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Iran Report: December 22, 2003


22 December 2003, Volume 6, Number 49

CONTROVERSY BEGINS AS IRANIANS REGISTER FOR PARLIAMENTARY ELECTION. Candidates began registering for the Islamic Republic of Iran's seventh parliamentary election on 13 December, a process that continued through 19 December. Parliamentary elections have served as a key battleground for reformists and hard-liners; this year, however, the fireworks started earlier than usual.

Supervisory committees in 14 provinces rejected the competency of 336 individuals appointed as electoral agents by district and local governors, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 17 December. These supervisory committees are connected with the Guardians Council, which has the function of supervising elections, while the governors are associated with the Interior Ministry, which is tasked with conducting elections. Tension between the Guardians Council and the Interior Ministry is ever present during elections, due to the political and factional differences of their leaders. During the last year, this tension has simmered especially close to the surface, especially since the Guardians Council decided to create provincial offices.

Regardless of such disputes, some 8,000 people registered as candidates, IRNA reported on 20 December. Candidates are required to believe in and be committed to Islam and the principle of Islamic leadership, must be in good physical health, and have at least a two-year university degree or its equivalent, according to IRNA on 13 December. Moreover, candidates cannot have a criminal record and must be between the ages of 30 and 75.

The director-general of the Interior Ministry's Office of Election Affairs, Mohammad Ali Moshfeq, explained on 21 December that investigation of prospective candidates' backgrounds would last until 29 December, state television reported. The Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), the police, the Justice Ministry, and the Department of Personal Records (Edareh-yi Sapt-i Ahval) will provide information on the candidates.

Candidates disqualified as a result of these background checks would be informed on 30 December, and they could complain to the Supervisory Boards from 31 December-3 January. The boards will consider these complaints until 10 January. If complainants are still dissatisfied with the boards' explanation for the rejection, they can appeal to the Guardians Council from 11-30 January. Moshfeq went on to say that people whose candidacy is initially approved but then rejected by the Guardians Council can lodge a complaint from 31 January-2 February. The Guardians Council has until 9 February to explain the rejection to the Interior Ministry.

The Interior Ministry will release a final list of candidates on 10 February. Campaigning will take place on 12-18 February, and the election is scheduled for 20 February.

Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi said on 10 December that the MOIS has made the necessary preparations for helping the Supervisory Boards examine the eligibility of applicants, IRNA reported on 10 December. An official from the state Prosecutor-General's Office said on 9 December that election inquiries headquarters have been established in all the provinces, state television reported. Moreover, special units have been established to investigate election-related crimes.

The State Election Headquarters provided a listing of how many parliamentarians would be elected in each province on 29 November, the "Sharq" daily newspaper reported.

Ardabil Province: 7 MPs and 5 constituencies.

East-Azerbaijan Province: 19 MPs and 13 constituencies.

West-Azerbaijan Province: 12 MPs and 9 constituencies.

Boirahmad va Kohkiluyeh Province: 3 MPs and 3 constituencies.

Bushehr Province: 4 MPs and 4 constituencies.

Chaharmahal va Bakhtiari Province: 4 MPs and 4 constituencies.

Fars Province: 18 MPs and 15 constituencies.

Gilan Province: 13 MPs and 11 constituencies.

Gulistan Province: 7 MPs and 6 constituencies.

Hamedan Province: 9 MPs and 7 constituencies.

Hormozgan Province: 9 MPs and 7 constituencies.

Ilam Province: 3 MPs and 2 constituencies.

Isfahan Province: 19 MPs and 15 constituencies.

Kerman Province: 10 MPs and 9 constituencies.

Kermanshah Province: 8 MPs and 6 constituencies.

Khorasan Province: 26 MPs and 19 constituencies.

Khuzestan Province: 18 MPs and 14 constituencies.

Kurdistan Province: 6 MPs and 5 constituencies.

Luristan Province: 9 MPs and 7 constituencies.

Markazi [Central] Province: 7 MPs and 6 constituencies.

Mazandaran Province: 12 MPs and 9 constituencies.

Semnan Province: 4 MPs and 4 constituencies.

Sistan va Baluchistan Province: 8 MPs and 6 constituencies.

Qazvin Province: 4 MPs and 3 constituencies.

Qom Province: 3 MPs and 1 constituency.

