5 April 2005, Volume 8, Number 14
ETHNIC POLITICS OUT OF BOUNDS IN IRAN. Iran's population of some 69 million people is ethnically and religiously diverse. But successive Iranian governments, whether theocratic or monarchic, have stressed the Persian nature of the state and tried to eliminate minority interests by emphasizing linguistic, religious, and cultural unity. It is noteworthy, therefore, that candidates campaigning before the 17 June presidential election are pandering to minority groups.
Conservative frontrunner Ali Larijani said during a 29 March gathering of Sunni Muslims in Aq Qala, Gulistan Province, that all of the country's ethnic groups are important and praised the country's Turkmen minority, Fars News Agency reported.
Mohsen Rezai, another conservative candidate, met with tribal leaders in Abadan on 24 March and said, "When I talk about justice I mean that there should be no difference between the provinces or tribes and we should not have first and second class citizens," Fars News Agency reported. "In order to realize this...we must treat all ethnic groups equally. In fact a change in our view towards ethnic groups is extremely important and the next government must courageously pursue this issue."
Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi visited Ahvaz, Khuzestan Province, in early March. He noted the economic importance of the oil-producing province and said it has been protected by brave young people, "particularly Arab, Lur, and the tribes of Khuzestan," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 13 March. Susangerd parliamentarian Jasem Jadari told Karrubi there is propaganda suggesting "various ethnic groups living in Khuzestan have excessive and unreasonable expectations." But local people only want their constitutionally guaranteed rights, he said.
The majority of Iranians are Persians who practice Shi'a Islam, but the country also includes Shi'a-practicing Azeris and Arabs, as well as Baluchi, Kurdish, and Turkmen minorities that practice Sunni Islam. Christian Armenians and Assyrians also live in Iran, as do practitioners of the Baha'i, Jewish, and Zoroastrian faiths. The Iranian Constitution states that Shi'ism is the state religion but other schools of Islam will be respected fully, and in regions where the minorities predominate, local regulations will respect their faith. Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian practices will be respected, too, according to the constitution. All Iranians, regardless of their ethnic group or tribe, are supposed to enjoy equal rights. Baha'is, however, are not recognized and face intense repression.
The Iranian government stresses national unity, and Intelligence and Security Minister Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi frequently claims that foreign elements are trying to stir up sectarian differences (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 20 December 2004). He most often makes this claim about the southeast, where many Baluchis live.
Furthermore, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati cautioned presidential candidates not to promote ethnic issues in his last two Friday prayer sermons in Tehran. On 23 February Jannati said Iran's survival depends on the unity of all ethnic and religious groups, state radio reported. He advised candidates not to discuss issues "in certain areas" because "ethnic sensitivities will be provoked and this will result in discord."
The next month Jannati warned that the United States is determined to exploit rifts, and in Lebanon and Iraq it has "fanned the flames" of ethnic and religious differences, state radio reported on 18 March. "The same plots are hatched against Iran," he said. "Some of the prospective candidates are raising such problems in order to win votes."
As secretary of the Guardians Council, Jannati plays a major role in vetting prospective candidates for elected office. His warning to the candidates -- "The likelihood of them being qualified for such a post is very low indeed" -- and his advice to the judiciary to deal with these individuals could have an impact.
But it is likely that Jannati's comments are meant for the reformists, not the conservatives.
Executive-branch spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh, a Kurd who previously served as governor of Kurdistan Province, made some very controversial statements at a 3 March reformist conference on Kurdish issues in the western city of Kermanshah, Fars News Agency reported the next day. "We, [the Kurds] will only take part in the elections and vote if we are guaranteed to have a share in the power."
Conservatives criticized Ramezanzadeh, pointing out that Petroleum Minister Bijan Namdar-Zanganeh, Health Minister Masud Pezeshkian, and other prominent officials are Kurds. As a result of this outcry, President Mohammad Khatami reportedly barred Ramezanzadeh from participating in any more election meetings, Fars News Agency reported on 7 March.
