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Iran Report: March 3, 2006

3 March 2006, Volume 9, Number 7

NO WELCOME FOR PRESIDENT'S NEW ELITE. Iranian parliamentarians are accusing the country's president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, of replacing many serving government officials with individuals from the security and intelligence community. Lawmakers have been particularly critical of Ahmadinejad's selection of provincial governors-general. The Iranian president appears to be creating a new leadership elite upon whom he can depend if the country faces a security crisis. The same team could also help win him elections for years to come.

Ahmadinejad represents the consensus Iranian view on some issues -- such as the pursuit of nuclear energy. But he does not enjoy wholehearted support on domestic issues. The legislature has already created two sets of crises for the president -- one over his choice of cabinet members and the other regarding his budget. Now they are challenging him on his selection of provincial officials as well.

Deputy Interior Minister Gholam Hussein Bolandian announced in early February that all but one of the country's 30 governors-general have been replaced, as have half the governors, "Hamshahri" and "Etemad-i Melli" reported on 7 February, and many upper-level managers in the Interior Ministry.

Bolandian said the substitutions reflect the difference in priorities between the Ahmadinejad administration and the previous administration of Mohammad Khatami.

"The policy of Mr. Khatami's administration was to promote reforms and strengthen of civil institutions and parties," Bolandian said, "and high government representatives in the provinces were selected in conformity with that policy.� The Ahmadinejad administration, he continued, is focused on "justice and compassion," and chose people who will implement this policy accordingly.

When the changes were initiated in September, however, the talk was not of justice or compassion. There were allegations that prospective governors-general were being vetted by two of the unsuccessful nominees for cabinet posts, "Iran" reported on 14 September 2005.

Moreover, legislators and other observers expressed concern that Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Mustafa Purmohammadi was selecting individuals with ties to the intelligence and security agencies, and they complained that the administration was not consulting with parliamentarians about its choices.

Conservative legislator Mohammad Hussein Farhangi said at the time that governors-general represent the executive branch at the provincial level, so their selection is as important as that of cabinet members, "Iran" reported on 14 September 2005.

Therefore, Farhangi added, "The interior minister must heed the demands of the [parliamentarians] about not employing as government officials people with intelligence and security links and background. Otherwise, he will certainly encounter problems in the future."

Reshuffling government officials is a commendable way to involve new people in running the country, the conservative Satar Hedayatkhah commented in "Aftab-i Yazd" on 13 September 2005. However, he continued, the wholesale replacement of governors-general with people from intelligence and security agencies would be unacceptable.

The executive branch has the right to appoint anybody it desires, a third conservative, Ahmad Tavakoli from Tehran, acknowledged, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 28 September 2005. "However," he continued, "there are some objections to the fact that all the appointments involve individuals who are former members of a specific ministry [a reference to the Ministry of Intelligence and Security]."

So far, the Interior Ministry has not provided a complete list of governors-general, nor do all the provinces have websites that provide that information. The information that is available, however, does show that some people with security and military backgrounds are now serving in these positions.

Kerman's Abdul Hamid Raufinejad, for example, is one of the 24 Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) commanders who in 1999 signed a letter to Khatami threatening to take matters into their own hands if he did not quell student riots going on at the time. Mazandaran's Abutaleb Shafeqat also served in the IRGC.

The governor-general of Khuzestan Province, Amir Hayat-Moqaddam, was a general in the IRGC and served as commander of its air force. He appears to share Ahmadinejad�s religious convictions. In mid-February he told a meeting of provincial prayer representatives that roughly $1.25 million has been dedicated to mosque development and renovation, and that because a number of major local highways lack mosques, his office will build them, Ahvaz provincial television reported on 16 February.

At least two other appointees have the kind of background the legislators find objectionable. Isfahan Province's governor-general, Seyyed Morteza Bakhtiari, headed the State Prisons Organization. Seyyed Solat Mortazavi, the governor-general in South Khorasan Province, was the director of security and training at the State Prisons Organization, as well as the license holder for the conservative "Hemayat" newspaper.

In a number of cases, legislators objected because the individuals chosen as governors-general were not actually from the province. Two legislators from Sistan va Baluchistan Province submitted their resignations on the grounds that the administration had gone back on its promise to consult with them on the appointment. They subsequently withdrew their resignations after meeting the appointee, Habibullah Dahmardeh, a Shi'ite Sistani from the predominantly Sunni Baluchi province, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 17 September 2005.

