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Iran Report: December 14, 2005

14 December 2005, Volume 8, Number 48

IRANIAN PRESIDENT MAKES AN IMPRESSION AT ISLAMIC SUMMIT. Saudi King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz invited Islamic leaders to gather in Mecca for the Third Extraordinary Summit of the heads of state of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) on 7 and 8 December in Mecca, designed to discuss the problems of the Islamic world and its outside image. The summit was intended to strengthen the image of Islam, harmed by "terrorist attacks carried out in the name of this righteous religion," Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said in Mecca on 4 December, according to AFP.

Iranian President Ahmadinejad attended, arriving in the port of Jeddah on 6 December and taking his delegation to a pilgrimage to Mecca before the summit. Before leaving Tehran that day, he stated his view of the summit's aims. The summit, he said, would address the "challenges facing the Islamic world," including "foreign aggression and intervention in Islamic countries" as well as "internal discord" in some states, ISNA reported. Islam, he added, wants "peace and dignity" for all peoples in the world, and "any decision made in the Islamic world can have effects on the entire world." He briefed Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei before leaving.

On 7 December he deplored, in a summit speech, the existence of Israel and condemned foreign threats to Islamic states when listing the problems faced by the Islamic world, IRNA reported the same day. He also regretted the existence of poverty and technological backwardness in Islamic states, IRNA added. "The enemies of Islam," he added, are dividing Muslims, while "the system of arrogance" meddles in the region. He suggested a union of Islamic states to precede Muslim unity. A union of Islamic broadcasting networks would help the interchange of information and technologies, he said. There should be a regional common market and a regional court of justice. "The usurping state in Palestine," he said, is a problem requiring a "wise" solution: the return of Palestinian refugees and a referendum on government for "all people of Palestinian origin." There "is no rational or reasonable way to recognize this artificial government," he said, referring to Israel. The "great powers," he complained, are threatening "certain Islamic states," and unless Muslim states respond those powers "will recognize no limits to their violations," IRNA reported.

Ahmadinejad's piece de resistance was left for 8 December, when he expressed doubts at a press conference that there was a holocaust during World War II and suggested the Europeans should have an Israel in Europe instead of occupying Palestinian land. He said Palestinian "men and women are being attacked in their homes" by Israelis who have "no roots" in the land they now occupy, IRNA reported the same day. Where have the Israelis come from, he asked, "where were they born, where did their fathers live? They have no roots in Palestine, but have taken over [its] fate...and driven the natives out." He said that "we do not accept the claim" made by "some European countries" that Nazi leader Adolf "Hitler killed millions of innocent Jews in incinerators," but, "supposing it were true," is that a reason to back the "regime occupying" Jerusalem, he asked. "If they are serious," he added, they should give the Zionists land in Germany and Austria, and "let the Zionists set up their state in give them a bit of Europe, and we will support it." He specified, however, that Zionists and Jews differ: "the world's Jews support Palestine," IRNA quoted him as saying. He repeated his solution of a referendum in Palestine for the "native people of Palestine," whatever their religion. (Vahid Sepehri)

PLANE CRASH BRINGS DEATH, GRIEF AND INDIGNATION. A military transport plane crashed into a 10-story apartment block in southern Tehran on 6 December, reportedly killing as many as 128 with 90 injuries, according to Radio Farda. All 94 people on board died, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf told AP on 6 December. They included soldiers, seven crew members, and 68 reporters, Deputy Interior Minister Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr told Fars agency. The plane was heading for the southern port city of Bandar Abbas, near the site of planned military maneuvers. The crash set the building on fire, while debris falling onto a nearby gas station caused another fire, Radio Farda reported, citing the police. Firemen later managed to extinguish the fire in the building, part of a housing complex for military personnel. The plane crashed when it sought, after discovering a technical problem, to land at nearby Mehrabad Airport where it had taken off from, AP reported.

Senior Iranian officials presented their condolences to the nation, news agencies reported on 6 and 7 December, while an armed forces headquarters statement observed that, in accordance with armed forces regulations, the plane's 94 passengers were not mere casualties but martyrs, Fars news agency reported on 7 December. Culture Minister Mohammad Hussein Saffar-Herandi said on 7 December that, as a former journalist, the tragedy was "very difficult" for him, Fars reported. But angry relatives of victims at the main coroner's office in Tehran were blaming the military for allowing passengers onto a plane they allegedly knew had technical problems, Reuters reported on 7 December. Military spokesman Hassan Nami has denied the plane was unfit to fly.

