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Iran Report: November 13, 2006

November 13, 2006, Volume 9, Number 42

GOVERNMENT SHAKEUP HITS MANY LEVELS. Iran's executive branch is undergoing a major shakeup in what could be an effort by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's administration to realign its economic policy. The president has replaced two cabinet ministers, others are facing parliamentary scrutiny, and a score of top officials have quit. But the tremors could also reflect officials' dissatisfaction with policy or presidential frustration over unmet goals.

Iranian lawmakers gave a vote of confidence to Ahmadinejad's choice to be the new cooperatives minister on November 5. Mohammad Abbasi, a legislator from Gorgan, is a former university chancellor (of a branch of the Islamic Azad University) and deputy governor-general for planning affairs in the northern Mazandaran Province. He holds a doctorate in strategic management, a degree often given to military personnel.

Abbasi told reporters that strengthening the cooperative-run business sector is an important step in the realization of the country's fifth five-year plan, which began in 2005.

Abbasi succeeds Mohammad Nazemi-Ardakani, who, the president said, will serve in another position. Nazemi-Ardakani was given the portfolio when the president's initial nominee failed to win approval. Nepotism may have a part in Nazemi-Ardakani's job security. He is related by marriage to Masud Zaribafan, secretary of the presidential cabinet and a Tehran municipal council member.

Another Minister Replaced

The same day that Abbasi was introduced to the legislature (October 29), lawmakers approved Abdul Reza Mesri as the new minister of welfare and social security. A parliamentary representative from the western Kermanshah Province, Mesri succeeded Parviz Kazemi.

Ahmadinejad's first nominee for the Welfare Ministry portfolio failed to win approval when he came to power in 2005, and lawmakers criticized Kazemi's inexperience during the parliamentary debate around his appointment. Kazemi had reportedly suggested in his curriculum vitae that he was "reluctant" to discuss his accomplishments, "Mardom Salari" reported on November 5, 2005.

An anonymous ministry official reportedly said when Kazemi resigned on September 25 that he was being replaced because he allowed subordinates to simultaneously hold leadership positions in businesses, according to the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA). The source claimed Kazemi hired incompetents and the ministry did not report on its activities satisfactorily.

There also were reports that Kazemi's resignation was connected with his failure to exercise sufficient control over the Social Security Organization. Indeed, that organization's chief, Davud Madadi, resigned some two weeks after Kazemi did. He blamed "present circumstances," and said "it is not possible for me to cooperate with the government," the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported on October 8.

Disgruntled Economic Team

At the top tier of government, the appointments of Cooperatives Minister Abbasi and Welfare and Social Security Minister Mesri are only the most conspicuous changes.

Aftab news agency quoted an anonymous source on September 26 as saying the president has reviewed the one-year performance of each cabinet member. The source claimed Ahmadinejad has warned Roads and Transport Minister Mohammad Rahmati and Commerce Minister Parviz Mir-Kazemi that they are in danger of being replaced. Aftab reported that the ministers facing dismissal have reformist tendencies or have failed to fulfill their promises to the president.

Other personnel changes have taken place below the cabinet level. About 20 mid-level officials, including deputy ministers, have either been forced to resign or have been dismissed, "Ayandeh-yi No" reported on October 17. These changes mostly affect the economy.

In the Management and Planning Organization, three deputy chiefs quit in mid-October -- Deputy Chief of Production Affairs Farhad Dezhpasand, Deputy Chief of Economic Affairs Ali Tayebnia, and Deputy Chief for Fundamental Affairs Mehdi Rahmati. Two other managers -- identified as Yarmand and Daryani -- were dismissed. There were other personnel changes within the Economy and Finance Ministry, the Petroleum Ministry, the Commerce Ministry, and at the central bank.