Tehran Province: 38 MPs and 8 constituencies.

Yazd Province: 4 MPs and 4 constituencies.

Zanjan Province: 5 MPs and 4 constituencies.

Religious minorities: 5 MPs. (Bill Samii)

GUARDIANS COUNCIL WANTS GREATER POWERS. The Guardians Council -- a body of six clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader and six laymen selected by the judiciary chief who are subject to parliamentary approval -- plays the most controversial role in the election process via its power of "approbatory supervision." Under Article 99 of the constitution, this is the means by which the council vets candidates for elected office, and even more controversially, annuls or changes election results.

Legislation introduced by the Khatami administration in August 2002 was intended to greatly reduce the Guardians Council's role in elections. The Guardians Council, however, must approve all legislation and it has already rejected the new election legislation. Khatami and Speaker of Parliament Mehdi Karrubi have been in consultation with the Guardians Council on the matter, as has a parliamentary delegation, but as of this writing the talks have borne no fruit.

Tehran parliamentary representative Mohsen Armin described the failure of such talks as predictable, "Iran" reported on 17 November. In addition to insisting on "approbatory supervision," the Guardians Council now wants to practice "continuous supervision." According to "Iran," this means that the council could vet a candidate's competency at any time.

President Khatami, meanwhile, is perceived to have given up on the basis of his comments in a 1 December speech to members of the election supervisory boards. "Even if some renowned candidates are not nominated or qualified, the people should not withdraw. In this case we should look for a candidate whose thoughts are closest to our ideas and vote for him."

In fact, Khatami was encouraging people to vote while also criticizing the elimination of candidates. Many legislators, however, took exception to his comments and suggested that this was tantamount to encouraging the disqualification of reformist candidates. One hundred members of parliament complained in a letter to Khatami about what the neo-reformist "Sharq" called on 8 December, "Khatami's premature surrender in the face of the disqualification of famous candidates."

For example, Tehran's Fatimeh Haqiqatju told the Fars News Agency on 8 December that the president must ensure that the elections are free for candidates and for voters. Jafar Kambuzia warned that "the opposite side will abuse these remarks and interpret them as permission to disqualify a large number of reformers," "Entekhab" reported on 10 December. Kambuzia encouraged Khatami and the Interior Ministry to put illegally disqualified candidates on the list anyway. And Akram Mosavari-Manesh said that Khatami has sufficient powers to defend candidates. "Thus, no excuse or justification by him will be acceptable."

The more assertive role played by the Guardians Council during this election cycle is relatively new, according to the director-general of the Interior Ministry's Office of Election Affairs, Mohammad Ali Moshfeq. He said that approbatory supervision became an issue when the Guardians Council reinterpreted the law in 1370 (21 March 1991-20 March 1992). Before that date, Moshfeq said, approbatory supervision did not exist in the election literature. He continued, "I believe that right now on the basis of the present laws, as well, the function of the Guardians Council is not to examine the qualifications, rather, according to the 1378 law ratified by the fifth parliament, the task of examining qualification is a completely executive issue." In other words, it is up to the Interior Ministry.

By the sixth day of candidates' registration it was clear that there would be some controversy. Among the people who registered for the election were a number of individuals whose candidacy the Guardians Council has rejected in the past, such as Ebrahim Asqarzadeh, as well as members of banned Freedom Movement (Nehzat-i Azadi), such as Abolfazl Bazargan and Hashem Sabaghian, ILNA reported. (Bill Samii)

GOVERNMENT TRIES TO BOOST CONFIDENCE IN ELECTIONS. In the previous (February 2000) parliamentary election, the results in some large constituencies were not announced for several months. The delay was caused, to a large extent, by the need to count votes by hand, because the Guardians Council refused to permit computerized vote tabulation. The delay in announcing election results undermined public confidence in the process, and when the initial results were overturned in favor of conservative candidates, there were protests in Tehran. Efforts are underway to introduce a computerized vote-counting process in time for the February election.

Deputy Interior Minister Morteza Moballegh, head of the State Election Headquarters, had said on 26 November that the vote-counting process would be computerized in Tehran due to the large number of voters, ISNA reported. He added that the Interior Ministry intends to do this in other heavily populated cities as well. Moballegh explained that voters would write their names and the election codes of their chosen candidates on the ballots, and then the computers would add up the votes. Moballeq added that this would require new software and hardware, as well as training of personnel.

Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati had urged Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari to have the vote-counting software ready before 21 December, state radio reported on 25 November.

Tehran Governor-General Ali-Akbar Rahmani said on 15 December that computerization will, in IRNA's words, "win the trust of valued and competent candidates."

The government also is trying to improve public confidence in the voting process by providing more election-related information to the public. The Interior Ministry has created an elections website (http://www.moi.gov.ir). This site offers news items, official announcements, election laws, and names of provincial election officials. As of 15 December, however, much of the site remained under construction. (Bill Samii)

CANDIDATES REGISTER FOR ASSEMBLY OF EXPERTS RACES. Deputy Interior Minister Morteza Moballegh, who heads the State Election Headquarters, announced on 15 December that candidates for the Assembly of Experts would be elected on 20 February in Ardabil, East Azerbaijan, Hormozgan, and Zanjan Provinces. Candidates in these races can register from 24-30 December. (Bill Samii)

IRAN GETS INFORMATION AND COMMUNICATIONS TECHNOLOGY MINISTRY. The Tehran press reported on 13 December that the Guardians Council has approved parliamentary legislation to change the name of the Ministry of Post, Telegraph, and Telephone (PTT) to the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, IRNA reported. Deputy PTT Minister Said Shafei was quoted as saying that this reflects the ministry's effort to modernize Iran's information technology and communications capabilities. The ministry's public relations office said its new responsibilities would include the development of policies for the country's IT sector and supervising the telephone and mail networks. Moreover, the new ministry will create, maintain, and exploit post and telecommunications networks, manage the country's communications frequencies, and develop regulations for satellite frequencies. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN WOMEN SHOULD MARRY YOUNGER MEN. The Tehran governor-general's adviser for women's affairs, Rezvan Nayyeri, has recommended that Iranian women marry younger men, "Iran Daily" reported on 16 December. On average, she said, single females in the population are five years older than single males. She went on to say that most Iranian women hold higher education degrees and are unwilling to marry uneducated or younger men. If women married younger men, Nayyeri said, the country's marriage crisis would be averted. She did not comment on the likelihood of an educated woman wanting to marry an uneducated male. (Bill Samii)

MORE TRAFFIC FATALITIES IN IRAN. Nearly 23,000 people have died so far in traffic accidents in Iran in the year that began on 21 March, "Iran Daily" reported on 18 December, citing "Siyasat-i Ruz." This number could rise to 370,000 within 10 years if measures to improve the roads are not implemented, the daily continued.

Recent reports underline this trend. A bus carrying Iraqi pilgrims crashed into an electricity pylon on 16 December on the Borujerd-Malayer road, killing 15 and injuring another 23 people, state television reported. Four people were killed and six injured when a bus traveling from Khorramabad to Shiraz drove head-on into a tractor-trailer, IRNA reported. On 28 November, there was a 200-car pile-up on the Tehran-Qom freeway, IranMania reported; police officials ascribed that accident to excessive speeds, tailgating, and drivers' inattention. Twenty-two Iranian pilgrims were killed and 16 others were injured when their bus collided with a truck on the road between Salafchegan and Saveh, state television reported on 16 November.

Iranian officials claim that their country leads the world in traffic fatalities (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 17 November 2003). (Bill Samii)

ARAK HEAVY-WATER PLANT NEAR COMPLETION, REACTOR CONSTRUCTION NEXT. Iran's Vice President for Atomic Energy Qolam-Reza Aqazadeh-Khoi said on 16 December that the heavy-water production project at Arak is near completion, ISNA reported. "This project is considered to be a remarkable feat for our country, through which Iran will acquire heavy water technology, thus placing our country's name alongside world manufacturers of this industry," Aqazadeh said. "Both the design and production, as well as the installation of the equipment, have been carried out by Iranian experts for the first time in the country," he added.

Aqazadeh said that a 40-megawatt heavy-water reactor would be built next to this facility, state television reported on 17 December. Details are being worked out, he said, and some construction orders have been placed. Work on the reactor is to begin in 2004, he said.

