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Iran Report: May 29, 2006

29 May 2006, Volume 9, Number 19

TEHRAN DISMISSES HUMAN RIGHTS CRITICISM. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi on May 24 rejected a critical report on Iran from international human rights watchdog Amnesty International, THE Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported.

Amnesty International's most recent annual report, which was released on May 23, questions the detention of individuals in secret facilities and suggests that there could be "considerably" more than the 94 executions that officials claim. It also refers to "scores of political prisoners," and it notes "hundreds" of arrests of people in minority areas. The report highlights repression of Arabs and Kurds, as well as arrests of Baha'is and Christian converts. Women's rights activists, according to the Amnesty International report, have been subject to arrest, torture, and other forms of ill treatment.

Assefi said the Amnesty International report is based on information fabricated by opposition groups. He added, "The Islamic Republic of Iran respects human rights on the basis of religious beliefs and in line with the process of political and social development. It has made great achievements in this respect." (Bill Samii)

MORE THAN 50 BAHA'IS ARRESTED. Fifty-four mostly young members of the Baha'i faith were arrested in the city of Shiraz on May 19, the Baha'i International Community announced on May 24. Simultaneously, six Baha'i households were raided and property -- including computers, books, and documents -- was seized. The charges against the Baha'is are not known. Bani Dugal, principal representative of the Baha'i International Community to the United Nations, was quoted as saying that more than 125 Baha'is have been arrested since January 2005, although not all of them remain in detention. Dugal described these developments as "religious persecution." In addition to arrests and detentions, state radio and television broadcast critical information about the Baha'is, and the "Kayhan" newspaper, which is connected with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's office, has published more than 30 anti-Baha'i articles. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN WRITERS, BUS DRIVERS EXPRESS CONCERNS. A group of 621 writers and activists have signed an open letter urging the release of Iranian-Canadian scholar Ramin Jahanbegloo, who was reportedly detained on espionage-related charges, Radio Farda reported on May 14. The letter says the charges against Jahanbegloo are confused and asks how a writer could obtain confidential information. The signatories ask the Iranian government if it is proud of its hostile reputation toward writers, and how it can speak of peace and dialogue abroad when it treats its writers this way. Former Tehran University dean Mohammad Maleki told Radio Farda on May 14 that the Iranian government resorts to arrests "whenever it wishes to create fear among activists."

Separately, an Iran-based rights group run by Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi expressed concern on May 14 over Jahanbegloo's arrest, AFP reported. The Defenders of Human Rights Center issued a statement expressing concern over the arrest and "list of accusations" made against Jahanbegloo.

Employees of Tehran's main bus company have written to President Mahmud Ahmadinejad asking for the government to respect their rights as workers, which they say are enshrined in Iran's constitution, domestic laws, and international treaties, Radio Farda reported on May 17. The signatories state that they are not political but want the right to form an independent trade union. Many of the company's workers went on strike in December over wages and the arrest of colleagues (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," January 9 and February 6, 2006). In the new letter, the bus drivers ask the president to pressure the Labor Ministry to change labor laws and allow the formation of independent unions, observing that this is a legal commitment for Iran pursuant to international treaties it has signed, Radio Farda reported.

Separately, nine women reportedly beaten by police at a Tehran demonstration to mark International Women's Day in March (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," March 14, 2006) and six witnesses are taking police to court over the incident, Radio Farda reported on May 17. Participant Khadijeh Moqaddam told Radio Farda the gathering was peaceful and legal. She said Shirin Ebadi will represent the plaintiffs. (Vahid Sepehri)

AUTHORITIES IN NORTHWEST CLASH WITH AZERI DEMONSTRATORS... A cartoon published in the Islamic Republic News Agency's "Iran" on May 12 has deeply offended Iran's Azeri minority, which makes up roughly one-quarter of the total population. The cartoon depicts a boy variously repeating "cockroach" in Persian before a giant bug in front of him asks "What?" in Azeri.

Davud Khoda Karami, secretary of the Islamic Society of Students at the University of Zanjan, said in the April 21 issue of "Aftab-i Yazd" that a student sit-in over the cartoon led to the university's closure. He added that campus protests took place in Ardabil and Hamedan, as well as Tabriz, Tehran, Urumieh, and Zanjan.