Yet one conservative legislator, Alaedin Borujerdi, swam against the tide. He said the Kurds are supporters of the Islamic Republic, Fars News Agency reported on 4 March. But he also noted that "Kurdistan, like several other provinces, needs greater attention, the honorable government must pay greater heed to that province."
It is not immediately clear why the candidates are focusing on minorities right now. Khatami traveled the country to gather support and encourage voters during his 1997 campaign, and he included minority group members like Ramezanzadeh in his cabinet. The candidates' appeal to provincial groups is not without precedent, therefore. It is also possible that because candidates do not present very specific platforms during their campaigns, they must appeal to voters in other ways. (Bill Samii)
REFORMISTS CONSIDER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES. Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Mohtashami-Pur and Ali Shakurirad, who run the election headquarters of Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi and Mustafa Moin, respectively, recently met to discuss reformist campaign strategy, "Iran News" reported on 29 March. The two agreed that the conservative press is running unsourced reports that try to cause rifts within the reformist camp. Karrubi and Moin are the main reformist candidates and, according to "Iran News," two solutions are being considered for making the final choice. One is to let them both campaign until the last minute. The final candidate will be selected on the basis of an opinion poll and the other candidate will withdraw. The other, offered by Said Hajjarian of the Islamic Iran Participation Party, proposes that an arbitration council selects the reformist candidate. The council would include President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, former Prime Minister Mir-Hussein Musavi, and other prominent reformists. (Bill Samii)
FEMALE LEGISLATOR WANTS TO BE PRESIDENT. Zanjan parliamentary representative Rafat Bayat has declared that she wants to be an independent presidential candidate, Fars News Agency reported on 29 March. The Guardians Council must approve all candidacies, and there is controversy over the gender-related aspects of the wording of the law on eligibility. Bayat expressed confidence that the Guardians Council will approve a female candidate when one with the necessary managerial and executive qualities comes forward. Bayat added, "I believe that supervisory institutions are corrupt. Therefore, only an individual who is free from factional and group tendencies will be able to solve the current economic and social problems of the country." Bayat decried the impact of factionalism on the political process. She said student groups and independent figures urged her to run. (Bill Samii)
TEHRAN MAYOR CLOSE TO ANNOUNCING PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDACY. An anonymous source close to Tehran Mayor Mahmud Ahmadinejad said on 30 March that Ahmadinejad is close to deciding on a presidential bid, Fars News Agency reported. The source said Ahmadinejad has an outstanding record as the capital's mayor and as governor-general of Ardabil Province, and that thousands of people want him to run. (Bill Samii)
U.S. COMMITTEE WORRIES IRANIAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE. Ali Larijani, the leading conservative presidential candidate, said during a 31 March visit to Babolsar in northern Iran that the United States has a new strategy on Iran, Fars News Agency reported. According to Larijani, the strategy proposed by the Committee on the Present Danger -- a U.S. bipartisan organization "dedicated to building a national consensus for a strong defense," according to its website -- initially "smells like war" but would end with a U.S. request for an embassy in Tehran. "In this way, they want to have an influence in Iran."
The committee's policy paper (http://www.fightingterror.org/newsroom/CPD_Iran_policy_paper.pdf) describes Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as "a fundamental threat to peace" because of his pursuit of nuclear weapons, but asserts that the Iranian people "are our allies" and they want democracy. In addition to opening an embassy, the policy paper calls for support for "Iranian democrats and dissidents," sanctions that target Khamenei, and the allocation of at least $10 million a year for Internet, radio, and television outreach efforts. The paper also calls for a direct dialogue with Tehran.
