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Iran Report: January 3, 2005

3 January 2005, Volume 8, Number 1

DATE SET FOR PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION. Iran's ninth presidential election will take place on 17 June, Guardians Council spokesman Gholam Hussein Elham said on 1 January, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. He added that parliamentary by-elections will take place on the same date. One day earlier, Mohammad Jahromi, the Guardians Council's deputy director of elections, said the by-elections will be in 9 constituencies, IRNA reported. In the cases of Babolsar and Fereidunkenar, Garmsar, Iranshahr, Qazvin, Marand and Jolfa, Shiraz, Gachsaran and Ilam, results of the February 2004 polls were overturned by the Guardians Council. In the case of Bam, polling was delayed as citizens tried to recover from a devastating earthquake. A 30th parliamentary representative for Tehran will be chosen, too, Elham said. The Guardians Council and the Interior Ministry have been at odds over the election date for several months. (Bill Samii)

CONSERVATIVES PLAY DOWN THEIR DIFFERENCES. The divisions within Iran's political right wing are amply demonstrated by the fact that five individuals are vying to be the conservatives' candidate in the 2005 presidential election. Reformist observers are emphasizing these differences, whereas conservative commentators are downplaying them. Similar differences appeared before the 2001 presidential election and died out soon thereafter. Now, the differences could be more meaningful.

The five main candidates -- Tehran Mayor Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad, Supreme Leader's adviser Ali Larijani, Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai, Tehran parliamentary representative Ahmad Tavakoli, and Supreme Leader's adviser Ali Akbar Velayati -- addressed a meeting of the conservative Coordination Council of the Islamic Revolution Forces on 17 December.

Perhaps the most noteworthy comments came from Ahmadi-Nejad, who was not physically at the meeting. The election is six months away, he wrote in a letter to the conference,so premature attention to it will cut into his work for the city of Tehran, Mehr News Agency reported on 17 December. Ahmadi-Nejad represents the hopes of the young conservatives, "Sharq" reported on 19 December. He is perceived as a person who lives simply and works hard. However, support of a marginal group in the conservative faction is a serious hindrance.

The other candidates' comments were less unusual. Tavakoli said as president he would emphasize economic development and would fight corruption, Mehr News Agency reported on 19 December.

Velayati said he would focus on job creation, modification of the labor code to emphasize job security, economic reforms, and privatization of state-owned enterprises, Mehr News Agency reported on 17 and 19 December. He also claimed that the U.S. opposes Iran because its Islamic revolution led to developments in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine. He did not explain how the Iranian revolution led to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or the emergence of the Taliban, but his audience presumably made sense of the statement.

One can question Velayati's seriousness as a candidate, however, in light of his 16 December statement in a meeting with the Islamic Association of Teachers. "I have no interest and inclination to compete in the election," he said according to the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA). "I consider it is my duty to enter this scene as an obligation and winning or not is not important to me at all."

The United States wants a "weak government" in Iran, Larijani said according to "Sharq" on 18 December. He stressed the need for decentralization and self-sufficiency. Larijani appeals to the traditionalists and the modernists, "Sharq" reported on 19 December, but Ahmadi-Nejad and Velayati are serious rivals. His effort to appeal to everybody is clever but could backfire if everybody comes to see him as a "second-best" choice.

Rezai said he would focus on job creation and the eradication of poverty, Mehr News Agency reported on 17 and 19 December. He said that within 20 years Iran should become the region's preeminent economic power and leader in Information Technology. In yet another indication of the conservatives' differences, Rezai said in the 27 December "Farhang-i Ashti" newspaper that he will stand as an independent candidate if the fundamentalist conservatives do not back him. The government he has in mind, he said, would continue its values-oriented conduct and would act democratically. He explained that an authoritative government that is not democratic would lead to a closed political atmosphere. According to a 26 December report from Iranian state television, the Welfare Party has announced that Rezai is its candidate.

Rezai's insistence on going his own way means that he does not have a significant base of support or organizational backing. His outspokenness before the 2001 presidential election led to speculation that he would stand as a candidate. Serious observers, however, viewed him as a bit player who, at best, was testing the waters for a later presidential bid. Rezai's managerial experience at the national level is limited, although he did command the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps.

