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Iran Report: November 8, 2005

8 November 2005, Volume 8, Number 44

AHMADINEJAD STILL IN CHARGE OF NUCLEAR PROGRAM, DESPITE SPECULATION TO THE CONTRARY. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's forays into foreign policy since his inauguration in August continue to elicit negative reactions from the international community and from many Iranian observers. The situation has led to speculation that some of the executive branch's powers and prerogatives are being turned over to other state agencies. The most recent incident took place in late October, when Ahmadinejad called for Israel's destruction, and his harsh speech at the UN General Assembly in September might have contributed to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) governing board's unusually critical resolution.

But other Iranian officials' statements make it clear that while people might misunderstand Ahmadinejad's intent, he nevertheless has the approval of the regime's leadership. Moreover, there are blanket disavowals that control of the nuclear account has been taken away from the executive branch, and institutional and personnel changes indicate that the new president and his associates are tightening their control. The IAEA's governing board meets in November to discuss the Iranian nuclear program, and Ahmadinejad's behavior could effect the outcome of that gathering.

Damage Control

Ahmadinejad on 26 October paraphrased a speech by the father of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, when he described Israel as a "disgraceful blot" that should be "wiped off the map." Officials from a number of countries immediately criticized Ahmadinejad's comments, and the UN Security Council officially condemned his remarks two days later.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry and other officials tried to repair the damage by clarifying the president's statement. Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said during a 27 October talk show on state television: "We are not surprised by the Zionist regime's reaction and that of its main supporter America. However, we are astonished by some of the European countries' hasty reactions.... The Islamic Republic of Iran has, in the past 27 years, continuously expressed its opposition to the legitimacy of the Zionist regime. We do not recognize this regime."

Mottaki said Iranian embassies have been instructed to explain Tehran's position and Ahmadinejad's comments. "We have asked all our embassies to clarify any ambiguities that any country might have regarding this issue by explaining our position. But [we] also advised them to ask the question why the same countries support the crimes of the Zionist regime. Why do they ignore the rights of an oppressed nation which has endured brutality, persecution, and injustice for over 60 years? The whole world witnesses the humiliation and killing of these people. Why are they being ignored?" Mottaki called for a referendum for the Palestinians.

The Foreign Ministry issued a statement on 29 October: "The Islamic Republic of Iran adheres to the UN charter and has never used or threatened to use force against any country," the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. It continued, "The statement issued by the head of the Security Council on the international Qods [Jerusalem] Day was proposed by the Zionist regime and aimed at overlooking the crimes of this regime and misrepresenting the events, and is therefore not acceptable."

Who's In Charge?

Iranian officials and media commentators began calling for greater subtlety and realism in the foreign policy realm in September, and some suggested that a foreign-policy guidance team is necessary. Speculation that Ahmadinejad had lost some of his powers emerged the following month, when it was announced that the Expediency Council has been given supervisory powers over the three branches of government.

Contributing to this speculation was the selection of former Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani as the head of the Expediency Council's Strategic Research Center, followed by former President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami joining the same center on 8 October.

Yet the chairman of the Expediency Council, Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, denied being put in charge of the nuclear account. "This is not true and nothing has been said about this," he said in the 27 October "Aftab-i Yazd." Hashemi-Rafsanjani said handling of the nuclear account must not change. "There is no need for my presence there," Hashemi-Rafsanjani said. "This is a collective matter and does not involve negotiations alone. The collective is behind the case."

This could be the typical obfuscation in which Iranian officials engage when discussing governmental operations. Yet there are signs that the executive branch is strengthening its control over the Supreme National Security Council, which has the lead on the nuclear issue.

In mid-October, Hussein Entezami succeeded Ali Aqamohammadi as the Supreme National Security Council's spokesman, and Abdolreza Rahmani-Fazli was appointed as the council's secretary and deputy head. Entezami is the founder and managing director of "Jam-i Jam" newspaper, which is linked with the state broadcasting agency (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, or IRIB), and Rahmani-Fazli was the deputy head of that organization. The current Supreme National Security Council secretary, Ali Larijani, headed IRIB until he ran in the June 2005 presidential election.