Legislative Scrutiny

The president is not the only one who is unhappy with cabinet members' efforts. Parliamentarians have voiced dissatisfaction about some ministers, and acted accordingly. Lawmakers will question Interior Minister Mustafa Pur-Mohammadi, Energy Minister Seyyed Parviz Fattah, and Transport Minister Mohammad Rahmati in the coming week, Fars News Agency reported on October 28.

When Iranian media reported in mid-September that assessments of the ministers' performance had been prepared, legislator Said Abutaleb argued that those "evaluations must certainly lead to some changes in the cabinet," "Mardom Salari" reported on September 16. Abutaleb referred to the Welfare and Commerce ministries specifically, saying the legislature would like to dissolve the Commerce Ministry. He warned that if the president did not implement changes, then the parliament was ready to step in by questioning and giving no-confidence motions to the ministers.

But another legislator, Hussein Afarideh from Shirvan, called the prospective replacements worse than the sitting ministers, "Mardom Salari" reported on September 16.

Meanwhile, in early October, more than 50 legislators signed a petition for the interpellation of Agriculture Jihad Minister Mohammad Reza Eskandari.

One legislator, Dariush Qanbari, charged that Iranian "agriculture is on the verge of collapse," Mehr News Agency reported on October 9. He said "farmers' crops [were] piling up in storehouses" while the country imports fruit from Pakistan. Qanbari also questioned the announcement of self-sufficiency in wheat production when "at the same time we are importing 2 million tons of wheat every year." He described the Agriculture Jihad Ministry as the most inefficient and uncooperative of ministries.

But fundamentalist legislators blocked the interpellation motion.

In mid-October, signatures were being gathered for the interpellation of Education Minister Qodratullah Farshidi. One legislator said there was "no doubt that the Education Minister has had a weak performance," but added that other cabinet members have performed poorly and should face questioning, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on October 16.

Governmental obscurity and a censored media ensure that it will be some time before the real reasons for the ministerial resignations and dismissals emerge. But it appears that the presidential administration's grappling with difficult economic issues will continue to cause turmoil in the state apparatus -- particularly if the populist president persists in efforts to fulfill his campaign promises.

The possible imposition of economic sanctions by the UN Security Council stemming from the nuclear controversy could only add to President Ahmadinejad's troubles. (Bill Samii)

CANDIDATES ASSESSED FOR ASSEMBLY ELECTION. Akbar Karami, a political analyst in Qom, told Radio Farda on November 5 that the Guardians Council interprets its power of approbatory supervision as a political filter that allow only clerics who are compatible with it to compete in elections.

Guardians Council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodai announced on November 4 that 204 of the almost 500 prospective candidates for the December 15 Assembly of Experts election have been invited for examinations on their ability to interpret religious law, state radio reported. Thirty-seven people refused to be examined, and two women took the exam.

Kadkhodai said incumbent Majid Ansari's qualifications could not be confirmed, but Ansari refused to participate in the exam. An anonymous "informed source" told Fars News Agency on November 5 that Ansari's candidacy will be approved nevertheless.

Fars added that several incumbents -- including Urumiyeh's Gholam Reza Hassani; the reformist Hadi Khamenei, who is the supreme leader's brother; and several highly experienced seminarians who were invited for the exam -- withdrew their candidacies.

Exam results will be announced on November 13, and Assembly of Experts candidates will have three days to appeal. The Guardians Council will assess the appeals over a 20-day period. (Bill Samii)

SUPREME LEADER DEFENDS NUCLEAR STANCE, DISCUSSES ELECTIONS. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is visiting the northeastern city of Semnan, "Iran" newspaper reported on November 9. He told tens of thousands of people at the Takhti Stadium that mastering nuclear technology is their right, and the international community does not oppose this. He cited the Nonaligned Movement's backing of Iran's development of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes as proof of this, and said it is only the United States that opposes Iran's pursuits, even though Washington has said several times that it is not against Iran's development of nuclear technology strictly to produce energy for peaceful uses. Khamenei also urged local residents to vote in the December 15 elections for the Assembly of Experts and municipal councils, state television reported on November 8. (Bill Samii)

