5 January 2004, Volume 7, Number 1
EARTHQUAKE KILLS THOUSANDS IN SOUTHEASTERN IRAN. The Tehran University Geophysics Institute announced on 26 December that an earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale struck the city of Bam in Kerman Province at around 5:30 a.m. local time, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. (A revised figure of 6.8 was provided later.) The quake was followed by aftershocks measuring up to 5.3 in magnitude. Provincial Governor-General Mohammad Ali Karimi said the quake, said by other sources to have reached 6.7 in magnitude, destroyed 60 percent of the city's residential areas and two hospitals, IRNA reported. Red Crescent Society official Mehran Nurbakhsh said water, electricity, and telephone communications in the cities of Bam, Jiroft, Golbaft, Kahnuj, and Ravar were cut.
Bam was a city of about 80,000 inhabitants, and early media reports put the number of dead at 20,000-50,000. The provincial deputy governor for political and security affairs, Mohammad Farshad, said on 27 December that the real figures are well below the highest estimates, IRNA reported, and Natural Disasters Headquarters Director-General Abbas Jazayeri echoed that sentiment. Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari said some 20,000 bodies have been recovered, adding that the death toll is likely to be much higher, IRNA reported on 29 December. Reza Rajai, a member of the Bam crisis-management headquarters, said on 31 December that more than 50,000 people were killed but it is impossible to provide a precise number. (Bill Samii)
GOVERNMENT LOOKS INTO SHODDY CONSTRUCTION. The 26 December earthquake destroyed up to 70 percent of Bam's mostly mud-brick homes and left an estimated 100,000 people homeless. Inmates at the Bam penitentiary escaped when the facilities' walls collapsed, Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari said on 29 December, according to Mehr News Agency. The Iranian media and the public hold the government responsible, and the government has vowed to look into the issue.
A state radio commentary on 26 December warned that the damage to buildings in Bam is likely to occur elsewhere. Officials must "exercise more serious supervision and ensure that buildings, particularly in smaller villages and towns, will be [earthquake] resistant. They must also prevent buildings from being built in earthquake zones. They must prevent inexperienced amateurs from building houses."
Nature is not cruel, according to an editorial in the 27 December "Sharq," humans are cruel when they are careless about the rules of nature. The editorial questioned why, with so much knowledge, building codes were ignored in Bam and elsewhere and emergency services were inadequate. A 28 December "Sharq" editorial said that it appears there is no crisis management in Iran. After noting the frequency of earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters in the country, the editorial criticized builders who are just out to make money and agencies that simply hand out construction licenses.
A statement from national-religious activists accused officials of having cotton in their ears and ignoring facts, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported on 30 December. They noted that 1,000 earthquakes have shaken Iran in the last decade, and 3 million-4 million people would be killed if an earthquake of a similar magnitude hits Tehran. They asked what percentage of Iran's oil revenues has been allocated to Bam and for the renovation of ramshackle buildings.
An editorial in the 4 January "Iran News" said that the level of destruction in Bam after the 26 December earthquake is not surprising because most buildings were built of "mud, brick, and unsophisticated construction materials," and they were "anything but earthquake-resistant." The real question, according to the daily, is why "all the government buildings in Bam [fell] even though most of them were newly built, erected during the last few years, and supposedly earthquake-resistant and compliant with construction standards." The editorial added that building procedures that fall below international standards can be found throughout the country, and it ascribed this to "widespread corruption in the system, unprofessionalism [sic], incompetence, lack of an acceptable construction oversight procedure, contractors who do not have the technical expertise to build based on prevalent international building standards, etc."
The government appears to have taken this criticism into consideration. Management and Planning Organization chief Mohammad Sattarifar said on 31 December that contractors and builders who had violated earthquake-proofing codes while building in Bam would be referred to the judiciary, IRNA reported. The cabinet is especially eager to know why government and public-sector buildings collapsed. (Bill Samii)
REMOTE CLERICS LEARN VALUE OF SHOWING CONCERN. Iranian leaders and particularly clerics often seem removed from the public's daily concerns. After a May 1997 earthquake caused tremendous damage in eastern Iran, then-President Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani cut short a trip to Turkmenistan and spent two days in the region. But when President-elect Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami visited the region soon afterwards, Rafsanjani reportedly upbraided Khatami because he rode in the back of a pickup truck when the visited the earthquake victims. "Iranians had immediately noticed the symbolic contrast with Rafsanjani's earlier visit to the same area in a comfortable Mercedes," according to an article by Stephen C. Fairbanks in the October 1997 "Middle East Policy."