Other council officials have been replaced as well. Seyyed Ali Monfared, who has served in the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and the Foreign Ministry, replaced Hussein Musavian as a foreign policy adviser to Larijani, "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on 13 September. Moreover, the Supreme National Security Council has undergone structural changes since Ahmadinejad's August inauguration, and this too could enhance the executive branch's control over the nuclear portfolio.

Developments in the Foreign Ministry also point to a strengthening of Ahmadinejad's hand. "Aftab-i Yazd" on 30 October cited anonymous "sources close to Iran's diplomatic circles" as saying that President Ahmadinejad has called for the resignations and return home of four ambassadors closely involved with nuclear negotiations. The daily reported that ambassador to London Mohammad Hussein Adeli, ambassador to Paris Sadeq Kharrazi, ambassador to Berlin Shamseddin Kharqani, and the representative to the UN in Switzerland, Mohammad Reza Alborzi, have submitted their resignations. The daily cited another anonymous source, however, as saying that the ambassadors' tours had ended quite a while ago, and many other ambassadors are ending their tours as well.

Foreign Minister Mottaki told the legislature on 2 November, "the missions of more than 40 ambassadors and heads of Iranian diplomatic missions abroad will expire by the end of the year," the "International Herald Tribune" reported. Reacting to Western news reports that this is a purge of the ambassadorial corps, Mottaki said a number of these officials had reached retirement age or had requested early retirement, and this is a natural process, according to Iranian news agencies. Mottaki also rejected speculation that the Foreign Ministry has been put in charge of the nuclear account.

Approval From The Top

It is not just foreigners who are critical of Ahmadinejad's comments about Israel; a few public figures in Iran have also expressed concern about their impact. Nevertheless, Ahmadinejad has made it clear that he is not backing away from his views. Speaking at Qods Day rallies in Tehran on 28 October, at which effigies of U.S. President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon were set alight by people chanting "Death to America" and "Death to Israel," Ahmadinejad said, "My word is that of the Iranian nation," IRNA reported. During a 30 October meeting of Basij Resistance Force members in Tehran, Ahmadinejad spoke out against countries that intend to normalize their relations with Israel and reiterated his paraphrasing of Ayatollah Khomeini's statement about Israel, IRNA reported.

In a 30 October speech to government officials in Tehran, Ahmadinejad described Israel as "a usurping, illegitimate, and occupying government in the Palestinian land, which should be replaced by a popular and democratic government," state television reported on 31 October. In that speech, he said elections are the solution to the Palestinian problem. "The final and definite solution to the Palestinian problem is to allow the Palestinians who live in the occupied lands and elsewhere, as well as others who have become refugees because of the aggression of the Zionists, to hold a free election and decide about their desired government," Ahmadinejad said.

Moreover, Ahmadinejad's comments reflect the sentiments of at least some members of the country's leadership. Islamic Revolution Guards Corps commander Yahya Rahim-Safavi said on 28 October, "The president talked on behalf of the Iranian nation and in fact, his words were the same as the nation's," Fars News Agency reported. Yet Rahim-Safavi was cautious, and he ruled out military action: "It means that all Islamic nations should unite and campaign economically, politically, and culturally against Israel for the deliverance of the Palestinian nation."

