates. Parliamentarian Vali Azarvash said that the Solidarity Party would not participate in the coalition if Ebrahim Asgharzadeh is not on the list of 2nd of Khordad candidates, "Hambastegi" reported on 28 January. In early February, several legislators resigned from the Solidarity Party to protest Asgharzadeh's negative remarks about the IIPP, "Iran Daily" reported on 8 February.

Ali Gharibani, a member of the 2nd of Khordad coalition election headquarters, announced the names of 33 people that the coalition would back as candidates, "Hambastegi" reported on 19 February. He added that not everybody agrees that all these names should be on the list. Gharibani added that the Militant Clerics Association will support the list if all members of the coalition agree on it but that it would not issue a separate list. (Bill Samii)

...MEDIA COVERAGE... Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting normally offers constant election coverage on at least one television channel and regular updates on other channels. Election coverage by other networks is less welcome. In the run-up to the 18 February 2000 parliamentary election, Tehran jammed foreign radio services' shortwave broadcasts with bubble-type interference and by overriding the foreign broadcasts with the Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran. These Iranian government activities were directed at RFE/RL's Persian Service, Voice of America, and the BBC. On the day of the 2001 presidential election, RFE/RL's Persian Service was jammed on one of its frequencies but was clear on the other three. Voice of America's Persian Service was jammed on only one of its frequencies. BBC's Persian Service was not jammed. (Bill Samii)

...WHAT THE VOTERS WANT. Voters will have higher expectations of the new councils, Rasht's "Gilan-i Imruz" newspaper reported on 2 January. In a similar vein, Arak's "Ravi" publication reported on 5 January that councils on which the members were selected on the basis of professional qualifications rather than political affiliations were successful in managing local affairs. The councils on which members were more political deteriorated into political disputes.

In a 17 February speech to heads of the administrative headquarters for the council elections, President Khatami said that councils are one of the pillars of the state and that people's votes are another pillar, state television reported on 18 August. He said that in most places the councils had been successful, while acknowledging that there were problems in a few cities. Khatami said councils must be more transparent and must increase their interaction with the public.

It seems unlikely that reformist-conservative political matters will have a tremendous impact on voting patterns throughout the country in the council elections. Most of the country's population has more immediate concerns, such as employment, housing, running water, gas, and electricity. Most candidates will be elected on the basis of their potential to resolve such issues and name recognition within their communities. The ability of the councils to provide solutions from 1999 to 2003 will determine public confidence in their ability to deliver from 2003 onward. (Bill Samii)

INTELLIGENCE MINISTER REJECTS POLITICAL-CRISIS ALLEGATIONS. Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) chief Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi in a 19 February television program reacted to assertions by the director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, George Tenet, about political clashes in Iran (for Tenet's comments, see http://intelligence.senate.gov/0302hrg/030211/tenet.pdf). Yunesi said: "Those are his wishes. Nothing like that will happen. I can tell you for sure that there will be no major political crisis or clashes in the country."

Yunesi claimed that the United States is behind Iranian political difficulties. "They have launched a psychological war by saying that the country is faced with a serious political crisis and that division and disunity are on the rise. They planned all of them. We have political rivalry but not political clashes," he said. On the same program, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said that "national harmony" and the cooperation of political parties will help prevent interference in domestic Iranian affairs. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN MAKES BIZARRE CLAIMS ABOUT KERMAN PLANE CRASH. Tehran's claims about a tragic aviation accident near Kerman appear to be part of an effort to hide the truth about what really happened. In fact, Tehran's claims about the number of victims suggest that either two airplanes flew into each other or one airplane was dangerously overloaded. Meanwhile, a hitherto unknown group is claiming to have destroyed the aircraft.

An Ilyushin-76 transport aircraft carrying 284 members of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) and 18 crewmembers crashed at approximately 2:30 p.m. GMT on 19 February in the Shahdad area of Kerman Province, according to IRNA and Iranian broadcast media. Air-traffic controllers at Kerman airport said that the pilot had reported bad weather and strong winds before contact was lost, according to IRNA. The crash victims served in the IRGC's Imam Ali Battalion in Sistan va Baluchistan Province, IRNA reported.

Late on 21 February, IRGC air force commander Brigadier General Kazemi revised the casualty figures. He said, according to state radio: "Two hundred sixty-four victims were personnel of the 41st Sarallah Brigade in Kerman. The remaining 11 people were the aircrew." A 23 February IRNA report described the recovery of 210 bodies.

