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Iran Report: December 21, 2006

December 21, 2006, Volume 9, Number 47

IRAN MAINTAINS FIRM NUCLEAR POSITIONS. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told students in Tehran on December 9 that Iran has begun installing 3,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium, suggesting a step toward Iran's goal of autonomous nuclear-fuel production, news agencies reported. Iranian officials reiterated in subsequent days Iran's determination to proceed with a contested program they insist is peaceful. Iran wishes to make its own fuel, while the West wants it to import fuel for its future power plants, in order to prevent it gaining the know-how to enrich uranium to very high levels and make nuclear weapons.

Iranian officials say 54,000 centrifuges could produce fuel for a 1,000-megawatt electricity plant, AP reported on December 9. Ahmadinejad said Iran has been operating a cascade of 164 centrifuges for eight months now, and a second cascade the past month, Fars reported on December 9. Enrichment on this scale is likely for research purposes, but the new line will take Iran closer to industrial-scale fuel production. "When we take [the number of centrifuges] to above 60,000, we can then entirely make our own nuclear fuel," Fars quoted Ahmadinejad as saying.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Husseini said in Tehran on December 10 that Iran would "reconsider the level of its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency" (IAEA) if the UN Security Council issues a resolution targeting Iran's nuclear program, IRNA reported. He said Iran would base its decision on steps taken by the so-called 5+1 powers -- the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany. Threats, he said, constitute a "bad path" and "I hope they return to the...path of negotiations," IRNA quoted Husseini as saying. On December 17, he said Iran will not abandon "peaceful nuclear activities" even if a resolution is issued. Iran's activities "are within the framework of international norms" and IAEA regulations, he said. "Iran has stressed many times that negotiations are the best way to resolve ambiguities" and Western powers' "measures toward Iran are irrational," he said.

Other officials concurred. Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said in Kazakhstan on December 15 that Iran "will continue uranium enrichment in its nonmilitary projects" under IAEA supervision, the "Ayande-i No" daily reported the next day. Alaeddin Borujerdi, the head of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, told the Slovak foreign minister in Tehran on December 15 that sanctions on Iran would not benefit those approving them, but lead to restrictions on IAEA inspections as a "natural reaction from Iran," "Iran" reported the next day. Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani said on December 15 that talk of sanctions was more "noise" than "something real." If sanctions are aimed at wearing Iran down, he added, Iran would use its own "potential." He said Western powers should not try and "sting" Iran when a matter can be settled politically.

Iran's envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asqar Soltanieh, told a seminar in Vienna on December 16 that Iran's activities are currently transparent, monitored by cameras, and checked by IAEA inspectors "every week or every two weeks," but it could easily hide "sensitive activities" somewhere on its territory, if threatened with attacks, AFP reported. He called a hastened resolution against Iran a great mistake. (Vahid Sepehri)

POLITICIANS CONSIDER OPTIONS IN NUCLEAR IMPASSE... Officials and politicians have spoken of the usefulness of diplomacy in resolving the nuclear dossier. Most have challenged the legality of any punitive move against Iran.

On December 8, Expediency Council Chairman and former President Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani told a gathering of clerics in Shahr-e Rey, south of Tehran, that the nuclear issue "is still dangerous and we should not feel secure," but it can be resolved with "intelligence and good sense," ISNA reported. The issue will not be resolved with "slogans and claims, and needs good sense and concentrated work," he said. He said Iran is not "encircled, America is encircled by us. It is currently within our range. If we want to now, we can create problems for America, but we do not want to interfere in other countries' business," ISNA reported.

Legislator Soleiman Jafarzadeh said in Tehran on December 13 that any resolution against Iran would be illegal, ISNA reported. Talk of sanctions would merely complicate the "examination" of Iran's dossier, he said, and Iran has "means" of defending its right, including restricting collaboration with UN inspectors or leaving the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). He said he doubts there would be a resolution against Iran, since the illegal and impracticable conditions Western states were trying to set would prevent Security Council consensus.

