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Iran Report: April 3, 2006

3 April 2006, Volume 9, Number 12

U.S. TALKS UNLIKELY TO END TEHRAN'S 'SOFT POWER' IN IRAQ. The much-heralded Iran-U.S. talks on Iraq, to which Tehran agreed in mid-March, may result in an end to direct Iranian involvement in Iraqi affairs. But even if Iran ends its use of direct means -- such as the provision of arms and money to militias -- its use of indirect means, or "soft power," to influence Iraqi affairs seems likely to continue.

The Iran-U.S. talks have not begun yet but already they seem to be dead in the water. One reason for this is that all Iraqis do not support the talks. They were called for by the leader of one of the country's main Shi'ite parties -- Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the United Iraqi Alliance -- but another Shi'ite leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, has spoken out against them. In addition, Iraqi Sunnis oppose the talks because they resent marginalization in their country's affairs and fear that official Iranian involvement will contribute to this process.

"The Guardian" commented from London on March 27 that following complaints from Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, the talks must wait. The Iraqis are demanding that representatives from their government participate, and this cannot happen until a new Iraqi government is formed. It has been more than three months since Iraq's parliamentary elections, but the various factions have so far been unable to come up with a broadly acceptable government list. A particular sticking point is whether Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, a Shi'ite, should continue in office.

When U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice first called for U.S.-Iran talks on Iraq in October 2005, she made it clear that the objective was to discuss alleged Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs. U.S. officials since then have charged repeatedly that this interference has not subsided.

"Iran seeks a Shi'a-dominated and unified Iraq but also wants the U.S. to experience continued setbacks in our efforts to promote democracy and stability," U.S. National Intelligence Director John Negroponte said in late February in Congressional testimony. "Accordingly, Iran provides guidance and training to select Iraqi Shi'ite political groups and weapons and training to Shi'ite militant groups to enable anti-coalition attacks."

The same day, U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lieutenant General Michael D. Maples said: "Money, weapons, and foreign fighters supporting terrorism move into Iraq, primarily through Syria and Iran. We believe Iran has provided lethal aid to Iraqi Shi'ite insurgents

Tehran rejects such accusations and attributes violence in Iraq to U.S.-led coalition forces. After the late February bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, for example, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the occupation forces and "the Zionists deployed in Iraq" are responsible.

The next week, Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani delivered a sermon about the bombers' desires.

"Perhaps their most important aim is to weaken the solidarity that is gradually shaping in the world of Islam," Hashemi-Rafsanjani said. "Because the Muslims feel that global arrogance, America in particular, intends to create problems for the Muslims by promoting a Greater Middle East plan.... The main objective of the Greater Middle East plan is to create a rift among Muslims, weaken the Islamic world, and force it to surrender."

Some outside observers disbelieve U.S. statements and doubt media reports of Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs. Some Iraqis also reject claims of an Iranian hand in the violence. Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, for example, told CNN on January 26 that such claims are unsubstantiated.

"They always accuse Iran of such things, and they told us about such things even from the first month that we've been here until now," he said. "And we were always asking for evidence, but nobody came with evidence."

It is difficult to verify most of the accusations, counteraccusations, and denials. However, one significant aspect of Iran's effort to influence Iraqi affairs is information operations using broadcast media, and this can be verified by anybody with satellite television reception. Two Iranian Arabic-language television stations can be viewed in Iraq terrestrially and by satellite -- Al-Alam and Al-Kawthar.

Al-Alam is an official Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting channel that went on the air in March 2003. It portrays U.S.-led coalition forces and their activities in a negative light, comparing them to Israeli activities in Palestine. It is an important means by which Iranian views are conveyed to the Iraqi people. Al-Kawthar is the new name for Al-Sahar, another official Iranian station that went on the air in 1997. Al-Kawthar's news reporting is fairly neutral on Iraqi affairs, but it is as hostile to Israel as Al-Alam is, referring to Israel as "the usurping entity" and discussing "the Palestinians' usurped rights." Al-Kawthar's programming on the United States is negative, too, and it is supportive of Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas.

