23 January 2006, Volume 9, Number 2
AHMADINEJAD VISITS SYRIA. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad arrived in Syria on 19 January for a two-day visit. The visit came as both Tehran and Damascus are facing international censure. Iran is increasingly isolated because of fears about its nuclear ambitions and because of outrage over the anti-Israeli statements of its president while Damascus must cope with concern over its alleged role in the killing of Lebanese public figures. A prominent Lebanese politician, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, has predicted that the two countries will sign a defense pact during Ahmadinejad's visit.
Close Tehran-Damascus relations can be traced to the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, when Syria assisted Iran militarily and even resisted Saudi efforts to reconcile Baghdad and Damascus in an attempt to create a united Arab front against Tehran. Christin Marschall writes in her 2003 book, "Iran's Persian Gulf Policy," that Syria also served as a mediator between Iran and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf when they were unable to communicate directly, and it played a prominent role in the shuttle diplomacy of early 1988.
Iran was therefore quick to show its support for Syria in 2004 after United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 called for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon, when 15,000-20,000 Syrian troops were in the country. Shortly after the resolution's passage, then-President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami visited Damascus and, referring to U.S. and Israeli pressure on Syria, Iran, and Lebanon, said coordinated activities would divert this pressure (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 11 October 2004).
Iran's support was forthcoming a few months later, too, after Syria became the prime suspect in the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. When Syrian Prime Minister Muhammad Naji al-Utri visited Tehran in late February, Iran reportedly offered advice on resisting possible economic sanctions in the face of U.S. pressure (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 21 February 2005).
After that, Syrian and Iranian officials visited each other's capitals with some frequency, with the highlight being President Bashar al-Assad's 7-9 August visit to Iran. Iran's new president told the visitor that common threats require their cooperation (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 15 August 2005).
The day before heading for Syria -- 18 January -- Ahmadinejad described the reasons for his trip. Some -- trade and culture -- were innocuous, while others were more ominous. For example, Ahmadinejad said, "Our stand regarding regional issues, and our objection against interference of foreigners in the Middle East, is quite clear," the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported.
Ahmadinejad's stance reflects earlier comments by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who warned in a 9 January speech about U.S. interference in Syria and Lebanon. He said, "Today, the Americans are meddling with Syria and Lebanon. They want to penetrate into the Zionist regimes' neighboring countries and find a way into other Islamic and Arab countries," state radio reported.
Lebanese legislator Jumblatt warns that Syria and Iran will sign a defense pact during Ahmadinejad's visit, Lebanon's daily "Al-Mustaqbal" reported on 12 January. The purpose of this pact, he continued, is to link Lebanon with the Iran-Syria axis, and it reflects right-wing control in Tehran and the strong relationship between Ahmadinejad and Lebanon-based Hizballah. Jumblatt said in the daily that "Hizballah in particular is in favor of linking Lebanon to Syria and Iran at the expense of Lebanon's independence, freedom, and democratic track."
Syria and Iran were closely involved in the emergence of Hizballah more than two decades ago. St. Andrew's University Prof. Magnus Ranstorp's 1997 book, "Hizballah in Lebanon," asserts that in the early 1980s Syria permitted the deployment of an Islamic Revolution Guards Corps detachment from Iran to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley and the two countries signed a military agreement. Ranstorp also writes that Syria acceded to Hizballah's taking of Western hostages mainly because of Damascus' relationship with Tehran, and he adds that because Syria controlled parts of the valley where the Iranians and Hizballah operated, it facilitated the hostages' movement.
Although Iran contributed to Hizballah's emergence in many ways, the organization is apparently not directed from Tehran. Iran acknowledges a relationship with Hizballah, but it admits only to the provision of moral and political support. The U.S. State Department considers Hizballah a foreign terrorist organization and it reports that Iran, as well as Syria, provide assistance to Hizballah, as well as Hamas, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine -- General Command. The State Department views Iran and Syria as state sponsors of terrorism.
It is appropriate to examine the late-December arrival in Damascus of the new Iranian ambassador, Mohammad Hassan Akhtari, within this context. Akhtari served in the same position from 1989-1997 and, according to Ranstorp's book, it is mostly through the Iranian Embassy that Hizballah networks in Lebanon received instructions.
The Syria-Iran relationship involves commercial issues as well as politics, and Iranian officials said in 2005 that bilateral trade is at the $700 million mark. It is possible that some trade deals will be signed during Ahmadinejad's visit. The two countries discussed signing a free trade agreement in 2005.