Larijani described the economic policies of his prospective government during a 31 March press conference in Mazandaran Province, Fars News Agency reported. He said he would encourage privatization by issuing shares in state-owned enterprises, and would reduce economic activities that take place through officials' connections. Larijani said the government must be streamlined so that it can meet the needs of public sector workers and still fulfill its role. Larijani said his government's economic policies would be based on Islam and public participation. (Bill Samii)
CENTRAL BANK GOVERNOR RECONFIRMED. In a 28 March decree, President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami reconfirmed Ebrahim Sheibani as governor of the Central Bank of Iran, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. (Bill Samii)
PHYSICIAN: CANADIAN PHOTOJOURNALIST TORTURED, RAPED. Former Iranian Defense Ministry physician Shahram Azam -- who is seeking asylum in Canada -- said at a 30 March news conference in Ottawa that he examined Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi four days after her June 2003 arrest for taking pictures outside Evin prison, Radio Farda reported, citing the 31 March issue of Toronto's "The Globe and Mail."
"Her entire body carried strange marks of violence," Azam said. He described "a big bruise on the right side of her forehead stretching down to the ear.... the membrane in one of her ears had recently burst, and a loose blood vessel could be seen.... deep scratches behind her neck.... The right shoulder was bruised, and on the left hand two fingers were broken. Three fingers had broken nails or no nails." Kazemi's legs were flogged and a toe was crushed. There was severe bruising on her abdomen, "stretching over the thigh down to the knees," and a female nurse who examined Kazemi ascribed the bruising to "a very brutal rape" and said "the entire genital area had been damaged."
In July 2004, a Tehran court acquitted a security official for the "semi-intentional" killing of Kazemi (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 14 and 21 July 2003, 9 August 2004).
Ramin Ahmadi, a physician and human rights activist, told Radio Farda that Azam's comments prove that Kazemi was comatose by the time she was brought to the hospital. This also proves, Ahmadi told Radio Farda, that contrary to the Iranian government's assertions, Kazemi was tortured before being brought to the hospital.
Azam worked at the Baghiatollah Hospital. Babak Gharai, a physician, told Radio Farda that this is a very big hospital located on Mullah Sara Avenue. Most of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps medical school is located at this hospital, Gharai told Radio Farda. He added that prisoners are dealt with by specially designated physicians.
Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, the Kazemi family's attorney, told Radio Farda that he previously informed a presidential commission about the extent of Kazemi's injuries. The court ignored this information, he told Radio Farda. Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, who also represented Kazemi, unsuccessfully tried to introduce Kazemi's clothing as evidence to show the blood and the location of her injuries.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi and Judiciary spokesman Jamal Karimi-Rad on 2 April rejected Azam's statements about the torture and death of Kazemi, IRNA and ISNA reported. Assefi said Baghiatollah Hospital officials deny that Azam was on their medical team, and Karimi-Rad said the coroner's report does not include the information on physical injuries that Azam described at his press conference. (Bill Samii)
DOCUMENTARY EXPOSES HIDDEN SIDE OF IRANIAN SOCIETY. Iranian-born director Nahid Persson earned high honors at the recent Creteil International Women's Film Festival for her chronicle of two young women on the streets of Tehran. "Prostitution Behind the Veil" follows the lives of two young friends -- Minna and Fariba -- who have turned to prostitution to make a living. Persson's film was awarded the festival's jury prize and the audience prize for best documentary.
Nahid Persson spent more than a year filming the daily lives of the film's two young mothers, who are raising their children alone and supporting heroin addictions through prostitution.
Persson, who left Iran for Sweden two decades ago, says she met and befriended Fariba and Minna while filming a fortune teller in Tehran about two years ago. She says the women were happy that someone was interested in their plight. Once filming began, Persson says she was herself at risk filming in Iran -- where prostitution is illegal and adulterers can face the death penalty.
"We had a natural relation. We trusted each other," Persson says. "They even asked me on several occasions to go with them when they were going to meet some of their regular customers, because they were from some police station. But I didn't do it out of the fear that I had to film someone who wears the uniform of a pasdar [member of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps]. And it was also better for them that I didn't do it."
She says most of Fariba and Minna's customers complied with Islamic law through temporary marriages of convenience called "sighehs."
Fariba and Minna are close friends who provide each other with support. Persson describes their lives: "Their life was about finding clients and getting money so that they could buy an egg or some food for their children. And because of their addiction, they had to buy heroin. They didn't have a normal life. When one becomes addicted to drugs, one forgets about [real] life."
