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Iran Report: October 17, 2006

October 17, 2006, Volume 9, Number 38

BATTLES BEGIN AS ASSEMBLY EXPERTS AWAIT VETTING. Some 495 people have registered to become candidates for the Assembly of Experts elections to be held on December 15. Eligible candidates will have to pass a theological exam as well as a thorough vetting of their backgrounds and political tendencies. The country's conservative clerical elite has used this vetting process to weed out anybody who might upset the status quo. Meanwhile, the leading fundamentalist candidate and his allies have been slinging mud at their most prominent opponent, a former president who is comparatively pragmatic.

The 86 clerical members of the assembly -- which is empowered to select and supervise the supreme leader -- includes many of the country's most senior personalities.

Big-Name Supporters Of Status Quo

Among those who had signed up in hopes of being a candidate were former Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani, former Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, former Guardians Council member Ayatollah Abolqasem Khazali, and Islamic Culture and Communications Organization head Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Taskhiri.

So, too, did Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, the controversial cleric who includes President Mahmud Ahmadinejad among his followers and who famously advocated violence against reformists.

Mesbah-Yazdi's ambition may go beyond re-election to the Assembly and include eventual ascension to the highest position in the country, the supreme leadership.

"The New York Times" reported on September 25 that Mesbah-Yazdi and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are allies and based this statement on Khamenei's financing his colleague's Imam Khomeini Educational and Research Institute. In fact, Khamenei uses government funds to finance many of the country's theological institutions and clerics. This is done in order to help Khamenei's popularity and create a sense of loyalty or even dependence.

The provision of funding also is a traditional function of Shi'ite leaders, and the supreme leader's doing this reflects the Iranian quest for dominance of the global Shi'ite community, a development noted in Mehdi Khalaji's "The Last Marja" (The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, September 2006).

While some clerics and their followers are persecuted for questioning the theocratic system of Vilayat-i Faqih (see below), Mesbah-Yazdi has come out strongly in its favor. In a speech late last month, Mesbah-Yazdi denounced the possibility that Vilayat-i Faqih could be legitimized by the popular vote, the Entekhab website and IRNA reported, citing the September 27 issue of "Parto-yi Sokhan," Mesbah's weekly mouthpiece. "Is there a better way than this for America to infiltrate [the Islamic system]?" he asked.

Calling For Moderation

Mesbah was responding to a mid-September speech by Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the current deputy speaker of the Assembly of Experts. Mesbah and his fundamentalist followers view Hashemi-Rafsanjani as someone who has forsaken Islamic principles in the pursuit of expediency, and they have been relentless in their criticism of him and their hounding of his associates.

In that mid-September speech, Hashemi-Rafsanjani started with a critique of the prevailing political atmosphere, noting that extremism has bedeviled Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and he cited the dual requirements of moderation and development. Hashemi-Rafsanjani then hailed the significance of the popular vote and asked if a country can be run if the people do not accept the "ruling establishment," "Etemad-i Melli" reported on September 16. Iran's Islamic government, he continued, must be run by an expert in Islamic law -- a faqih -- and this person can be selected by the clergy or by the public. In the Iranian system, the choice is made by both communities. "The role of the people in times of decision-making is very important," he said.

Revisiting The War

The next step in the demonization of Hashemi-Rafsanjani occurred in late September, as Iran commemorated the anniversary of the beginning of the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. Hashemi-Rafsanjani said in an interview that Iranian officials were not advocating a cease-fire in 1988, but military commanders did tell Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini that they would have to invade Iraq to bring about a successful conclusion to the conflict, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on September 26. Khomeini initially approved this, but it was clear that Iran was isolated politically and in dire financial straits, and the equipment demands of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps were unaffordable. It was under these circumstances that Khomeini accepted UN Resolution 598, the cease-fire that concluded the war.

The initial interview raised some eyebrows, and there were even denials that the Guards Corps had written a letter demanding more equipment and personnel. Hashemi-Rafsanjani then released Khomeini's letter of July 16, 1988, in which he gives his reasons for agreeing to the cease-fire, which he likened to "drinking [from] the poisoned chalice," ILNA reported on September 29. Khomeini wrote: "In his letter IRGC commander [Mohsen Rezai] has written there will be no victory in the next five years." Offensive operations could resume after 1992, Rezai continued, according to Khomeini's letter, if he got 350 more infantry brigades, 2,500 tanks, 600 airplanes and helicopters, and the ability to make nuclear weapons and laser-guided munitions. Khomeini went on to write that his prime minister described a weak economy and political officials said the public is unenthusiastic about going to the front when victory seems unattainable.