All these subjects -- cooperation in dealing with the international community, involvement in Lebanese affairs, support for terrorist organizations, and trade -- are likely to emerge during Ahmadinejad's visit to Syria. He probably will visit the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab -- the sister of Imam Hussein -- as well. But if the two sides do sign a military agreement, it is sure to overshadow everything else. (Bill Samii)
IRAN AND SYRIA SHOW UNITY. Before leaving Tehran for Damascus on 19 December, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad announced, "Tehran and Damascus have a common stance on Islamic and regional issues," IRNA reported. Ahmadinejad and his Syrian counterpart, Bashar Al-Assad, demonstrated their common views on the nuclear issue, on Lebanon, on Iraq, and on Palestine during a press conference that day. Hardline Iranian media has echoed the executive branch's support for the Syrian government.
Common Views On Many Issues
The two presidents expressed their shared opinions at a 19 January press conference after their closed-door meeting that day. Al-Assad backed Iran on the nuclear issue, saying, "We support the right of Iran and any state in the world to acquire peaceful technology," Reuters reported. "Countries who oppose this gave no convincing reason, regardless of whether it is legitimate or not." He also repeated the Iranian position that a nuclear-free Middle East should begin with Israel.
Then it was Ahmadinejad's turn to defend Syria against criticism of its interference in Lebanese affairs and alleged role in the murders of Lebanese political figures. "We believe that the Lebanese people can find a solution and I call on all factions to show restraint and patience," Ahmadinejad said according to Reuters.
In their discussion of Lebanese affairs, furthermore, the presidents stressed, in the words of the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), "that the world arrogance and Zionism should not be given the chance to fulfill their plots in Lebanon and turn the country back to the stage of civil and ethnic wars of 25 years ago."
Turning to Palestinian affairs, they called for "continued resistance" as the "only way" to end "the occupation of the holy Islamic lands" and restore the Palestinians' rights, IRNA and Iranian state television reported.
The two presidents also called for an end to the occupation of Iraq, IRNA reported. The establishment of a government and the withdrawal of foreign forces, they said, would contribute to the country's security and counter-terrorism.
Two Countries Under Threat
President Ahmadinejad's anti-Israeli statements in the last few months have only served to increase pre-existing fears over Iran's nuclear ambitions. Tehran is therefore facing a great deal of international pressure to abandon parts of the nuclear program that might contribute to building weapons. Damascus, meanwhile, faces intense pressure because of a continuing UN investigation into the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. The investigation's findings, so far, point the finger at Syrian military and security officials who were involved with the occupation of Lebanon.
Imad Fawzi al-Shu'aybi, director of the Centre for Strategic Data and Studies in Damascus, said in a 19 January interview with Al-Jazeera television that Ahmadinejad's visit should be seen in the context of these issues. He did not expect any startling developments, and regarding the predicted signing of a defense agreement, he was cautious. He said leaks about a possible agreement imply two things. "First, the two countries can resort to another option in case they are running out of political options. Second, the news leaks show that Arab countries should take action because they have been moving slowly regarding the Syrian situation."
Hard-line Tehran newspapers -- which often reflect the views of leading regime figures -- have been supportive of Damascus this month. "Jomhuri-yi Islami" daily editorialized on 3 January that Rafiq Hariri was sacrificed for the U.S. Greater Middle East Initiative, and U.S hostility to Syria began the day after the invasion of Iraq. The murder of Hariri was "the first phase of the project America and the Zionists had prepared to pave the way for annexing Syria and Lebanon to the imperialist plot of a Greater Middle East." Another part of this supposed conspiracy, according to the editorial, is confronting and disarming Lebanese Hizballah.
One day earlier, "Jomhuri-yi Islami" editorialized about the recent comments of former Syrian Vice President Abd al-Halim Khaddam, who is viewed as the architect of Syria's Lebanon policy. While in exile, Khaddam accused al-Assad of threatening Hariri, and he endorsed the UN investigation into the assassination. The editorial accused Khaddam of "perfidy" and suggested that he wanted to succeed to the presidency after Hafez al-Assad died, and it added that he has become an instrument of the foreign powers responsible for the assassination. It continued, "Zionists and arrogant Western powers in the region have undeniable reasons for gaining from his assassination, and there are compelling evidence and substantiated reasons that show how they benefited from his death."
A 2 January commentary in "Resalat" had similar thoughts. It said the U.S., as well as France and Israel, are interfering in domestic Lebanese and Syrian affairs, and also trying to discredit Hizballah.