Drug addiction is a major problem in Iran, especially among young men. But the number of female drug users is said to be growing. Iranian newspapers estimate that there are currently about 300,000 women working the streets. Many are runaways who have fled abusive families. Others sell their bodies out of simple poverty.
Persson says both women acquired their heroin addictions through drug-addicted husbands. "Fariba had a terrible kidney pain, [and] once her husband told her, 'Smoke some of this, you'll be fine.' She didn't know that it is very dangerous. She thought she would smoke it once, feel better, and that would be it," Persson says. "But when she smokes the first [time], she sees that the pain goes away. And every time she suffered kidney pain, she would smoke. And it went on like this until one day her husband sends her into the street and tells her, 'Go bring clients.'"
Minna's story is a similar one. After her husband was jailed on drug-related charges she found herself and her infant child on the street. That's where she met her first customer.
Persson says both women turned to prostitution out of distress and desperation: "They don't get any social support. Both of them really had no choice -- like thousands of other women. Fariba told me how the first time had been terrible for her, and she didn't want to do it but she had to."
To the dismay of authorities in Iran's Islamic republic, the number of prostitutes has grown in recent years. Iranian authorities have warned that without adequate support and an improvement in living conditions, the ranks of those who are officially labeled "street women" could increase.
"Prostitution Behind the Veil" has won a number of European awards. The director says she is especially proud of the most recent, the audience prize from a French women's films festival at Creteil. Persson says many of those who have seen her documentary have praised her for showing a hidden side of Iranian society.
"People had a great reaction," Persson says. "But at all the screenings so far, people always ask me, 'Why have you put shame on Iran? We also have women who are doctors, women [who have achieved something].' And I say everywhere that, 'I know, we have many women activists, but even those women fighters are under pressure.' This film is not about whether Iran is a poor country or a rich one; it's not about that issue. The documentary is about what people have been through during the last 25 years."
"Prostitution Behind the Veil" will next compete at the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival in New York. (Golnaz Esfandiari)
KYRGYZ DEVELOPMENTS WORRY IRAN, BUT UNLIKELY TO HAVE LASTING IMPACT. The Iranian Foreign Ministry reacted cautiously when asked about the recent ouster of Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, who fled from Bishkek following the storming of government offices by protesters. Spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said Iran is monitoring developments and added, "We hope conditions in Kyrgyzstan will return to normal as soon as possible," IRNA reported on 26 March.
Tehran has worked hard in recent years to strengthen its relationship with the Akaev government, but the Iranian government cannot be expected to openly protest the democratic aspirations of the Kyrgyz people. Nevertheless, some Iranian officials have attributed the events in the Central Asian republic to the United States, which reflects their concern about the large U.S. presence in the region.
Commercial relations between Iran and Kyrgyzstan -- which has a population of 5 million -- are insignificant. The Central Asian state mainly exports agricultural goods (cotton, wool, meat, tobacco), minerals (gold, mercury, uranium), energy (natural gas, hydropower), and manufactured goods (machinery, shoes) to the United Arab Emirates, Switzerland, Russia, Kazakhstan, Canada, and China. Kyrgyzstan imports oil, gas, chemicals, food, and manufactured goods, mostly from Russia, Kazakhstan, China, the United States, Uzbekistan, and Germany.
However, Tehran is eager to become a larger trading partner and a number of official delegations have exchanged visits recently.
Iranian First Vice President Mohammad-Reza Aref-Yazdi, Commerce Minister Mohammad Shariatmadari, and Health Minister Masud Pezeshkian met with Akaev and other officials in Bishkek in October 2004. At this time the two sides signed four memoranda of understanding on health, electricity transmission, and trade. Shariatmadari led another delegation to Kyrgyzstan in May 2004.
