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Iran Report: January 31, 2006

31 January 2006, Volume 9, Number 3

IRAN UNLIKELY TO PROD HAMAS TOWARD MODERATION. Tehran has reacted enthusiastically to the victory of Hamas -- the Harakat al-Muqawamma al-Islamiya, or Islamic Resistance Movement -- in the 25 January Palestinian elections.

The Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi as saying Iran "congratulates the great Palestinian people, the Hamas movement, all Palestinians combatants, and the great Islamic Ummah" and hopes that "the powerful presence of Hamas on the political scene of Palestine brings significant achievements for the Palestinian nation."

Tehran's reaction reflects its close and long-standing relationship with Hamas. Iran is arguably in a good position to exert a moderating influence over the organization's behavior within a formal political setting. Tehran is unlikely to do so, however.

Early Inspiration And Backing

Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution provided an influential model and a source of emulation for Palestinian militants. Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) was created in 1980, and from its inception founders regarded Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the leader of Islamic revolutions everywhere. The success of the Iranian revolution showed the PIJ founders that "Islam was the solution and that jihad was the way," Ziad Abu-Amr wrote in "Islamic Fundamentalism in the West Bank and Gaza" (1994). Not only was the PIJ inspired by Khomeini, but it also cited one of his fatwa declaring the elimination of Israel a religious duty.

Hamas was born during the first Palestinian uprising (intifada), the result of a December 1987 meeting of the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood at the home of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. Its creation reflected dissatisfaction with the secular Palestinian parties, as well as the belief that religious ideology could provide comfort and enhance strength. By 1989, it had a representative in Tehran, Imad al-Alami. The 1987 Hamas charter calls for Israel's destruction.

During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, the PIJ backed Iran because it viewed Iran as more committed to the Palestinian cause than any other state. Hamas came to share this view of Iranian support for the Palestinians.

Tehran Radio reported in May 1998, just after a visit by Sheikh Yassin, that he said in his view "the Islamic Republic of Iran supports this ideal [of a Palestinian state] even more than the Palestinians themselves." Yassin later added that Iran seems to be "prepared to extend all kinds of aid to the Palestinian people's struggle for liberation," Beirut's "Al-Shira" reported in August 1998. Yassin had told "Al-Quds" from Jerusalem in July of the same year that he "was not aware that the Iranians are so strongly enthusiastic about Palestine," adding, "I found that the Iranians have an intense desire to liberate Palestine and to endure all the U.S. harassment and difficulties in order to achieve this objective."

Iranian State Support

The U.S. State Department, which lists Hamas as a foreign terrorist organization, asserts that Iran provides the group with "some funding," but most of the organizations' finances are derived from expatriate Palestinian donors and from contributors in the Arab world. This assertion is vague, but the extent to which Yassin was exaggerating about Iranian support is equally unclear.

Allegations that Iran funds Hamas were addressed in a 31 May 1995 speech in Qom by Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani, who was deputy speaker of parliament and secretary of the Supreme National Security Council at the time. "When the Westerners themselves started saying we should deprive Hamas of financial power, the Westerners themselves said that Hamas obtains the bulk of its money from Muslims who live in Europe and the United States," state radio quoted Rohani as saying. "Hamas does not need our money. Islamic Jihad does not need our money.... They need our guidance, our ideas, our path, and our line."

Funding aside, a strong formal relationship exists. There is a full-time Hamas representative in Tehran -- Abu-Osama Abd-al-Moti, who was preceded by Abu-Muhammad Mustafa. Moreover, Hamas leaders and their Iranian counterparts interact quite openly. Political bureau chief Khalid Mishaal met President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in Damascus in mid-January and in Tehran in December. Mishaal met Ahmadinejad's predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, on several occasions. They met in Damascus in May 1999 and May 2003, and again in Tehran in September 2000, April 2001, and June 2002.

After the 1999 meeting in Damascus, Hamas's Abu Marzuk said, "The [recent] meetings of the Iranian president, Mr. Khatami, with different Palestinian groups in Damascus were the real display of Iran's attitude toward the Zionist regime and Tehran's clear message to Tel Aviv," Iranian state television reported on 23 June 1999.

Lower-level Iranian officials also meet with Hamas representatives with some frequency. In October 2000, for example, Tehran Radio reported, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi met with Abu Marzuk, as well as with representatives of the PIJ and other rejectionist groups.

Where To Now?

The Hamas victory represents the possibility that in free elections people will elect Islamists. This is a problem for Washington and an opportunity for Tehran. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Davos on 26 January that only a "two-state solution" will meet Palestinians' aspirations, and this requires "a renunciation of violence and turning away from terrorism and accepting the right of Israel to exist and the disarmament of militias," according to the State Department website. She added, "Our position on Hamas has therefore not changed."