Thousands of people in Tabriz demonstrated on May 23 against the cartoon's publication, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported. Many members of Iran's Azeri minority live in the northwest. Chanting demonstrators marched on the East Azerbaijan Province governor-general's office, and students at the other end of the city chanted slogans relating to the rights of Azeri speakers. The city's bazaar was closed already, and shopkeepers joined the demonstrators. Police dispersed the crowd with teargas. The provincial police chief, General Mohammad Ali Nosrati, attributed some of the unrest to provocateurs, and he said guilty parties would be dealt with severely, Fars News Agency reported. Nosrati noted that there had been some arrests.

There has been no confirmation of the suggestion by Oqtay Tabrizly, a member of the National Revival Movement of Southern Azerbaijan, to Azerbaijan's private Lider television on May 23 that 14 ethnic Azeris were killed amid the protests in Tabriz and another 400 arrested. Radio Farda reported on May 23 that one demonstrator has been injured; RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reported early on May 24 that more than 50 people were injured in the clashes but did not suggest that any protesters were killed. Azerbaijan's Turan news agency quoted unidentified sources in Tabriz on May 23 as claiming that up to 20 people were killed and more than 50 wounded -- along with at least 200 arrested -- during the demonstrations.

Referring to ongoing disturbances in Tabriz and Urumieh, national police chief Ismail Ahmadi-Moqaddam said on May 24 that approximately 60 people have been arrested, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported. He mentioned that "a number of compatriots as well as law-enforcement personnel have been injured in Tabriz," but nobody was killed. Turan news agency on May 24, however, cited "unofficial reports" of 10 demonstrators being killed in Urumieh after they raised the flag of the Republic of Azerbaijan, and Turan also claimed there were deaths in Mahabad. These latter allegations are unconfirmed, and several Azeri sources in Tabriz said no one was killed there during demonstrations.

Iran's ambassador in Baku, Afshar Suleimani, said on May 24 that nobody has been killed, APA News Agency reported. Reports about it "are nothing but a lie," he added.

An unconfirmed report from the Turan news agency on 25 May described "tens of thousands" of Iranians staging a protest rally in the city of Parsabad. Turan went on to claim that security forces fired on the demonstrators and killed four of them, after which the protesters set several banks and schools ablaze. Those reports have not been confirmed. (Bill Samii)

...AS JOURNALISTS ARRESTED AND NEWSPAPER CLOSED... Following unrest in northwestern Iran after the daily "Iran" published a cartoon that insulted the country's large Azeri minority, the paper's Friday supplement editor, Mehrdad Qassemfar, and cartoonist Mana Neyestani are being held in Evin Prison, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) announced on May 24. The press freedom organization demanded their release, describing the two as "convenient scapegoats for a government that has been scared by large-scale protests."

National police chief Ismail Ahmadi-Moqaddam said on May 24 that the publication of the cartoon was malicious, ISNA reported. He added that Iran's Supreme National Security Council met the previous day and decided the responsible parties should be arrested.

The staff of the since banned "Iran" newspaper defended its two colleagues in a May 24 statement: "we attest that all those involved in the creation of the cartoon are among colleagues who truly care and attach great importance to national solidarity and had no intention of fomenting discord," IRNA reported.

RSF described Iran as the Middle East country that has imprisoned the most journalists, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad are on RSF's list of press freedom predators. (Bill Samii)

...AND FOREIGNERS BLAMED. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said in a May 25 speech in Tehran that an unnamed enemy is trying to undermine national unity, ILNA reported. He added that this will not work, saying, "Today, and with total awareness, people are thwarting the enemy plots to create ethnic discord, and continuing their progress in maintaining their national unity."

During a one-day visit to southwestern Khuzestan Province on May 24, Ahmadinejad said the United States and its allies are behind the continuing unrest in the country, state television reported. When the alleged "enemy" failed to stop Iran from "acquiring nuclear energy," he said, they turned to other means. "Today -- by creating discord, despondency, and division -- they intend to prevent the realization of all the rights of the Iranian nation," he said.

In Tehran on the same day, Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani said unidentified "hegemonic powers" are stirring up ethnic strife in an effort to hinder the advancement of developing countries, Mehr News Agency reported. Hashemi-Rafsanjani was speaking at a conference on Cultural Diversity and National Solidarity. Deputy parliament speaker Mohammad Reza Bahonar, former Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani, and former Intelligence Minister Ali Yunesi were also there and each spoke about ethnicity.

