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Iran Report: June 26, 2006

June 26, 2006, Volume 9, Number 23

IRAN FEATURES IN U.S. PRESIDENT'S SPEECH. President George W. Bush focused on Iran during a June 19 commencement address at the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York, Radio Farda reported. Bush charged that the Iranian leadership sponsors terrorism, represses its own people, threatens Israel, and defies international treaty obligations by "pursuing nuclear activities that mask its effort to acquire nuclear weapons." Bush expressed his hope that Iran will suspend uranium enrichment and commence negotiations with the United States and other countries, and he described the international proposal submitted to Tehran in early June as a "historic opportunity."

Bush also reached out to the Iranian public, praising the country's history and culture and acknowledging its scientific accomplishments. "We believe the Iranian people should enjoy the benefits of a truly peaceful program to use nuclear reactors to generate electric power," he said. "So America supports the Iranian people's rights to develop nuclear energy peacefully, with proper international safeguards."

Bush referred to $75 million in the U.S. budget that he said will contribute to "openness and freedom," fund radio and television broadcasts to Iran, support human rights activists and civil-society groups, and promote academic exchanges (see "RFE/RL Iran Report, 22 February 2006). Bush said he anticipates a day when Iranians can enjoy "the full fruits of liberty."

In an address that preceded Bush's, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a June 19 meeting in Tehran with government officials that "the most vital challenge which originates from abroad is anti-Iranian sentiments and moves of the U.S.," Fars News Agency reported. Khamenei attributed perceived U.S. hostility to Iran's anti-imperialism and to its anti-U.S. policies. More American plots are on the way, Khamenei warned, because economic sanctions, the 1980-88 war with Iraq, and the cultural offensive have not yielded results.

Khamenei also condemned Al-Qaeda and its activities in Iraq. BS

TEHRAN WANTS TO START NUCLEAR TALKS BEFORE MAKING A DECISION. EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana visited Tehran in early June to submit an international proposal that purportedly calls on Iran to suspend its uranium-enrichment activities in exchange for various incentives until international inspectors confirm that the country's nuclear program has no military applications. Since then, there has been speculation on the nature of the proposal formulated by China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, although official confirmation has not appeared yet.

Furthermore, there are questions about when Iran will respond -- the international community is encouraging Tehran to act soon. Tehran does not seem to be in a hurry, however, saying it wants to examine the proposal closely. Furthermore, Iranians will not want to be perceived as submitting to pressure. Nevertheless, the Iranian side says it is willing to begin talks immediately, if there are no preconditions. Engaging in such seemingly unstructured discussions, however, is unlikely to be productive and could be an Iranian delaying tactic.

The pressure on Tehran kicked off with President George W. Bush's June 19 commencement address at the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York, Radio Farda reported. Bush expressed his hope that Iran will suspend uranium enrichment and commence negotiations with the United States and other countries, and he described the international proposal submitted to Tehran in early June as a "historic opportunity."

The next day, Radio Farda quoted anonymous European diplomats as saying that Iran faces a June 29 deadline for responding to the proposal. The alleged deadline was conveyed to the Iranian government by Solana when he visited Tehran in early June, according to Radio Farda. June 29 is significant because it is when G8 foreign ministers meet in Moscow.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki denied in Baku on June 20 that Iran is facing a deadline and suggested that international negotiations get under way. "Some kind of negotiation can start even before [Iran gives] the final answer," Mottaki said, according to Radio Farda. "I mean, there can be some questions and some doubts which need clarification, and that is why starting negotiations between Iran and the other parties, of course without any preconditions, can help all the parties come together more closely."

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad announced a seemingly self-imposed deadline during a speech in the western Iranian city of Hamedan on June 21, Radio Farda and Iranian state television reported. "We have said many times that we are in favor of dialogue and negotiations," Ahmadinejad said. "We will announce our views on the proposals towards the end of Mordad [month ending 22 August]. We support talks but they must be on equal and just terms."

Speaking at a press conference in Vienna on June 21, President Bush sounded impatient with the Iranians and said Iran should hurry up and accept the international community's proposal on its nuclear program, "The Washington Post" reported. "It shouldn't take the Iranians that long to analyze what is a reasonable deal," Bush said. "Our position is we'll come to the table when they verifiably suspend. Period."