Trade Is Not Ignored
Before leaving Tehran on 19 December, Ahmadinejad predicted that he would discuss bilateral, regional, and international issues with his Syrian counterpart and also sign documents relating to economic and cultural ventures, IRNA reported.
At the 19 January press conference, according to Iranian state television, Ahmadinejad said Iran's construction in Syria of silos, as well as factories for making cement, glass, and automobiles, demonstrates the extent of economic cooperation between the two countries. He said previous agreements should be reviewed in order to maximize the potential of the joint economic meeting scheduled for the next month. (Bill Samii)
IRAN UNSEALS RESEARCH SITES. Iran resumed nuclear research on 10 January, triggering a flurry of condemnations by Western states, though a Tehran official has stressed that research is all Iran is doing for now, news agencies reported the same day. Mohammad Saidi, a deputy head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, said, "The research section concerning our country's nuclear fuel, which was voluntarily suspended 2 1/2 years ago...resumed its activities" on 10 January, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported. He said Iran agreed with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on 9 January for IAEA inspectors in Iran to "reopen those places on which we agreed." Resumed activities, he said, are merely in "research, and nothing more. We distinguish between fuel-related research and the production of fuel." He did not elaborate on the exact nature of the research, or where exactly it is to take place. Iran and the IAEA, he said, have agreed on specific places where work will resume, though he added, "Our research work is not restricted to a particular time or place," ISNA reported. Iran, he said, will take "serious measures to show the progress of its cooperation with the" IAEA, and resolve the "few" outstanding questions on its dossier before a scheduled March meeting of the IAEA governing board.
In apparent contradiction to previous assertions by Tehran officials denying Iran's intention to resume any enrichment-related work, IAEA Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei informed the IAEA governing board on 10 January that Iran intends to begin "small-scale" uranium enrichment at its Natanz facility, Reuters reported the same day. An unnamed diplomat cited to Reuters a report el-Baradei presented to the board, in which he said that Iran intends to install "a small-scale gas ultracentrifuge cascade" at the plant, and that later, as part of its research work on centrifuges, it might feed uranium hexafluoride gas into the centrifuges, presumably for further enrichment. That would enhance Iran's enrichment know-how, an area the West wants Iran to abandon altogether. The report indicates that Iran has given the IAEA more details of its plans, as the IAEA requested. In Tehran, the Atomic Energy Organization's Saidi said the IAEA "asked us questions [on] the scope of our nuclear research, and we answered it," ISNA reported. He admitted Iran's research "is not just theoretical work, and includes some practical work, on which we have reached an agreement with the [IAEA]." (Vahid Sepehri)
KHAMENEI CALLS NUCLEAR KNOWLEDGE SIGN OF 'INDIGENOUS CAPABILITY.' Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told visiting Tajik President Rakhmonov and his delegation on 18 January that Iran's pursuit of nuclear technology demonstrates its academic prowess, IRNA reported. "Acquiring nuclear knowledge is an example which proves the progress of Iranian scholars, which has raised a lot of hue and cry," Khamenei said. "However, the main reason for the reaction of the Westerners is our young scientists' indigenous capability to acquire this advanced technology." (Bill Samii)
DIPLOMATIC EFFORTS ON POSSIBLE SANCTIONS INTENSIFY... The United States and European Union want to refer Iran to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions over its controversial nuclear activities -- activities the West says could lead to Tehran making nuclear weapons. But what would sanctions entail? And could they be effective -- or enforced? Some analysts are skeptical, but diplomatic efforts to devise a package of punitive measures are already under way.
The EU and United States say they support referring Iran to the Security Council unless Iran renounces uranium enrichment -- a process for making nuclear fuel that can also be applied toward developing a nuclear weapon.
The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is set to discuss the question at an emergency meeting in Vienna on 2 February.
The Shape Of Sanctions
If the IAEA agrees to send the Iran nuclear crisis to the Security Council, the discussion there could turn to ways to try to force Iran�s compliance, including through sanctions.
But what might UN sanctions on Iran look like -- if Russia and China did not prevent the Security Council from eventually imposing them?
A report in the Israeli daily "Haaretz" today offers one view. It says Israel, which sees Iran�s nuclear program as one of the Jewish state�s main security threats, has presented proposals for sanctions in ongoing talks with the United States, EU, and Russia.
Aluf Benn, the author of the "Haaretz" report, said the main sanction Israel has proposed would be an embargo on Iran�s oil trade. Iran is currently the world�s fourth-largest oil exporter and experts say such an embargo would send already-high world oil prices skyrocketing. But Benn said Israeli experts believe the cost of the embargo for Iran would be far higher.