Rescue operations had begun early on 20 February, 41st Sarallah Division commander Abdul Hamid Raufi-Nejad said on state television. He said that the weather was making it very difficult to reach the crash site, which is at an altitude of 3,500 meters. An unidentified mountaineer said: "Only the boys from the mountaineering unit have been able to get up there. No one else can get up there. And no one is staying up there. The weather is very bad. There is fog, snow, and gale-[force] winds." Helicopters could not land at the crash site, IRNA reported, and efforts were under way to plow a road to the site. Efforts to recover the aircraft's flight-data recorder on 20 February were called off because of severe weather, Reuters reported late that day.

The Ilyushin-76 aircraft, designated the "Candid" by NATO, first flew in 1971 and was designed as a counterpart to the Lockheed C-141 Starlifter. "Its pilots describe it as dependable," Moscow's RTR television reported on 20 February, adding, "Almost all Il-76 crashes have involved a human factor or poor weather conditions." According to the Aviation Safety Network (http://aviation-safety.net/database/type/314.shtml), the Il-76 has crashed at least 45 times. This is the third crash of an IL-76 in Iran; the others occurred on 24 May 1991 and 24 February 2002.

The initial Iranian claims about the crash did not make much sense, although some initial confusion is understandable. The Iranian government said that 302 people died in the 19 February crash, and it later revised this to 275. The Il-76, however, has a maximum capacity of 140 passengers or 125 fully equipped paratroopers, and it normally carries a crew of seven to nine people. Where did all these extra people come from? Did two aircraft fly into one other? Moreover, the Iranian government said that the probable cause of the crash was bad weather. If the aircraft really was carrying more than twice its normal payload, then it could be that the plane was just too heavy to clear the mountain that it struck.

A possible explanation is that it was the Il-76MD, which has almost twice the payload capacity of the Il-76. Iran confiscated several of these aircraft when Baghdad flew them to Iran for safekeeping shortly before the 1991 Gulf War began.

Contributing further to the mystery is a report in the 21 February issue of the London-based "Al-Hayat," which says that the daily received a faxed claim of responsibility from Paris from a group calling itself the Abu-Bakr Brigades (alwiyat abu- bakr). "We have fired the first bullet at the regime in Tehran," according to the English and Persian statement, adding, "The regime insulted our sacred Islamic symbols, our ethnic groups, freedom of religion, and human rights." The statement describes a suicide bombing by one of its members and threatens to continue such operations. (Bill Samii)

AGHAJARI VERDICT NOT REVERSED. Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Sajjadi, an associate justice on Bench 27 of the Supreme Court, said on the evening of 14 February that the Supreme Court had quashed the death sentence imposed by a Hamedan court on political activist and university professor Hashem Aghajari, IRNA reported on 15 February. The Hamedan court sentenced Aghajari to death, a flogging, and imprisonment for giving an allegedly blasphemous speech in July 2002. Sajjadi said that it was determined that the verdict contradicted the law. The case must now undergo further hearings and a new verdict must be issued, he said.

Sajjadi's statement led to optimism about the case. "Iran lifts death sentence on students' hero," "The Guardian" reported on 15 February. "Iranian Court Lifts Critic's Death Sentence," "The Washington Post" reported on the same day. "Another Death Sentence is Lifted," "The New York Times" reported.

The conservative "Resalat" daily on 16 February said that the death sentence against Aghajari had not been overturned, it just had deficiencies that necessitate a resentencing, the English-language "Iran News" reported the next day. Ayatollah Sajjadi, however, rejected the argument in "Resalat" that the case was not reversed, "Hambastegi" reported on 17 February.

Later comments from state officials dampened hopes. Judiciary spokesman Gholamhussein Elham said on 17 February that the Supreme Court has not quashed the death sentence, IRNA reported on 18 February. Rather, defects were found in the investigation, and the same court as before must hear the case again. "It is possible that the new ruling confirms the initial verdict, or a different verdict is issued," Elham said.

Justice Minister Hojatoleslam Ismail Shushtari said after an 18 February ceremony introducing Justice Department officials in northwestern Ardabil Province that the verdict against Aghajari was revoked because of flaws in the case, ISNA reported. That is why it was returned to the same court that issued the original verdict, he said, adding, "We are waiting for another investigation."