Khatami displayed the common touch then, and such behavior had endeared him to voters before his election to lead Iran. Other Iranian leaders have taken a page from Khatami's book, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Expediency Council Chairman Hashemi-Rafsanjani visited Bam after the 26 December earthquake.
Ayatollah Khamenei arrived in Bam on 29 December to mourn the loss of life and inspect the damage, IRNA reported. "We have come here to offer our condolences to you," he said as he met with survivors and local officials, according to state radio. "We would like to tell you that we share your grief. Of course, you know yourselves that my heart is with you." Khamenei continued, "I beseech God Almighty to provide you with patience, determination, and the power to cope with what has happened." In a 26 December message to bereaved families, Khamenei expressed his condolences and called on official institutions to help the victims quickly. "I pray to God for fast recovery of the injured people and call the executive bodies to take immediate action in rendering aid to the needy people," he added. Khamenei subsequently allocated 1 billion rials ($126,582) for the reconstruction of housing in Bam, state television reported on 30 December, although it did not clarify the source of those funds.
Khamenei and Rafsanjani participated in a memorial service for the victims at Bam's Lord of the Era Congregational Mosque on 1 January, state radio reported. On 28 December, furthermore, Rafsanjani visited victims of the earthquake who were getting treatment at Tehran's Shahid Mustafa Khomeini Hospital, state radio reported, at which time he promised to visit Bam "soon." Two days earlier he expressed condolences and prayed for the injured, IRNA reported.
President Khatami toured the devastation in Bam on 29 December and later that day traveled on to the provincial capital, Kerman, where he spent the night. Khatami was accompanied by a number of government and military officials, the province's parliamentary representatives, and provincial Governor-General Mohammad Ali Karimi.
At an emergency meeting at the Bam airport, the officials discussed how to organize the humanitarian aid that is being rushed to the city. "Although all political and social institutions and offices of Bam City were fully annihilated," Karimi said, according to IRNA, "[provision of] emergency services started as of the first few minutes after the occurrence of the disastrous quake, resorting to the quite limited means we had at our disposal." Government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh added, "What we need are officials familiar with the city Bam, but these people are either dead or in deep shock over the loss of their families," according to dpa. (Bill Samii)
U.S. AID ARRIVES IN IRAN, BUT 'NO POLITICAL ANGLE.' By 1 January more than 150 aircraft from 50 countries had delivered relief supplies to Iran, IRNA reported. The supplies consisted mainly of tents, medicine, power generators, water tankers, and field hospitals, and were accompanied by more than 1,500 relief workers. The fact that the United States is one of the countries providing assistance has prompted comments about "earthquake diplomacy."
In a 26 December statement, U.S. President George W. Bush extended condolences and offered U.S. help, according to the State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs (http://usinfo.state.gov). The next day the White House announced that the U.S. government was working with Iranian and international relief groups, and would deploy search-and-rescue, emergency-surgery, and disaster-response-coordination personnel from Boston, Massachusetts; Fairfax County, Virginia; and Los Angeles, California. Personnel from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the State Department, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency were sent as well.
U.S. Air Force C-130 Hercules aircraft carrying relief aid arrived in Kerman Province on 28 December, IRNA reported. The flights originated in Kuwait. Three C-5 Galaxy cargo aircraft originating in the United States brought supplies and medical and search-and-rescue teams, "The Wall Street Journal" reported on 29 December. U.S.-based NGOs, such as World Vision (http://www.worldvision.org), also sent supplies to the earthquake zone.
The White House announced on 31 December that it had instructed the Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control to temporarily allow U.S. individuals and NGOs to transfer funds to organizations involved with humanitarian activities connected with the Bam earthquake (see http://usinfo.state.gov). Moreover, items needed for managing the relief effort, such as transportation equipment, satellite telephones, and radio and personal computing systems, can be exported to Iran.
Washington tried to follow up by offering to send a delegation to Bam that included North Carolina Senator Elizabeth Dole, who formerly served as president of the American Red Cross. Tehran rejected this offer. U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli explained what happened on 2 January, RFE/RL reported. "We did approach the Iranians on the subject of such a visit for the purpose of demonstrating our compassion for the Iranian people and to provide humanitarian support for their efforts to recover from last week's tragic earthquake. We have heard back today [2 January] from the Iranians that, given the current situation in Bam and all that is going on there now, it would be preferable to hold such a visit in abeyance. Therefore, we are not pursuing it further at the moment."