These were not the only demands for parliamentary input in the selection process. Shiraz's Mohammad Nabi Rudaki said he and his colleagues from Fars Province insisted on a governor-general from that province, but so far two people from elsewhere have been interviewed for the job, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported. The Interior Ministry did not consult with the Fars legislators sufficiently, he continued, and when they instead contacted the ministry, officials there simply advised them to monitor the governor-general�s activities and ask to have him replaced if he is deemed sub-par.

The representative from Rasht, Ramezanali Sadeqzadeh, also complained of executive branch indifference to the input of legislators, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 21 November 2005. Interior Minister Purmohammadi asked a meeting of legislators from Gilan Province for a list of three local candidates, and promised that nobody from the police, military, or security agencies would be selected.

Purmohammadi rejected the first three names and requested new ones, Sadeqzadeh continued. However, the new governor-general introduced in late November was not one of the individuals nominated by either the Gilan Province parliamentarians or the provincial representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It was the onetime deputy police commander, General Abdullahi, Sadeqzadeh said. He added that he has nothing against Abdullahi, but if the interior minister, cabinet, and president are going to ignore the opinions of officials from the province, why do they take up their time?

Ahmadinejad campaigned against the cronyism and corruption of previous administrations. Indeed, the family of his chief competitor, Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, has allegedly grown enormously wealthy by taking advantage of the state-economy nexus. Moreover, the "aqazadeh" phenomenon, in which the offspring of clerics take advantage of their high-level connections to enrich themselves, is notorious.

Yet the appointments Ahmadinejad has made -- whether at the cabinet level or at the provincial level -- do not appear substantially different. Two of the new governors-general, Kamran Daneshju from Tehran Province and Dehmardeh from Sistan va Baluchistan, both taught at the Elm va Sanat University, as did Ahmadinejad. Qorbani, who was introduced as the governor-general of West Azerbaijan Province, was a manager in the Tehran municipality when Ahmadinejad was the capital's chief executive. Ali Mohammad Shaeri, who was appointed as governor-general of Gulistan Province in early November, is a local. But he also served as the mayor of Tehran's District 22, Gorgan representative Mohammad Abbasi said, Fars News Agency reported on 7 November 2005.

The appointment of former Revolutionary Guards, furthermore, has several implications. The first is that Ahmadinejad, a former member of the IRGC, trusts people with a shared background and with whom he feels a connection. The second is that such people are more likely to use force to deal with civil unrest, and they would be more willing to implement martial law should there be a crisis. The third implication is that the appointments are a payoff for the support the IRGC and the Basij militia gave Ahmadinejad during the election.

Ahmadinejad and his cohorts claimed that they would decentralize the state and give greater power to the provinces. But it appears that all they are doing is creating a new Iranian elite that will dominate the political system at many levels for at least eight years -- the length of two presidential terms. The new officials could influence elections for the Assembly of Experts (2006 and 2014), legislature (2008 and 2012), executive branch (2009 and 2013), and municipal councils (2007 and 2011).

The efforts of the Ahmadinejad administration could be out of ideological conviction, or they could reflect personal ambition and the quest for self-enrichment. Either way, after just six months in office, Ahmadinejad is looking very much like the politicians who preceded him. (Bill Samii)

BUDGET ROW REFLECTS LEGISLATORS' DOMESTIC, FOREIGN CONCERNS. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is facing his second crisis in the Iranian parliament. His budget for the Iranian calendar year 1385 (March 2006-March 2007) is being criticized by both right- and left-wing deputies. Much of the criticism is focused on the attention given to religious institutions that fit the president's conservative preferences. Another concern relates to excessive dependence on oil as the only source of revenue -- something that they say could have an inflationary effect. Some also argue that the government is basing its figures on an unreasonably high price for oil. Debates in the parliament suggest that Ahmadinejad's sloganeering and populist approach could meet its match in the realities of running the country.

When Ahmadinejad submitted his draft budget to the legislature on 15 January, he said his governments' priorities are the promotion of "justice, kindness, public service, and national development," the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. The total budget is $217 billion, with $68 billion allocated to the public sector and $149 billion to other state enterprises such as banks and nonprofit organizations. This latter total 27 percent more than in the budget for the previous year and indicates more attention to sectors considered less important by some deputies.