EXECUTIVE BRANCH PLANS TO MOVE TEHRAN UNIVERSITIES. President Ahmadinejad said on state television on 6 November that the government will move some of the universities in the capital, Tehran, to the suburbs. It is not yet decided whether they will be moved to the east or the west of the city, he said. Khajeh Nasr-i Din Tusi University has several campuses, he said, and this causes problems for faculty, students who must commute, and contributes to the city's traffic problems. Allameh Tabatabai University also has campuses in different parts of Tehran, he said, and Azad University has south, central, and north branches in the capital. Each branch, he continued, has faculties and buildings in different parts of the city.

At the end of the November 5 cabinet meeting, Ahmadinejad said two sessions were dedicated to problems of the capital and half the time of three other cabinet sessions dealt with Tehran, state television reported on November 6. (Bill Samii)

CIVIL SOCIETY ORGANIZATION RATES CORRUPTION IN IRAN. Iran has a rating of 2.7 in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index 2006, which the civil society organization released on November 6. Ten indicates a low level of perceived corruption and zero a high level. The number is based on "expert opinion surveys." Finland, Iceland, and New Zealand were in first place with the highest ratings (9.6), and the U.S. was in 20th place with a rating of 7.3. Iran shared 105th place with Bolivia, Libya, Macedonia, Malawi, and Uganda. Haiti ranked at the bottom -- 163rd place -- with a rating of 1.8. (Bill Samii)

MILITIAMEN AMBUSHED, AS INSURGENTS EXECUTED. Khodabakhsh Baghbani, who was taken hostage by the Jundullah insurgent group in March, was released November 1 after payment of an 800 million rial (approximately $90,000) ransom, "Kayhan" reported on November 2. Five other hostages were released earlier, and one of them, Reza Laczai, is writing his memoirs.

Jundullah is a Sunni group, and population in the southeastern Sistan va Baluchistan is predominantly Sunni. A local security official, identified only as Nikunam, denies that there is anti-Sunni discrimination. "With consideration of our performance in the region, even the elders among the Sunnis have announced repeatedly that I make no difference between Shia and Sunnis," Nikunam said. "Proof of this is that there were both Shia and Sunnis among those who were executed yesterday for plundering and disturbing social peace."

It was around the same time that six members of Abdulmalik Rigi's Sunni insurgent gang were hanged in Iran, dpa reported on November 6, citing "Etemad." The gang reportedly killed four people, including a policeman, when they attacked a police car. Moreover, they allegedly kidnapped two Germans and an Irishman near the southeastern city of Zahedan in December 2003. The Europeans were released after a month.

Three members of the Basij militia were killed in a November 6 ambush in Kerman Province, Reuters reported, citing the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA). They reportedly had just freed a hostage, arrested seven of his kidnappers, and seized a ton of narcotics. (Bill Samii)

IRAN STILL DESIGNATED BY RSF AS 'ENEMY' OF INTERNET. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) announced on November 7 that Iran is among what it describes as enemies of the Internet. RSF said Internet filtering in Iran has increased over the last year, although repression of bloggers appears to have decreased, and Iran now claims to filter 10 million sites. Pornography, politics, and religion are the traditional targets, and women's rights is getting attention lately, RSF claimed. A recent ban on broadband connections could reflect a desire to prevent downloading of Western movies and music, RSF speculated. (Bill Samii)

IRAN OFFERS ADVICE TO NEW UN SECRETARY-GENERAL. Inspectors from the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visited Iranian nuclear facilities at Natanz and Isfahan on November 5, IRNA reported. On the same day in Tehran, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Husseini said the next secretary-general of the UN, South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon, should resolve the crisis over Iran's nuclear program, IRNA reported. Ban should head off some countries' interference in the process, Husseini added. Ban takes office at the UN on January 1.

