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Iran Report: March 18, 2002

18 March 2002, Volume 5, Number 10

HIGHLY SIGNIFICANT PRESIDENTIAL TRIP TO GREECE. President Mohammad Khatami went from Vienna (see below) to Athens, and Greek Prime Minister Konstandinos Simitis referred to their discussions as "relatively fruitful and successful," according to IRNA on 14 March. Simitis may have been underwhelmed, but from Iran's perspective this three-day presidential trip could be more significant than the trip to Austria that preceded it. This trip is meaningful for Iran because Greece will soon take over the leadership of the European Union, because of plans to transfer Iranian natural gas to Greece and from there to the rest of Europe, and because of Greece-Iran defense ties.

Tehran's developing relationship with the EU is important in terms of commerce and, perhaps more significantly, in terms of further reducing Iran's international isolation. When Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Ahani was in Madrid in early February, he met with EU foreign policy officials and called for the creation of a common unit to fight terrorism, dpa reported. President Khatami met with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana during his recent trip to Austria, and Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Sadeq Kharrazi is due to meet Solana on 18 March.

The subject of the EU came up several times. In his meeting with Simitis, Khatami said Iran would welcome any expansion of ties with Greece and the EU. Simitis reciprocated the sentiment, according to IRNA. President Konstandinos "Kostis" Stephanopoulos said at a 13 March banquet that Athens wants to broaden Iran's ties with the EU, according to IRNA. And when Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi met with his counterpart, Yeoryios Papandreou, on 14 March, the Greek foreign minister expressed his hope that Iran-EU ties will be strengthened when Greece is at the helm of the organization.

Energy issues are a big part of the two countries' relations. The Athens News Agency reported on 12 March that the Iranian and Greek state natural-gas providers would sign a memorandum of understanding during Khatami's visit. Kharrazi and Papandreou discussed the project to transfer Iranian gas to Greece, and President Stephanopoulos called for more cooperation in this area, according to IRNA.

This could be significant because, until recently, Greece-Iran gas discussions mainly focused on the construction of a 140-kilometer pipeline from Iran to Armenia. Tehran and Yerevan signed an agreement in 1992 to construct the pipeline, but Tehran suspended work on this project because Yerevan could not make the payments. Iran encouraged Greece and other countries, as well as international lenders, to get involved (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 24 July 2000). Tehran and Yerevan promoted the pipeline as one that could eventually run through Georgia to Ukraine and then into Europe, which is keen to buy more gas. Ukraine fell out of favor as an ultimate destination for the gas pipeline, however, because of corruption there. Russia accused Ukraine of siphoning off gas that it was piping to Europe, and then Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma actually admitted that his government gave orders to steal the gas, "Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst" reported in February 2001.

Armenian President Robert Kocharian said on 15 March that the construction program is being worked out, Noyan Tapan reported, which may be a reaction to news about the discussions in Athens. Iranian, Greek, and Armenian foreign ministry officials met in Yerevan in mid-February to discuss construction of the gas pipeline, and Greece's Asprofos Engineering firm did the feasibility study on this project, according to Arminfo. At the end of January, Iranian Petroleum Minister Bijan Namdar-Zanganeh was in Athens to discuss natural gas projects and confer on oil-related issues. Namdar-Zanganeh told a gathering of Greek oil and gas experts that "we are quite capable of fulfilling the demands of Europe," according to IRNA.

Defense issues are another factor in Tehran-Athens relations. Iran's defense minister, Admiral Ali Shamkhani, visited Greece in March 2001, and when he came back he said that he wanted to familiarize himself with its industrial capabilities and "explore ways for cooperating in specific areas of defense and security.... The groundwork was laid to enable us to work more closely together," state television reported. The Greek defense minister visited Tehran in June 1999.

Greek Foreign Minister Papandreou visited Iran in November 2001 and February 2002, and his Iranian counterpart visited Greece in March 2001. (Bill Samii)

'FRUITFUL' PRESIDENTIAL TRIP TO AUSTRIA. President Mohammad Khatami left Vienna on 13 March, where during a three-day stay he met with President Thomas Klestil, Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, and Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner. Khatami also met with European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Mohammad el-Baradei, and Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries Secretary-General Ali Rodriguez. Anonymous "observers" said that Khatami's visit was "fruitful," IRNA reported on 13 March.

