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Iran Report: October 3, 2006

October 3, 2006, Volume 9, Number 36

SHAKE-UP IN EXECUTIVE BRANCH. Abdolreza Mesri, the parliamentary representative from Kermanshah, was introduced by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad on September 25 as the new welfare and social-security minister, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. Pending a vote of confidence from the legislature, Mesri will succeed Parviz Kazemi.

An anonymous ministry official told the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) that Kazemi was replaced because he allowed subordinates to simultaneously hold leadership positions in businesses. The source claimed Kazemi hired incompetents and that the ministry did not report on its activities satisfactorily.

Presidential adviser Mujtaba Hashemi-Samareh has been selected as the new deputy interior minister for parliamentary affairs, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) and the Young Journalists Club news agency reported on September 26. He will continue to serve as a presidential adviser. Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Purmohammadi had resisted the appointment, fearing that Hashemi-Samareh would bypass him in his dealing with President Ahmadinejad. (Bill Samii)

STATE NEWS AGENCY GETS NEW BOSS. Seyyed Jalal Fayazi was selected on September 27 as the new managing director of the official Islamic Republic News Agency, IRNA reported. Fayazi succeeds Ahmad Khademolmelleh, who resigned the previous day over a dispute with Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Mohammad Hussein Safar-Harandi. Fayazi previously served as editor in chief of the daily "Qods" and was a leading member of the fundamentalist Islamic Revolution Devotees' Society, of which President Ahmadinejad is a founder. Fayazi now is associated with the Young Developers (Abadgaran-i Javan), another hard-line political organization created earlier this year.

Also on September 27, Safar-Harandi appointed Kaveh Eshtehardi -- the former news director at the conservative Mehr News Agency -- as the caretaker at "Iran" newspaper. "Iran" has been closed since May on the grounds that its publication of a cartoon led to riots by ethnic Azeris, and the trial of the editor and the cartoonist on charges of acting against national security and creating discord began recently. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN TIGHTENS CLAMPS ON PRESS. Journalists in northern Iran's Gilan Province issued a statement on September 23 calling on the government to lift its recent ban on the daily "Sharq" newspaper. The plea argued that "banning a paper is tantamount to its execution." Such concerns are unlikely to resonate with President Ahmadinejad, whose government has adopted an adversarial attitude toward the media.

Not only is the state closing newspapers that it views as insufficiently sympathetic to the government, but it is also restricting the sources they can use and the way they can cover specific subjects. The effort to shape the news is connected with governmental concern over how the public might judge its diplomatic efforts on the nuclear issue, as well as a desire to control information relating to elections scheduled for December.

Iranian government spokesman Gholam Hussein Elham said in mid-August that some media outlets have launched a smear campaign against the administration, and he called for legal action against publishers of such "slanderous reports," the dailies "Farhang-i Ashti" and "Hemayat" reported on August 20.

Elham made his complaints in a letter to Tehran prosecutor Said Mortazavi.

'Look What You Have Done'

At a subsequent news conference, reporters asked Ahmadinejad about government efforts to stifle criticism of his administration. He responded by blaming the media: "Look at what you have done to Mr. Elham to prompt him to respond in such a way. Mr. Elham likes you. You put pressure prompting him to write a letter. This is nothing compared to numerous false headlines which some people publish."

The administration's actions and statements suggest that it does not expect any media criticism, despite journalists' traditional watchdog function. Furthermore, it sees it as a duty for the media to report positively on government actions. That explains why, from the Ahmadinejad administration's perspective, national newspapers can be divided into two camps.

Those in the first camp, presidential press adviser Ali Akbar Javanfekr says, "consider themselves as the supporters and defenders of the serving government and voice support for its policies and strategies," "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on August 26. Those in the second camp backed the reformist government of President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) and now oppose the Ahmadinejad administration, criticizing it and opposing its policies, Javanfekr continued. Mostly connected with reformist parties, he said, they understate the government's strengths, look for weaknesses in its plans, and portray events in a negative light. "The nature and essence of these media are based on the objective of sabotaging the government," Javanfekr said.

Bans And Closures

Some two weeks later, the government closed the daily "Sharq" (East) and the monthlies "Nameh" (Letter), "Hafez," and "Khatereh." The Press Supervisory Board explained that in August "Sharq" had been given one month to appoint a new managing director and the newspaper replied the following month with a request for more time, ISNA reported on August 11. The ban resulted from the newspaper's failure to "reform itself," as well as its publication of a cartoon that purportedly insulted Ahmadinejad. The daily also was accused of publishing articles that insulted "religious, political, and national figures," and it was accused of "fomenting discord," IRNA reported on September 12.

