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Iran Report: October 8, 2007

Warnings Hint At Greater IRGC Role In Muzzling Critics

By Golnaz Esfandiari

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (right) appointed Mohammad Ali Jafari as the new head of the IRGC in early September

October 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), said on September 29 that the "main responsibility" of the corps now is to counter "internal threats." He added that the IRGC will confront any threat that might undermine the achievements of the Islamic republic.

Jafari's comments are regarded by some analysts as a warning to domestic critics of the Iranian regime.

Jafari, who was appointed commander of the IRGC in early September, also said that the all-volunteer Basij militia will fall under the IRGC's command. The Basij has reportedly been involved in a number of attacks on students and intellectuals. Jafari said those forces will adapt to meet current threats. Jafari said the threats against Iran have become increasingly complex, adding that, "We don't have the right to remain silent."

Afshari said he also believes the IRGC will play an important role in the March 2008 parliamentary elections in Iran.

'Intervene More In Everything'

Mohsen Sazgara is a cofounder of the Revolutionary Guard. He is now a prominent critic of the Iranian leadership and a research fellow at Harvard University. Sazgara tells Radio Farda that he thinks Jafari's comments signal that the IRGC will play a more active political role in confronting government critics.

"It means that the mission of the Revolutionary Guard is to interfere more than before in the country's internal affairs and get involved in the repression against political, social, and cultural activists, and to intervene more in everything," he says.

"Under the current conditions, people like me who work peacefully and are involved in civil society cannot do anything meaningful. ... I think that as long as conditions remain the way they are, people like me cannot have an effective role." -- Activist Heshmatollah Tabarzadi

Student activists, human rights advocates, workers, and journalists in Iran have been facing growing state pressure in recent months. Such pressure includes harassment, detentions, imprisonment, and charges of security crimes. The state crackdown appears to be one of the harshest in recent years. Some regard it as a reaction to growing international -- and particularly U.S. -- pressure over Iran's nuclear program and accusations that Tehran is playing a disruptive role in Iraq.

Iranian officials have said on a number of occasions that Washington is trying to destabilize the Iranian system and instigate a "velvet revolution." They have accused women's rights activists and students of involvement in alleged U.S.-led efforts to spark a soft revolution in Iran. Some observers suggest that the $75 million that the U.S. Congress has allocated for democracy promotion in Iran has spawned those Iranian fears. They speculate that the crackdown is a preemptive move by the Iranian government that includes an attempt to create fear in society.

Jafari's comments have raised concern that critics in Iran could face tougher retaliatory steps. The IRGC is an influential player in Iran and reportedly wields some power outside the country. It is a military and quasimilitary force with huge economic assets that was founded after the 1979 Islamic Revolution to safeguard Iran's Islamic establishment.

May Be Placed On Terrorist List

The United States has accused the IRGC's Quds Force of aiding Iraqi insurgents. Despite Iranian denials, the United States is reportedly considering putting the IRGC on a State Department list of terrorist organizations. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, presidential aides, ministers, and a number of members of Iran's parliament are IRGC veterans. Some members of Iran's pro-reform movement and dissidents are also former members of the guard.

Ali Afshari, a former Iranian student leader who is currently living in the United States, thinks Jafari's comments could augur a tougher crackdown on dissenting voices. He tells Radio Farda that the establishment is concerned that the country could face protests due to economic and social problems.

"The [other] issue is that the government feels threatened, especially because social movements in Iran have become more active than before, and they're also foreseeing more unrest in the future -- because in all social and economic spheres, discontent is growing," Afshari says.

Iranian political analyst Mehdi Fatapur, who is based in Germany, agrees that Jafari appears to be announcing that the IRGC has shifted its focus.

"The meaning of [these] comments is that from now on, directly acting against protests within society will be the main duty of the IRGC," Fatapur says. "The Guard did not have such a position -- before, its duty was to protect the country along with the army. But now it will be in charge of confronting those who protest."