Ahmadinejad criticized Hashemi-Rafsanjani for weakening confidence in the country's abilities during the war, "Kayhan" reported on October 3. Ahmadinejad described this as an attempt to undermine the "values" gained during the war, and said this revealed the "lack of intelligence, abilities, and commitment." Hashemi-Rafsanjani also faced accusations of releasing classified documents, which he rejected.

Creating Candidate Lists

Disputes between the supporters of Mesbah-Yazdi and Hashemi-Rafsanjani persisted, and differences emerged even in cases where different political parties planned to back identical lists of candidates. In Kerman Province, the conservative Tehran Militant Clergy Association (Jameh-yi Ruhaniyat-i Mobarez-i Tehran), which recently encouraged Hashemi-Rafsanjani to run, actually prefers Morteza Aqa-Tehrani, a Mesbah-Yazdi associate who serves in the executive branch, Aftab reported on October 4. The conservatives are in full agreement on their other two provincial candidates -- Friday Prayer leader Ahmad Khatami and Mohammad Ali Movahedi-Kermani, formerly the Supreme Leader's representative at the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps.

Hussein Jalali, who heads Mesbah-Yazdi's election headquarters, said on October 7 that groups supporting Mesbah-Yazdi are springing up "spontaneously," Fars News Agency reported, and Hashemi-Rafsanjani is not on their list of candidates.

As early as August, meanwhile, there were reports that the candidacy of younger associates and students of Mesbah-Yazdi were being opposed by the Qom Seminary Lecturers Association. Hussein Marashi, spokesman for the center-right Executives of Construction Party, alluded to this phenomenon when he said, "the Assembly of Experts will not be the stage for the parading of unknown people," "Etemad-i Melli" reported on September 16. Some of the older cleric's "proteges" are educated at second-tier Western universities and are "seemingly modern," and they will try to hide their connection with Mesbah-Yazdi when they register, "The New York Times" reported on September 25.

The more pro-reform parties are working to create joint election lists, too. Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, who created the National Trust Party after losing in the first round of what he claims was a flawed and fraudulent 2005 presidential election, said, "Our list will be 90 percent in common with the list of other reformist groups," "Etemad" reported on September 26. He went onto say that a reformist election headquarters is being created, and added that such cooperation should continue beyond the election itself. He noted that usually the groups out of power come together before elections, but because they do not have a broader plan, differences emerge between them after they win and they forsake many opportunities.

The secretary-general of the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Party, Mohsen Mirdamadi, said his organization will back the candidates of the Militant Clerics Association (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mobarez), "Ayandeh-yi No" reported on September 30.

Vetting Candidates

After prospective candidates finish registering, the Guardians Council will have 30 days -- from October 15 to November 15 -- to examine their qualifications. During this time, candidates will be examined on their ability to perform Koranic interpretation (known as ijtihad, this is the highest form of Islamic learning). Successful candidates will have 14 days to campaign -- from November 30 to December 13.

The hard-line bias of the Guardians Council -- the six clerical members that are appointed by the Supreme Leader and the six jurist members that are selected by the Judiciary chief, another appointee of the supreme leader -- has angered Iranians since the early 1990s. Not only does the council vet candidates and reject those whose political tendencies it finds questionable -- even if they are incumbents -- but it also overturns the results in cases where the outcome is not to its liking.

The council's spokesman, Abbas-Ali Kadkhodai, said on October 9 that factionalism will not affect the screening process, Mehr News Agency reported. The head of the council, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, signed up as a candidate on October 10. He has previously rejected suggestions that there is a conflict of interest.

The Interior Ministry runs elections, and the logistics of this year's race pose particular difficulties. That is because polling for the Assembly of Experts competition takes place at the same time as polling for municipal councils and for parliamentary by-elections in Ahvaz, Bam, and Tehran.

Interior Minister Mustafa Purmohammadi said on October 2 that this will require approximately 60,000 ballot boxes for the Assembly of Experts race, another 60,000 for the municipal councils, and 10,000-15,000 for the parliamentary by-elections, state radio reported.