Mohammad Ali Hayati, a deputy from Lamerd and Mehr, said the budget has grown but it does not keep up with the needs of the education sector. He added that funds allocated for education have been falling since 2001, and the Education Ministry will have a 33 trillion rial (about $3.67 billion) deficit by the end of the year.

The Management and Planning Organization should explain how it came up with its numbers, Tehran conservative deputy Imad Afruq said, IRNA reported on 24 January. He added that the budget does not conform to the five-year (2005-10) development plan and that there are questions about the budget's compatibility with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's 20-year outlook. The budget reportedly allocates major funding for religious institutions, prompting Afruq -- who heads the legislature's culture committee -- to ask why the budget grew for "certain cultural institutes" when it remained the same for other institutions.

Another member of the culture committee, Jalal Yahyazadeh, was more blunt. "Culture is not just for the Islamic Publicity Organization or the Seminary Publicity Office," he said. "There are other important sectors like theater, and music -- that fit into the category of culture -- and unfortunately their budgets have not been given much attention," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 22 January.

Even before the draft budget was submitted, legislators warned that it depends too much on oil revenues. Adel Azar, who represents Dehloran, Abadanan, and Darreh Shahr, said in early January that 70 percent of the budget is derived from oil sales, whereas in "advanced countries" only 35 percent of the budget comes from natural resources, "Kayhan" reported on 3 January.

Conservative legislator Mohammad Reza Mirtajedini said the budget's dependence on oil revenues increases every year, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 24 January. In 2002-03 it was $10.5 billion; three times higher in 2005-06 at $34.9 billion; and $36.8 billion for 2006-07. Other legislators and a Central Bank of Iran official feared that dependence on oil revenues will contribute to inflation, and an inflation rate of at least 20 percent is more likely than the projected inflation rate of 13.5 percent.

After the budget was submitted, complaints arose that it is based on an excessively high estimate of $40 per barrel. Hussein Kazempur-Ardabili, who represents Iran at the Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), said, "oil's share in the budget must be reduced and oil must be priced lower," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 22 January. Abadan parliamentary representative Mohammad Said Ansari asked how the government would finance a deficit if oil prices fall below the $40 rate.

These expressions of concern appeared to have an impact, and Ahmad Tavakoli, who chairs the legislature's research center, announced on 12 February that the parliamentary Economy Committee has decided to reduce the budget's dependency on oil revenues by 25 percent, Fars News Agency reported on 12 February.

Ahmadinejad's budget can be said to have remained true to some of his campaign pledges. One of Ahmadinejad's main campaign slogans was to bring "oil revenues to the people's tables," promising voters that they would benefit from oil revenues. Giving such a high priority to the role of oil in the budget could be said to represent the fulfillment of a campaign promise. Another campaign slogan was the creation of better living conditions for people across the country. When he introduced the budget, Ahmadinejad said spending in the provinces would increase by 180 percent, adding that he is trying to move jobs from the center to the periphery, and he emphasized rural development.

However, when the budget was submitted there was an outcry from several deputies about a lack of attention to the real needs of the provinces such as projects that focused on reducing poverty in deprived areas. More than 100 parliamentarians threatened to hold a sit-in during the 17 January session, "Sharq" reported the next day. Heshmatollah Falahat-Pisheh of Islamabad-i Gharb said provincial funding will be distributed unevenly and can contribute to deprivation. He asked why no funds had been earmarked for infrastructure projects in western Iran, adding that the incomplete western railway project symbolizes poverty in Kermanshah Province. "You said the poor can place their hopes in your administration," Falahat-Pisheh asked, "but why do projects of the ever-prosperous provinces always receive funds three or four times more than the funds allocated to this international project?"

Another legislator, Morteza Tamadon of Shahrekord, asked on 17 January why the budget says nothing about the establishment of provincial water companies, although the parliament passed a law on this the previous year, "Sharq" reported on 18 January. Tamadon then threatened to stage a hunger strike and a sit-in, and legislators from the Gulistan, Kurdistan, and Chaharmahal va Bakhtiari provinces indicated that they would participate.