Light-water nuclear reactors are more common than heavy-water ones, according to Reuters on 16 December, but heavy-water reactors can use non-enriched uranium as fuel -- that can subsequently be reprocessed for the extraction of weapons-grade plutonium. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN'S FRIENDS WELCOME SIGNING OF NPT ADDITIONAL PROTOCOL. Tehran on 18 December signed an agreement that would subject its nuclear facilities and suspected nuclear sites to more intrusive inspections by an international watchdog. Iran's friends in Europe, Russia, and Japan welcomed this development, while Washington sounded a more cautious note.

Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran's outgoing ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), signed the Additional Protocol of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) on 18 December, IRNA and other news agencies reported. "With the signing of the additional protocol, Iran has taken a significant step toward demonstrating that it wants to be transparent and is fully committed to building international trust," Salehi said. He went on to say that this should end what he termed "unfair and politically motivated accusations and allegations."

Speaking to reporters the previous day, Iranian Vice President for Atomic Energy Qolam-Reza Aqazadeh-Khoi said, "We have agreed to sign the protocol to prove our activities are peaceful," Reuters reported.

The Additional Protocol allows IAEA inspectors to do their work with as little as two hours warning, allows the IAEA to conduct environmental sampling and demand information on nongovernmental entities, and imposes greater reporting responsibilities on states themselves.

European Commissioner Chris Patten viewed this as a positive move by Iran. Signing the Additional Protocol, he said, "will help in establishing the international community's confidence in Iran's assurance about the peaceful nature of its nuclear program and its commitment to nonproliferation," according to an EU press release (http://europe.eu.int/rapid/start/welcome.htm). Patten added, "Rapid ratification and implementation pending the entry into force of the AP is now essential to provide full transparency on the Iranian nuclear program."

Moscow also views the signing favorably. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Yuriy Fedotov said on 19 December that it "will create a favorable international atmosphere for the implementation of cooperation projects between Moscow and Tehran," ITAR-TASS reported. Washington has pressured Moscow to limit its nuclear cooperation with Tehran, whereas Moscow has insisted that its work on the Bushehr nuclear facility is important as a source of revenue and jobs. Iranians also undergo nuclear training in Russia.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi on 18 December also welcomed the Iranian move, expressing the hope that Iran would ratify and fully implement all its commitments under the Additional Protocol, Kyodo news agency reported on 18 December. Trade Minister Shoichi Nakagawa referred to this as a "step forward," Kyodo reported. "It's not bad," he said when asked about the possible impact on Tokyo-Tehran negotiations on an oil project (see below).

The United States, unlike the Europeans, Russians, and Japanese, has been less sanguine about Iran's signing of the Additional Protocol. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said on 18 December, "It's welcome that Iran has made this commitment, but what's important to remember is that it is only a first step. Iran needs to bring this into force, needs to ratify the Additional Protocol that is now signed. And above all, it needs to implement the programs that they've agreed to." Boucher added, "So we look to Iran to implement this, to carry out its promises in signing the protocol, and also to keep its promises to give full cooperation and transparency to the International Atomic Energy Agency's ongoing investigation into Iran's nuclear activities; and furthermore, to suspend all enrichment-related reprocessing activity as the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors has insisted." (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN CLAIMS TOKYO WANTS EXTENSION IN OIL TALKS DEADLINE. National Iranian Oil Company Managing Director Mehdi Mir-Moezzi said on 17 December that Tokyo has requested an extension of the 15 December deadline for discussions on development of the Azadegan oil field, Kyodo World Service reported. The Japanese consortium that had exclusive rights to the project backed off from a 30 June deadline due to concerns about Iranian nuclear activities and the resulting pressure from Washington (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 7 July 2003).

The consortium consisted of Inoex Corporation, Japan Petroleum Exploration Company, and Tomen Corporation, but Tomen has decided to withdraw from the consortium, according to "Asahi Shimbun" on 14 and 16 December. Tomen's decision to withdraw may be connected with Toyota's recent take-over of the company; Toyota does not want to endanger sales in the profitable U.S. market. Iranian government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh said on 15 December that this situation would not be a loss for Iran, IRNA reported.

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi recently visited Tokyo, and in a 1 December meeting with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said that Japan should exercise an independent foreign policy, IRNA reported. Kharrazi said Iran wants the two countries to have the "best possible political and economic ties."