Mines and Metals Minister Ishaq Jahangiri described the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that would increase trade between Iran and Austria, and an agreement that would reduce customs and taxation barriers. When Khatami attended an Austrian economic forum on 12 March, he signed four MOUs between the two countries' private sectors that are worth more than 1 million euros (about $883,000), Radio Oesterreich reported. These MOUs focus on renovation and modernization of the Mashhad airport, installation and development of a telecom system in Khorasan Province, and construction of a 20-kilometer underground line in Tehran. Another MOU, signed on 12 March, deals with the development of political, cultural, scientific, economic, and technical subjects.

During his 11 March meeting with OPEC's Rodriguez, Khatami called on member states to be united in safeguarding their economic interests, IRNA reported the next day. Khatami also urged OPEC members to seek the cooperation of non-OPEC oil producers, such as Norway, Russia, and Mexico.

The trip did not go without a hitch. Although Austria suspended the Schengen Agreement and Vienna police were in a state of high alert, the "Kurier" daily reported on 11 March, a number of demonstrations by exiled Iranian oppositionists took place. Amnesty International and the Austrian Jewish Community, dpa reported on 12 March, also objected to Khatami's presence in light of the poor human rights situation in Iran.

Vienna's "Die Presse" criticized President Klestil for his failure to confront Khatami about human rights in Iran or about Tehran's support for terrorist organizations. "Whoever visits the president will not have to worry about unpleasant critical remarks, even less so when his name is Mohammad Khatami, and when he personifies the aesthetic image of a repressive religious state." (Bill Samii)

GERMAN TRIP CANCELED DUE TO BERLIN CONFERENCE. Speaker of Parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi was scheduled to visit Germany after his trip to Italy (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 11 March 2002). In spite of the good relations between the German and Iranian legislatures, the trip to Berlin was canceled because Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder backed out of receiving Karrubi. Citing an article in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," RFE/RL's Persian Service reported that some forces in Iran are trying to undermine relations between Tehran and Berlin. They accomplished this by transferring two Iranians employed as translators at the German Embassy in Iran -- Said Sadr and Khalil Rostamkhani -- to a prison near the Afghan border just days before Karrubi traveled to Europe. The two were jailed because of their participation in a spring 2000 conference in Berlin that was turned into a political hot potato. Karrubi apparently had told German journalists that he was trying to secure the translators' release.

A little more than a week earlier (on 28 February), Berlin's "Die Welt" reported that Tehran is training Palestinian terrorists. Operatives from Hamas and Fatah are learning to use SAM-7 missiles against low-flying aircraft, the daily reported, at a camp in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. The training is run by the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps and coordinated by Brigadier General Ali Reza Tamizi, and graduates of the course are to receive further training at a camp near Qom. (Bill Samii)

OFFICIAL SUPPORT FOR INTIFADA. Iranian government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh said on 10 March that Iran would make its stance on Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah's peace proposal known at "the proper time," IRNA reported. The possibility of serious Iranian support for the crown prince's proposal seems increasingly remote -- even though the plan's details are not known and Tehran has not expressed any outright hostility, Iran's supreme leader has come out in favor of continuing the Palestinian uprising.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on 12 March that "only the continuation of the Intifada could unravel the tangle of the Palestinian people," IRNA reported. Citing the example of Imam Hussein, the paradigm of self-sacrifice, Khamenei said that he saw a television program in which a Palestinian mother bade farewell to her son as he made his way to fight or launch a suicide attack. Khamenei continued, according to state television, "That mother was saying that, 'If I had a hundred sons like this one, I would sacrifice them all for this cause.' The Muslim world does not recognize and appreciate such precious gems. That is the reason for sorrow."

The popularly elected, 86-member, Assembly of Experts, which in its February 2001 session indicated that it would increase its involvement in national security and foreign affairs issues (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 9 April 2001), also discussed Israel recently. Speaking at its 12 March 2002 session, Assembly Speaker Ayatollah Ali Akbar Meshkini-Qomi said that events in the occupied territories are upsetting, state television reported. He added that, "Palestine belongs to Palestinians, and defending that land is the right of all Palestinians. [Israel's Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon is a war criminal and should be put on trial and executed."