The role of another Iranian backed group, Hizballah (Party of God), is similar in Lebanon. There are Hizballah representatives in the national legislature, in the cabinet (although they are currently boycotting it), and in municipal institutions. Yet Washington considers Hizballah a "foreign terrorist organization" as well, and it continues to press for its disarmament.

Iran is in a position to influence and moderate the behavior of Hamas, as well as that of Hizballah. Given its hostile stand on Israel, which has grown more belligerent under President Ahmadinejad, Iran is unlikely to press these organizations to tone down their rhetoric or modify their stances on Israel's right to exist. Indeed, Foreign Ministry spokesman Assefi warned "supporters of the Zionist regime" on 26 January that they should "open their eyes" to regional realities. A 26 January state television commentary, furthermore, said that by electing Hamas, Palestinians have rejected any approach other than resistance. (Bill Samii)

OMANI LEGISLATOR INVITED TO IRAN'S INTIFADA CONFERENCE. Parliamentary speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel has sent a letter to his Omani counterpart, Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali al-Qatbi, inviting him to attend Iran's third International Conference to Support the Palestinian Uprising (Intifada), IRNA reported on 24 January. The letter was hand-delivered by an Iranian parliamentary delegation that is visiting Muscat. The conference is scheduled for March-April. The first two conferences took place in Iran in April 2001 and June 2002, and they were attended by representatives of Hizballah, Hamas, the PIJ, and the PFLP-GC, all of which are classified as terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department. (Bill Samii)

UN SECURITY COUNCIL MEMBERS, GERMANY, TO DISCUSS IRAN IN LONDON. The British Foreign Office announced on 25 January that foreign ministers from the five countries on the UN Security Council (China, France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States), plus Germany, will meet in London on 30 January to discuss the Iranian nuclear issue, AFP reported. An emergency meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is scheduled for 2 February. Iranian officials are visiting the capitals of the two countries -- China and Russia -- that remain reluctant to refer the issue to the UN Security Council, a development which could lead to sanctions. There is growing international concern over the lack of transparency on the part of Iran and its inadequate cooperation with the IAEA. (Bill Samii)

DISTRUSTFUL OF RUSSIA, LEGISLATORS WANT NUCLEAR DIPLOMACY. Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani arrived in Moscow on 24 January to discuss the nuclear issue and a late-December Russian proposal that Iran enrich uranium on Russian territory. Such a proposal -- in fact, all international treaties, protocols, contracts, and agreements -- must secure legislative approval, per Article 77 of the Iranian constitution.

Distrust of Russia

To date, most members of parliament have shown little enthusiasm for Moscow's idea. The legislators' comments seem to reflect distrust of Russia, as well as the quest for national autonomy and self-reliance. Instead, there appears to be a preference for continued negotiations with the international community. Soon after the Russian proposal was made, Tehran's Said Abu Talib described it as a "dirty trick," "Kayhan" reported on 28 December. He explained that the proposal was made when the Europeans were in a weak position. He expressed resentment that Russia has worked on the Bushehr nuclear plant for many years and has consistently overcharged Iran.

"Russia's proposal is a devious and distorted suggestion," said Mashhad representative Javad Aryan Manesh according to the 28 December "Kayhan."

Shiraz's Mohammad Nabi Rudaki, the vice chairman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, initially rejected the Russian proposal. "We announce to the Russians that we want the uranium-enrichment program in our own country," he said according to the 28 December issue of the weekly "Ya Lisarat al-Hussein." He advised the Russians to stop following the U.S. lead.

Rudaki subsequently said the Russian proposal deserves serious consideration, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 3 January. Nevertheless, he went on to say: "Producing nuclear fuel in Iran, putting the Natanz nuclear facility into operation under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and thereby generating nuclear energy for peaceful purposes are now a national wish and demand in Iran."

"We mustn't put ourselves in Russia's hands," Bushehr representative Shokrollah Atarzadeh said in the 3 January "Aftab-i Yazd." Atarzadeh called for expanding the scope of negotiations beyond the EU-3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom), and he added that Italy had fulfilled many Iranian equipment needs during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. Distance between Iran and other countries results in a vacuum that Russia can fill, and it leaves Iran with few options.

Kazem Jalali, rapporteur of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, expressed concern on 15 January that Russia is beginning to adopt the U.S. and European approach of denying Iran control of the nuclear fuel cycle, IRNA reported. He noted delays in the completion of the Bushehr nuclear reactor as evidence of this. "We have always told the Russians that a number of people in Iran do not consider you as a reliable partner; if you deliver Bushehr nuclear power plant [in a] timely [fashion] you will erase the bitter memory from the minds of Iranians and prepare the ground for future cooperation," Jalali added.