The Interior Ministry's fundamentalist political tendencies worry the reformists. The background in military and intelligence agencies of Purmohammadi, his deputy Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr, and many appointees to governor-generalships caused a parliamentary uproar, and the newest appointment to the ministry has not calmed any concerns. Ahmadinejad appointed his adviser, the secretive Mujtaba Hashemi-Samareh, as deputy interior minister for political affairs in late September. On October 1, Hashemi-Samareh was put in charge of the election headquarters.

The way in which all these conflicting elements interact and the ultimate outcome is unclear, as more than two months remain before Iranians go to the polls. The activities of the Assembly of Experts have little impact on Iranians' daily lives, and its biannual meetings take place behind closed doors. Therefore, people have little motivation to vote in the election and turnout could be relatively low. For the initial municipal council elections in 1999, turnout was high (64 percent), as voters thought the local bodies could substantively improve their day-to-day lives. The councils did not fulfill their potential, however, so turnout was lower (49 percent) in the second election in 2003.

Regardless, holding the two elections simultaneously could boost overall turnout figures. As the fundamentalists will be running the elections and they have already demonstrated an ability to pack the polling places and the ballot boxes, it is not unreasonable to expect tremendous voter enthusiasm, as there was in the second round of the 2005 presidential election. (Bill Samii)

SENIOR CLERIC IN TABRIZ DISMISSES SEPARATISM. Fars quoted the Iranian supreme leader's representative in the East Azerbaijan Province, Ayatollah Mohsen Mujtahid-Shabestari, as telling a congregation in the town of Tasuj on October 12 that any possible unity between Azeri speakers in Iran and those of Azerbaijan -- across Iran's northern border -- can take but one form: Azerbaijan's incorporation into Iran.

He was responding to nationalist seminars held recently in Baku (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 3 October 2006). Azeri nationalists have intermittently urged that Iran's Azeri provinces be detached to form a larger Azeri state. Persia ruled the lands of present-day Azerbaijan until the early decades of the 19th century, when they were taken by imperial Russia.

"If there is to be any union, they should join Iran, and it would be better not to speak of southern and northern Azerbaijan, but of southern and northern Iran," Fars quoted Shabestari as saying. He is also the congregational prayer leader in Tabriz, the provincial capital. "There is [a] smell of plots," he said of the seminars. "While some people tried [earlier] this year to carry out their plots, the people [in northwest Iran] gave them a teeth-shattering response," he said, referring to unrest in May among Iranian Azeri-speakers (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," May 29, 2006). "The identity of Iranians will never be undermined, and we obey an Iranian-Islamic center," he said. (Vahid Sepehri)

JUDICIARY CHIEF WANTS FEWER JAIL TERMS. Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi reiterated to a specialist committee in Tehran on October 10 his contention that Islam does not favor prison as a punishment, except for dangerous offenders, and deplored the frequency with which judges send offenders to prison. "There will be a response to judges handing out jail sentences without any limits," Hashemi-Shahrudi told a committee examining means of reducing prison sentences. "There is no place in Islam for imprisonment as a punishment for debts." He expressed hope that parliament will approve the proposed suspension of parts of the present law on financial offences that include the failure to pay debts. Hashemi-Shahrudi said he hopes legislators pass the judiciary's proposal "with due regard for the negative effects of prison on people," IRNA reported. Islamic laws envisage imprisonment for six crimes, he said, "but in our present laws, there are about 1,000 penalties involving prison, and this needs fundamental examination and review." (Vahid Sepehri)

EXILED ACTIVISTS REPORT 111 EXECUTIONS IN IRAN. Iranian Human Rights Activists in the EU and North America, a coalition of exiled activists, issued a special report on the state of prisons in Iran on October 10 to mark the World Day Against the Death Penalty, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported. The report identifies 111 Iranians executed in an 11-month period from late September 2005 to late August 2006. The group says that its report is based on foreign and domestic news-agency and press reports and that its list may be incomplete, given the existence of censorship in Iran. In the stated period, 282 Iranians have been condemned to death in Iran. (Vahid Sepehri)

LOCAL AUTHORITIES TRY TO EVICT SUFI LEADER. About 300 security forces in the northeastern Iranian city of Gonabad surrounded the residence of a prominent Sufi leader on October 10 after he refused an order to leave his city of birth. Critics call the eviction order the latest example of official harassment of minority religious groups like Sufis and dervishes.

Dr. Nurali Tabandeh, also known as Majzub Ali Shah, has said he has no intention of altering his plans to remain in the city until October 13.