With the exception of Rezai, the candidates' public statements do not reveal any significant differences. Reformist newspapers have therefore jumped on the differences between conservative groups. For example, an unattributed editorial in the 19 December "Aftab-i Yazd" wanted to know where the candidates stand on nuclear negotiations with the European Union, on membership in the World Trade Organization, and on the Fourth Five-Year Development Plan. Perhaps, the editorial suggested, the Coordination Council of the Islamic Revolution Forces should detail its stance on these issues, and the public could choose the individual who most closely adheres to this stance.

Habibullah Asgaroladi-Musalman, former secretary-general of the Islamic Coalition Party, stressed that all the conservative groups should agree with the collective decision of the Coordination Council of the Islamic Revolution Forces, "Sharq" reported on 19 December. Another member of the council, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, made a similar point.

Hojatoleslam Taha Hashemi, the editor of the now-defunct "Entekhab" newspaper, described the need for a conservative Third Current in early 2001 (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 30 April 2001). He described this as "religious modernism" that is more attractive to young Iranians than the hardliners' extremism, and he added that this falls between extremism and calls for a secular government. Iran is in need of the "smiling descendants of the Prophet, rather than his grimacing followers," Hashemi said in a reference to the unsmiling faces of hard-line officials. The Third Current was subsequently criticized by other conservative elements as an effort to latch on to President Mohammad Khatami's popularity. After the presidential election, furthermore, little was heard about the issue.

The current conservative differences are more enduring and have deeper roots, although they too are linked to age-cohorts within the conservative movement. Leading conservative politicians say that they will settle on one candidate by mid-January. That choice will be an indication of which tendency dominates conservative politics. (Bill Samii)

TWO REFORMISTS ANNOUNCE THEIR CANDIDACIES. Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, the former speaker of parliament, announced after the 1 January Expediency Council meeting that he intends to be a candidate in the June 2005 presidential election, Mehr News Agency reported. Karrubi is the secretary-general of the Militant Clerics Association (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mobarez), the country's leading clerically dominated reformist party.

The Solidarity Party will back Karrubi, an anonymous party member said on 31 December, Mehr News Agency reported.

Members of the Office for Strengthening Unity's central council asked Karrubi to be a candidate on 21 December, Mehr News Agency reported. The Office for Strengthening Unity is Iran's main politically active student organization and is generally supportive of the reformist tendency.

Other reformist organizations, such as the Islamic Iran Participation Party (IIPP) and the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization, have voiced support for former Minister of Science, Research, and Technology Mustafa Moin. IIPP Secretary-General Mohammad Reza Khatami announced on 25 December that Moin is the organization's candidate for the next presidential election, IRNA reported. Moin, however, refused to make a commitment (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 25 October, 29 November, and 14 December 2004).

Moin finally agreed to be a candidate on 28 December. He said that hopelessness and frustration among the country's young people gives him no other option but to run for president, according to Radio Farda and IRNA.

Acknowledging that reformist organizations are not united on Moin as a candidate, Mohammad Reza Khatami said on 25 December, "In the run up to the presidential election, we see a flurry of activities of political parties to introduce a candidate. It is natural for every political party to have a candidate to give the people the chance of free choice," IRNA reported.

This is not the only potential problem facing Moin's candidacy. There is the possibility that the Guardians Council will not approve his candidacy. Tehran-based analyst Hadi Kahalzadeh told Radio Farda that it is likely the Guardians Council will not allow Moin to run. "Our country is unpredictable, but if the current [political] trend continues -- which has intensified after the city-council elections [in February 2003] -- it seems that there will be a tendency to reject his candidacy," Kahalzadeh said. The Tehran-based analyst did not explain why the council might not accept Moin.

A possible reason could be that Moin has already had serious disagreements with the Guardians Council. Moin resigned as Minister of Science, Research and Technology in July 2003mainly because the Guardians Council rejected a bill for restructuring his ministry (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 4 August 2003). As a minister in the Khatami cabinet, Moin unsuccessfully submitted his resignation two other times -- once after the violent suppression of student demonstrations in July 1999, and again after student unrest in May 2003.

The reformists tend to stress mass participation in their political discourse, but they generally throw their support behind one strong candidate. Bojnurd parliamentary representative Ismail Gerami-Moghaddam predicted that the reformists will make their choice after they conservatives have made theirs, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported.(Bill Samii)

RAFSANJANI STILL A WILD CARD IN ELECTION POKER. The Proud Iran Party (Hizb-i Iran-i Sarfaraz) is backing Expediency Council Chairman and former president Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjaniin the 2005 presidential candidate, "Tehran Times" reported on 19 December, citing party Secretary-General Ruzbeh Meshkin. Meshkin said Hashemi-Rafsanjani is "highly-motivated to make the country productive."