A former adviser to the Iranian Defense Ministry, Alireza Akbari, said on December 13 that Iran could use legal means to react to a resolution, such as Article 17 of the IAEA charter or going to the International Court at The Hague. Iran might not even need to take political countermeasures, he said.

Tehran-based analyst Sa'id Lailaz told ISNA the same day that a compromise is possible, though Iran is being firm because it has not been given its minimal demands. He said that "basically" Russia and China "do not like" any direct talks between Iran and the United States over nuclear and other issues, so "they do what they can" to prevent them. (Vahid Sepehri)

...AND IN REGIONAL AFFAIRS. Foreign Ministry spokesman Husseini said on December 10 in Tehran that the United States is "drowning" in the Iraq situation, and yet setting preconditions for talks with Iran, and using "insults and threats." He said Iran is ready to work with the Iraqi government to help bring Iraq security and peace, but there is currently no question of Iran-U.S. talks and Washington would first have to "make changes to its policies and conduct." He said on December 17 that one could "comment on" talks "when America's formal position on leaving Iraq is clarified," IRNA reported.

The deputy head of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Mohammad Nabi Rudaki, told ISNA on December 16 that regional countries must coordinate their positions to stabilize the Middle East. "Any separate position by states and lack of coordination...will [increase] insecurity and continued Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Iraq," he said. "We advise Saudi Arabia to act on the basis of Iran's policy," which he said has been based for 27 years on the idea of peaceful coexistence between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims. Another legislator, Mohammad Qomi, accused the United States of fomenting anarchy in Iraq before leaving. "America is concerned about a Shi'ite government coming to power in Iraq...and now that it feels it has to leave Iraq, it has turned to a new plan. America intends to foment anarchy and increase divisions between Shi'a and Sunnis, and wants to frighten Iraqis about a Sunni government taking power." This, he said, is to make the Shi'a want U.S. forces to remain in Iraq. He called any efforts by Saudi Arabia to help Sunnis in Iraq "suspect," and urged Saudi Arabia not to "go into the well" with "America's rope." (Vahid Sepehri)

RUSSIAN NUCLEAR CHIEF IN IRAN. Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom) head Sergei Kiriyenko was in Tehran on December 11, where he met with Iranian counterpart Gholamreza Aqazadeh and Foreign Minister Mottaki, IRNA reported. Mottaki said at a joint press conference that Iran is ready to consider a Russian proposal to make fuel with Russia, in Russia. Mottaki and Kiriyenko signed a 17-part cooperation document as heads of a joint economic cooperation committee, covering nuclear power, oil and gas, shipping, transport, technology, trade, and banking, among other sectors, Mehr news agency reported on December 12. The seventh session of the joint economic committee was scheduled to be held in Moscow in autumn 2007, Mehr added. (Vahid Sepehri)

OFFICIALS COMMENT ON POWER PLANT'S CASH PROBLEMS. Iranian Atomic Energy Organization chief Aqazadeh told a joint news conference with Kiriyenko in Tehran on December 11 that Russia is facing "financial problems" as it seeks to complete the Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran, and "wants us to give financial assistance beyond our commitments," IRNA reported on December 11. Both parties stressed the plant will be completed and fuel sent as scheduled in the Persian month to March 20, 2007, Fars and IRNA reported.

The same day, Atomic Energy Organization deputy head Mohammad Saidi told Fars news agency that Iran may pay the Russians earlier to help them with financial problems. He said Russia is having some equipment for the plant made by contractors in third countries, and these have not been sent "because Russia does not have the financial means." He was hopeful that money problems would be resolved in "the next four months." Asked by Fars if parts made in third countries would be subject to sanctions that may be imposed on Iran by the UN, he said they were very general parts "used in all general installations." The transfer of parts, he added, had nothing to do with the timely transfer of fuel, Fars reported.