Hamas is a beneficiary of Iranian financial and political support, and Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin discussed Crown Prince Abdullah's plan in an interview published by Jordan's weekly "Al-Sabil" on 12 March. Yassin said, "What Prince Abdullah talks about is normalization and the establishment of ties with the Zionist enemy, and this contradicts our strategy." As for the Intifada, Yassin said, "Resistance will continue even if there [is] a return to negotiations because it is our natural right. The Intifada will continue until occupation is removed." (Bill Samii)

IRAN-U.S. DIALOGUE CONTROVERSIAL FOR BOTH SIDES. The Iranian government sees no reason why Iranian parliamentarians and their American counterparts cannot hold talks, government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh said on 17 March according to IRNA. Four days earlier, an American senator expressed his willingness to meet with Iranian parliamentarians at a place of their choosing. Nevertheless, the issues of Iran-U.S. relations and a dialogue between Tehran and Washington remain as problematic as ever, with politicians on both sides of the planet espousing their specific viewpoints. The war on terrorism, the futures of Iraq and of Afghanistan, and Iran's consignment to the "axis of evil" have raised the significance of Iran-U.S. relations, but these factors also make relations even more controversial.

At a 13 March event hosted by the American Iranian Council, Presidential Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad expressed his hope for improved U.S.- Iran relations. Nevertheless, he said, "the policies of the current regime both at home and abroad are responsible for...the hostile relations with the United States."

At this same event, Senator Joseph Biden (D--Delaware) said that he is prepared to meet with Iranian parliamentarians either in the U.S. or elsewhere. Washington objects to Tehran's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, and it also objects to Tehran's support for terrorism and its opposition to the Middle East peace process. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman recommended that Washington not dismiss Tehran's security concerns and seek a creative solution to the nuclear-weapons issue. Biden urged the White House to permit American non-governmental organizations to support civil society, human rights, and democracy-building activities in Iran. Biden was against any form of U.S. intervention in Iran's internal power struggle, and he said that the U.S. is not in a position to have a major impact on this issue.

Reports from Iran, however, indicate that the possibility of relations or dialogue with the U.S. is actually one of the more divisive issues in the political discourse. Iranian government spokesman Ramezanzadeh said the decision to hold talks is up to the legislators of Iran and the U.S. But he was less open regarding government-to-government talks, and he demanded that Washington make concessions to Tehran. "The problems in the way of these talks would be removed with practical measures of the American government. It is the American government that could create a crack in the wall of mistrust [between Tehran and Washington]," he said.

The Association of Present and Former Representatives of the Parliament on 16 March created a committee to formulate a policy toward the U.S. Once this committee comes up with a policy, it will respond to Senator Biden's proposal. Member of Parliament Yadollah Islami said the committee does not actually have any real powers, but because some of its members are in the legislature or the government right now, they can convey its views, ISNA reported.

Suggestions of a dialogue with the U.S. might be expected from some reformists, but they are coming from conservative figures, too. Conservative thinker Mohammad Javad Larijani said that using peaceful methods, especially dialogue, is a principal for Iran in its dealings with all countries. He added, "The people, the government, and the political system would like the differences with America to be solved through peaceful means," "Iran" reported on 11 March.

There are questions about whom the dialogue should be with. Saying that Iran should not have a "passive position" regarding America, Deputy Foreign Minister Sadeq Kharrazi recommended building a relationship with individuals in the U.S. who have a "positive attitude" toward Iran. He called for talks with "those who are in academic and research centers and can criticize the pro-violence theories and the policies of America," "Iran" reported on 11 March. Ataollah Mohajerani, the former minister of Islamic culture and guidance, said on 13 March that the issue of dialogue between Iranian and American intellectuals is nothing new. Mohajerani now heads Iran's International Center for Dialogue Among Civilizations.

"Our interests are in conflict with those of America," Deputy Speaker of Parliament Mohsen Armin said, according to the 13 March "Bonyan." Nevertheless, Armin said, pretexts for America to act on its hostility should be avoided, and, furthermore, the threat level should be minimized through diplomacy. Armin warned that some people in Iran are encouraging American military action because this would end the reform program. Robat-Karim representative Hassan Qashqavi said relations with the U.S. would not harm the revolution's principles, ISNA reported on 12 March, and he recommended the "creation of a healthy atmosphere" between the two countries.