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also commented on the reaction to Ahmadinejad's speech. He told officials in Tehran on 30 October, according to state television, "All the hue and cry you are seeing against Iran is due to its power." He said this is not the first time this has happened and predicted it will not be the last. He added that Western leaders should feel "ashamed before mankind for being under the influence of Zionists so much." (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN POLITICIANS CRITICIZE PRESIDENT'S ANTI-ISRAELI REMARKS... Political figures in Iran have spoken out against Ahmadinejad's condemnation of Israel on 26 October, including his suggestion that Israel should be "wiped off the map," Radio Farda reported on 31 October. Without identifying his successor specifically, former President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami said, "We are not on a global mission," adding that Iran should not try to change other countries. Khatami criticized statements that create political and economic trouble for Iran. Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who preceded Khatami as president and lost to Ahmadinejad in a two-man runoff in June, said the time for such slogans has passed, Radio Farda reported. According to the 31 October "Etemad," parliamentarian Ismail Gerami-Moghaddam said the government should be working to improve Iran's relations with other countries. (Bill Samii)

...AS UN SECURITY COUNCIL CONDEMNS THEM. Ahmadinejad's demand for the elimination of Israel in a 26 October speech was condemned by the UN Security Council. Mihnea Motoc, Romania's ambassador to the UN and current Security Council president, said on 28 October, "The members of the Security Council condemn the remarks about Israel attributed to his excellency Mr. Mahmud Ahmadinejad, president of the Islamic Republic of Iran," RFE/RL reported. Motoc said all UN members are committed to not using force or threatening to use force against other states. Israel welcomed the UN's statement. Israeli Ambassador to the UN Dan Gillerman said on 28 October at UN headquarters in New York that "Israel welcomes the condemnation by the Security Council of the outrageous remarks by the president of Iran, remarks which are not only alarming and dangerous, but have actually unmasked what extremism, fundamentalism, and madness is actually part of that world-threatening regime," RFE/RL reported. Israel has demanded Iran's expulsion from the UN, and officials from a number of countries have spoken out against Ahmadinejad's comments. Even Palestinian Authority official Saeb Erekat described the comments as "unacceptable," "The Observer" reported on 30 October. (Bill Samii)

IAEA CHIEF ADVOCATES PATIENCE ON IRAN. An anonymous diplomat close to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Ollie Heinonen, the agency's deputy director-general for safeguards, and two other IAEA inspectors went to the Parchin military site on 1 November, AFP reported the same day. Parchin is a high-explosives facility about 30 kilometers southwest of Tehran, and inspectors were allowed in March to visit one of the four sites they wanted to see there. There is suspicion that conventional explosives that can be used to detonate nuclear weapons were tested at Parchin. In comments in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on 1 November, IAEA Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei said there is progress on the investigation into the Iranian nuclear program, Reuters reported. He called on the international community to be patient, and he urged Iran to behave transparently and reassure other countries about the peaceful nature of its nuclear program. "As long as we are making progress and as long as we don't see clear and present danger, let us continue at it...before we take escalated measures," el-Baradei said. (Bill Samii)

LONDON CALLS ON TEHRAN TO RESUME NUCLEAR DISCUSSIONS. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw criticized President Ahmadinejad's comments in a 31 October statement before Parliament, according to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website. Straw described Ahmadinejad's words as "completely unacceptable," adding that London is "profoundly concerned" by Iran's support for violent Middle East groups, including the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Straw called on Iran to address global concern about its nuclear program, comply with the IAEA's demands, suspend uranium-enrichment activities, and resume its discussions with the EU-3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom). (Bill Samii)

IRAN WANTS GREATER NUCLEAR COOPERATION. In a related event, Hamid Baeidinejad, head of the Foreign Ministry's International Security and Disarmament Department, told the UN General Assembly in New York on 2 November that Iran is intent on using nuclear energy peacefully, IRNA reported. He said Iran sees this as its right on the basis of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). He said Iran is willing to cooperate with the IAEA. Baeidinejad called for NPT member states to increase cooperation, and he expressed disappointment at the level of cooperation between developed and developing countries. He said non-NPT members get more help from Western states than members do.

Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani said on 31 October in Tehran that Iran is intent on continuing its cooperation with the IAEA and Europe, state television reported. An IAEA governing board resolution on 24 September demanded greater Iranian cooperation and transparency. Speaking at a conference on nuclear energy at Amir Kabir University, Larijani added that some countries have voiced concern about the Iranian nuclear program in an effort to dissuade other countries from backing Iran. He said Iranians will not forsake their effort to master the nuclear fuel cycle. "If we yield to their demands now, one day they will probably call for the cancellation of classes at Amir Kabir University, since they are related to the nuclear issue," Larijani added, according to Mehr News Agency.

Also in Tehran, the legislature's National Security and Foreign Affairs Committee on 1 November continued deliberations on a bill calling for suspension of voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol of the NPT, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported. Committee member Kazem Jalali said in reference to the bill: "If Iran's nuclear case is reported or referred to the UN Security Council, the [Iranian] government is obligated to resume all the nonbinding [nuclear] activities it suspended voluntarily, and implement its scientific and research programs in order to secure the Iranian nation's nuclear rights outlined in the Nonproliferation Treaty." (Bill Samii)

MORE IRANIANS COMPLETE RUSSIAN NUCLEAR TRAINING. Aleksandr Ivchenko, head of the Novovoronezh training center of the Rosenergoatom Federal Agency for Atomic Energy, said on 30 October that another group of Iranian nuclear specialists has completed its training, ITAR-TASS reported. Ivchenko added that the specialists will return to Iran to work at the Bushehr nuclear plant. Ivchenko said four more Iranians will complete their training by the end of the year, bringing the total to 700 Iranians. Most of the training was done on simulators, Ivchenko said, and some practice took place at the Balakovskaya nuclear power plant. The Bushehr reactor is slightly different, he added, so Russian specialists will provide on-site guidance. (Bill Samii)

HOSTAGE CRISIS CELEBRATED IN IRAN. Thousands of Iranians participated in the "anti-global arrogance" event in Tehran on 2 November, international news agencies reported. This is the annual commemoration of militants' 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the subsequent holding of 52 American citizens hostage for 444 days, which is known as 13 Aban after its date in the Iranian calendar. It also marks the day Father of the Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was exiled to Turkey in 1964 and university students were killed by the shah's troops in 1978. Demonstrators gathered at the site of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, shouted anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans, and chanted slogans about the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

In Washington on 3 November, the U.S. State Department said it still has unanswered questions about the role of President Ahmadinejad in the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy. Spokesman Sean McCormack said Washington is awaiting "definitive" statements from the Iranian government in response to charges of some former hostages that Ahmadinejad played a part in their captivity. "Certainly we have not forgotten the events of that date and the subsequent 444 days. The act of taking that embassy was a criminal act and certainly we think it is incumbent upon President Ahmadinejad and the Iranian government to answer these unanswered questions."

In advance of the annual commemoration, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps released a statement addressing current foreign policy issues. Addressing international outrage over Ahmadinejad's 26 October call for the destruction of Israel, the statement said: "In the face of the bestial behavior of the regime occupying Qods, and for its infinite oppression of Palestinians, the wrath of the hard-done-by Palestinian nation and intifada [uprising] will undoubtedly wipe Israel off the map and soon we will witness a world without the illegal regime of Israel." The statement asserted that Iran remains resolute and will stand up to the United States. (Bill Samii, Robert McMahon)

IRANIANS DEMONSTRATE IN FRONT OF ITALIAN EMBASSY. Students from several universities staged a demonstration in front of the Italian Embassy in Tehran on 3 November, Fars News Agency reported. Reuters estimated the crowd at "a few dozen people." The organizers apparently are reacting to Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini's observation, during a recent visit to Israel, that President Ahmadinejad's calls in late October for Israel's elimination are "irresponsible and raving, a very serious obstacle to the peace process." Fini added, according to "La Repubblica" on 1 November, "There is funding coming in from other countries, and particularly from Iran, in favor of the people who do not want peace." Fini also called Iran "a threat to the world," "La Stampa" reported on 2 November. "We must raise our guard in view of its nuclear ambitions," Fini added. "Strong, united international commitment is required, and the [UN] Security Council must address the issue at the very earliest." The Italian ambassador in Tehran, Roberto Toscano, was summoned twice to the Iranian Foreign Ministry to receive a protest note about a demonstration outside the embassy in Rome, "La Stampa" reported on 3 November. (Bill Samii)