A very large crowd of Iranians, including state dignitaries, gathered in Tehran on 8 December to bury the victims, though some were buried more quietly in their home towns. The Tehran crowd included relatives of the victims, schoolchildren -- who were told not to go to school that day because of alarming levels of air pollution in the capital -- and journalists, Radio Farda reported, citing journalist and participant Ibrahim Soleimani. He said colleagues of victims from the state broadcasting body "could not conceal their emotions and many could not stand up they were so upset." Officials attending included parliamentary speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, Culture Minister Saffar-Herandi, state broadcasting chief Ezzatollah Zarghami, and Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mohammadi-Golpayegani, the supreme leader's representative, Radio Farda and ISNA reported.

Haddad-Adel told promised the mourners that parliament will, "with the cooperation of officials...make the greatest effort" to identify the causes of the crash in order "to prevent the repetition of such events," ISNA reported. Saffar-Herandi also suggested the army should investigate the crash to reassure the victims' relatives, even if it was "the result of an entirely sudden incident," ISNA reported. In Qom the same day, Grand Ayatollah Yusef Sanei said it was not enough to express condolences. "Whoever can do something to prevent" such accidents, should do so, ISNA quoted him as saying. Journalist Mashallah Shamsolvaezin told IRNA on 7 December that the government should form a fact-finding team to determine the causes of the crash and establish if, as members of the public have alleged, the plane that crashed really was unfit to fly, Radio Farda reported the next day. Former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karrubi told a political gathering in Tehran on 8 December that "if we do not tell the facts about the crash to the people, there will be dozens of rumors," ISNA reported. (Vahid Sepehri)

PRESIDENT SETS OUT ENERGY PLANS... President Ahmadinejad told a crowd in Dehluran, in Iran's western province of Ilam, on 1 December that Iran is determined to meet its energy needs with nuclear power, agencies reported the same day. "Peaceful use of nuclear energy is our...right, and nobody can deprive us" of it, IRNA reported him as saying. "Every day we consume 1.6 million barrels of oil...which costs about $30 billion a year, and if we replace this with nuclear energy, we can save at least $15 billion, which can be [spent on] development," ISNA quoted him as saying.

On 30 November, he told a separate gathering in the town of Ilam, the provincial capital, that "Western and colonialist states" passed an "unjust resolution" against Iran at the IAEA in September, but "we gave Westerners the message that we are standing firm to the end...and when they saw [Iran's] position was solid, they retreated," IRNA reported on 1 December, referring to the 24 November meeting of the nuclear agency, which did not refer Tehran to the UN Security Council, as earlier threatened. (Vahid Sepehri)

...AND DENOUNCES DOMESTIC CRITICS. President Ahmadinejad said in his speech in Ilam on 30 November that the government is determined to establish "justice" in Iran, against the opposition of "those who can no longer reach into" the public purse, IRNA reported. He said that while the Iranian government's "enemies abroad" are "shouting their heads off, and using various tricks to create obstacles" for it, "some inside the country have joined them and are complaining about the government." Unspecified people have "criticized" the government for defending "the legal right" of Iranians to nuclear power, he said. Certain legislators have recently criticized the government's diplomacy, but also its administrative reshuffles. He denounced unspecified "profiteers and opportunists" who have "ensured the failure" of the stock market, in response to government moves to curb their access to "economic and financial centers." Ahmadinejad called such people the enemies of justice in Iran, and defended the appointment of new personnel to government posts. "Some [ask] why revolutionary forces are being removed by the new government. Are the revolutionary forces just a group of 40 to 50 of their friends? You are the ones who think you own the country, and will not let anyone give their opinion," he said. (Vahid Sepehri)

IRAN, EU TO TALK ABOUT RESUMING NUCLEAR TALKS... Iran and the European Union have recently expressed interest in holding preliminary contacts that may lead to the resumption of talks on Iran's contested nuclear program. The subject of talks may be a problem, given the recent verbal intransigence of Iranian officials.

The EU conveyed its interest in renewed contacts on 27 November, in a letter given to Supreme National Security Council deputy chief Javad Vaidid by EU-3 ambassadors in Tehran. The EU-3 -- Britain, France, and Germany -- are negotiating for the EU. The letter proposed "an exploratory meeting" with Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani, an unnamed EU diplomat told AFP on 27 November. Unnamed Western diplomats told AFP in Vienna that talks would take place on 21 December, perhaps in Vienna, and with "very low expectations."

Supreme National Security Council spokesman Hussein Entezami told ISNA in Tehran on 28 November that talks would likely start at the level of junior specialists before moving up to a more formal level. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on 4 December that senior negotiators would continue talks if initial contacts go well, ISNA reported. "The level of talks is important, but more important is the content...and results...because you can have important talks at a relatively low level, giving important results. Still, initial talks will determine the following stages," he said. (Vahid Sepehri)

...BUT WHAT IS THERE TO DISCUSS? The two sides may be wondering if there is a basis for further talks. These might discuss the mechanics of a Russian proposal to have uranium enriched for Iran in Russia, to assure the West the nuclear fuel-production process could not be abused for military ends. Iranian officials have stated they are not interested in the Russian offer.