"No country is dependent in its energy requests, its energy demands, upon Iran. [But] the Iranian oil industry, for instance, they need to export oil not only for the cash, but also to get back refined oil products like gasoline and other products because they don�t have enough refinery capacity," Benn told RFE/RL. "And also, the Iranian economy is totally dependent upon oil exports. Therefore, Iran might be hit even more than the rest of the world -- if an oil embargo is indeed imposed."
The Enigma Of Russia
Benn said the Israelis see Russia as key to imposing and enforcing sanctions. He said that for that reason, Israeli national security adviser Giora Eiland and Atomic Energy Commission Director Gideon Frank are in Moscow today to discuss the issue, including talks with Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of the Federal Atomic Energy Agency, or Rosatom.
Russia says it shares European and U.S. concerns over Tehran's recent decision to resume nuclear fuel research.
But Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on 17 January that Russia is not ready to join moves for Iran to be referred to the Security Council.
Some Symbolic Measures
Still, according to Benn, no country has so far rejected Israel�s draft sanctions out of hand. The "Haaretz" reporter said that Israel�s other proposals include symbolic steps, such as restricting landings by Iranian civilian airliners or halting UN nuclear assistance.
"Some proposed sanctions in the package are more symbolic, like banning the Iranian soccer team from the World Cup, or not granting visas for Iranian officials like [Iranian] President [Mahmud] Ahmadinejad, after all his hate speeches against Israel and the Jews and the Holocaust; or against Iranian officials involved in the nuclear program, and so on," Benn said.
The Israeli strategy, Benn added, is to have the package ready to go the moment the international community makes a decision to impose sanctions.
But some analysts are skeptical. Ian Kemp, an independent London-based defense analyst, said enforcing any trade embargo would be problematic. He suggests it would possibly benefit smugglers in countries that border Iran.
"If there are any form of sanctions imposed against Iran, needless to say, there would be some military involvement," Kemp told RFE/RL. "If, say, it was to be a trade embargo or an embargo on shipping materials that could be used for nuclear development, you would expect U.S.-led and other naval forces to be involved in any form of an embargo. But it would take the cooperation of all of the states which border Iran for any form of sanctions to be effective."
Another analyst, Ben Faulks, is not sure such cooperation would be forthcoming. An analyst with the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, Faulks also sees risks in a military enforcement scheme.
"There are risks, obviously, that that might become a flashpoint for a direct confrontation if the Iranians take [action] against that. Obviously, the U.S. would be very exposed to Iran�s southern border, the coastline, and the Iranians could take direct action there. It�s a very difficult thing to try and enforce, particularly if important economic powers are not at all keen on that sort of idea, given their growing dependence on consumption of hydrocarbons. I�m talking particularly about China, but also about India," Faulks told RFE/RL.
Multilateral Or Bilateral?
But Benn of "Haaretz" said the Israeli sanctions proposal is not wholly contingent on Security Council support. The United States already sanctions Tehran, with which it has no diplomatic or direct economic relations. He said other countries could hurt Iran if they applied the sanctions bilaterally.
"Most of the Iranian trade is with Europe or with Russia. So that�s why these countries are key to any embargo, to any sanctions. But the idea is that even if the EU and Russia and several other key trade partners of Iran take part in the sanctions -- then that�s the option, if the Security Council fails," Benn said.
Whether the question even goes before the Security Council looks set to be decided at the IAEA emergency session on 2 February. Benn said Israeli officials believe Russia will abstain from voting at that meeting.
Iran rejects U.S. and European accusations that it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, in violation of its international treaty commitments. Iran says it wants to exercise its right to peaceful nuclear power. (Jeffrey Donovan and Ronald Synovitz. Originally published on 18 January 2006)
...AS ANALYSTS DEBATE FEASIBILITY OF MILITARY OPTIONS. As fears grow about the purpose of Iran's nuclear program, some analysts believe the only way to prevent Tehran from building an atomic bomb is through preemptive military strikes.
Israel cannot allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons, the country's acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said in the wake of Iran's decision, on 10 January, to resume research into uranium enrichment, a process used to create nuclear fuel or, at high levels of enrichment, for nuclear weapons.
Israel's president, Moshe Katsav, has also added his voice, warning on 16 January that Iran's nuclear program could be the first step in a process that could result in the leaking of nuclear material to extremist groups such as Hamas, Hizbullah, and Al-Qaeda.
