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Iran Report: November 28, 2005

28 November 2005, Volume 8, Number 46

KHAMENEI STRESSES SUPPORT FOR AHMADINEJAD. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a 14 November meeting with the country's Friday-prayer leaders that criticism of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad must stop, state television reported. "Everyone must support this government," Khamenei said. "I know that unfair remarks are made against the government, particularly against President Ahmadinejad.... The extent of my support for this government and this president is the same as my support for the previous presidents." He noted that Ahmadinejad has been in office for less than three months but already faces unprecedented expectations.

But Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani excoriated Ahmadinejad in a 16 November speech at the same event. Hashemi-Rafsanjani said a purge of the country's officials is harmful. "Some individuals are throwing into question the 25-year achievements of the Islamic Revolution, and this is the biggest calamity facing our society today," the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported. He warned that this would make young people question the accomplishments of the last two-and-a-half decades, whereas the revolution, the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, and the subsequent reconstruction era were valuable experiences. Hashemi-Rafsanjani said corruption must be proven before accusations are made, and he advocated solidarity.

President Ahmadinejad seemed taken aback. He said in a 16 November speech at the prayer leaders' meeting, "We praise the worthy services rendered by the past managers of the nation," the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. In other parts of his speech, Ahmadinejad said he is striving to eliminate corruption and conspicuous consumption by officials. He said the deprived regions of the country will have better access to banking facilities, and he described the laying of natural-gas pipelines to 9,000 villages and the creation of the Imam Reza Fund to help young people afford marriage. (Bill Samii)

AHMADINEJAD NOMINATES ANOTHER PROSPECTIVE OIL MINISTER. President Ahmadinejad on 15 November submitted a letter to parliamentary speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel nominating Seyyed Mohsen Tasaloti as petroleum minister, news agencies reported. Born in Kashan in 1954 and educated as an architect, Tasaloti is director of the engineering design, construction, and building foundation of the National Petrochemical Industrial Company. He also serves as general manager for the Mahshahr Special Economic Energy Zone in Khuzestan Province, which, according to Fars News Agency, is home to several petrochemical units. Tasaloti is the third nominee; legislators disapproved of earlier candidates mainly because of their limited experience in the oil and gas sector. The legislature is scheduled to debate the nomination on 23 November.

In what might be a related development, Ahmadinejad cancelled a planned trip to Tunis to address the World Summit on the Information Society conference. Instead, Iran will be represented by Minister of Communication and Information Technology Mohammed Suleimani, Kuwait News Agency reported on 15 November, citing "Kayhan" newspaper. The Iranian newspaper attributed the change in travel plans to the deteriorating health of the president's father.

It is also possible that Ahmadinejad chose to remain in Iran in order to lobby for his newly nominated oil minister, as the legislature rejected the first nominee and the second one withdrew his name in the face of vocal opposition. (Bill Samii)

AHMADINEJAD MAKES PROVINCIAL TOUR. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and a group of his cabinet ministers returned on 11 November from a three-day trip to South Khorasan Province, news agencies reported. Prior to leaving the city of Birjand, Ahmadinejad told reporters that he has four reasons for visiting the provinces, state television reported. These are: understanding local conditions and peoples' problems; reviewing the impact of central government decisions; getting information directly from the people about the performance of government bodies; and reassuring people. Ahmadinejad said such trips will reduce corruption. He noted that South Khorasan Province is one of the least developed in the country and suffers from problems in agriculture, development, education, and industry.

Finance and Economic Affairs Minister Davud Danesh-Jaafari said on 11 November that a greater proportion of state-bank funds will be made available to the province, IRNA reported the next day. He noted the province's mineral resources, as well as the fact that the province produces 30 percent of the country's saffron supply.

Ahmadinejad told a meeting of the country's governors-general at the Interior Ministry on 14 November that his government will increase their authority, Mehr News Agency reported. This will contribute to their efforts to reduce poverty, serve the people, and facilitate development, he claimed. Ahmadinejad added that resources will be allocated in a fair way, and he emphasized the role of good management in reducing red tape and increasing job opportunities. One of the president's campaign promises was to decentralize government activities and distribute resources and authority to the provinces.