The only subject they say they wish to discuss is the provision of guarantees against any misuse or "deviation" of the fuel-production process. This attitude, say the Europeans, increasingly undermines the basis for talks.

Officials like Hussein Entezami and Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi have said Iran has yet to receive any formal proposals from Russia, though Russian officials have mentioned their enrichment proposals in interviews (on 5 December, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov was quoted by Radio Farda as telling Russian television that uranium ore could be turned to uranium hexafluoride gas inside Iran, and the gas then enriched into fuel inside Russia. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeated the enrichment offer while in Ljubljana on 5 December, AFP reported). Assefi said in Tehran on 27 November that "clearly any plan they give us that includes producing nuclear fuel inside Iran can be examined...though...research and development" does not "need negotiation, and is not a subject of talks," he said. Larijani also declared to AFP on 4 December that "research, and the development and manufacture of centrifuges" used in uranium enrichment are nonnegotiable issues.

Larijani said on 29 November that the Russian proposal is presently "not an issue," and that talks should address "nuclear-technology activity and the production of nuclear fuel." He told AFP in Tehran on 4 December that the only goal of talks with Europeans will be "uranium enrichment intended to make nuclear fuel in Iran, since that is our right, and there will be no other subject." He told reporters on 5 December that the "nondeviation" of uranium enrichment is the main topic of future talks, reported the same day. "Other issues" such as "economic incentives" or "issues unrelated to enrichment" are not, he said. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad added in Mecca on 8 December that talks will only concern "supervision on the nondeviation of the peaceful direction" of Iran's program, not its right to "peaceful nuclear technology," IRNA reported. He said that the West may well "tell us not to make fuel," but "really is there any guarantee you will [supply] us fuel in time and at a suitable price?"

As the remarks of some deputies indicate, Iranian politicians are agreed over the fuel cycle. Legislators Mahmud Mohammadi and Hussein Nejabat told ISNA on 28 November that enrichment inside Iran is a "red line" in any talks. Mohammadi, a member of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said Iran should not "enter a new game" if the EU wishes to make cessation of enrichment activities the basis of talks.

Iran insists it wants nothing but the literal application of its treaty rights and responsibilities, and says the nuclear dossier is a legal and technical issue the West is infecting with politics and prejudice. As Assefi said in Tehran on 27 November, talks should only take place within the framework of "international laws" like International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) regulations, ISNA reported. The EU, he said, "should not make up specific rules for Iran, [which] should be treated without discrimination." Iran, he said, wants nothing but its "rights."

The central issue seems to be one of trust: whatever the rules, the West seems unconvinced by the "objective guarantees" Iran has promised or the present level of inspections and access to installations to ensure the peaceful nature of Iran's program. The suspicion remains that something is being done somewhere furtively, and that the nefarious fruits of that work will come to light when it is too late. The existence of rules, and Iran's legalism, it might argue, is a smokescreen. Iran might retort that the West's insatiable need for reassurance is nothing but a euphemistic expression of hostility toward the polity of the Islamic Republic and accuse it of double standards concerning nonproliferation. As Ahmadinejad said in Mecca on 8 December, it is those "who have a large number of nuclear weapons in their arsenals and have used them against defenseless people" who are accusing Iran of "deviating toward" bomb-making. "You have no right to supervise Iran's peaceful nuclear program," he said. (Vahid Sepehri)

WESTERN OFFICIALS IRKED BY IRAN'S POSITION. French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said in Ljubljana on 5 December that Iran has, "in a way, unilaterally" rejected Russia's proposal and effectively "said 'no' to everything" the West has proposed concerning its nuclear program, Reuters reported the same day. Western negotiators are not "trying to humiliate" Iran in negotiations, he said. The EU, he said, has done its "utmost" to resume talks with Iran and "bring them back within the international community," Reuters reported. On 7 December, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei said that the Iranians "risk compromising the ability" to find a basis for resumed talks with their "statements and [the] conditions they set."

On 7 December, an unnamed EU diplomat told Reuters that the EU was to issue a statement expressing its dissatisfaction with Iran's positions.

IAEA Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei told the "Al-Hayat" daily that the world has begun to "lose its patience with Iran" over its nuclear plans, though a "military solution" to the problem is not "realistic," Reuters reported on 7 December. While Iran insists it has a peaceful program, the know-how to enrich uranium, said el-Baradei, would bring it close to "the capability to produce nuclear weapons."