On December 10, legislator Kazem Jalali said delays in the termination of the plant have "struck a serious blow to Iranian public...confidence in Russia," Mehr reported. He said Russia remains Iran's strategic partner in the nuclear field, and Iran and Russia might expand economic ties but for the opposition of "Westernizing" groups in both states. There have always been groups in Iran, he said, who "basically were not inclined to work with Russia." Jalali is the rapporteur of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, and head of the Iran-Russian parliamentary friendship group. (Vahid Sepehri)

PERSIAN GULF STATES CONCERNED BY NUCLEAR PLANT. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members are concerned by Iran's nuclear program and the construction of the Bushehr plant on its Persian Gulf coast, and may consider their own joint nuclear program in response, the "International Herald Tribune" reported on December 11. The GCC concluded a two-day meeting in Manama, Bahrain, on December 10 and ordered a feasibility study to examine the development of a joint program for the bloc of six oil-producing states forming the GCC. The newspaper interpreted the statement as conveying dissatisfaction with Iran's growing program.

Persian Gulf states have in the past expressed concern over the environmental impact of the Bushehr plant. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Husseini said in Tehran on December 10 that the plant has the "most advanced equipment" to assure its security, and suggested Gulf states send inspectors to check this, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on December 11. He said on December 17 that GCC members had themselves stated that NPT members have a right to make peaceful use of nuclear power, IRNA reported. He added Iran would, as far as it could, assist other countries that wish to "peacefully" use nuclear power. (Vahid Sepehri)

BREAD PRICES MAY RISE. Bread prices apparently rose 30 percent in Iran on December 6, as bakers were told to post new prices, but a Tehran provincial official later said the decision is not final, Iranian agencies and RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported on December 10 and 15. The head of the bakers' guild, Hussein Nazari, told Fars on December 8 that the hike followed a rise in flour prices, but would improve bread quality. Radio Farda reported that various flat breads would now cost between 30 and 100 tumans ($0.03-$0.11). Iranian households eat about four or five of those a day, it added.

But Tehran district Governor Kamran Daneshju said a Trade Ministry committee was examining the matter and bread prices would not change until a decision is made. The Trade Ministry earlier said bread prices would not rise, and it has shut down two Tehran bakeries for raising prices, ISNA reported on December 15.

The hike would exceed a recent inflation index. The director-general of economic statistics at Iran's central bank, Mohsen Taqavi, told Mehr on December 8 that the price index of consumer goods and services in Iranian cities rose 11.5 percent in the first eight months of the Persian year that began on March 21. (Vahid Sepehri)

HAMAS PREMIER IN TEHRAN. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei met with Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyah in Tehran on December 10 and prescribed "resistance and resolve" to bring about "the return of Palestine with all its parts to the Palestinians, and the formation of a Palestinian government in this territory," IRNA reported. He said it must be a "divine sign" that efforts to "forget the Palestinian issue and eliminate [its] name" have failed for 60 years despite difficult conditions and a lack of support from Arab states.

Haniyah was in Tehran for four days, and his government is to receive $250 million in Iranian aid, his office announced on December 11, AP reported. He called Iran the "real supporter" of Palestinians in his meeting with Khamenei. He also met with President Ahmadinejad and Expediency Council Chairman Hashemi-Rafsanjani, receiving verbal encouragements from both, Iranian news agencies reported.

Haniyah told students in Tehran's Sharif Industrial University on December 10 that Hamas will never recognize Israel and "the Palestinian self-governing authority backs the resistance," IRNA reported. He said the "Palestinian self-governing authority will never...arrest a [militant], never...pursue [them], and never disarm the resistance." (Vahid Sepehri)

TEHRAN STUDENTS DISRUPT PRESIDENTIAL SPEECH. Students from Tehran's Amir Kabir University heckled and shouted at President Ahmadinejad when he came to speak at their university on December 11, while scuffles broke out between his supporters and opponents, RFE/RL's Radio Farda and Iranian news agencies reported the same day. The university, formerly known as a polytechnic school, is among Iran's most reputable higher-education institutions.