Iranian foreign policy should not protect the interests of a bunch of extremists, reformist journalist Hamid-Reza Jalaipur said, according to "Bonyan" on 9 March. He recommended a televised meeting between Secretary of State Colin Powell and Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi. Public and transparent face-to-face talks are the only answer to being placed alongside Iraq in the "axis of evil," Jalaipur said. He questioned the refusal to have discussions with Washington while Tehran has full relations with Berlin, pointing out that Germany humiliated Iran when leading Iranian officials were found guilty of murdering Iranian oppositionists at the Mykonos Restaurant. Jalaipur said claims of an active diplomacy are inaccurate when Tehran refuses to have relations with all countries.

Masud Dehnamaki, who was a hard-line political activist and newspaper editor before going into the chicken-import business, has a different viewpoint. He believes a confrontation between Iran and the U.S. is inevitable, ISNA reported on 13 March, because there is a "vast difference" over "ideology and national interests." Until this confrontation, the Americans are preparing the way with information warfare, Dehnamaki said. (Bill Samii)

PLEASURE, PAIN, AND THE GENERATION GAP. "Pleasure is nothing else but the intermission of pain," English jurist and scholar John Selden wrote. Recent events in two of Iran's biggest cities suggest that the intermission will be a short one, and in the view of at least one Iranian writer, this is a symptom of Iran's "generation gap."

The police chief in Mashhad canceled the "Let's Be Happy Again" comedy festival because he feared a public disturbance. Local prayer leader and Supreme Leader's Representative Ayatollah Mohammad-Baqer Shirazi had issued a religious decree or fatwa which declared that it is a religious duty to disrupt such an event. Mashhad-based journalist Mohammad-Sadeq Javadi-Hesar said in an 8 March interview with RFE/RL's Persian Service that some people believe happy gatherings are against Islamic values. The festival organizer, however, had no intention of insulting religious beliefs, according to Javadi-Hesar.

And in Tehran, the authorities detained dozens of young people who were participating in traditional Chaharshanbeh Suri events. These precede the Iranian New Year and are marked with fireworks and jumping over bonfires. The events were staged early this year to avoid clashing with Muharram, a Shia mourning month. But once the youth started celebrating, a witness told Reuters on 12 March, "Then the police came in large numbers and arrested those who were throwing firecrackers." Members of the Basij Resistance Force, armed with clubs and lengths of thick electric cable, are patrolling some Tehran streets already. A shopkeeper in Ekbatan, which is near Tehran, told RFE/RL's Persian Service that the entire market is closing down in advance of the expected hijinks.

Some Tehran youth told RFE/RL's Persian Service that regardless of the official strictures, the bonfires will be stacked in the streets and the crowds will gather. And the fireworks are heard already. Jafar Golabi wrote in the 13 March "Aftab-i Yazd" that the sound of firecrackers does not stop and that annoying sound should make state officials think. Golabi suggested that the firecrackers indicate the younger generation's dissatisfaction, and he believes that conservative officials do not even try to understand the young people. Should this continue, the younger generation will turn its back on major concerns like the country's territorial integrity. What is needed, Golabi suggests, is a dialogue between the generations. (Bill Samii)

SAVAK SUPPOSEDLY ACTIVE IN IRANIAN MEDIA. During a 6 March speech to judicial trainees, judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi warned that people linked to SAVAK (the previous regime's intelligence and security organization) and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency have been seen in cultural and artistic centers, and "the enemy" has "infiltrated the press and cultural and artistic institutions," state radio reported. This appears to be the most recent excuse for the Iranian government's closure of publications and its imprisonment of journalists, but it does not explain all of the difficulties faced by the provincial press.

Hashemi-Shahrudi's claims about SAVAK are linked with the current trial of 73-year-old journalist Siamak Purzand. The closed and unannounced proceedings against Purzand began in early March, "Iran Daily" reported on 9 March, and during this trial he supposedly confessed to having a relationship with SAVAK. Purzand was jailed in November, and the conservative "Jam" weekly subsequently claimed that he received millions of dollars from the American Iranian Council and then distributed some of that money among the reformist newspapers. The reformist "Noruz" daily on 6 January questioned how "Jam" knew all this when no official organization had acknowledged Purzand's arrest. The authorities have no reason to hold Purzand, Hanny Megally of Human Rights Watch said in mid-March, adding that "the judicial authorities are making a mockery of rule of law in Iran."