Ismail Jabarzadeh, a member of the Executives of Construction Party's central council, said on 20 December that Hashemi-Rafsanjani is best qualified to be a presidential candidate, IRNA reported. He speculated that the right wing will support Hashemi-Rafsanjani in the election.

A report in the 19 December "Sharq," however, asserted there is a constantly widening "rift" between the conservatives and Hashemi-Rafsanjani. The newspaper cited as evidence Hashemi-Rafsanjani's office's rejection of a claim by parliamentarian Mohammad Reza Bahonar that the Expediency Council chairman will not run again. Bahonar also claimed, according to "Sharq," that Hashemi-Rafsanjani has identified a candidate to take his place in the presidential race. Unnamed informed sources reportedly said that Hashemi-Rafsanjani is backing Ali Akbar Velayati now, while he previously backed Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani.

Iran Specialists Association (Majma-yi Motakhasesan-i Iran) Secretary-General Reza Zavarei's support for Hashemi-Rafsanjani has upset other members, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 25 December. Zavarei previously announced that he wanted to be a candidate (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 20 December 2004). Mohammad Ali Izadi, who is a member of the association's central council, has announced that he is qualified to be a presidential candidate because of his personal courage and capabilities. If elected, he said, he would reduce the size of government, reform the economy in line with social welfare requirements, and provide greater support for the private sector.

Mines and Industries Minister Ishaq Jahangiri said on 26 December that Hashemi-Rafsanjani will participate in the presidential election and he could run the country, state television and Mehr News Agency reported. Jahangiri, who served in the Hashemi-Rafsanjani cabinet and is a member of the centrist-pragmatic Executives of Construction Party, predicted that a Rafsanjani candidacy would have a profound impact on other parties' election strategies.

Legislator Elias Naderan, who is a member of the Islamic Iran Developers Council (Etelaf-i Abadgaran-i Iran-i Islami), denounced a number of the country's top officials in a 29 December pre-agenda speech, ILNA reported. The sharpest reaction was to his comments about Hashemi-Rafsanjani. Bojnurd parliamentary representative Ismail Gerami-Moghaddam said the legislature is not a platform for electioneering, and other legislators said parliamentary speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel should stop the speech. Haddad-Adel, who also is in the Developers Council, refused to act. Suddenly, a conservative legislator yelled "American" in an apparent reference to Hashemi-Rafsanjani's proclivities, and the session turned chaotic. (Bill Samii)

STUDENTS SPLIT ON PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES. Members of the Islamic Assembly of Independent Students met with another presidential candidate on 22December,according to Mehr News Agency. The students questioned conservative candidate Ali Akbar Velayati about his views, A member of the student assembly, AliKhezriyan, said the students are critical of the policies of President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami and Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. During the meeting, Khezriyan said, Velayati focused on his plans for the economy.(Bill Samii)

ROHANI REPORTEDLY CONSIDERING BID FOR PRESIDENCY. Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani will soon announce his intention to run as a candidate in the 2005presidential election, Mehr News Agency predicted on 20 December. The agency did not identify its source, but it reported that Rohani, who is a member of the conservative Tehran Militant Clergy Association (Jameh-yi Ruhaniyat-i Mubariz-i Tehran), has delayed his announcement because he believes that Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah AliAkbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani is better qualified. Rohani is acting director of the Center for Strategic Studies, of which Hashemi-Rafsanjani is the director, and he served in the legislature for five consecutive terms.

An anonymous informed source said the technocratic Executives of Construction would back Rohani's candidacy if Hashemi-Rafsanjani decides against being a candidate, Mehr News Agency reported.

In a 20 December meeting in Tehran with former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, Rohani stressed the sizable gap between developed and undeveloped countries, IRNA reported, evidenced by sanctions policies that prevent Iran from importing peaceful nuclear technology. He insisted on Iran's right to development.