Russian President Vladimir Putin said in Moscow on 6 December that Russia believes "the potential of the IAEA to resolve" the impasse over Iran's nuclear program "to be far from exhausted," Reuters reported. Russia, he said, will help "develop the dialogue between our Iranian partners and...interested parties." Putin said he hopes Iranians "will observe their obligations, including those [taken] unilaterally," AP reported. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested six-party nuclear talks for Iran, similar to those on North Korea, Interfax reported on 5 December, citing an article by Lavrov on the Russian Foreign Ministry website. (Vahid Sepehri)

IRAN WANTS MORE NUCLEAR PLANTS... The government has decided to build Iran's second nuclear plant in the southern Khuzistan Province, AP reported on 5 December, citing Iranian television, though no date was given. Ali Larijani said the same day that "the country's program this year is to realize two 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactors" through a tender, ISNA reported. On 28 November, legislator Alaedin Borujerdi, the head of parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, had said Iran will issue tenders this year for the construction of two nuclear plants, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported the next day. The current Persian year ends on 20 March. (Vahid Sepehri)

...AND DISMISSES ISRAELI THREATS. Larijani dismissed recent threatening statements by Israel on Iran's nuclear ambitions and urged the media in Tehran "not to take these matters very seriously," ISNA reported on 5 December. Israeli statesmen have voiced their opposition to Iran's program, with one prime-minister candidate, Benjamin Netanyahu, citing the option of preemptive strikes on nuclear installations, AP reported on 5 December. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said on 1 December that Israel could not tolerate an Iran with nuclear bombs. But Larijani said "Iran is a strong country and a difficult target, and few countries can confront a country with this level of forces."

Separately, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander Yahya Rahim-Safavi said in Mashhad on 5 December that Iran is a "great regional power" that the United States and Israel have "no capacity to resist," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported the next day. The U.S., he told a military gathering, has failed to make itself the only power in the world, and spent $300 billion and lost "more than 5,000" soldiers in Iraq without attaining the "aims of Iraq's occupation." (Vahid Sepehri)

CONSTITUTIONAL JURISTS APPROVE BILL ON NUCLEAR SPOT CHECKS. The Guardians Council, which must approve all parliamentary bills before they become law, has approved a 22 November bill to block IAEA inspections of nuclear installations if Iran's dossier is referred to the UN Security Council for alleged nonproliferation violations, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 4 December. The council ruled the bill does not contravene the Iranian Constitution or religion. (Vahid Sepehri)

IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS NO PLANS TO TALK TO U.S. Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said in Ankara on 1 December that "Iran has no plans on its agenda for negotiations with America," IRNA reported the same day. He said recent reports of possible Iran-U.S. contacts over Iraq, through U.S. Ambassador in Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, are the result of "issues and America's governing committee." Mottaki said Iran sees two options in Iraq -- the continuation of "the political and state-building process" that will lead to Iraqi sovereignty and "pave the way for the departure of foreign troops" or "the continuation of terrorism" and anarchy. Iran "has from the start chosen the first option, and I hope" developments will lead to "the departure of foreign forces from Iraq," he said. Persistent disorder in Iraq, he added, "will not remain confined to that country, and Iran and Turkey and...neighbors will be affected."

His remarks echoed those of his ministry spokesman, Hamid Reza Assefi, who dismissed in Damascus on 30 November reports of Iran-U.S. contacts over Iraq. "Talking to America is not on our agenda," he said. When a reporter asked him why the U.S. has asked its Iraq ambassador to contact Iran, he replied, "Ask them" (see "U.S.: Washington Willing To Discuss Iraq With Iran,", 30 November 2005). (Vahid Sepehri)

SOLDIERS APPOINTED TO INTERIOR MINISTRY POSTS. Deputy IRGC Commander Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr was formally appointed a deputy interior minister for security and police affairs at a ministry ceremony in Tehran on 30 November, Radio Farda reported on 1 December. The appointment was first reported in Iran on 23 November. Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Mustafa Purmohammadi said on 30 November that with this appointment, "the security index" will go up in Iran, while Zolqadr said that to make security "popular, we need the presence of Basiji forces," referring to a large militia affiliated with the IRGC. The minister also gave his approval to the use of the militia for security purposes, Radio Farda reported.

Separately, Interior Minister Purmohammadi appointed Abdullah Roshan, commander since 2002 of the Tehran Basij militia, as the new deputy governor of Tehran Province for political and security affairs, ISNA reported on 4 December. Roshan was proposed by Tehran Governor Kamran Daneshju, and replaces Ali Awsat-Hashemi, ISNA added. The militia is affiliated with the IRGC. Asked on 30 November if the appointment of IRGC personnel to interior ministry posts, notably provincial governorates, was not creating a "security environment," IRGC Commander Yahya Rahim-Safavi said "this supposition is a piece of political idiocy," ISNA reported the same day. Concerning the country's security, he said, "we shall help the Interior Ministry and our dear government to achieve lasting security, and consider this our duty," ISNA added.

