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Reports Archive

Iran Report: May 9, 2005

9 May 2005, Volume  8, Number  19

WILL THE CONSERVATIVES DOMINATE IRANIAN POLITICS? The men and women who wish to compete in the Iranian presidential election will begin registering on 10 May. After five days, the 12 members of the Guardians Council will begin to examine the applicants' qualifications. This is part of the Guardians Council's constitutional responsibility to supervise elections.

This has always been a controversial process. Of the more than 200 people who registered in 1997, only four candidates were accepted. And out of the more than 800 people who registered in 2001, only 10 were accepted. Among the people rejected for elected office are veterans of the Iran-Iraq War, participants in the revolutionary struggle against the monarchy, and sitting parliamentarians.

Human beings inevitably make mistakes, and it would seem that the vetting process for candidates is no different. However, the head of the Guardians Council, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, seems oblivious to this possibility. At the time of the 1998 Assembly of Experts election, Jannati said the council must only answer to the authority that appointed it -- the supreme leader -- if it made any mistakes in rejecting over half of the 396 prospective candidates. A few months later, Jannati described the people as orphans and the religious scholars as their custodians and guardians. "They are in charge of all the affairs of the people," he said.

Expecting perfection from humans is unreasonable. Expecting fairness and an absence of bias from state officials, on the other hand, is perfectly reasonable.

It is therefore not clear why Jannati is involved with the team from the conservative Coordination Council for Islamic Revolution Forces that is selecting a final candidate for president, as reported in "Etemad," "Eqbal," and "Farhang-i Ashti" on 5 May. Termed an "expediency committee" (shora-yi maslahatanji), its other members are Mohammad Reza Mahdavi-Kani, Ali Meshkini, and Mujtaba Tehrani. Guardians Council spokesman Gholam-Hussein Elham denied Jannati's involvement with the conservative group, whereas Guardians Council member Mohammad Jahromi said the regulations do not prohibit Jannati's membership ("Kayhan" and "Eqbal," 5 May 2005).

Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari expressed concern that involvement of the person responsible for supervising the election in a specific political movement is neither in the individual's interest nor in society's ("Etemad," 5 May 2005). The interior minister also raised questions about Jannati's impartiality.

Jannati's alleged involvement in the Coordination Council of Islamic Revolution Forces only contributes to doubts about the Guardians Council's political inclinations. But it also shows that the conservatives are not as monolithic as some believe. The Coordination Council identified Ali Larijani as its presidential candidate in late April, but other conservative candidates have their own constituencies.

There are reports that the conservative speaker of parliament, Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, has sent a letter to other conservative candidates -- Ahmad Tavakoli, Ali Akbar Velayati, Mohsen Rezai, and Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad -- asking them to withdraw from the race ("Farhang-i Ashti" and "Etemad," 5 May 2005).

Only Tavakoli has done so. Larijani reportedly said that he would withdraw if it is necessary for maintaining unity ("Jomhuri-yi Islami," 5 May 2005). Velayati has refused to withdraw ("Sharq," 5 May 2005). Another conservative candidate, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, reportedly did not get the letter because he is doing well in opinion polls.

The presence of many candidates encourages public participation in the election, and the Iranian regime uses voter turnout figures to legitimize itself. Therefore, one would not expect conservative political organizations to discourage candidates.

In this case, however, the presence of many candidates would dilute the vote and reduce the percentage earned by the top vote-getters. This would normally not be much of a problem, but if Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani enters the race, there is a distinct possibility that he will be among the top two finishers although none of them will get the required fifty percent-plus of the votes. In that case, there is the possibility that Hashemi-Rafsanjani would win the second round.

Hashemi-Rafsanjani has a reputation for doing what is politically expedient and pragmatic, and this has annoyed some conservatives. Indeed, several seminary lecturers from Qom allegedly issued a statement in which they criticized Hashemi-Rafsanjani and said the next president does not have to be a cleric ("Siyasat-i Ruz," 5 May 2005). The conservatives see him as too willing to give way on issues they see as important, such as social affairs and international relations. The conservatives therefore oppose Hashemi-Rafsanjani, as well as the pro-reform candidates, and although they already have a stranglehold on power in Iran -- through the Supreme Leadership, the Guardians Council, and the parliament -- the conservatives want to make their domination complete by winning the presidency. (Bill Samii)


PROSPECTIVE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES BEGIN TO REGISTER. Registration of prospective candidates for Iran's next presidential election is scheduled to begin on 10 May and continue for five days. The Interior Ministry will forward this information to the Guardians Council, which will screen the applications until 24 May. Individuals whose candidacies are accepted can campaign from 27 May until 24 hours before election day on 17 June.

