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Reports Archive

Iran Report: November 23, 2004

23 November 2004, Volume  7, Number  41

DR. STRANGELOVE IN IRAN. Iranian legislators announced in early November that they are drafting a bill banning the production of nuclear weapons. Legislator Hamid-Reza Haji-Babai said on 6 November that he expected unanimous support for the bill and that its passage would show the world Iran's peaceful intentions, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. Another legislator, Mohsen Kohkan, said on 5 November, "Since the officials of the Islamic republic have always stressed that Iran is not after nuclear weapons, legislators want to legalize the banning of access to nuclear weapons with their bill and at the same time show Iran's goodwill to the world," Fars News Agency reported.

It would seem that support for the bill is a foregone conclusion, given Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei's stand on the issue as described by state officials. In a 5 November commentary in the "Los Angeles Times," Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations Mohammad Javad Zarif referred to "serious ideological restrictions against weapons of mass destruction, including a religious decree issued by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, prohibiting the development and use of nuclear weapons."

"We believe that the use of nuclear weapons is religiously forbidden," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on 12 September according to state television. "This is the leader's fatwa [religious decree]."

"The religious verdict of our leader is that using weapons of mass destruction is forbidden, is 'haram' ['unlawful' in Islam]," Supreme National Security Council official Hussein Musavian said in an 11 September interview that appeared in the 12 September "Financial Times." "For Iranians, this verdict is much more important than the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty]."

More than one year ago, on 25 October 2003, Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani told students at Shahrud Industrial University that Khamenei believes nuclear weapons are religiously illegal, IRNA reported.

One can have reservations about Khamenei's ability to legitimately issue a religious decree, given his questionable theological standing. Nevertheless, as Supreme Leader and commander-in-chief of the armed forces he can ban or permit anything he wants.

And Khamenei has spoken out against the use and possession of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. He told university students on 22 October 2003, "We have repeatedly declared that we do not need nuclear weapons, because we never believe that the possession of such weapons would provide the ground for the country's strength and authority," IRNA reported. He said, in a 20 July 2003 speech at the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps' (IRGC) Fath logistical air base, that Iran does not want nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons, state radio reported. Nuclear know-how, Khamenei said at the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad on 21 March 2003, is different than a nuclear bomb, state television reported. "We are not interested in an atomic bomb. We are opposed to chemical weapons.... These things are against our principles," he said.

As a result, Tehran University Professor Abu Mohammad Asgarkhani's statement that Iran needs the atomic bomb, made during a 9 November speech according to the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA), can be considered unexpected. The world is divided into the have and have-nots, Asgarkhani explained. "Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have joined the haves, but we are still part of the have-nots." Asgarkhani put the issue in terms of domestic politics, warning that disarming Iran will undermine the regime's legitimacy. Asgarkhani said disarming Iran will reduce the power of the IRGC, a statement that lends credence to the theory that the IRGC controls clandestine weapons-related activities.

Isfahan parliamentary representative Hojatoleslam Mohammad Taqi Rahbar said the legislation banning nuclear weapons is not expedient, because Iran is in a region of proliferators, "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported on 9 November. "There are no Shari'a [religious law] or legal restrictions on having such weapons as a deterrent," he added. Rahbar went on to say, "Our enemies today have armed themselves with all kinds of weapons. What is wrong for a country to have deterrent weapons and -- even though it does not need them -- to use them as a deterrent to scare the enemy and prevent it from attacking?" Regardless of Iran's actions, Rahbar said, Westerners will not be satisfied.

The timing of these demands for an atomic weapons capability is inauspicious. The United States believes that Iran could have a nuclear weapon within one year or by 2010 at the latest, "The Wall Street Journal" reported on 10 November, and Europe believes Iran could have a nuclear weapon within five or six years. Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control Director Gary Milhollin believes both estimates are off. He told "The Wall Street Journal" that Iran could have the materials and design for one nuclear bomb in 18 to 24 months.