Reliance On Diplomacy

Given the overall lack of confidence in Russia, Iranian parliamentarians are calling for the negotiating process with the international community to continue. But they also have shown that their patience has limits.

Whether or not the Foreign Ministry likes it, Tehran representative Imad Afruq said in his 1 January pre-agenda speech, the nuclear issue has become politicized, "Sharq" reported on 2 January. Without "active diplomacy" and employment of all the country's resources, he continued, Iran cannot enhance its negotiating position.

Boin-Zahra representative Qodratullah Alikhani said in the 3 January "Aftab-i Yazd" that negotiations with Europe are preferable to the Russian proposal. Iran must insist on its principles in these negotiations, he said, adding that this still has a chance for success.

"This is a complicated issue and requires a policy and diplomacy based on compromise, not challenge and harsh words," National Security and Foreign Policy Committee member Mahmud Mohammadi said in the 3 January parliamentary session, "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported the next day. Mohammadi said President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's administration is not committed to the 2004 Paris Accord, and it can therefore end Iran's voluntary suspension of enrichment-related activities at any time.

Bonab representative Rasul Sediqi-Bonabi said in his pre-agenda speech on the same day that "America, which has raised the flag of opposition to Iranian nuclear activities, has the most shameful record of nuclear activities in the world," "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported on 4 January.

Deputy speaker of parliament Mohammad Reza Bahonar demanded "active and progressive diplomacy," as well as exposure of "the West's human rights violations" as a way of defending Iran's rights, "Sharq" reported on 7 January. Bahonar called for a new effort by the Foreign Ministry.

Iran is not interested in negotiations that will deprive it of the right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, parliamentary speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel said in the 15 January legislative session, "Sharq" reported on 16 January. He went on to attack the West and Israel. He said, "If European countries and, especially America, are so concerned about global peace, they had better explain why they are silent about Israel's nuclear arms and facilities. Why do they equip the false Israeli government with hundreds of nuclear warheads, when Israel is not committed to any international regulations?" He warned the Europeans that the days of colonialism are over and they cannot dictate terms to Iran.

Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani briefed the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee on 22 January about everything relevant to the nuclear issue and what to expect in the future, state radio reported. Speaking afterwards, committee rapporteur Kazem Jalali said that the country's "principle" is that it is trying to "attain its nuclear rights fully and it has made dialogue the rule." However, he added, the talks must be productive.

Call For Resumption Of Nuclear Activities

"We request the government put the Natanz nuclear facility into operation because this is the rightful demand of the people and the parliament," Isfahan representative Hassan Kamran-Dastjerdi said in his 4 January pre-agenda speech, "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported the next day.

Less than a week later, on 10 January, Iran broke International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) seals at the Natanz enrichment facility. The IAEA and many countries expressed unhappiness with this development, although Iran described its actions as "research" only. According to the "Los Angeles Times" on 11 January, Iranian officials said they only plan on a "small-scale pilot program feeding uranium hexafluoride gas made from yellowcake into a centrifuge cascade at Natanz to be spun into enriched uranium."

A letter from 221 legislators showed their support for the steps taken by the government to safeguard Iran's nuclear rights, "Kayhan" reported on 12 January. The letter was read aloud at the 10 January session, and it asserted that Iran has undertaken many confidence-building measures over the last few years. The pause in research activities, it continued, undermined the morale of Iranian scientists. The letter concluded: "we parliamentary representatives hereby declare our decisive support for the decision made by the honorable government of the Islamic Republic of Iran regarding the resumption of nuclear research activities."

Uninformed Legislators

There have been slight hints of dissent. This dissent is not connected with nuclear activities, per se, but with a perceived sense of exclusion from the decision-making process. At least two members of parliament have complained that the legislature is not being kept formally apprised of the status of the nuclear talks. Akbar Alami, who serves on the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said, "The Majlis [parliament] is either completely in the dark or at best it is among the least informed state institutions about such subjects," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 10 January. Alami complained that members of the legislative president board have a condescending attitude toward their colleagues.