Iran's next president will play a key role in shaping that country's domestic political climate as well as its relationship with the rest of the world. Will incumbent Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami's successor be a conservative isolationist? A conservative who favors some liberalization of foreign policy and loosening the social reins? Or will the next president be a reformer eager to ease social restrictions and accelerate Iranian involvement with the rest of the world?

An applicant's biggest initial hurdle is the Guardians Council. It accepted just four of the more than 200 applicants in 1997, and in 2001 it accepted 10 of 814 registrants.

According to Article 115 of the Iranian Constitution, a presidential candidate must be of Iranian origin and have Iranian nationality, must be a resourceful administrator, must have a good record, must be trustworthy and pious, and must believe in the Islamic Republic's system and its fundamental principles. A more controversial aspect of the article on presidential qualifications is its assertion that the president must be a religious-political individual (rejal-i mazhabi-siasi). This vague clause leads to questions of whether or not the president should be a clergyman and also leaves it unclear as to whether or not a woman may serve as president.

The most controversial candidate is arguably Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani (no known website), who has yet to confirm his intention to run. The 70-year-old Hashemi-Rafsanjani was born to a pistachio-farming family in the village of Bahraman, and while studying in Qom he developed a close relationship with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Hashemi-Rafsanjani has served in most of the Islamic republic's top jobs, including parliamentary speaker followed by president (1989-97). He currently chairs the Expediency Council, which has powerful oversight authority over legislation, and is deputy head of the Assembly of Experts. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reportedly opposes a new Hashemi-Rafsanjani bid for the presidency.

Hashemi-Rafsanjani hinted in a recent interview with "USA Today" that he could restore Iran-U.S. relations, but in interviews with Iranian media he has been highly critical of the United States ("RFE/RL Iran Report," 14 February 2005). In the 1980s, he advocated Iran's use of weapons of mass destruction, although he has since modified his comments on the issue and now says Iran has a right to use nuclear energy peacefully. He defends Iran's support for the Lebanese Hizballah and similar organizations, is hostile to Israel, and backs "martyrdom operations" (suicide bombings) against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

According to a recent report that quotes an anonymous source close to Hashemi-Rafsanjani, he has a plan for restoring relations with the United States ("Al-Sharq Al-Awsat," 3 May). He also is said to have plans to support the Arab-Israeli peace plan proposed by Saudi Arabia's Prince Abdallah bin Abd al-Aziz. Hashemi-Rafsanjani reportedly intends to pursue President Khatami's reforms, which encountered opposition from entrenched conservative elements, and he reportedly wants to eliminate the system of Vilayat-i Faqih (Rule of the Supreme Jurisprudent).

Furthermore, according to the "Al-Sharq Al-Awsat" report, Hashemi-Rafsanjani purportedly wants to cooperate with the heretofore-shunned nationalist-religious forces in an effort to counter "an internal coup by some [Islamic Revolution Guards Corps] generals, radical commanders in the intelligence apparatus, and the religious seminary in Qom." Hashemi-Rafsanjani allegedly was prompted to act when he learned of a plan to destroy the centrist Executives of Construction Party -- which has voiced support for his presidential bid -- as well as reformist leaders, and his extended family.

The Reformers

Two prospective candidates enjoy the support of the reformist mainstream: Hojatoleslam Mehdi Mahdavi-Karrubi and Mustafa Moin.

Karrubi (http://www.karroubi.ir) was born in 1937 in Aligudarz, Luristan Province. He is currently a member of the Expediency Council and an adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Karrubi served as parliamentary speaker from 1990-92 and again from 2000-04. He has also headed the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee and the Martyr's Foundation. Karrubi is a founding member of the Militant Clerics Association and currently serves as its secretary-general. Discussing the possibility of relations with the United States, he said: "We can enjoy relations with all countries of the world, apart from Israel, of course" ("Aftab-i Yazd," 21 April 2005). He continued: "With regards to America, I must say that the American statesmen should stop their current ways of interaction and approach vis-a-vis Iran. If this happens, then I will not be opposed to relations with America."

Moin (http://www.moeen.ir) was born in 1951 in Najafabad, Isfahan Province, and holds a doctorate in medicine. He served as chancellor of Shiraz University from 1981-82 and has served on the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council since 1983. Moin has served a number of terms in the parliament (1982-84, 1988-89, and 1997-2001). He was the culture and higher education minister from 1989-93 and served as higher education minister from 1997-2003. His candidacy is backed by the Islamic Iran Participation Front and the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization.

Asked about his stance on relations with Washington, Moin said he advocates dialogue with the world and the United States is a member of that community ("Sharq," 10 March 2005). "We consider our national interests as the main basis, and we can have interactions with America as equals, and without any imposed preconditions, and while safeguarding our national rights and power," Moin said. He added that the United States must apologize to Iran and then offer compensation for "the moral, spiritual, and material damage they have inflicted on us."