Iraj Nadimi, a deputy from Lahijan, spoke of the hardships faced by farmers in the northern Gilan Province. He said fishermen and rice, tea, olive, and orange farmers are facing difficulties in Gilan Province, "Gilan-i Imruz" reported on 21 January. He said insufficient funds have been allocated to build dams and water-supply projects, and 6,000 families do not have access to running water, electricity, or good roads. Not all provinces are equal in the administration's eyes, he said, and it pays more attention to places like Qom and Isfahan.

Bojnurd representative Musa Servati complained about frequent visits by officials to the provinces that bring few benefits. He said that every two weeks the cabinet meets in a different province and ministers meet with locals to learn about their problems and concerns. However, according to Servati, the budget should be based on regional development indices rather than these visits. Servati said Ahmadinejad has already spent in excess of the 850 billion rials ($94.44 million) allotted for provincial trips in the previous year's budget, and he is commingling funds allocated to different provinces to pay for the trips.

Rural residents get inadequate attention, Kermanshah representative Jahanbakhsh Khanjani said, and the budget for villagers' medical insurance has fallen by 600 billion rials ($66.67 million), "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported on 25 January. Hussein Islami from Saveh voiced similar concerns -- he asked why more money is allocated to city-dwellers for medical care, criticized the lack of funding for rural road-building projects, and said these problems will encourage urban migration.

The possibility of Iran facing economic sanctions due to international concern over its nuclear program has contributed to legislators' apprehensions about the budget. Tehran representative Mohammad Khoshchehreh said the government should have a "pessimistic" outlook that allows for unexpected events and for an unfriendly international climate, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 6 February. He called for the adoption of a "shadow budget" and said the conservatives would support it. Khoshchehreh said the legislature is more realistic than the executive branch and explained, "It is possible that governments only think of their four-year term in office and all their efforts are geared toward flourishing in those four years."

Government spokesman Gholam Hussein Elham tried to put a brave face on the impact of sanctions, saying Iran is in a strong position and the nuclear issue will not affect the budget. He said the executive branch does not endorse creating a "shadow budget" and suggestions that to do so would amount to a propaganda campaign. This statement certainly reflects a desire to reassure the business community and investors. It is, however, quite likely that the government is preparing for the worst. (Bill Samii)

TELEVISION CONTROVERSY REVEALS DOMESTIC POLITICAL STRUGGLE. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad came to office with a reputation for social conservatism, and he has tried to clean up what he and his supporters see as the permissive social atmosphere that emerged during the administration of his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami. A conflict between the executive branch and the state broadcasting agency over a popular television series demonstrates that Ahmadinejad's policies do not have unanimous approval -- not even among the groups in Iran known for their conservative viewpoints.

Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Mohammad Safar-Harandi said in mid-November that the government will censor some of the current programs that are being broadcast ("Aftab-i Yazd," 16 November 2005). "We shall not permit the broadcasting of films that blatantly contradict the wishes and goals of a religious people," he said. He went on to criticize the previous administration's efforts in this regard, saying the supervisors of movie-making "needed to be reformed" and accusing them of not accepting that "this is a country shaped by the lord of the age."

In December, the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council, which is headed by Ahmadinejad, instructed the state radio and television agency -- the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) -- not to play Western or "decadent" music. It was not only music that concerned Ahmadinejad. The Supreme Cultural Revolution Council also instructed the IRIB to bring all its programs in line with the new cultural policies. An editorial in a hard-line daily also expressed outrage over "The Nights Of Barareh," which it accused of having "populist implications and demagogic repercussions."

It was during this time that Ahmadinejad spoke out against what is arguably the most-popular television show in Iran: "The Nights Of Barareh," a nightly comedy that is set some 70 years ago in a fictional village. Its clever writing addresses issues that viewers relate to, such as government corruption, bogus elections, and women's rights, and there is a grim-faced gendarme who censors the local newspaper. Even "enrichment" comes up as a topic when a Westerner persuades the locals that he is able to enrich their chickpeas but, in fact, he only soaks them in water to increase their weight. The program also touches on social issues, with the village divided into upper and lower halves that resemble the class divisions of Tehran. It also includes a prominent homosexual character.

Coming at the same time as the executive branch decrees on media content, and in line with the political conservatism of IRIB and its leadership, one could reasonably expect "The Nights Of Barareh" to be dropped from the schedule. Instead, IRIB chief Ezzatollah Zarghami visited the show's set on 21 December and praised the show and its cast. This visit and Zarghami's comments -- all of which featured prominently on that evening's newscast -- were a slap in the president's face.