Another member of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Ali Ahmadi, noted that he and many of his colleagues stay informed through informal contacts because the committee has not been briefed formally, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported. He noted that parliamentary speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel is a member of the Supreme National Security Council but that he does not keep the committee informed about the negotiations. (Bill Samii)

PUBLIC DEFENDS NUCLEAR FACILITY. Athletes, Basij members, and others formed a human chain around the uranium-conversion facility in Isfahan on 22 January, international news agencies reported. A spokesman for the demonstrators, Behruz Aqa Ebrahim Samani, told the Iranian Labor News Agency that participants were defending the country's right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Samani appealed to Iranians' nationalistic impulses, saying, "By constructing this complex, we succeeded in becoming one of the eight best countries in the world." National pride is frequently invoked among the Iranian public when the nuclear issue is broached, and international concern about potential weapons production is rarely mentioned. (Bill Samii)

FATAL BOMBINGS OCCUR IN SOUTHWEST IRAN. Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Mustafa Pur-Mohammadi, who was speaking on the eve of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's planned trip to the southwestern Khuzestan Province, addressed insecurity there, Fars News Agency reported on 23 January. He said officials from his ministry have made repeated trips to Khuzestan Province, and a Supreme National Security Council meeting focused specifically on the province. Khuzestan Province, which is inhabited by many ethnic Arabs and borders Iraq, was the site of several bombings and violent demonstrations last summer.

The Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported in the evening of 23 January that Ahmadinejad's trip to Khuzestan Province had been cancelled due to poor weather.

The next day, 24 January, two bombs went off in different parts of the Khuzestan Province city of Ahvaz. According to state television, the police reported that four people were killed and many others were injured. Colonel Salehi of the police later said, "six people have so far been killed and 15 people injured in Kianpars Street opposite Saman Bank. In the Gulistan Road opposite Natural Resources Department also nine of our fellow Ahvazi citizens were injured." Later reports added to the casualty count. IRNA reported six dead and at least 40 wounded, while Mehr News Agency reported nine dead and 15 wounded.

Salehi said the explosions were caused by percussion grenades. Percussion grenades normally make a loud noise but do not spread shrapnel or otherwise cause injuries.

Seyyed Nezam Molla-Hoveyzeh, the parliamentary representative from Dasht-i Azadegan, blamed the bombing on counterrevolutionaries, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported. He referred to prior incidents in Ahvaz, and noted that President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's trip to the city was cancelled for security reasons. He added, "A satellite network has been provoking ethnic and nationalistic issues recently; and some networks outside the country have been active to encourage separatism in Khuzestan."

Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Mustafa Pur-Mohammadi on 25 January attributed the bombings to extraterritorial forces, ISNA reported. "As soon as the incident took place, the propaganda machines became active," he said. "It was clear they were anticipating such an incident." He vowed "tough action" against the perpetrators. Pur-Mohammadi said all those responsible for previous incidents in Ahvaz have been arrested.

President Ahmadinejad on 25 January expressed condolences from Tehran and called for resolute action against the perpetrators, IRNA reported. Ahmadinejad tasked the Intelligence and Security Ministry and the Foreign Ministry with investigating the alleged extraterritorial aspect of the incidents.

Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said on 25 January that the United Kingdom is behind the bombings, state television reported. He said something about the "masterminds" being photographed with British officials in London, and he added that "These people enjoyed the intelligence and cooperation of the British military commanders in Basra."

An irredentist group called the Ahvazi Arab Revival Party issued a statement warning that there will be more violence and in other Iranian cities if Tehran's "repressive policies" and "denial of the legitimate rights of the Ahvazi Arab people" continues, the Arabic-language "Ilaf" newspaper from London reported on 25 January. Blaming foreigners, the group warned Tehran, will not solve the problem.

A funeral was held on 26 January for victims of the 24 January bombings, and, according to state television interviews with mourners, foreigners are responsible for the bombings. "America and Israel have committed this crime," said an unidentified man. One woman said: "Our enemies carried out these terrorist acts -- namely America and Israel. Damn them." A crowd subsequently chanted "Death to Britain."

Ahvaz Friday prayer leader Seyyed Mohammad Ali Jazayeri said there is little doubt that the U.K. and United States were behind the bombings, Fars News Agency reported. He added, "And these are all done in the interests of the Zionists."

Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Gholam-Hussein Mohseni-Ejei told reporters in Qom on 26 January that he is fairly certain the U.K. is one of the countries behind the bombings, IRNA reported. He said the unnamed enemy is trying to destabilize cities on the periphery by encouraging ethnic and tribal discord. There is a large ethnic Arab minority living in Ahvaz. Mohseni-Ejei added that several arrests have been made. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN DEMANDS ISLAMABAD'S HELP PURSUING KIDNAPPERS. Iranian Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Mustafa Pur-Mohammadi said on 23 January that if the Pakistani government is not able to deal with the Baluchis who recently kidnapped Iranian border guards, Fars News Agency reported, then Islamabad should "allow us to persecute, in their land, those who create insecurity in Iran." An ethnic Baluchi group calling itself Jundullah kidnapped an unknown number of Iranian border guards in late December, and on 19 January it claimed to have executed one of them. (Bill Samii)