Other prospective reformist candidates are Ebrahim Asqarzadeh, Mustafa Kavakebian, and Mohsen Mehralizadeh. Asqarzadeh was one of the students who stormed the U.S. Embassy in 1979. Currently the head of the Solidarity Party, Asqarzadeh (no known website) announced on 22 April that he intends to be a candidate and expressed concern about public apathy and silence, as well as the appearance of "widespread militaristic ideas," the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported. "I wouldn't have entered a situation that I clearly know its outcome, were I not alarmed by the participation of military men and those in jackboots [in the presidential race]," Asqarzadeh said. "My motive for speaking to you and announcing my candidacy does not stem from my desire for power, but it is due to my concern for the current dangerous situation." Asqarzadeh said boycotting elections is pointless.

Asqarzadeh's recent efforts to secure elected office have been largely unsuccessful. The Guardians Council rejected him as a candidate for the 1998 Assembly of Experts election, the 2001 presidential election, and the 2004 parliamentary elections. He was elected to the Tehran municipal council in 1999, but the Guardians Council does not vet candidates in council elections.

Democracy Party Secretary-General Kavakebian (no known website) has suggested that nepotism is rife in the country's leadership and that senior posts should be opened to outsiders such as himself. "I, as a little man among the nation's children, intend to propound the new discourse, meaning that the elite have been kept outside the bounds of power for 26 years and feel compassion for the system [and] should find their place within the ranks of those in power," Kavakebian said recently ("Mardom Salari," 12 March 2005). Kavakebian said the country's senior leaders come from a group of just 2,700 people, and he noted that some officials have seven or eight different positions. Kavakebian said the government is inefficient because many of those in positions of power get there through "nepotism, cliques, and windfall-seeking." He said Iran has not fully realized "all aspects of religious government and Islamic values."

Mehralizadeh (http://www.mehralizadeh.ir) was born in Maragheh, East Azerbaijan Province, in 1956, and he holds a doctorate in economics. He was a founder of the Construction Jihad and in 1979-81 served as a regional commander in the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps. Mehralizadeh served within the Ministry of Heavy Industries from 1985-90, was managing director of the Kish Island Development Organization from 1990-92, deputy for power plants at the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran from 1993-95, and served as managing director of the Shahed Investment Company from 1995-97. Mehralizadeh was governor-general of Khorasan Province from 1997-2001, and he has served as vice president and head of the national Physical Education Organization since 2001.

Mehralizadeh's spokesman said on 26 April that the former has decided to be a candidate and will begin campaigning soon (Islamic Republic News Agency, IRNA, 26 April 2005). He had said months earlier that he would withdraw from the race only if the reformists settle on a joint candidate ("Farhang-i Ashti," 10 January 2005).

The Conservatives

There are several prospective conservative candidates, a development that reflects age-based and ideological divisions among this group.

The Coordination Council of Islamic Revolution Forces named Ali Larijani (http://www.larijani.ir) as its candidate in April, and parliamentarian Mohammad Reza Bahonar said the coordination council hopes to discourage Hashemi-Rafsanjani from seeking the presidency ("Sharq," 28 April 2005). Larijani headed Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting from 1994-2004, and he also has served as minister of Islamic culture and guidance, and as an official in the Islamic Revolution Guards Ministry. He currently serves as the supreme leader's representative to the Supreme National Security Council. His father was a prominent apolitical cleric, and his brothers are politically active.

Larijani said on 31 March that he believes the United States wants to reopen its embassy in Tehran and that Iran should be careful, Fars News Agency reported. "America's threats are serious, though its war-mongering language is not real," he said in an earlier speech (Iranian Students News Agency, ISNA, 26 March 2005). "They want to weaken the Iranian government and wish to influence the will of the nation and our officials, so that we ourselves would satisfy their needs." In a 9 March speech in Kashan, Larijani argued that "making any concession on nuclear technology is tantamount to the biggest treason," Fars News Agency reported. He previously dismissed an Iran-EU agreement on the suspension of uranium enrichment as amounting to the exchange of a "pearl" for a "bonbon."

Many of the more traditional conservatives back Ali Akbar Velayati (http://www.velayati.ir), who was born in Tehran in 1945. Velayati is a physician who was foreign minister from 1981-97 and currently serves as an adviser to the supreme leader. He is also a member of the Expediency Council. Velayati has pledged to withdraw from the race if Hashemi-Rafsanjani enters the field. In 1997, a German court found Velayati, Supreme Leader Khamenei, Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and Intelligence and Security Minister Ali-Akbar Fallahian guilty for their roles in the 1992 assassinations of Iranian dissidents in Germany. Referring to that case -- as well as to the 1991 assassination in Paris of former Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar -- in a 2005 interview, Velayati blamed unnamed parties who were trying to damage Iranian-European relations ("Etemad," 1 May 2005). With respect to current Tehran-London relations, he said, "Britain's role in the European Union is mainly as America's agent."