There are several potential investors for the southern sector of the Azadegan oil field other than the Japanese consortium, Ali-Akbar Vahidi al-Aqa, director of the engineering department at the Petroleum Engineering and Development Company (a subsidiary of the National Iranian Oil Company), said in the 1 December issue of "Iran Daily." He named Norway's Statoil and France's Total. Al-Aqa added that British Petroleum was not invited to bid on Azadegan, while Royal-Dutch/Shell and Italy's ENI declined Tehran's invitation, the latter because it did not have enough funds available. China's Sinopec, Russia's Lukoil, India's ONGC (Oil and Natural Gas Corporation), and Spain's Repsol are interested in developing the northern sector of Azadegan, al-Aqa said. (Bill Samii)

IRAN SLAKES KUWAIT'S THIRST. Iran's Minister of Energy Habibullah Bitaraf met with Kuwaiti Oil Minister Sheikh Ahmad Fahd al-Sabah during the latter's one-day visit to Tehran on 13 December, IRNA reported. The two officials signed an agreement on the provision of Iranian water to Kuwait, KUNA and IRNA reported. "Kar va Kargar" reported from Tehran on 11 December that Iran will supply Kuwait with 210 million British gallons (955 million liters) of fresh water daily. Sheikh Ahmad said the project, estimated to be worth $1.5 billion, is of vital importance to Kuwait and will begin as soon as formalities are completed. The agreement had been in the works since January. To transport the water, Iranian, Kuwaiti, and British companies will build a pipeline from the Karkheh Dam in the province of Khuzestan to the far bank of the Alvand River in Abadan, a distance of 330 kilometers. From Abadan, the pipeline will extend under the Persian Gulf for another 210 kilometers to its destination in Kuwait. Iran will be committed to delivering 10 cubic centimeters per second to Kuwait for 30 years. Sheikh Ahmad also met with Iranian First Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref-Yazdi, KUNA and IRNA reported. (Jack Helms/Bill Samii)

SUPREME LEADER SAYS HUSSEIN CAPTURE IS A LESSON. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on 16 December in his first public comments about the capture of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that the Iraqi dictator's fate is a lesson, state radio reported. "The cruel, contemptuous, arrogant, and conceited Saddam Hussein was reduced to living in a hole, prepared to endure any disgrace to save his evil and despicable life," he said.

Khamenei criticized the United States for its past relations with Saddam Hussein. "These very Americans who today speak evil of Saddam and are delighted at his capture used to shake hands with Saddam; they had friendly relations with Hussein and assisted him. This current America defense secretary had a meeting with Saddam in Baghdad and pledged to help him."

Not only will the world be better off without Hussein, Khamenei said, it would be better off without U.S. President George Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "Today, let those people who, in the name of democracy, in the name of human rights, are ruling over the world of humanity dictatorially and tyrannically, like the president of the United States, and those people who, without having the slightest right in a land, are subjecting that land's people to savage pressure, like the leaders of Zionism, who subject the owners of the house, the people of Palestine, to torment, torture, murder, killings, and repression in this way -- let them know that they will have a fate no better than that of Saddam." (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN WANTS HUSSEIN TRIED BY INTERNATIONAL COURT. There are differences within the Iranian government over how it would like to see Hussein dealt with. Government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh said on 15 December that an international tribunal should investigate Hussein's crimes, state television and IRNA reported. Ramezanzadeh added that Tehran is preparing to submit a criminal complaint against Hussein, Reuters reported. Explaining the dictator's fall, Ramezanzadeh said, "Saddam's humiliating surrender shows that if anyone does not yield to his own nation he must surrender to foreign powers in a humiliating fashion."

Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, on the other hand, said on 16 December that the Iraqi Governing Council should establish a court for trying the former Iraqi president, IRNA reported. Shahrudi said, "Saddam committed crimes of the highest and worst order in the case of Iranian and Iraqi people and should be tried in a court within Iraq so that dimension of the crimes committed by him and those assisting him [can be demonstrated] as well as innocence of Iranian and Iraqi people vindicated." Shahrudi made his comments during a meeting in Tehran with Ibrahim Bahr-al-Ulum, the Iraqi Oil Minister.

President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami on 17 December expressed his pleasure at the capture of Hussein, but questioned whether he would receive a fair trial because this could air his captors' dirty laundry, IRNA reported. "This is because he would undoubtedly raise some points that may not be appealing to many of those now standing against him," Khatami said. "We hope that the truth will be unveiled and it is made clear what crimes Saddam has perpetrated, to which countries he was linked, and what support he received." Khatami said he generally opposes capital punishment, "but I believe that if there is going to be a death sentence, it would be the fairest to pass it on Saddam."