Parliamentarian Imad Afruq said U.S. agents in Iran are trying to stir up discord, Fars News Agency reported, and he also blamed pan-Turkists. (Bill Samii)

VIOLENCE ERUPTS ON TEHRAN CAMPUSES. Tehran police chief Morteza Talai said on May 24 that some 20-30 people were behind the previous night's unrest at Tehran University, and he estimated that some of these people were not students, IRNA reported. Eyewitnesses reported some injuries and damage to parked vehicles, and Talai said 40 police were hurt. Demonstrations also took place at Amir Kabir University. Students told Radio Farda that some students are missing and others were injured when police and paramilitaries attacked them. Students have been angered over the last few months by the government's interference in campus affairs. Such steps include the dismissal of numerous professors and the replacement of successful and popular administrators with clerics deemed unqualified. Students also are angry over the interference of the Basij in student council elections. They did not make it clear if this is the University Basij, which is the largest student organization, or the Basij Resistance Force, which is an arm of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps. (Bill Samii)

INTERIOR MINISTER THREATENED WITH INTERPELLATION AFTER KILLINGS IN SOUTHEAST... Bandits shot and killed 12 passengers traveling between Bam and Kerman in southeastern Iran on May 13, news agencies reported on May 14. An estimated 30 bandits, dressed in police uniforms and ethnic Baluchi clothing, reportedly blocked traffic after 8 p.m., and ordered passengers out of four cars before tying them up and shooting them, ILNA and Fars News Agency reported, citing Kerman Province Governor Muhammad Raufinejad and a 14-year-old survivor.

Kerman's deputy governor for security affairs, Abolqasem Nasrollahi, told ILNA on May 14 that there was no evidence that a militant group perpetrated the killing. State television quoted him as saying that six of the bandits were later killed, Reuters reported on May 14.

Interior Minister Mustafa Pur-Mohammadi said on May 14 that it was "blind banditry and a commandeered mission" comparable to previous incidents (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," May 5, 2006).

Nevertheless, the legislature is unhappy with the Interior Ministry's inability to handle such problems. "More than 100 legislators" are apparently ready to sign a motion to interrogate and perhaps sack Pur-Mohammadi for reasons including insecurity in the country, ILNA reported on May 14, citing an unnamed legislator. On May 14, deputy speaker of parliament Mohammad Reza Bahonar said the authorities should consider asking troops to help police with border security, ILNA reported.

Tehran representative Imad Afrugh said on May 15 that "the responsibility for all the insecurity in the country lies with the interior minister, and he must answer for this," ILNA reported. Afrugh said it is not acceptable that bandits could "so easily move around, block the road, and provoke such a calamity," referring to the recent attack. "Power brings responsibility," he said. Legislators have reportedly been asked to sign a motion to question Pur-Mohammadi in parliament, though legislator Elias Naderan said on May 15 that this initiative is not directly related to the recent incident, ILNA reported.

Separately, the reformist Democracy Party issued a statement in Tehran on May 15, saying the ministry should deal with "terrorist incidents," not busy itself altering election regulations "under the influence of certain right-wing legislators," ISNA reported. Iranians expect the ministry to assure their security, it stated, especially "given the appointment of experienced security and military forces to various positions in that ministry." It added, "if the...minister is unable to assure the people's security, he should resign."

Pur-Mohammadi said on May 15 that Iran will deal with "people who create insecurity" or "engage in terrorist activities, and we shall act to stop them," ILNA reported. He said security forces need more resources to strengthen security and curb banditry along Iran's frontiers. He noted that about half of Iran's frontier is not controlled. Pur-Mohammadi said even troops would "need equipment, bases, and roads to safeguard borders," and "a lack of necessary resources" is the main problem in creating security. He said that "terrorist activities and organized crime" are threatening Islamic states, and "the enemy has bluntly declared it is waging a soft war against [Iran], but we shall make vigorous efforts to counter their actions." He said the government plans to have full control of Iranian borders within four years, ILNA reported.