Younger conservatives are divided among their preferred potential candidates: Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, and Mohsen Rezai.

Ahmadi-Nejad (http://www.mardomyar.com) became mayor of Tehran in April 2003. Ahmadi-Nejad is widely regarded as "unassuming and simple," as well as straight talking -- perceptions that have made him popular ("Sharq," 8 June 2004). Ahmadi-Nejad's political activism commenced shortly after Iran's 1979 revolution, with the Office for Strengthening Unity. He served as governor-general of Ardabil Province during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. Ahmadi-Nejad is now a member of the conservative Association of Engineers and a member of the central council of the Society of the Devotees of the Islamic Revolution. He said on 28 April that he will his announce his decision on his candidacy on registration day, IRNA reported.

The 43-year-old Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf (http://www.ghalibaf.ir) headed the IRGC air force until June 2000, when he was selected to be chief of the national police force. Qalibaf is one of the 24 IRGC commanders who in July 1999 sent a letter to President Khatami, warning that if he did not act to quell student unrest, they would not stand by idly and would take matters into their own hands. Under his command, the previously unpopular police force improved its reputation by implementing the 110 rapid-reaction system, which made the force operate more efficiently; he has also made progress in eliminating the influence of political factions in the police. Qalibaf resigned from the police leadership in April.

In a 12 March speech, Qalibaf identified three areas on which he would focus: the economy, foreign affairs, and "social capital." Referring to the economy, he said, "The people's buying power has not seen suitable growth; we have even seen stagnation in certain areas." Turning to foreign affairs, he said, "Given Iran's outstanding geopolitical weight and the role which the country can play at the regional and global level, we have not properly tapped these capacities." And regarding the issue of "social capital," Qalibaf said, "In the area of protecting our social capital, we face challenges which make us lose our productive role in the fields of science, politics, economy, and wealth as well as our social identity."

Born in 1954 in Masjid-i Suleiman, Mohsen Rezai (http://www.farzandemellat.com) headed the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps from 1981-97, and he now serves as secretary of the Expediency Council. He has promoted himself as an independent conservative candidate. "I consider myself a new rightist and even more rightist than many colleagues," he said (IRNA, 26 March 2005). He has dismissed concern about his military background, suggesting that his critics are prejudiced or ignorant (ISNA, 13 April 2005). "My political ideas are rooted in my deep belief in democracy, and I left the military when I decided to take part in political activities," he said.

During the campaign, Rezai has been subdued on foreign policy issues, but he has expressed concern about U.S. regional ambitions since 11 September 2001. He also supports Iranian diplomatic efforts on the nuclear issue, but has expressed concern that Iran is conceding too much to Europe. Rezai said Iranian diplomacy during President Khatami's second term (which started in 2001) has been marked by submissive diplomacy, missed opportunities, and unilateral concessions in exchange for minimal financial returns ("Entekhab," 27 April 2003). However, Rezai has represented Iran in track-two diplomatic meetings in Cyprus.

Seyyed Reza Zavarei (no known website) announced on 12 December that he would stand as an independent in the 2005 race, ISNA reported. A conservative, the 67-year-old Zavarei ran for president in 1997. He has served as a lawyer on the Guardians Council, served in the Interior Ministry, been elected to two terms in the legislature, and headed the deeds registration organization. Zavarei gave as reasons for his decision to run "God's will," the "country's conditions," and the need to resolve society's problems. If elected, according to Zavarei, his cabinet will not be chosen on factional grounds. Honesty and competence will be the determining factors, he vowed. Zavarei said Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini did not rule out relations with the United States and that Iran is not hostile to the American people but added, "We cannot have relations with America because their leaders have made the world hate America" ("Mardom Salari," 25 January 2005). He continued, "The problem is that they want to rule the world. Under such conditions we will not be blackmailed."

Two women have expressed interest in bids for the presidency. Zanjan parliamentary representative Rafat Bayat (no known website) declared in March that she wants to be an independent presidential candidate. Bayat also expressed confidence that the Guardians Council will approve a female candidate once a woman with the necessary managerial and executive qualities comes forward. Bayat decried the impact of factionalism on the political process and said student groups and independent figures urged her to run. Islamic Revolution's Women Society Secretary-General Azam Taleqani (no known website) announced on 30 April that she is considering entering the presidential race, IRNA reported. Her previous attempt to run for president was cut short when the Guardians Council rejected her candidacy.

Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani (no known website), a former vice president and five-term legislator who was born in Semnan in 1948, is secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and also serves on the Expediency Council. His position on the security council has given him a prominent role in Iran's nuclear negotiations with other countries. A conservative figure and member of the Tehran Militant Clergy Association, he is identified with Hashemi-Rafsanjani and does not appear to have an independent political base. Some observers see Rohani, who has been labeled a pragmatic conservative, as the choice of the moderate right. He has indicated little interest in running for the presidency, however.