For more than a century, the leaders of the Nematollahi Gonabadi dervish order have lived and been buried in Gonabad, in Iran's Khorasan Province.

Some were forced out of their birthplace following the establishment of an Islamic republic in Iran and never allowed back. They included the older brother of the man at the heart of this latest confrontation, who was himself a leader of the mystic Sufi tradition.

But Nurali Tabandeh has been returning regularly to Gonabad from his home in Tehran during the holy month of Ramadan to meet with followers and pilgrims from all over Iran.

Local website "Mizan" and Sufi sources have claimed authorities in Gonabad simply ordered Tabandeh to leave, without any explanation. Some observers have speculated that officials want to avoid a large gathering of Sufis in the city -- dervishes from all over the country arrive in Gonabad every year to mark the end of Ramadan, Id al-Fitr, in Tabandeh's presence.

Farshid Yadollahi, a lawyer and a follower of Tabandeh's Nematollahi Gonabadi order, is in Gonabad, and he tells RFE/RL that Tabandeh has vowed that he will remain there -- meeting followers -- until October 13.

Yadollahi says he thinks the authorities' actions are unlawful.

"Every year [Sufis] from all over Iran, and also from foreign countries, tourists, and researchers come here," Yadollahi says. "They come for pilgrimage, there is a pilgrimage site here. It is truly surprising that someone is in his home -- and he comes here every year -- but then they come and tell him that he doesn't have the right to be in his home. This is according to which article of Iran's constitution?"

There have long been tensions between dervishes -- a fraternity within Sufi tradition -- and those who favor a more conservative interpretation of Islam. But Sufi and rights groups say the harassment of Sufis has significantly increased since hard-line President Mahmud Ahmadinejad took office in August 2005.

In February, a Sufi house of worship was destroyed in Qom and hundreds of Sufis were detained. Many were injured in clashes with security forces.

In May, a court sentenced 52 Sufis and their lawyers -- including Yadollahi -- to jail terms and lashings in connection with the February incident. Yadollahi was given a five-year ban on practicing law. An Iranian news agency reported that the demolished Sufi house of worship was turned into a parking lot.

Mustafa Azmayesh, a Paris-based expert on Sufism and a representative of the Nematollahi Gonabadi order, says defamatory articles and religious decrees, or fatwas, targeting Sufism have appeared in Iran's conservative press in recent months.

One of the latest fatwas was issued by Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani in the "Jomhuri-yi Islami" newspaper. Lankarani accused Sufis of misleading Iranian youth.

"It was said in the articles that any contact with Sufis -- particularly with the Gonabadi branch -- is not permitted," Azmayesh says. "Even participating in their Koran readings is 'haram' (forbidden to Muslims). The aim is to create pressure and discrimination against the followers of this order. There was fear that during the month of Ramadan [authorities] would take such actions, but no one imagined that they would go that far and show such disrespect to Dr. Tabandeh Majzub Ali Shah, who is a national figure, a well-respected judge, and a university professor."

Followers of the Gonabadi orders have told RFE/RL that several Sufis have been fired from their jobs recently. They also claimed that others have been discriminated against by state agencies because of their faith. Sufis say restrictions on their literature have increased and worship gatherings have been broken up.

In its annual report on religious freedoms in September, the U.S. State Department alleged growing government repression of Sufi communities and said Sufi Muslims face a mounting campaign of "demonization."

Azmayesh tells RFE/RL that, since the February incident, "repression" of Sufis has continued.

"Shortly after the demolition of the Qom Husseinieh, Semnan's Friday prayer leader praised it and said, 'We give 10 days to the Gonabadi dervishes in Semnan to evacuate their house of worship or demolish it, because we want to destroy it anyway,'" Azmayesh says. "There were attacks against several homes where weekly prayer meetings of the Gonabadi dervishes were held -- including one in Luristan. They arrested the homeowners."

Several conservative clerics in Iran have described Sufis as a "cult" and a "danger to Islam." Critics charge that Sufi teachings are inconsistent with the spirit of Islam. But Sufis contend that they are following the true Islam.

Sufism is based on the pursuit of mystical truth. Sufis engage in practices such as dance, music, and the recitation of Allah's divine names in pursuit of a more direct perception of God.

There are no reliable estimates of their numbers. But lawyer Yadollahi says Sufi beliefs are becoming increasingly popular in Iran, to the dismay of the clerical establishment.