In Tehran on 4 December, conservative legislator Imad Afrugh said appointments of IRGC personnel to political posts could undermine the force's credibility. He said such appointments may lead to "failures" or "opposition" that would be associated with an "entirely popular body" that may be needed one day "to come to the nation's rescue."

Separately, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed Brigadier General Farhang Memar-Nahavandi to head the regular army's Security and Intelligence Department, IRNA reported on 4 December. He is to replace Akbar Dianatfar, IRNA added. (Vahid Sepehri)

GOVERNMENT APPOINTS SPOKESMAN. The government appointed Gholamhussein Elham as its spokesman on 23 November, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 29 November, citing agency reports. Elham heads the presidential office and has served as spokesman for the judiciary as well as the Guardians Council, a body of senior clerics and jurists.

The appointment comes despite earlier reluctance on the part of the government to have a spokesman at all. Some observers have suggested the move is a response to public pressure. Said Purazizi, the head of the government news and media office under former President Mohammad Khatami, told ISNA on 27 November that while the new president did not highlight "accountability" in his electoral slogans, "the demands of society and criticisms made of the government's performance, especially over...appointments, have created the need for a spokesman" to explain government "conduct and positions." (Vahid Sepehri)

PRESIDENT NAMES OIL MINISTRY CANDIDATE. Mahmud Ahmadinejad named a fourth candidate for oil minister on 4 December: Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh, a former deputy oil minister and caretaker minister since August, news agencies reported the same day. Legislators have rejected three candidates so far as unsuited to the post (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 30 November 2005). Legislator Hasan Moradi told ISNA on 4 December that "Vaziri-Hamaneh is an experienced oil manager...[who] does not belong to any faction." But deputies have complained that Ahmadinejad again did not consult with them over his choice. Deputy Speaker of Parliament Muhammad Reza Bahonar told ISNA on 3 December that Ahmadinejad mentioned Vaziri-Hamaneh to legislators "last week," but "there was no particular consultation with us." Deputy Mohammad Reza Mirtajeddini said on 4 December that Vaziri-Hamaneh will meet with key members of the majority "fundamentalist" faction in parliament on 5 December to discuss his intended policies, Fars News Agency reported. A larger assembly of that faction will meet on 6 December to decide on Vaziri-Hamaneh's suitability, he added. Parliament is to vote on 11 December, AFP reported on 4 December. (Vahid Sepehri)

FOREIGN MINISTER VISITS AZERBAIJAN. Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki reiterated Iran's right to a peaceful nuclear program during a one-day visit to Baku on 28 November. "This right is not given to us by any country or set of countries, so they cannot take it away," he said at a joint press conference with his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov, IRNA reported.

Mottaki was speaking after meetings with Mammadyarov and other officials, including President Ilham Aliyev, to discuss bilateral trade, transport, and political ties. The completion of existing transport projects, he said, will link Azerbaijan with the Persian Gulf, while ongoing consultations will inform both countries of their political positions and contribute to regional peace. "We have ongoing relations in all...political, economic, and cultural areas. We are certain [that] cooperation in any area will help in other areas of bilateral ties," Mottaki said. Iran and Azerbaijan, he added, "will not permit any third country to use either against the other." (Vahid Sepehri)

DEPUTY FOREIGN MINISTER IN SYRIA. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi went to Damascus on 30 November in his capacity as deputy-foreign minister for consular affairs, to discuss regional politics and bilateral ties with Syrian officials, including Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara and deputy speaker of parliament Nasir Qaddur, IRNA reported. He signed a consular cooperation document with Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faruq Taha, intended to ease travel for officials, diplomats, and pilgrims; reduce airport formalities; ensure the exchange of information on security and criminal arrests; and foster cooperation over extraditions and against organized crime, among other things. The two sides also discussed unspecified external pressures on Iran and Syria. Assefi told Qaddur that "pressuring Iran and Syria will harm the region's security and peace," IRNA reported. In his meeting with Faruq al-Shara, Assefi warned that "enemy plans are aimed at all regional states," reported. (Vahid Sepehri)

IRANIAN LEGISLATORS VISIT CZECH REPUBLIC. An Iranian parliamentary delegation arrived in Prague on 28 November for a five-day visit and a series of meetings with Czech officials, IRNA reported the same day. The visit was recently postponed under unclear circumstances (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 November 2005). The delegation, headed by legislator Hamid Reza Haji-Babai and including members of the Iran-Czech parliamentary friendship group, was met at the airport by Czech legislator Stanislav Fischer (Communists), and Iran's charge d'affaires, Hussein Rezvani, IRNA reported. Discussions with Czech parliamentary speaker Lubomir Zaoralek (Social Democrats), legislators, and other unnamed "senior officials" were to include bilateral state and parliamentary ties, IRNA reported. (Vahid Sepehri)