An editorial in the reformist daily "Aftab-i Yazd" on 14 November questioned Ahmadinejad's decision making and referred to his provincial visit the previous week. Ahmadinejad claimed that his cabinet made 100 decisions in a three-hour meeting, and the editorial questioned the wisdom of devoting 1.8 minutes to each decision. "If the country's problems are resolved so easily," the editorial continued, "why does the cabinet not resolve many of the country's problems in a series of meetings?" (Bill Samii)

FACTIONALISM PLAYS OUT ON TEHRAN METRO. Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf has reappointed Mohsen Hashemi as managing director of the Tehran metro system, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported on 13 November. Hashemi is the son of Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who ran against Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential race. The appointment signals intrafactional discord among Iranian hard-liners, since then-Mayor Ahmadinejad dismissed Hashemi in May, after he requested a two-month leave so he could work on his father's presidential campaign. (Bill Samii)

POWER SHIFT LEAVES REFORMERS IN THE COLD. As the proverbial insult follows an injury, so the loss of public office by Iran's reformers has preceded public discord, and immediate political irrelevance, with power moving to the political right and center, into the hands of young radicals or veteran officials.

Some reformers have spoken since the defeat in the June presidential polls of forging a grand coalition around shared values, but others counter that there can be no unity for now among such a divided and divergent group.

Eighteen Voices

Iranian media have reported intermittent meetings of reformist groups, on 5 and 7 October, for example. Like the conservatives, reformers have a vehicle -- the Coordinating Council of the Reforms Front -- to maintain contacts among 18 reformist groups. Front representatives have also been meeting with "prominent reformist figures," Ibrahim Asgharzadeh, current head of the front's rotating leadership, told ILNA on 7 November.

Former legislator Ali Asghar Hadizadeh said on 16 October that "it is not easy to bring together 18 groups, indeed I think it impossible," adding that reformers would likely end up working in several fronts, ISNA reported that day. One is the smaller human rights and democracy front being formed by Mustafa Moin, a former higher-education minister.

Some reformers say shared ideas or concerns can help forge a front: Hadi Khamenei, a leftist cleric and brother of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told ISNA on 3 October that there were "dozens or hundreds of issues" to unite reformers. Hussein Rafii, a religious liberal, told ILNA on 10 October that reformers should promote "progressive Islam" and together confront bigotry. Concern over the return of retrograde religious ideas could certainly bring reformers together, former Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari told ISNA on 14 October. Conservative journalist Amir Mohebbian told Fars News Agency on 25 October that reformers seem agreed on one point: not to criticize the government for now. That, he said, is because "some" reformist "planners" believe it "was born on a downward slope" and is heading for failure. Reformers believe they should "keep quiet and allow the government to move toward its fall" without allowing it to blame them for failures, he said.

...And Diverse At That

Mostly, reformers admit they are divided. They constitute a diverse group, from political-center pragmatists to "radicals" -- members of the Participation Front, "national-religious" activists or liberals -- who advocate civil rights and freedoms more vigorously. In between, leftist parties espouse gradual democratization within the existing polity. Mohammad Reza Khabbaz of the leftist Solidarity Party told Fars on 10 October that while reformers have "common interests," if "certain radical and extremist...groups insist on their demands, effectively there will be no coalition." Legislator Bijan Shahbazkhani told ISNA on 14 October that radicalism and "criticisms beyond ...the constitution," had led Iranians to perceive all reformers as against "values" and the supreme leader's office. He said this was a cause of the presidential defeat in June. Similar attacks have led liberal Ezzatollah Sahabi to ask why traditionalist parties like the Islamic Revolution Mujahedin exclude liberals from the revolutionary "family," ILNA reported on 11 October. "I do not know why people oppose us," he said; "they should explain [it] to the public." The state barely tolerates liberals like Sahabi, while many reformers keep them at arm's length.

The political left is also divided, with former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karrubi complaining of treachery in the June elections by ostensible allies. An unspecified group paid lip service to reformist unity, he told ISNA on 17 October, but had an "unwritten agreement" with an unnamed "former rival" and candidate, perhaps Expediency Council Chairman Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and "were busy with formal and informal [campaign] activities" for him. He said he believes reformers have rarely been united. "Was it because of a consensus that we presented four candidates in the...elections?" he asked on 21 October. "A little attention will show you there was never a consensus, [or] you would not have had one group boycotting the elections and another" not, he told ISNA.