The SAVAK link is not used in all the current press-related trials. The Tehran Public Court summoned "Hambastegi" publisher Qolam Heidar Ebrahimbay-Salami to face complaints filed by the Hajj and Pilgrimage Association and the East Azerbaijan Water and Sewage Company, IRNA reported on 11 March. He already faces 18 complaints filed by the Guardians Council, the Isfahan Ansar-i Hizbullah, the Islamic Open University, and the prosecutor-general.

The appeals court confirmed the closure of "Asr-i Ma," the weekly put out by the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization (MIRO). Managing Editor Mohammad Salamati's 26-month jail sentence was reduced to 17 months, "Noruz" reported on 6 March. The original sentence was handed down on 15 December. On 17 March, however, Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance Ahmad Masjid-Jamei announced that the judiciary chief agreed to suspend the verdict pending further appeals, IRNA reported.

Mohsen Mirdamadi, the publisher of "Noruz" and a member of parliament, on 4 March was found guilty on 22 separate charges, including libel, attempting to incite the public, violating election regulations, insulting state officials, and publishing lies. The charges against him were filed by the state broadcasting organization, the Basij Resistance Force, and the Elections Supervisory Board.

Jailed journalist Emadedin Baqi, who already is being held in Evin Prison, was brought before the court on 19 February because of a complaint filed against him by the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, "Noruz" reported on 21 February. Baqi objected because neither he nor his lawyer received prior notification, so the hearing was postponed. Baqi will have a week-long home leave starting 18 March if he posts a 100 million-rial (about $57,143 at the official rate) surety bond, IRNA reported. Imprisoned journalist Akbar Ganji will have a home leave too if he puts up 600 million rials.

The sentences of Publisher Shahla Lahiji and writer and former Editor Mehrangiz Kar were reduced to six months' imprisonment, calculated as time served, and a 500,000-rial ($285) fine, the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN reported on 27 February. They originally were tried for their participation in an April 2000 conference in Berlin and in January 2001 were sentenced to four years' imprisonment. They had remained free pending the appeal, and Kar came to the U.S. for medical treatment.

It is not just the reformists who are tried following complaints by hard-line individuals and institutions. "Kayhan" Managing Editor Hussein Shariatmadari was questioned by press court Judge Said Mortazavi and then freed on 300 million rials bail. According to an 11 March report in the seemingly irritated "Kayhan," the complaints were filed by "the ministries of Science, Interior, Islamic Culture and Guidance, and Oil, as well as the managing director of Steel Parts Company, Mohsen Kadivar, Ahmad Hakimipur, Latif Safari, Mehrangiz Kar, Pak Party, a number of those who had lit candles at Mohseni Square for those who were killed in 11 September in America, someone convicted for abduction, rape, corruption, and prostitution, and [the] prosecutor-general."

The Association of Iranian Journalists, meanwhile, on 4 March called on Hashemi-Shahrudi to lift the ban on "Guzarish-i Film" monthly and "Cinema-yi Jahan" weekly, which were shut down in January (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 4 February 2002). According to IRNA, Shahrudi has directed Tehran Justice Department chief Abbas Ali Alizadeh to lift the ban two separate times to no effect.

In contrast to Hashemi-Shahrudi's claims about the enemy's infiltration of the press, some observers believe that the press bans and the trials are more harmful. Deputy Speaker of Parliament Mohsen Armin warned, "We cannot chant slogans in support of unity and then start arresting people and closing down newspapers," according to the 13 March "Bonyan." And the Council of Former Parliamentary Deputies on 3 March issued a statement calling for the lifting of the press bans and the release of political prisoners, IRNA reported. Such a step would reinforce national solidarity and block the efforts of the U.S. and other Iranian enemies.

Provincial journalists face legal harassment and provincial publications face the possibility of having their licenses suspended, too, but the provincial press is affected by more mundane difficulties. A 21 January editorial in Yazd Province's "Sarv-i Abarkuh" said that its biggest problem is the "enormous cost of printing." Sales are inadequate to meet costs, so there is a dependency on advertising revenue. Depending on advertising sales is not practical "in a small town where small businesses have difficulty meeting their own expenses," and state subsidies are too small. Another problem, according to "Sarv-i Abarkuh," is the dearth of professionally trained journalists, typesetters, administrators, and office equipment. The publication also must pay for Islamic Republic News Agency articles. (Bill Samii)