Kerman's deputy governor-general for political and security affairs, Abolqasem Nasrollahi, announced on May 19 that the leader of the gang responsible for the previous week's killings has been wounded, Fars News Agency reported. Government forces are in close pursuit of the attackers in Sistan va Baluchistan Province, Nasrollahi said, adding, "The [Islamic Revolution] Guards Corps, the Basij, and the [police] backed by the Army Aviation Corps are seriously pursuing the operation for the arrest of the perpetrators and for purging the area of bandits, and we will have some very good news for the people soon." The public relations office of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security announced on May 19 that its personnel in Kerman Province have broken up two gangs responsible for kidnappings and weapons smuggling, ILNA reported. All 18 gang members were reportedly arrested. (Bill Samii, Vahid Sepehri)

...WHICH ARE PINNED ON FOREIGNERS. Prosecutor-General Qorban Ali Dori-Najafabadi said in Tehran on May 17 that Iran and Pakistan must cooperate to catch "the regional elements" he blamed for banditry on Iran's frontiers, ISNA reported. "There is a current in [eastern Iran] called Zarqawi and similar groups, and without a doubt the backing and provocation of foreigners are behind them," he said. These currents "also exist in Pakistan," Dori-Najafabadi added. He urged "friendly forces," presumably in Pakistan, not to support them "directly or indirectly" as "that would serve neither their interests, nor those of their country or the region." He claimed that Iran is in a "delicate" situation, because the United States "intends to create problems for Iran this year." He said it would distract Iran with problems in the east "so it cannot attain its other aims in the region."

Hojatoleslam Erami, the Friday Prayer leader in Meymeh, Isfahan Province, alleged in his May 19 sermon that the United States was behind the killings that took place earlier in the week (see above), provincial television reported, and he urged the central government to control the borders more effectively.

Military forces participating in the Eqtedar war games in Kerman, Sistan va Baluchistan, and South Khorasan provinces allegedly have found evidence of foreign involvement in provincial violence, Iranian state radio reported on May 20. Police and Guards Corps personnel attacked a "bandits' base" in the Pir Suran heights of Sistan va Baluchistan Province and discovered documents that reveal U.S. and British involvement in recent violent incidents in the eastern part of the country.

The deputy commander of the Rasulallah military base in southwestern Iran, a brigadier general identified as Rezai, announced on May 25 that five "bandits" were killed and two others arrested in connection with a violent attack on the Bam-Kerman road recently, state television reported. Rezai said in "Iran" newspaper on May 23 that although the police can control the roads near the Sistan va Baluchistan Province border with Afghanistan and Pakistan, "full control over the roads at night is not going to be possible." Rezai claimed that all of the 100 bandit groups operating in the region are based in other countries, and said the national police force is seeking permission to cross into other countries while in hot pursuit. The establishment of security in the southeast, Rezai continued, depends on the area's economy. (Bill Samii, Vahid Sepehri)

IRAN WEARY OF ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS. Interior Minister Mustafa Pur-Mohammadi said in Tehran on May 23 that foreigners residing in Iran illegally should be repatriated promptly, state television reported. Pur-Mohammadi noted that some of the countries bordering Iran do not control their frontiers, and stronger border measures are a priority for the Iranian government. Referring to the influx of people displaced by regional wars, he said: "We have carried the heaviest burden of Afghanistan's domestic crisis on our shoulders. We have carried the heaviest burden of the Iraqi crisis on our shoulders. We have even carried the burden of the crises in other countries in the past two or three decades."

The director-general of the Foreign Ministry's Foreign Nationals Office, identified only as "Husseini," was quoted as saying that visas are given out too readily and few immigrants are willing to leave Iran. "For your information, the Foreign Ministry gave visas to 510,000 Afghans in 1384 [2005] and more than one-third had not returned by the end of their visa period," Husseini said. (Bill Samii)

JORDANIAN LEGISLATOR CALLS IRAN A 'THREAT.' Jordanian parliament speaker Abd-al-Hadi al-Majali said in Amman recently that Iran is a threat to Jordanian security and stability, "Al-Arab al-Yawm" reported on May 25. Iran "threatens national security by seeking to destabilize security in Jordan rather than to overthrow the regime," he added. Whether or not Iran is attacked -- presumably because of its disputed nuclear program -- Jordan is in danger, according to al-Majali. "Jordan will be harmed by Iran whether it is hit or not," he said. Al-Majali also expressed concern about Iranian activities in Iraq, saying, "Accurate information confirms that the Iranian intelligence service is occupying most of southern Iraq." (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN GROUPS PLEDGE SUPPORT FOR PALESTINIANS, HAMAS. Foruz Rajaifar, secretary-general of the Commemoration Headquarters for the Martyrs of Islam's World Movement, claimed at a May 20 conference at the University of Tehran that 35 Jews resident outside Iran have registered as volunteers for martyrdom operations (suicide bombings), Mehr News Agency reported. Rajaifar said a new martyrdom-seeking unit would be named on May 25, adding, "This unit has been named after martyr Nader Mahdavi, who was martyred when he rammed his speedboat into an American frigate in the Persian Gulf."