Yet it is not just the U.S. that is eager for an Iranian response. Other country's leaders voiced similar views. Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel said on June 21 that Iran "should not play with time," "The Washington Post" reported.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei said on June 22 that Iran should make a decision soon on the nuclear proposal, AFP reported. "In our minds, it's a question of weeks, not months," Mattei said. "The offer from the six [China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States] to Iran is a good proposal. We urge Iran to give a positive reply."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu expressed a similar view on June 22, Xinhua reported. "We hope Iran would be highly attentive to the concerns of the international community, take a positive attitude, and make a formal response to the package proposal at an early date," she said. Jiang also called for the other parties to be patient.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mottaki in Geneva on June 22 and said at a joint news conference afterward that he hopes Iran decides on the international proposal soon, Radio Farda reported. "I believe [Iran] is considering this offer very seriously, as I have urged it to do, and I hope it will give its official answer before too long," Annan said. He noted Iran's insistence that its nuclear program is peaceful, and he stressed the importance of convincing other countries of this by cooperating fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) quoted Mottaki as saying at the same news conference that Tehran is studying the proposal closely and would welcome talks about it "without preconditions."

Western diplomats who have negotiated with the Iranian government warn that such talks can be a painful and ultimately unproductive process. Some of the tactics the Iranians employ include playing up factional differences in their own governing apparatus, as well as trying to play up differences among their interlocutors and creating splits between them. The Iranians, furthermore, will negotiate on the terms of an agreement, and afterwards, they will either negotiate on the implementation of the agreement or ignore the agreement completely. Finally, the Iranian side may just choose to string out the negotiations. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN WILL NOT DISCUSS IRAQ WITH WASHINGTON. Washington called on Tehran to begin bilateral talks on Iraqi affairs in autumn 2005, and Tehran agreed to this in March 2006. The Iranian pretext for this decision was a request by Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Not only have the talks failed to materialize, despite al-Hakim's continuing interest in them, but the Iranian government has made clear that it is no longer interested. The reason for Tehran's decision is far from clear, but American officials' recent allegations of Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs are not likely to make Iran change its mind.

Tehran's Hard Line

Al-Hakim is visiting the Iranian capital in connection with a July 8-9 meeting in Tehran of foreign ministers from Iraq's neighboring states and from Organization of the Islamic Conference member states. During a June 17 news briefing in Tehran, Al-Hakim told reporters that Iranian-U.S. talks would benefit Iraq, the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. He expressed the hope that obstacles to such talks will be removed.

The next day, however, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said Tehran is unwilling to discuss Iraqi affairs with Washington, despite previous indications to the contrary, Radio Farda reported. "Because we respected the opinion of Mr. [Abd al-Aziz] al-Hakim, we accepted his request to talk to the United States," Assefi said. "But the Americans showed unreasonable and inappropriate behavior that made the talks impossible."

The Iranian official did not describe the supposed "unreasonable and inappropriate behavior." Tehran's refusal to hold the talks probably has more to do with its perceived self-interest than with anything done by the U.S. Tehran may believe that holding the talks now will appear to legitimize the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Tehran may also fear that participating in the talks at the same time that it is considering the international proposal on its nuclear program would at worst seem weak and at best would divert attention from a bigger issue.

Al-Hakim continued to meet with Iranian officials, and state media did not describe his sentiments on the collapse of Iran-U.S. talks on Iraqi affairs. Al-Hakim met on June 18 with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, IRNA reported. Hashemi-Rafsanjani said the continuing presence of foreign forces in Iraq is causing regional instability, and that political activism by religious leaders will contribute to national unity. Al-Hakim concurred on the importance of religion and said ethnic and religious divisions will lead nowhere.

Al-Hakim met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on June 20, IRNA reported. Khamenei said the withdrawal of occupation forces and the management of national affairs by Iraqis would strengthen national security.

Allegations Of Iranian Interference

Washington's feelings about the Iranian refusal to discuss Iraqi affairs are unknown. In recent days, however, there have been renewed complaints from U.S. officials about alleged Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs.

Ambassador David Satterfield, currently the senior advisor for Iraq to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, noted continuing Iranian interference in the affairs of its western neighbor, "Al-Quds al-Arabi" and "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on June 21. Satterfield just completed a tour as deputy chief of mission in Baghdad, and he also has served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs and U.S. ambassador to Lebanon. "Everyone is worried by Iran's interference in Iraqi affairs, especially the interference that has led to acts of violence and dead Iraqi and coalition forces," Satterfield said. He encouraged Iraq's other neighbors to pressure Iran to cease and desist.

