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Iran Report: July 7, 2006

July 7, 2006, Volume 9, Number 24

NEW FOREIGN POLICY COUNCIL COULD AFFECT IRAN-U.S RELATIONS. The creation in Iran this week of a foreign policy council connected with the Supreme Leader's Office may reflect a desire to balance the brash and inexperienced foreign affairs apparatus of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad with the more measured input of elder statesmen. It also could be a sign of the Iranian leadership's outright dissatisfaction with the Ahmadinejad team. A third possibility is that the new council will serve as a back-channel foreign policy instrument. Coming on the heels of Washington's willingness to take part in multilateral talks with Tehran on the nuclear issue, the creation of this council could have profound implications on Iran-U.S. relations.

The new Strategic Council for Foreign Relations (Shora-yi Rahbordi-yi Ravabet-i Khareji) was created by a June 25 decree from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The council is supposed to facilitate the country's decision-making process, find new foreign policy approaches, and make use of foreign policy experts, according to the decree.

Vast Experience On Council

The council's membership reflects a search for practical expertise. Kamal Kharrazi, who served as foreign minister from 1997-2005, will head the council. Other members are Ali Akbar Velayati, who preceded Kharrazi as foreign minister and who currently serves as Khamenei's foreign affairs adviser, and former Islamic Revolution Guards Corp admiral Ali Shamkhani, who served as defense minister from 1997-2005. These three officials have experience in the highest levels of foreign policy.

Two other council members -- Mohammad Shariatmadari and Mohammad-Hussein Taremi-Rad -- are not as well known. Shariatmadari's whole career, it seems, has been spent in the Commerce Ministry, and he served as minister from 1997-2005. Taremi-Rad is the only cleric on the council. An alumni of the hard-line Haqqani Seminary, he has headed the Iranian Center for Historical Studies since May 1997 but, more significantly, has served as ambassador to China and Saudi Arabia.

The cumulative experience of this council surpasses that of the youthful and inexperienced foreign policy team under President Ahmadinejad. Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki is a relatively young 53 years old, although he has served as a foreign envoy (ambassador to Turkey from 1985-1989 and ambassador to Japan from 1994-1999) and also as a legislator. Individuals named to ambassadorial postings have been criticized for their relative inexperience, furthermore, and the replacement by Ahmadinejad of some 60 envoys in important posts such as Berlin, Brussels, London, and Paris, is viewed as disruptive.

Unhappy With The President...

The creation of the new foreign relations council is the most recent indication that Supreme Leader Khamenei is concerned about Ahmadinejad's confrontational approach as well as his management style. Shortly after the president's August 2005 inauguration, Khamenei tasked the Expediency Council with overseeing the system's policies by supervising the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government and reporting on their performance to him.

This development was followed by the addition of old foreign affairs hands -- former Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani and former President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami -- to the Expediency Council's Strategic Research Center. The Expediency Council must consider any issue submitted to it by the supreme leader, according to the Iranian Constitution (Article 112), so it appeared that he was turning to it for foreign policy advice.

This coincided with speculation that responsibility for the nuclear account no longer rested with the Supreme National Security Council, which is chaired by the president. Expediency Council chief Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, however, rejected such claims and observed that decisions on this subject are reached collectively.

Collective decision-making almost certainly continues to be the case. Last autumn, however, there were calls for the creation of a foreign-policy guidance team. The new Strategic Council for Foreign Relations appears to fulfill that role. The leadership is keen to preserve the illusion of unity within the governing system, so it will not publicly chastise or shunt aside the executive branch of government. Behind the scenes -- where real power is wielded -- it could be that this is what has happened.

...Or A Means To Talk To The U.S.?