Does this mean that Israel itself might take military action to put a halt to Iran's nuclear program? That possibility has been discussed increasingly since an 11 December report in the British newspaper "The Sunday Times" quoted unnamed Israeli military sources as saying that they had been ordered to be ready, by March 2006, to launch strikes on Iran's uranium-enrichment sites.
Diplomacy Still Favored
Aluf Benn, a correspondent for the Israeli daily "Haaretz," believes that the leak to "The Sunday Times" was part of a deliberate government attempt to force the United Nations Security Council to act on Iran rather than a signal of imminent military strikes.
"The Israeli position is that diplomacy is still the favored option of dealing with this threat rather than going for a military option," Benn says. "Given the deployment of American forces in the region -- especially in Iraq -- Israel just can't go it alone like it did against Iraq in 1981, when it destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor near Baghdad. Therefore, deliberate leaks about preparations, I think, are meant more to prod the international community in its diplomatic efforts rather than to give hints about an impending attack."
A growing number of U.S. analysts, though, are convinced an attack on Iran by either the United States or Israel (or both) is inevitable. "It's very simple. Iran wants to get atomic bombs. Israel and the United States won't let that happen," says John Pike, director of a Washington-based website called GlobalSecurity.org that publishes analyses on international security issues. "And when the diplomatic track runs out -- I think sometime in the year 2007 -- the United States will launch air attacks to destroy Iran's nuclear and missile facilities."
Pike says Israel has the means and motive to carry out air strikes against Iran on its own as early as this year. But, he continues, "I think that there is a very low probability of the Israelis acting before the United States, because I think the United States and Israel share a common assessment of the state of Iran's [nuclear] program; namely, that it is premature to talk about military action this year. But 2007 to 2008 is basically the point at which�it would probably be too late to [take military action] effectively. So, I think that there would be a common assessment by Israel and by the United States that it needs to be done in 2007 -- and that the United States is the appropriate country to do it."
Most military analysts agree that a large-scale invasion of Iran by U.S. ground troops is unlikely -- particularly since so many U.S. troops are tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan. But they would expect U.S. Special Forces or paramilitary officers in its secret service, the CIA, to infiltrate Iran before any air strikes in order to locate secret facilities.
An attack using both U.S. aircraft and missiles is the most likely scenario if diplomacy and economic sanctions fail, argues Ian Kemp, an independent London-based defense analyst. "I think if the United States was to decide upon military action [there would be] a combination of missile strikes using sea- and air-launched cruise missiles, and air strikes would probably be the preferred option. The United States has demonstrated quite clearly in recent years that it has the capability to strike targets accurately and at a considerable distance."
Effective Air Strikes?
Pike is also confident of the efficacy of air strikes. He believes U.S. or Israeli forces could destroy all of Iran's main nuclear facilities within a matter of hours: "There are about half a dozen major nuclear facilities in Iran. They have the uranium facility at Isfahan, the uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz, the plutonium production facility at Arak, possibly a nuclear weapons assembly facility at Parchin. There may be a dozen, or a dozen and a half other smaller facilities. All of these facilities are vulnerable to air strikes. Stealth bombers and other [U.S.] bombers staging from Diego Garcia [an island in the Indian Ocean] would basically be able to destroy all of these within a few hours of the air strikes beginning."
But air strikes might not totally disrupt Iran's nuclear program. "If the Iranians are anticipating that the United States is going to [take] military action, no doubt they would disperse their technology to different facilities," says Kemp. "They would try to bury such facilities under the ground. And this, then, becomes far more difficult for the United States to guarantee complete success. I think it is virtually impossible to guarantee 100 percent success."
Another concern is that Iran might retaliate against limited air strikes by launching dozens of conventional missiles into Israel. That could escalate into a conflict that could possibly eventually draw in U.S. ground forces.