The Iran-U.S. talks on Iraq may eventually get under way, and there is a remote possibility that direct Iranian involvement in Iraqi politics will end. However, it is very unlikely that Iran will end its effort to influence Iraqi affairs through broadcasting and other applications of "soft power." Tehran's interest in shaping developments to its west and its desire to undermine the United States indirectly and at a relatively low cost to itself preclude it from adopting a disinterested approach to what happens in Iraq. (Bill Samii)

IRAQI PRESIDENT MEETS WITH IRANIAN ENVOY. Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said in Geneva on March 30 that "we have accepted the proposal of Iraqi officials for talks" between Iran and the U.S. concerning Iraq, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. "These talks will only be about Iraq," he said.

Separately, Jalal Talabani met on March 30 with Iran's charge d'affaires in Baghdad, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, who asked for the release of hundreds of Iranian detainees in Iraq, IRNA reported. The two discussed bilateral ties, and Talabani thanked Iran for the support it has given to Iraq's political process. Kazemi said Iran is ready to participate in Iraq's reconstruction and general development, and respects Iraqi elections and their results, hoping they will help bring peace to Iraq. He asked for the release of "about 250 Iranian nationals who are mostly pilgrims" to Iraq's Muslim Shi'a shrines, "arrested for allegedly entering Iraq illegally." Talabani said he hopes they will be released after relevant coordination between Iraq's justice and interior ministries. (Vahid Sepehri)

IRAN IS IRAQ'S NO. 1 TRADING PARTNER. Iran is now Iraq's No. 1 trading partner, according to Industry and Minerals Minister Usama al-Najafi, reported on March 24. Al-Najafi said that while other regional states are weary of engaging with Iraq because of the insurgency, Iran has pressed ahead to expand bilateral trade ties. Iran has become the biggest exporter to Iraq and has recently provided financial incentives to set up large-scale heavy industries, he added, saying some $60 billion is needed to revive the industrial sector. Al-Najafi claimed that much of the foreign aid for the sector has been diverted to security. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

AHMADINEJAD MEETS WITH TURKISH ENVOY, REJECTS U.A.E. CLAIMS TO ISLANDS. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told Hasanu Gurkan, the new Turkish ambassador in Tehran, on March 28 that Iran and Turkey must rely on "the Islamic world's immense, latent power" to work together and play a more active international role, and criticized the "imposition of incorrect conditions" on Turkey for entry into the EU, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported on March 29. These conditions are a "denigration of [Turkish] culture and customs," and "Turkey must maintain its power and dignity," he said. Ahmadinejad welcomed Turkey's "new approach" in playing a "greater role" in Islamic world affairs, and said Iran will place its "advances" at the service of neighbors, including Turkey.

The same day in Tehran, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi rejected claims by the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) to three islands in the Persian Gulf held by Iran, ISNA reported on March 29. At a summit in Khartoum on March 29, foreign ministers of the Arab League affirmed the sovereignty of the U.A.E. over the islands of Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Abu Musa. Assefi said the islands are an "inseparable" part of Iran, and dismissed the resolution as meddling in Iran's internal affairs. He added that the "irresponsible interference of other parties" in Iran's ongoing talks with the U.A.E. on the matter "will not help this process," ISNA reported. (Vahid Sepehri)

IRAN TO HOLD GULF NAVAL MANEUVERS. Iran is to hold large-scale naval maneuvers in the Persian Gulf and the Oman Sea from March 31, IRNA quoted navy chief Morteza Saffari-Natanzi as saying in Tehran on March 29. Saffari said naval forces of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) will carry out the maneuvers together with the regular navy and air force, unspecified "air and missile forces," the IRGC-affiliated Basij militia, and the police. The exercises will involve more than 17,000 personnel, and about 1,500 vessels. The war games, to be carried out along the coast from "the northern Persian Gulf to Chabahar," an Iranian port close to Pakistan, and as far as 40 kilometers from the coast, are designed to raise defensive capacities, test weaponry produced in Iran, enhance the experience of military personnel, and show Iran's defensive capacity, but also to "send a message of peace and friendship" to neighboring states, Saffari said. They are to last until April 6, he added. (Vahid Sepehri)

IS IRAN CLOSER TO URANIUM ENRICHMENT THAN PREVIOUSLY THOUGHT? Unidentified diplomats from UN Security Council member states have told the "Los Angeles Times" that Iran is closer than previously thought to enriching uranium, the paper reported on March 27. The initial estimate was that it would take Iran five to 10 years to produce enough highly enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb; officials now believe that Iran could build a bomb within three years, said the diplomats, who were recently briefed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The diplomats said Iran has bypassed the usual testing periods for centrifuges in an attempt to assemble as many as possible, as quickly as possible. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