For those that believe such "earthquake diplomacy" might lead to warmer relations between Tehran and Washington, an anonymous U.S. State Department official said, "There is no political angle," the "Financial Times" reported on 29 December. "There is a human catastrophe in Iran. Our only mission is to alleviate the human suffering," the source said. "These efforts will not alter the tone or intensity of our dialogue with the Iranians on other matters of grave concern."
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi sounded a similar note on 28 December when he said that U.S. humanitarian assistance and relations with the United States are two distinct issues, IRNA reported.
This is not the first time the United States has provided Iran with disaster relief. USAID in March 1997 provided $25,000 to the International Federation of the Red Cross to assist victims of Ardabil Province earthquakes. The United States also provided assistance in May 1997 after an earthquake measuring 7.1 hit Khorasan Province. In June 2002 an earthquake measuring 6.3 killed more than 230 people, injured another 1,300, and left an estimated 25,000 people homeless. USAID sent $350,000 worth of humanitarian aid to Iran via a chartered aircraft, and it provided another $50,000 to the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Tehran's acknowledgement of the assistance is more unusual. Previous contributions have been ignored by state media, or in the 2002 case, the assistance had to come on non-U.S. aircraft so Tehran could dismiss it as another international donation. In one rather unusual case, a prominent Iranian politician claimed that blankets from the United States were infected with disease. (Bill Samii)
IRAN'S PLEAS FOR AID EXCLUDE ISRAEL. Describing Iran's need for urgent assistance after the earthquake, Interior Ministry spokesman Jahanbakhsh Khanjani said on 27 December that "heavy damage in the quake-stricken areas forces us to use aid from international bodies and those states which are willing to help the people and [we] have asked the Foreign Ministry to implement necessary measures to this effect," IRNA reported. Iran will not, however, accept aid from "the Zionist regime" (Israel), according to Khanjani.
"The Jerusalem Post" reported on 29 December that several organizations based in Israel would like to help the Iranian earthquake victims. Eran Weintrob, general manager of a Tel Aviv-based relief organization called Latet, was quoted as saying that politics is irrelevant when people are "starving and injured and have no place to sleep." Latet might send its donations through an international nongovernmental organization such as the Red Cross. "The Jerusalem Post" also reported that the Umbrella Organization for Iranian Immigrants in Israel has contacted the Iranian Embassy in the United Kingdom and received the go-ahead for contributions from "the Israeli people" rather than from the State of Israel. Menashe Amir, program director of the Voice of Israel's Persian Service, told the same daily that he intends to publicize such contributions so Iranians are aware of this friendly Israeli gesture. (Bill Samii)
GUARDIANS COUNCIL-INTERIOR MINISTRY BATTLE COULD LEAD TO CANCELED ELECTIONS IN TWO PROVINCES. In mid-December, supervisory committees connected with the Guardians Council rejected the competency of more than 300 individuals appointed as electoral agents for the upcoming parliamentary elections by district and local governors who are associated with the Interior Ministry (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 22 December 2003). This controversy between the Guardians Council, which has the function of supervising elections, and the Interior Ministry, which is tasked with conducting elections, is escalating.
Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari said on 24 December that there would be no elections in Isfahan and Luristan provinces if election supervisory boards do not settle their differences with administrators over the establishment of executive boards, IRNA reported.
Mr. Muhseni, the Guardians Council's secretary-general in charge of supervision and inspection of elections, countered that 99 percent of the individuals proposed for membership on executive boards have been approved, state television reported on 24 December. Muhseni said candidates were rejected in only five cities and he urged the governors to propose new candidates so the election could proceed.
Shiraz parliamentary representative Jalil Sazgarnezhad, who will not be competing in the forthcoming election, wrote in the 21 December issue of "Sharq" that the disqualification of these local officials is another political ploy by the conservatives. The conservatives claim that they want people to vote, but they are trying to recreate the low turnout of the February 2003 municipal-council elections, which saw conservative candidates carry the day. Sazgarnezhad went on to write that by rejecting the local officials and by rejecting reformist candidates for parliamentary office, the conservatives will ensure that people do not vote.