IRAQI VICE PRESIDENT IN TEHRAN. Adil Abd al-Mahdi led a political delegation to Tehran on 27 November for talks with Iranian officials, news agencies reported the same day. Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki told him Iran is ready to help Iraqis inside Iran vote in the upcoming Iraqi parliamentary elections and said he hopes those polls hasten the departure of foreign troops, Mehr News Agency reported. In a separate meeting, Vice President Ali Saidlu called for enhanced industrial, banking, and trade ties through the joint economic commission, and asked for Iraqi support for Iranian private-sector participation in Iraqi reconstruction, Mehr reported. Al-Mahdi also met with Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who said on 27 November that "all Islamic states" must help Iraq attain stability and peace, and Iran's "interest lies in Iraqi peace and unity," Mehr reported. Iraqis, he told al-Mahdi, can resolve their problems without foreign interference, adding that foreign powers "are troubled by" Iraqis' "desire for Islam."

Al-Mahdi met other officials on 29 November, including Ali Larijani, Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, and parliamentary speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, Iranian news agencies reported. Ayatollah Shahrudi said Iranians, "like [Iraqis], want Saddam's crimes dealt with in a revolutionary court, and the speedier punishment of that criminal," ISNA reported. Instead of "an ordinary court that takes a lot of time, it is fitting to form a special, revolutionary court to deal with Saddam's countless crimes, and for them to examine the dossier quickly." He said he hopes Iraq will be rid of "the sinister shadow of the occupiers" and suggested that a "solid security apparatus" would resolve "many" problems in Iraq. Haddad-Adel separately condemned "terrorist attacks" in Iraq and said that "if the terrorists were certain they had the people's support, they would not resort to assassination," ISNA reported. Electoral participation in Iraq, he said, is "far more extensive than in many Arab countries, and this is not a lesson Iraqis have learned from the Americans, but...from Islam." Al-Mahdi discussed bilateral ties and security with Larijani, reportedly expressing the hope that improving ties will help quell "disorder" in "both countries and on their borders.

Al-Mahdi vowed, while visiting the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad on 30 November, that Iraq will expel the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO), ISNA reported. The MKO comprises rebels opposed to Iran's government who have taken refuge in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 October 2005); they are considered terrorists by Iran, the United States, and the European Union. "You may be sure this group will not stay in Iraq. We shall expel them," he said, vowing the prosecution of some members, presumably for collaborating in acts of violence by Iraq's former regime. Speaking at a meeting with members of the Habilian Society, which reportedly provides aid to relatives of MKO victims, al-Mahdi said that Iraqis have viewed "this terrorist group as part of Saddam [Hussein's] army." Certain "suspect groups and followers of Saddam" want them to remain in Iraq, he said, and "hope to use them" against Iran.

Iraq's ambassador in Iran, Muhammad Majid al-Sheikh, added that relatives of MKO members gathered outside Iraq's embassy at an unspecified date, urging Iraq to act "so their children would return to Iran," ISNA reported. "This group will have no place in Iraq...and the way is open for those who wish to return to Iran," he said. (Vahid Sepehri)

STUDENTS DISSATISFIED WITH RESTRICTIONS, APPOINTMENTS. Students from Amir Kabir University in Tehran met at the university on 27 November to protest "the political closure in the country and...inside universities," Radio Farda reported the same day, quoting activist Nasrullah Keshavarz. He said that a "free forum" at the university heard students' views on political prisoners in Iran, and the university's "increasingly policed" environment, including checks by guards and "harassment" of students entering and leaving campus. Students from other universities were barred from attending the meeting, Keshavarz told Radio Farda. The government, he added, had replaced the university head without consulting with academics.

The government has also appointed a cleric without a university degree as head of Tehran University, Radio Farda reported on 27 November, citing former Tehran University head Muhammad Maleki. He said the replacement of Reza Faraji-Dana with Ayatollah Abbas Ali Amid-Zanjani is intended to "see how the academic community will react," so that "slowly they can do the same in all universities and universities can be run under the supervision of seminaries."

Tehran University students have responded with "sporadic sit-ins and protests" and a statement objecting to Amid-Zanjani's appointment, Radio Farda reported on 29 November, quoting Tehran University student Ali Nik-Nesbati (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 November 2005). He said students will continue protests in various forms until Amid-Zanjani resigns. Without "a university qualification, he cannot be a university head. Would Mr. Zanjani as a cleric tolerate someone with the highest university education heading the Qom seminary?" Nik-Nesbati asked. He said the Higher Education Ministry has not yet responded to student demands but unidentified students have attacked protesting students at the law and politics faculty, apparently reacting to alleged disrespect to the cleric. "One could not say for sure that they belonged to a specific group," Nik-Nesbati said of the assailants, but "these friends are generally based among the Basij," a pro-government militia, or might have been "injured veterans at the law faculty." Injured veterans from the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, or their relatives, are often given university places as a reward for service in the war.