Russia and China are interfering by trying to remove references to military action from the UN Security Council resolution that is being discussed in New York, "The Washington Post" reported on November 5. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom reportedly back China and Russia. Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said elimination of the military option greatly reduces the resolution's credibility. (Bill Samii)

IRANIANS REFLECT ON 1979-81 HOSTAGE CRISIS. The anniversary of the November 4, 1979, seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by militants and their holding of U.S. diplomats as hostages for 444 days was commemorated in Iran over the weekend. Reflecting on the incident, Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization Secretary-General Mohammad Salamati said on November 5 that the action was appropriate at the time because the revolution's survival was at stake, "Aftab" reported. Circumstances have changed, he continued, and in the interest of regional stability and security, and in light of the controversy over Iran's nuclear program, now it is possible to hold talks with the United States.

A former hostage taker, Massumeh Ebtekar, said her colleagues thought the incident would end quickly because the revolutionary government would oppose it, "Etemad" reported on November 4. Popular support and the backing of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led to the incident's duration.

Another student leader, Ibrahim Asgharzadeh, said current President Mahmud Ahmadinejad preferred attacking the Soviet Embassy at the time, "The New York Times" reported on November 5. Asgharzadeh said he is willing to meet now with former President Jimmy Carter and apologize for the hostage crisis if that would reduce Iran-U.S. tensions. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN CONSIDERS, AGAIN, DISCUSSING IRAQ WITH U.S. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Husseini said on November 5 that Iran is willing to consider direct talks with the United States regarding Iraqi affairs, "If we receive an official request," state television reported. Washington made this request in October 2005, and Tehran agreed to hold such talks in March 2006. Tehran subsequently ruled out taking part in such talks. (Bill Samii)

IRANIANS WELCOME HUSSEIN DEATH VERDICT. The death sentence announced on November 5 for former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has been welcomed in Iran. Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Husseini described this as the minimum penalty, IRNA reported. Speaking at his weekly press briefing, Husseini said the Iraqi dictator's other crimes, including the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, should not be forgotten.

Iranian state radio interviewed members of the public in Tehran, and one woman said she felt "happiness" about the death sentence. She added: "He should not be killed only once. They should really torture him." A man said, "I hope they will drag the leaders of America and Britain to the same court." A third man said, "The interesting point is that he is being executed by the very people who once supported him against the Iranian people."

Families of Iranians killed in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War have asked for representation at Hussein's hanging, ISNA reported on November 7. They said representatives of Iranian, Iraqi, Kurdish, and Kuwaiti families should put the rope around the ex-president's neck together.

The Saddam Hussein case is affecting Iranians who want to visit Shia holy sites in Iraq. Mohammad Ali Delaram, director-general of Khuzestan Province's Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization, announced on November 7 that the border crossing with Iraq is open to those who would like to see the holy sites there, Ahvaz television reported. He said 114 people left the province that day to visit Karbala.

The same day, Iranian Border Guards Commander Behnam Shariati-Far announced that Iraq has closed the Mehran border crossing for three days, Fars News Agency reported. He referred to a state of alert in Iraq following the death sentence passed on former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein the previous day. Shariati-Far said the Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization will be advised accordingly, and he speculated that the border will reopen next week. (Bill Samii)

BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT MEETS IRANIAN OFFICIALS. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said in a November 6 meeting in Tehran with visiting Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka that Iran is hostile towards no one and is only looking after its own interests, Mehr News Agency reported. Khamenei said "independent countries" have to have more contact so they can withstand the plots of "the global arrogance." Some countries find it difficult to do this, he said, because their governments lack popular support. Khamenei said Iran and Belarus can expand relations in the trade sector. Lukashenka called for stronger Minsk-Tehran times, and he concurred on the need for strong relations between "independent states."

Lukashenka also met with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad on November 6. Ahmadinejad said, "We would like to see mutual cooperation expand rapidly in different technological, scientific, and economic fields," IRNA reported. Lukashenka said Belarus is interested in investing in Iran's energy exploration sector, and he invited Ahmadinejad to Belarus. Moscow's Interfax news agency quoted Lukashenka as saying, "We should exceed this target of $1 billion of our trade turnover." Lukashenka acknowledged some difficulties in banking and trade, although these were not specified, and he voiced confidence that they will be resolved "within the next few months."