AHMADINEJAD SAYS IRAN IS FEARLESS ABOUT NUCLEAR PROGRAM. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told a crowd on March 27 in the town of Gachsaran in the southwestern province of Kohkiluyeh va Boir Ahmad that Iran is a peaceful country but will not be deterred from its nuclear program by Western "psychological warfare," ISNA reported the same day. "They do not know that the right to use peaceful nuclear technology is the wish of the entire Iranian nation," and Iranians will defend this right "in unison." He was presumably referring to the United States and to EU states, which fear Iran's program may be used to develop bombs. "They think that by holding meetings, making statements, and issuing resolutions, they can prevent our people's progress," ISNA quoted him as saying. Iranians and their government will not "retreat one bit" over the nuclear program, he stated.

Separately, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said in Tehran the same day that Iran has agreed to talk to U.S. officials about Iraqi affairs because of "our increasing concern over America's mistaken conduct in Iraq," ISNA reported. While "we distrust America's motives," discussions are intended to help bring security to Iraq, he said. (Vahid Sepehri)

UN SECURITY COUNCIL GIVES IRAN 30 DAYS TO END NUCLEAR ACTIVITIES. The highest body in the United Nations late on March 29 unanimously approved a statement calling on Iran to fully suspend all uranium-enrichment activities. The statement requests that the UN's nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, report back in 30 days on Iran's compliance with demands to stop enriching uranium, a process that can lead to the development of a nuclear weapon. The statement offers no indication of what the Security Council might do if Iran fails to halt such work. John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, told reporters the council's statement sends a clear message to Iran that "we want a response from the government of Iran. And the response we want is full compliance with the obligations it voluntarily undertook under the [Nuclear] Nonproliferation Treaty." Iran's UN ambassador, Javad Zarif, who was denied a chance to address the Security Council, told reporters that Iran is not seeking nuclear weapons but will not abandon its right to nuclear energy and will "not accept pressure or intimidation." (Vahid Sepehri)

RUSSIA SENDS MIXED MESSAGES ON IRAN. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Berlin on March 30 that his country insists on a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear dispute, news agencies reported. He added that "there is no doubt that [the problem should be resolved] exclusively by political and diplomatic means, as many of our European colleagues and our Chinese friends have said many times. Any ideas of resolving the matter by compulsion and force are extremely counterproductive and cannot be supported." Lavrov argued that "the last report of the [International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA)] says that it cannot assert that there is a military aspect to the Iranian nuclear program. So, before we call any situation a threat, we need facts, especially in the region like the Middle East, where so many things are happening." But in Moscow, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement calling on Tehran to "heed with great attention the common opinion of the UN Security Council members." Teheran should "ensure full-fledged cooperation with the IAEA on all remaining issues," the statement added. (Patrick Moore)

IRAN REITERATES CLAIM ITS NUCLEAR PROGRAM IS ONLY PEACEFUL. Iran's ranking nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani told the French weekly "Le Point" on March 27 in Tehran that Iran is pursuing an "entirely clear" and peaceful nuclear program and has done nothing to deserve referral to the UN Security Council, IRNA reported on March 30. He said Iran wants two things: to pursue nuclear technology research, and to assure a supply of fuel for the power stations it intends to build. Larijani said Western powers have not honored commitments they made to Iran's pre-1979, pro-Western regime, which also had a nuclear program. Larijani suggested the formation of a multinational consortium in Iran to enrich uranium, with partners such as France, Germany, or Russia.

He dismissed a suggestion that Iran would use its know-how to carry out secret enrichment work elsewhere in Iran, but also deplored as a breach of confidence reports -- apparently sent by sources close to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) -- that Iran will soon operate a cascade of 164 centrifuges at its Natanz plant. These operate as part of the uranium-enrichment process, he said, and added: "We have done nothing against international norms and laws to deserve [referral to] the Security Council. In my opinion, the referral of Iran's dossier from the [IAEA] governing board to the Security Council is a professional embarrassment for the agency, showing how politics dominate [its] professional work," IRNA reported. (Vahid Sepehri)