Ahmadinejad's supporters reacted angrily. Fatemeh Rajabi, the wife of government spokesman Gholam Hussein Elham, protested that the IRIB gave more attention to Zarghami's visit to the Barareh set than it gives to the president's activities ("Mardom Salari," 31 December 2005). She accused IRIB of distorting and censoring news about the president, and she warned Zarghami and other IRIB managers to prepare to face public wrath. Rajabi's accusations appeared on several websites as well, and she added vague accusations that unnamed websites were connected with the Israeli secret-service agency Mossad and the U.S.'s Central Intelligence Agency ("Etemad," 4 January 2006).

An editorial in a hard-line daily also expressed outrage over "The Nights Of Barareh," which it accused of having "populist implications and demagogic repercussions" ("Jomhuri-yi Islami," 10 January 2006). The editorial criticized Zarghami's visit to the program's set, and it expressed shock and horror that not only is the program being transmitted on IRIB's international Sahar network, but it is even being shown with subtitles in foreign languages. The editorial said people are using state resources to "wage war on the revolution and carry out the evil plot of 'derevolutionizing.'"

Zarghami is an unexpected source of opposition to the Ahmadinejad administration's cultural policies. Appointed in May 2004 as a successor to the long-serving Ali Larijani, Zarghami is a veteran of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), as are Ahmadinejad and many other top government officials. Moreover, the Interior Ministry accused IRIB of favoring hard-line candidates during the 2005 presidential campaign and, in his speeches, Zarghami does not come across as anything but a hard-liner.

Although Zarghami is an IRGC veteran and a political conservative, he does not appear to be politically linked with Ahmadinejad and his political allies in the Islamic Revolution Devotees' Society (Jamiyat-i Isargaran-i Inqilab-i Islami) and the Islamic Iran Developers Council (Etelaf-i Abadgaran-i Iran- i Islami). Zarghami was appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Larijani probably backed the appointment. Larijani is associated with more old-school conservatives in the Coordination Council of Islamic Revolution Forces, and it is likely that this is where Zarghami's sympathies lie. The conflict over Barareh reflects these divisions.

This may be a conflict that the Ahmadinejad administration cannot win, but it shows no sign of going back on its policy objectives. And, in the case of culture, according to Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Safar-Harandi, the president's policy is based on a reversion to the ideals of the Islamic Revolution (IRNA, 17 November 2005).

The budget submitted by Ahmadinejad in January is a manifestation of this emphasis on revolutionary ideals and an Islamic revival, with the amount of money allocated to religious institutions and outreach entities increasing while the amount dedicated to political parties actually decreasing. Among the entities enjoying a budget increase in excess of 100 percent is the Center for Computer Research and Islamic Sciences (Markaz-i Tahqiqat-i Komputer va Olum-i Islami), the Islamic Encyclopedia Foundation (Bonyad-i Daeratolmaaref-i Islami), and the Institute for the Encyclopedia of Shi'ite Religious Jurisprudence (Moasseseh-yi Daeratolmaaref-i Fiqh-i Shieh). Also enjoying a more-than-100-percent budget increase are the Islamic Culture and Thought Research Center (Pazhuheshgah-i Farhang va Andisheh-yi Islami), the Center for Seminary Services (Markaz-i Khadamat-i Howzehha-yi Elmieh), the Sisters' Seminary (Howzeh-yi Elmieh-yi Khaharan), and the World Assembly of the Prophet's Family (Majma-i Jahani-yi Ahl-i Beyt), the daily "Etemad" reported on 15 February.

Legislators are already beginning to register their unhappiness with the way the money is being allocated in the budget. (Bill Samii)

ALLEGED BOMBERS IN SOUTHWESTERN IRAN SENTENCED TO DEATH. Deputy Interior Minister for Security Affairs Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr announced on 20 February that seven people responsible for a deadly double bombing in the southwestern city of Ahvaz in January have been tried, Mehr News Agency reported. Their identities will be made public soon. Prosecutor-General Qorban Ali Dori-Najafabadi said the same day that two of the alleged bombers have been sentenced to death, Fars News Agency reported. Mehran Rafii, a provincial public affairs official, added that state television will show all seven bombers by the end of the week, Mehr News Agency reported. Intelligence and Security Minister Hojatoleslam Gholam-Hussein Mohseni-Ejei said on 19 February that the Iranian government has documentary evidence of British support for the groups responsible for the Ahvaz bombings, Al-Alam television reported. Mohseni-Ejei said Iranian policy is to infiltrate these groups.

