2 February 2004, Volume 7, Number 5
KHATAMI WILL HOLD ELECTIONS -- REGARDLESS... As Iran marks the 25th anniversary of its Islamic Revolution on 1-10 February, called the "Ten Days of Dawn," the country is caught in one of the greatest political crises in its history. Iran's Interior Ministry -- which is responsible for holding elections -- has called for their postponement in light of the current dispute over candidates' eligibility, an action that has been deemed permissible by a presidentially appointed constitutional expert. Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, however, has vowed that the elections will take place as scheduled, on 20 February, and the Guardians Council, which is responsible for supervising elections, has said the same. The likelihood of the elections occurring under the current dubious circumstances leads to speculation about voter turnout and the level of political-party participation in the election.
Hojatoleslam Hashem Hashemzadeh-Harisi, who serves on the presidentially appointed Committee for the Implementation and Supervision of the Constitution, told Radio Farda on 30 January that it would be permissible to postpone the parliamentary elections. "If the executives at the Interior Ministry and the Guardians Council agree, they can postpone up to one month, or 20 days, or 10 days. They also have the authority not to postpone them, but the 7th Parliament has to be ready by the end of May 2004." Hashemzadeh-Harisi continued: "If they at their discretion decide to postpone the elections, there will not be any legal problems, because we have time until the end of May to get the final results for the 7th Parliament. There is no particular or legal time frame set for the elections -- just an agreement to conduct them on the months proceeding to May 2004."
Provincial governors-general met for four hours at the Interior Ministry on the evening of 28 January and subsequently announced that organizing a "free and fair election" for 20 February is "impossible," IRNA reported. The announcement added that "public trust, convergence of ideas, and the nation's participation in the elections are all seriously at stake under the current conditions." "Setting a new date for the elections seems to be quite essential under the current conditions," the governors-general concluded.
Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari, in a 29 January letter to Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, also urged postponement of the parliamentary elections, ISNA reported. Postponement, Musavi-Lari said in his letter, "will allow us and the esteemed Guardians Council to create suitable conditions for holding true and healthy elections." Musavi-Lari had said on 27 January that there is no possibility of holding "free, healthy, and competitive elections" on 20 February, IRNA reported.
The same day, however, President Khatami ended speculation that the government might not hold the elections. "The government's plan is to hold healthy, free, and competitive elections and we will definitely hold such an election," Khatami said, according to IRNA. "To shut down the elections means to shut down democracy, and God does not want such a thing for our people." Khatami repeated this after the 28 January cabinet meeting, saying, "God willing, the election will be held on time," IRNA reported.
Iran's Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Minister Admiral Ali Shamkhani said on 29 January, "Iran will hold exciting elections on the scheduled date, disappointing its enemies and proving once more that there is no such thing as a deadlock in the political life of the Islamic Republic," ISNA reported.
In a 30 January letter to Musavi-Lari, Jannati rejected the request to postpone the elections. In a second letter to Jannati, Musavi repeated his request: "I again propose the election's postponement be put on the agenda," IRNA reported on 31 January.
Government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh had told ISNA on 26 January that the government will organize the elections only if they would be "competitive, fair, and healthy." "In other words, it means that in all constituencies there should be real competition and not a stage-managed one, to allow all the people who are willing to compete legally and within the framework of the law and the constitution of the Islamic Republic to do so," Ramezanzadeh said. He called for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to "become more involved." (Bill Samii)
...BUT WILL ANYBODY COME? As it now seems that parliamentary elections will take place as scheduled, two crucial and outstanding issues remain: party participation and voter turnout.
The 1 February submission of resignations by 116 members of parliament added uncertainty to the debate over the role of parties in the elections. Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani told the first congress of the Moderation and Development Party (Hizb-i Ettedal va Toseh), which took place on 29 January, that the hue and cry raised by parties would result in public skepticism about the political process, IRNA and ISNA reported. Rohani said parties are obliged to encourage public activism and national unity. He seemed to criticize the parties by saying that if they introduced the most qualified candidates for public offices then there would be no need for other filters.