One day later in Washington, the top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General George Casey, told a news briefing at the Pentagon, "We are quite confident that the Iranians, through their covert special operations forces, are providing weapons, IED [improvised explosive device] technology and training to Shi'a extremist groups in Iraq." This training, Casey said, is taking place in Iran and in Lebanon. Casey accused Iran of using its surrogates to conduct terrorist operations against U.S. forces and against Iraqis. Casey conceded that Iran is not directing these attacks, but asserted nevertheless, "They are providing the material to Shi'a extremist groups that operate as their surrogates." (Bill Samii)

IRAQIS ATTACK IRANIAN CONSULATES IN AL-BASRAH, KARBALA. Followers of cleric Mahmud al-Hassani claimed on June 19 that guards at the tomb of Imam Hussein in Karbala blocked their access to that Shi'ite holy site, Baghdad's Al-Sharqiyah television reported. Al-Hassani's faithful then staged a demonstration in front of the Iranian Consulate in Karbala after a cleric identified only as al-Kurani claimed on Iran's Al-Kawthar satellite television station that al-Hassani's followers conspired in the unsuccessful attempt on the life of Islamic scholar Seyyed Murtada al-Qazwini. Al-Sharqiyah identified al-Kurani as an Iranian, but scholar Asad Abu-Khalil claimed on his blog that Ali al-Kurani is a Lebanese Shi'ite cleric who was affiliated with Iraq's Al-Da'wah al-Islamiyah party. After the demonstration, the Iranian consul received a letter demanding an apology, and then an Iraqi flag was hoisted on the consulate. Similar events transpired at the Iranian Consulate in Al-Basrah. BS

PALESTINIAN FOREIGN MINISTER NOTES IRANIAN FUNDING. Just back from a trip to Tehran and other Asian cities, Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmud al-Zahhar said at a June 17 news conference in Gaza that that Iran has donated $50 million to the Hamas-led government, Bethlehem's Ma'an News Agency reported. He said other sources of funding include $50 million from Libya, $30 million from the Arab League Fund and other sources, and $60 million in taxes that Israel owes the Palestinian Authority. BS

LEBANESE 'RESISTANCE' FIGURE VISITS IRAN. Mustafa Dirani, a leading figure in Lebanese Hizballah who until late 2003 was imprisoned in Israel, met in Tehran on June 19 with Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki, IRNA and Mehr News Agency reported. Mottaki hailed Dirani's "resistance" during imprisonment and said this symbolizes the struggle against Israel. Dirani thanked Iran for the spiritual support it has given the Lebanese and Palestinian people.

Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah, secretary-general of Lebanese Hizballah, praised Iranian support for Arabs during a June 6 speech in Beirut, Al-Manar television reported. "Iran is a power for the Arabs," he said. "It is a power for the Muslims. It is a power for all of us. It is a power for Lebanon, Palestine, and for all our Arab and Muslim peoples." He claimed Shi'ite-Sunni conflict is being fostered and Iran is being portrayed as a Shi'ite threat. Nasrallah went on to say that the United States is encouraging "this confrontation," and that "the killers in Iraq, no matter what sect they belong to, are Americans and Zionists and CIA and Mossad agents."

Writing in Beirut's "Al-Mustaqbal" daily on June 5, journalist Qasim Qasir reported that Tehran-Beirut relations have deteriorated. The ceremony marking the most recent departure of an Iranian ambassador, Masud Edrisi, was attended solely by Shi'ite organizations, including Hizballah, Amal, and the Higher Islamic Shi'ite Council. Qasir reported that Edrisi's predecessor, Mohammad Ali Sobhani, established "strong relations" with all Lebanese parties, "especially Christian ones," and a greater variety of people attended his going-away party.

Iranian diplomats have improved ties with Druze legislator Walid Jumblatt's enemies in reaction to his open opposition to alleged Iranian interference in Lebanese affairs, journalist Qasim Qasir claims in his June 5 article in "Al-Mustaqbal." Jumblatt said in a May 25 interview with Al-Arabiyah television that Iran should stop sending supplies to Hizballah, and that he has received information that Islamic Revolution Guards Corps personnel from Iran have come to Lebanon recently. "They are being prepared for special operations," he added, possibly hinting at assassinations. Jumblatt did not identify the prospective targets of such operations. BS

ISRAELI MILITARY CLAIMS IRANIANS NEAR NORTHERN BORDER. Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) personnel located along that country's northern border claim they have detected Iranian personnel on the Lebanese side of the frontier, Jerusalem's Channel 2 television reported on January 19. Brigadier General Alon Friedman, head of IDF Northern Command Headquarters, said the Iranians are visible to the naked eye. "They are not soldiers, but we know definitely that they are associated with Iran," Friedman said. "We can see them easily." Friedman did not explain how the Iranians' nationality was determined. BS

IRAN'S ONGOING DIPLOMATIC SHUFFLE LEAVES VEXING QUESTIONS. Tehran is expected to dispatch new ambassadors to London and Paris as part of an ongoing diplomatic shuffle that began shortly after President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's inauguration in August. Hints of the diplomatic housecleaning emerged last fall, with reports that the envoys to the UN mission in Geneva, Germany, Malaysia, and France and the U.K. had been recalled or would soon be replaced. Could the appointment of experienced envoys to two European capitals consolidate hard-line gains in the diplomatic corps -- or keep more radical elements at bay?

Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Mostafavi announced in early June that Iran's new ambassadors to the United Kingdom and France would take their posts soon. Ali Ahani -- whose most recent assignment is ambassador to Belgium and the European Union and who has previously served as ambassador to East Germany, France, and Italy -- is headed to Paris. Rasul Movahedian-Attar, who has served as ambassador to Portugal, will serve as Tehran's ambassador in London.

Their posts have been in limbo since observers warned of a looming purge of Iran's diplomatic corps by the new president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, months after he took office in August.

Ahmadinejad had embarked on a confrontational foreign policy path, and it appeared that he would select foreign representatives more in tune with his tougher approach -- particularly on the nuclear issue.

Cleaning House

The rapporteur of Iranian legislature's national security and foreign policy committee, Kazem Jalali, said at the time that the Foreign Ministry had submitted a list of 30-40 envoys who would be "removed, replaced, or whose tenure will come to an end" by March 21, 2006, according to the Iranian Students news Agency (ISNA).

Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki confirmed that statement, adding that "some ambassadors have reached the retirement age or asked for early retirement," Fars News Agency reported on November 2, 2005. At the same time, Mottaki denied that Iran's permanent representative at the United Nations in New York, Mohammad Javad Zarif, would be replaced.

The substitution of foreign envoys is not unusual for an incoming executive like President Ahmadinejad. But complaints soon emerged over perceived delays in naming replacements.

In late January, a reformist daily, "Etemad-i Melli," on January 28 quoted anonymous sources who said the ambassadors to France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom had been selected, as well as a new representative to the UN mission in Geneva. But the newspaper also argued that the new ambassadors selected by Ahmadinejad's fundamentalist government had neither the "experience, expertise, [nor] command enjoyed by their counterparts in the reform government [of Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami]." The paper conceded that they were not complete novices. It named Movahedian-Attar and Ahani among the planned appointments.

The paper added that Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh, who most recently represented Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna and who previously served as ambassador to the U.K. and to Pakistan, would be sent to Paris. It predicted that Alireza Moayeri, who previously served as deputy foreign minister for research, would serve in Berlin.

Abolfazl Zohrevand, who served as the consul in Herat, would serve as ambassador in Rome, the reformist daily continued. While Zohrevand is a relatively junior figure, he reportedly is close to Mujtaba Hashemi-Samarei, one of the president's top advisers. The daily added that Zarif, the representative at the United Nations, is "facing enormous pressure to resign."

The selection of Ahani, Movahedian, and Zohrevand was confirmed in early February by another reformist daily, "Mardom Salari" reported on February 6.

Writing On The Wall

An official report in mid-April then announced that 60 of Iran's ambassadors would be replaced. The appointment of two specific diplomatic representatives was announced at that time. Ambassador to the IAEA Ali-Asghar Soltanieh would take over as the new Iranian representative at the UN office in Vienna, while Soltanieh would replace Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh, who would serve as ambassador in Berlin, Mehr News Agency reported on April 16.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Assefi has said that the replacement of 60-70 ambassadors has been planned since Ahmadinejad took office, IRNA reported on April 18. He added that 120 ambassadors are replaced every three years -- or 40 ambassadors in an average year.

Some Iranians have been critical of the diplomatic housecleaning, arguing that mass personnel changes might weaken the country's diplomatic apparatus. Others have recommended waiting to see whether the replacements are truly qualified or mere political appointees, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on April 18.

But legislator Suleiman Jafarzadeh hailed the changes as long overdue. He praised President Ahmadinejad's policies, and said that only ambassadors who believe in them wholeheartedly can act convincingly and effectively. Jafarzadeh suggested that "one of the reasons the Ahmadinejad government has not had a suitable image abroad is the failure by the ambassadors to adequately defend [Ahmadinejad's] image around the world." He called such a failure "a betrayal of Ahmadinejad."