Rohani comments on30 December in Semnan give an insight to his foreign policy stance. He said, "The interference of America in domestic affairs of other countries and their utilization as centers of oppression as well as the torture of Muslims in the Iraqi jails, are the causes of terrorism in the world," IRNA reported. He added, "America's policies in the world have increased the world community's hatred of America." Rohani also claimed that the U.S. failed to find an excuse to attack Iran. (BillSamii)

KHATAMI PROPOSES NEW ROADS AND TRANSPORT MINISTER. President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami proposed Ahmad Sadeq Bonab to the legislature as the country's new Roads and Transport Minister on 27 December, IRNA reported. Sadeq Bonab has been acting minister since the legislature gave Roads and Transport Minister Ahmad Khoram a no-confidence vote in October (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 11 October 2004). Khoram currently serves as an adviser to President Khatami. BS

REPRESSION OF IRANIAN INTERNET SECTOR CONTINUES. Some Iranian online journalists who were arrested in the autumn were released after writing letters of contrition that were published in newspapers. The respite has been short-lived, however, especially for journalists who later described the mistreatment they underwent. Two of them -- Hanif Mazrui and Fereshteh Qazi -- received Press Court summonses on 23 December, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported the next day. The two face accusations of, among other things, disturbing public opinion.

The Journalists Guildspoke out against the summonses on 25 December, ILNA reported. The guild called on the judiciary to desist from such actions against correspondents.

Journalists Guild head Rajabali Mazrui (Hanif Mazrui's father) criticized the judiciary for torturing the detained journalists in a 10 December letter to President Mohammad Khatami. One day later three of the released journalists -- Omid Memarian, Ruzbeh Mir-Ebrahimi, and Shahram Rafizadeh -- were taken into custody again, Human Rights Watch reported. Press Court Judge Said Mortazavi warned them that if they did not refute the allegations of torture they would spend a long time in prison. Memarian, Mir-Ebrahimi, Rafizadeh, and Javad Gholam-Tamimi, who was detained in October and had not been released yet, gave televised confessions on 14 December in which they said they never endured torture, solitary detention, and or any other form of abuse.

Some of the arrested online journalists were coerced into falsely confessing that they had physical relations with prominent reformist officials, such as Mustafa Tajzadeh and Hojatoleslam Mohammad Ali Abtahi, Radio Farda reported on 28 December, citing Abtahi's weblog ( Tajzadeh is a former deputy interior minister and a leader in the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization. Abtahi serves as a presidential adviser and until his October resignation was vice-president for legal and parliamentary affairs. Abtahi writes that he spoke with the bloggers and journalists after their letters of contrition were published and their confessions televised, and they described the beatings they suffered at their jailers' hands.

Fereshteh Qazi complained about this abuse to Judge Mortazavi when she appeared before him on 27 December, Radio Farda reported, citing ILNA. Mortzavi sent her to a physician to determine the veracity of her claims.

Typical of these letters of contrition is one from Javad Gholam-Tamimi that was described in the 5 December "Jomhuri-yi Islami" (on other letters of contrition, see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 7 and 14 December 2004). His letter was addressed to Journalists Guild chief Rajabali Mazrui and was faxed to the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) from Evin prison. Gholam-Tamimi allegedly said he was fooled into acts of treason, the last of which involved receiving payment for cooperating with the military attache of a foreign embassy. He denounced the Journalists Guild, allegedly writing, "I declare my disdain for you and the union affiliated with you that want to misuse my name, and I ask for judicial prosecution of those who try to create tension in society merely under the pretext of supporting a criminal." Gholam-Tamimi said he was never in solitary confinement, prison officials had treated him well, and "I am embarrassed and I do not know what to do in return for so many favors that the authorities have done for me."

Obviously, the Journalists Guild recognizes that such a letter was almost certainly coerced and it therefore maintains its interest in and commitment to the issue. The conservative dominated legislature, on the other hand, appears to accept these letters at face value. Alaedin Borujerdi, head of the national security and foreign affairs committee, said he and his colleagues might look into the allegations raised in the letters, "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on 6 December. He said the letter writers were acting freely, and their claims of acting under others' influence require investigation.

Iranian journalists have had a difficult time since the country's 1979 revolution. Iran now holds the dubious honor of being the Middle East's biggest prison for journalists, according to Human Rights Watch. The government's closure of approximately 100 publications over the last four and half years silenced many voices, and the remaining press outlets are forced to practice self-censorship to remain open. Some of those journalists began to ply their trade using the Internet, but even that process has become dangerous. Some are now abandoning the political scene, while others are leaving Iran. "I am quitting political work for good in Iran," Hanif Mazrui said in the 26 December "New York Times," and a former detainee who requested anonymity said that he and some of his colleagues intend to leave the country. That is exactly what the hardliners in Iran want -- an absence of oversight so they can ride roughshod over their compatriots' rights. (Bill Samii)