The closure of "Sharq" was particularly noteworthy because the publication had taken a consistently defiant approach in its reporting. Other newspapers were either openly pro-government or, if critical, affiliated with pro-reform political groups but practicing self-censorship.

The "Sharq" shutdown was not the Ahmadinejad presidency's first salvo against the press. The Press Supervisory Board banned "Karnameh" in mid-August for publishing articles allegedly offensive to morality and chastity, and Managing Editor Negar Eskandarfar received a suspended one-year prison sentence. The same day, pro-reform activist and "Cheshmandaz" Managing Editor Lutfollah Meysami was found guilty of insulting and libeling the police, propagandizing against the system, and publishing materials that damage the system and the country. This was not Meysami's first run-in with the law, as he was summoned to court in September 2003 for allegedly publishing falsehoods.

At the end of August, the Tehran Public Court sentenced Issa Saharkhiz, managing editor of the monthly "Aftab," to four years in jail and barred him from press-related activities for five years. Saharkhiz was found guilty of publishing anticonstitutional articles and of propagandizing against the Islamic republic's political system. He also was found guilty of libel and publishing lies against the state broadcasting agency. The licenses of "Aftab" and sister publication "Akhbar-i Eqtesadi" were revoked.

The state newspaper "Iran" was closed in May for publishing a cartoon in its Friday edition that offended ethnic Azeris and led to riots. It remains closed. The trial of "Iran" Editor Mehrdad Qasemfar and cartoonist Mana Neyestani on charges of acting against national security and creating discord began recently.

Restricting Sources

The Iranian government is not limiting itself to closing media outlets due to their publication of materials that run afoul of vague laws or cross undefined red lines. It has also acted preemptively by advising publications on the subjects they can discuss and the way in which they can cover them, and it also has taken steps to limit the sources that publications can use in their reporting.

In January, the Intelligence and Security Ministry and the Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry instructed two news agencies -- ISNA and ILNA -- to coordinate their reporting on summonses, arrests, or prosecution of student and political activists with the government, Radio Farda reported on January 12. Rezai Moini of Reporters Without Borders told Radio Farda that this is a "silent" and "informal" process, and, since being inaugurated the Ahmadinejad administration has been telling the press how it can report.

In February, the Supreme National Security Council -- after the governing board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) called for referring Iran to the United Nations Security Council -- instructed publications to portray the matter in such a way that the country's diplomatic efforts seem successful and the public is not discouraged. In March, the Supreme National Security Council warned editors-in-chief to avoid publishing political analysis that differs from the country's official policy.

Then, in September, the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance reportedly provided publications with a list of 24 "reliable and valid" agencies they could use as news sources. Use of "suspicious" sources -- defined as those that criticize the Ahmadinejad administration or downplay the country's accomplishments in the last year -- was forbidden. The acceptable news sources included the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) and state radio and television (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, or IRIB), as well as the Fars, ILNA, ISNA, and Mehr news agencies.

Sensitive Time

International press watchdogs and human rights organizations -- including Amnesty International, Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters Without Borders -- have reported critically on developments in Iran over the last year. In the last month, observers have been especially outspoken about the state of the media. Committee to Defend Press Freedom spokesman Mashallah Shamsolvaezin warned that the country's press is facing one of the darkest periods of the last century, Radio Farda reported on September 6.

After the "Sharq" closure, Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani said restricting the press is harmful to the national interest and added that it is almost impossible to restrict the dissemination of information nowadays, the Mehr News Agency reported on September 13.

At least two factors explain the timing of the current media crackdown. The delicate state of nuclear talks involving Iran and the international community is one factor. If the Security Council decides to impose sanctions on Iran, the government will want to control the way Iranians are informed about this. It will seek to cast blame on other parties and avoid taking responsibility for its own diplomatic failings.

The fundamentalist Ahmadinejad administration seeks to control all information relating to the December polls for the Assembly of Experts and municipal councils, furthermore, so that the government's ideological allies will be elected and criticism of the flawed election process will be muted. (Bill Samii)

STATE MEDIA CONTROL EXTENDS TO PROVINCES, AIRWAVES. Iranian government efforts to steer public perceptions through media restrictions are not limited to mainstream newspapers in the capital. Provincial publications and journalists face mounting official pressure -- especially among those dealing with minority affairs. Official provincial television broadcasts are changing, too, in a campaign that coincides with a national campaign to curb access to foreign satellite broadcasts.