Ayatollah Ali Meshkini also advocated capital punishment in his 19 December Friday Prayers sermon in Qom, which was broadcast on state television the next day. Meshkini said Hussein should be tried in Iraq in a UN-supervised court with Iranian and Iraqi judges. Meshkini continued, "Saddam should be condemned to as many deaths as the number of the people he has killed. That is hundreds of thousands of death.... They should execute him in Baghdad's central square. The televisions of the world should show it live." Meshkini concluded, "I hope that the same thing will happen to the evil Sharon, Bush, and Blair, God willing."

The Iraqi Governing Council's (IGC) current president, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), reiterated during a 17 December visit to London the IGC's desire to see Hussein tried by a special tribunal in Iraq, IRNA reported. Al-Hakim said the tribunal was created specifically to handle cases against leading members of the former regime. Al-Hakim also said Iran deserves to be compensated for the damage it suffered at the hands of Hussein, Reuters reported. "According to the UN, Iran deserves reparations. She must be satisfied," he said. "Whether we will pay or not is something which we need to discuss further."

Iran is claiming $100 billion in damages, according to Reuters. It does not realistically expect compensation, but it hopes that the IGC acceptance of some responsibility could serve as an entree for Iranian business activities in Iraq. (Bill Samii)

IRANIANS RELEASED FROM CAPTIVITY IN IRAQ. Forty-one Iranians who were detained by coalition forces after they entered Iraq illegally returned to Iranian soil on 16 December, IRNA reported. Khorramshahr Governor Mohammad-Ali Shirali said most of the released individuals were pilgrims and relief workers. They were freed through the efforts of the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad and the International Committee of the Red Cross, Shirali said, but "most of the detained Iranians' belongings, especially their vehicles, were confiscated by the American forces." (Bill Samii)

IRAN WANTS TO TRY MUJAHEDIN KHALQ LEADERS. President Khatami said after the 17 December cabinet meeting that Tehran would like to have members of the Iraq-based Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO) extradited to Iran, but the top U.S. civilian in Iraq said two days later that MKO personnel would be sent elsewhere. There are about 3,800 MKO members in Iraq, and the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) decreed on 9 December that all of them must leave Iraqi territory by 31 December (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 15 December 2003).

Khatami said there is a difference between the younger MKO rank and file and the terrorist group's leadership, IRNA reported. He added that some MKO members would therefore be pardoned, saying, "We believe that many of the MKO members who have not committed any crimes should be pardoned and enabled to return to Iran."

Meanwhile, Iran's Arabic-language Al-Alam television on 17 December cited anonymous "Iraqi sources" as saying that U.S. forces persuaded MKO leader Masud Rajavi to leave Iraq after Saddam Hussein was captured.

U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer said on a 19 December Arabic television program that the MKO members would be extradited to three different countries, according to AFP. "We are working in cooperation with the Governing Council to determine how to organize their departure and where to send them," he said. Bremer added, "They cannot go to Iran.... They have to go elsewhere."

This decision is not sitting well with Iran. Prosecutor-General Abdolnabi Namazi warned Europe and the United States that there would be consequences to this course of action, IRNA reported on 21 December.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi on 21 December described the U.S. decision as "unacceptable," IRNA reported. He also said that European states have been warned of the adverse consequences that hosting MKO terrorists would have for bilateral relations. Assefi said the United States is being selective on the terrorism issue. In his words, "The U.S. has detained a group of people who are accused of collaborating with the al-Qaeda in Guantanamo, and on the other hand allows another group of terrorists to freely walk around the world," he said. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN INVOLVEMENT IN KHOBAR DETAILED. Former U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director Louis Freeh and former FBI counterterrorism chief Dale Watson testified in a U.S. federal court on 18 December that two Iranian government security agencies and senior Iranian officials are responsible for the 25 June 1996 bombing of U.S. military housing in Saudi Arabia, AP and "The Washington Post" reported. The bombing of the Khobar Towers killed 19 U.S. Air Force personnel and wounded hundreds of other people. The victims' families are seeking compensation for their losses. "My own conclusion, not speaking for the FBI at this point, was that the attack was planned, funded and sponsored by the senior leadership of the government of Iran," Freeh said. Freeh and Watson said that their view on Iranian involvement is based on interviews with six men in Saudi Arabia who admitted their involvement in the bombing. They interviewed these six members of Saudi Hizbullah in 1999 and 2000, and they provided information on planning, financing, and training. Freeh and Watson said they cannot reveal much of the information that supports their stand on Iranian responsibility. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN REJECTS ISRAELI TERRORISM ALLEGATIONS. Avi Dichter, the director of Israel's Shin Bet domestic-security service, said on 16 December that Iran "can be described in the sharpest and clearest terms as the number-one terrorist state in the world," the Voice of Israel reported. Dichter charged that Iran operates against Israel and Israeli interests on three tracks: The first track involves Palestinian terrorist organizations such as Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and the Fatah-Tanzim. The second track involves Lebanese Hizballah. "The third channel, which is perhaps the most dangerous and worrisome as far as we are concerned, is the fact that Iran has marked the Israeli Arabs as an optional fifth column as far as it is concerned," Dichter said. He alleged that there has been a recent increase in Hizballah's recruitment of Israeli Arabs in Lebanon.