INTERNET LAW-ENFORCEMENT MEASURES UNDER WAY. Nasrollah Jahangard, secretary of the Supreme Information Council, announced that efforts are underway to create an Internet police unit in coordination with the national law enforcement forces, "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on 18 December. Jahangard said a law on Internet crimes has been written, and there is a budget for training judges on information technology. He added that the judiciary has "reacted positively" to a request to form a specialized tribunal for IT crimes. Jahangard connected these developments with the desire to protect software creators. It is not clear if this announcement is connected with one on 20 November, when computer crimes committee secretary Reza Parvizi said the computer penal law relates to the filtering of websites, ISNA reported. BS

IRAN PROVIDES TSUNAMI RELIEF AID. The death toll from the 26 December earthquake and tidal wave in South Asia is approaching 150,000, according to Radio Farda on 2 January. Radio Farda reported three days after the tsunami that the Red Cross is warning of the possibility of disease outbreaks in 11 regional states, and this could send the death toll skyrocketing.

UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland said the final death toll could continue to climb, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on 1 January. "We will never, ever have the absolute definite figure because there are many nameless fishermen and villagers that have just gone, and we have no chance of finding out how many they were," Egeland added.

The Iranian Ambassador to Bangkok, Mohsen Pakain, told IRNA on 29 December that no Iranians are among the casualties. Iran has already sent 23 tons of relief supplies -- including clothing, food, medical equipment, and medicine -- to Thailand, Pakain added. Another consignment from Iran arrived in Kuala Lumpur, IRNA reported on 30 December.

Iran has pledged $627,000, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on 1 January. The U.S. pledged $350 million, and Secretary of State Colin Powell and Florida Governor Jeb Bush are visiting the region.

Radio Farda reported on 31 January that New Year's Eve events in many Western countries will be subdued this year or not commemorated at all out of respect for the victims of the tsunami. (Bill Samii)

KHATAMI VISITS EARTHQUAKE SITE. President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami visited the historically significant city of Bam in southeastern Iran on 22 December, IRNA reported. An earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale struck the city almost one year earlier (26 December 2003), killing approximately 25,000 people and leaving thousands more homeless. The international community rushed to provide humanitarian assistance, leading to speculation on the possible rekindling of Tehran-Washington relations. Khatami's current visit, according to the state news agency, is to assess progress on reconstruction of the city. Local and national officials have come in for heavy criticism because of the slow pace of reconstruction, and there has been criticism of the shoddy construction methods that led to the tremendous loss of life.

On 29 December, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei met with Mohammad Saidi-Kia, director of the Housing Foundation and the chairman of the Headquarters for Rebuilding Bam, Mehr News Agency and IRNA reported. Khamenei expressed the hope that the city's heritage and traditions would be maintained during reconstruction, while the buildings should be reinforced. He expressed his pleasure at the involvement of locals in the reconstruction process, and he said cultural institutions should endeavor to boost locals' morale. Khamenei also noted that locals expect the speedy completion of the work. (Bill Samii)

ONE YEAR AFTER QUAKE, BAM RESIDENTS REBUILDING. At dawn on 26 December 2003, a powerful earthquake shook the southern Iranian city of Bam. Due to poor materials and ignored building codes, most of Bam's houses and buildings were flattened. In a few seconds, tens of thousands of city residents were buried under tons of rubble. In the end, more than 25,000 people were killed and many thousands left injured. Most survivors lost not only their homes but their livelihoods. Immense sorrow and deep despair became part of daily life in Bam.

Doctor Sean Keogh, a consultant on emergency medicine who works for the British relief organization called Merlin, arrived in Bam 72 hours after the earthquake struck. Keogh described the scene in an interview with RFE/RL. "Much of the city was completely flat. There were a few buildings standing normally, and the rest were kind of perched at a precarious angle. There was still a bit of rescue work going on, but the problem was that, because of the materials, when buildings had collapsed it didn't really leave any air pockets for people to breathe in. So most people who died died quite quickly, in the first one or two days. The structures in the rural areas that were made predominantly of mud were just completely flat, and you could barely tell that there had been a dwelling there at all. And some regions and some villages were completely obliterated."

One year later, the streets of Bam are still full of bricks and rubble, but there are also signs of life. "Shops have opened. People are getting around more," says Patrick Parsons, who is in charge of Merlin's rebuilding program in Bam. "The schools are open. The children are going to school. Life is really coming back to some semblance of normality for them."