By rejecting individuals trusted at the local level, parliamentarians Ali Asqar Hadizadeh and Iraj Nadimi said in the 27 December "Aftab-i Yazd," the Guardians Council is trying to undermine public interest in the election process. Potential voters will be disillusioned, and at the same time, the reputations of the rejected individuals will be harmed. (Bill Samii)
RELATIVELY FEW PARLIAMENTARY CANDIDATES REJECTED. Executive boards approved the candidacy of 92.88 percent of the 1,844 applicants for the upcoming parliamentary election, IRNA reported on 3 January. The executive boards rejected 5.4 percent of the applicants, and 1.77 percent of the applicants withdrew voluntarily. Rejected applicants have four days to appeal to provincial governors' offices.
Ebrahim Yazdi, leader of the illegal Freedom Movement (Nehzat-i Azadi), said in a fax sent to ISNA on 2 January that his candidacy and those of his associates has been rejected. An anonymous "informed source" had said in the 1 January "Entekhab" that candidates known to be affiliated with the Freedom Movement or those who said on the applications that they are affiliated with it were rejected.
Mahallat and Delijan parliamentary representative Ali Asghar Hadizadeh said on 2 January that he believes the candidacy of more than 150 current parliamentarians will be rejected, ILNA reported. Tehran Governor Ali Awsat Hashemi said on 31 December that only 9 percent of the applicants were rejected, IRNA reported. He added that just a few of the 1,724 who registered in Tehran were rejected.
There was speculation that the Guardians Council would not reject a large number of candidates. Instead, Shiraz parliamentarian Jalil Sazgarnezhad and Isfahan parliamentarian Ahmad Shirzad predicted in the 16 December "Aftab-i Yazd" that the Guardians would reject a few prominent candidates, such as Behzad Nabavi and Mohsen Armin. Therefore, the members of the reformist 2nd of Khordad coalition would not be able to arrive at a common list of candidates and this lack of unity would harm them at the polls.
Ayatollah Ali Meshkini discussed the vetting of candidates for elected office during his 19 December Friday prayers sermon in Qom, which was broadcast on state television the next day. He urged the Guardians Council to be firm on candidates' qualifications, illustrating his appeal with an anecdote from his youth: "I remember from our life in the village when I was small. Ladies poured the flour into a sieve to stop rubbish -- something, a rat excrement -- from going through. Sometimes the sieve was damaged and had holes in it. The rat excrement would go through and spoil the dough. I ask the Guardian Council to sieve properly and purify the things." (Bill Samii)
PARLIAMENT REJECTS MORE GUARDIANS COUNCIL NOMINEES. The parliament rejected two more judiciary nominees for seats on the Guardians Council on 24 December, IRNA reported. Mohammad-Hadi Sadeqi received only five of a possible 184 votes, while only 76 votes were cast for Firuz Aslani. The head of the judiciary must nominate the six jurists who serve on the Guardians Council, and the 290-member legislature must approve those nominees before they assume their posts. The other six members of the Guardians Council are clerics appointed by the supreme leader and are not subject to parliamentary approval.
Guardians Council member Mohammad Reza Abbasifard resigned recently, and on 12 November the legislature rejected two nominated replacements -- Fazlollah Musavi and Gholamhussein Elham (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 17 November 2003). Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi again proposed Musavi, along with Sadeqi, at the end of November, prompting angry reactions from the legislators (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 8 December 2003).
Hussein Shariatmadari, the supreme leader's representative at the Kayhan Institute, wrote in the 28 December issue of "Kayhan" that as long as the Guardians Council does not have 12 members, neither of the two legislative institutions is legal. Until this situation is resolved, Shariatmadari continued, any parliamentary legislation or Guardians Council decrees would be "illegal and illegitimate." He cited Articles 91, 92, 93, and 94 of the constitution to bolster his argument.
Shariatmadari referred to the Expediency Council decision of August 2001, when it decreed that an individual could be elected to the Guardians Council with a relative majority of legislative votes, rather than an absolute majority of them. On that basis, he concluded, Musavi should have been selected after the 12 November vote and Sadeqi should have been selected after the late-November vote.