"Some of these beliefs do not sit well with these gentlemen -- they want everyone to think in the same way and believe a single way," Yadollahi says. "When the establishment tries to impose religion through force, history has shown that it faces reactions -- people turn away from the religion campaigned for by the state, especially the youth." (Golnaz Esfandiari)

OUTSPOKEN AYATOLLAH ALLEGES OFFICIAL PERSECUTION. A dissident Iranian cleric who advocates the separation of religion and politics, Ayatollah Seyyed Hussein Kazemeyni Borujerdi, is accusing officials of persecuting him and his followers. Borujerdi claims dozens of his supporters have been arrested and taken to Tehran's notorious Evin prison in recent weeks. The ayatollah told RFE/RL that he has appealed for help from international figures that include the pope and EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana.

Ayatollah Borujerdi says that in the past 14 years he has been summoned on numerous occasions to the Special Court for Clergy and spent months in prison. He claims he still suffers from health problems stemming from torture he was subjected to in prison.

"I was in prison in 1995 for several months. Then, in 2001, I was also arrested several times -- they confiscated two of my mosques," Borujerdi says. "It's ridiculous -- an establishment that says it is Islamic confiscates an active and open mosque. In 1979, the marjah [source of emulation] at that time, Mr. Golpayegani, put me in charge of the Hematabad mosque. Only a few people used to go to that mosque -- but in 2001, when they took it away from me, many people were coming there. We always faced a lack of space for prayers."

The Shi'ite cleric says pressure has increased significantly since the summer, following a gathering he held for his supporters. He claims that thousands of people attended his June 30 religious meeting in Tehran's Shahid Keshvari stadium.

"About 2 1/2 months ago, there was something similar to a coup d'etat against me -- because our last meeting was such that it shook the city and it made the establishment think that if they don't stop me, then there will be millions of people [supporting me]," Borujerdi says. "So they began harassing me; they surrounded my house for two months."

Ayatollah Borujerdi claims that many of his supporters have also been targeted. He says in recent weeks, more than 100 people have been arrested and tortured in jail. He says some have been fired from their jobs, and others have been under pressure to campaign against him.

Iranian officials have been silent on the topic.

But earlier this week, Amnesty International reported that at least 41 of Borujerdi's followers were arrested in his courtyard. The rights group has warned that the cleric could be at risk of imminent arrest.

The ayatollah says his belief in the separation of religion from politics and his refusal to support "political religion" have drawn the ire of Iran's leaders. Iran's Islamic establishment is based on the principle of "vilayat-i faqih," or the rule of the Islamic jurist.

Reports have emerged in recent years of other clerics and dissidents who have criticized the vilayat-i faqih principle being persecuted in Iran.

They include the late Grand Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari, an influential Iranian cleric who was placed under house arrest in the 1980s.

Shariatmadari's son, Hassan, lives in Germany. He told RFE/RL that some 27 years after the establishment of an Islamic Republic in Iran, many of the country's clerics have realized that the involvement of religion in politics subjugates religion to the will of the state.

"The political establishment forces them to accept its demands and interpret the religion in accordance with the establishment's needs," Hassan Shariatmadari says. "Most clerics have realized this, but because of the heavy price of opposition to the regime, most of them do not have the courage to express [that view] publicly. Ayatollah Borujerdi has been able to express the demand for the separation of religion from politics very openly -- to a wide audience and with boldness. This is something that this establishment doesn't like."

Shariatmadari says he thinks Iran's leadership feels threatened by Ayatollah Borujerdi because they are concerned that other clerics could follow his example.

Borujerdi told RFE/RL that the authorities have threatened him with execution, and told him that the clergy should speak in a united voice.

Borujerdi has written letters to Pope Benedict XVI and to Solana noting what he calls the "suspicious death" in 2002 of his father, Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Ali Kazemeyni Borujerdi, who was also a prominent cleric. He claims Iranian authorities expropriated the mosque where his father had preached and destroyed his father's grave.

But Borujerdi remains defiant. "I demonstrate that real Islam is free of political ornaments," he says. "It is included in verses whose interpretation is different than that provided by [the authorities]. Its interpretation is from 1,428 years ago. It is about the rule of the Prophet [Muhammad] and how he lived; he was against repression and opposed discrimination. Our divine leaders took food from their mouths and the mouths of their children to give it to the poor. Today, unfortunately, despite the immense wealth of this country, people live in poverty."

Borujerdi says many Iranians have lost faith in religion because of the worsening economic situation, including high inflation and unemployment.