Many of Bam's residents are living in temporary, prefabricated houses. Others are living in tents where their homes had once stood. Reports say the Iranian government recently completed a master plan for the city.

Parsons says rebuilding has started in Bam -- but at a slow pace: "The government has insisted that they try to rebuild away from the fault lines, which run right across Bam. The work is going on. It will be some time, I believe, before the people of Bam can fully reintegrate into their houses, their properties. If you can imagine, the estimates were that there were 12 million cubic meters of rubble to be removed from Bam city before rebuilding could even start." Some relief agencies estimate it will take up to 10 years to rehabilitate Bam.

Many Bam residents have been critical of the government because of what they see as mismanagement and the slow pace of reconstruction. Last spring, Tehran expelled a correspondent for Britain's "Guardian" newspaper, who had traveled to Bam without permission to report on the state of relief efforts.

In addition to anger over the pace of rebuilding, many in the city have been traumatized by the tragedy. The majority of residents lost family members, friends, or neighbors in the earthquake.

"When we asked [residents] what their favorite place was in Bam, they were saying the cemetery, because they spend maybe a day or a day-and-a-half a week in the cemetery," says Parsons.

Thorir Gudmundsson of the Icelandic Red Cross recently returned from a mission to Bam with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. He says Bam residents are urgently in need of both housing and psychological support. "The scars of one year ago remain and are quite deep," Gudmundsson says. "Lots of people are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders, so it's very much like soldiers coming back from a battle and reliving the event again and again. So there is quite extensive need for psychological support."

According to Red Cross and Red Crescent, psychological disorders caused by the earthquake are characterized by sleep disorders, an inability to carry out normal social functions, explosive behavior, domestic violence, and a dramatic increase in drug addiction.

The destruction of the 2,500-year-old Bam citadel has also caused sadness among the population. The citadel was a major tourist attraction and for many in the country a source of enormous pride. "People said to me at the beginning of our mission here that life had gone out of Bam because the Arg [citadel] had been destroyed. I don't believe that is true," Parsons says. "Life is coming back into Bam, and it's a credit to the medical authorities, the medical NGOs who have been here. And I've got enormous amount of respect for the Bami people, as they're called, because to pick themselves up after this disaster is an enormous credit to them."

The citadel is due to be rebuilt with the help of organizations such as UNESCO, which recently added it to its List of World Heritage in Danger. (Golnaz Esfandiari)

IRAN AND RUSSIA TO STUDY FLYING SAUCERS. Iran and Russia have agreed to cooperate on the study of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) following Ambassador to Moscow Gholam Reza Shafei's 29 December meeting with Russian Federal Space Agency (Rosaviakosmos) chief General Anatolii Perminov. IRNA reported.

Sightings of unidentified flying objects in Iranian skies have increased over the last few weeks, "Etemad" reported on 25 December, quoting an anonymous "informed source." The UFOs were sighted in Markazi Province (where Tehran is located) and Bushehr Province (where nuclear reactors are being built). Sightings in Isfahan Province occurred near Arak and Natanz (where other nuclear-related facilities are located).

The "Etemad" report cited British UFO specialist Jenny Randles -- author of "Alien Abductions" and "Mind Monsters: Invaders from Inner Space?" -- as suggesting that these could be military-reconnaissance aircraft.

The regular air force's spokesman, Colonel Salman Mahini, said, "All antiaircraft units and jet fighters have been ordered to shoot down the flying objects over Iran's airspace," the "Jerusalem Post" reported on 25 December. He suggested that the UFOs could be satellites, reconnaissance aircraft, or comets.

U.S. combat aircraft allegedly were sighted near Khorramshahr on 29 December and again on 30 December, Fars News Agency reported on 31 December. An anonymous informed source said, "The circling of two American fighter planes on Wednesday and their maneuvers over border areas of Iran and Iraq indicated that the planes were involved in spying." It is not clear if the Iranian antiaircraft units were able to react to the alleged violation of their airspace. (Bill Samii)

WHERE DOES THE IRANIAN NUCLEAR DEBATE GO FROM HERE? In Part 3 of a four-part series on the crisis over Iran's nuclear program, RFE/RL looks at where the debate goes from here. (Part 1 looks at what is known about Iran's nuclear ambitions; Part 2 looks at two separate routes that Tehran might be taking in its alleged efforts to make a nuclear bomb [also see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 27 December 2004]; Part 4 examines the seldom-heard views and sentiments of Iranian citizens about the country's nuclear aspirations.)