Honar-i Haftom movie studio manager Karim Atashi (no known website) said on 3 April that he intends to run in the presidential election, Mehr News Agency reported on 4 April. It is not clear who, if anyone, backs Atashi as a candidate.

The Guardians Council's strategy on approving candidates remains a mystery. In some cases, it has chosen to limit public choice: In February 2004, it disqualified some 44 percent of prospective parliamentary candidates; in the 2001 presidential election, however, it allowed many candidates in an effort to encourage voter participation. (This also served to dilute the reformist vote and reduce the eventual victor's mandate.)

The possibility exists that if Hashemi-Rafsanjani does enter the race no candidate will secure the required majority of the vote in the first round. This would require a runoff election between the top two vote-getters. (Bill Samii)


PROSPECTIVE CONSERVATIVE CANDIDATE WITHDRAWS FROM PRESIDENTIAL RACE. On 1 May, Tehran parliamentary representative Ahmad Tavakoli announced that he will not be a candidate in the upcoming presidential election, in order to preserve the unity and solidarity of the fundamentalist right wing, Fars News Agency reported. Tavakoli, who is associated with the conservative Developers Coalition, ran for president in 2001 and in 1993.

At a 6 December rally at Tehran University, IRNA reported that Tavakoli said, "I hope to be able to run in the presidential election." Two days earlier, Tavakoli said in Tehran: "I am serious about participating in the presidential election," Mehr News Agency reported. (Bill Samii)


GOVERNMENT SPOKESMAN CRITICIZES PROSPECTIVE CANDIDATE. Government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh spoke out against prospective presidential candidate Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf at a 3 May meeting of provincial deputy governors and governors-general in charge of women's affairs, "Etemad" reported on 4 May. In July 1999, Qalibaf was among the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps commanders who sent a letter to President Mohammad Khatami, in which they threatened to take action against demonstrators if the president did not act first. Ramezanzadeh noted that the same people who signed the letter are now presenting themselves as reformers.

Qalibaf responded on 4 May, during a press conference in Zanjan, that Ramezanzadeh's comments do not merit a response, ISNA reported. He added, "The presence of these same radical people in some places was why Mr. Khatami's government came under question at some points in time and the reformists' situation today is the result of their conduct yesterday."

Masud Dehnamaki, an activist in the hard-line Hizbullah organization, said he admires Qalibaf's sincerity in acknowledging that he signed the letter, "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on 5 May.

A report in the 5 May "Mardom Salari," on the other hand, criticizes Qalibaf and former state-broadcasting chief and presidential candidate Ali Larijani for their silence about their activities in the past.

The ultraconservative weekly "Ya Lisarat al-Hussein" on 4 May quoted Qalibaf as criticizing candidates who say they would reestablish relations with the United States. Foreign policy mismanagement is behind Iran's problems, he said, not the absence of relations with the United States. (Bill Samii)


JUDICIARY CHIEF CRITICIZES POLICE. Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi said that the country's security forces are treating some detainees in the same way as those at Abu Ghurayb in Iraq, Radio Farda reported on 5 May. Shahrudi also lashed out against unauthorized police actions, such as arbitrary arrests, said judges must conduct interrogations, and added that confessions secured without a judge being present are inadmissible. He also spoke out against the enforcement of veiling standards for women, saying harsh actions such as detention open the country to foreign criticism.

Shahrudi's criticism of the police might be part of a conservative effort to discredit former police chief Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, who is running for president. It also could be connected with the partial easing of the social climate that sometimes precedes elections. Alternatively, Hashemi-Shahrudi may be trying to distance himself from government behavior that is resented by much of the public. (Bill Samii)


EXPLOSION ROCKS OIL PIPELINE IN SOUTHWEST IRAN. A 30 April explosion along the Mahshahr-Abadan pipeline did not cause any damage or casualties, the Baztab website reported. The explosive reportedly consisted of powder from artillery shells left over from the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. The website appeared to attribute the blast to Khuzestan separatists, claiming they do not intend to let the unrest from earlier in the month subside. (Bill Samii)

ALLEGED RINGLEADER OF SOUTHWESTERN UNREST IDENTIFIED. Minister of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Admiral Ali Shamkhani on 2 May criticized the alleged ringleader of recent unrest in southwestern Iran, state television reported. Shamkhani said a man known as "al-Ahwazi" and his family were members of the Rastakhiz Party under the monarchy. Shamkhani claimed this meant they were agents of SAVAK, the monarchy's intelligence and security organization. During the Iran-Iraq War, al-Ahwazi was connected with Iraq's Ba'athist regime, Shamkhani added. The minister dismissed al-Ahwazi's importance and concluded, "To review the problems of Khuzestan, if we manage to abolish poverty, discrimination, humiliation, and provocation, we will not have any problems in Khuzestan. Khuzestan is the production factory for revolutionary soldiers."