The Student Movement for Justice and the Students Committee for the Support of Palestine have established a fund to aid the Hamas-led Palestinian government, Fars News Agency reported on May 19. The United States, EU, and Israel are withholding financial support from the Palestinian Authority until Hamas recognizes Israel's right to exist and renounces violence; Tehran has pledged to support the Palestinians financially. (Bill Samii)

NEW IRANIAN AMBASSADOR ARRIVES IN BEIRUT. Mohammad Reza Rauf-Sheibani, the new Iranian ambassador to Lebanon, arrived in Beirut on May 19, "Al-Nahar" reported the next day. Born in 1961 in Mashhad, Sheibani headed the Iranian mission in Damascus from 1997 to 2001, then dealt with Middle East affairs at the Foreign Ministry and, before his current posting, headed the Iranian interests section in Cairo. President Ahmadinejad told Sheibani in a May 16 meeting in Tehran that Iranian-Lebanese relations must expand, IRNA reported. (Bill Samii)

LEBANESE NOTE IRANIAN INTERFERENCE IN THEIR AFFAIRS. The Maronite patriarch in Lebanon, Nasrallah Butrus Sfayr, discussed other countries' interference in his country's affairs in a May 20 interview with Al-Arabiyah television. Asked about his earlier allegations against Iran and Syria, Sfayr said, "The Lebanese are not left alone to solve their problems." He continued, "There are those who provide funds and weapons and there are those who support one party against another." On May 19 in Moscow, Lebanese legislator Saad Hariri, son of slain former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, also noted Iranian and Syrian interference in his country's affairs, Interfax reported. "We will not accept interference in our internal affairs by Syria, or Iran, or any other state," he said. (Bill Samii)

HIZBALLAH LEADER ACKNOWLEDGES IRANIAN AND SYRIAN ASSISTANCE. The secretary-general of Lebanese Hizballah, Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah, acknowledged support from Iran and Syria in a May 25 speech in Tyre, Al-Manar Television reported. The speech was given at a rally called the "Festival of Resistance and Victory" held to commemorate the sixth anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon. Nasrallah described the end of Israeli occupation as an event that destroyed the "Zionists' legendary image." He noted the contribution of Hizballah "martyrs" who gave their lives in this effort, and he also noted "martyrs" of the Lebanese and Syrian armies, as well as Palestinian "martyrs." Nasrallah praised Iran for its "key" role in aiding the "resistance." "I thank especially Syria under the leadership of late Hafiz al-Assad," he added, before citing President Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian people, and the Syrian military. (Bill Samii)

NEWEST UN RESOLUTION ON LEBANON ANGERS SYRIA, HIZBALLAH, IRAN. A new UN Security Council resolution notes Syria's negative influence on Lebanese affairs, and it indirectly refers to Iranian influence. Damascus and Tehran -- as well as the radical Islamic group Hizballah -- have criticized the resolution, while it got a mixed reception in Lebanon and Washington welcomed it.

Some of the demands of a previous resolution, such as the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, have already been realized, so it is not unreasonable to expect that aspects of the new one will eventually reach fruition. It is unlikely to be a rapid or smooth process, however, as groups with contending interests are involved.

The U.S. State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism, Ambassador Henry Crumpton, announced during a May 23 press conference in Beirut, "I am here to explain aspects of U.S. counterterrorism policy of concern to Lebanese decision-makers, and to answer their questions in detail," Beirut's "The Daily Star" reported on May 24. Crumpton went on to refer to the new Security Council resolution that relates to Lebanon.

Singling Out Hizballah, Syria, Iran

France, Great Britain, and the United States drafted Resolution 1680, and the 15-member Security Council adopted it on May 17, voting 13-0 with Russia and China abstaining.