The third possible explanation for the creation of this foreign relations council rests in Supreme Leader Khamenei's repeated disavowals of any interest in holding talks with the U.S. Most recently, during a June 27 meeting in Tehran, he said, "Talking with America does not have any benefits for us; and we do not need such talks," state television reported. Nevertheless, it was Khamenei who in March defended Tehran's willingness to discuss Iraqi affairs with Washington bilaterally. He may not favor talks with Washington, but he or his advisers recognize that they are necessary if the nuclear impasse is to be resolved.

The Strategic Council for Foreign Relations could conduct such talks away from the limelight that an official diplomatic delegation would attract. Indeed, one of the council members, Velayati, has been used for such communications in the past. He established an office in Dubai to facilitate clandestine contacts with U.S. officials in the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported in August 2002. More recently, he was in Riyadh to relay a direct message from Khamenei to the Saudi monarch.

Some observers hope the new foreign relations council will supplant the executive branch in foreign affairs. An enthusiastic "Sharq" on June 27 described this as the return of the "moderates" to foreign relations. The pro-reform daily noted that the council has the makings of a presidential cabinet -- a military person (Shamkhani), a commerce person (Shariatmadari), and a political and cultural person (Velayati), working along with the head of the council (Kharrazi).

At this early stage it is difficult to determine if this will be the precise role of the new council. Executive branch spokesman Gholam-Hussein Elham put on a brave face, saying on June 26 that the council will add new views on foreign policy, but it is not empowered to interfere with the Foreign Ministry or Supreme National Security Council, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. Kharrazi, the head of the council, was more blunt, suggesting that the executive branch has failed to implement national strategies. He said on June 27 that Supreme Leader Khamenei "sensed a deficiency" in which there was no strategy for the implementation of his policies, IRNA reported. He said the council will devise appropriate strategies and present them to Khamenei. If he approves the strategies, Kharrazi continued, the relevant foreign policy bodies will act accordingly. (Bill Samii)

SUPREME LEADER QUESTIONS USEFULNESS OF TALKS WITH U.S. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said during a June 27 meeting with Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade that talks with the United States would be of no benefit to Iran, state television reported. However, Khamenei did not appear to rule out the suspension of some aspects of Iran's controversial nuclear program. "We shall not negotiate with anyone over our absolute right to acquire nuclear technology and to benefit from this technology," Khamenei was quoted as saying. "However, if they were to recognize this right of ours, we are ready to talk about controls, supervision, and international guarantees. And grounds have been paved for such talks, too."

Khamenei ascribed Iran's technical and scientific accomplishments to necessity that resulted from "resistance in the face of the arrogant powers' conspiracies and excessive demands."

Khamenei added that President Mahmud Ahmadinejad will participate in the upcoming Organization of African Unity (OAU) meeting as an observer. The OAU should meet in Banjul, Gambia, in early July, according to the organization's website. Khamenei discussed Islamic unity and claimed that the United States and the "Zionist regime" oppose the emergence of a powerful global Muslim community.

Khamenei told Justice Ministry and judiciary officials on June 28 that national officials are expected to strengthen the country against "hegemonic powers" by promoting "responsibility and national solidarity," IRNA reported. Khamenei said popular support serves as security for the government. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN CRITICIZES U.S. AND U.K. ON HUMAN RIGHTS. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on June 27 that the United States cannot credibly criticize any other country's human rights record, Fars News Agency reported. Assefi was reacting to Washington's critical comments about the Iranian delegation at the previous week's United Nations Human Rights Council meeting. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said on June 23, "We join the government of Canada in deploring the presence of Tehran general prosecutor Said Mortazavi at the inaugural meeting of the Human Rights Council in Geneva," AFP reported the next day. Assefi referred to the military prison for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and added, "America is the main culprit for violating human rights in the world." U.S. support for Israel is another example of the lack of U.S. respect for human rights, Assefi claimed.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry protested on June 26 against human rights violations in the United Kingdom, IRNA reported. In a note to the Foreign Office, Tehran referred to alleged "systematic" violations of human rights in the guise of counterterrorism, and it noted the early-June raid on the London home of a Muslim family, as well as last year's killing of a Brazilian who appeared to flee from police.