An explosion occurred on the evening of 19 February in the northwestern part of Ahvaz, ISNA and IRNA reported. Nobody was injured but some windows were broken. Mohsen Farokhinejad, the Khuzestan governor-general's deputy for political and security affairs, told ISNA that nobody has been arrested yet

The deputy police chief for the southwestern province of Khuzestan announced on 21 February that an urban security plan is being implemented, Ahvaz television reported. This plan targets vice and "centers of corruption," as well as thugs and hooligans. The three phases of the plan, the unnamed official said, are "information dissemination, public education and documentary evidence, and maintaining security." (Bill Samii)

KURDS STAGE POLITICAL PROTEST IN TEHRAN. Kurdish students at the University of Tehran staged a brief demonstration on 21 February, ILNA reported. Chanting in Kurdish, the demonstrators called for political prisoners to be freed. In the northwestern town of Urumiyeh on 19 February, four policemen were killed when the Eastern Kurdistan Hawks of Freedom (TAK) bombed a police station, Turkish language Roj Television from Copenhagen reported on 20 February. Roj TV added that Iranian security forces are continuing to detain Kurds after shooting a number of them in the town of Maku. The shootings allegedly occurred on 15 February, when Kurds protested against the detention of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Roj TV reported on 18 February that the Iranian forces killed eight people and wounded at least 20 others, and at least 700 people were detained in Maku and Poldasht. Protests took place in Mahabad as well. Suleiman Jafarzadeh, the parliamentary representative from Maku, on 17 February said 200 people supporting Ocalan tried to start a riot near the city of Bazargan, Fars News Agency reported. Jafarzadeh said armed Ocalan supporters shot two locals, and added that the provocateurs were arrested and the situation is calm.

The Organization for the Defense of Human Rights in Kurdistan has released a statement noting the difficult situation that has existed for the last seven years, seven months, and seven days, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported on 22 February. Organization head Mohammad Sadiq Kabudvand described the imprisonment and death sentences of Kurdish activists. He explained that a number of Kurdish activists were shot for an unknown reason in 1999, more of them were arrested in Kurdish towns over the last seven months, and in the last seven days in Maku and other towns state security forces were involved in the shooting of a number of locals. (Bill Samii)

POLITICAL PRISONERS COMMEMORATE EXECUTED MAN. Political prisoners at Karaj's Gohardasht Prison commemorated the execution of Hojat Zamani on 22 February, Radio Farda reported on 23 February. Convicted for his alleged involvement in a 1998 bombing of a court and accused of membership in an armed opposition group known as the Mujahedin Khalq Organization, Zamani was executed in early February. His family was not informed of the execution for more than a week. Sadeq Naqashkar, spokesman for the political prisoners, told Radio Farda that at 9 pm on 22 February all the political prisoners stood and had a one-minute moment of silence. Then a candle was lit in Zamani's name, and the prisoners sang the protest songs "Ay, Iran" and "Sorud-i Dabestani." Naqashkar told Radio Farda that the authorities refuse to release Zamani's corpse to the family. (Bill Samii)

KHAMENEI ENCOURAGES FUNDING FOR HAMAS. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei received visiting Hamas political bureau chief Khalid Mish'al on 20 February, Mehr News Agency reported. Khamenei said Palestinians voted for Hamas because they want to resist Israel. Khamenei praised Hamas's "red lines," which Mish'al described as a refusal to recognize Israel, the right of return for Palestinians, and a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. Khamenei urged the global Islamic community to work on solving the Palestinian problem, and he encouraged Muslims to contribute financially. Mish'al thanked Iran for its continuing support, and reiterated that Hamas will never retreat from its red lines. Mish'al said he and his colleagues are on a regional tour to consult with Arab and Muslim countries and discuss the Palestinians' needs. Mish'al and other Hamas officials had arrived in Tehran the previous evening, IRNA reported.