The resolution builds on Resolution 1559 of 2004, which calls for the disarming of the country's militias. An April 2006 UN report on the implementation of Resolution 1559 noted that Hizballah is "the most significant Lebanese militia," and there has been no "noticeable change" in its capabilities. Hizballah and its supporters argue that it is a resistance organization, rather than a militia, and it therefore does not have to disarm.

In a reference to the military capabilities of institutions that are not under government control, Resolution 1680 states that that the Security Council "called for further efforts to disband and disarm all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias and to fully restore the Lebanese government's control over all its territory."

Resolution 1680 also refers to another part of the April UN report on the implementation of Resolution 1559, which specifically calls for "cooperation of all other relevant parties, including Syria and Iran." According to the new resolution, the Security Council "reiterates also its call on all concerned states and parties as mentioned in the report, to cooperate fully with the government of Lebanon, the Security Council, and the secretary-general to achieve this goal [of implementing 1559]."

Resolution 1680 singles out Damascus, calling on it to resolve border controversies with Beirut, to establish a permanent diplomatic relationship with Beirut, and to control the movement of arms into Lebanon.

"The United States is very pleased with the passage of Resolution 1680," U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton said, adding that the resolution refers to the roles of Syria and Iran in Lebanon's stability. "It makes clear that the burden is now on Syria to respond to Lebanon's request for border delineation and the full exchange of diplomatic relations. It clearly says to Syria that it needs to do more to stop the flow of weapons across the Syrian-Lebanese border."

'International Interference'

Damascus, on the other hand, dismissed Resolution 1680. An official Syrian Foreign Ministry statement on May 17 said the resolution's discussion of border demarcation and Damascus-Beirut diplomatic ties is a form of interference in member states' bilateral affairs, SANA reported. It added that the two countries are already discussing border issues and complained that the report does not note the positive things Syria has done. Damascus went on to complain of Israeli violations of the Lebanese border, and it questioned the resolution's failure to mention them.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said at a May 18 press conference in Damascus that Resolution 1680 is against international law and represents international interference in bilateral Damascus-Beirut relations, SANA reported.

The same day, Mottaki met with Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and Hamas Political Bureau chief Khalid Mish'al, according to IRNA.

Deflecting Attention From Israel

Hizballah -- considered by many Western countries a terrorist organization -- also reacted angrily to the resolution. A statement read out on Hizballah's Al-Manar television on May 18 complained that Resolution 1680 did not mention Israeli violations of Lebanese sovereignty. It also viewed the resolution as an effort to create tension between Syria and Lebanon.

Four days later, legislator Muhammad Raad, who heads the pro-Hizballah Loyalty to the Resistance bloc in the Lebanese parliament, denounced the resolution, Al-Manar reported. "Why are ties with Syria strained?" Raad asked. "Because some wanted to decrease the level of enmity towards Israel, so they embodied Syria as the new enemy." He went on to say that the resolution will not affect Hizballah's arms, "The Daily Star" reported on May 23.

It is too early to see any results from the latest Security Council resolution, but U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seems optimistic. Regarding Hizballah's disarmament, she said the Lebanese are aware of their "obligations," Al-Arabiyah television reported on May 23. "I believe that they will indeed undertake those obligations and those obligations include the disarming of militias." But Rice also preached patience, saying: "this is a transitional period and we understand that. And so allowing Lebanon to work on this is very important." (Bill Samii)

CLERIC DEPLORES FLATTERY OF AHMADINEJAD AS EXCESSIVE. Iranian politicians have generally welcomed President Ahmadinejad's May 8 letter to U.S. President George W. Bush, but more recent, extravagant praise by a senior conservative cleric has prompted reactions by several legislators and a response by the reformist former parliament speaker Mehdi Karrubi. Karrubi wrote on May 16 to Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati -- head of the Guardians Council, a body that oversees elections and is considered conservative in sympathies -- to convey his "amazement" at Jannati's description of Ahmadinejad's letter as "divine inspiration." Jannati said in a sermon on May 12 that "children should read [Ahmadinejad's letter], it should be read in schools and universities, and [state television] should repeatedly read it out," ISNA reported on May 16. "When was such a letter written...that could have amazed everyone quite like this?" Jannati asked. Karrubi wrote that no president since 1979 has been given such extravagant praise, ISNA reported on May 16. His remarks, he wrote, "make me truly feel that the republic...the clergy's reputation and...people's beliefs are threatened." (Vahid Sepehri)

TEHRAN OPEN TO UNCONDITIONAL TALKS WITH WASHINGTON. U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on May 25 that foreign ministers from the permanent Security Council member states plus Germany will meet in Europe late next week to discuss a plan to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis, Reuters reported. China, France, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany are expected to try to work out details of incentives and disincentives that might be offered to Iran in connection with curbing its nuclear activities.