Anonymous Western diplomats' claims that Iran is rushing to prepare uranium for enrichment in the days before a freeze on such activities is to go into effect will contribute to the concern. "The Iranians are producing UF6 [uranium hexafluoride] like hell," a diplomat on the IAEA governing board told Reuters on 19 November. "The machines are running." UF6 is fed into the centrifuges that purify uranium for use in weapons or in power plants. (Bill Samii)


WASHINGTON VOICES ITS CONCERN. "The evidence that has been put forward so far demonstrates clearly that Iran has been moving in the direction of creating a nuclear weapon and that is why the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] got so involved, why the Russians have been careful about providing fuel for the new reactor in Bushehr, and why the European Union sent their three foreign ministers in to get the Iranians to stop," U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said in a 18 November interview to a local television news program in Santiago, Chile. Powell added, "I think that the Iranians still have much more to do to convince the international community that they are not moving in the direction of a nuclear weapon and they will comply with their obligations to the IAEA and they will, this time, meet the commitments they are making to the European Union."

One day later, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said, "We believe we are on very, very solid ground in pointing to a clandestine effort by Iran to develop weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems," RFE/RL reported.

In Santiago on 20 September, President George W. Bush weighed in on the subject. He said that reports about Iran's processing materials that could be used in nuclear weapons concern him, "The New York Times" reported on 21 November. (Bill Samii)


TRADING A 'PEARL' FOR A 'BONBON.' Iran will voluntarily "continue and extend its suspension to include all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities," according to its 14 November agreement with the European Union's "Big Three" -- France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

Officials in Europe and in Iran have welcomed the deal because it forestalls Iran's being referred to the UN Security Council and facing sanctions. On the other hand, representatives of Iran's top official, conservative legislators, and the press have objected to the deal.

The Iran-EU agreement notes that the suspension is "a voluntary confidence-building measure and not a legal obligation." Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani stressed this point on 15 November, Mehr News Agency reported. Rohani also noted that the agreement does not mention a permanent suspension of uranium enrichment. Nevertheless, according to IRNA, Rohani said that Iran will suspend its uranium-conversion activities on 22 November, including the making and assembling of centrifuge components. He was adamant that Iran still wants to master the entire fuel cycle.

The next day, Rohani had to appear at the legislature to explain the deal with the EU at a closed-door session. Afterward, he told reporters that the Iran-EU agreement is just a preliminary document that will determine future activities and it does not need parliamentary approval, IRNA reported. "Once long-term agreements are finalized, they will have to be ratified by the parliament," he said. He added that the actual suspension of enrichment-related activities will last only as long as the negotiations, but if they break down or reach a dead end, Iran will no longer be committed to the suspension.

Apparently, Rohani's explanation did not satisfy the parliamentarians, and he had to return for another closed-door session on 17 November, ILNA reported.

Legislators' dissatisfaction with the Iran-EU accord was noted in the Western media on 16 and 17 November, including "The New York Times" ("Nuclear Deal with Iranians Has Angered Hardliners," 17 November 2004).

Of greater relevance is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's opinion of the agreement with the Europeans, because he has the final say in all matters of policy. Khamenei's representative at the Supreme National Security Council, Ali Larijani, dismissed the agreement for making concessions in exchange for nothing tangible, Fars News Agency reported. Larijani said Iran effectively exchanged a "pearl" for a "bonbon." Larijani went on to say that although he respected the Iranian diplomats who interacted with the Europeans, he had reservations about the negotiations themselves.

Uranium enrichment should not be halted without securing economic concessions, he said. The European promise of assistance in gaining World Trade Organization (WTO) membership, furthermore, is a one-time deal whereas suspending uranium enrichment is a continuous commitment, according to Larijani.