SECOND IRANIAN SATELLITE REPORTEDLY READY. Ahmad Taleb-Zadeh, head of Iran's Aerospace Organization, said on 22 January that the Mesbah satellite will be sent into outer space within three months on a Russian rocket, the "Iran Daily" reported. Mesbah is mainly to be used for telecommunications and imagery. The wait before the launch is to allow for preparation of the rockets' other payloads. Sina-1, Iran's first satellite, was launched from Russia in October 2005, Taleb-Zadeh added, and five more satellites are planned by 2010. Scientists from an Italian firm -- Carlo Gavazzi -- are working on the Mesbah satellite, Israel's channel 2 television reported on 20 January. They reportedly visited the city of Shiraz to present information on the satellite, and the Israeli TV channel secured a videotape of their presentation. It revealed a platform that cannot stabilize itself, does not have a camera, and has slow data transmission speed, the Israeli TV channel reported. (Bill Samii)

AHMADINEJAD DISCUSSES INFORMATION FLOW. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said during a 24 January visit to the Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization in Tehran that Iran's "culture, values, policies, and behavior" is different from the West's and Iran is acting on its belief in the free flow of information, state television reported.

On 23 January, Masud Fateh, who is in charge of media affairs at the Information Communication Technology Ministry's public-relations office, said the BBC Persian website is being filtered, ILNA reported. He added that the names of websites that must be filtered will be forwarded to Internet service providers (ISPs) in the near future. (Bill Samii)

HEALTH WORKERS COMPLAIN OF ECONOMIC MAFIA. A number of contract workers at Iranian hospitals and clinics have complained in a letter to leaders of the Islamic Republic about the state of their livelihood, Radio Farda reported on 22 January. The signatories described their situation as alive but not really living, and they complained that there is little compliance with labor laws, they have no opportunity to use vacation time, and they cannot accrue vacation time. They went on to ask in the letter whether President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's government, which came into office vowing to eliminate the so-called economic mafia, is unable to fulfill that promise. (Bill Samii)

IRAN CULLS BIRDS IN PREVENTIVE MEASURE. Border officials at the Bazargan crossing on the Iran-Turkey border reportedly announced a ban on the entry into Iran of Turkish passengers and cars from 7 January in response to a bird-flu outbreak in Turkey, Radio Farda reported on 8 January.

But Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on 8 January that "Iran's frontier with Turkey is not shut, and there is only supervision including a ban on the entry of birds from that country.... Iranian nationals should not where possible travel to areas in Turkey where they are liable to infection," ISNA reported. Assefi added that there are no concerns over bird flu spreading to Iran, adding that the cabinet discussed the threat on 7 January and is taking unspecified precautionary measures, ISNA added. There have been several human deaths and at least a dozen people have been diagnosed as having bird flu in Turkey over the past week.

Health Minister Kamran Baqeri-Lankarani said in Tehran on 9 January that "there have been no reports so far" of bird flu in Iran, but "we must be vigilant," given its appearance in neighboring Turkey, ISNA reported the same day. He said the country has in any case "adopted new measures" in poultry farming, following an epidemic among birds that he described as "mild, but not dangerous" in 2000 or 2001, so "we are more prepared to face the crisis today."

Separately, Deputy Health Minister Muayyed Alavian told IRNA on 9 January that some 2,000 people considered at higher risk of infection have been vaccinated in West Azerbaijan Province, near Turkey, including some children aged 2 to 6, some elderly patients, and hospital workers. Iran has stocked up on Tamiflu, a flu medicine, and Health Minister Baqeri said on 9 January "there is enough Tamiflu for any expected epidemic in the country."

Also on 9 January, the head of the ministry's disease-management office said Iran has strengthened controls on its frontier with Turkey, emptied poultry farms in border areas, and is banning one-day trips to Turkey to prevent bird flu spreading to Iran, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 10 January.

Iran's State Veterinary Organization announced on 25 January that it has purchased and killed 45,000 birds from poultry farmers along a 10 kilometer strip of the shared border with Turkey, ISNA reported. The step was taken after a reported outbreak of bird flu in Turkey. A sampling from large and small farms has found no cases of the fatal and contagious H5N1 strain of bird flu, according to the State Veterinary Organization. (Vahid Sepehri, Bill Samii)

EXECUTIVE BRANCH MAKES DIPLOMATIC APPOINTMENT. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad on 21 January approved the appointment of Ali Reza Moayeri as Iran's permanent representative in Geneva to the United Nations, IRNA reported. Moayeri served previously as ambassador to France and as a presidential international-affairs adviser.