The country's powerful hard-line Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) has remained in the background during all this diplomatic bloodletting. But should the new ambassadors and the Foreign Ministry stumble, the IRGC is ready to fill the vacuum. The IRGC's public-relations chief, Seyyed Ahmad Mohieddin Morshedi, said in mid-May that the IRGC is well known internationally and is ready to participate in international relations, "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on May 17. The spokesman explained that "the IRGC has military relations with many countries, and those who want to stand against tyranny in the world follow our model." He cited Hizballah as an example of a "purely Lebanese system," adding ominously that while the IRGC has "no direct part in it...our models significantly influence the revolutionary movements of Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan." The spokesman also said that while "the IRGC is not a meddler, it has a part to play in international diplomacy." (Bill Samii)

UNITED KINGDOM GETS NEW IRANIAN AMBASSADOR. The Iranian Foreign Ministry announced on June 19 that Rasul Movahedian-Attar has been selected as Iran's ambassador to London, IRNA reported on June 20. Movahedian-Attar previously served as ambassador in Prague and in Lisbon. The appointment could prove significant in connection with the United Kingdom's role in nuclear diplomacy. BS

IRANIAN OFFICIALS HAIL SCO MEETING IN SHANGHAI. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi on June 18 described as "positive" the recent meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), IRNA reported. By attending the event, Assefi continued, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad had the opportunity to inform his counterparts of the Iranian stance on a number of issues. Iran currently has observer status in the SCO but has expressed an interest in full membership, and Assefi said Iran would like to increase its cooperation with member states on a variety of issues.

One day earlier, Ahmadinejad said his trip to Shanghai was useful, state radio reported. Ahmadinejad spoke with Russian President Putin, saying, "We share same views in many areas including regional security, world peace, and development of economic ties. We made good decisions regarding the energy issue." Ahmadinejad also met with Chinese President Hu Jintao, saying, "We have a high rate of official and unofficial trade exchange with China, including mutual investment, commerce, and industry. We discussed current issues facing Asia and the international community. Fortunately, we share the same views on these issues." BS

DOES THE ROAD TO SHANGHAI GO THROUGH TEHRAN? New variables are entering the geopolitical calculus of Central Asia. An ongoing Russian-Uzbek rapprochement is only the most visible sign of resurgent Russian influence in the region, which is an important source of natural gas to feed Moscow's ambitions of becoming a 21st-century energy superpower. Chinese interest in Central Asian energy resources is also growing. And the United States continues to maintain close, energy-inflected ties with Kazakhstan and a military base in Kyrgyzstan. But the newest variable is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which brings together China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan in an ambiguous alliance that many in the West are beginning to view with trepidation.

The SCO will soon celebrate its fifth anniversary with a summit of member states' leaders in Shanghai on June 15. Last year's summit, in Kazakhstan, was notable for a declaration asking members of the "antiterrorist coalition" to provide a time frame for the withdrawal of military forces from SCO territory. It was a pointed reference to U.S. military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Only two weeks later, Uzbekistan evicted the United States from its Karshi-Khanabad air base.

This year, the summit will open against a backdrop of reports that Iran, which currently holds observer status in the SCO (along with India, Mongolia, and Pakistan), is looking to become a full-fledged member.

'OPEC With Bombs'?

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mohammadi set the speculation rippling in April, when he said that Iran hopes to join the SCO in the summer. The foreign ministers of Kazakhstan and Tajikistan subsequently downplayed the possibility, citing a lack of formal mechanisms to accommodate new members. But the gambit, coming in the context of Iran's strained relations with the West over Tehran's nuclear program, drew notice. "The Washington Times" quoted David Wall, professor at the University of Cambridge's East Asia Institute, as saying that "an expanded SCO would control a large part of the world's oil and gas reserves and nuclear arsenal. It would essentially be an OPEC with bombs."

As it emerged that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad would attend the SCO summit in Shanghai, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also addressed the issue of Iran's potential membership of the organization, "The New York Times" reported on June 4. Singling out Iran, Rumsfeld remarked that it was "passing strange that one would want to bring into an organization that says it is against terrorism one of the leading terrorist nations in the world."

SCO Secretary-General Zhang Deguang quickly retorted, AP reported on June 7, firing back: "We cannot abide by other countries calling our observer nations sponsors of terror. We would not have invited them if we believed they sponsored terror."

Mutual Support

Three points follow from the reactions to the SCO's Iranian gambit. First, the SCO represents an approach to multilateral relations and an understanding of terrorism that do not, in fact, define Iran as a sponsor of terror and would permit Iran's accession. Second, it is unlikely that Iran will join the SCO in the near future. And third, even if Iran joined, the SCO would have a long way to go before becoming a genuine "OPEC with bombs."

The SCO's charter helps to explain why SCO states -- primarily China and Russia -- do not consider Iran a sponsor of terrorism. While the charter's "aims and objections" list "joint opposition to terrorism, separatism, and extremism in all their manifestations," its first principle is "mutual respect for states' sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity and the sanctity of borders, nonaggression, noninterference in internal affairs, the non-use of force or the threat of force in international relations, and renunciation of unilateral military superiority in contiguous areas."