No Public Face

Mohsen Armin of the Islamic Revolution Mujahedin told ILNA on 9 October that the reformist front is "extensive and diverse," and "one cannot expect to include all these groups under the same umbrella." A front, he said, needs a charismatic figurehead, currently absent. Karrubi told ISNA on 17 October a front needs a "common idea and program." On 11 October he said "reformers have differing ideas, preferences and...sometimes fundamental differences [that could not] be resolved with meetings, suppers and statements," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 12 October. On 25 October, he said until "differences are resolved, a consensus is not possible," ISNA reported.

Former parliamentarian Bahaeddin Adab said he believes this is the "realistic" view, and reformers cannot unite around "reformism" because "everyone has a different reading and definition of reformism," Fars reported on 7 November. He said he sees the formation of several groups: Moin's front, Karrubi supporters, a "moderation" front, and another "pursuing structural reforms," and "on the basis of these should not...expect a consensus," he said.

To these divisions, add perceptions of failure: Ibrahim Asgharzadeh told ISNA on 15 October that reformers suffer from "an excessive weakness" and have "somewhat lost their social support base." Mohsen Armin said on 9 October that reformers failed to "institutionalize" civil institutions that would have given reforms independence and momentum.

What should reformers do? Many insist they must examine their failures. Asgharzadeh suggested an "overhaul" of reformist theories on 15 October, but admitted reformers differ on the scope of necessary change. Participation's Muhammad Sadai suggested a "think tank" to produce theories, ILNA reported on 11 October. Armin and Karrubi have urged independent party activity, with some collaboration, while Participation's Davud Suleimani urged a written list of "common interests" to work on, ISNA reported on 15 October.

Reformers intermittently say they had a problem conveying their message to Iranians -- hence their defeat, and a recent interest by several parties in party dailies, websites, and satellite broadcasting.

Message Or Messenger?

But this, alongside talk of new theories, might indicate a mistaken conviction: that Iranians voted in the opposition because they did not receive the reformist message. It contradicts another stated reformist view that it was public sentiments and grievances that initiated institutional reforms. How could Iranians not understand a message they already espoused: the need for the rule of law and open government?

The problem might have to do with reformers' capacity to deliver the goods they promise, and essentially, about who really wields power in Iran. Power might be said to be the ability to impose one's will and implement stated goals. Reformers held office, but seemingly not power. They could not impose their will, firstly on an obstructive fifth parliament in the late 1990s, then against an intransigent Guardians Council, the body that can reject legislation as unconstitutional, electoral hopefuls as unfit for office, or election results as illegal -- as it has, repeatedly. Power seemed to elude reformers like a shadow, though they sought it out from one institution to another. This might have frustrated Iranians who then ignored reformist promises and pleas in the June polls. As former legislator Yadollah Islami told ILNA on 7 November: "The reforms that exist in the heart of society see reformers as guilty of not confronting godfather-like actions," presumably by conservatives.

This perception of impotence might for now restore a balancing role to the political center and to forces affiliated with the pragmatist Hashemi-Rafsanjani, a role lost for some years to reformers. Hashemi-Rafsanjani might not be the most popular man in Iran, but he wields some power as the head of a key political arbitrating body. That power could increase: firstly with new supervisory duties Ayatollah Khamenei has deferred to him (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 12 October 2005), and also if he is seen as a bulwark against and alternative to right-wing radicalism.

A belief in Hashemi-Rafsanjani's potential might have led Mehdi Karrubi to meet with his former campaign rival. On 4 November, Karrubi said they had a recent "friendly meeting" in which "we discussed political issues, and...expressed concern over certain matters in the country," ILNA reported. Hashemi-Rafsanjani invited him to rejoin the Expediency Council, which Karrubi left after the elections, "but I do not intend to return." Still, he said, one should remain "in continuous contact with...friends." (Vahid Sepehri)

IRAN-CZECH TRADE CONTINUES TO INCREASE. Iran's embassy in Prague announced on 17 November that a delegation of Iranian legislators will visit the Czech Republic in the coming week, CTK reported. They are scheduled to arrive on 21 November and will stay for a week. The two countries' relationship has been strained since RFE/RL began broadcasting to Iran in October 1998, and the Czech government's spring 2000 decision to forgo working on or supplying the Bushehr nuclear facility also threatened to undermine relations (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 9 November 1998; 24 May, 21 June, 12 July, and 13 December 1999; and 31 January, 28 February, 13 March, 27 March, and 17 April 2000).