Lukashenka headed home on November 7, IRNA reported. RFE/RL reported that the two sides signed eight agreements, some of which involved the oil sector and the car and tractor industries. IRNA described only a memorandum of understanding regarding expanded bilateral cooperation. Lukashenka also visited the tomb of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, father of the Islamic Revolution. (Bill Samii)

IRAN THREATENS NORWAY OVER MEETING WITH MUJAHEDIN KHALQ LEADER. Members of the Norwegian legislature, the Storting, met on November 7 with the leader of an Iranian opposition group that the United States, Canada, and the EU regard as a terrorist organization, dpa reported. Mujahedin Khalq Organization leader Maryam Rajavi, the self-styled president-elect of Iran, told the Norwegians that the Iranian regime is a threat to "all humanity."

The Norwegian Foreign Ministry reacted angrily to Iranian Ambassador Abdul Reza Faraji-Rad's threat on November 3 that a meeting with Rajavi would hurt Oslo-Tehran relations, "Aftenposten" reported on November 4. Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Raymond Johansen described the ambassador's action as "unacceptable." Johansen added: "The threat is that this meeting could be significant for our relations. Our present relations with Iran are not warm and friendly.... I cannot see that this has any significance at all." (Bill Samii)

FORMER IRANIAN OPPOSITIONISTS COMPLAIN OF CONDITIONS IN IRAQ. More than 200 former members of the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MEK) who are living in an Iraqi facility guarded by the U.S. military say that it has been more than three years since they claimed refugee status with the United Nations, Radio Farda reported on November 8. The MEK, which uses many cover names, is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., Canada, and the EU. These people want to live in countries where they can be free and secure, Radio Farda reported, but they are living in tents instead.

One of them, Dariush Afarinandeh, told Radio Farda by telephone that 40 members of the group began a hunger strike on November 7 to protest their uncertain status and living conditions. He said neither the United States -- which is protecting the group from the Iraqi people and the Iranian regime -- nor the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has provided any answers regarding their future. Afarinandeh told Radio Farda that he and his friends wish they were at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, because the Red Cross, human rights organizations, and the media go there to interview the prisoners. "Here, unfortunately, no international or human rights organization or the Red Cross has set foot." (Bill Samii)

ARGENTINA ISSUES INTERNATIONAL WARRANTS FOR HASHEMI-RAFSANJANI AND OTHER OFFICIALS. A judge in Argentina has issued international arrest warrants for an Iranian ex-president and eight other officials over a deadly bombing more than a decade ago.

The attack, on a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994, killed 85 people and injured hundreds more.

The arrest order came two weeks after Argentinian prosecutors formally charged a number of former Iranian officials -- including ex-President Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani -- for their alleged roles in the bombing. '

Prosecutors say Hashemi-Rafsanjani and other senior officials commissioned the attack. They say that while it was carried out by the Lebanese Hizballah militia, the decision to target the Jewish center came from the "highest authorities" within the Iranian government.

Argentinian federal Judge Rodolfo Canicoba Corral issued the arrest order for what he called "crimes against humanity" and asked Interpol to capture the suspects.

"We activate the arrest warrant, on the one hand, with a request to Interpol requesting the capture of certain people -- and with an international exhortation that would be transmitted by the chancellory at the right time, soliciting that they proceed with the detention," Canicoba Corral said.

Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who served two presidential terms that spanned much of the 1990s (1989-97), currently heads the Expediency Council, an appointed body that among other things mediates between parliament and the Guardians Council.

Judge Canicoba Corral has also requested the arrest of a former minister of intelligence and security, Ali-Akbar Fallahian-Khuzestani, and of foreign affairs, Ali-Akbar Velayati, as well as onetime commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps Mohsen Rezai and other ex-officials.