Also on June 26, Mahmud Ahmadinejad accepted the credentials of the British ambassador to Iran, Geoffrey Adams, Mehr news agency reported. Adams arrived in Tehran on April 1. Ahmadinejad told Adams that the United Kingdom must take practical steps to compensate for its past policies toward Iran. Ahmadinejad also called for calm regarding the nuclear issue. According to state television, Adams responded, "Britain intends to improve its relations with Tehran on the basis of mutual respect and the principles of international relations; and is prepared to learn a lesson from history and lay the foundations of new ties." (Bill Samii)

AHMADINEJAD HEADS FOR GAMBIA. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad left Tehran on June 29 to attend the Organization for African Unity conference in Banjul, Gambia, Iranian news agencies reported. Ahmadinejad met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei before his departure, IRNA reported, and the cleric prayed for the president's success. Iran has observer status at the conference, and Ahmadinejad is scheduled to give a speech at the event -- Iran is making strenuous efforts to enlist the backing of developing countries in the controversy over its nuclear program. Ahmadinejad said before his departure that he will spend 36 hours in Gambia, state television reported, and most of his time will be committed to discussing bilateral relations. (Bill Samii)

WORLD AWAITS IRAN'S RESPONSE TO NUCLEAR PROPOSAL. Tehran has repeatedly denied seeking nuclear weapons. Iran could, however, build an atomic bomb by 2009 if it prepares for the production of highly enriched uranium this year, American physicist David Albright writes in the July-August edition of the "Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists," Reuters reported on June 29.

The international community, meanwhile, is encouraging Iran to respond a proposal it received in early June that calls for the implementation of certain measures -- such as the suspension of uranium enrichment and greater cooperation with nuclear inspectors -- while the peaceful nature of its nuclear program is ascertained.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow on June 29 that G8 foreign ministers expect Iran to reply "soon," RIA-Novosti reported. France's Philippe Douste-Blazy said in Moscow on June 29 that Tehran must respond to the proposal "by 15 July," AFP reported. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Kabul on June 28 that the world awaits an authoritative response from Tehran, the State Department reported ( She added, "We've made very clear that we need an answer soon," and referred to "weeks, not months."

Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani said on June 29 that Iran will not submit to pressure on the nuclear issue, state television reported. "As we have said, a harsh approach to Iran's nuclear case would not yield any results. Iranian people would not forfeit their irrefutable rights," Larijani said. The international community's proposal, which Larijani received from visiting EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana on June 6, "was a positive step forward." Larijani spoke optimistically about his talks with Solana in the coming week. Larijani denied that Iran is facing a deadline, IRNA reported. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN DENIES INTERFERING IN IRAQ. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi denied on June 24 that Iran is interfering in Iraqi affairs, IRNA reported. The previous week, Ambassador David Satterfield, currently the senior adviser for Iraq to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and General George Casey, the top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, ascribing to Iran support for insurgent activities. Assefi said such accusations are meant to hide alleged U.S. failings in Iraq, and he added that Washington wants a weak Iraqi state in order to justify its occupation. (Bill Samii)

WORLD NARCOTICS SUPPLY REDUCED, BUT IRAN AND AFGHANISTAN STILL SUFFERING. As the United Nations marks its International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking today, there is some good news: according to the UN's latest World Drug Report, global opium production fell last year. Though it is a welcome development, the head of the UN's counternarcotics office says Afghan opium production could increase this year. That will have a strong impact on Iran, which has the world's highest drug-seizure rate but also suffers from drug crime and abuse problems. While the UN believes a reduction in demand for drugs is the most important aspect of counternarcotics, the Iranian government continues to emphasize supply interdiction.

Global opium production is estimated to have reached 4,620 tons in 2005 -- 5 percent less than the previous year, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime's (UNODC) World Drug Report 2006, which was released on June 26.

UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa gave an overview of which countries are growing the opium.