He argues that under the shah's regime, people's faith in Islam was much stronger. He thinks belief in God has actually fallen victim to Iran's theocracy.

"When people lose their income, they directly blame the establishment and they become angry at God," Borujerdi says. "I've said many times that we should help people worship their God again and make peace with God. Today we are in the month of Ramadan, [but] many people have turned away from God because of repression, discrimination, and pressure."

One of the ayatollah's devotees, Hamid, told RFE/RL that Borujerdi's views and defiance have won him support from Iranians of different classes.

"Ayatollah Borujerdi has never polluted religion with politics," Hamid says. "He has not become involved in politics, and he has always supported the needy. He has always said, 'I'm a supporter of the wretched.' This is, I think, one of the reasons for his popularity."

Hamid says he is ready to support the ayatollah even "until martyrdom." (Golnaz Esfandiari)

AHMADINEJAD ASSESSES FIRST YEAR IN OFFICE... President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's office has published part of a report outlining his government's achievements since it took power in summer 2005, ISNA reported on October 9. The report says the government has sought to provide equitable opportunities and access to public resources for all provinces, and focused on "basic, infrastructural works" while avoiding "habitual controversies" -- a presumed reference to political quarrels -- ISNA reported. The government made 3,300 decisions in its first year, the report stated. It highlights ongoing efforts to cut fuel consumption, promote mass transit, subsidize farmers -- with timely payments for crop purchases -- and steady house prices. There was a 101 percent increase in "the demand for public investment" in unspecified projects, the report asserted, while the government is "currently planning with precision" a large-scale privatization program pursuant to Article 44 of Iran's Constitution. The report noted that the value of non-oil exports rose from $7 billion in the Persian year to March 2005 to $10.5 billion in the following year, thanks to "conditions provided by the government and the efforts of exporters," ISNA reported. (Vahid Sepehri)

...AND STATES IRAN'S SUPPORT FOR HAMAS. President Ahmadinejad met with Palestinian Interior Minister Said Siyam in Tehran on October 12 and said "there are no limits" to the transfer of Iran's "experiences and achievements in all areas to the popular Hamas government," Mehr news agency reported. Ahmadinejad urged the Hamas government to maintain its "principled and revolutionary positions" to attain the "Palestinian ideal," and he said Palestine is the front line in the fight between Muslims and "forceful powers." Siyam said his government is willing to use Iran's experience in government and home administration.

Siyam met separately with Iranian Interior Minister Mustafa Pur-Mohammadi, Iranian news agencies reported. Pur-Mohammadi called for the expansion of formal ties between Iran and the Palestinian government and said Palestine has evident needs in terms of domestic security and administration, areas he said "are subject to an intense attack by the occupying regime of Israel," ISNA reported. (Vahid Sepehri)

AFGHAN REFUGEES GIVEN DAYS TO LEAVE. The office of the governor of the northwestern East Azerbaijan Province announced on October 12 that Afghan migrants cannot remain in the province and must within days present themselves to authorities and "clarify their situation," Fars reported. Muhammad Memarzadeh is the provincial governor. His office issued a statement warning that "the residency or housing of" Afghans is forbidden in the province from September 23, adding that the migrants have until October 22 to present themselves to local authorities so "their identification documents can be examined and necessary legal decisions taken about them." Failure to do so will render them illegal aliens to be dealt with by the law, Fars reported the statement as saying.

Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Mustafa Pur-Mohammadi told a meeting on the topic of Afghan refugees in Geneva on October 10 that Iran is concerned by the arrival and presence of thousands of Afghans in Iran, IRNA reported. Pur-Mohammadi also said reduced international aid for Afghanistan has prompted "a worrying decline in the process of return" of Afghans to their homeland. He was addressing the 11th session of a UN commission on the voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees at the invitation of UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.