TWO POLITICAL PRISONERS FREED ON BAIL. Two more members of the nationalist-religious coalition were freed on bail recently. The 68-year-old Reza Rais-Tusi was released on 13 March on 580 million rials bail (about $331,429 at the official rate, or $72,500 at the unofficial rate), and Said Madani was released the next day after paying 1 billion rials bail ($571,000 or $125,000), according to IRNA. Both men had spent one year in prison, and Rais-Tusi told reporters that he spent 186 days in solitary confinement. Other members of the nationalist-religious coalition were released last week (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 11 March 2002). (Bill Samii)

AFGHANISTAN-IRAN CULTURAL TIES STRENGTHENED. Tehran has been very active in the revival of Afghanistan's broadcast media since November, when Kabul TV went back on the air with Iranian assistance (see "RFE/RL Iran Report, 26 November 2001), and during his recent trip to Tehran, the Afghan culture and information minister called on Tehran to play a bigger part. Nevertheless, the fundamentalist orientation of the official Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (a.k.a. Voice and Vision of Iran) means that its actions sometimes run counter to the Iranian executive branch's foreign-policy objectives.

Transmitters donated by Tehran were inaugurated at a 15 March ceremony in northern Afghanistan, Balkh radio reported. Engineers from the Voice and Vision of Iran assembled and activated the equipment. The inauguration ceremony was attended by Afghan Defense Minister Mohammad Fahim, Deputy Defense Minister Abdul Rashid Dostum, Planning Minister Mohammad Mohaqeq (a leader of the Shia Hizb-i Wahdat party), and many other officials.

Afghan Minister of Information and Culture Raheen Makhdoom said on 25 February that in light of shared language, culture, and religion, Iran will have a major role in the revival of Afghan culture, "Tehran Times" reported on 26 February. In a meeting with deputy head of the Voice and Vision of Iran Aqa Mohammadi, Makhdoom said the cultural destruction in Afghanistan is very bad. Mohammadi responded that preparations are underway to cooperate with Afghanistan, Mashhad radio reported on 26 February, and after examining Herat's capabilities, a technical delegation from VVIR has promised to help. On 16 February, Tehran made a gift of a 200-kilowatt television transmitter in Kabul, IRNA reported. Tehran had donated a radio transmitter previously, and IRIB will continue rebuilding Afghanistan's radio and television network and producing programs.

These activities may not have the approval of President Mohammad Khatami's administration -- IRIB is run by Ali Larijani, a hard-liner who is appointed by the supreme leader. Mashhad journalist Mohammad-Sadeq Javadi-Hesar told RFE/RL's Persian Service that IRIB's actions often are at odds with the government's stated policies. During Afghan interim administration chief Hamid Karzai's visit to Tehran there were not necessarily any hostile programs about him, for example, but there were commentaries that criticized regional leaders who are friendly with the U.S. Programs like this undermine Khatami's foreign-policy initiatives and cause confusion about the state's objectives, according to Javadi-Hesar.

In Kabul, meanwhile, broadcasting chief Abdol Hafez Mansur welcomed a visiting delegation from the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) on 2 March, Kabul radio reported. Mr. Abedi, who headed the delegation, promised that IRNA would cooperate in all spheres. IRNA is connected with the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance and is more inclined to the executive branch. A few days earlier, Bakhtar Information Agency General Director Sultan Ahmad Behin and two of his deputies met with Mr. Mortazavi, the head of IRNA's office in Arak, and Hassan Abed Moini, IRNA's deputy foreign news chief. Bakhtar reported on 26 February that the two sides discussed technical training, connecting Bakhtar to the Internet, and Bakhtar's contacts with regional news agencies. They also agreed on the training of Bakhtar reporters at IRNA's journalism school. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN-KABUL RELATIONS GET COMPLICATED. Afghan interim administration chief Hamid Karzai said that his recent visit to Iran was his best foreign trip in the last five months, IRNA reported on 13 March, and he predicted, "Kabul-Tehran ties will expand to an unprecedentedly [sic] high level in the future." Indeed, there have been signs of a substantial strengthening of relations between the neighboring states, but there have been some bumps in the road, too.

The military relationship between Iran and Afghanistan may be improving. Afghan Defense Minister Mohammad Fahim met with Iranian Ambassador Mohammad Ebrahim Taherian on 12 March, Bakhtar news agency reported, and emphasized the need for further consolidation and expansion of Afghan-Iranian relations. Fahim visited Iran in January and met with Islamic Revolution Guards Corps commander Brigadier General Yahya Rahim-Safavi and with Minister of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Admiral Ali Shamkhani (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 21 January 2002).