President Ahmadinejad's administration is hardly an innovator in trying to limit Iranians' access to information.

During predecessor Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami's eight years in office, more than 100 press outlets were shut down; there were frequent complaints regarding the hard-line preferences of broadcast media; and, in 2003, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) used powerful transmitters in the capital to block shortwave signals. Events at that time were mostly connected with factional domestic disputes.

But these most recent developments could be part of an effort to direct reporting on the nuclear controversy and influence upcoming elections to the Assembly of Experts and municipal councils, scheduled for December 15.

The Periphery

Press closures and official persecution of journalists occurs in the outlying provinces as well as in the capital, Tehran.

Cases affecting minorities are a particular concern for the administration, which in the past year has seen increasing unrest in regions inhabited by ethnic Arabs, Azeris, Baluchis, Kurds, and others. Tehran often blames such incidents on foreign agitators, rather than trying to determine whether protesters have genuine grievances.

A September 13 statement by Intelligence and Security Minister Gholam Hussein Mohseni-Ejei is typical, in which he refers to enemy plots in the provinces.

In the northwestern city of Sanandaj in October 2005, the cases of three Iranian-Kurdish journalists -- Ejlal Qavami, Said Saedi, and Roya Tolui -- were referred to the Revolutionary Court on the charges of acting against national security. The three were arrested after criticizing violent state suppression of unrest that summer. Tolui, who was released on bail in early 2006, said she was tortured into confessing while in jail. She escaped to the United States in early 2006.

More recently, Mohammad Sadeq Kabudvand, managing editor of the banned weekly "Payam-i Mardom," was summoned in mid-September to begin a jail term after being charged with "publishing lies and articles aimed at creating racial and tribal tension and discord." Published in Kurdish and Persian, "Payam-i Mardom" was distributed in the Kurdish regions of Ilam, Kermanshah, Kurdistan, and West Azerbaijan provinces.

In southwestern Khuzestan Province, which is home to many members of the ethnic Arab minority, the daily "Hamsayeha" was banned in February on the grounds that it contributed to ethnic discord and encouraged acts that were potentially harmful to the government.

A more recent incident occurred in the southwestern Bushehr Province. The weekly "Nasir-i Bushehr" reported on August 20 that the provincial governor-general had banned its correspondents from his office. The weekly accused political hard-liners of using any means at their disposable to criticize former President Khatami's pro-reform administration but being unable nowadays to "even tolerate a simple criticism made by their own party." The weekly accused the current administration of using "security, judicial, and media institutions" to block reforms.

Six journalists were arrested in northwestern Iran in late May following demonstrations by ethnic Azeris. The arrested individuals include "Ava-yi Ardabil" Editor Vahid Daragahi, and Ali Hamed Iman, who was writing for local publications and was managing editor of the now-banned "Shams-i Tabriz" newspaper. Also detained were Ali Nazari and Reza Kazemi, editor and managing editor, respectively, of the weekly "Araz."

Stoking A Fire?

In a recent report for The Century Foundation, a public-policy research group that focuses on challenges facing the United States, retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner asserts that unrest involving Iranian minorities should be seen in the context of U.S. military plans. The author -- who has taught strategy and military operations at the National War College and elsewhere -- writes that the United States is "trying to establish contacts with ethnic minorities" in Iran. He takes at face value an Iranian ambassador's claim that militants captured in the southeast confessed to working with the United States. The author also suggests that "the United States is...directly involved in supporting groups inside the Kurdish area of Iran," although he does not source that allegation, and he repeats Tehran's claim that the United States shot down Iranian military aircraft on two separate occasions in 2006.

Recent statements by Iranian Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Hussein Safar-Harandi suggested that the Iranian government harbors similar fears -- and could exploit them to justify repressive measures against minorities, according to "Kayhan" on September 4. Safar-Harandi claimed that Iran's enemies "have on their agenda the creation of tension and introduction of ethnic issues." He argued that "the ballyhoo on ethnic issues" was "partly supported by foreign intelligence service." Safar-Harandi concluded that the press "would follow the enemy's plans unwontedly" if it was "not alert."

Provincial Television

Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting has 27 provincial television networks. Minority groups occasionally decry both the quality of the programs, which sometimes use disparaging ethnic stereotypes, and their quantity, saying there is insufficient use of minority languages.