Parliamentarian Kazem Jalali on 3 May claimed that British Foreign Minister Jack Straw met with an ethnic Arab separatist, Mehr News Agency reported. Jalali said it is inappropriate for British officials to meet with groups that want to overthrow the Iranian government, since Tehran and London have diplomatic relations. Although Straw has denied that such a meeting took place, Jalali said, the legislature knows better. Such accusations should be seen within the context of Great Britain's historical influence among the Arabs of southern Iran.

Government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh said on 3 May in Tehran that the Ministry of Intelligence and Security denies that domestic political groups were involved with the mid-April ethnic unrest in southwestern Khuzestan Province, IRNA reported. Some Iranian conservatives have blamed the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Party.

Intelligence and Security Minister Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi said on 5 May in Tehran that the individuals mainly responsible for the mid-April unrest in the southwestern city of Ahvaz are "Iranians and are mainly affiliated to terrorist groups," Fars News Agency reported. Yunesi said the purported ringleader -- identified previously as "al-Ahwazi" -- is a secessionist and insists on calling the body of water between Iran and Saudi Arabia something other than the "Persian Gulf." Yunesi said initial arrests have been made and more are forthcoming. "They are currently in one of the Western countries under the protection of the spying services, and with their help they provoke the people to cause disturbances and encourage separatism," Yunesi said.

According to ISNA, Yunesi also said the culprits' actions reveal their affiliation with the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO). He did not explain this assertion further. The MKO was sponsored by former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who also sponsored anti-Iranian Arab and Baluchi secessionist organizations. (Bill Samii)


GOVERNMENT SETS HIGHER STANDARDS FOR TEACHERS. An unnamed official with the Ministry of Education and Training has announced that all teaching candidates must have at least a bachelor's degree, Radio Farda reported on 4 May. He added that they must be trained as teachers.

Paris-based professor Said Peyvandi, who is a pedagogical specialist, told Radio Farda that this is an important development. Right now, he said, some two-thirds of educators only have a high-school diploma or associate's degree. He explained that in the 1980s and early 1990s there was a rush to recruit new teachers, and many of them secured their jobs through Islamic associations and were poorly educated. (Bill Samii)


MEDIA WATCHDOGS CRITICAL OF IRAN. Radio Farda reported on 3 May that, according to the annual report just released by Reporters Without Borders (http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=13306), Iran in 2004 jailed more journalists than any other country in the Middle East. The report adds that this record made Iran one of the world's 10 most repressive countries for the media. Iranian authorities are particularly sensitive to stories about religion, dissidents, clerics, Iran-U.S. relations, and the nuclear issue. Very few independent publications exist any more. Foreign correspondents must detail their travel plans and story ideas before receiving entry visas, and at least one, Dan DeLuce of "The Guardian," was expelled from the country.

Radio Farda also reported last week that Iran is classified as "Not Free" in the latest edition of Freedom House's annual survey of press freedom (http://www.freedomhouse.org/research/pressurvey.htm), released on 28 April. That report notes a crackdown that increasingly concentrates on Internet-based media. The Freedom House report notes that the press laws are worded vaguely, and the related penalties are harsh -- floggings, high fines, lengthy prison sentences.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi said on 1 May in Tehran that harsh press restrictions have robbed journalists of their freedom of expression and creativity, IRNA reported. Ebadi said press freedom is constitutionally guaranteed, but without real freedom of expression there is no democracy. Ebadi said members of the international community are entitled to express their views about human rights issues in other countries. If it is normal for Iran to defend the rights of Palestinians, she implied, then other countries should be able to express concern about human rights violations in Iran. Expressing such opinions, she said, does not constitute interference or meddling. When a reporter in any country is arrested, she said, the whole world is entitled to object. (Bill Samii)


IRANIANS STILL FEEL IMPACT OF IRAQI CHEMICAL WEAPONS. Kurdistan journalist Masud Kurdpur told Radio Farda on 2 May that the international court at The Hague will soon begin to investigate complaints against former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein made by victims of chemical weapons. Iraq reportedly used mustard agents, the nerve agent tabun, VX, sarin, and cyanide in the war with Iran (on complaints against Saddam Hussein see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 19 July 2004). The residents of Sardasht were attacked with chemical weapons in June 1987, prior to the March 1988 attack on Halabja in Iraq. An estimated 4,500 people were exposed to the toxins, and a significant proportion remains chronically ill. Kurdpur said a nongovernmental organization recently interviewed 30 residents of Oshnavieh and Sardasht in relation to a Dutch company's provision of chemicals to the Iraqi regime. The NGO pledged that their complaints will be dealt with by the end of the year. Kurdpur said the individuals responsible for providing these chemicals have been identified. Kurdpur added that the Iranian government has cooperated with the investigation and has pledged to provide help to the victims and to build a hospital in the area. (Bill Samii)