In fact, Czech trade with Iran has increased since 1998. In the first 11 months of 1999, Czech firms exported $30.1 million worth of goods to Iran, $600,000 more than for all of 1998. During the same time, Czech imports from Iran increased as well. This pattern is continuing. According to CTK, the Czech Republic exported $45.4 million in goods to Iran in 2004, and it imported $13 million in Iranian goods. In the first eight months of 2005, the Czech Republic exported $86.4 million in goods to Iran and imported $9.7 million of Iranian goods. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN REJECTS REPORT ON STOLEN LAPTOP WITH NUCLEAR INFO. The Iranian Foreign Ministry has rejected a 13 November report in "The New York Times" suggesting that U.S. officials possess a stolen Iranian laptop computer that contains what they claim is compelling evidence of an Iranian nuclear-weapons program. "This is a worthless attempt to fabricate a scenario," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said, according to state television. "We don't use laptops to carry out our confidential work.... [The report] caused amusement at the Foreign Ministry."

According to "The New York Times," U.S. officials showed voluminous data on the laptop to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials -- including Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei -- in mid-July in Vienna. U.S. officials declined to discuss the source of the computer, which they said was obtained in mid-2004 from a longtime contact in Iran, other than to deny that it came from any Iranian opposition group.

Supreme National Security Council official Javad Vaidi on 15 November dismissed the recent report on the stolen Iranian laptop. Vaidi said reports like this appear before every IAEA governing board meeting -- the next one is scheduled for 24 November. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN PROFESSES INTEREST IN TALKS WITH EU-3. The European Union has called on Iran to resume discussions on the nuclear issue, AFP reported on 16 November. British Europe Minister Douglas Alexander said in Strasbourg that Iran should reinstate the suspension of uranium conversion activity, and added, "We urge Iran to come back to talks on long term arrangements on the basis of the Paris agreement [of 2004]." The EU-3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) dropped the negotiations after Iran resumed uranium-conversion activities in August.

Meanwhile, an anonymous diplomat in Vienna close to the International Atomic Energy Agency told AFP on 16 November that Iran is about to resume uranium-conversion activities. The diplomat said Iran is scheduled to convert 50 tons of uranium ore into feedstock gas that is used to enrich uranium. An anonymous diplomat speaking to Reuters, however, said on 16 November that the conversion process has already commenced.

Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani told Iranian state television on 15 November that Iran is determined to "acquire peaceful nuclear technology" and is open to negotiations on this subject. He said he is convinced that this is an open avenue, but he said Europe has yet to respond to his letter calling for a resumption of negotiations.

Not all Iranian officials approve of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's foreign policy approach. Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani, who until August was secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and who had the lead in nuclear negotiations with the international community, said at a 16 November meeting in Tehran of Friday-prayer leaders, "Under the new government, we live in a harsher international environment, because international pressure on our country has increased," Fars News Agency reported. Rohani noted that in the last three months -- the time since Ahmadinejad's inauguration -- the Iranian nuclear file has earned a negative statement from the IAEA.

Rohani contrasted this record with that of Ahmadinejad's predecessors. Speaking of the Khatami era he said, "Iran had a good reputation in the world and was seen as a country pursuing freedom and political development." Rohani also contrasted the Ahmadinejad presidency with that of Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani -- "his government was known as a moderate one, and ... was considered a rational one." Rohani stressed the need for unity and said Iran is facing a difficult international situation.

Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai said in a 15 November interview with ISNA that Iranian diplomats are not making full use of the tools at their disposal. He said the UN Security Council is preoccupied with events in Syria and Lebanon, so now is the best time to gain concessions from the West. Rezai also criticized Tehran's making a counteroffer after rejecting a European proposal in August. Rezai said Tehran should have waited for the Europeans to make a better offer.