The president was to speak to students bussed in from other universities inside the Amir Kabir precinct, but some of its students arrived early and filled much of the hall. Scuffles ensued between some of them and presidential partisans, including student members of the Basij, a state-sponsored militia. A presidential aide cited by "The Guardian" on December 12 estimated protesting students to number between 50 and 60. As the president mounted the podium, students shouted, "Death to despotism," "Death to the dictator," and "Get lost, liar," and some burned pictures of him, Radio Farda and reported. Ahmadinejad accused them of taking money from foreign powers and the United States, but said he would respond to them "kindly."

The Amir Kabir University Islamic Students Association, the university's student union, issued a December 12 statement deploring the disorders, which it said were caused by people who were not all students. It said their misconduct had deprived students of an opportunity to convey their real grievances to the president on that occasion, ISNA reported. Conservative legislator Ahmad Tavakkoli told students in Ahvaz in southwestern Iran on December 13 that he was not surprised by the incident, since "there is so much freedom" in universities now. The Amir Kabir students union "likes to pick a fight," he said. (Vahid Sepehri)

IRAN HOLDS REVISIONIST CONFERENCE ON HOLOCAUST AMID CONDEMNATIONS... Iran held a conference in Tehran on December 11 and 12 to determine whether the Holocaust actually occurred, news agencies reported, as Western states denounced what is seen as another public denial by Iran of the killing of 6 million Jews by the Nazis during World War II. British Prime Minister Tony Blair called the meeting "shocking beyond belief," and a White House spokesman said it is "an affront to the entire civilized world," AFP reported on December 12.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said at the opening of the conference that it is merely a forum for different views to be expressed on a historical subject, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on December 12. "If the issue [the Holocaust] and its historical nature are proven, those who make such claims [about the Holocaust] must answer why the real inhabitants of Palestine must pay the price for Nazi crimes," he said. He added that one of the problems researchers face is that academia is dominated by the Western interpretation of historical events. Foreign Ministry spokesman Husseini said on December 17 that it was a "research conference" and it was Western media that had "infected the atmosphere," IRNA reported. (Vahid Sepehri)

...AS PRESIDENT REVISES HISTORY... Some of the participants of the Tehran Holocaust conference, including revisionist academics, a former leader of the U.S. Ku Klux Klan, and rabbis who do not support the existence of Israel, were taken to meet President Ahmadinejad when the seminar ended on December 12, AFP reported.

Ahmadinejad denounced to them the "selfish and ambitious" people who he said have for centuries violated God's design for a happy and just human community, ISNA reported. He criticized "certain powers" for having turned the subject of the Holocaust into an "idol," making it an "unforgivable crime" to question it, while they tolerate skepticism on God and the prophets, ISNA reported. "Whether the Holocaust occurred or not, whether the incident was extensive or limited, it has become today an excuse to create a base for violating and permanently threatening...nations," he said. Israel's existence and its actions, he said, are a "violation of the rights not just of Palestine and Muslims, but of humanity." He added that "I am sorry a small number of Zionists want to govern the whole world today. They have pressured all the European states. Why should the effects of World War II still exist in the world?" (Vahid Sepehri)

...AND HOPES ISRAEL IS 'CLEARED UP.' President Ahmadinejad told a group of rabbis from the conference on December 14 that Jews would not be blamed for the "crimes" of Israel, but Western powers should still "clear up" the "forged" state they have set up in the Middle East, IRNA reported. Ahmadinejad said that "the great powers and Zionist leaders" should "clear up" the "forged regime" they founded "with lies" and make way for a referendum to determine the future of former Palestinian lands. He said the West speaks of human rights even though Israel has become a "great prison" for Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

"The crimes of the Zionist regime and [its] occupied Palestine and the killing of defenseless...women and children will not be ascribed to the Jews," Ahmadinejad said. He said Jews should join a great front of monotheists and their religious leaders against the Zionists, the supporters of the Israeli state. IRNA quoted the rabbis as telling Ahmadinejad that the formation of an Israeli state is against Jewish religious teachings and that Zionists participated in "the killing of Jews" in World War II with unspecified "financial and political support." (Vahid Sepehri)