Hussein Shariatmadari, the supreme leader's representative at the Kayhan Institute, also came out against the agreement. In an editorial in the 15 November "Kayhan," he wrote that the Iranian negotiators were "swindled." Shariatmadari wrote that in accordance with the September 2004 IAEA board of governors resolution, the negotiators have agreed to fully stop enrichment activities. Doing this, he continued, is a "retreat" from Iran's previously announced "red line."

In an attempt to calm the dispute over the wisdom of the agreement with the Europeans, Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) official Hussein Musavian said on 17 November that the supreme leader has been supervising Iranian nuclear affairs from the outset, IRNA reported. Musavian added that his colleague, SNSC Secretary Hassan Rohani, is just a coordinator.

President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami also tried to pour oil on the troubled waters. "Production of uranium and its enrichment as nuclear fuel is Iran's right," he told reporters after a 17 November cabinet meeting. "If we see that the Europeans are not fulfilling their promises, then it is natural that we cannot remain committed to this issue either." Khatami also urged the EU and the IAEA to act in a way that will reassure Iran.

Iran's press, meanwhile, kept up a veritable barrage of criticism about the Iran-EU agreement. The hard-line "Jomhuri-yi Islami" on 17 November, for example, said the officials treat Iranian people as if they are "simple-minded" and the Europeans believe this, too. Even the moderate "Mardom Salari" said on 17 November that the agreement returns Iran to "square one." The reformist "Aftab-i Yazd" said on 16 November that the deal might be the best that Iran can secure, but in a factional jibe it called on the negotiators to explain Iran's weakened position in the negotiating process.

"Nobody could claim that America has increased its power in the past two or three years, and has thus, in coordination with Europe, increased pressures on Iran," "Aftab-i Yazd" added. "So it is we who are weaker, and we must think of the reasons why." (Bill Samii)


IAEA ISSUES ITS REPORT ON IRAN. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohammad el-Baradei has issued his most recent report on Iran to member states, according to a 15 November press release posted to the IAEA website (http://www.iaea.org/NewsCenter/MediaAdvisory/2004/medadvise200413.html). The IAEA's 35-member board of governors will meet in Vienna on 25 November to consider the report. El-Baradei's report says the IAEA has no evidence that Iran has diverted any nuclear materials to a weapons program but also notes that the IAEA cannot rule out covert nuclear activities, according to Reuters on 15 November.

IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky discussed the report with RFE/RL's Bruce Jacobs on 15 November. "Iran, for almost two decades, concealed its nuclear program from the IAEA, so we, in this period of time, have been trying to piece it together, bring together this big jigsaw puzzle, and this report is the biggest summary to date of all of that." Before October 2003, Gwozdecky said, Iran concealed its activities extensively and breached its obligations "on many occasions." After that date, cooperation has "improved appreciably in all areas, although we do note that, in some cases, information is still slow in coming." (Bill Samii)


IRAN DENIES NUCLEAR ALLEGATIONS... Iran has denied claims by an exile opposition group that the country is enriching uranium for possible nuclear weapons at a secret site near Tehran, despite assurances that include a 14 November pledge to halt all enrichment and related activities.

A Pakistani scientist gave Iran designs for nuclear weapons and a sample of weapons-grade enriched uranium, according to the Iranian exile group National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), news agencies reported on 17 November. The NCRI, a front for the Mujahedin Khalq Organization, a U.S. State Department-designated terrorist group, has made previous claims on aspects of Iran's nuclear program (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 21 June and 6 September 2004). The scientist was purportedly Abdul Qadeer Khan, who developed Pakistan's nuclear program but also ran an international black market in nuclear know-how and parts until his arrest in 2001. Khan reportedly gave Iran designs for a Chinese-developed warhead between 1994 and 1996 and "a quantity of highly enriched uranium" in 2001, Reuters quoted NCRI spokesman Farid Suleimani as saying in Vienna. Suleimani claimed that, despite its recent pledge, Iran is continuing to enrich uranium "as we speak" at a secret site near Tehran, AP reported.

The Pakistani Foreign Ministry rejected the claim on 17 November, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported.