Good Year, But Much More To Do

"By and large, 90 percent is from Afghanistan," he said. "There is still a certain amount of cultivation -- I think over 30,000 hectares but going down rapidly -- in Myanmar (eds: Burma). On the 14th of February this year we certified Laos as opium free; there is practically nothing from... Thailand; about 5,000-6,000 hectares were detected over time in Colombia -- to some extent eradicated but some is still there -- and the Colombia crop goes to the United States while the Afghanistan crop goes basically to Europe, China, and Russia."

Overall cultivation figures from Afghanistan have fallen, but cultivation in some areas of the country has increased. There are indications, furthermore, that opium poppy planting increased this year, particularly in the south.

Some 24 percent of all the opiates produced annually are eventually seized by security forces. Afghanistan produced some 4,100 tons of opium in 2005, so it is natural that its neighbors -- Iran, Pakistan, and China -- accounted for the highest seizure rates.

Reducing Demand Also Important

But Costa says it is not enough to interdict drugs or even to eliminate opium crops. Costa recommended aggressive measures be made to reduce demand for narcotics.

"We can consider drugs as an addiction problem and therefore a behavioral problem," he said. "We can consider drugs as a cultivation [and] an economic problem; but by and large it's a market, with a demand and a supply. An illicit market -- an 'evil' market, if you wish -- but still it has a demand and a supply. Like for any other product, if you cut the supply the demand persists. Something is going to happen. First of all the price will skyrocket."

Costa added that more people will enter the drug business as it becomes more lucrative, and therefore more land will be devoted to drug production. It is also possible that heroin addicts will turn to other drugs that could be more dangerous.

"Therefore, my plea is indeed to forcefully act on curbing the cultivation, and also, and perhaps even more forcefully, acting on reducing demand, namely abuse, namely consumption."

According to the UN report, narcotics trafficking to Central Asia and Pakistan has decreased, whereas trafficking towards Iran has increased. Almost 60 percent of Afghan opiates go to or through Iran and, according to the UNODC, this figure will rise. But UNODC chief Costa also pointed out that Africa is playing an increasingly important role in drug trafficking as interdiction efforts make it more difficult for traffickers to use traditional routes.

"Africa is under threat. Nobody suspects transhipment of narcotics from Africa into Europe," Costa said. "Therefore, traffickers are using Africa to transship cocaine coming from Colombia and the [Andes mountain region] and heroin coming from South Asia and Afghanistan, in particular."

Drugs Causing Problems In Iran

The amount of narcotics entering Iran is having a profound impact on public health. Dr. Mohammad Mehdi Gooya, the chief of the Iranian Health Ministry's disease-management center, said in April that approximately 3.7 million Iranians abuse drugs, "Mardom Salari" reported on April 18. He said there are 2.5 million addicts, and that some 137,000 inject drugs occasionally.

Gooya said that research conducted five years earlier in six cities in Tehran Province found that many addicts are female sex workers.

He added that, "Some 94.8 percent of AIDS patients are men, and 64.3 percent of them caught the disease through the use of infected and shared syringes, while only 7.3 percent caught AIDS through sexual intercourse."

The impact of narcotics on the Iranian penal system is noticeable as well. More than 60 percent of the country's convicts, Iranian officials say, have been imprisoned for drug-related crimes. And more than 10,000 narcotics traffickers and drug users have been executed over the past few decades, while hundreds more face the death penalty.

Ali Akbar Yesaqi, the head of Iran's Prisons, Security, and Corrections Organization, said some 50,000 people go to prison every month, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on June 14. Yesaqi said that the prison population increased by 1.7 percent in the last year. He added that some 70 percent of the prisoners seek drugs, and he admitted that it is difficult to prevent drugs from getting into prisons.

Another prison organization official, Mohammad Ali Zanjirei, said drug-related crimes are the most common in 19 of Iran's 30 provinces, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on June 20.