In an apparent effort to address such criticism, Khuzestan provincial television announced in mid-July that it would increase its Arabic-language programming. The station's managing director (identified as Mr. Assefi) said programs were under review and audience reaction would be gauged, provincial television reported on July 15.

In August, the director-general of state broadcasting's provincial news and information department (identified as Mr. Elmolhoda) vowed that reporting from the provinces would be improved, Khuzestan provincial television reported on August 24. He said there should be greater commentary and reporting from provincial news centers.

Limiting TV Access

Television has significant reach in Iran. In a recent poll, more than 90 percent of the population said it watched television the previous day -- that compared with just 30 percent who listened to radio and 31 percent who read a newspaper. More than 90 percent identified local television stations as one of their top three news sources.

There is no private television in Iran. State television has seven channels that broadcast domestically, and Network 3 -- the Youth Network -- is believed to be the most popular because it provides sports and light entertainment.

To get more entertainment and access something other than the official news, many Iranians enjoy watching satellite broadcasts -- although possession of the equipment has been illegal since the mid-1990s.

Iran's legislature began consideration of a new bill on satellite-reception equipment in the spring. The draft would make producing, importing, or distributing such equipment illegal. It would also authorize the police and the IRGC's Basij to confiscate the equipment, and allow the creation of a domestic cable network that would rebroadcast satellite programs that do not contravene what authorities regard as "the values and principles of the Islamic and national culture."

Confiscation of dishes in Tehran got under way in August, and there were reports of confiscations in provincial cities -- including Isfahan, Rasht, Sanandaj, and Shiraz -- in July. On September 7 in the southern city of Abadan, police announced that they had confiscated more than 100 sets of satellite-receiving equipment, Fars News Agency reported.

In conjunction with these steps, the Iranian government has made it illegal to cooperate with any Persian-language satellite channel. The Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry announced that ban in late August -- proscribing interviews, advertisements, or any other form of participation and warning that violators will be prosecuted. (Bill Samii)

STATE CONTROL OF INTERNET STRENGTHENED. Media-freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders announced on September 28 that Advar News (, a website connected with the Office for Strengthening Unity student group, has been closed since a raid on its offices by security personnel on September 19. The raid occurred a little more than a week after an Iranian official announced that the government is filtering public access to more than 10 million websites. This admission underlines President Ahmadinejad's adversarial relationship with the media and his administration's attitude towards the free flow of information. It also shows that Iranians are turning to other sources for information to the censored print media and the bland broadcast media.

Ali Akbar Javanfekr, the presidential press adviser, said in a recent interview that government agencies are setting up websites because of shortcomings with traditional news outlets, "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on August 26. "The existing mass media organs, particularly the current newspapers, are not able to meet [state agencies'] needs and demands for the dissemination of news and information to the public," he said.

This suggests a grudging foray into governmental transparency, but the Ahmadinejad administration is not about to let the Internet become an open forum, and it got involved filtering the Internet in late 2005. Forty-eight legislators wrote to Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Mohammad Hussein Safar-Harandi in mid-December to complain about the increased blocking of websites, and 12 legislators wrote to Ahmadinejad to request the removal of filters on "permitted" websites. At the end of the month, legislators called on Communication and Information Technology Minister Mohammad Suleimani to explain the legal grounds for blocking access to some sites.

Ramazanali Sadeqzadeh, a legislator from the northern city of Rasht, explained that a small committee in the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council monitors the filtering of websites, "Etemad-i Melli" reported on January 26. The committee consists of personnel from the Intelligence and Security Ministry, the Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry, and Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, and its decision to filter a site is relayed to the Communication and Information Technology Ministry.

President Ahmadinejad's fundamentalist administration did not initiate efforts to filter the Internet, which in fact got under way during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005). At that time, however, control of Internet activities was initially connected with the state's effort to reverse losses in revenues, and only later was it related to control of information and expression.

In May 2001, many Internet cafes in Tehran were closed on the grounds that they did not have permits. The authorities claimed that the cafes were immoral, but it became apparent that the closures were connected with Iranians' use of the Internet to make low-cost international telephone calls. Some Internet cafes were offering long-distance calls at 350-500 rials ($.20-.29 at the official rate at the time, $.04-.06 at the unofficial rate) per minute, which meant that the Ministry of Post, Telegraph, and Telephone was losing significant revenues.

Two years later, in June 2003, the creation of an official filtering committee was announced and, within a month, there were complaints that hosting sites for Persian language weblogs (blogs) were being blocked. Forty deputies said in August 2003 that the post, telegraph, and telephone minister must answer their questions about the filtering of certain websites, which they claimed was being done selectively and is a factional problem.