The 2nd of Khordad Front Coordination Council -- which heads the 18-organization reformist grouping named after the date of Khatami's election on 23 May 1997 -- announced with regret on 31 January that it would not participate in the parliamentary elections, IRNA and ISNA reported. The reformist Militant Clerics Association (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mubarez) announced on 24 January that if the current trend in the election process continues, then it will "officially withdraw from participating" in the elections, "Entekhab" reported on 25 January. The party added that the results of this "rubber-stamp selection" would be unacceptable and it would not approve of them. Ebrahim Asqarzadeh, secretary-general of the Islamic Iran Solidarity Party (Hizb-i Hambastegi-yi Iran-i Islami), said in the 21 January "Aftab-i Yazd" that his organization does not see "the minimum conditions" for participating in the elections.
The extent of public participation and its impact on the final tally is also open to debate. An Interior Ministry poll described in the 24 January issue of "Mardom Salari" found that almost 60 percent of respondents are inclined to vote, while almost 29 percent of respondents said they will not participate in the balloting.
Deputy speaker of parliament Mohammad Reza Khatami predicted on 26 January that the conservatives can win if public turnout is 25 percent and the conservative and reformist factions will break even if there is a 25 to 40 percent turnout, IRNA reported. "In case the public voting turns out to exceed 40 percent, the victory of the reform faction would be guaranteed," the deputy speaker added.
The conservatives will not have any rivals for 202 legislative seats, according to the 24 January "Mardom Salari." Mustafa Tajzadeh, a leading figure in the Islamic Iran Participation Party and the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization, put that figure at 180 in an interview that appeared in the 23 January "Financial Times." Tajzadeh said the best-known reformists have been disqualified from competing for the other 110 seats.
Tajzadeh described disqualification of cabinet members as one of the conservatives' objectives after taking power.
SPEAKER PREDICTS GOOD NEWS ON PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS. The Guardians Council reinstated the candidacy of three incumbent legislators for the upcoming parliamentary election, IRNA reported on 31 January, citing the "Sharq" newspaper. The approved legislators are Zanjan's Abolfazl Shakuri, Isfahan's Nasser Khaleqi, and Dasht-i Azadegan's Abdolzahra Alemi.
In all, 1,160 previously disqualified prospective candidates were reinstated, IRNA reported. The Guardians Council, on 11 January, rejected for a variety of reasons the eligibility of some 80 members of the legislature, and a total of 3,533 out of 8,144 applicants to be candidates in the 20 February election.
However, Speaker of Parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi said on 27 January that good news regarding eligible candidates will come by close of business on 30 January (the deadline for the Guardians Council to inform the Interior Ministry about prospective candidates' appeals), state television and IRNA reported the same day. Karrubi described this as the outcome of his 25 January meeting with Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati and the 26 January meeting of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with the heads of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government.
Karrubi also said a presidentially appointed committee -- consisting of Intelligence and Security Minister Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi, Industries and Mines Minister Ishaq Jahangiri, Commerce Minister Hussein Shariatmadari, and Petroleum Minister Bijan Namdar-Zanganeh -- is investigating the vetting process. Zanganeh announced on 28 January that negotiations with the Guardians Council are underway, IRNA reported.
Karrubi said on 28 January that there is no crisis and insisted that the elections will proceed on schedule, IRNA reported. He noted that elections even took place during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. (Bill Samii)
KHATAMI REJECTS OFFICIALS' RESIGNATIONS. President Khatami on 26 January rejected the mass resignation of his top officials, IRNA reported. In his reply to the officials, the text of which was supplied by the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA), Khatami said: "It is our definite duty to continue to serve the Islamic Republic and the noble nation." He went on to insist on holding a free and sound election.
Vice President for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Hojatoleslam Mohammad Ali Abtahi spoke to reporters after the 21 January cabinet meeting. When asked about the possible reaction to a failure to resolve the current crisis over the massive rejection of prospective parliamentary candidates, he said: "In such a case, we shall proceed with mass resignation. A number of ministers and vice presidents who have submitted their resignations are obviously awaiting the response to their move," IRNA reported.
Cooperatives Minister Ali Sufi also said, after the 21 January cabinet session, that a number of ministers and vice presidents have submitted their resignations, "but the president has not agreed to any of the resignations," Fars News Agency reported. Sufi said he submitted his resignation.