The narcotics trade is not just having an impact on the public-health sector and the penal system. The Iranian government says more than 3,000 security officers have lost their lives fighting drug trafficking, and Tehran asserts that it has spent billions of dollars creating static defenses along its 1,800 kilometer border with Afghanistan and Pakistan. As most of the drugs smuggled into Iran are destined for Europe, Iranian officials say Western states should be greater financial support to their efforts.

Iranian Officials Speak Out

Fada Hussein Maleki, the secretary-general of Iran's Drug Control Headquarters, addressed these issues in a speech before the June 23 Friday Prayers sermon at Tehran University. He criticized American and British efforts in Afghanistan because of the failure to stop drug trafficking, and he accused them of wanting to legalize opium cultivation, IRNA reported. Maleki added that the prevalence of crystal methamphetamine, Ecstasy, and other synthetic drugs is complicating the situation in Iran.

Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani dedicated a great deal of his June 23 sermon in Tehran to counternarcotics as well. In countries like Iran, he said, synthetic drugs are more dangerous than opium, state television reported.

Hashemi-Rafsanjani failed to discuss Iranians' demand for drugs, and he focused instead on the supply side, for which he blamed other countries. He referred to "traces of colonialism" and added: "We realize that the leaders of all these major trafficking bands that we arrest are supported by colonial countries." The West could wipe out opium in Afghanistan by using chemical sprays, Hashemi-Rafsanjani continued, and if it can track down terrorists hiding in caves, why can't it deal with narcotics dealers in the streets and heroin-manufacturers?

Iran's Expediency Council is revising current laws, Hashemi-Rafsanjani told the congregation, but the police, Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and legislature must work together as well to help combat drug use and trafficking. Public awareness is important, too, he said. "After all, if we can change the destiny of a young addict, be it a boy or a girl, and give proper guidance to a household where an addicted person was brought up, we can help prevent others from falling into this dangerous trap." Hashemi-Rafsanjani called on all citizens to work against drugs: "We should all join hands and act together to tackle the problem."

It is notable that for UNODC chief Costa reducing the demand for drugs is the most important issue, whereas Iran's leaders seem to continue to focus on reducing the supplies of drugs. More than a year ago the Iranian government said that greater attention needs to be given to reducing demand, but with the election of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad the old yet unsuccessful prioritization of law and order and interdiction have been reinstated. (Bill Samii)

HIV/AIDS RATE IN IRAN EXCEEDS PREDICTIONS Deputy Health Minister Seyyed Muayyed Alavian said on June 27 that the number of HIV/AIDS cases in Iran exceeds earlier estimates and ascribed the trend to intravenous drug use, AFP reported. "About 40,000 of the total number of intravenous drug addicts are infected with HIV," Alavian said. He warned that the number could rise to 100,000 by March 2008. Alavian said the rate of drug addiction is rising by 8 percent annually. (Bill Samii)

IRAN COMPLAINS OF INSUFFICIENT COUNTERNARCOTICS ASSISTANCE. The head of Iran's Drug Control Headquarters, Fada-Hussein Maleki, provided details on drug-seizure rates on June 25, one day before the UN-sponsored International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, Mehr News Agency reported. Maleki said Iran confiscated 360 tons of illegal drugs in the year from March 2005-March 2006. Some 955 gangs of smugglers were broken up during this time frame, he added. Maleki complained that the international community is not supporting the Iranian counternarcotics effort. The United States provided the UN with $700 million to spend on counternarcotics in Latin America in 2002, Maleki noted, while in the same year the UN provided Iran with $10 million. Maleki said Iran has asked the UN for $500 million in counternarcotics assistance.

Provincial officials, meanwhile, described some of their efforts. Ahmad Kavandi, an adviser to the governor-general of western Iran's Hamedan Province, said on June 25 that demand for narcotics is plaguing 90 percent of Iranian society in different ways, Fars News Agency reported. Kavandi said the trade in illegal drugs is demand driven, and this is why there is a supply. Demand reduction is necessary, he said.