A member of the parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Javad Jahangirzadeh of Urumiyeh, said the Iranian nuclear issue is becoming more complicated with time, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 15 November. Jahangirzadeh said Iran is on a path from which there is no turning back, and added that Iran must do all it can to prevent referral to the Security Council. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN SEEMS UNMOVED AS IAEA MEETING APPROACHES. The Iranian nuclear file will come before the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on 24 November. Just two months earlier, the board issued a tough resolution in which it urged Iran to be more transparent and cooperative, called on Tehran to halt all uranium-enrichment activities, and hinted at the possibility of a referral to the UN Security Council. Since then, Iran has opened up a previously inaccessible site to IAEA inspectors and voiced an interest in resuming nuclear discussions with the European Union, but it has steadfastly refused to suspend the enrichment activities it resumed in August.

Nuclear experts widely agree that this is a highly sensitive time, and they say it is very much up to Iran to avoid referral to the UN Security Council. Such a referral could lead to a range of sanctions.

Yet Tehran seems unmoved and unwilling to bend.

In Tehran's Hands

Pierre Goldschmidt, IAEA deputy director-general and head of the Department of Safeguards, said at the Carnegie International Nonproliferation Conference in Washington on 7 November that Iran has two priorities. The first is avoiding referral to the UN Security Council; the second is avoiding undue delays in progress on its uranium-conversion and enrichment capability.

"To avoid being referred to the UN Security Council and to gain time," Goldschmidt predicted, "Iran will likely provide IAEA inspectors some, but not all, access to individuals and documents which has long been requested." Indeed, Tehran did this when it gave inspectors access to the Parchin military site on 1 November, although the results of their visit will not be available in time for the governing board's meeting. Goldschmidt suggested that Iran might even resume the voluntary suspension of some uranium-conversion activities, thereby gaining the support of some board members and also being able to threaten to resume those activities in case of referral.

"In the meantime," Goldschmidt continued, "Iran will have accumulated more UF6 [uranium hexafluoride], improved its uranium-conversion process, and possibly pursued the construction of its underground enrichment plant at Natanz." He said the governing board must decide whether such actions can continue without undermining the IAEA's credibility.

"If Iran wants to defuse the current crisis," Goldschmidt told the conference, it should "agree in writing with the IAEA to provide the agency's inspectors and experts unfettered 'access at all times to all places and data and to any person,'" and it should "agree in writing with the IAEA to suspend all nuclear-fuel-cycle-related activities for a period of, say, 12 months, thereby giving time for negotiations based on the EU proposal to be pursued in good faith." He went on to say that Iran should ratify the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, rather than threatening to suspend its implementation.

A Reluctant Security Council

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace associate Miriam Rajkumar, who is a co-author of the book "Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats," also believes that Iran must act decisively to avoid referral to the Security Council. She told Radio Farda on 7 November that Iran must "offer some sort of concrete measure." Rajkumar continued, "I think Iran has really put itself in a hard place by resuming some of the enrichment work that it has resumed, and some of the remarks that the president has made, has put them in a tight corner with the Europeans as well in term of diplomacy." She recommended opening up the Lavizan site in northeastern Tehran, which has high-tech equipment that has piqued inspectors' curiosity.

Another nuclear expert said in a 7 November interview with Radio Farda that referral to the UN Security Council is unlikely. "The Security Council really does not want to deal with this issue at this point," Joseph Cirincione, senior associate, director for nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and co-author of "Deadly Arsenals," said. "It's clear that bringing Iran to the Security Council, one, doesn�t have the support of enough nations to do it, and two, if you did it, would lead to a confrontation without clear solution in sight." Cirincione said if Iran opens the enrichment facilities and begins enrichment it would provoke the Security Council.

An Unmovable Tehran?

Efforts to persuade Tehran to change course are continuing, although they have not yielded their initiators' desired result. "The New York Times" reported on 10 November that the EU-3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) and Washington have approved a proposal that would allow some nuclear activities on Iranian territory but move all enrichment activities to Russia. The paper quoted anonymous European and U.S. officials saying that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and IAEA Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei discussed the issue on 8 November and that el-Baradei is scheduled to submit the proposal to Tehran.

Rice later said the United States is not party to the negotiations and there is no such proposal, "The New York Times" reported on 11 November.

In Tehran, Vice President for Atomic Energy Gholam Reza Aqazadeh-Khoi announced after a meeting with Russian National Security Council Secretary Ivan Ivanov on 12 November that Iran wants uranium-enrichment activities to take place on its own territory, Mehr News Agency reported. "Iran's nuclear fuel will be produced inside Iran," Aqazadeh said. "At the same time, we want to provide part of our fuel from abroad." Aqazadeh reportedly said Iran is willing to consider cooperating with other countries' nuclear activities.

Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani also met with Ivanov on 12 November. He said afterward that a change in attitudes on the nuclear issue would be more constructive than making new proposals, IRNA and state television reported. Larijani dismissed the possibility of moving uranium-enrichment activities to Russia, saying, "The Iranian nation will never rely on other factors except its own potentials." Stressing the need for independent capabilities, he added, "What is important to Iran is that the nuclear technology of Iranians is safeguarded because such capacity and capability are regarded as part of national strength."

Larijani said Iran is willing to consider any proposals that might resolve the dispute over the country's nuclear program. (Bill Samii, Fatemeh Aman)

NUCLEAR EXPERT WORRIES OVER POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS. Iranian officials frequently defend the country's nuclear program by asserting that Iran's nuclear capabilities have been developed domestically and solely through Iranian brain power. Efforts to prevent Iran from mastering the nuclear fuel cycle, according to this argument, actually reflect the desire to block the intellectual and scientific development of the Iranian people. Although Iranian accomplishments in the nuclear field have benefited from input by scientists and physicists from China, Pakistan, Russia, and possibly other countries, foreign nuclear experts are impressed by Iranian accomplishments. The hard-line position of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, however, undermines the possibility that such arguments will mollify outside observers who suspect Iran of being interested in nuclear weapons.

Joseph Cirincione, senior associate and director for nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of "Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats," visited Iran in March to attend a conference on nuclear cooperation and sustainable development. During that trip, Cirincione and other visitors went to the Isfahan uranium-conversion facility.

Cirincione told Radio Farda that the accomplishments at the Isfahan facility were notable. "I was impressed by the advanced capabilities that were at the facility that were particularly the metallurgical capabilities at the Zirconium production plant that was making a very sophisticated alloy of zirconium that is necessary to cover the nuclear fuel rods," Cirincione said. "Very few countries can do that, and the Iranians were proud that they have a facility to do that."

Cirincione cautioned that many "technological challenges" remain: "They actually had not produced a final zirconium yet despite years of trying. This is a plant that they had started in 1990 s with Chinese assistance. Nor they had been able to produce usable UF6 [uranium hexafluoride] from this facility." Cirincione added, "I could see that the Iranian capabilities were ambitious and sophisticated and the people managing one of them are quite competent, but this is a very technologically demanding process and they have not mastered it yet. They still have ways to go."

Arguably the main reason Western governments have for being concerned about Iran's nuclear activities is the possibility that the country might be trying to develop weapons of mass destruction. Tehran denies having such an objective, and Iranian officials repeatedly claim that the use of such weapons is religiously forbidden. However, the statements of Iranian officials -- such as President Ahmadinejad -- undermine confidence in these denials and raise suspicions about Iranian intentions.

In an interview with Radio Farda shortly after the June 2005 presidential election, when Ahmadinejad was elected, Cirincione sounded optimistic and said he did not think the new president would take a hard line. "I think that a conservative president has greater political flexibility in negotiating a deal with the Europeans, because he will be more protected from charges that he was selling out the country's interest and the new president has a lot of promises to deliver on the Iranian economy," he said.

Being a pariah state and a loss of Western contracts would make it difficult for Ahmadinejad to fulfill his promises to improve the economic situation, Cirincione said. "For that reason, I think those significant forces inside Iran that want to arrive it at a compromise on the Iranian nuclear program, a compromise that would allow Iran to go ahead and build reactors but not to go ahead and build the plants that would produce the Uranium that would go inside those reactors," he said.

But after Iran's resumption of enrichment activities in August, Ahmadinejad's aggressive speech at the United Nations in September, and his repeated calls for Israel's destruction in October, Cirincione was downbeat. He told Radio Farda on 7 November that the Iranians he spoke with during his March visit suggested that a conservative president would be the one who could make a deal with the United States. However, Cirincione said: "Ahmadinejad's presidency is turning into a disaster. He has alienated all the supporters Iran had in Europe and around the world. His statements are getting not just to the nuclear issue, but to a host of political issue and even economic relations at this point." Cirincione speculated on the reasons behind Ahmadinejad's behavior, saying: "I believe that Ahmadinejad either strongly believes that he has to bring Iran back to the path of the early 1980s or he is getting some very terrible advice from his advisers. But either way, it's a dead end for Iran. It is not going to work."