An anonymous member of the legislature's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee said that 100 cabinet staffers have submitted their resignations, ILNA reported. "These resignations will become definite, should the Guardians Council refuse to reconsider its assessment by the end of January," the legislator added. (Bill Samii)
ELECTED OFFICIALS CONCEDE THAT TALKS WITH UNELECTED ONES WERE WASTE OF TIME. Iran's top elected officials -- President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami and Speaker of Parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi -- conceded in a 24 January statement that their meeting with the unelected Guardians Council one week earlier about the disqualification of some 45 percent of the prospective candidates for the February parliamentary polls failed to yield results and the council's explanations did not clarify the situation, IRNA reported.
They urged the council to publish a record of the meeting in order to enlighten the public, ILNA reported. "We insist on holding free, competitive, and healthy elections," the statement read. "We hope that in view of the current psychological and propaganda atmosphere, the esteemed Guardians Council will conduct a speedy and thorough review of the decisions by the supervisory boards and pave the way for such elections."
Karrubi noted on 25 January that 1,319 people were rejected simply because the council could not find sufficient evidence in favor of them, the parliamentary newsletter reported (http://mellat.majles.ir).
Meanwhile, Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati said in a 28 January letter to Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari that approval of an individual's candidacy in the past does not justify later approval if there is knowledge to the contrary, ISNA reported. Jannati's letter specified the reasons for rejecting people and gave the specific number of offenses in each case.
In a 31 January statement to reporters, Khatami said that the negotiations with the Guardians Council had reached a "dead end," IRNA reported. His office later faxed a statement to IRNA denying that he ever said "We have reached a dead end with the Guardians Council." (Bill Samii)
GUARDIANS REJECT EMERGENCY-ELECTION LEGISLATION. The Guardians Council, which is tasked with approving all legislation on Islamic and constitutional grounds, on 25 January rejected a bill that would force it to reinstate most of the prospective candidates for the February parliamentary elections it has rejected, AP reported.
Tehran parliamentary representative Hojatoleslam Majid Ansari described the bill on 24 January, according to the Interior Ministry website (http://www.moi.ir/), saying that one part of it stipulates that anybody whose candidacy for a previous election has been approved will have his or her candidacy approved for this election, barring provision of valid documentation to the contrary. Another part of the bill, he said, stipulates that a board of local worthies will judge a person's commitment to Islam, the constitution, and Vilayat-i Faqih (rule of the supreme jurisconsult), as well as that person's reputation.
Mohsen Armin, a reformist legislator representing Tehran, said on 26 January that there is "no good reason" for political groups to participate in the upcoming parliamentary elections since the Guardians Council has rejected this legislation, ILNA reported. Armin said that a free election is not guaranteed and, "as a last resort, those who have staged a sit-in will resign their positions in the sixth parliament in protest against the blatant violation of their rights as citizens." Legislators participating in a sit-in to protest the disqualifications are consulting with the government on their next step, he said.
Parliamentary bills that are rejected by the Guardians Council can be referred to the Expediency Council for adjudication, but that is unlikely to occur this time. Armin said, "I believe that referring the bill to the Expediency Council is a waste of time and we will miss legal opportunities to get a review of the undesirable trend in these elections."
Speaking to ISNA on 27 January, Tehran's Mohsen Mirdamadi said that action on the bill would be suspended for six months. Based on past precedent, he said, it is clear that sending the bill to the Expediency Council would be unproductive. The type of legislation rejected by the Guardians Council can be divided into two categories, Mirdamadi said. In some cases the legislation can be amended, but in other cases implementation of the council's recommendations would make the legislation meaningless. (Bill Samii)
SPEAKER SAYS ASSEMBLY OF EXPERTS BY-ELECTIONS ARE MEANINGLESS. Speaker of Parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi on 28 January said the Assembly of Experts by-elections, which are being held in four provinces concurrently with the 20 February parliamentary elections, are essentially meaningless because only one candidate has been approved in each constituency, IRNA reported. Nevertheless, Karrubi urged political groups to participate actively in the elections and expressed confidence that such problems would be overcome.