Dichter preceded these comments by pointing out that while there has been a recent reduction in suicide bombings, more than 20 suicide bombers have been intercepted on their way to Israel in the last 10 weeks, three of them within the last 10 days.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Assefi on 18 December rejected Dichter's allegations linking Iran and terrorism, IRNA reported. Assefi said, "Resisting the occupiers and confronting brutal aggressions of the Zionists are the natural and legal rights of the Palestinian nation." Dichter's comments prove Israel's inability to confront the Palestinian uprising, Assefi said, and they are intended to pave the way for the Israeli expulsion of Arabs, he claimed. (Bill Samii)

IRANIANS, SUICIDE BOMBING ADVOCATE SPEAK AT SUDAN CONFERENCE. Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Taskhiri of the Islamic Propagation Organization met in Khartoum on 14 December with Sudanese President Umar Hassan al-Bashir, IRNA reported the next day. Taskhiri was in Sudan to participate in a conference on Islam and the West, "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported on 16 December. Taskhiri presented a paper during the conference that said, in part, "Western imperialism is formulating a comprehensive strategy to suppress Islamic awakening, generate discord, and create deviationism among religious movements in Islamic states." Taskhiri said that the West gave Islamic states superficial independence and is using other means to achieve its ends.

Speaking at the same conference, University of Al-Azhar scholar Yusef al-Qaradawi reportedly said that "martyrdom-seeking operations" (suicide bombings) were based on the Koran and Koranic thought.

Taskhiri is an aficionado of suicide bombings, too, having said at a conference in Amman, "For the Palestinian people, who are subject to the Zionist oppression and daily witness to the killing, demolition of houses and siege of their cities and villages, the only way is the continuation of the Intifada and martyrdom operations," according to IRNA on 6 August 2002. (Bill Samii)

INTERNATIONAL REFUGEE AGENCIES LEAVING IRAN. For more than two decades, Iran has hosted the world's biggest refugee population -- Ahmad Husseini, the Iranian Interior Ministry official in charge of refugee affairs, said that from 21 March 2001-21 March 2002 some 2.35 million Afghan refugees registered with the government, "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported on 5 July. He said at the time that about 500,000 had returned to Afghanistan; that number now is up to about 600,000. More than 200,000 Iraqi refugees also reside in Iran. Iranian authorities have repeatedly complained that they have not received adequate support from the international community and that the burden to help these refugees has mostly fallen on their shoulders. They are therefore taking steps to hasten the refugees' departure.

Husseini described one such measure -- the issuing of new documents for the refugees. He told "Jomhuri-yi Islami" that the refugees' old documents, such as work permits and residency cards, are taken from them and they receive an exit card that is valid only until the end of 1383 (20 March 2004). Expiration of the card means the individual's status as a refugee has ended and he or she must return to Afghanistan or face prosecution.