Afghan Minister of Transportation Sultan Hamid Sultan said his recent visit to Iran yielded positive results, Mashhad radio reported on 13 March, and he described the opening of an Afghan Transportation Ministry office in Mashhad and the opening of its Iranian counterpart in Herat. Sultan complained on 8 March, however, that Iran has not taken any practical measures for the reconstruction of Afghanistan, according to the Iranian Student News Agency.

The obstacles to the improvement of Kabul-Tehran relations tend to have a connection with Kabul-Washington relations.

The detention by Afghan forces in Shindand, Herat Province, of 12 men who allegedly are connected with the government of Iran (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 11 March 2002) is one potential obstacle. These individuals were distributing arms and money among local commanders in an effort to undermine the interim administration. The U.S. military confirmed on 12 March that it was holding these individuals after their Afghan captors turned them over, according to AP, but it said that their identities and nationalities were "unclear." Regarding this situation, Hamid Karzai said that the news was "based on rumors, and furthermore, such issues are quite natural and insignificant," according to IRNA. He did not specify what was "natural and insignificant": Iranian interference or rumors thereof.

Another potential obstacle is the presence in Iran of fleeing Taliban and Al-Qaeda personnel. Deputy Foreign Minister Sadeq Kharrazi said Tehran and Riyadh are negotiating over the fate of detained Saudi terrorists, "Al-Watan" reported on 13 March, and he added that President Mohammad Khatami has sent a message about this subject to Crown Prince Abdullah. On the same day, U.S. presidential envoy Zalmay Khalilzad at an event sponsored by the American-Iranian Council welcomed Tehran's eventual acknowledgment that Al-Qaeda personnel have transited or sought refuge in Iran and its promise to return the fighters to their countries of citizenship or the Afghan interim authority.

And a third problem is Iran's continuing dissemination to the Afghan audience of anti-American propaganda. The Dari service of Mashhad radio reported on 10 March that U.S. aircraft killed 22 people who were traveling to a religious shrine. And just to inflame listeners' sentiments a little more, the program concluded by saying that "the bombing was so brutal that the Afghan's bodies were torn to pieces." (Bill Samii)

HEKMATYAR'S UNCLEAR OBJECTIVES. Qutbodin Hillal, the deputy head of Gulbuddin Hemkatyar's Hizb-i Islami-yi Afghanistan, told a news conference in Peshawar that Hekmatyar has been hiding in Afghanistan since leaving Iran, Mashhad radio reported on 11 March. Hillal added that a delegation from the party will visit Kabul soon to prepare for a meeting between Hekmatyar and interim administration chief Hamid Karzai. Hillal added that his party supports Karzai's interim administration, and he welcomed the return of former Afghan King Zahir Shah to Afghanistan. Hillal confirmed that Hizb-i Islami member Bashir Baghlani met with U.S. officials, the party changed its hostility to the U.S., and "now it is extending a hand of friendship towards the USA."

Some might question the sincerity of Hekmatyar and the Hizb-i Islami. Hekmatyar referred to Zahir Shah as "that walking corpse who not even the dogs support in Afghanistan" (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 26 November 2001). He told RFE/RL's Persian Service in a 26 October interview that he would fight against American troops if they entered Afghanistan. And his supporters have tried to destabilize the interim administration (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 28 January 2002). And Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Omar Samad said Hekmatyar "will be treated as a war criminal" (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 4 March 2002).

Moreover, it is unlikely that Kabul would welcome Hekmatyar. Japan's third-largest daily, the "Mainichi Shimbun," cited on 14 March an anonymous source in Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) who said that Islamabad vowed to fully support Hekmatyar's efforts to recapture power. Hekmatyar, who received the lion's share of ISI support in the 1980s, has been tapped as the vehicle for Pakistani influence in Afghanistan, the source told the Japanese daily. (Bill Samii)

CORRECTION. Brigadier General Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr is the deputy commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), not its commander, as was inadvertently stated in the first article of the 11 March "RFE/RL Iran Report." Zolqadr was identified in early 1999 as a member of a special operations unit that combined personnel from the IRGC and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. This unit, allegedly headed by former MOIS chief Ali-Akbar Fallahian, was tasked with eliminating opponents of the theocracy and was responsible for the 1998 "serial murders" of dissidents.