Government spokesman Gholam-Hussein Elham has selected Ali Akbar Javanfekr as his adviser, ISNA reported on 22 January. (Bill Samii)

APPOINTMENTS MADE IN REVOLUTIONARY GUARDS. The Supreme Board for Streamlining the Armed Forces' Air Fleet met on 23 January with President Ahmadinejad, armed-forces General Staff chief Major General Hassan Aqai-Firuzabadi, Islamic Revolution Guards Corps commander Major General Yahya Rahim-Safavi, and regular armed-forces commander Major General Ataollah Salehi, ILNA reported. They discussed military aviation needs in light of several recent aircraft disasters, and decided that a greater proportion of the budget is necessary to meet their requirements.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on 21 January appointed Brigadier General Ali-Reza Zahedi as commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps ground forces, Fars News Agency reported. Zahedi succeeds ground-forces commander Ahmad Kazemi, who along with 10 other people died in a 9 January airplane crash. Khamenei also appointed Brigadier Hussein Salami commander of the corps' air force. He succeeds Zahedi.

Regular army chief Major General Ataollah Salehi on 12 January completed a four-day inspection of Iranian troops in "the country's southern regions in the provinces of Khuzestan and Ilam" and said the army's message to Iranians is that "we shall with power and capability respond to any regional and supra-regional disturbance for the country," ISNA reported. He said the regular army's land, sea, and air forces are ready because of "constructive coordination between commanders...high morale, the transfer of experience" from the 1980-88 war with Iraq to "young workers," and the full capability to use the latest military hardware and weaponry, ISNA reported.

Salehi said the armed forces' military abilities were evidenced during his visit, when "certain foreign elements penetrated the country's southern frontier waters to implement their sinister aims." Iranian troops countered these operations by night, captured enemy weapons, and "and killed a number of infiltrating elements," Salehi claimed, although it was not immediately clear if this was an exercise or an attack. (Bill Samii, Vahid Sepehri)

IRANIAN PLANT TO CHURN OUT SUBMARINES. Defense Minister Mustafa Mohammad-Najjar attended the opening in Bandar Abbas on 11 January of a mass-production line for "Ghadir" midget submarines, IRNA reported. The vessels are to be made at the Shahid Darvishi complex in Bandar Abbas, run by the Naval Industries Group, a division of the Defense Industries Organization run by the Defense Ministry, according to IRNA. The minister inspected the complex and examined some of the variety of naval vessels that it manufactures, including four recently-completed 1,000-ton landing craft, which IRNA stated were designed and made there for an unspecified "private sector" in Iran. Najjar said at the line's inauguration that, given Iran's lengthy southern coast, one of the ministry's "strategic policies" is to raise "the defensive capacity of the naval armed forces," IRNA reported. "Iran's defensive capacity on land, in the air, and at sea serves the peace, stability, and security of the Persian Gulf," he said, and with the help of coastal states and "neighbors," Iran "will not permit any supra-regional state to create insecurity" in the gulf, IRNA reported. (Vahid Sepehri)

KURDISH LEGISLATORS NOTE FUEL SHORTAGES. Iran will supply the Republic of Georgia with natural gas. Turkey, meanwhile, is complaining that Iran is not meeting its gas supply obligations, while legislators from Iran's predominantly Kurdish provinces are saying that their constituents' natural gas supply is interrupted frequently.

The Iranian gas would be delivered via a pipeline from Nagorno-Karabakh to Tbilisi, and is needed because of damage done to the Russian Mozdok-Tbilisi pipeline by a 22 January explosion that has completely cut supplies to Georgia. Georgia also intends to import gas from Azerbaijan and Turkey.

President Mikhail Saakashvili said in Tbilisi on 27 January that the Iranian government has agreed to ship natural gas to Georgia, Rustavi-2 television reported. Saakashvili said Iran is selling the gas at a very favorable price. A 27 January report from Kavkaz-Press said the price is confidential, but it cited reports that the cost will be $120 per 1,000 cubic meters.

Meanwhile, Georgian International Gas Corporation chief Davit Ingoroqva said on 27 January that technical details relating to transporting the natural gas across Azerbaijan have to be worked out, Interfax reported. On 28 January he told Georgian Public Television Channel 1 that the agreement with Azerbaijan was just signed and a protocol with the Iranians will be signed the next day.

Georgian Fuel and Energy Minister Nika Gilauri arrived in Tehran on 26 January to discuss the provision of emergency natural gas supplies, presidential administration spokesman Giorgi Arveladze said on Georgia's Imedi television. The previous day, Gilauri and and Georgian International Gas Corporation chief Davit Ingoroqva traveled to Baku to discuss possible receipt of natural gas from Iran, Kavkaz-Press reported.