According to "The New York Times," the White House declared on May 24 that it is relying on the diplomatic process to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis, rather than entering into a direct dialogue with the Islamic Republic. The paper quoted White House and State Department spokesmen leaving open the possibility of direct talks in the future.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on May 24 that Tehran is ready to hold talks with Washington if there are no preconditions, IRNA reported. Furthermore, anonymous diplomats in Vienna told AFP on May 24 that Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani told International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei that Tehran wants to discuss the nuclear issue with Washington. Larijani demanded the absence of preconditions, such as foregoing uranium enrichment. Tehran-based analyst Said Laylaz said similar requests have been conveyed through Indonesia, Kuwait, and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, "The Washington Post" reported on May 24.

Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister and current foreign-policy adviser to the supreme leader, told a seminar in Tehran on May 18 that this is a good time for Iran to "haggle" with the United States, because Iran enjoys a stronger regional position, with friendly forces in power or key positions in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan, ISNA reported. "We have at no time until now had such powerful means for haggling [nor] the influence we have now in Iraq and Palestine," he said. "Now that we have the power to haggle, why do we not haggle?" He said Iran's official policy on Iraq is "reconstruction," and Iraq's dismemberment does not serve Iranian interests.

Separately, a liberal opposition group, the National Front, has issued a statement calling on Iran's government to engage in direct talks with the United States, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported on May 18. Group member and statement signatory Davud Hermidas-Bavand told Radio Farda that Iran's national interests make this dialogue necessary. The United States, he said, has effectively thwarted Iranian interests abroad, and forced it to make costly concessions to certain states. (Bill Samii, Vahid Sepehri)

IRANIAN OFFICIALS REMAIN FIRM ON ENRICHMENT. Iranian officials reiterated on May 14 that Iran has a right to enrich uranium as part of the nuclear-fuel production process, news agencies reported the same day. President Ahmadinejad said on his return from Indonesia that Iran will not exchange its nuclear "rights" for incentives that European states are expected to propose, AP reported.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Assefi said in Tehran on May 14 that proposals made to Iran must rest on "two bases" -- namely, the recognition of "Iran's rights" and assurances of "the means of exercising those rights" -- the daily "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on May 15. The rights "are entirely clear on the basis of the NPT [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] and consist of having peaceful nuclear technology in all its aspects." He said dealing with Iran's dossier outside the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is unjustified and "useless," so "we expect this dossier to return to its main place." Assefi said "negotiations and negotiations" are the only solution to the current impasse. "If the other side thinks it can attain results with pressures and threats, it is mistaken," he said.

Foreign Minister Mottaki said in a meeting with the British and French ambassadors and a German charge d'affaires in Tehran on May 15 that Iran would "certainly" reject any EU proposal that includes "any demand for a suspension or halt" to fuel-making or related activities in its nuclear program, ISNA reported the same day. EU officials met in Brussels on May 15 to discuss the deal the EU would offer Iran to curb its nuclear program. Mottaki said in Tehran that Iran's recent advances in enrichment and related technology are "an evident reality and irreversible," and the EU would have to make proposals "on the basis of realities," ISNA reported.

Separately, Iranian parliamentarians visited the Natanz nuclear plant on May 15, Mehr reported. Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, a member of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said Iran's enrichment progress "has been highly notable compared to last year," and Iran will soon announce "more news" on technological progress. Iran, he added, will hold onto its achievements, and "nuclear research in Iran cannot be suspended with any deal, treaty, or protocol."