EU COURT RELEASES MILITANT ORGANIZATION'S ASSETS. The European Court of Justice ordered the unfreezing of the financial assets of the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (commonly known as the MKO or MEK), an Iranian opposition group considered by the EU, United States, and Iran to be a terrorist organization, AP reported on December 12. The EU froze the assets in 2002, but the court ruled that the MEK's legal rights were not fully respected at the time. A court spokesman said the decision might remove the group from the EU terrorist list, AFP reported on December 12. MEK leader Maryam Rajavi welcomed the move as proving "the legitimacy of the resistance against religious fascism in Iran," AP reported.

Iran reacted swiftly. The same day, Hojatoleslam Montazeri, an adviser to judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, denounced the West's "double response" to terrorism and said the ruling showed "terrorists are an instrument in the hands of world arrogance," ISNA reported. Montazeri told ISNA there is evidence the United States supports the MEK -- allowing, for example, its members to remain in a camp in Iraq despite of the dissatisfaction of Iraq's government. The group previously enjoyed support from former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Montazeri said the left-wing group hides behind "an anti-American mask" to deceive Iranian youngsters. He said Western powers use the MEK "for their own interests. They take them to parliaments to meet senior officials, and [when they no longer] want them, throw them away like used tissues," he said.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Husseini said in Tehran on December 13 that the decision was legally unjustified and "unacceptable," RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported on December 14, citing IRNA. He said it violated the spirit of UN Security Council Resolution 1373, which set out states' duties in fighting terrorist groups.

A former reformist legislator, Naser Qavami, told ISNA on December 13 that the EU decision is "political" and it is "no secret to anyone" that the MEK is a terrorist group and "proud" of it. The group has been involved in bomb attacks in Tehran, mainly on government targets, and fought against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88. Qavami said the European court should not discredit itself by backing "a terrorist group whose terrorist nature is clear to the world." (Vahid Sepehri)

TEHRAN FACES RIGHTS ABUSE CHARGES. New York-based Human Rights Watch issued a statement on December 12 calling on Iran's judiciary to arrest officials responsible for the arrest and alleged physical abuse of webloggers or Internet columnists, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported the same day.

Meanwhile, Foreign Ministry spokesman Husseini rejected an unspecified statement by EU foreign ministers criticizing the human rights situation in Iran, IRNA reported on December 12. He said it was inaccurate and marked by "political hostility." Husseini said Western powers ignore rights violations in one place but use them elsewhere for "political and publicity goals." Iran, he said, respects and promotes human rights on the basis of its religious and international commitments. He pointed to what he said were abuses in Europe, including racial discrimination, aggressive conduct by police, and the presence of secret detention centers in Europe, IRNA reported.

The EU Presidency issued a statement on December 13 expressing concern over the arrest in Tehran by plainclothes agents of prominent union leader Mansur Osanlu, Radio Farda and Reuters reported. Osanlu is the head of a bus drivers' union and has been in and out of prison for his activities since December 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20, December 5, 2006).

It was not clear if Osanlu was arrested roughly a week before December 13, as Iranian journalist Masud Bastani told Reuters, or if the EU statement refers to a November 19 arrest. Osanlu was apparently free on bail when arrested, though Radio Farda reported that he has not even formally heard the charges against him. The EU noted that he has so far not "been allowed proper access to legal assistance," Reuters reported on December 13. (Vahid Sepehri)

IRANIAN MINISTRY IMPOSES NEW RESTRICTIONS ON BOOKS. The Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry, which oversees cultural life and press and media affairs in Iran, informed its provincial offices on December 11 that they may no longer issue permits for books to be published locally, and all publication permits must now be given by the ministry in Tehran, Radio Farda and Mehr news agency reported on December 13.