Analysts agree that world opinion would be decidedly against U.S. or Israeli military strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities. But John Pike of Global Security.org says he thinks the U.S. administration is less concerned about world opinion than it is about the prospect of a nuclear capable Iran. (Ronald Synovitz and Jeffrey Donovan. Originally published on 18 January 2006)
RUSSIA TRYING TO BUY TIME IN IRANIAN DISPUTE? Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed the Iranian nuclear issue in Moscow on 19 January with his French counterpart, Philippe Douste-Blazy, international news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 January 2006). Lavrov later told reporters that "what is important here is to not blow out of proportion aspects [of this issue] that cause a sensation, such as when the issue should be referred to the United Nations, or when the [UN] Security Council should take its decision. It is important to focus on the main goal, and that is to do everything to prevent any violation of the nonproliferation regime." Lavrov said Russia will take its cue from the assessment of Iran's nuclear program made by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) when the UN agency's board of governors meets in Vienna on 2-3 February. Douste-Blazy called on the international community to stand firm and united in the face of Iran's decision to resume its nuclear-enrichment activities. Mosnews.com reported that Russia's strategy in dealing with Iran is to buy time for Russian diplomats to try to negotiate an end to the growing crisis. (Patrick Moore)
BEHIND MOSCOW'S END GAME. Earlier this week Russia appeared to edge closer to the position of the United States and European Union on the issue of Iran's nuclear program, demanding that Tehran discontinue its pursuit of uranium-enrichment activities that the West fears could be used to make atomic weapons.
The board of the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is set to discuss the issue in early February and may vote to refer Iran to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions.
On 14 January, Sergei Ivanov, the Russian defense minister, was reported as saying that �if Iran does not stop all research and practical work on uranium enrichment, the referral of the Iranian nuclear dossier to the UN Security Council cannot be ruled out."
The same day, Sergei Mironov, the speaker of Russia's upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, said the referral would be a "natural move."
Since then, however, Russia has made clear it will not be pigeonholed in its stance on Iran.
As momentum gathered for a crackdown on Tehran, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on 17 January joined the West in rejecting a call by Iran for fresh negotiations, saying no new talks would be held until Iran brought to a halt the atomic fuel research work it resumed last week.
But Lavrov also said Russia was not yet ready to join Western moves for Iran to be referred immediately to the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said 18 January that Russia has proposed a delay in referring Iran to the Security Council, and that a proposal by Moscow -- originally rejected by Tehran -- to enrich uranium for Iran on Russian soil remains a possibility.
The United States and the so-called EU-3 of Britain, France, and Germany, feel the Security Council, with its powerful enforcement mechanism, is the best forum for resolving the Iran nuclear crisis. But Russia and fellow Security Council member China hope the issue can be resolved within the IAEA, which has no punitive power of its own.
There are economic and geopolitical interests behind Russia's softer stance on Iran. Most notably, there is the $1 billion Bushehr nuclear power station that Russia is set to complete in Iran this year -- a project that was strongly opposed by Jerusalem, which sees Iran as its primary security threat, and Washington.
Then there are energy ties. Russia's "Nezavisimaya Gazeta" this week reported that Russia's state-controlled Gazprom monopoly has invested up to $750 million into a number of energy projects in Iran. Russian exports to Iran of metals and machine manufacturing supplies have reached a total of about $2 billion a year.
A second key area of Russian exports is arms sales, which resumed in 2000 after Russia left the so-called Gore-Chernomyrdin protocol, a secret agreement between Moscow and Washington about restricted arms deliveries to Iran.
In late December 2005, Russia signed a deal worth $700 million with Iran to sell 29 of its Tor M-1 antimissile systems. And there is room for such sales to grow. Russian officials with ties to the country's military-industrial complex will be loathe to sacrifice these sales for the sake of UN sanctions.
Russia in October 2005 also launched a booster rocket carrying eight satellites, one of which belonged to Iran. There are plans to launch a second Iranian satellite in 2007.
Geopolitically, Iran is Russia's biggest neighbor in the Caspian, where Moscow is looking to restore its influence and take advantage of short transport corridors leading to the Persian Gulf.
But in late 2005, Russia began distancing itself from the strong anti-Semitic rhetoric of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, and complying with Western desires to use its close ties with the Islamic Republic as a lever in the nuclear issue.
This was in part because of Russia's desire to maintain special relations with Israel. An important commercial ally for Russia, Israel also has strong ties with the United States.
Jerusalem soon joined the United States and Western Europe in urging Russia to intervene on the Iranian nuclear issue, and on 17 January, sent its top security and atomic energy officials to Moscow to press the point.
It remains to be seen whether Iran will be referred to the Security Council, or how veto-wielding China and Russia will act in such a case. Although Beijing and Moscow are currently united in their opposition to sanctions, sanctions would have a different impact on each.
Sanctions would mean a cutoff in Iranian oil supplies, leading to a drastic increase in world oil prices -- a massive boon to supplier nations like Russia, and a major setback to increasingly energy-hungry consumer nations like China.