On May 17, President Ahmadinejad emphatically rejected any EU incentives designed to persuade Iran to restrict its nuclear program, saying that "no factor will be able to deprive [Iran] of its nuclear rights, and we shall not accept any suspension or halt," ILNA reported the same day. He told a crowd in Arak, central Iran, that Iran is no "4-year-old child" to give up "gold" for "a few nuts and a chocolate," ILNA reported. "We want nothing more than our legal right," Ahmadinejad said, adding that if nuclear power "is a good thing," then "legally it is for everyone." Iran, he added, will not be cowed by the threat of a "stick over our head." He urged Western states not to allow their conduct to discredit the UN nuclear inspectorate and deter states from joining the NPT. (Vahid Sepehri)

TEHRAN, WASHINGTON DISAGREE ON NEED FOR IRAQ TALKS. Foreign Minister Mottaki arrived in Baghdad on May 26 for talks with Iraqi officials, international media reported. Mottaki met with Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari to discuss "various aspects of the bilateral relations between the two countries and the means to promote them in the interest of the two neighboring peoples," according to an Iraqi Foreign Ministry statement.

Mottaki was also scheduled to meet with President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, as well as a number of parliamentarians. Mottaki's visit is the second high-level visit by an Iranian official to Iraq since the fall of the Hussein regime; former Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi visited Iraq in May 2005.

One day earlier, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad, expressed the hope that the Mottaki's visit will mark the beginning of a new era in Iran-Iraq relations, IRNA reported.

Mottaki met with Zebari on May 22 in Tehran. An Iranian Foreign Ministry statement following that meeting announced Tehran's willingness to host a meeting of foreign ministers from the countries neighboring Iraq, Fars News Agency reported.

The previous day in Baghdad, Zebari met with Iranian Ambassador Kazemi-Qomi and expressed an interest in the expansion of bilateral relations, IRNA reported.

Meanwhile, a May 21 report in "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" suggested that representatives of Supreme Leader Khamenei and the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad are trying to influence the composition of Prime Minister-designate Nuri al-Maliki's cabinet. The Iranians reportedly wanted Interior Minister Bayan Jabr to retain his position, and, barring this, they wanted Ahmad Chalabi to serve as interior minister. The appointment of any Iraqi who participated in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War also has met with opposition from Tehran, according to the anonymous Iranian source quoted by "Al-Sharq al-Awsat." A source close to the Iranian military said Tehran does not want former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi to have any position with security responsibilities, whereas allies of Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani want to invite Allawi to Tehran for discussions. Allawi reportedly rejected the invitation.

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said in Baghdad on May 21 that the United States is interested in discussing Iraqi affairs with Iran, AP reported. Washington reportedly first suggested such talks in October, and Tehran indicated its willingness in mid-March. Khalilzad told AP that the talks have not taken place yet in order to avoid any impression that Tehran and Washington "got together to decide the government in Iraq." "We have a lot of issues to discuss with them with regard to our concerns and what we envision for Iraq, and [are] prepared to listen to their concerns," he added. Khalilzad expressed unhappiness with the Iranian provision of arms and money to Iraqi militias, as well as "other negative actions that do take place by the Iranian regime in Iraq."

Ambassador Kazemi-Qomi said on May 14 that the U.S.-Iran talks on Iraqi affairs are canceled, IRNA reported. He explained that such talks are pointless because Iran-Iraq issues can be resolved bilaterally. Kazemi-Qomi also expressed skepticism about Washington's motives, saying, "We seek neither conflict nor compromise from the talks with the U.S. while Washington has had unspecific objectives." (Kathleen Ridolfo, Bill Samii)

IRAN STAGES WAR GAMES AND TESTS INTERMEDIATE-RANGE BALLISTIC MISSILE. Iran staged another test of the Shihab-3 1,300-kilometer-range ballistic missile on the night of May 23, "The Jerusalem Post" reported, citing Israel Radio. Israeli military officials are unclear on the significance of the test but speculated that it is connected with Lebanese Hizballah's commemoration of the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon six years ago.

Three-day war games in the northern Persian Gulf began on May 21, IRNA reported. Codenamed "851," the exercises mark the 24th anniversary of the liberation of Khorramshahr during the Iran-Iraq War. Iranian naval official Mohammad-Taqi Hejazi noted the exercises will include amphibious operations.

"Noble Prophet" -- the early-April war games in the Persian Gulf, Straits of Hormuz, and Sea of Oman -- caused international consternation because they featured Iran's testing of new types of missiles (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 10 April 2006). (Bill Samii)