Significantly, Akaev's December 2003 visit to Iran yielded an Iranian government allocation of $10 million for investment in the Kyrgyz economy (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 5 January 2004). The two sides signed seven memoranda of understanding -- on trade, tariffs, and trade centers; visa regulations; legal affairs; cultural and artistic cooperation; and housing and urban development. Akaev met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, then-Speaker of Parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, and Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran is demonstrating every day growing interest in developing and expanding its relations with Kyrgyzstan, in particular in the economy," Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Askar Aytamov said on 26 December 2003, Kyrgyzinfo reported.
The two countries also interact in multilateral fora. Both Kyrgyzstan and Iran are members of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), and Khatami and Akaev met on the sidelines of the September 2004 ECO summit in Dushanbe. Foreign Minister Kharrazi visited Kyrgyzstan in June 2003 to participate in a meeting of ECO foreign ministers.
Although the Iranian foreign ministry was restrained in its reaction to developments in Kyrgyzstan, the country's leaders have expressed a great deal of concern about the expanding U.S. presence in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Persian Gulf. Some official comments, therefore, reflect this concern.
Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani saw Kyrgyz events in the context of what is taking place in Lebanon and Iraq. He said during his Friday Prayers sermon on 25 March, which was broadcast by state radio. "You can see what America's mischief is doing in Lebanon. A country that was managing itself competently is now in crisis. You can see what they have done in Kyrgyzstan. You can see how they are toying with the people of Iraq." Hashemi-Rafsanjani continued: "We are faced with a creeping move designed by America aimed at dominating other countries and plundering their natural resources. We hope to repel America's evil intentions by relying on God and the revolution, holding fast to the covenant of God, which is Koran, and vigilance."
A 25 March Iranian state television commentary said events in Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia show that these countries are "the focus of foreign powers' attention." Western and particularly American interference is responsible for events in Kyrgyzstan, it claimed. The commentary claimed some 50 nongovernmental organizations that were established in Kyrgyzstan recently "played a fundamental role in the crisis." It said the U.S. wants friendly governments in these countries because they possess energy resources, uranium, and nuclear technology.
Iranian state television also played the religion card, albeit inaccurately. It is "noteworthy," according to the commentary, that "such developments have occurred in countries [in which] the majority of the inhabitants are Muslims, which clearly shows the process of the expansionist and hegemonic policies of America." Islam is the majority faith in Kyrgyzstan (Muslim 75 percent, Russian Orthodox 20 percent, other 5 percent), but not in Moldova (Eastern Orthodox 98 percent), Ukraine (mainly Ukrainian Orthodox), or Georgia (Georgian Orthodox 65 percent, Muslim 11 percent, Russian Orthodox 10 percent, Armenian Apostolic 8 percent, unknown 6 percent).
The situation in Bishkek has calmed down since last week. During the current Noruz holidays in Iran, furthermore, most politicians are on vacation and newspapers are not being published. Unless the emerging Kyrgyz government makes some blatantly anti-Iranian comments or takes actions that seem hostile, it is likely that the two countries' relations will continue along the same path. (Bill Samii)
WORLD SHI'A COMMEMORATE ARBA'IN. Shi'a Muslims throughout the world commemorated Arba'in on 31 March, international news agencies reported. Arba'in marks the 40th day after the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein and his brother Abbas in a battle over Islamic leadership in 680 A.D.
IRNA reported on 31 March that visitors and mourners packed the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini at Tehran's Behesht-i Zahra cemetery.
In Karbala, "The Washington Post" reported on 31 March, there were "sorrowful chants for Hussein, pounding drums, laments crackling from rickety speakers and the shuffle of thousands of feet converging on the city." Self-flagellation also took place (see http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&u=/050330/481/bag11403301313).
Iraqi border guards closed the border to Iranian pilgrims ahead of the Arba'in commemorations, Fars News Agency reported on 28 March. Officials in Khorramshahr, near the Iraqi frontier, confirmed that the border was closed five days ago and said Iranian border guards would deal with those who try to cross illegally.
KUNA reported on 29 March that Iraqi authorities closed the country's air, land, and sea borders on that day. Authorities did not say when the borders will reopen, the news agency reported.