TURKMEN, IRANIAN PRESIDENTS DISCUSS BILATERAL RELATIONS. Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov and Iranian President Ahmadinejad discussed bilateral ties on 1 November during a telephone conversation, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reported. Turkmen state television also reported on 2 November that the two leaders reviewed plans to expand cooperation in the oil and gas sectors and discussed cooperation among Turkmenistan, Iran, and Russia on developing the Caspian Sea. Niyazov invited Ahmadinejad to visit Turkmenistan, and Ahmadinejad extended a reciprocal invitation to Niyazov. (Richard Giragosian)

FOUR NEW MINISTERS PROPOSED IN IRAN. President Ahmadinejad submitted the names of four prospective cabinet members to parliamentary speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel on 2 November, IRNA reported. The legislature rejected in August the nominees for petroleum minister, education minister, welfare and social security minister, and cooperatives minister. The new nominees are, respectively, Sadeq Mahsuli, Mahmud Farshidi, Parviz Kazemi, and Mohammad Nazemi-Ardakani. The legislature will consider the new names for up to one week. All of them are relative unknowns.

Mahsuli has served as a provincial governor, an Islamic Revolution Guards Corps commander, and a deputy defense minister, according to biographies from ISNA and Mehr News Agency. A different person was expected to be named as the petroleum minister.

Parliamentarian Kamal Daneshyar, who chairs the legislature's Energy Committee, said the executive branch will propose Alireza Zareh as the next petroleum minister, "Aftab-i Yazd," "Iran," and "Sharq" reported on 30 October. Zareh currently heads the university lecturers' Basij organization.

Parliamentarians objected to and ultimately rejected the first proposed petroleum minister, Ali Saidlu, because of his inexperience. President Ahmadinejad subsequently appointed Saidlu as his vice president for executive affairs. Ahmadinejad said that Saidlu was rejected because of a campaign by a Petroleum Ministry mafia, "Iran Daily" reported on 1 October. (Bill Samii)

AYATOLLAHS SYMPATHIZE WITH JAILED JOURNALIST. Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri-Najafabadi expressed his sympathies in a letter to the wife of imprisoned journalist Akbar Ganji, Radio Farda reported on 30 October. In the letter to Masumeh Shafii, Montazeri wrote that imprisoning people for their political beliefs is a "blatant injustice" and if this is done in the name of Islam, it is "contrary to spiritual law [khalaf-i shar]." As somebody who played a part in the victory of Iran's Islamic Revolution, Montazeri wrote, this affair makes him feel ashamed. Without identifying Ganji by name, another leading cleric, Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem-Shirazi, said on 29 October that it is shameful when people create an uproar if a person defends the innocent with his pen, Radio Farda reported. (Bill Samii)

U.S. CALLS FOR JAILED JOURNALIST'S RELEASE. The U.S. State Department says there are new indications that the health of imprisoned Iranian journalist Akbar Ganji is at serious risk. The department issued a statement on 3 November highlighting concerns about Ganji's treatment and calling for his immediate release. It comes as Canada -- still concerned about the death of a Canadian-Iranian journalist in prison -- prepares to introduce a resolution at the UN drawing attention to Iranian human rights problems.

U.S. officials are seeking to place new attention on the case of Akbar Ganji, who has been in prison since 2000.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on 3 November that Washington has received reports in the past week consistent with charges by Ganji's wife that Iranian authorities are continuing to beat Ganji. "Mr. Ganji has spent more than five years in prison due to his peaceful advocacy for free speech and democracy. His imprisonment and any inhumane treatment are serious violations of fundamental human rights. The United States calls for the immediate and unconditional release of Akbar Ganji as well as his immediate access to medical assistance and legal representation."