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told Mish'al on 20 February that Palestinians are in a very strong position regarding the Mideast peace process, IRNA reported. This is at least the third time the two men have met -- they met when Mish'al visited Iran in December, and again when Ahmadinejad visited Damascus in January. Mish'al was interviewed by Iranian state television on 21 February, and he expressed gratitude for Tehran's long-standing support. "Iran has always supported the Palestinian people and will support them in the next phase," he said. "Our nation is genuine and will never let us down and we are faithful to this nation."

Mish'al met with Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani on 22 February and secured a pledge of financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority, international news agencies reported. Larijani said the United States has always ignored the fact that Hamas is a "genuine popular movement that has always pursued the objective of recovering the rights of the oppressed Palestinian people," ILNA reported.

Washington's decision to withhold funding from a Palestinian Authority that includes Hamas, Larijani continued, demonstrates U.S. disinterest in Middle East democracy. The United States has made clear, since the Hamas election victory in late January, that it will not fund a Hamas-led government until the organization renounces the use of violence and recognizes Israel's right to exist. Larijani said Tehran notes Mish'al's request for help and "we shall definitely help them financially." Larijani did not disclose how much financial help will be forthcoming.

Mish'al told reporters after the meeting that the Iranian support is praiseworthy, IRNA reported. He called on Islamic and Arab countries to also provide support.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed doubt on 17 February that Iran will be able to fund Hamas fully, "Al-Hayat" reported on 18 February. Israel and the United States have refused to fund the Palestinian government as long as Hamas refuses to renounce violence or to recognize Israel. Rice said the Palestinian Authority needs at least $1.9 billion annually and questioned Tehran's willingness to meet this need. "We will wait and see whether Iran will provide aid of this magnitude," she said. (Bill Samii)

IRAN-EU NUCLEAR TALKS A BUST... Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki, Supreme National Security Council official Javad Vaidi, and a number of other Iranian officials arrived in Brussels on 20 February to discuss Iran's nuclear program with the European Union, IRNA reported. In a speech to the European Parliament, Mottaki said Iran is determined to continue its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as it is seeking to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Mottaki said Iran is willing to provide guarantees that its nuclear program is peaceful. Mottaki also complained about a Danish newspaper's publication of images of the Prophet Muhammad, and praised Hamas's victory in Palestinian elections held in late January. Mottaki said Iran has a free press and freedom of expression. EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana said on 20 February that Mottaki brought nothing new to the debate about Tehran's nuclear program, AFP reported. Solana said he had hoped Iran would modify its position, and he still hopes this will happen before a 6 March IAEA meeting.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki, who was in Brussels on 20 February, said in Tehran the following day that Iran and Europe have different concerns regarding the nuclear issue, IRNA reported. Mottaki explained: "Europeans fear that Iran would probably deviate from its peaceful nuclear program towards building atomic bombs whereas Iran is seeking ways to act upon its indisputable right for acquiring peaceful nuclear technology." While in Brussels on 20 February, Mottaki said the Islamic Republic will no longer confine discussion of the nuclear issue to the EU-3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom), international news agencies reported. Mottaki said that in the future Iran will deal with countries bilaterally, and he added that Iran no longer trusts Europe. Elmar Brok, chairman of the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, said "I have not seen any opening for negotiations," the parliamentary website reported on 21 February ( During his speech at the parliament, Mottaki complained that Germany and France failed to fulfill promises to help Iran with nuclear technology, and then he complained about the use of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He did not explain the connection between nuclear weapon usage during World War II and Iran's current nuclear program. (Bill Samii)

...AND MOSCOW TALKS UNPRODUCTIVE. Iranian officials and their Russian counterparts discussed the issue of Iran's nuclear program in Moscow on 20 February, international news agencies reported, but the talks ended with no result. Moscow has offered to enrich Iranian uranium on Russian soil, and then take back and store the spent fuel. (Bill Samii)

LEGISLATURE APPROVES MORE FUNDING FOR BUSHEHR REACTOR. Mohammad-Mehdi Mofatteh, rapporteur for the parliamentary Budget Committee, announced on 20 February that the budget for completing the Bushehr nuclear facility has been increased by 1.9 billion rials ($208,350), IRNA reported. The miniature reactor at the Isfahan research facility, which reportedly produces 30 kilowatts of power, has yielded data for 500 scholarly articles, state television reported on 21 February. The chairman of the Miniature Reactor Section, identified only as Shahabi, described research projects with environmental, industrial, and medical applications. The Isfahan nuclear center's deputy director for research, identified as "Dr. Malekpur," described the analysis of biological, botanical, and zoological samples, as well as the evaluation of minerals and metals. (Bill Samii)