Parliamentarian Mohammad Reza Tabesh speculated that the judiciary chief is probably hoping to wait until a new parliament is sworn in, and that body will approve one of his choices for the Guardians Council, "Yas-i No" reported on 28 December. (Bill Samii)
MINORITIES GET ANOTHER DEGREE OF EQUALITY. Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai said on 27 December that the arbitration body has approved a parliamentary bill that would grant equal "blood money" (diyeh) for Muslims and non-Muslims, IRNA reported. In November 2002, the parliament approved a bill that would make the amount of blood money paid by a perpetrator for the killing or wounding of a Christian, Jew, or Zoroastrian the same as for the killing or wounding of a Muslim (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 2 December 2002). Previously, the blood money for minorities was less than that for Muslims -- $18,750 for a Muslim male and half that amount for a minority member or a Muslim female. In April, the Guardians Council rejected the bill on the grounds that it violated Islamic law and the constitution.
The Iranian Constitution states that Iran is a Shia Muslim state and that Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism are recognized minority faiths entitled to parliamentary representation. The representatives of these minorities hailed passage of the legislation, IRNA reported on 28 December. Morris Motamed of the Jewish community; Yonathan Bet Kolia, who represents the Assyrians and Chaldeans; and Khosrow Danestani of the Zoroastrian community described the measure as one that shows the minorities' freedom in Iran. (Bill Samii)
KURDISH STUDENTS URGED TO VOTE. Kurdish members of the Iranian parliament met with Kurdistan University students at the university's Sanandaj campus on 21 December, ILNA reported. The parliamentarians -- Bahaedin Adab, Jalal Jalalizadeh, Abdullah Sohrabi, Mohammad Rezai, Salaheddin Alai, and Masud Husseini -- discussed the sixth parliament's performance with the students, as well as prospects for the seventh parliament. The legislators urged the students to vote, warning that a boycott of the election or apathy towards it would benefit the conservatives. The Kurdish legislators are considered reformists and are supporters of President Khatami.
Nevertheless, these parliamentarians are concerned about the central government's neglect of the region they represent. They cited provincial grievances in a letter to President Khatami that was published in Kermanshah's "Bisotun" newspaper on 17 November. Security measures in the region have increased since recent clashes there, they wrote, which have contributed to regional underdevelopment (on these clashes, see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 15 December 2003). Moreover, the Kurds and the regions in which they make up a majority of residents are viewed with suspicion, according to the parliamentarians.
The letter noted that people from Ilam, Kermanshah, Kurdistan, and Western Azerbaijan provinces supported the Islamic revolution and served in the frontlines of the 1980-88 war with Iraq, but "since the war, unfortunately, deprivation has increased in the Kurdish-inhabited regions." The literacy rate in this part of the country is "horrible," the letter added, and "the universities in these regions suffer from a serious lack of facilities, budget, academic boards, and learning environments."
The representatives of the Kurdish region urged Khatami to reduce security measures, "[fulfill] the democratic slogans to the same extent as other parts of the country," and "[put] the meritocracy slogan into practice and [make] use of meritorious Kurds." Their letter encouraged Khatami to compensate for economic underdevelopment, allocate credit to the region, and "solve the youth unemployment crisis." (Bill Samii)
FOREIGN CYCLISTS FREED; KIDNAPPERS 'CAPTURED.' Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi announced on 28 December that the three foreign cyclists who were kidnapped on 2 December as they pedaled from Iran to Pakistan have been freed, IRNA reported. The three -- David Storm and Oliver Brug from Germany and Aidan James Leahy from Ireland -- were in Sistan va Baluchistan Province when they were seized by suspected drug smugglers who allegedly demanded a 5 million-euro ($6.25 million) ransom (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 15 December 2003). Deputy Interior Minister for Security Affairs Ali-Asqar Ahmadi said no ransom was paid, according to IRNA.
The three men were turned over to their respective ambassadors on 29 December and then gave interviews at Mehrabad Airport in Tehran. Leahy and Brug said the Iranian police found them blindfolded in a car and that they had no information on the kidnappers' identities, IRNA reported. Brug added, "I do not have any information about any deal between the government and the kidnappers."
The German ambassador to Tehran, Baron Paul von Maltzahn, praised Iranian officials' handling of the affair and thanked the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) for its work, IRNA reported on 29 December. Commenting on allegations that the kidnappers were linked with Al-Qaeda, Maltzahn said, "We have no indication of that; we had no communications with the hostage takers; everything has been in the hands of Iranian authorities."
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on 1 January that the MOIS is holding the kidnappers and it will decide what information it will make public, state television reported.