Regardless of the technicalities, Aghajari's lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht, on 18 February again rejected the accusations of blasphemy against his client, IRNA reported. "My client has been accused of apostasy and denying the basics of the [Islamic] religion," he said, adding that the charge of apostasy is only relevant "if one denies God and the prophets...and my client has not made any statement to this effect." (Bill Samii)

TWO NEW PUBLICATIONS AND ONE OLD ONE HIT NEWSSTANDS. Reformist cleric Rasul Montajabnia has launched "Nasim-i Saba," and Mehdi Shamshirian has launched "Farhang-i Ashti," "Iran News" reported on 19 February. The former publication will back favored candidates in the upcoming municipal-council elections. Economic issues dominate "Farhang-i Ashti," reflecting the publisher's effort to avoid closure on political grounds, according to "Iran News."

Publication of the weekly "Gunagun" has resumed after a two-year ban, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 16 February.

Said Shariati, who was the political editor for the banned daily "Noruz," denied that the "Noruz" editorial board is the publisher of a newspaper called "Sharq," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported. Shariati said that, although "Sharq" is licensed for publication throughout the country, currently it is being published as a weekly in Sistan va Baluchistan Province. (Bill Samii)

WOMEN WANT STONINGS TO STOP. Ms. Molaverdi, who heads the Interior Ministry's Center for the Participation of Women, said on 14 February that the most important human rights issues for Iranian women are the stoning to death of adulteresses and unequal compensation granted to victims of crimes or their survivors, ISNA reported. Molaverdi said the Center for the Participation of Women has yet to see a purported judiciary directive that judges should not use the stoning sentence. "We do hope, however, that as reported in the media, such a directive has been published," she said. Molaverdi also said that since religious minorities are to receive equal blood-money awards as Muslims, "We hope that the same may be applied in the case of blood money given to women, which is not equal to men's." (Bill Samii)

BUSHEHR NUCLEAR REACTOR FULFILS NEED FOR PRESTIGE. Iranian officials, including President Khatami and Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, claim that the nuclear facility at Bushehr is needed to fulfill Iranian energy requirements (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 17 February 2003). The former manager of the facility, however, says that the government insists on completing it for reasons of prestige, even though the station is uneconomic.

One example of the energy argument was heard from parliamentarian Ali Yari, who serves on the Energy Committee. He said in a 17 February interview with "Seda-yi Idalat" that demand for electricity in Iran could reach 6,000 megawatts in the next decade and that preliminary talks have been held with Russia on building several nuclear-power plants to fulfill such a requirement, "Iran Daily" reported on 18 February. Yari added that the nuclear facility at Bushehr would generate 1,000 megawatts of electricity when it begins operating.

Mr. Ayatollah Momen, who managed Bushehr in the late 1980s, cast doubt on the usual justifications for building the nuclear facility in an interview that appeared in the 18 January issue of "Nasir-i Bushehr" provincial weekly. Momen said that both Atomic Energy Organization of Iran chief Qolamreza Aqazadeh-Khoi and the legislature are aware that the Bushehr plant consumes an excessive amount of money. "But this project has become something on which our prestige depends, and the officials intend to finish it no matter what the conditions are in which that might happen," he added. Momen explained that for this reason budgeting for the project is advancing without any accurate evaluations.

Momen also said that high-ranking officials working at Bushehr get very high salaries, and he implied that nepotism is involved in determining such appointments. As for the Russians, Momen said, they use U.S. pressure as an excuse and threaten to stop work on the nuclear facility. They use this pressure to secure their demands, Momen said, and the Russians have also used this argument in securing their participation in oil projects.

Coincidentally, a delegation of Russian Atomic Energy Ministry officials led by Deputy Minister Andrei Malyshev arrived in Tehran for a one-day visit, ITAR-TASS reported on 17 February. Among the topics of discussion was the possible construction of another power-generating network at Bushehr. Russian Atomic Energy Ministry spokesman Nikolai Shingarev told IRNA on 13 February that the visiting delegation would also deliver some parts and equipment for the Bushehr facility.