FOREIGN MINISTER CRITICIZES 'HASTY' MOVES ON IRAN DOSSIER. Manuchehr Mottaki said in Geneva on March 30 that "reporting Iran's dossier to the Security Council was a mistaken move," and he expressed the hope that the issue will be solved through "negotiation and dialogue" at the IAEA, IRNA reported. Giving Iran a 30-day deadline to suspend its enrichment activities indicates "hasty decisions," he said, though unspecified parties "are seeking pretexts, and have openly said they are pursuing other aims." Mottaki said after the Conference on Disarmament that the situation will only become more complicated "if certain other people are pursuing other aims." He said he does not believe sanctions are a likely option "for now," and dismissed the possibility of Israeli strikes on Iranian installations, adding that Iran has readied itself for "different conditions." Iran prefers "finding an agreement, but we have in the past increased our potential and capabilities in various areas" as the country came to terms with "existing sanctions," IRNA reported. (Vahid Sepehri)

'ENEMIES' ALLEGEDLY SEEK TO BREAK IRAN THROUGH PSYCHOLOGICAL WARFARE. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said on March 26 that the enemies of Iran are trying to gain concessions through a program of psychological warfare and misinformation, IRNA reported the same day. "Our nation will respond to the enemies and the mischievous ones resolutely," Ahmadinejad said in a public address in the province of Kohkiluyeh va Boir Ahmad. The president called on Iran's enemies to apologize for accusing his country of "warmongering," calling such accusations a huge insult to the Islamic republic. Ahmadinejad said that Iran will continue its path to acquiring nuclear energy, adding that Iran will seek reparations for the 2 1/2-year delay in carrying out its nuclear activities; he did not say from whom he would seek the reparations.

Ahmadinejad claimed in a March 25 meeting with Syrian Vice President Faruq al-Shar'a that the United States intends to create discord among Muslim countries in order to control them and make them dependent on it, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported the same day. Ahmadinejad claimed that the United States and the West are facing a crisis in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine and "therefore are trying to transmit their problems to others through creating discord and division." Regarding possible talks with the United States on Iraq, Ahmadinejad said that though Iran does not trust the United States, it cannot ignore requests by Iraqi officials that a meeting be held. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

SUPREME LEADER PRAISES IRAN'S VIGILANCE AGAINST WEST. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei praised the Iranian nation in a March 26 speech for its vigilance against the enemies of Iran, saying the country's resilience has earned it the respect of both its friends and enemies, the Iranian state television channel Voice and Vision of the Islamic Republic reported. Speaking about the ongoing nuclear standoff between Iran and the West, Khamenei told a gathering of thousands of Basij militia in Tehran: "There is a possibility that these threats [from the West] will be realized, in which case only a nation that can stand up to its enemy without retreating from its position will maintain its respect, greatness, identity, and interests." Calling the United States and Israel Iran's greatest enemies, Khamenei said the West is trying to create a global consensus against Iran. He maintained that the true global consensus is against "America's arrogance and its warmongering...and not against the Iranian nation."

Basij Resistance Force commander Mohammad Hejazi told the same gathering that the Basij plans to expand its military and defense capabilities this year in order to fulfill its revolutionary and religious duties to defend national interests, the state-run television reported. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

DEFENSE MINISTER SAYS IRAN AIMING FOR 'INTELLIGENT' WEAPONRY. Defense Minister Mustafa Mohammad Najjar told a gathering of officers in the Basij militia in the Kohkiluyeh va Boir Ahmad province on 27 March that the Defense Ministry will seek to make defense-industry equipment "intelligent," and raise the quality of products in the new Persian year, which runs until March 2007. This would be one of a series of moves to raise defensive capabilities, assure "greater flexibility," and use "advanced technologies," ISNA reported the same day. Najjar said Iran has made "very good" progress in "the production of electronic technologies" that will help raise the intelligence of defensive equipment. "We are now able to produce intelligent weaponry to precisely identify and target the aims of the enemy," he said. "We shall expand this advanced technology in the armored, air, aerospace, marine, automobile, missile, and other determined industries," he said. He added that, "as we have declared many times," the armed forces' response to any enemy aggression will be "decisive and crushing, so the enemy will regret its move," ISNA reported. (Vahid Sepehri)