Activists Facing Uphill Battle

Activists in Iran say they are already under increased government pressure. Some have left the country, while many who remain say they must be especially cautious.

Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, an activist and editor in chief of the banned publication "Gozaresh Ruz (Report Of The Day)," has spent a total of seven years in prison for his activism. Last week, he told Radio Farda that political and rights activists in Iran are facing an uphill battle.

"Under the current conditions, people like me who work peacefully and are involved in civil society cannot do anything meaningful -- sitting at home [and] reading and writing for myself has been the only thing I've been able to do for the past year -- since I was released [from jail]," Tabarzadi says. "The only [platform for expression] that I have now is a blog, and there's been pressure from [officials] to shut it down. I think that as long as conditions remain the way they are, people like me cannot have an effective role."

(Radio Farda broadcasters Behruz Karuni and Mohammad Zarghami contributed to this report.)

IAEA Chief Says Iran Must Come Clean Or Face 'Backfire'

El-Baradei said Iran must answer key questions by the end of the year (file)

October 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Muhammad el-Baradei, the head of the UN's nuclear watchdog, has warned Iran that it must "come clean" about its controversial uranium-enrichment activities or face new UN sanctions.

In an interview published in today's "Financial Times," the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran must answer key questions about its uranium-enrichment program before the end of this year or face new penalties.

El-Baradei said he expected Iran to clear up suspicions about its acquisition of advanced centrifuges before he reports to the IAEA governing board on November 22.

He said the two key issues that Tehran must clarify in the next few weeks were the extent of its research and development capabilities on enrichment and its capacity to build weapons from nuclear material.

And he said the key was for Iran to show that it is working with the UN nuclear watchdog "in good faith, with good intentions."

But el-Baradei also said that if Iran failed to deliver on its promises to answer those questions, its unwillingness to cooperate would "backfire in their face."

He said: "I've told the Iranians, 'This is your litmus test. You committed yourself to come clean. If you don't, nobody will be able to come to your support.'"

Rebuff For Iran's Leader

El-Baradei's remarks are seen as his strongest rebuff to date against Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

Ahmadinejad told the UN General Assembly in New York on September 25 that Tehran believed "the nuclear issue of Iran is now closed and has turned into an ordinary agency matter" for the IAEA.

Although questions remain unanswered, Ahmadinejad insisted that Tehran has no interest in developing nuclear weapons and that all of its nuclear activities are "peaceful and transparent."

"In the last two years, because of abuse of power on the [UN] Security Council, arrogant powers have tried to intimidate with military action and threatened economic sanctions," he said. "But because of its belief in God and national unity, Iran continued to walk forward, step by step. And now Iran as a country has the industrial-scale, fuel-cycle capability for peaceful purposes."

In August, el-Baradei agreed to a plan with Iran under which Tehran would answer questions about its nuclear program from as far back as the 1980s. That move irritated the United States and some European Union countries, which see the plan as an opportunity for Iran to continue enriching uranium.

But the plan has been viewed favorably by Russia and China, which are permanent, veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council.

On September 30, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini told reporters that Tehran would cooperate with the IAEA in order to put a stop to any possible sanctions.

The UN Security Council already has passed two resolutions imposing sanctions against Tehran as punishment for its refusal to suspend sensitive uranium-enrichment activities.

Oil Spill, Dolphin Deaths Spark Alarm At Persian Gulf Pollution

By Vahid Sepehri

Dead dolphin on the beach at Bandar-e Josk on September 30

October 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- High levels of pollution and an oil spill in July are being blamed for the recent deaths of dolphins and whales off Iran's Hormozegan Province, on the Persian Gulf and Oman Sea.

The most recent ecological mishap to beset Iran's busy port of Bandar Abbas came on July 15, when oil sludge containing oil byproducts seeped out of damaged containers belonging to a contractor for the state electricity provider Tavanir.

More than two months later, Iranian news agencies and the "Kayhan" and "Etemad" dailies reported that 79 dolphins washed ashore on September 25 near the smaller port of Jask.