Gilauri announced on 24 January that Tbilisi and Tehran have agreed on an electricity barter agreement, Kavkaz-Press reported. He explained, "We will supply Iran with electricity during the summer and Iran will supply us with electricity in the winter months, when Georgia's energy system does not have sufficient resources." Gilauri met with Foreign Minister Mottaki on 22 January in Iran.

Saqqez and Baneh parliamentary representative Fakhredin Haidari, the spokesman for the Iranian legislature's Kurdish faction, said on 18 January that the supply of natural gas to several parts of the country has been interrupted repeatedly, ISNA reported. Predominantly Kurdish areas have been particularly hard-hit, he said, so signatures for the interpellation of Petroleum Minister Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh are being collected. Fifteen signatures have been collected so far, Haidari said, the minimum required to go ahead with a no-confidence motion.

In Turkey, meanwhile, anonymous sources in the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources say the supply of natural gas from Iran has dropped sharply, Anatolia news agency reported on 19 January. Iran is supposed to provide 26 million cubic meters a day, but the actual flow now is 5-6 million cubic meters. The Iranian side reportedly attributes the shortfall to technical difficulties at production sites. (Bill Samii)

IRAQI POLITICAL CLERIC VISITS TEHRAN, VOWS TO DEFEND MUSLIM NEIGHBORS. Political leader and Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr visited Tehran on 22 January and met with Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki and Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani, local news agencies reported. Mottaki warned the visitor, "The presence of American forces is aimed at gaining hegemony over the Iraqi people's interests and the current crisis in Iraq is resolvable with the departure of the occupying forces," ISNA reported. Al-Sadr reportedly replied positively on expanding Iraq-Iran ties. Larijani described the two countries as natural allies, IRNA reported, and he spoke about the need for security and economic stability in Iraq. Describing the need for unity among Iraqi groups, al-Sadr said, "If the unity is further consolidated, Israel and the U.S. will not be able to have a constant presence in Iraq." He accused the United States of targeting Islamic thought. After the meeting with Larijani, al-Sadr told reporters that his Al-Mahdi Army will provide support if Iran or any other of Iraq's Muslim neighbors faces aggression. (Bill Samii)

U.S. GENERAL COMMENTS ON IRANIAN INTERFERENCE IN IRAQ. U.S. Central Command Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt said in the 25 January "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" newspaper that the U.S. worries about "Iranian interference in Iraq." However, he went on to say, the U.S. also recognizes that Iran is Iraq's "strategic neighbor" and it always will affect events there. Kimmitt said it is not clear who in Iran is responsible for events in Iraq. "We worry that Iran might be a source of bombs and other unhelpful elements in Iraq, but we do not know if these elements are backed by the Iranian government or other Iranian groups; nonetheless, the government must control these elements," he said. (Bill Samii)

IRAQI MILITARY OFFICE IN TEHRAN GETS APPROVAL. Iranian charge d'affaires in Baghdad Hassan Kazemi-Qomi said on 16 January that Iran has concurred with the opening of an Iraqi military attache office in Tehran, IRNA reported. "Tehran's agreement was announced after receiving a request made by Iraqi government, aimed at pursuing the objectives of boosting bilateral military cooperation," he said. Kazemi-Qomi said the agreement was reached after Iraqi Defense Minister Sa'dun al-Dulaymi considered border-control issues and the potential role of Iraq's neighbors in molding the country's defense forces. Kazemi-Qomi concluded, "Iran, too, is naturally entitled to open its military attache office in Baghdad in due time." (Bill Samii)

ISFAHAN-NAJAF FLIGHTS TO BEGIN SOON. The managing director of Iran's Thamin A'immah Cultural-Travel Services Institute, identified only as Mr. Amini, said on Isfahan provincial television on 19 January that commercial flights between the cities of Isfahan and Al-Najaf will begin soon. He said overland travel to Al-Najaf from Mashhad normally takes two days, and the drive from the Mehran border crossing to Al-Najaf takes some 14 hours. Currently, flights to Al-Basrah go through Kuwait and on to Baghdad and take several hours, he said, while the Isfahan to Al-Najaf flights will take only 70 minutes. Amini said the airport near Al-Najaf was previously for military use, so the runways were extended by 200 meters and widened by 7.5 meters. Moreover, an aircraft parking area and perimeter fence had to be built, and temporary arrival halls were set up. Amini added that the airport now has a navigation system, control tower, fire engines, and handling facilities. Najaf Airlines is 51 percent Iraqi held and 49 percent Iranian. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN COAST GUARD KILLS IRAQI SOLDIER, SEIZES SHIP. The Iranian Coast Guard killed an Iraqi soldier and seized an Iraqi Coast Guard ship in the Shatt Al-Arab waterway on 14 January, Al-Basrah Governor Muhammad al-Wa'ili said on 16 January, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. At the time of the incident the Iraqi Coast Guard was searching a foreign cargo ship that had allegedly smuggled Iraqi oil. Al-Wa'ili contended that the captain of the smuggling vessel requested the Iranian coast guard's assistance during the pursuit. Eight Iraqi soldiers and an officer were detained by the Iranian Coast Guard. Al-Wa'ili added that the incident is not the first of its kind, saying he has raised the issue on several occasions with Baghdad but received no official response. He said that the Iranians are holding two other Iraqi vessels at the Iranian port of Abadan.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on 17 January that Tehran will look into the alleged incident, Al-Alam television reported. Earlier on 17 January, Iranian charge d'affaires in Baghdad Kazemi-Qomi denied that any such incident occurred, Al-Alam reported.