Cirincione told Radio Farda that the world might have to tolerate Ahmadinejad's extremism for some time to come: "I am afraid we may have to go to a period of months of this administration�s extreme speeches [and] extreme positions before it�s proven to the leadership of Iran that this is a dead end." (Bill Samii, Fatemeh Aman)

IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER MEETS WITH TURKMEN PRESIDENT. Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki met with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov in Ashgabat on 9 November for talks on bilateral relations, the official Turkmen news agency TDH reported. The two discussed various spheres of cooperation, including the possibility of an Iranian role in the refurbishment of Turkmenistan's Seidi oil refinery and the construction of a polyethylene production facility at that location. Mottaki also invited Niyazov to visit Iran, IRNA reported. (Daniel Kimmage)

IRANIAN CLERICS COMMENT ON FRENCH UNREST. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati said during his sermon at Tehran Friday prayers on 11 November that the reason for continuing unrest in France is that the country has "failed to meet the needs and problems of its minority population," state radio reported. "Instead, they have always been quick to admonish us for punishing a few hireling Baha'is," Jannati continued. "They suddenly accuse us of discriminating against minorities and violating their rights." He said French Muslims face "the worst kind of treatment" and "they have to live under martial law." Jannati added, "It is the same in America. There is blatant racial discrimination in that country." The Friday-prayer leader in Tabriz, Ayatollah Mohsen Mojtahed-Shabestari, said in his 11 November sermon that the French ban on the Islamic head scarf for females is a reason for the unrest, IRNA reported. He said Western governments promote secularism because they fear Muslim power, and the events in France could affect Muslim communities in Belgium, Germany, and Portugal. In Qom, Ayatollah Abdullah Javadi-Amoli said the riots spread from France to other countries in Europe, state television reported. (Bill Samii)

IRAN AGAIN ACCUSES U.K. IN AHVAZ BOMBINGS. Intelligence and Security Minister Hojatoleslam Gholam Hussein Mohseni-Ejei said on 11 November that British involvement in the 15 October bombings in Ahvaz has been proven, Mehr News Agency reported. However, "Siyasat-i Ruz" daily reported on 9 November that Mohseni-Ejei has failed to provide the documented proof he promised almost two months ago. Fifty-six days earlier, the daily reported, Mohseni-Ejei came to the legislature and said, "When the documents are given to the media, you will realize that it is true." Meanwhile, "Siyasat-i Ruz" continued, the United Kingdom has accused Iran of interfering in Iraqi affairs. (Bill Samii)

UNIVERSITY HOSTS MARTYRDOM CONFERENCE. The Shahrud University of Technology in northeastern Iran hosted a 15 November conference on "The Palestinian Intifada [uprising] and martyrdom-seeking." "Martyrdom-seeking" is a euphemism for suicide bombing. The event was organized by the Headquarters for Tribute to the Martyrs of the Global Islamic Movement -- which is connected with Iran's paramilitary Islamic Revolution Guards Corps -- and the Student Basij -- another official entity.

Speakers at the event were to include Hamas representative Abu-Osama Abd-al-Moti, according to the Iranian Students News Agency on 14 November. The program featured video clips about martyrdom, as well as discussions about the religious and political perspectives on suicide bombings, and how enemies react to suicide bombings.

Mohammad Ali Samadi, spokesman for the Headquarters for Tribute to the Martyrs of the Global Islamic Movement, said afterwards that approximately 1,000 people at the conference signed up to be suicide bombers, Iran's "Farhang-i Ashti" newspaper reported on 17 November. To date, he said, 50,000 Iranians have signed up to be suicide bombers. Samadi added, "We will spread the sweet scent of martyrdom-seeking and the strategy of seeking martyrdom to all corners of Iran."

This conference was not an aberration or the work of marginalized individuals. Similar events have taken place in the capital, Tehran, as well as the cities of Bushehr and Tabriz (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 14 June and 7 December 2004, and 25 April and 15 July 2005). Government officials have spoken at each of these events, and at the one in Tehran in December 2004, participants commemorated the 1983 suicide bombing at the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, when 241 American servicemen were killed.