Ganji was jailed after writing a series of articles linking senior officials to the murder of political dissidents.

McCormack called for continued international pressure on Iran to release all political prisoners.

Iran's hard-line judiciary acknowledged in a report in July that human rights abuses, including torture, have taken place in prisons. But judiciary officials said meaningful reforms have now been made and problems eliminated.

Rights watchdogs point to the case of Ganji as an example of ongoing abuses.

The Iranian government also continues to face pressure from Canada related to the case of Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian photojournalist who died in 2003 after being detained in front of Tehran's Evin prison. According to a government investigation she was struck on the head during interrogations.

Canada has sought a more thorough probe of her death and last year sponsored a resolution in the UN General Assembly censuring Iran's rights record. On 2 November, Canada introduced a resolution in the Assembly's human rights committee expressing concern about Iran's record. Canada will formally introduce the measure on 8 November.

Iran has signaled it will respond by raising its own concerns about Canada's rights record in the committee. (Robert McMahon)

AHVAZ BOMBERS ARRESTED. The public affairs office of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security announced on 1 November that the individuals responsible for the 15 October bombings in the southwestern city of Ahvaz have been arrested, Fars News Agency reported. These arrests prevented future bombings that are intended to create ethnic differences, according to the ministry. On 30 October, the ministry announced that a total of 30 people were arrested in connection with bombings in Ahvaz in June and October, IRNA reported. Everybody reportedly pleaded guilty, and some said they brought the explosives from Al-Basrah, Iraq. The ringleaders reportedly were identified and their names submitted to the Foreign Ministry, which will submit extradition requests. Intelligence and Security Minister Hojatoleslam Gholam Hussein Mohseni-Ejei said on 29 October that some of the people who were arrested are connected with the United Kingdom, ISNA reported. Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Mustafa Purmohammadi said on 29 October that British forces are active in southern Iraq and are therefore responsible for events that occur in Iran, ISNA reported. (Bill Samii)

ROUNDTABLE CLARIFIES COUNCIL'S SUPERVISORY ROLE. Participants in a 2 November roundtable program on Iranian state television tried to shed light on new powers granted to the Expediency Council in early October (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 12 October 2005). Council member Majid Ansari noted that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is constitutionally entitled to turn over some of his powers to another person or entity, and he argued that the Expediency Council is best suited to supervise the work of the three branches of government. Another council member, Morteza Nabavi, said this would not limit the three branches and that their input was sought when drawing up the relevant framework. Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai stressed that the body is not trying to become more powerful, nor will it legislate. Rezai said the Expediency Council neither approves nor proposes laws. (Bill Samii)

JUDICIARY CHIEF DECRIES ECONOMIC CORRUPTION. Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi told a closed session of Iran's legislature on 2 November that inefficient economic institutions are at the root of corrupt practices, IRNA reported, and he added that the duality of the economy -- neither completely state-owned nor completely private -- contributes to the situation. Hashemi-Shahrudi also noted a lack of investor confidence or security. He said transparent, simple, and straightforward economic and financial regulations are needed, whereas complicated banking, customs, and tax laws in Iran tend to discourage prospective investors. He said Islamic law prefers to rely on negotiation and mediation to resolve problems, and he added that there will be a greater emphasis on the prevention of crimes and the incarceration of criminals. (Bill Samii)

FORUM EXAMINES ADVANCES FOR WOMEN, FOCUSES ON MUSLIM SOCIETIES. Some 2,000 women's rights activists gathered in Bangkok on 27-30 October for the Association for Women's Rights in Development's (AWID) 10th international forum. The agenda of the triennial event included assessing advances for women over the past decade and obstacles to progress, as well as to focus on the potential for female participation in predominantly Muslim societies.

Mahnaz Afkhami, a member of the international advisory committee that helped organize the Bangkok forum, shed light on the AWID event in an interview with Radio Farda.