Permits are issued by the ministry's General Office for Books and Reading, which must first examine the contents of books to ensure they are not immoral or subversive. Previously, provincial offices of the Culture Ministry were permitted to issue permits and often gave them for the publication of books in as little as two weeks, Radio Farda reported, citing unnamed provincial publishers. It added that the decision to allow the ministry's provincial offices to give permits for locally produced books was made by the reformist Khatami government. But this was then restricted to academic or textbooks under current minister Mohammad Hussein Saffar-Herandi, and has now been rescinded, Radio Farda reported. (Vahid Sepehri)

THREE ELECTIONS HELD IN ONE DAY. Iranian officials and politicians were satisfied with the public turnout in the December 15 elections, in which Iranians voted for municipal councils, the Assembly of Experts -- a body of clerics that oversees the supreme leader's office -- and some parliamentary seats, agencies reported.

The results pointed toward a return of moderates, centrists, or reformists to state assemblies, though reformers expressed concern at slow vote counting for municipal polls, which they hoped would provide them a immediate means of returning to public life. The reformist coalition headquarters declared that "clearly if the people's votes are violated, their confidence for participating in future elections will be lost or at least weakened," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on December 17.

Sa'id Shariati of the centrist Executives of Construction told ILNA on December 16 that "early assessments" showed reformers had gained a majority in the Tehran city council. Conservative Mariam Behruzi also told ILNA that day that differences between electoral agents and supervisors were hardly appropriate "after 27 years [since the 1979 revolution] and with numerous elections held."

Mostafa Tajzadeh, a member of the reformist Participation Front and formerly a deputy interior minister and member of the Tehran city council, said reformists had won in most provincial districts, and "Ahmadinejad's supporters faced the public's lack of support," ILNA reported on December 16.

He added that supporters of the very conservative Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, known as the University and Seminary Elites, had suffered a "heavy defeat" in elections for the Assembly of Experts, in spite of their efforts to beat traditionalists associated with former President Hashemi-Rafsanjani.

Both pro-Ahmadinejad candidates were also eliminated in the parliamentary poll, Tajzadeh said. Candidates from the Sweet Scent of Service, the most pro-government list for the local councils (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14, 2006) "also faced failure," he said, "which is why we are concerned over the good health of elections."

Tehran-based journalist Isa Saharkhiz told Radio Farda on December 17 that there had been minor discrepancies in the Tehran municipal polls, less than those alleged to have occurred in the 2005 presidential elections.

Interior Minister Mostafa Pur-Mohammadi said on December 17 that the ministry was counting the Tehran municipal votes by machine, and urged "those who speak of political development" to be patient, ISNA reported.

On December 16, ISNA reported a list of 16 Assembly of Experts candidates with the most votes in Tehran, with more than half the votes counted. The list was headed by former President Hashemi-Rafsanjani, followed by senior Ayatollahs Mohammad Emami-Kashani, Ali Meshkini, Mohammad Yazdi, Ahmad Jannati, Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, and Hojatoleslam Hasan Rohani. They were all reelected to the assembly.

Results for the clerical assembly were counted fairly swiftly. Abbas Ali Kadkhodai, the spokesman for the Guardians Council, the top election-supervisory body, said on December 17 that just over 28 million Iranians had voted for the assembly, constituting a 62 percent turnout of eligible voters. (Vahid Sepehri)

IRAN FOREIGN ASSETS INCREASE. The central bank's Office of Economic Investigations and Policies valued the sum of Iran's foreign assets at $57 billion at the end of the Persian month to September 22, Mehr reported on December 13. The figure is 19.9 percent higher than in the Persian month ending March 20, the last month of the previous Persian year. But prominent politicians have expressed concern at expansive government spending from the foreign-exchange fund, the stash of excess petrodollars intended to cushion the country in hard times, Radio Farda reported on December 13. Iran earned more than $36.5 billion from crude oil sales in the first eight months of the Persian year that began on March 21, 2006, Radio Farda reported. (Vahid Sepehri)