The government has taken other steps to make life in Iran increasingly uncomfortable for the refugees. Interior Ministry official Ahmad Husseini had warned in summer 2002 that male Afghan refugees who marry female Iranians would not receive Iranian citizenship and their offspring would not receive Iranian citizenship, either (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 19 August 2002). The children, therefore, are liable to deportation and do not have access to public services. There are more than 33,000 such "illegal" marriages between Iranian women and male Afghan refugees, dpa reported on 28 October. (For more on the refugee situation in Iran, see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 3 January and 5 June 2000; 23 and July, 20 August, and 10 September 2001; 21 January, 18 February, 9 and 23 December 2002; and 13 January 2003).

Tehran is also making it more difficult for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that deal with refugees to work in the country. The UN's refugee agency, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), says about half of the international NGOs operating in Iran have been forced to leave the country because of administrative obstacles, government pressures, and funding problems. Aid workers warn that thousands of refugees will be deprived of the socio-economic assistance they were receiving.

Peter Kessler, a spokesman for the UNHCR in Geneva, said on 17 December that many international aid agencies have had to pull out of Iran because of a variety of problems: "The main problems have been administrative formalities that are simply without end -- various obstacles and objections to work plans, visa requests, and visa extensions." Kessler added that administrative hurdles are putting off even the most experienced NGOs, each with years of experience in crisis zones and refugee assistance operations worldwide.

Kessler declined to reveal the names of the NGOs who have been forced to leave, for fear, he said, of jeopardizing the work of the local staff that remains behind. He says there are currently only seven international NGOs operating in the country, although the UNHCR has expressed its concern to the Iranian government about the problems they faced.

Kessler says that, despite the high level of official government support, refugees in Iran are being affected by the problem, since the Iranian government is not able to fill the gap left by the pullout of the aid agencies: "Refugees are going without medical care and other necessary assistance, so it is having an impact."

Administrative obstacles are not the only problems international aid agencies are facing in Iran. According to the UNHCR, some NGOs have discontinued their activities following government pressure.

One of those is Ockenden International, a British NGO that works with refugees and displaced people. Ockenden was for several years supporting the Iranian government by providing aid to Afghan refugees living in Iran and also by facilitating the repatriation process.

James Bill, chief executive of Ockenden, told RFE/RL that the agency decided to leave Iran because its independence as an NGO was under threat. Bill explained: "Ockenden had an excellent working relationship with all the authorities in Iran from 1997 up until the beginning of 2003. At that point, we were asked to dismiss our most senior staff member in Iran, our country representative. We inquired as to why we were being asked to dismiss her, and we received no reason at all for dismissing her -- and we certainly had no reason to dismiss her. As an NGO, we have to maintain our operational independence within the laws of the countries that we work in, and this was obviously an attack on our operational independence."

Ockenden's Bill says that the Iranian government is sending out the wrong message by hampering the efforts of aid agencies. "[The Iranian authorities have] been looking for support, and we've been able to provide some of that support. So obviously, it will have an impact in that the work we did is no longer taking place. But there is danger that it also has an impact, in that it sends a message that the Iranian authorities are not interested in having international support to the refugee problem inside their country, which I know is not true."

Nazanin Kazemi is the representative of the International Consortium for Refugees in Iran (ICRI), an international agency that coordinates and facilitates the work of NGOs and disseminates information on the refugee situation in Iran. Kazemi says several NGOs have had to leave Iran because of a lack of funds.

The repatriation of Afghan refugees began last year under a tripartite agreement between Iran, the UNHCR, and the government of Afghanistan. Since the end of major military operations in Iraq, small groups of Iraqi refugees have also started to return to their country.

Hussein al-Shahristani is the representative in Iran of the Iraqi Refugee Aid Council (IRAC), an organization that provides help to Iraqi and Afghan refugees in Iran. Al-Shahristani says his organization has a good working relationship with the Iranian authorities. However, he adds that receiving needed funds from the international community is becoming difficult because of so-called "donor fatigue." Al-Shahristani said, "The only problem we are facing in our work is obtaining money from international donor organizations. Because of the return of Afghan and Iraqi refugees to their countries, the budget has decreased a bit."

The UNHCR is warning that unless the situation with the NGOs is resolved soon, the agency's capability to complement the Iranian government's assistance efforts will be seriously hampered.

Meanwhile, ICRI representative Kazemi says attracting aid agencies to Iran is turning into a real challenge. "It's not an easy task. There are issues of funding, there are issues of priorities. There are issues of the difficulty of coming into Iran. It's always been a difficult task, and it's becoming more difficult by the day." (Golnaz Esfandiari, Bill Samii)

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