Meanwhile, a combined-cycle, electricity-generating plant that was inaugurated in Kerman by Parliament Speaker Mehdi Karrubi and Energy Minister Habibullah Bitaraf on 18 February, according to IRNA, could help fulfill the demand for electricity. Power Development Organization chief Hussein Mahmudzadeh said this new facility will increase the country's overall electrical output by 9 percent and that it would feed the power networks in Hormuzgan, Sistan va Baluchistan, and Yazd provinces. The eight gas turbines have a nominal capacity of 1,272 megawatts, and the introduction of four steam-power units will increase the plant's output to 1,912 megawatts. Mahmudzadeh said the equipment was purchased in Italy and that the Islamic Development Bank provided financing. (Bill Samii)

EL-BARADEI, IAEA OFFICIALS VISIT IRAN. International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Mohammad el-Baradei arrived in Iran on 21 February to inspect Iran's nuclear facilities, Iranian state radio reported, and he left the next day after meeting with President Khatami, Parliament Speaker Karrubi, and Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Hashemi-Rafsanjani. El-Baradei was expected to be accompanied by IAEA Deputy Director-General Pierre Goldschmidt, as well as Holli Heinonen, the director of the agency's division of safeguards, who is responsible for Iran.

El-Baradei is expected to urge officials there to sign an "additional protocol," supported by the European Union, that would allow the IAEA to increase monitoring of Iran's nuclear operations, according to AFP on 19 February. "We have encouraged Iran and all other countries to conclude this additional protocol because it would provide us with further information and access to different sites, including things like uranium mines and concentration plants," IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky said. El-Baradei said on 22 February that Iran had agreed to "actively consider" signing up for the "additional protocols," Reuters reported.

El-Baradei and Atomic Energy Organization of Iran chief Qolamreza Aqazadeh-Khoi visited the organization's headquarters near the city of Natanz, according to state radio on 21 February, and they subsequently participated in a joint press conference at which el-Baradei said he did not see anything surprising, according to IRNA on 22 February.

Unidentified "Western officials and international diplomats," however, said that seeing sophisticated machinery for enriching uranium at Natanz led to IAEA inspectors' concern that "Iran is making headway in its suspected program to develop nuclear weapons," "The New York Times" reported on 23 January. Moreover, the inspectors learned that Iran could make many centrifuges for enriching uranium. "The New York Times" reported that "American and British intelligence officials" are concerned that if Iran builds a civilian plant in one place it will build a clandestine one elsewhere, and material from Natanz could be diverted to a secret centrifuge to make weapons-grade material. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN LEGISLATURE WANTS TO INTERPELLATE FOREIGN MINISTER. President Mohammad Khatami on 19 February declared his support for Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi in the face of a parliamentary motion to interpellate (to question and possibly offer a no-confidence motion) him after Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri visited Tehran earlier in the month, IRNA reported. Khatami said, "Our friends must know that if our minister of foreign affairs makes a decision, that is a decision made by the state, and we support it." Khatami criticized the legislators' timing, saying, "I expect them not to publicly raise issues that run counter to our interest at this current sensitive juncture."

An unnamed spokesman for the parliamentary presidium announced on 19 February that Kharrazi's questioning would take place behind closed doors, state radio reported.

Some 100 parliamentarians on 16 February submitted the motion to interpellate Kharrazi, ISNA reported. They had threatened to do the same thing when it appeared that Sabri would visit Iran the previous month (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 13 January and 3 February 2003).

Ardabil representative Nureddin Pirmoazen, who signed the interpellation motion, said that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is trying to save himself from international isolation, whereas the Foreign Ministry should be hosting United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission chief Hans Blix to show him the evidence of Hussein's chemical-weapons attacks, ISNA reported on 17 February. Pirmoazen noted that Sabri visited Tehran when the parliament was in recess. The interpellation motion also notes Hussein's failure to apologize for invading Iran, his annulment of the 1975 Algiers accords, failure to fully implement UN Resolution 598 that ended the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, failure to pay reparations, and failure to account for all the prisoners of war and those missing in action.

Sabri's visit appears to be the straw that broke the camel's back, because Kharrazi has come under fire for other issues in the last year, such as the failure to make progress on utilization of Caspian Sea resources and the presence in Iran of Al-Qaeda personnel. Foreign-affairs analyst Mohammad Dehghan said in the 4 February "Siyasat-i Ruz" newspaper that in overall terms, the Foreign Ministry is made up of many qualified and dedicated personnel. Nevertheless, he said that one of the major problems is "the attachment of some the diplomatic corps to political and religious personalities." The difficulties posed by such nonspecialists have not been solved yet, Dehghan said. (Bill Samii)

FORMER INTELLIGENCE OFFICER ALLEGES IRANIAN AND HIZBALLAH LINKS WITH AL-QAEDA. Iranian officials continue to deny any links between their country and Al-Qaeda terrorists, but a recent asylum seeker claims that the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps and Iran's Lebanese proxies have had such contacts for many years.