Hussein Musavian, a key Iranian diplomat and member of the Supreme National Security Council, told Reuters that the charges are a "well-timed lie" designed to "poison" the atmosphere before the IAEA governing board meets on 25 November to discuss Iran's nuclear program, which some Western states suspect is aimed at developing nuclear weapons. Musavian said IAEA inspectors may visit the alleged secret site, but he added that the IAEA should not allow itself to be "manipulated by a well-known terrorist group," AFP reported.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi separately rejected the charges in Tehran on 18 November as "false, worthless, and repetitive," iribnews.ir reported. "Iran has no hidden nuclear activity, and everything is clear and transparent for the [IAEA]," he said. (Vahid Sepehri)


...AS IT TRIES NUCLEAR SPIES. Four unnamed individuals face prosecution in Tehran for "penetrating nuclear centers" and "spying for foreign countries," Radio Farda reported on 18 November, citing Ali Mobasheri, the head of the Islamic Republic Revolutionary Courts. Iran revealed in late August the arrest of several suspected nuclear spies, though it is not certain if these are the same people (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 6 September 2004). Mobasheri said in Tehran on 17 November that his government knows the suspects as "familiar and established figures" who "previously spied for the Baghdad government" during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, Radio Farda reported. The individuals have been formally indicted, he said, and the Information Ministry is investigating the case, according to Radio Farda. (Vahid Sepehri)

UN COMMITTEE DEPLORES IRANIAN RIGHTS ABUSES. The UN General Assembly's social and humanitarian committee adopted a resolution on 17 November, proposed by Canada, expressing "serious concern" about rights abuses in Iran, including the use of torture and "degrading punishment" and the "continuing persecution" of opponents and dissidents, AFP reported on 18 November. The resolution will not lead to concrete measures, but the UN General Assembly is widely expected to approve its wording in December, AFP added.

In Tehran, two journalists' groups -- the Association in Defense of Press Freedom and the Iran Journalists Guild -- have issued statements denouncing the continued detention of print and Internet journalists, Radio Farda reported on 18 November. The Association in Defense of Press Freedom urged the judiciary to release all such prisoners within a week, Radio Farda added.

Separately, a Tehran court has sentenced Ebrahim Yazdi, a government critic and former foreign minister, to an unspecified jail term for alleged subversive activities, "Iran" and the BBC reported on 16 November. Yazdi was convicted of "acting against national security...[and] keeping illicit weapons of war, insulting [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] and state officials," among other charges, "Iran" reported. Yazdi intends to appeal, the BBC added. (Vahid Sepehri)


INTELLIGENCE MINISTER WARNS OF SECTARIAN STRIFE. Tracking incidents of sectarian strife in Iran is difficult because they are not reported on very often in the Tehran press. They receive greater attention in the provincial media, but this is relatively inaccessible from outside the country. Moreover, Western correspondents find it difficult to report on provincial affairs because they are dependent on the Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry for permission to travel outside the capital. Iranian provincial affairs are not as interesting to Western media and audiences as Iran's nuclear pursuits, Iranian state support for terrorism, the Iranian energy sector, and a host of other subjects.

Nevertheless, sectarian and ethnic strife is a matter of concern to the central government. Intelligence and Security Minister Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi told a gathering of Muslim diplomats on 13 November that Iran has had to contend with Western plots to stir up sectarian divisions, IRNA reported. "We have either stemmed or controlled some dangerous roots, which were being tendered by America and certain Western countries," Yunesi said. "The threat of religious and sectarian wars is not less than terrorism, and we all know well that the origin of these conspiracies lies with the intelligence services of America, Britain, and Israel."