Two days later, MOIS chief Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi denied that the kidnappers are in captivity, claimed that they escaped to Pakistan, and urged Islamabad to hand them over, IRNA reported. Yunesi added, "The kidnappers themselves claim to be supporters of Al-Qaeda and the freed hostages have confirmed this, but since the kidnappers have not been arrested yet, we cannot verify this claim with 100 percent certainty." "They achieved none of their demands and the release of the hostages came after influential local figures intervened," Yunesi said. (Bill Samii)
TEHRAN HOSTS ISLAMIC CONFERENCE. On the second day of the 21-22 December "Islamic World -- Opportunities and Challenges" conference in Tehran, parliamentarian Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Mohtashami-Pur said nations must work together to free themselves from "imperialism, Zionism, despotism, and dictatorship," ILNA reported. He charged that Zionism is trying to undermine the Islamic world and added, "They seek to weaken Islam in the world in a bid to establish the supremacy of the Zionist regime in the world and American domination over oil resources." Mohtashami-Pur stressed the importance of resistance in overcoming such problems, and he praised the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance. He said Iran's Islamic Revolution inspired the Lebanese resistance.
The previous day, President Khatami told the conference that Muslims are mainly threatened by delays in achieving religiously based freedom, justice, and democracy, IRNA reported. Foreign Minister Kharrazi compared the neo-conservative trend in the United States, which he accused of promoting unipolarism and seeking economic, military, and political domination, with extremist Islamist ideology, which indulges in violence because of an inability to understand complex issues, IRNA reported. (Bill Samii)
SENEGAL GETS $20 MILLION CREDIT LINE FROM IRAN. President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal arrived in Tehran on 22 December for a three-day official visit, IRNA reported. Wade met with President Khatami and Foreign Minister Kharrazi. The Iranian ministers of foreign affairs, of industries and mines, of energy, and of cooperatives attended Wade's first meeting with Khatami.
During his meeting with Wade, IRNA reported that Kharrazi said mutual ties can be expanded a great deal, noting that Iranian technical and engineering firms could establish factories, run mines, and build roads and dams. Kharrazi also discussed the export of machinery used for agriculture, drilling, and mining. Wade expressed an interest in buying cement factories, in petrochemical machinery and expertise, and in hosting an exhibition of Iranian automobiles.
Tehran recently granted a $20 million line of credit to Senegal, and Senegal supported Iran in the UN Commission on Human Rights, according to IRNA. In April 2002, a draft resolution criticizing the human rights situation in Iran was defeated by a roll-call vote of 19 in favor to 20 against, with 14 abstentions (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 29 April 2002). (Bill Samii)
TEHRAN COMMITS $10 MILLION FOR KYRGYZSTAN INVESTMENT. Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov said during a 24 December press conference in Bishkek that relations with Iran are very important to his country, Kyrgzinfo reported on 26 December. He noted a recent Iranian government allocation of $10 million for investment in the Kyrgyz economy and added, "Iranian private companies, the investment of which the Iranian government guarantees, are also taking part in the projects currently being implemented in our country."
Tehran's commitment was made during a recent visit of the Kyrgyz president to Iran. President Askar Akaev spent two days in Tehran on 20-22 December before stopping in Shiraz on his way back to Bishkek, IRNA and ITAR-TASS reported. Akaev met with Supreme Leader Khamenei, Expediency Council Chairman Hashemi-Rafsanjani, President Khatami, Speaker of parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, and Foreign Minister Kharrazi.
Khamenei said the Soviet Union could not ignore Central Asians' rights forever, nor can Israel ignore Palestinians' rights indefinitely because their resistance will end the occupation. Khamenei added that the United States entered the region on the pretext of fighting terrorism and that the U.S. presence is not in the interest of the Afghan nor Iraqi people.
Khatami told his guest that the level and volume of mutual trade is unsatisfactory given the potential in the Iranian-Kyrgyz relationship, and he ascribed this problem to bureaucratic delays. Karrubi expressed Iran's desire to expand bilateral cooperation, and he praised Bishkek's role in regional and international affairs.
On 21 December, the two sides signed seven memoranda of understanding -- on trade, tariffs, and trade centers; visa regulations; legal affairs; cultural and artistic cooperation; and housing and urban development. (Bill Samii)
IRANIANS GET BUSY IN TAJIKISTAN. Sobir, an Iranian construction company, began work on the Anzob tunnel to link northern and southern Tajikistan on 25 December, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. Tajik Transport Ministry press service chief Mahmadyusuf Shodiev said that machinery and equipment for the project were delivered some time ago. The project is scheduled to take 20 months, but in response to a reporter's question the project's director-general allowed that completion depends on how the work is organized and the hardness of the rock.