The incidents have spawned a broader debate over pollution levels in the seas around Iran.

Oil? Sewage? Submarines?

Iranian environmentalist Ebrahim Kahrom told the daily "Etemad" that the Persian Gulf is 47 times more polluted than what he described as the "standard level." He suggested that "severe oil pollution" and the presence of oil slicks in Gulf waters might have killed the dolphins as well as six whales that reportedly also washed ashore near Bandar Abbas in the past month. Kahrom called the confluence of the Persian Gulf and Oman Sea as "the most polluted area of the southern seas."

Kahrom said the Bandar Abbas oil spill contaminated an 800-square-kilometer stretch of water. He also said the number of dead dolphins would have been lower if it were the result of general pollution and accumulated toxins. Kahrom speculated that the pod of dolphins might have surfaced in the middle of an oil slick.

A deputy head of the Environmental Protection Organization, Mohammad Baqer Nabavi, suggested that the dolphins died from gradual poisoning due to "chemical pollution" or oil. "Etemad" quoted him as speculating that they might simply have lost their way, moved too close to land, and become disoriented -- even suggesting that sonar emitted by U.S. submarines in the Persian Gulf might have been a factor. Nabavi admitted that pollution levels are high, and said environmental authorities are studying the impact of the July spill in Bandar Abbas. But he was skeptical that the spill killed the dolphins, and pointed out that dolphins could have swum away from the contamination.

The head of the Hormozegan environmental authority, Mehrdad Katal-Mohseni, reasoned that any of a number of problems might have caused the deaths -- including oil pollution, waste from the industrial activities at ports and jetties, sewage, or floating rubbish. He even added that the dolphins might have gotten caught in tuna nets.

Environmentalist Nargues Rohani blamed marine pollution, and said that factories and petrochemical plants have been spilling unprocessed waste and sewage into the Persian Gulf for years. She said residents don't eat locally caught fish, believing it to be contaminated. Rohani noted that "the locals are intimately familiar with the disasters that have come about from contaminations, but officials continue to say nothing about all these events." She also noted the destruction of local populations of corals and fishes, and warned that Iranians could expect more environmental disasters "if officials remain silent."

Increased Awareness

Whatever the causes of the recent marine-mammal deaths, comments suggest an awareness that the Persian Gulf is polluted -- whether the result of navigation, oil-related activities, or the presence of military fleets and submarines -- and that pollution is killing or poisoning wildlife, including fish presumably destined for human consumption.

The reaction of Iranian officials is notable, and arguably fits into a pattern among states with poor records of accountability. Reports on Persian Gulf pollution and threats to other natural areas suggest that local efforts provide the most effective response and that the environment is not a priority for the state generally. Environmental issues very rarely feature in the speeches of senior officials. Reports frequently suggest that low-level officials block potentially destructive projects or react to degradation at an initial and local stage, but do not always receive systematic backing from officials in Tehran. In Iran, when economic interests clash with the environment, money is given priority.

Bandar Abbas is in the middle of the Straits of Hormuz, a key waterway for the region's oil exports (courtesy photo)

Fars News Agency last month noted what it described as a "seal of silence" by officials of Hormozegan Province after the July oil spill. The agency cited "an informed source" as saying that the Hormozegan governor had ordered all provincial officials -- including its environmental chief and the investigating court -- to "remain silent" on the subject. The source suggested that probes into the spill that were initiated after legal action by local environmental authorities would be dragged out, and that their lack of progress was related to the governor's instruction not to "exaggerate" the incident. The source claimed the governor thought too much negative publicity would make the Energy Ministry look bad.

Iranian officials and Iranians in general are very sensitive about the term "Persian Gulf" as the official and recognized name for the waterway separating Iran and the Arabian peninsula. They are upset when Arab states or journals do not cite it as such -- particularly when the term "Arab Gulf" is used. And yet a far smaller number of Iranians appear concerned that human activities could turn that object of national pride and diplomatic contention into a filthy pool of toxins.