For now, Russia appears to be keeping its options open. What may be happening behind the scenes is a domestic battle between three political camps: pro-economic forces who relish the thought of Russia profiting from Iran sanctions, foreign policy-watchers seeking stronger ties with the West, and defense industry stalwarts who hope to boost military sales to Tehran. (Victor Yasmann)
KIDNAPPERS CLAIM TO KILL IRANIAN BORDER GUARD. An armed Sunni group in Iran's southeastern Sistan va Baluchistan Province calling itself Jundullah (God's Soldiers), which has been holding a group of Iranian border guards hostage since late December, threatened to start killing them on 12 January if Iran's government does not release detained members of the group, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported on 9 January, citing a member who claimed to be the group's leader, Abdulmalik Rigi. He may be the same as Abdulmalik Baluchi, similarly involved in a kidnapping and murder incident last July (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 19 July 2005).
The date of the kidnapping is not clear; Radio Farda said it happened "about 12 days ago." Dubai's Al-Arabiyah television broadcast a video from the group on 31 December saying it had kidnapped nine border guards, AFP reported on 1 January.
AFP also cited reports on 1 January in the "Kayhan" and "Jomhuri-yi Islami" dailies confirming "attacks" and the kidnapping of 10 men from a border post, for which no dates were given. Abdulmalik Rigi told Radio Farda that seven hostages are now being held in "the mountains of Baluchistan" in Iran. He also claimed his group was involved in a recent shooting incident against a presidential motorcade. Rigi claim that the Baluchis, who are Sunni Muslims, face discrimination at the hands of the government.
Iranian state television quoted police official Hussein Zulfaqari as saying on 10 January that authorities have arrested 14 members of the armed gang reportedly holding the Iranian border guards, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported the same day. The group earlier told Radio Farda that it was holding seven border guards, though Zulfaqari apparently gave the number of hostages as nine, without saying if they were freed or giving details. He told state television that police caught the suspects after "discovering certain clues."
On 9 January, Kerman parliamentary representative Gholamreza Karami said Iran must do more to ensure the security of its eastern frontier, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported the same day. He said "relevant agencies" must investigate to see if the kidnapping was "political" and "the possibility of its connection with Pakistan." The interior ministers of Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan should form a committee, he said, "to examine frontier-security issues with more seriousness than before, so we see less of the existing insecurity."
The families of the kidnapped Iranian men gathered on 17 January in front of the presidential building in Tehran and called for swift government action to release the hostages. Fars news agency reported on 17 January that the protesters say the hostage takers have threatened to kill the kidnapped border guards within three days unless Tehran frees four of the group�s members and pays a ransom.
Al-Arabiyah television from Dubai reported on 19 January that it has secured a video in which Jundullah claims it has executed Captain Abbas Namju of the Iranian army's border guard because the Iranian government violates the rights of the Sunni Muslim minority. A Sunni seminary in the province reportedly condemned the execution.
Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Gholam-Hussein Mohseni-Ejei said on 19 January that the hostage takers face severe punishment, IRNA reported. The official "Iran" newspaper reported on 16 January that an Iranian government delegation has traveled to Pakistan to work on freeing the hostages. Islamabad has promised to cooperate. The daily added that the Iranian government's effort to work with local tribal leaders and elders did not bear fruit. (Vahid Sepehri, Golnaz Esfandiari, and Bill Samii)
PLANE CRASH IN IRAN KILLS SENIOR SOLDIERS. A military Falcon plane crashed near Urumiyeh in northwestern Iran on 9 January, killing 11 passengers, reportedly all members of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) land and air forces, news agencies reported. IRGC commander Yahya Rahim Safavi told a same-day press conference that the 11 victims included IRGC ground-forces commander Ahmad Kazemi, IRGC ground-forces intelligence chief Hanif Shahmoradi, 27th Corps commander Said Mohtadi-Jafari, head of operations Said Suleimani, planning chief Safdar Reshadi, and artillery chief Gholamreza Yazdani, Fars reported. The plane's landing gear failed, and then both its engines, Fars quoted Rahim Safavi as saying. Officials have cited different reasons for the crash, including bad weather and insufficient fuel, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported, observing that there seemed to be no consensus on the exact cause. Rahim Safavi said that the IRGC air force, to which the plane belonged, has so far "very strictly abided by all technical points and standards," and he qualified the crash as almost unprecedented since 1988, Fars reported. (Vahid Sepehri)
HRW SAYS IRANIAN SITUATION DETERIORATING. Radio Farda reported on 18 January that Human Rights Watch's most recent report, which was released that day, finds that the situation in Iran deteriorated in 2005. The HRW report says freedom of expression is suppressed by the Iranian government, which has closed publications, imprisoned reporters, and prosecuted online journalists. Therefore, the few independent newspapers still in existence practice self-censorship, the report stated. Writers and intellectuals are leaving the country, are imprisoned, or are silent, it said, and imprisoned individuals, furthermore, face torture or lengthy solitary confinement and their access to legal representation is restricted. The absence of independent media allows the government to act with impunity, HRW added. (Bill Samii)
TEHRAN PRESSURES POLITICAL PRISONERS' FAMILIES. The families of hunger-striking political prisoners at several Iranian prisons have come under pressure from the Intelligence and Security Ministry, a spokesman for the families told Radio Farda on 17 January. Sadeq Naqashkar went on to say that the prisoners -- at Birjand, Gohar Dasht, Karaj, Kermanshah, Sabzevar, and Semnan -- are being treated harshly and several are hospitalized. The spouse of one prisoner, Amir Heshmatsaran, was banned from giving interviews to foreign radio stations. In other cases, the telephone conversations of prisoners with family members are blocked.