Meanwhile, Al-Sharqiyah television from Iraq cited an anonymous Iraqi Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying Baghdad will request the release of the nine detained coast guards when Foreign Minister Hoshyar al-Zebari meets with Kazemi-Qomi.

According to a statement from the Iraqi Foreign Ministry on 18 January, Foreign Minister Hushyar Zebari has submitted a diplomatic memorandum to Iranian charge d'affaires Hassan Kazem-Qomi requesting the release of an Iraqi coast-guard vessel and its crew, Al-Sharqiyah television reported, citing a statement issued by the Iraqi Foreign Ministry on 18 January.

Iran on 20 January released the eight Iraqis, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. After a one-day delay, Iran also returned the body of a ninth Iraqi crewmember who was killed in the incident, Al-Sharqiyah reported on 22 January. (Kathleen Ridolfo, Bill Samii)

INTERNATIONAL INTRIGUE OVER IRANIAN BANKING. Central Bank of Iran Governor Ebrahim Sheibani said on 20 January that Iran is transferring its foreign reserves from European banks to Southeast Asian ones, according to ISNA. "We transfer foreign reserves to wherever we see as expedient," he said. "On this issue, we have the transfer and are still doing so."

One day later, the Central Bank's public-relations office said previous policies remain unchanged, Fars News Agency reported, and it denied that funds are being transferred to Southeast Asia.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi also denied on 22 January that Iran is withdrawing its foreign-currency reserves from Western banks, AP reported. "We have not moved or transferred our hard-currency assets," he said. "The report on the move is not correct." AP reported that Iranian funds in European banks could be worth as much as $50 billion.

Seeking to reassure the international community about Iranian financial behavior, government spokesman Gholam-Hussein Elham said on 23 January that the country's activities are normal, IRNA reported.

Elham also dismissed reports that a Swiss bank has severed its connection with Iran. A spokesman for Switzerland's UBS said the bank is cutting all ties to customers in Iran, Radio Farda reported on 22 January, citing the "Sonntag Zeitung." Bank spokesman Sergei Steiner said the decision is motivated by high compliance costs that relate to regulatory and security concerns, rather than politics or the nuclear issue. He said the process of cutting ties began in the fall. Steiner said the development does not affect Iranian customers outside that country.

Another major international bank, Credit Suisse, said it is following Iranian affairs closely and with concern, Radio Farda reported.

A 23 January report in the "Etemad" daily, meanwhile, argued that Iran risks having its assets frozen if it does not transfer them from European banks. Putting "all her eggs in one basket," the report continued, would increase the dangers to Iran of international isolation and pressure stemming from the nuclear issue.

Seeking to allay international concern after reports that Tehran has withdrawn its foreign currency reserves from European banks, a Central Bank of Iran official said in the 25 January "Financial Times" that funds were withdrawn only from Italian banks. CBI Deputy Governor Mohammad-Jafar Mojarrad explained that Iran opts for ambiguity over the amount and distribution of its foreign holdings as a precautionary measure.

The withdrawal of money from Italian banks is connected with an Italian court's decision in December that the Banco Nazionale del Lavoro must freeze an Iranian government account. The funds were initially frozen on the orders of an Italian court in connection with a U.S. ruling that relates to an alleged Iranian role in the killing of three Americans -- Alisa Flatow, Matthew Eisenfeld, and Sara Duker -- in Gaza by Hamas. Mojarrad added that Iranian funds could return to Italian banks if the court determines that funds from central banks are immune.

"Corriere della Sera" reported on 26 January that Iranian funds in the Banco Nazionale del Lavoro that were frozen by an Italian court have been released to the Iranian Embassy. The Rome Civil Court decided that the U.S. writ was served improperly, and if the U.S. seeks to freeze the Iranian assets again the procedure must start from scratch. The Italian daily added that Iranian Embassy accounts cannot be touched. (Bill Samii)