The crux of the matter is that, for SCO member states, "terrorism, separatism, and extremism" are viewed not as distinct abstract phenomena with global relevance to be dealt with globally, but rather as a single phenomenon that is locally defined by the ruling elite and left to sovereign states to combat by any means they see fit. For Russia, it is Chechen separatism; for China, Uighur "splittism"; for Uzbekistan, religious extremism. The task of SCO member-states is to support each other as they combat perceived threats to existing power relations, as Russia and China did when Uzbekistan labeled May 2005 unrest in Andijon "terrorism" and crushed it with maximum force.

It is the locally bounded definition of terrorism that leads SCO member states to reject the labeling of Iran as a sponsor of terror, and the globally defined emphasis on sovereignty and non-interference that makes them amenable to granting Iran membership. Iran does not support Chechen separatists, Uighur "splittists," or Uzbek "religious extremists." The SCO's understanding of terrorism is not based on globally applied principles -- hence the inclusion of the fight against "terrorism, extremism, and separatism" in the charter's aims and objectives. So if Iran chooses to support individuals and groups it defines as "legitimate resistance" in a theater outside the SCO region, that is Iran's business. But absolute sovereignty and non-interference are global principles to the SCO (hence their inclusion in the charter's principles), which is thus sympathetic to Tehran's plight as, in their view, a sovereign state that is the target of outside interference.

Tehran Overreaching

That said, Iran remains an unlikely candidate for full membership of the SCO. The possibility of Iranian membership has raised the organization's profile on the international arena. But actual Iranian membership could significantly reduce the leeway that leading members China and Russia have until now enjoyed in the diplomatic jockeying over Iran's nuclear program. As Yevgeny Morozov put it in a June 8 commentary on TCSDaily, Moscow and Beijing don't want to be responsible for "Iran's loony statements about Israel or its nuclear program." RIA-Novosti political commentator Dmitry Kosyrev made a similar point in an Outside View op-ed for UPI on June 8. Kosyrev argued that Iran "will not join in the foreseeable future" because the SCO is having trouble coping with a flood of new initiatives and needs to put its current house in order before expanding.

Yet even if Iran were to join the SCO, would it strengthen or weaken the organization? Today, the solid common ground in the SCO is its emphasis on non-interference -- a not-so-subtle expression of unhappiness with Western cajoling on rights and reforms. Beyond that, individual members have their own concerns. For Central Asian governments, any forum that allows them to balance Chinese and Russian interests holds obvious attraction. For Beijing, the primary significance of the SCO appears to be as a vehicle for managing China's growing commercial and energy interests in Central Asia. For Moscow, it is an eastward-looking body that goes beyond the borders of formerly Soviet space.

Furthermore, the SCO's four Central Asian members share numerous unsettled scores of their own. And specific Russian and Chinese interests in the region have the potential to diverge significantly, especially if China starts pushing for expanded access to Central Asian energy resources currently exported through Russia. On the military front, while Russia and China held war games in August under the SCO aegis and the organization plans counterterrorism exercises in Russia in 2007, Russia still handles the bulk of its military involvement in Central Asia through the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

Iran surely shares the SCO's particular understanding of non-interference. But beyond this common ground, it has a host of its own concerns -- most of them bound up with the politics of the Middle East, not Central Asia. It is difficult to see how the addition of those concerns to the SCO's already disparate mix of Chinese, Russian, and Central Asian interests would lend the organization greater cohesion or clout.

Nevertheless, the SCO represents two tendencies that are likely to become increasingly pronounced in international affairs. The first is the natural resistance of entrenched domestic elites to outside pressures that they perceive as a threat to their hold on power. The second is a desire to turn that common ground into a platform for greater global influence in the face of what the secondary and tertiary powers see as the primary power in the current world order. As an expression of these rising tendencies, the SCO is noteworthy whether it expands or contracts. (Daniel Kimmage)

UN REFUGEE AGENCY DESCRIBES ACTIVITIES IN IRAN. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) described the nature of its efforts in Iran in its "Global Report 2005," which was released on June 19, one day before World Refugee Day. Some 289,600 Afghan refugees repatriated in 2005, and 5,200 Iraqis returned to their homeland in 2005, according to the report. The UNHCR regards it as important to ensure that repatriations are voluntary and to alleviate residency restrictions in Iran. The UNHCR reported that access for its screening teams was "restricted," although they could have helped prevent the wrongful arrest of documented Afghan refugees during a clampdown on undocumented workers. Overall, UNHCR reported, the number of "arbitrary arrests and deportations" fell in Iran in 2005. The UNHCR report did not specify the number of refugees currently in Iran. "For the millions of displaced persons around the world, please help to keep their hope alive and remember World Refugee Day," UNHCR goodwill ambassador Angelina Jolie urged in a webcast on the UNHCR website. BS

IRANIAN MINISTERS ADDRESS NEW HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL. Iranian Justice Minister Jamal Karimirad and Foreign Minister Mottaki addressed the newly established UN Human Rights Council at its June 22 meeting in Geneva, IRNA reported. Karimirad complained that UN human rights rapporteurs gave factually incorrect and politically motivated reports on the countries they visited. He said he hopes that major powers do not interfere in the activities of the new council. Karimirad said he discussed cooperation with his counterparts from other countries including Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.