When Iran agreed to negotiate with Europe over its nuclear activities, much of the international community breathed a sigh of relief. The negotiations -- which opened on 20 December -- focused on an offer by Britain, Germany, and France to give Iran trade advantages and technical assistance in exchange for Tehran indefinitely -- that is, permanently -- giving up its uranium-enrichment activities. While a final deal has yet to be worked out, the three European Union nations view their initiative as already partly successful because Tehran has agreed to temporarily suspend uranium enrichment while the negotiators meet. That has defused -- for now -- U.S. and European worries that Iran was progressing with its efforts to master uranium enrichment while the world only discussed what to do.

Even as the diplomatic initiative by the three European Union nations proceeds, there are signs that a final deal to end the Iranian nuclear crisis could be very hard to reach. One reason is Tehran's insistence of its right under the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to produce its own reactor fuel -- a right that it says it might briefly suspend but will never give up.

Hussein Musavian, Iran's chief delegate to the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), put Tehran's position this way: "We have emphasized that the suspension [of uranium-enrichment activities] should be for confidence-building, not as a legal obligation."

Analysts say statements like those make Washington skeptical that Iran and the three EU states can reach a long-term accord that satisfies all sides. A similar "suspension" deal between European powers and Iran in late 2003 fell apart amid disagreements over the terms. Iran has already come under criticism by diplomats for breaking the spirit of its nuclear accord with the EU by using a loophole to keep preparing raw uranium for nuclear enrichment.

David Albright, a nuclear expert at the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, said U.S. officials are watching the EU deal with interest because -- if successful -- it could be an ideal solution to the crisis. "I think many in the U.S. government want [the European effort] to succeed," Albright said. "It's a dream deal in terms of U.S. objectives to get Iran to give up its ability to make nuclear explosives material and have that verified, and then have Iran shift its civil nuclear energy program toward just nuclear electricity production using imported reactors."

Earlier this week, U.S. President George W. Bush reiterated Washington's desire to see the nuclear disputes with both Iran and North Korea resolved through talks. "Diplomacy must be the first choice and always the first choice of an administration trying to solve an issue of, in this case, nuclear armament, and we'll continue to press on diplomacy," Bush said.

But Albright said U.S. officials do not really believe Iran is ready to give up what Washington says has been a determined effort to acquire nuclear weapons. Iran has denied such allegations, saying it needs nuclear power stations to meet domestic energy demands.

Analysts said that means that, over the coming months, the Iranian nuclear crisis could go in either of two directions. One possibility is that the European initiative will lead to good-faith negotiations with Iran. Then, the United States would have to decide whether to abandon its skepticism and join the talks in an effort to reach a final "grand bargain" that would end the nuclear crisis.

Neil Partrick of the Economist Intelligence Unit in London said Washington's participation would be necessary because Iran would most likely want incentives from the United States, too, as part of any final deal. "The Iranian version of a grand bargain -- as far as it's possible to divine a clear line on this -- would be one that involves a significant degree of engagement by the U.S.," Partrick said. "And the Europeans must be seen as really rather secondary players on this issue, ultimately. And along with that engagement would come some [demands for] clear guarantees about [Iran's] own security."

But Partrick said hostile relations between the United States and Iran could make it difficult for any American administration to join the EU nations in negotiating directly with Tehran. "It's very hard to imagine a U.S. administration of any kind being prepared to make those kind of guarantees to an Iranian regime that remains extremely controversial [in America]," Partrick said. Washington has had no formal relations with Iran since U.S. diplomats were taken hostage for 444 days in Tehran immediately after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The second possible course for the nuclear crisis is that Tehran could balk at abandoning its uranium-enrichment activities. Then, a frustrated Europe might move closer to Washington's position -- that is, that Iran must be forced to do so. In that case, Washington would likely try to enlist the Europeans in its own efforts to persuade the International Atomic Energy Agency to refer Tehran to the UN Security Council for discussion of possible sanctions. The United States might also seek to persuade the European Union to join it in its efforts to isolate Iran politically or economically.

With so many variables at play, analysts said it is impossible to predict how the Iranian nuclear crisis might end. But many said the least likely scenario at the moment is U.S. military action against Iran.