Tehran Shrugs Off Charges

Tehran has repeatedly denied any involvement the deadliest terrorist attack ever on Argentinian soil.

On November 9, Iran's charge d'affaires in Argentina, Mohsen Baharvand, dismissed the investigation as politically motivated.

"Because of the shortcomings of Argentina to find the real perpetrators of this act and as a result of the seeds of 'Iranophobia' and 'Islamophobia' disseminated throughout the world by the United States and Israel, again, this [Argentinian] judicial system has accused Iran and Hizballah [of] something which has been done 12 years ago," Baharvand said.

Baharvand also said Iran will urge Interpol not to act on the warrants.'

But observer Dr. Abdolkarim Lahidji, deputy head of the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights, said that Interpol acts based on judicial orders and not political appeals.

"Interpol cannot go to Iran and arrest them," Baharvand said. "But if any of these officials whose names are on the arrest warrant are seen in a country and the police in that country have a copy of the arrest order, then they can be arrested -- then it would be up to that country to extradite the arrested person to Argentine for questioning."

Justice Served?

The arrest order might have largely symbolic significance for the victims of the attack and their relatives, since it is highly unlikely that Tehran would place those former officials at risk of arrest.

Lahidji told RFE/RL that the arrest warrant suggests a body of evidence implicating those former officials.

"If there were no such evidence, then an arrest order would not have been issued," Lahidji said. "Therefore [the arrest order] demonstrates that, despite what Iranian officials have said, the dossier is not empty."

No one has been convicted in connection with the July 18, 1994, bombing, which reduced the seven-story Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA) to rubble.

Local Jewish groups and some officials have long accused Iran and the Lebanese Hizballah of being behind the attack.

Officials Implicated

Iranian officials have been targeted by international authorities before over alleged roles in attacks in Europe on opposition members. In 1997, a German court issued a warrant for former Intelligence and Security Minister Ali Fallahian in connection with the 1992 murder of Iranian Kurdish opposition leaders at the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin. The court said the so-called Mykonos murders were carried out with the knowledge of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and former President Hashemi-Rafsanjani. Fallahian is among those targeted in the Argentinian warrants.

Lahidji noted that the warrants will limit travel options open to Iranian officials.

"Since the issuing of the court order in the case known as 'Mykonos,' senior Iranian officials have not traveled to European countries, and, as far as I can remember, Rafsanjani has had several trips to Saudi Arabia and maybe to Syria," Lahidji said. "So merely the fact that the traveling [options] for the officials of a country are limited is like sanctions -- like the measures against senior Iranian officials that could be put in place regarding Iran's nuclear case."

In 2003, Iran's former ambassador to Buenos Aires, Hadi Suleimanpur, was jailed in London at Argentina's request but later freed for lack of evidence.

Alleged Motive

Prosecutors allege that Argentina's decision not to provide Iran with nuclear technology was the motive of the 1994 bombing.

Tehran has described the charges as a "Zionist plot" aimed at diverting attention from crimes it says Israel has committed against women and children in Palestine.

The attack on the Jewish community center in 1994 followed a bombing two years prior that destroyed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and killed 29 people. That case remains unsolved.

Argentina's 300,000-strong Jewish community is South America's largest. (Golnaz Esfandiari)

IRANIANS TRAVEL TO BUDAPEST TO DISCUSS DRUG ABUSE. The head of Iran's Olympic weightlifting organization will travel to Budapest in the coming days to meet with International Weightlifting Federation President Tamas Ajan, IRNA reported on November 9. Nine out of 11 Iranian athletes tested positive for using banned substances prior to September's World Weightlifting Championships in the Dominican Republic. The athletes were banned from the meet, Iran was fined $400,000, and Iran's trainer, Bulgarian national Georgi Ivanov, received a lifetime ban. Iran's future in the sport will be discussed in Budapest, as will payment of the fine. (Bill Samii)