Amid-Zanjani asked at his first press conference on 4 December if one "must have an academic qualification" to come to the university as he has, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported the next day. "My doctorate," he said, was given "on the basis of my academic worth." The university is not primarily for political activism, he said, but for teaching and research, and added, "I shall never impose my political thoughts on the university, though I am a member of the...Militant Clergy Society," a conservative party, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported. He reminded students "as a teacher" that to appreciate the "blessing of free speech" given them they should "listen to rational propositions before acting." (Vahid Sepehri)

JURISTS, ACTIVISTS URGE DETAINED LAWYER'S RELEASE... A group of 182 jurists have written to judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi asking him to "swiftly process" the case and ensure the release of lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani, who has been detained since July (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 12 October 2005), "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 27 November. The statement noted that Soltani has spent 42 days of his detention in solitary confinement and "the rest in conditions similar to [that] with only one other person in the cell," the daily added.

On 3 December, a group of activists and lawyers gathered outside the judiciary building in Tehran urging the swift resolution of Soltani's case, Radio Farda reported on 4 December. The crowd included liberal politicians Ibrahim Yazdi and Ahmad Sadr Haji-Seyyed-Javadi, and theologian Hassan Yusefi-Eshkevari. Lawyer Farideh Gheirat told Radio Farda that a representative of judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi listened to the crowd and took note of their comments, then received a letter for Hashemi-Shahrudi that he promised would be swiftly answered.

Gheirat also told Radio Farda that the judiciary had replaced Soltani's interrogator "last week," but the first interrogator had told Soltani's lawyers he was not facing espionage charges; she did not state the charges against Soltani. "So far we have not been able as his attorneys to [meet] him. He has [only met with] his wife and mother," Gheirat said. (Vahid Sepehri)

...IN A FORTNIGHT OF PROSECUTIONS. A Supreme Court branch confirmed sentences of 15, 20, and 15 years in prison for Kurdish activists Reza Amini, Helmat Azarpur, and Abdullah Muhammadi, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 27 November, without citing the charges.

The former head of the official Islamic Republic News Agency, Abdullah Naseri appeared in court on 30 November in Tehran on charges of "spreading false reports and intending to incite public opinion," ILNA reported the same day. The public prosecutor's representative said the charges pertained to IRNA's reporting of the results of a poll that indicated Iranians were not averse to relations with the United States (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3, 4 February 2005), "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 1 December. Naseri defended himself, saying the poll had been commissioned by the sixth parliament and its contents were factual. IRNA, he said, mistakenly sent out the report on its general wire rather than a restricted "special" wire.

A Tehran court was to examine at an unspecified time similar charges against former Transport Minister Ahmad Khorram, ILNA reported. Parliament sacked Khorram for alleged incompetence in October 2004. The charges against him were brought by the state broadcasting body.

The press court in Tehran was to examine on 4 December unspecified charges against four publications, including "Kar-va-Kargar," a daily affiliated with labor groups, and "Ravanshenasi-ye Jame'e," a psychology journal, during an open session with a press jury, ISNA reported on 29 November. ISNA reported on 4 December that the jury found "Ravanshenasi-ye Jame'e" guilty as charged -- without stating what those charges were -- but not deserving of the full penalty set by the law. The case against "Kar-va-Kargar" was dropped, after the plaintiff withdrew charges, ISNA added.

Labor activist Burhan Divargar was to be prosecuted in Saqqez, western Iran, accused of acting against national security, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 30 November, quoting defense lawyer Mohammad Ali Dadkhah. Divargar was charged in connection with unrest in Saqqez on May Day on a similar charge to the one for which he was previously jailed after participating in an illegal May Day demonstration in 2004, Dadkhah said.

In Tehran, activist and Tehran University student Davud Dashtbani has been summoned to court, charged with "insulting the clergy," ISNA reported on 29 November without citing the date of appearance. Tehran University students have recently objected to the appointment of a cleric to head the university. (Vahid Sepehri)

IRANIAN REFORMERS COMPLAIN OF PRESSURES ON THE PRESS. The Islamic Iran Participation Party has issued a statement expressing concern over an unspecified number of journalists being summoned and admonished recently by state security officials -- reportedly with the approval of the Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry, although the ministry rejects the charge, Radio Farda reported on 27 November. The party statement notes that the current press law prohibits any pressure on the press, but alleges that the relevant article has been ignored "in recent" unspecified "opponents of the free press," Radio Farda reported. The deputy culture minister in charge of press affairs, Alireza Mokhtarpur, has rejected the statement and denied that security officials in his department interrogate journalists. "This is not correct...[and] summoning reporters is not part of the [department's] duties," he said. Mokhtarpur said his ministry believes any illegal summons "is not right," Radio Farda reported. Islamic Iran Participation Party member Mustafa Tajzadeh recently met with reformist journalists who told him of discreet interviews in which state security officials told them what they should not be writing about, Radio Farda reported, citing Tajzadeh's blog. (Vahid Sepehri)