Albright called U.S. air strikes a "poor option," precisely because Washington's greatest worry about Iran is that it could be pursuing weapons development work at sites that have not yet been discovered. He said that means Washington could never be sure its air strikes had destroyed all of any clandestine nuclear program. And such strikes would raise a new problem of how to deal with an Iranian government that would be only more convinced it needs nuclear weapons for its own security. (Charles Recknagel)

IRANIAN PUBLIC OFFERS MIXED FEELINGS ON NUCLEAR ISSUE. In Part 4 of a four-part series on the crisis over Iran's nuclear program, RFE/RL examines the seldom-heard views and sentiments of Iranian citizens about the country's nuclear aspirations. (Part 1 looked at what is known -- and unknown -- about Iran's nuclear ambitions. Part 2 looked at two separate routes that Tehran might be taking in its alleged efforts to make a nuclear bomb. Part 3 examined diplomatic efforts under way to give Iran trade advantages and technical assistance in exchange for giving up its uranium-enrichment activities.)

Iranian officials say the country's civilian nuclear program is a matter of national pride and claim widespread public support for continuing research and development. According to a poll published in October by Iran's semi-official Mehr news agency, around 80 percent of respondents said they were opposed to halting nuclear activities. More than 65 percent said Iran should continue its nuclear pursuits under any circumstances. And 80 percent believe the United States and other Western countries are pressuring the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to crack down on Iran.

But some observers question the validity of such polls and reject the idea that Iranians are united in their desire for the country to have a nuclear program.

An analyst who travels to Iran on a regular basis -- who wished to remain anonymous -- told RFE/RL that he believes people have mixed feelings about the issue. "The overwhelming feedback I get from people is ambivalence or mixed thoughts," he said. "They feel that the money could be better spent or that lots of people are not even paying attention. It doesn't affect their daily lives."

Several Iranian citizens interviewed by RFE/RL endorsed the view that Iran should continue its peaceful nuclear activities. Hamid is a 54-year-old businessman in Tehran: "It's [Iran's] legitimate right, and other countries in the region have these possibilities. This is our right. Why shouldn't we use it?" He said he believes the Islamic Republic is not secretly trying to produce nuclear weapons.

Tehran says its nuclear program is peaceful and is aimed at producing energy for civilian use. The United States and Israel accuse Iran of pursuing a clandestine nuclear-weapons program.

Ladan is a 45-year-old office manager in the capital: "One thing is very strange for me, and that is why there is so much pressure [on Iran], because I think every country has the right to have some plans of its own, apart from [producing] nuclear weapons. If [nuclear activities] are for peaceful purposes, then there is nothing wrong. Israel now has about 200 to 300 nuclear bombs. Why isn't there any pressure on Israel?"

But she added that it is possible that UN inspections have succeeded in preventing Iran from producing a nuclear bomb: "I don't think Iran has [a nuclear bomb]. But I think that if the inspectors hadn't come to Iran, it would possibly have produced one." She said the Iranian regime would consolidate its power by developing nuclear weapons, and that's not something most people are in favor of.

Twenty-two-year-old Ali said students at his university do not talk much about the nuclear issue. "There isn't much talk about it among the youth, maybe only small talk regarding, for example, whether the case has been referred to the Security Council," Ali said. "Otherwise, they don't go into too many details. At Azad University, where I study, it's like that, I think. For students at other universities, the issue might be more important because the atmosphere there is more political."

Ali said he believes Iran is interested in developing nuclear weapons, but said the country should have a nuclear capability only for energy production. "I think it is something that is necessary," he said. "It means that Iran should by all means have a nuclear capability -- not military nuclear capabilities -- but for producing energy. I think we are after nuclear weapons, but I'm not sure if they've reached them or not."

The anonymous analyst who spoke with RFE/RL said inconsistencies in statements by the Iranian government over the past year have convinced many people that the regime is pursuing a clandestine weapons program. But he said most Iranians do not see how a nuclear program can improve their lives and solve problems, such as unemployment and inflation.

Ladan, the Tehran office manager, said she agrees that most ordinary Iranians are concerned with day-to-day problems: "There was some concern about the possible referral of Iran's case to the Security Council [for possible sanctions] because, in such a case, it would be the people who would have to carry the burden on their shoulders. People are facing so many problems regarding the economy; pollution in Tehran, which makes people nervous; terrible traffic jams; unemployment; and other issues. Nuclear activities are really lost among these [other issues]."

Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi recently said that while she, too, opposes nuclear weapons, the West would do more good by focusing not on Tehran's nuclear program but on promoting democracy in the Islamic Republic. "In a country or a society where people supervise decisions and everything else, like a democratic country, the existence of an atomic bomb cannot be dangerous," Ebadi said. (Golnaz Esfandiari)