SUPREME LEADER ANGERED BY VISIT TO EARTHQUAKE SITE. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said during a 3 May visit to the Kerman Province city of Bam, which was devastated by an earthquake in December 2003, that reconstruction efforts in the region are inadequate, Mehr News Agency reported. He said the construction of commercial and residential areas is unsatisfactory. Khamenei said the country needs a crisis management organization and he called on officials to learn from what happened in Bam and build earthquake-resistant buildings throughout the country. Khamenei prayed for those who lost their lives in the earthquake, IRNA reported. (Bill Samii)

TRAINS KEEP A-ROLLING. Iranian railways chief Mohammad Sayed Nejad and his Russian and Azerbaijani counterparts Gennadii Fadeev and Arif Askerov, respectively, had signed an agreement on 3 May in Tehran for the construction of a railway line linking Qazvin, Rasht, and Astara, ITAR-TASS and day.az reported. In the northeastern city of Mashhad on the same day, President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami inaugurated a 1,000-kilometer railway that goes to the central city of Bafq, IRNA reported. (Bill Samii)

IRAN, SENEGAL SIGN DEFENSE AGREEMENT. Senegalese Armed Forces Minister Becaye Diop and a delegation of his officers visited Iranian military facilities on 3 May, IRNA reported. They learned about Iranian-manufactured air-defense systems, ammunition, armored vehicles, electronics, and missiles.

Diop met with Minister of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Ali Shamkhani on 2 May. Two days later, Diop and Shamkhani signed a memorandum of understanding, IRNA reported. The memorandum addresses cooperation in technical and military areas, and calls for exchanges of personnel. (Bill Samii)


FRANCE INVESTIGATES IRANIAN OPPOSITION BACKERS. French Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere is investigating two Iranians who are suspected of collecting funds on behalf of the People's Mujahedin of Iran, a.k.a. the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO), AFP reported on 3 May. The investigation of Ali Mohammad Momen for "criminal conspiracy linked to a terrorist enterprise" and "financing terrorism" began on 29 March, anonymous sources told AFP, and an investigation of Sima Ahmadi on similar charges began in February. Momen is reportedly connected with a fictitious humanitarian organization called the Iran Aid Association. The organization claimed to collect money for Iranian children, but is believed to have sent the money to the MKO instead. Between October 2001 and March 2003 it reportedly collected 580,000 euros ($753,000) for the MKO.

In an interview with AFP, Momen denied the charges but acknowledged that he sympathizes with the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). According to the U.S. State Department's most recent report on terrorist organizations, NCRI is another name for the MKO, and the MKO uses front organizations to solicit contributions. (Bill Samii)


EUROPEAN OIL COMPANIES FIELD U.S. INQUIRY ABOUT COMMISSIONS PAID IN IRAN. Several oil companies, including Norsk Hydro and Total, have received a request from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for information on any commissions they might have paid while doing business in Iran, AP reported on 4 May, quoting an anonymous "person familiar with the inquiry." The letter to the companies reportedly states: "We want to know if you have paid commissions on contracts to the Iranian government.... [T]he object of this inquiry is to help you to improve your disclosures" in SEC filings. Total and Norsk Hydro officials acknowledged receipt of the letter, according to AP, but did not divulge its contents. (Bill Samii)

FUTURE OF IRANIAN NUCLEAR ACTIVITIES UNCLEAR. Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani said on 30 April, after the previous day's negotiations in London with British, French, and German representatives failed to yield substantive results, that Tehran is considering resumption of some aspects of its nuclear program, Radio Farda reported. "It is possible that we may resume the Isfahan [Uranium Conversion Facility] project, but the decision rests on our final decision next week in Tehran," he said. Rohani sounded generally pleased with the discussions and said the Europeans want more time to consider Tehran's proposals.

By contrast, Supreme National Security Council official Hussein Musavian said on 30 April that Iran is not satisfied with the talks and there were no tangible results, Mehr News Agency reported. Rather than making any concrete proposals, he said, the Europeans keep calling for a halt to uranium enrichment. He said Tehran will consider the issue and respond during the coming week. (Bill Samii)


U.S.-IRAN NUCLEAR SHOWDOWN LOOMS AT NEW YORK CONFERENCE. A high-level review conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which runs from 2 May through 27 May, amounts to a showdown between Iran and the United States over a state's ability to develop peaceful nuclear energy capabilities.