Mottaki told the audience that cultural and religious diversity threaten human rights, IRNA reported. He added that the dominance of great powers undermines the legitimacy of UN human rights organs. Mottaki complained of alleged "mass killings" that the "Great Powers" either support or commit directly, citing the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prison as examples.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) on June 21 condemned the presence of Tehran Prosecutor-General Said Mortazavi in the Iranian delegation to the UN Human Rights Council. A former press-court judge, Mortazavi has ordered the closure of upward of 100 publications and is implicated in numerous cases of torture, illegal detention, and coercion of false confessions, according to the media watchdog. Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi died in Evin prison in June 2003 while in the custody of personnel led by Mortazavi; her body allegedly showed signs of torture. The deputy director of HRW's Middle East and North Africa division, Joe Stork, described Mortazavi as "the poster child for rampant impunity in Iran." BS

RUSSIAN LEGISLATOR HAILS POSSIBLE 'GAS ALLIANCE' WITH IRAN. Mikhail Margelov, who chairs the Federation Council's International Relations Committee, was quoted on June 17 by the state-run daily "Rossiiskaya Gazeta" as saying that Putin's recent meeting in Shanghai with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad could mark the beginning of a "gas alliance" between the two countries that would benefit them both (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," June 19, 2006). At their meeting, Ahmadinejad suggested that the two countries work together to determine the price of natural gas. Margelov noted that "considering that Iran ranks second in the world after Russia in terms of gas reserves, a coordinated gas policy for our countries could make the blue-fuel market more stable and predictable."

In related news, the daily "Gazeta" on June 19 discussed the possible implications of an Iranian offer for Gazprom to participate in a gas pipeline linking Iran, Pakistan, and India, which could be extended to China. The paper noted that Russia could exert pressure on its European customers by participating in a pipeline project that would link it to potential Asian buyers. The daily added, however, that "the only problem is that Europe might decide to deal with Russia's gas blackmail seriously and find alternative energy sources. In that case, Russia would have to sell its gas to Asia, but [Asians] won't pay the high prices that Russia charges Europe. Moreover, Gazprom is preparing to help Iran, which is a potential competitor" on the European market. (Patrick Moore)

SUSPECTED IRANIAN DRUG SMUGGLERS DETAINED IN MUMBAI. Three Iranians allegedly carrying $545,000 worth of cocaine were arrested at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai late on June 20, the PTI news agency from New Delhi reported the next day. Senior Police Inspector C.K. Chavan alleged that Iraj Seifullah Davudnadi, Mohammad Raja Rajabali Ghanbali, and Azizullah Habibullah Kheri were about to board an aircraft headed for Tehran. In Tehran on June 20, Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai complained that Iran has not received much international assistance in its counternarcotics campaign, Mehr News Agency reported. Speaking at a meeting of NGOs that deal with drug abuse, Rezai said the central government must develop a plan that will encourage international cooperation with Iran. BS

AHMADINEJAD'S POPULARITY VARIOUSLY DESCRIBED. Unnamed "Iranian officials and Western diplomats" say President Ahmadinejad's popularity is "surging" among his compatriots, "The Guardian" newspaper reported on June 21. A Tehran University political science professor, Nasser Hadian-Jazy, told the newspaper, "He's more popular now than a year ago." The trend is being attributed to the president's populism, his communication skills, and his provincial tours. An article in the June 19 issue of "Mardom Salari" newspaper, on the other hand, reports that the president's popularity has fallen sharply because of his inability to make good on his campaign promises. "Mardom Salari" reports that while people respect his modest lifestyle and apparent dedication to resolving their problems, he has failed to bring the country's oil revenues to the voters' tables, as he said he would. "Gradually, Ahmadinejad and his advisers came to the conclusion that they would not be able to implement their numerous economic promises," the paper writes. Unemployment and inflation have climbed, and the administration has alienated its fundamentalist supporters, according to "Mardom Salari." BS

AFTER ONE YEAR, IS THE AHMADINEJAD HONEYMOON OVER? One year ago this week, on June 24, 2005, the little-known, hard-line mayor of Tehran was elected as Iran's president. Once in office, Mahmud Ahmadinejad quickly grabbed international headlines with his fiery rhetoric about Israel, the Holocaust, and Iran's disputed nuclear program. At home in Iran, Ahmadinejad has portrayed himself as a man of the people, with an accompanying modest lifestyle. He has vowed to improve people's economic situations and narrow the gap between rich and poor. RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari spoke with analysts and other observers about Ahmadinejad's performance and Iran's political fortunes one year into his administration.