An Iranian delegation led by Economy and Finance Minister Tahmasb Mazaheri arrived in Dushanbe on 19 December for the signing of a memorandum of understanding on completing construction of a hydroelectric plant at Sangtuda, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 22 December. The Sangtuda plant, part of an ambitious Soviet-era hydroelectric scheme, was left half-finished when the USSR collapsed. Preliminary documents on Iranian participation in the project were signed in summer 2003. Under the memorandum of understanding, Iran will coordinate the activities of a consortium that is being formed to complete the project.
Mazaheri said during his one-day visit that Iran is very interested in investing in Tajikistan, IRNA reported. Mazaheri added that new Tajik laws and regulations will appeal to individuals looking for safe investments: "Recently, good and effective laws have been compiled in Tajikistan for privatization; and implementation of the laws would help economic progress and development in the country." Mazaheri was scheduled to visit Tajikistan on 28 November, ITAR-TASS reported that day, but the Tajik Economy and Trade Ministry said the Iranian side changed the date. (Bess Brown, Bill Samii)
ISRAEL DENIES THREATENING IRAN. The Israeli Defense Ministry recently denied press reports that Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz had threatened to attack Iranian nuclear facilities, but those reports had already prompted defiant comments from Tehran.
Mofaz allegedly said, during a Voice of Israel Persian Service call-in program, that Israel is considering an operation to destroy Iran's nuclear capability, the "Haaretz" daily reported on 21 December.
"He made a damned mistake," Iranian President Khatami told a 22 December news conference in response to Mofaz's alleged statement, according to IRNA. Iranian Air Force chief Brigadier General Reza Pardis said in a 22 December interview with Mehr News Agency that an Israeli attack on Iran would have unimaginable consequences. Minister of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Ali Shamkhani announced, "If the threat against our country is carried out, no part of Israel will be safe for the leaders of the Zionist regime," state television reported on 22 December. Shamkhani added in an interview that appeared in the 22 December issue of Abha's "Al-Watan" daily that "these threats are a reflection of Israeli expansionist war intentions."
Mofaz's media adviser, Eli Kamir, clarified what was actually said in a letter that was published in the 24 December issue of "Haaretz." "In answer to a listener's question regarding Israel's response in case of a nuclear attack, the minister answered, 'If, God forbid, Iran were to obtain nuclear weapons and would threaten to use them against Israel, Israel will know how to defend its citizens, without harming Iranian citizens.'" The letter added, "The defense minister did not mention the possibility of an Israeli attack." (Bill Samii)
FATE OF MUJAHEDIN KHALQ MEMBERS REMAINS UNCLEAR. An Iranian Foreign Ministry official told Swiss Ambassador to Tehran Tim Guldimann on 22 December that U.S. administrator in Iraq L. Paul Bremer's recent comments about the extradition of Iranian armed-opposition members to countries other than Iran were "irresponsible," IRNA reported (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 22 December 2003). "By making such comments, the Americans prove they are not sincere in their claims of pioneering the international campaign against terrorism," the Iranian diplomat added in a reference to Bremer's remarks concerning members of the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO). Switzerland represents U.S. interests in Iran because Tehran and Washington do not have diplomatic relations.
Meanwhile, Iraqi Governing Council President for the month of December Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim said in a 22 December interview with the Riyadh-based Voice of Free Iraq that some MKO members will be deported to Iran, IRNA reported. MKO members who have committed crimes in Iraq, however, will be tried there, he added. "A large number of Iraqi citizens have already filed lawsuits against certain MKO agents, who are summoned to stand trial," al-Hakim said. Tehran's stance is that MKO leaders should be tried, whereas "misguided" rank-and-file members of the organization would be forgiven.
On 24 December Iranian state television aired an unscheduled documentary about the MKO. Filmed in Iraq, the program consisted of interviews with Iraqis who said that their relatives were martyred by Saddam Hussein's regime because they were working against the MKO. One woman on the program said that the MKO arrested people who rose against the Iraqi dictator's regime. A man on the program said that Iraqis hate and fear the MKO as much as Saddam Hussein's sons. (Bill Samii)