Government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh said on 19 February at his weekly meeting with correspondents that Iran is strictly against Al-Qaeda, and he challenged anybody who has evidence to the contrary to provide it, ISNA reported. "Our policy is that no one who is affiliated with Al-Qaeda should be present within our borders or in the vicinity of our borders," he said. "Thus, as far as this particular issue is concerned, we hereby declare that if there is anyone, be they Iranian citizens or foreign intelligence services, who has intelligence on this matter, then they should provide it to our intelligence services, and the people involved will be dealt with quickly," Ramezanzadeh added.

Hamid Reza Zakeri, who claims to be a former official in the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and the supreme leader's office, said in the 18 February issue of London's "Al-Sharq Al-Awsat" that the IRGC has had a relationship with groups like the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Al-Qaeda since the 1980s. He said Lebanese Hizballah official Imad Mughniyah maintains contacts with Al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri and that before 11 September 2001 Mughniyah relayed a request for assistance from al-Zawahiri to the IRGC, according to Zakeri, but the Iranians declined this request. Imad Mughniyah is still in Iran, and "he organized the escape of dozens of Al-Qaeda elements to Iran," Zakeri said.

An anonymous source in the MOIS denied Zakeri's allegations about Iranian links with Al-Qaeda and al-Zawahiri, "Al-Sharq Al-Awsat" reported, adding that Zakeri was expelled from the MOIS for "suspicious behavior and connections." An anonymous official in the supreme leader's office accused Zakeri of "of spying, being an agent, and scheming against Islam and the revolution in coordination with the Zionists and world arrogance."

A report in "The New York Times" on 17 February cited Iranian officials who described a recent crackdown on Al-Qaeda infiltrations from Pakistan into Sistan va Baluchistan Province (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 17 February 2003). (Bill Samii)

SCIRI MOVES INTO NORTHERN IRAQ. As Iraqi opposition groups, from the Iraqi National Congress to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), express unhappiness about U.S. plans for a post-Hussein Iraq, it has been reported that some 5,000 SCIRI troops have entered northern Iraq. This is a worrisome development, not just because the SCIRI constituency is from southern Iraq, but also because it indicates Tehran's intention to have a permanent and undeniable presence in a post-Hussein Iraq.

SCIRI representatives have spoken out against the U.S. plan to appoint a U.S. military officer to run Iraq for two years after the ouster of President Saddam Hussein, according to Iranian news agencies. Abdulaziz al-Hakim, who heads the SCIRI's "Jihadi office" in Tehran, on 14 February said the U.S. plan runs counter to the ideals of the opposition and challenges U.S. claims of respect for the Iraqi nation's will, IRNA reported.

Hamid al-Bayati, SCIRI's London representative, said on 17 February that an imposed government would be unacceptable because this is an issue that concerns "the Iraqi nation and opposition," Fars News Agency reported. Al-Bayati added that this would cause regional instability and would create problems for Iraqis and for the United States. Al-Bayati expressed regret that "regional countries have not and do not support us. The Islamic Republic of Iran is the only country that has cooperated with us."

These concerns may explain the movement of personnel from the Badr Corps, the SCIRI's military unit, into northern Iraq. The "Financial Times" reported on 19 February that a 5,000-man armed force of SCIRI personnel had moved into an area near Darbandikhan, which is some 24 kilometers across the Iranian border in northern Iraq. Iranian officials said the force is there to counter any threats from Baghdad's forces. Iranian sources also told the "Financial Times" that the U.S. government told SCIRI leader Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim that the SCIRI's military unit should not intervene if there is a U.S. invasion but that the SCIRI would have a role in a democratic Iraq.

The "Financial Times" noted that the Pentagon is concerned about excessive State Department encouragement of an Iranian role. In an example of the State Department's attitude toward Tehran, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told the "Los Angeles Times" of 14 February that a new kind of "liberal thought" has developed in Iran. "There's already a good bit of liberal thought," he said. "It's relatively liberal -- not the way you or I would describe it, but liberal thought already exists." Armitage also described Iran as a "democracy."

Iranian government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh on 19 February appeared to deny that SCIRI military personnel have entered northern Iraq, ISNA reported. He said, "We have not had any Iranian or non-Iranian troops crossing Iran's borders with Iraq, and I would like to deny the veracity of that report." (Bill Samii)

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