RIGHTS GROUP REPORTS ON ABUSES IN IRAN. "Iranian Human Rights Activists Groups in EU and North America," a coalition of 15 groups, has issued a report detailing rights abuses against students in the year to 21 November, coalition member Hussein Mahutiha told Radio Farda on 7 December. These include what the report calls the "suspect" death of three students, the closure of 35 student publications, and the arrest, summoning, and expulsion from university of a number of other students, Mahutiha said. "All the security and police organs of the Islamic Republic are coordinated to suppress student and political activities," or it would be "impossible" for such abuses to occur "in such an extensive and continuous manner," he told Radio Farda. Separately, jurist and government critic Mehrangiz Kar told Radio Farda on 7 December that the government's refusal to release certain detained dissidents and restrictions on student groups and liberal political activists all indicate a hardening of Iran's stance on dissent and criticism since the June election of President Ahmadinejad. (Vahid Sepehri)

POLITICAL DETAINEE SENT TO HARSH PRISON. Activist Arjang Davudi, jailed for 15 years for forming illegal political parties, was recently transferred from a prison near Tehran to one in the southern port city of Bandar Abbas as a punitive measure, Amir Abbas Fakhravar, a friend of Davudi, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda on 5 December. Fakhravar, Davudi, and Ahmad Batebi -- another detainee (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 December 2004) -- are the founders of an independent student movement and the Movement for the Freedom of Iranians, Fakhravar said. (This is distinct from the Iran Freedom Movement, a liberal political party.) Davudi was given a 15-year jail term, apparently in 2002, for founding the party. His term has been marked by 100 days of solitary confinement and "very bad torture," as well as prison transfers including the recent one to Bandar Abbas, where he is "among very dangerous prisoners," Fakhravar said, Radio Farda reported. Fakhravar said provincial prisons are "harrowing" and that "there is no supervision." Iran's "most frightening prisons" are in the provinces, he said. Davudi, he added, has no access to news or television, and is allowed to make a "two- to three-minute phone call" once a week, Radio Farda reported. (Vahid Sepehri)

FINANCE MINISTER EXPRESSES ECONOMIC OPTIMISM. Finance Minister Davud Danesh-Ja'fari showed optimism over Iran's economy during remarks to the press in Tehran on 29 November, while contradicting international sources with his figures, Radio Farda reported on 30 November. The broadcaster quoted Danesh-Ja'fari as claiming that, since 2002, Iran has attracted more than $50 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI) -- more than 33 times the figure reported by UNCTAD, a UN body. Radio Farda speculated that the minister's figure might include sums for oil-sector buyback deals. Danesh-Ja'fari's pledge to pursue privatization and curb state intervention in business also contradicts President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's interventionist views, Radio Farda noted. Danesh-Ja'fari said the government has received 85 percent of its forecast tax revenues for the year that began on 21 March 2005 in the eight months since that date, Mehr news agency reported on 29 November. Inflation ran at 14.1 percent in the same period, he said, adding that this was lower than inflation for the same period the previous year. As the government receives just 4.5 percent of its tax revenues from 14 provinces, he added, it is considering waiving taxes on businesses investing in those provinces in order to boost investment in "deprived" parts of Iran. (Vahid Sepehri)

MINISTER SAYS IRAN TO CUT RATE OF HIV INFECTION. Health Minister Kamran Baqeri-Lankarani said in Tehran on 2 December that Iran will seek to cut HIV infection rates in the next 10 years through youth education, "active disease search," and "reducing vulnerability," ISNA reported the same day. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. He said that of an estimated 200,000 injecting-drug users in Iran, "60 percent in some areas and, on average, 25 percent are" HIV-positive, with 7 percent of infections now from "abnormal sexual conduct." Tehran education official Soheila Tabrizi said on 2 December that girls in secondary schools in Tehran began an AIDS-prevention course on 1 December that is due to last till March 2006, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 3 December.

Separately, legislator and parliamentary Health Committee member Bijan Shahbazkhani told ILNA on 2 December that Iran has just over 11,000 known HIV-positive people, but may have as many as 40,000. Aside from infection through needle use, he said, a very large youth population augments the risk of more infections though "very risky sexual conduct." He said officials must inform youngsters about AIDS "without any denials, or political or religious considerations." (Vahid Sepehri)