"We know what it is that we want to do," Afkhami said. "We know what it is that women at the grass roots and at the grass-tops level have in mind for women. The problem is: How do you make it happen? This conference is bringing the conceptual to the pragmatic level -- how do you actually do it."

Afkhami expressed optimism about advances for women since the United Nations held its last major conference on women's issues in Beijing in 1995. Their political participation around the world has increased, she said, and is codified in 70 percent of the world. Such codification includes mandatory quotas for female candidates imposed on political parties and the setting aside of specific numbers of legislative seats for women, she said. Afkhami described those measures as a form of "affirmative action" that ensures that women are active in management and leadership. "This is important in pushing forward the agenda that women have in mind in terms of bringing about change," she told Radio Farda.

A minister of women's affairs in pre-revolutionary Iran, Afkhami now heads the Women's Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace, an organization that works toward women's empowerment in 18 countries and three continents. Women's political participation is particularly noticeable in Norway and Sweden, Afkhami said, but remains low in countries with Muslim majorities.

Focus On The Middle East

The Middle East was a particular focus of the October forum, Afkhami told Radio Farda. "We have had the mission at this particular conference to make sure that women from Muslim majority countries, especially from the Middle East [and] North Africa, have a role and participate; because they had not as much a role [in the past]," Afkhami said. "They have not participated in international conferences in large numbers or in dialogues. It is important to give them the opportunities both to exchange among themselves experiences and challenges and successes, and also to connect with the international community and women from other parts of the world." She touted the opportunities that the Bangkok forum provided, noting that Iranian delegates had a chance to meet with their Egyptian or Jordanian counterparts.

Afkhami called religious fundamentalism a deep-rooted problem in the Middle East, and said it is connected with the use of religion for political purposes and as a reaction to modernity and change. "In Muslim majority countries, unfortunately, we have more of a problem it seems right now, because so many governments are using religion as a way of appeasing the people and so many opposition movements, instead of pushing for democracy and human rights, are pushing for regression and reaction," she told Radio Farda. "So unfortunately we have a case where both official governmental entities are leaning toward conservatism as well as the opposition forces, which are usually progressive forces. Unfortunately, many of them are extremists and fundamentalists forces."

She stressed that fundamentalism is not confined to Islamic states, and can be seen in Christian and Jewish countries as well. That is why the exchange of ideas at the Bangkok forum is so important, Afkhami said.

Iranian Particulars

Afkhami added that she finds events in Iran "very worrisome." "Civil-society activism is being discouraged, and the new proclamations about lack of outlets for progressive forces or progressive-leaning forces to talk about feminism, to talk about human rights, to talk about democracy is very negative," she said. "It's something that we are all looking at with a great deal of anxiety, and we are hoping that it will not go further in term of affecting the activism of women and democratic forces in the country."

Afkhami also expressed concerns over Iran's future under President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, a hard-liner who appears to be pursuing a revival of the strictures of the immediate postrevolutionary era. She argued that the public's awareness of its rights cannot be reversed, and warned that an absence of political outlets could contribute to the possibility of conflict and violence. "I hope that this will not happen," Afkhami said, "but there seems to be no outlet for a modern civil society to show itself without having to fight. So it is a very difficult and negative development." (Fatemeh Aman, Bill Samii)

IRAN CRACKS DOWN ON MANNEQUINS. A member of the Iranian legislature's Culture Committee, Seyyed Mohammad Reza Mir-Tajedini from Tabriz, told the weekly meeting of the Ansar-i Hizbullah pressure group that action must be taken to prevent improper dress on the part of females ("bad hijabi"), "Sharq" reported on 1 November. He was speaking at a meeting on "social corruption and the mannequins that incite it." Reuters reported on 31 October that police in the northeastern city of Bojnurd have begun a campaign against mannequins; 65 mannequins had been confiscated so far, according to the report, and an anonymous official described this as an effort to address "public chastity." (Bill Samii)