Police in the Babil Governorate warned pilgrims making the trip to Karbala to beware of taking food and drink from unknown sources while making the pilgrimage, after a terrorist group distributed poisoned food items to pilgrims near the Al-Hillah bus station, "Al-Mu'tamar" reported on 26 March. Three people were treated at a hospital in Al-Hillah as a result of the poisoning. (Bill Samii, Kathleen Ridolfo)
IRAN-IRAQ RAILWAY LINK FORTHCOMING Hassan Tiz-Maqz, secretary-general of the Iran-Iraq Chamber of Commerce, said in the 26 March issue of "Iran" newspaper that the two countries are discussing linking their railways. Tiz-Maqz said a short piece of track is required to connect the railway in Khorramshahr with the Iraqi network. From there it can be connected with Syria and then the Mediterranean Sea, he said. He said the Syrians would send Iranian goods to Europe by sea. Iran and Iraq agreed in April 2004 to link their railways (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 5 April 2004). (Bill Samii)
IRAN RIDICULES EGYPTIAN ESPIONAGE TRIAL. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi on 27 March said an Egyptian court's ruling, in which it found an Iranian diplomat and Egyptian national guilty of espionage, is ridiculous, IRNA reported. Assefi said, "The court session has been held with an aim of appeasing the Zionist regime."
Earlier that day, a court in Cairo sentenced the Egyptian, Mahmud Id Dabus, to 35 years in prison for spying for the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps. Iranian diplomat Mohammad Rezadust, who was tried in absentia, received a 25-year sentence. Dabus reportedly collected intelligence on targets in Saudi Arabia and participated in the planning for an attempt on the life of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 14 December 2004 and 7 March 2005).
The Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned Egyptian Interests Section chief Shoqi Ismaili on 29 March to hear a complaint about the trial in Cairo. Ismaili promised to relay Tehran's complaint to Cairo. (Bill Samii)
IRANIAN LEGISLATORS BEMOAN STATE OF NUCLEAR TALKS. Someh Sara parliamentary representative Seyyed Kazem Delkhosh said on 29 March that Europe cannot be trusted in nuclear negotiations, Fars News Agency reported. He said Iran should focus more on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as a negotiating partner. Delkhosh criticized Iranian negotiators for insufficient toughness vis-a-vis the Europeans.
Tehran legislator Alaedin Borujerdi, head of the parliament's national security and foreign affairs committee, said on 28 March that the United States is to blame for the lack of progress in nuclear discussions with the European Union, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported. He said, "Our main problem at negotiations with the Europeans is America." He went on to advise against talking to Washington, saying, "Negotiating with the Americans will not only not help us, but will create more obstacles in terms of achieving our aim, which is to gain access to nuclear technology."
Another committee member, Hamid Reza Haji-Babai, also questioned the value of talking to Washington, ISNA reported. "Direct negotiations with America are a premature and emotional thought and beyond the scope of Iran's general policies," he said.
Jiroft parliamentary representative Ali Zadsar said on 25 March that Iran should end its talks with the EU, Fars News Agency reported. He explained, "Putting our trust in the agreements and accords of European countries that are heavily influenced by America stretches credulity." He accused them of wanting to "eradicate the Islamic system of Iran and achieve their colonial aims." (Bill Samii)
...WHILE ONE RECOMMENDS TALKING WITH WASHINGTON. Ardabil parliamentary representative Nureddin Pirmoazen said on 28 March that neither Russia nor Europe are trustworthy and that Iran should end its nuclear negotiations with them, Fars News Agency reported. Pirmoazen described the Russians as "more deceitful" than the Europeans and the Europeans as "more cunning" than the Americans. Direct negotiations with the United States, he said, would resolve many problems and reduce mistrust. He said the United States dominates Europe and Russia with its wealth and power and, in turn, they are manipulating Iran's national interests. (Bill Samii)
KHATAMI AND JOURNALISTS VISIT NUCLEAR FACILITIES. President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, Vice President for Atomic Energy Gholamreza Aqazadeh-Khoi, and approximately 30 Iranian and foreign journalists visited the uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz on 30 March, Radio Farda reported.