Southwestern Iran is one area of concern. What started as a dispute between the Zargani and Hamidi tribes of Ahvaz over a fish pond has turned bloody, "Kayhan" newspaper reported on 28 September. In late September, four armed Hamidi tribesmen ambushed a vehicle carrying a Zargan sheikh, his son, and his son-in-law. The sheikh, Safa Karimipur, and his son, Naseh, were killed in the shooting, and the son-in-law, Karim Shahrudi, was wounded. This attack reportedly was in retaliation for a 22 September attack by the Zarganis. In that incident, the beating of a Zargan sheikh by some Hamidis in Mollasani was followed by a Zargani attack in the same urbanization. In this reprisal attack one man was killed and three others were wounded. According to "Kayhan," the Basij and police restored order.

Southeastern Iran is another area of concern (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 15 November 2004). According to a 17 August report in Kerman's "Sarallah" newspaper, a group of alleged "Iranian rebel leaders" met near the Pakistani city of Kandi and complained of anti-Sunni discrimination at the hands of officials in the city of Zahedan, Sistan va Baluchistan Province. That group also appealed to the Zahedan Friday Prayer leader Molavi Abdul Hamid, according to "Sarallah." The newspaper went on to report that 90 percent of the supposed Iranian Sunnis are actually Afghan refugees who do not want to be repatriated. (Bill Samii)


TEHRAN EYES ISLAMIC COMMUNITY AND IRAQ. Events in Iraq and Palestine are part of an "unannounced war that the global arrogance has begun against Islam," Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a 14 November sermon marking Eid al-Fitr, or the end of the holy month of Ramadan, state television reported. Khamenei described U.S. politicians as "an enemy of Islam, an enemy of Muslims, an enemy of the Islamic nation."

Khamenei accused U.S. forces of killing "children, women, and civilians by the thousand" in Iraq in an 18 November statement, urging "the Islamic people" and their governments to "at least" protest the "great injustice" being perpetrated in Iraq, Mehr News Agency reported the same day. The crimes he claimed U.S. forces have committed in the latest offensive in the city of Al-Fallujah include "the execution of the injured, the arrest of innocent people...[and] destruction of homes and mosques...on an astonishing scale" and "merely with the excuse...that there is a group of terrorists among the people," mehrnews.com stated. "Does the presence of [terrorists], if this highly dubious claim is correct, permit the killing of innocents and abandonment of the injured without medicines, and children without water or food?" he asked.

President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami said, at a 14 November Eid al-Fitr event, that events in Iraq and Palestine have made an otherwise celebratory event a bitter one, state radio reported. "We only wait in hope for the day when Muslims and innocent people awaken, stand up, and liberate themselves," Khatami said.

Khatami told reporters in Tehran on 17 November that Iran will do "everything" it can to "solve the Iraq problem," the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported the same day. He added that Iran's positive response to the Sharm el-Sheikh conference, a regional gathering to discuss Iraq scheduled for 22-24 November, "does not mean we will negotiate with America," ISNA reported. The United States, he said, is "stuck in a quagmire" in Iraq, and "we are prepared to help and save it, to save the Iraqi people, otherwise there is no agenda for negotiations with America." He said "there is no possibility of Iraq's problems being solved without [regard for] Iran's opinion, not in the sense that we are interfering, but that we are the people closest to Iraq." Iranian and U.S. officials might meet at the conference.

Intelligence and Security Minister Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi told a gathering of Muslim diplomats on 13 September: "Today, the security of Muslim countries in the region is being threatened by a blind terrorism scourge, Israel and America," IRNA reported. (Bill Samii, Vahid Sepehri)


IRANIAN INDUSTRY MINISTER LEADS DELEGATION TO LONDON. Iranian Industries and Mines Minister Isaq Jahangiri led a trade delegation to London on 16 November, where he met with Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt and Foreign Office Minister Baroness Symons, Radio Farda reported on 17 November. A statement issued by Symons' office describes the visit as "timely," adding that the implementation of the recent nuclear deal will help boost confidence between Iran and the EU, according to the Foreign Office website (http://www.fco.gov.uk). The delegation also met with members of the British-Iranian Commerce Chamber at the Trade and Industry Department in London on 17 November, Radio Farda reported. (Vahid Sepehri)

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