In Urumiyeh on June 25, a police official said 439 kilograms of drugs were seized in the first three months of the Iranian year (which began on March 21), Fars News Agency reported. Qasem Rashidnejad, the deputy-chief for counternarcotics in West Azerbaijan Province, said 2,945 people were arrested in the same period for smuggling, dealing, or being addicted to drugs.

Other security efforts are under way, as well. Interior Minister Mustafa Pur-Mohammadi said in Tehran on June 27 that authorities so far have identified 10 gangs responsible for kidnappings, smuggling, terrorism, and vandalism in the eastern part of the country, IRNA reported. Not all of the gangs have links to foreigners, he added.

General Ismail Ahmadi-Moghaddam, chief of the national police force, said the previous week that domestic security issues are a priority this year, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on June 22. Seven of those responsible for May killings along the Kerman-Bam highway have been arrested and six others were killed, he said. Pur-Mohammadi said that security in the eastern part of Iran, as well as southwestern Khuzestan Province, has increased due to a strengthening of military bases in those regions, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported. Pur-Mohammadi said violent crime has decreased by 30 percent, although he did not say over what period. (Bill Samii)

RELIGIOUS OFFENSES RESULT IN SIX EXECUTIONS IN SOUTHEAST Mohammad Ebrahim Nikunam, director of the justice administration in the southeastern Sistan va Baluchistan Province, has said six people have been executed locally for violating religious laws, "Mardom Salari" reported on June 22. He did not say when the executions took place, nor did he identify the alleged violations of religious law. Nikunam noted local problems and said there are efforts under way to overcome them: "The administration and judicial system of the province are inefficient. There are many system blockages. But despite all these problems, we will use all our power in order to solve them. There is no doubt that, with the attention of the [head] of the Judiciary [Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi] and the eminent leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] to this province, the religious orders will be executed as fast as possible." (Bill Samii)

TURKISH FOREIGN MINISTER VISITS TEHRAN... On June 25, the second day of his visit to Iran, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul met with his counterpart, Manuchehr Mottaki, Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani, and parliament speaker Gholamali Haddad-Adel, IRNA reported. At a joint press conference with Mottaki, Gul said Ankara wants to see the Iranian nuclear crisis resolved peacefully and through diplomacy, as this would help the region and the world. (Bill Samii)

...AS FIGHTING ERUPTS IN NORTHWESTERN IRAN Two members of the Kurdish Pejak group were killed and two others were wounded and arrested in a clash with Iranian police in Salmas, West Azerbaijan Province, Fars News Agency reported on June 25. Pejak is affiliated with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party). Four soldiers were killed and three others were wounded during Turkish and Iranian military operations against PKK-affiliated People's Defense Forces (HPG) guerrillas on June 23, the Kurdish Roj television reported on June 24. The clash, in which one guerrilla was killed, took place in the Ozalp District of Van (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 2004.) (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN KURDS RECEIVE DISCIPLINARY SUMMONS Three Kurdish students -- Asu Saleh, Asad Baqeri, and Shuresh Moradi -- were summoned by the Kurdistan University disciplinary committee on June 17, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported. The summonses followed a protest against the "cultural situation" on campus and against the closure of the Islamic Students Association, ILNA reported. One day after that demonstration, some 18 of the participants were not allowed on campus, prompting 1,200 students to sign a petition. (Bill Samii)

MORE IRANIAN ARABS FACE EXECUTION Iraj Amirkhani, the prosecutor-general in Ahvaz, said on June 25 that the "charge sheet" for people accused of having a role in bombings in Ahvaz was issued the same day, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported. Twenty-two people are accused of crimes, he said, 19 of whom are still in prison. Amirkhani did not say when the bombings took place -- such incidents have occurred in June 2005, October 2005, and January 2005.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on June 23 that the judiciary should overturn the death sentences against at least 10 Iranian-Arabs who were convicted of plotting against the state. HRW reported that a lawyer who represents the accused said the trials were held in camera and that defense lawyers had no chance to discuss the case with their clients beforehand. The defense lawyers said that on June 7 the Revolutionary Court sentenced Zamel Bawi, Jafar Sawari, Raisan Sawari, and Abdolreza Navaseri to death. (Bill Samii)