FOWL KILLED TO PREVENT SPREAD OF BIRD FLU. Iranian State Veterinary Organization chief Hussein Hassani said on 18 February that 200,000 local fowl were purchased and killed in order to prevent the spread of bird flu (avian influenza), state television reported. He stressed that all chickens in the country are free of the disease. (Bill Samii)

PRESIDENT SELECTS ANOTHER ADVISER. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad appointed University Jihad chief Ali Montazeri as his adviser on 22 February, Mehr News Agency reported. The letter of appointment referred to Montazeri's experience with young people and expressed the hope that he will be able to capitalize on their capabilities. Ahmadinejad selection of advisors -- who are noted for their inexperience, conservative credentials, and ultra-orthodox religious behavior -- has elicited a great deal of adverse commentary in Iranian political circles. (Bill Samii)

LEGISLATURE APPROVES ANTI-U.S. FUNDING. Legislator Mohammad Mehdi Mofatteh has announced that the legislature approved a budget item requesting funds for foiling "American plots," "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported on 22 February. The unspecified amount of money will be used for supporting Iranian cases against the U.S. in international tribunals, and well, and it will be used to counter the U.S. cultural offensive. (Bill Samii)

VP MEETS SYRIAN LEADERS. Vice President Parviz Davudi and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met in Damascus on 23 February, news agencies reported. Al-Assad hailed Iran-Syria times and hoped for their expansion. He said the occupation forces in Iraq are stranded because of Iraqi, Iranian, and Syrian pressure. He said unidentified enemies envy Iran's access to the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. Davudi also met with his Syrian counterpart, Faruq al-Shara, SANA and IRNA reported. Davudi is in Damascus to participate in the second annual Iran-Syria consular cooperation session. (Bill Samii)

SUPREME LEADER BLAMES 'ZIONISTS' FOR IRAQI MOSQUE BOMBING. Reacting to the 22 February bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the occupation forces and, in IRNA's words, "the Zionists deployed in Iraq," are responsible. He urged Shi'a not to attack Sunni mosques in retaliation, IRNA reported. Khamenei announced a week of mourning. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said, "This inhuman move was carried out by blind terrorist agents under circumstances that Iraq has been made insecure as a result of the presence of occupation forces in that country," IRNA reported. He said the bombing was meant to cause sectarian strife.

The Khuzestan Province office of the Qom Theological School, as well as the Khuzestan Province seminaries, condemned the bombing and announced that a related ceremony will be held at the Ahvaz Grand Mosque on 23 February, Ahvaz television reported. The Ahvaz Friday prayer leader, Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Musavi-Jazayeri, condemned the bombing and announced a day of mourning, Ahvaz television reported. Musavi-Jazayeri said the forces occupying Iraq are mainly responsible because they deal with the country's security, and he called for their departure. Hashem Husseini, described by IRNA as the manager of the Qom Seminary School, announced on 22 February that a special mourning ceremony will take place at the city's Azam Mosque on 23 February. In Isfahan, the head of the Isfahan Theological School, Ayatollah Hussein Mazaheri, condemned the bombing, provincial television reported.

As people across Iran participated in 23 February gatherings condemning the previous days bombing of the Imam al-Hadi Mosque in Samarra, more officials, including President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, spoke out against the violence to the west (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 2005). At one such gathering, at the Grand Mosque in Ahvaz, seminarians chanted "Down with Israel" and ""Down with America," provincial television reported.

On Iran's Arabic language Al-Alam television, a "political analyst" identified as Mahdi Hassan said on 23 February that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and Israel's Mossad are behind the bombing because they want the occupation of Iraq to continue. Mahdi Hassan went on to say the occupation forces rather than the Iraqi government are responsible for security. A Shi'ite scholar in Qom named Adil al-Alawi told Al-Alam that "British hands" and the U.S. are responsible for the attack, and they are trying to create sectarian divisions in order to protect their interests. He did not identify those interests. (Bill Samii)