OFFICIAL SAYS IRAN MAY CURB FUEL CONSUMPTION. The head of the Management and Planning Organization, Farhad Rahbar, said Iran may restrict the use of car fuel for a six-month period before March 2007 to cut costly fuel imports caused by Iranians' excessive fuel consumption, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported on March 28. Economist Fereidun Khavand says Iran spent about $4.5 billion importing about 30 million liters of gasoline in the Persian year ending in March 2006. Rahbar's reported comment, he said, is a response to the fact that parliament has allocated no more than $2.5 billion to cover fuel imports in the Persian year ending in March 2007. ISNA quoted the head of the National Iranian Oil Refining and Distribution Company, Hassan Zia-Kashani, as saying on March 18 that Iranians used 66.9 million liters of gasoline in the year to March 2006, and are expected to use about 74 million liters in the year ahead. He said the government has not yet issued directives restricting fuel, ISNA added. (Vahid Sepehri)

JUDICIARY HEAD CRITICIZES CORRUPTION WITHIN STATE SECTOR. Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, the head of Iran's judiciary, told members of northeastern Khorasan Province's chamber of commerce on March 28 that "judicial officials today see support for the country's economic progress as one of their main duties," ISNA reported. He said that "those who have doubts over the private sector should know that most cases of corruption and abuse are in the state sector, and one must trust the private sector." He said Iran's economy had suffered due to the distrust between the state and private sectors in the past, and the private sector should consider itself part of the state apparatus -- since it shares the aim of making Iran prosperous -- "and help the government in its executive activities," ISNA reported. He urged the formation of a central body that would include representatives of the private sector, government officials, and members of the judiciary to discuss related issues and maintain dialogue. He dismissed the idea that Iran's polity opposes private enterprise: "All this comes from enemy propaganda, which wants to create divisions among social institutions." (Vahid Sepehri)

HUMAN RIGHTS LAWYER TO GO ON TRIAL. Abdolfattah Soltani, a lawyer released in early March after seven months in detention, is to be tried on April 5 by a Revolutionary Court in Tehran, Radio Farda reported on March 28. Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, one of a team of lawyers representing Soltani, told Radio Farda that "the sum of his charges indicates some form of political crime." Soltani, he added, is to be tried in a court specially formed for this case, and "there is no sign of any jury, and so far we do not know if it will be an open trial or not." Dadkhah told Radio Farda that Soltani is charged with disclosing nuclear secrets, apparently while defending suspects charged with nuclear espionage. Dadkhah added, however, that one of the interrogators who will be involved in the trial believes the dossier and the evidence available do not warrant the charges brought against Soltani. Dadkhah argued that, in any case, neither legal officials nor attorneys have access to top-secret material in trials. (Vahid Sepehri)

POOR IRANIAN REPORTEDLY KILLS HIS FAMILY, HANGS HIMSELF. A man reportedly killed his six children and wife before killing himself because he could no longer pay the rent for his apartment in Tabriz, northwestern Iran, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported on March 29, citing neighbors and local journalist Payman Pakmehr. The rent was a little over $50 a month, Pakmehr told Radio Farda. Neighbors told Pakmehr the man left a note saying he could no longer afford living expenses and rent, and that the family had been evicted before for not paying rent. It is not clear when the killings happened. Neighbors called in the police when alerted by the stench of decomposed bodies, Pakmehr said. Police are investigating, Radio Farda reported. (Vahid Sepehri)

RIGHTS GROUP CONCERNED ABOUT IRANIANS FACING EXECUTION. Amnesty International (AI) has expressed concern over the imminent execution of 28-year-old Valiollah Feyz Mahdavi, currently in prison in Karaj, near Tehran, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported on March 30. AI stated on its website on March 29 that prison authorities forced Mahdavi, reportedly a supporter of the Mujahedin Khalq Organization, an armed opposition group based in Iraq, to sign a paper on March 24 stating May 16 as the date of his execution. Amnesty said Iran executed another man at that prison in February 2005 after informing him of his execution in a similar manner. Mahdavi was tried in a revolutionary court without a defense attorney, Amnesty stated. AI also reported on March 28 that Iran is to execute Fatemeh Haqiqat-Pajuh, who was convicted of murdering her husband, by April 1. The Supreme Court has cancelled a stay of execution granted her last October. (Vahid Sepehri)

POWERFUL EARTHQUAKE HITS WESTERN IRAN. Three earthquakes rocked western Iran early on March 31, killing dozens and injuring more than 1,000 others, international media reported. The quake's epicenter was in Luristan Province. The hardest hit areas are villages between the towns of Dorud and Borujerd. Hospitals in those two towns are full to capacity with the wounded. Emergency officials have put out an urgent call for medical supplies and assistance.