OFFICIAL FALLOUT CONTINUES OVER AZERI PROTESTS Said Muganli, editor in chief of "Yashmaq" magazine, said on June 20 that three of his staff members arrested in connection with protests in May remain in jail, APA news agency reported. The three men -- Sirus Husseininejad, Yunes Fakhtari, and Ali Reza Qulunju -- were arrested over their roles in protests in Tehran over the publication of a cartoon that offended many ethnic Azeris. Muganli said Azeri-language media face a hostile atmosphere, and he said his magazine might be suspended.

Meanwhile, APA news agency reported on June 19 that Saleh Kamrani, the attorney representing several imprisoned Iranian-Azeris, has been arrested. Said Naimi, who chairs a committee for the protection of Azeri political prisoners, told APA that Gholamreza Amani, Abbas Lisani, Ayat Mehralibayli, and many others were jailed in connection with a march to the Babak Castle near the East Azerbaijan Province town of Kelidar. The Iranian central government normally responds to this annual commemoration of Babak Khorramdin, one of the first popular Persian leaders to oppose the imposition of Islam and Arab rule, with repressive measures (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," July 12, 2004).

Agri Qaradagli, public relations chief for the National Revival Movement of Southern Azerbaijan, said on June 29 that the annual march to the Babak Castle has commenced, APA news agency reported. According to Qaradagli, Iranian security forces detained 20 of the march's organizers and their whereabouts are unknown. He added that on the morning of June 29 seven other participants were detained after a clash with police. (Bill Samii)

RELUCTANCE TO USE OIL AS WEAPON Iranian Petroleum Minister Seyyed Kazem-Vaziri-Hamaneh said on June 25 that Iran will use oil as a weapon -- presumably restricting oil exports -- only "if the country's interests are jeopardized," Fars News Agency reported. Vaziri-Hamaneh said that under normal conditions this is not an issue, and, furthermore, Iran would like to enjoy normal relations with other countries. The imposition of sanctions, he said, would lead to oil price hikes, with the price for a barrel of oil reaching $100. (Bill Samii)

IRAN REFUTES FOOD-IMPORT CLAIMS Iranian Commerce Ministry official Mohammad Sadeq Mofatteh said on June 26 that Iran does not need to import 800,000 tons of Thai rice, Mehr News Agency reported. Mofatteh added that Iranian rice imports amount to only 650,000 tons annually, and 350,000 tons have been imported since March 21. Mofatteh was reacting to a report earlier in the "Bangkok Post" which cited the head of the Thai Foreign Trade's Grain and Conformity Bureau, Pranee Siripan, who was quoted as saying the Iranians are driving a hard bargain, and added that Iran has imported roughly 60 percent of the total rice it agreed to buy from Thailand.

In May there were reports from Thailand that Iran is importing a surplus of rice as it prepares for the possibility of economic sanctions (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," May 12, 2006).

Regardless of the amount of rice being imported, domestic production is having difficulties. In the Iranian legislature on June 11, Lahijan parliamentary representative Iraj Nadimi posed questions about the country's failure to achieve self-sufficiency in rice production and about wastage of the rice harvest, "Kayhan" reported on June 12. Agricultural Jihad Minister Mohammad Reza Eskandari responded by saying he hopes rice imports will be unnecessary in three years. The Friday Prayer leader in the northern city of Rasht, Ayatollah Zeynolabedin Qorbani, complained that Gilan Province rice paddies are not getting enough water, the city's "Moin" daily reported on June 11. (Bill Samii)