President Ahmadinejad came to power on a populist platform that promised to serve Iranians and improve their lives. He talked of putting the country's oil wealth "on their tables," and vowed to fight corruption and pursue a path of moderation.

Ahmadinejad also promised the electorate a "government of 70 million." He said, "Without a doubt, the government emerging from the will of the people will be a government of affection and moderation -- a government of friendship, a government of tolerance. The government will serve all the Iranian people."

The energetic Ahmadinejad has spent much of his time inside the country touring Iran's provinces, frequently with talk of economic sweeteners.

Unlike his reformist predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, who spoke of "rule of law" and "civil society," Ahmadinejad speaks in terms that can be grasped quickly.

Here he was in April, promising money for local projects in Khorasan Province: "God willing, in addition to expanding the university, a scientific department will also be created here (crowd cheers). Let me also add something else about the youth: In the government meeting, [we will decide] about two new sports saloons for your city -- first for girls, then for boys (crowd cheers). I also love all of you."

While it is tricky to reliably track public opinion in Iran, some observers think Ahmadinejad's popularity is increasing among the broader public -- particularly those who regard him as one of their own.

His defiance toward the West and his appeals to nationalism are probably contributing to his popularity, as well.

But Dr. Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science at Tehran University, tells RFE/RL that many voters are still waiting for Ahmadinejad to fulfill his promises.

Zibakalam cites growing concern over the perceived absence of a long-term economic plan to tackle problems like inflation and unemployment. "So far, unfortunately, not only has there not been any concrete or serious results, but in the first three months of the Iranian year we've faced an unprecedented rate of inflation. What's really causing concern is that apart from nice talk and beautiful slogans, it seems that in practice Ahmadinejad's government does not have a concrete and well-designed plan."

Last week, a group of 50 prominent Iranian economists publicly criticized Ahmadinejad policies for "lacking a scientific and expert basis." They argued that current policies will lead to more poverty, economic slowdown, and brain drain.

They also warned that more of the same could reduce trust in the government.

Professor Zibakalam claims that Ahmadinejad's government is reversing a trend toward economic liberalization and free markets: "We are witnessing tighter government control over the economy. This will lead to a faster capital flight and also to a deterrence of the very little foreign investment that has existed."

Ahmadinejad has also been criticized for increasing the influence of the hard-line Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on the political scene -- and replacing senior managers with relatively inexperienced ideological allies.

"A new group of conservatives that we call the neo-conservatives have come to power," according to Hussein Bastani, editor of the online "Rooz" daily. Bastani continued: "They are usually second-generation conservative managers who in the past 27 years have been in middle management or lower posts. They have been involved in military bodies. Because of their lack of experience in top management, many slogans and ideals that have proven impractical [in the minds of] conservatives still seem attainable for them -- like a state-controlled economy."

Some in Iran's existing power structure have criticized Ahmadinejad for official purges and a confrontational approach to politics.

The influential former President Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and the former head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council are among those critics.

Bastani says there is a growing rift among conservatives who, since Ahmadinejad's election, have gained control of all of Iran's levers of power. "In a very short time, [Ahmadinejad] has created an unprecedented rift among the conservatives. And, in fact, although he came to power promising to bring unity to the establishment, he has in fact been unable to fulfill that [promise] like his other promises. It seems that the international crisis over Iran's nuclear program is now holding the establishment together, so all the disputes have been postponed until after the [nuclear] crisis is resolved."

There are other developments that are causing serious concern among intellectuals and human rights activists.

Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, a cofounder of the Tehran based Center of Human Rights Defenders, tells RFE/RL that Iran's political atmosphere is becoming increasingly "tight-knit." He also says the human rights situation is deteriorating: "We have gone backward, and we have lost the progress that was achieved under [President] Khatami and the new hope. We see that NGOs do not enjoy the freedom they had -- gatherings are facing new judiciary action, and journalists are facing new [pressures]. Another disastrous implication is that political views have cast a shadow on cultural matters."

There are also reports of growing pressure on universities -- including the summoning and expulsion of student activists.

Last month's arrest of a leading philosopher and scholar, Ramin Jahanbegloo, has added to concerns over academic freedoms.

But for most low-income Iranians, the number-one priority remains how to deal with problems like poverty and unemployment.

Many observers suggest that Ahmadinejad has given them hope, and increased their expectations of a better future.

But if those expectations go unfulfilled, the honeymoon might soon be over.