The Communication and Information Technology Ministry announced in May 2006 the creation of a central filtering site. According to initial reports, this facility would block access to unauthorized websites, identify Internet users, and keep a record of the sites they visit. The system administrator would have access to this information.

The ministry subsequently denied that the filtering facility could identify users and track their browsing habits, and it stressed that it only wants to block access to pornography. There also were acknowledgements that the previous methodology was imperfect, and a "filtering databank" would be more precise and make fewer mistakes.

Ismail Radkani, the director-general for management and technical support at the state Information Technology Company, announced on September 11 that more than 10 million websites are being filtered, the Iranian Communication and Information Technology News Agency website reported. The majority of filtered sites either contain immoral material or are proxy servers used to bypass filtering, Radkani said, adding that the filtering software database is updated automatically on a daily basis.

The Iranian government cannot refute the popularity of the Internet. Therefore, the government is setting up Internet kiosks in Isfahan and other cities. Each kiosk has a monitor and an industrial keyboard, and people use them with a prepaid calling card at a cost of 100 rials (less than $.02) per minute. Communications and Information Technology Minister Suleimani announced on April 19, furthermore, that a "national" Internet will be established this year, state television reported.

Nevertheless, the government's closure of websites in Iran and its blocking access to websites outside the country reveal how much it seeks to control public perceptions. This could be because the government wants to shape how people attribute responsibility as Iran sinks into isolation because of the nuclear issue, or it could be because the fundamentalist administration wants like-minded candidates to fare well in elections scheduled for December. (Bill Samii)

SURVEY QUANTIFIES DEMONSTRATIONS IN IRAN. A recent survey found that in the March 21, 2005-March 20, 2006 year, there were more than 800 protests and other demonstrations in Iran, Alborz News Agency reported on September 24. Some 71 percent of these events were labor-related, slightly more than 10 percent involved unspecified social issues, nearly 10 percent were student demonstrations, some 7 percent were political, and the rest involved cultural issues.

A demonstration in Tehran on September 24 organized by the families of four women facing the death penalty was dispersed by security personnel before it could begin, Radio Farda and ILNA reported. The demonstrators gathered in front of the UN office in Tehran to protest the pending execution of Kobra Rahmanpur, who was convicted of killing her mother-in-law in 2000. She pled self-defense and there was an alleged history of domestic abuse, but the victim's son -- Rahmanpur's husband -- requested the carrying out of the death sentence.

Human rights expert Mohammad Majidi told Radio Farda that security personnel actually outnumbered the demonstrators, and many of the demonstrators were arrested. (Bill Samii)

PARLIAMENTARIAN DEMANDS GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTABILITY. Hussein Nushabadi said in Tehran on September 24 that the people expect the country's chief executive to apprise them of his administration's performance, ISNA reported. Their demands should be met and they should know how cabinet members have performed. Therefore, Nushabadi said, the government must produce a performance report and submit it to the press. In this way the public can see for itself that "the president is bravely present on all scenes and acts firmly when public organizations need reshaping or refocusing." The president should change cabinet members if there are shortcomings, he said, because if he does not do so the legislature would be forced to act. Nushabadi said the administration has done well in its first year, although it raised expectations unreasonably by promising to solve problems quickly. In some areas, he said, the government has not reached 10 percent of its objectives. (Bill Samii)

AZERI DISSIDENTS CAUSE CONCERN FOR REGIME. As the Iranian government continues repression of the Azeri minority, recent developments in the Republic of Azerbaijan are sure to contribute to its concern.

In the Iranian city of Urumiyeh on September 24, security personnel used force to break up a demonstration, arresting 15 people and injuring two or three others, Turan news agency reported on September 26. The demonstrators were calling for the use of Turkish in educational facilities and the declaration of Turkish as an official language. Currently, Persian is the official language, although the use of minority tongues is permitted.

Participants in an international forum in Baku focusing on the national movement of ethnic Azeris in Iran issued a statement on September 12 calling on ethnic Azeri officials in Iran to "demand that the Iranian government ensure the rights and freedoms of ethnic Azeris in Iran," according to the Trend news agency. A related appeal was also adopted calling on Azeris to "mobilize" in support of "the national movement in southern Azerbaijan." The forum was attended by representatives of nongovernmental organizations, civic groups, and officials of several political parties.