Khatami reportedly inspected the centrifuges but reporters were not allowed near them. Mohammad Saidi, deputy chief of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, told the reporters that all the uranium-enrichment equipment is made in Iran, state television reported. When a reporter asked if he could photograph the centrifuges, Saidi responded, "Where are you from?" When the reporter replied that he is Japanese, Saidi said, "The Japanese have never shown us the pictures of their centrifuge machinery. If they do, we will show you ours."
The reporters said the site was heavily defended by antiaircraft missiles. Radio Farda noted that Iran and the EU agreed last week to continue discussing the nuclear issue, and an IAEA official told reporters that the facility would already be finished if Iran had not suspended its nuclear activities. Iran has agreed to the suspension as long as discussions with the Europeans continue.
Khatami and his entourage also visited a uranium-conversion facility near Isfahan, according to state television. It reported that uranium hexafluoride produced in Isfahan is enriched at Natanz, then it is returned to Isfahan where it is turned into fuel rods.
Washington did not think very much of the tour. RFE/RL reported that U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli dismissed it as a "staged media event" that fell short of the openness needed to end Iran's nuclear dispute with the U.S. and the EU. Ereli said that if Iran is really serious about transparency in its nuclear program it should answer all of the IAEA's outstanding questions. He said that Iran should stop denying IAEA inspectors full and unrestricted access to suspicious sites like the Parchin high-explosives facility about 30 kilometers southwest of Tehran. Ereli also said Tehran should stop refusing IAEA requests to interview key officials associated with Iran's nuclear activities.
Ian Kemp, a London-based independent defense expert, told RFE/RL that Washington is right to dismiss the value of the journalists' tour. "I think the State Department is very accurate about the usefulness of journalists -- who have very little understanding of the complexities of nuclear issues or the sort of insight they would be able to bring to an inspection of Iranian nuclear facilities. This really is something that requires experts of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Or, indeed, experts that are agreed upon by the parties that are concerned. Because, of course, much of this equipment can be used for dual purposes -- nuclear power for civilian use but also spin-off for military programs."
Khatami told reporters during the 30 March trip that Iran will resume nuclear activities soon, state television reported. He said the visit to Natanz and Isfahan "proves" that Iranian nuclear activities will not be diverted for military purposes. He made clear, as have many other Iranian officials, that Iran is intent on mastery of the complete nuclear fuel cycle: "We shall have the nuclear fuel cycle, but we also want to enjoy this legitimate right through talks and understanding and, God willing, we shall do so." (Bill Samii)
INTELLIGENCE COMMISSION'S FINDINGS ON IRAN CLASSIFIED. "The Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction," which released its report for President George W. Bush on 31 March, discusses Iran's development of a nuclear capability (http://www.wmd.gov/report/). The commission studied intelligence reports and interviewed various weapons experts. But because the intelligence community's work on this topic is classified, the commission's assessments are not carried in the publicly-available unclassified version of the report. Anonymous "officials who have been briefed on the panel's work" say it found there is inadequate intelligence on Iran's weapons program, "The New York Times" reported on 26 March. The commission is a nine-member panel organized by President Bush in February 2004. (Bill Samii)
HOMELAND SECURITY PERCEIVES IRANIAN THREAT. A new Department of Homeland Security report warns that Iran continues to be a potential threat to the U.S., "The New York Times" reported on 31 March. The threat from other state sponsors of terrorism -- Cuba, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria -- is described as a "diminishing concern." "Only Iran appears to have the possible future motivation to use terrorist groups, in addition to its own state agents, to plot against the U.S. homeland," according to the report. For the most part, the report asserts, "countries do not appear to be facilitating or supporting terrorist groups intent on striking the U.S. homeland."
Coincidentally, Belgium's Mixed Antiterrorist Group warns that foreign students, including Iranian ones, are conducting espionage in Belgium, "De Standaard" reported on 30 March. (Bill Samii)