One day later Radio Farda reported that the hunger-striking political prisoners ended their protests in the face of what they have described as heavy pressure from authorities. Mohammad Reza Faghihi, the lawyer for two of the prisoners, stressed to Radio Farda that his clients object to the conditions in which they are being held. Faghihi said that, as political prisoners, his clients should not be held with habitual criminals and have requested relocation to Evin prison in Tehran if separate facilities are unavailable. (Bill Samii)
MINISTRIES WARN IRANIAN NEWS AGENCIES TO CURB REPORTING. Iran's Intelligence and Security and Islamic Culture and Guidance ministries have reportedly instructed ISNA and ILNA news agencies not to report the summonses, arrests, or prosecution of student and political activities without first "coordinating" their reporting with them, Radio Farda reported on 12 January, citing the Persian Ruz website. Reza Moini of Reporters Without Borders told Radio Farda the same day that the move is part of an intensifying campaign of intimidation and restriction of the media by the state, and especially by the two ministries working together. "There is no legal basis for this intimidation," and these restrictions are not based on Iran's "anti-freedom" laws, he told Radio Farda. But he said the process is "silent...without formality. They are acting in such a way that this would not take a formal appearance; but what we know is that from the start of this new government, this form of summonses, interrogations and threats have continued this way." Officials have been giving the press new directives or instructions not to report specific news items, he said. (Vahid Sepehri)
IRAN HIZBULLAH TO PUBLISH NEWSPAPER. The right-wing Iran Hizbullah published on 9 January a preliminary issue of its daily "Hizbullah," with Muhammad Baqer Kharrazi as its editor in chief, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported on 11 January. Regular publication might not start until the Persian year that begins on 21 March 2006.
Group spokesman Mujtaba Bigdeli said on 4 January that the daily will "most probably" begin working then, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 5 January. Iran Hizbullah is apparently related to the Ansar-i Hizbullah, a radical group that many Iranians associate with violence and attacks in the 1990s on gatherings of students or liberals.
Radio Farda observed that the Ansar-i Hizbullah has recently become alienated from some former allies -- conservatives currently in positions of power -- presumably for their excessive radicalism. The Iran Hizbullah, it added, might enjoy closer ties with the Ahmadinejad government. Bigdeli said the Iran Hizbullah also intends to start a satellite network and requires no permit from the Culture Ministry, which coordinates Iranian media activities, because it will engage in "cultural activities" and the promotion of religion, not politics -- unlike a recently banned reformist network (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 9 January 2006). (Vahid Sepehri)
TEHRAN LIFTS BAN ON CNN. President Ahmadinejad announced in a 17 January letter to the Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry that Cable News Network (CNN) can continue to operate in Iran, state television reported. The invalidation of CNN reporters' press cards took place on 16 January, IRNA reported, on the grounds that CNN mistranslated a 14 January statement by Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad allegedly said Iran has a right to "nuclear technology," but this was translated as "nuclear weapons." CNN reportedly apologized for the mistake.
Mr. Khoshvaqt, who heads the Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry's Foreign Press Department, told Iranian state radio on 16 January that CNN has a record of such errors. "CNN's past performance regarding developments in Iran made us draw the conclusion that this measure [the mistranslation] may have been taken deliberately," he said. "As a result, we decided to stop this network's activities [in Iran] until we are sure that it will be sincere in its coverage of Iran. We are waiting to assess the CNN's future activities." (Bill Samii)