In a September 16 meeting in Baku, Azerbaijani National Independence Party Chairman Ayaz Rustamov signed a cooperative agreement with Saleh Ibrahim, a representative of the Iran-based Southern Azerbaijan Independence Party, Turan reported. The agreement pledged cooperation in seeking the "establishment of a united Azerbaijan and the formation of a democratic and law-governed society," and vowed to pursue "joint measures against the Iranian government's chauvinistic policy of national discrimination and assimilation" against ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran.

Azerbaijani police forcibly dispersed on September 25 a demonstration at the Iranian Embassy in Baku, ANS-TV and Turan reported. The demonstration was organized to protest Iran's violation of "the rights and freedoms of ethnic Azeris living in Iran" and to show support for the National Liberation Movement of Southern Azerbaijan, but police quickly broke up the rally and arrested at least 10 participants. The demonstrators were also prevented from presenting a petition to the Iranian Embassy calling for the release of ethnic Azeris who were recently arrested at public rallies in Iran. The petition also demanded that restrictions on Azeri-language instruction be repealed. (Bill Samii, Richard Giragosian)

NO RESOLUTION AT EU-IRAN NUCLEAR TALKS. According to anonymous German diplomats, Britain, France, and Germany are willing to resume talks with Iran even if it does not suspend uranium-enrichment activities, the weekly "Der Spiegel" reported, as cited by Reuters on September 23. An international proposal submitted to Iran in June offered several incentives in exchange for a suspension and improved cooperation with international inspectors, and UN Security Council Resolution 1696 of July 31 made a similar demand regarding enrichment. Tehran has rejected this demand. "Der Spiegel" added that Washington will not participate in such talks until enrichment activities are suspended.

Speaking to reporters in New York on September 21, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States rejects any conditions Iran might put forward regarding its nuclear program, according to the State Department website. "Iran has been told by the international community through a Security Council resolution that they should suspend and if they suspend the negotiations can begin," she said. An anonymous "senior [U.S.] administration official" has said that Washington has agreed to a new, early October, deadline for a suspension of enrichment, "The Washington Post" reported.

Gholamreza Aqazadeh-Khoi, head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, arrived in Moscow on September 25 and met with Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency chief Sergei Kiriyenko, Radio Farda and Fars News Agency reported. The two did not answer reporters' questions afterward, but beforehand they said they would discuss bilateral ties, international diplomacy relating to the Iranian nuclear program, and the Bushehr nuclear power plant. The Bushehr facility's commissioning is scheduled for September 2007.

During the trip to Moscow, Aqazadeh said Iranian personnel can complete building the plant if the Russians cannot do so. He noted that the design has undergone many changes over the years. Originally designed by Siemens in the 1970s, the plant was modified by Russians after they took over from Germans, who refused to continue work. Aqazadeh said Iran has no other choice but to turn to the Russians, ISNA reported. Aqazadeh stressed Iran's need for nuclear power, saying that high oil prices make nuclear power the only economical choice. He added that the Energy Ministry has conducted studies on power generation and these will be made public in a month.

Upon his return to Tehran, Aqazadeh-Khoi said completion of the Bushehr nuclear power plant will take place in September 2007 and fuel for the facility will be delivered by March 2007, Iranian radio reported on September 27.

In Berlin on September 28, EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana and Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani sounded optimistic at a press conference following two days of meetings on Iran's nuclear program. Both said that talks will continue, RFE/RL reported. "Today, we talked about the procedures of the negotiations. And we have almost come to a conclusion. We do hope to be able to embark on the main negotiations as soon as possible." Solana echoed this theme, noting "important progress" and adding that "some important issues" remain unresolved.

The suspension of uranium enrichment, which is one of the international community's demands of Iran, is out of the question, said Supreme National Security Council Deputy Secretary Gholamreza Rahmani-Fazli, state television reported on September 28. Raising this possibility, he said, represents "psychological warfare." (Bill Samii)

NORWAY, FRANCE INVESTING BILLIONS IN IRANIAN ENERGY SECTOR. National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) Managing Director Gholam Hussein Nozari announced on September 18 the signing one day earlier of a contract with a Norwegian firm called Hydro Zagros, IRNA reported. Hydro Zagros Oil and Gas is the name under which Norsk Hydro operates in Iran, and the contract is for exploration and development of a block in the Khoramabad oil field. Nozari said Hydro Zagros will invest $49.5 million in the project. NIOC and the Societe General Bank of France will sign a $2.7 billion financing agreement for projects in the South Pars oil and gas field on September 20, Fars News Agency reported on September 18, citing that day's "Tehran Times." (Bill Samii)