Iran repeatedly cites Article Four of the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which asserts the "inalienable right" of all parties to the treaty to develop and use nuclear energy. It refuses to shut down its nuclear fuel program, despite offers of economic incentives from three European powers.

But the United States is worried that Iran's nuclear ambitions will leave what it calls the world's leading state sponsor of terror free to develop and traffic nuclear weapons.

Some experts say more worrisome than the risk of Iran using weapons is the possibility it could trigger a regional nuclear arms race. This concern is perhaps evident in the refusal of three nearby countries to join the NPT -- Israel, Pakistan, and India.

U.S. officials at the conference will press President George W. Bush's call for the world's leading nuclear exporters to condition access to nuclear fuel for other states on their renunciation of enrichment and reprocessing. Facilities capable of uranium enrichment can also produce material for nuclear weapons.

Iran has stressed its peaceful intent. But U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Stephen Rademaker told lawmakers last week that concerns over Iran's long-concealed program will generate much debate this month: "Iran will be a major subtext of all of the discussions that take place in New York. I'm not sure how much the discussions will in the first instance be about Iran -- in other words, how often delegations in their presentations will mention the word Iran -- but the subtext in much of the conversations will be Iran."

Despite proliferation concerns, Rademaker expects Iran to receive support in New York from nonnuclear states who oppose giving up the right to high technology.

A number of nonnuclear states may also try to use the treaty review conference to press the five major nuclear powers to honor commitments to reduce their nuclear stockpiles.

Rademaker told the U.S. Congress last week that the U.S. disarmament record was excellent and that Washington planned no major concessions to induce cooperation on nonproliferation matters: "This notion that the United States needs to make concessions in order to encourage the preservation of the nuclear nonproliferation regime is, I believe, at best a misguided way to think about the problems confronting us. Basically, it establishes a rationalization for Iran's noncompliance."

The United States has reduced its nuclear stockpile by more than 13,000 weapons since 1988. But the United States and Russia between them have 28,000 nuclear warheads. Causing fresh concerns are requests by the Bush administration for funding to research new kinds of nuclear weapons.

Charles Ferguson, an expert on nuclear arms at the independent Council on Foreign Relations, told a press conference that the administration needs to take further steps to reduce its nuclear arsenal as a confidence-building measure: "We need to decide exactly how many weapons do we really need and find a way to adjust our nuclear posture so it doesn't look threatening to Russia, doesn't look threatening to China. We still maintain a nuclear deterrent posture and we also take a new look at how the path we're going down to possible new nuclear weapons may affect other nations."

Just days before the treaty review conference at the United Nations, there remained no consensus on the agenda. As the NPT conference got under way, the U.S. and Iran clashed over the key issue of a state's right to possess dual-use nuclear technology.

A U.S. arms control official said on 2 May that Iran needs to restore global confidence by dismantling its enrichment and reprocessing program.

But Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi told delegates on 3 May that his country was "determined" to pursue all legal areas of nuclear technology, including enrichment. "It is unacceptable that some tend to limit access to peaceful nuclear technology to an exclusive club of technologically advanced states under the pretext of nonproliferation." He added that Iran was claiming its legal right to enrichment activities under the nonproliferation treaty and they would be carried out under the "most intrusive" supervision by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). He said, "Let me make it absolutely clear that arbitrary and self-serving criteria and thresholds regarding proliferation-proof and proliferation-prone technologies and countries can and will only undermine the treaty (NPT)."

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said countries such as Iran face a higher threshold in convincing states of the absence of a covert nuclear program. "It's not a question of asserting rights here and there. Iran should be looking at this as how to reassure the international community that they're not going to become a nuclear danger."

This is a crucial time for Iran to take steps to build trust, says David Albright, president of the nongovernmental Institute for Science and International Security. But so far, he tells RFE/RL, the rhetoric at the NPT forum could make matters worse. "I'm afraid that the nonproliferation treaty review conference could just be a way for the United States and Iran to start -- in a sense -- symbolically slugging each other with rhetoric rather than an opportunity for the Europeans, with the support of the United States, to negotiate something with Iran."

The Council on Foreign Relations' Ferguson tells RFE/RL that the issue of Iran's nuclear activities appears destined for referral to the UN Security Council. "The question is will Iran actually engage in some of these suspended nuclear activities in the coming weeks during the conference itself to send a message and, if that happens, then it looks like the talks with the EU will probably unravel."

IAEA director Muhammad el-Baradei proposed on 2 May putting nuclear fuel production under multilateral control by regional or international bodies. One day later, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak supported the proposal, saying there is no reason to create additional facilities for uranium enrichment. China's delegate said on 3 May that Beijing favors resolving the Iranian nuclear issue within the framework of the IAEA. He expressed support for the EU-Iranian negotiations. (RFE/RL's Robert McMahon and Fatemeh Aman of Radio Farda contributed to this report.)


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