Pur-Mohammadi estimated that there are 950,000 Afghans in Iran legally, and another 1 million illegally, while "one-third" of some 590,000 migrants who came to Iran "last year" have not gone back. He linked the presence of these Afghans to concerns over terrorism, as well as drug and human trafficking. "This year 14,000 illegal migrants were arrested on the Turkish frontier, most of whom were Afghans," Pur-Mohammadi said, adding that Iran has tried to act as a "dam" to this migratory movement. Iran signed five cooperation agreements with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees at the end of the session, committing Iran's Health and Education ministries to training nursing and health-care staff among Afghan migrants in Iran, IRNA reported. (Vahid Sepehri)

IRAN SAYS IT WANTS NUCLEAR DISARMAMENT. Government spokesman Gholam Hussein Elham told reporters in Tehran on October 10 that Iran favors generalized nuclear disarmament but that North Korea's reported nuclear test "is to Iran's advantage" because it demonstrates the peaceful nature of Iran's own program, IRNA reported. Elham said disarmament should start with the "great powers and especially America." He said Iran has repeated its commitment to the peaceful use of nuclear power, and "we are against nuclear and destructive weapons, and that is our ideology." He added that international bodies and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) should not restrict access to peaceful technology for states respecting nonproliferation regulations. "Nobody in the world is fit to use the atomic bomb," Elham said, according to IRNA. "We believe all countries that have this dangerous weapon must be disarmed," he added, including "dangerous" Israel. Western states want Iran to abandon fuel making and related activities that could be used to develop bombs -- a demand that Iran has rejected.

Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mohammad Ali Husseini, said in Tehran on October 8 that Iran "will not even accept a day-long suspension" of uranium enrichment -- part of the fuel-making process -- IRNA reported the same day.

Iran's ambassador in Paris, Ali Ahani, defended Iran's positions on Middle East politics and its nuclear dossier at an October 11 news conference in Paris, RFE/RL's Radio Farda and Guysen Israel News, an Israeli news agency, reported. Ahani spoke in the Maison de Radio France at the invitation of the Club de la Presse Arabe. He ignored an Israeli journalist who asked whether "your atomic bomb" is intended one day to be used against Israel in the event of a U.S. strike on Iran, reported. The journalist and three others walked out in protest. Ahani said Iran's refusal to recognize Israel does not mean Iran is "against Jews. It respects them. We have many in Iran. They have their representatives and are at ease in Iran." He said Iran does not arm Lebanon's Hizballah but it does support it as a movement defending Lebanon's "freedom" against Israeli occupation.

Ahani said Iran's nuclear program is legal but that the United States, for political reasons, is set on referring Iran to the UN Security Council for the alleged violation of nonproliferation principles. "Iran is negotiating for a suitable solution. It needs neither confrontation nor war," Ahani said. If its dossier is taken to the Security Council, he added, it "will be obliged to suspend the implementation" of the UN protocol it has signed to allow close checks of its installations, reported.

President Ahmadinejad told a crowd in the town of Shahriar outside Tehran on October 11 that Iranians have decided to firmly defend Iran's "nuclear right," and he denounced "bullying" by foreign powers trying to curb Iran's nuclear program, agencies reported. "A few countries are forcefully imposing their wishes when they have no right to interfere. Even the [UN] Security Council has no right to interfere," ISNA quoted him as saying. What makes "four or five countries" consider themselves "the equivalent of the international community," he asked, presumably referring to permanent members of the Security Council. Their "frowns" and "empty threats" cannot block Iran's "progress," he said.

"Why," Ahmadinejad asked, do Western states want Iran to "halt the fuel cycle? Where is the danger? Are 164 centrifuges more dangerous than your bomb-making factories.... Why should you have enrichment activities but not us?" Uranium enrichment could allow Iran to make nuclear bombs at some stage. Ahmadinejad said the same day in Robat-Karim that Western claims that if "Iran makes may deviate...and make nuclear bombs" are a pretext to "stop Iran's progress." He scoffed at threatened sanctions: "They threaten...we will not give you parts," though "our nation attained nuclear technology" in spite of existing import restrictions. "Now you wish to deprive us of parts, let us see where that goes," he said.

Hassan Rohani, Iran's former chief nuclear negotiator, urged Western states to "forget the...the Security Council and engage in serious talks" with Iran to resolve differences over its program, Fars reported on October 11. Rohani is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's representative on the Supreme National Security Council and heads the Expediency Council's strategic research center. Unconditional talks, he said, could yield "a two-way solution." He said that "suspension or sanctions are not something Iran accepts," and advised against pushing the dispute toward "just two choices, sanctions or suspension," when the West's fear is bomb proliferation and Iran has repeated "that is not what it wants." He said Iran has a "solution" if bombs are the only concern, but he said the United States blocked a previous "formula" approved by France and Germany allowing enrichment inside Iran. He said Iran wants self-sufficiency in nuclear fuel. "If the West stops threatening, there is a very great possibility of reaching an agreement," he said. (Vahid Sepehri)