The call for martyrdom, furthermore, is heard often and widely in Iran. A resolution issued at Qods (Jerusalem) Day rallies on 28 October declared that "martyrdom-seeking" operations led to the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported. This same resolution described Israel as a "cancerous gland" and called for "full annihilation of that rotten cancerous gland." (Bill Samii)

CONFLICTING REPORTS EMERGE OVER BIRD FLU. A 15 November announcement from Iran's state Veterinary Organization stated that no cases of the H5 subtype of avian flu --which is dangerous to humans -- have been identified in the country, IRNA reported. The announcement attributed the death of ducks in Aras recently to botulism. The Veterinary Organization said it is cooperating with the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization, as well as the World Bank, and it is ready to counter the H5N1 strain of the virus.

One day earlier, the unnamed director of a chicken-breeding center in Iran's Central (Markazi) Province claimed that "official reports that there is no bird flu in the country are false," according to ILNA. The man was quoted as having said that some 14,000 birds are dead so far, and that a sampling has found that the chickens have the Newcastle and H9N2 varieties of avian flu. A state environmental-organization spokesman identified only as "Turabipur" countered that he knows of no such outbreak, and said that no cases of bird flu have been observed in Iran, ILNA reported. (Bill Samii)

JAILED JOURNALIST WINS GOLDEN PEN OF FREEDOM AWARD. Iranian investigative journalist Akbar Ganji has been awarded the 2006 Golden Pen of Freedom, the annual press-freedom prize of the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers, which represents 18,000 newspapers around the world. Ganji has been jailed for the past five years in Iran because of his critical articles and investigations into the murders of political dissidents and intellectuals.

The World Association of Newspapers said Akbar Ganji's fight for freedom of expression in Iran is being "watched around the globe." And it called Ganji's resistance to repression and his refusal to be silenced "an inspiration to journalists everywhere."

Larry Killman, the director of communications for the World Association of Newspapers, told RFE/RL: "He is a very courageous journalist that refuses to be silenced despite his imprisonment. Every time he goes on hunger strikes to make his point, every time he is released from prison to hospital, he continues to speak out at great personal risk. And the World Association of Newspapers felt a journalist of this caliber should be honored for his bravery, and that's why he received the Golden Pen of Freedom."

Ganji's wife, Masumeh Shafii, told RFE/RL that the award proves that her husband's work is recognized and appreciated despite efforts by the authorities in Iran to silence him. She said Ganji is still unaware that he has won the Golden Pen award. "If the news [about the award] is published in our newspapers, then Ganji will probably find out about that, unless those newspapers are not given to him. [The award] will improve his morale and make him more resilient. It shows that others outside have not forgotten him."

Ganji, Iran's most prominent journalist, was sentenced to six years in prison in 2001 on several charges, including threatening Iran's national security and insulting the country's leaders.

He is best known for having implicated several Iranian officials -- including former President Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and former Intelligence Minister Ali Fallahian -- in the killing of four intellectuals and political dissidents in 1998.

Ganji has also published a two-part book from prison in which he challenges the authority of Iran's supreme leader and says that real democracy cannot be achieved under the country's current system.

In May, after a previous hunger strike, Ganji was granted prison leave for medical treatment. During his temporary release, he said that his time in prison had made him even more determined to push for democratic change in Iran. He also called for a boycott of the 17 June presidential election.

Upon return to prison, Ganji resumed his hunger strike for two months. He reportedly lost 25 kilograms and was hospitalized.

He ended his hunger strike on 3 September. But, according to his wife, his health remains poor. "His physical condition is not good, but he is in excellent spirits. He faces tight food and medication restrictions, and this increases our concern," she said. "Today, it has been more than 70 days that Ganji has been in solitary confinement and I have been given permission to visit him only twice. Ganji has not seen his children for more than 80 days."

Shafii said Ganji has been under pressure while in jail to renounce his writings and opinions. In May, however, Ganji said that "even if I have to spend the rest of my life in prison, I will not change my views."

The World Association of Newspapers has awarded the Golden Pen annually since 1961 to journalists who defend and promote press freedom. Past winners include Ruslan Sharipov from Uzbekistan and Mahjub Muhammad Salih of Sudan.

Ganji is the second Iranian journalist to be awarded the Golden Pen of Freedom. In 1999, Faraj Sarkuhi, the former editor of "Adineh" magazine now living in exile in Germany, received the award. (Golnaz Esfandiari)