The Guardians Council approved only five candidates for the races in Ardabil, East Azerbaijan, Hormozgan, and Zanjan provinces, ILNA reported on 26 January, citing the Interior Ministry's website. Of 19 prospective candidates, the Guardians Council rejected nine applicants and another five withdrew. The Ardabil, East Azerbaijan, and Zanjan races are uncontested, and the there are only two candidates in Hormozgan Province. (Bill Samii)
ANTIREFORM HEADQUARTERS AT WORK IN IRAN. "Shirin Ebadi's $2 million dollar contract with the Zionists and Americans." "Mustafa Tajzadeh: Behzad Nabavi and I did not believe Imam Khomeini for even one moment." These are typical headlines that can be found on http://www.efsha.info.
Hard-line websites like this were described recently on a reformist website (http://web.peykeiran.com/net_iran/irnewsbody.aspx?ID=11108). The report claimed that Mohsen Mohammad runs efsha.info and its server is the Kuwait-based q8it.com. Another such site is http://www.daricheh.org which, according to the article, uses the Safieh server and is run by Arsh Haqiqpur, Omid Husseini, and Ali Amiri. The website's office is on Qaem Farahani Avenue in Tehran.
Reformist political figures believe that hard-liners are behind these websites, and say that they are part of a bigger conspiracy against them. They believe, furthermore, that the websites are connected with figures in government and make use of state resources.
Tehran parliamentary representative Ali Shakuri-Rad pointed out in the 11 January "Nasim-i Saba" that even before the supervisory boards had finished examining applicants' qualifications, the daricheh website announced the rejection of roughly 4,000 out of 8,000 prospective candidates for the parliamentary election. Shakuri-Rad also said that an antireform headquarters is trying to create crises. Tehran representative Mohammad Reza Khatami said in the same article that the hard-liners' objective is to prevent the spread of accurate information and to make people question the reformists' statements.
About a week later, government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh said, "There is evidence that proves the presence of [the antireform] headquarters is not a figment of the imagination," "Mardom Salari" reported on 18 January. Ramezanzadeh said this headquarters is waging psychological warfare against the government, and he added that the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) has conducted a survey that found some hard-line websites are fed from one source.
Reformist parliamentarian Behzad Nabavi had mentioned an antireform "headquarters" during the 9 December session of parliament and said this headquarters circulates "rumors and calumnies through the websites affiliated with the parallel intelligence organizations," and legislators urged the president to reveal MOIS findings (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 19 January 2004). (Bill Samii)
KHATAMI INVESTIGATES SOUTHEASTERN RIOT. Seifullah Shahdad-Nejad, governor of the Kerman Province town of Shahr-i Babak, said on 26 June that President Khatami has dispatched a team to investigate the riot that took place there on the weekend of 24-25 January, IRNA reported. Shahdad-Nejad said delegations from the President's Office, the Interior Ministry, and the Kerman Governor-General's Office are all looking into the unrest.
Security forces had killed four residents of Qasemabad village and injured many others when they attacked copper-factory workers who were striking, Mansur Suleimani-Meimandi, the parliamentary representative from Shahr-i Babak, Kerman Province, had said on 25 January according to Fars News Agency. The protest started in Qasemabad and then spread to Shahr-i Babak, the legislator said, adding that the workers were demonstrating for permanent contracts. (AFP quoted Suleimani-Meimandi as saying the unrest began in the Khatunabad village.)
Shahdad-Nejad explained that the violence took place when riot police tried to prevent protestors from attacking the police headquarters and the governorate, adding that disgruntled copper-smelter workers were protesting layoffs when 300 motorcycle-riding individuals attacked the buildings. Shahdad-Nejad said baton-wielding police injured some people and objects hurled by the workers injured others. Shahdad-Nejad did not rule out the role of "a certain group," a locution that has come to be used to describe the hard-line Ansar-i Hizbullah vigilantes. (Bill Samii)
'TEN DAYS' OF DAWN BEGINS. This year Iran will mark the "Ten Days of Dawn" -- the commemoration of the revolution -- in the first week of February. The 16 January 1979 departure from Iran of the monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, for all intents and purposes finalized Iran's Islamic revolution.
Veteran Iranian journalist Massoud Behnud says that the shah's departure from Iran ended an era. "On that day, I mean as soon as the shah's plane left Tehran airport around 12:30, I believe that in that moment the Pahlavi dynasty and also Iran's era of monarchy ended, even though [the people] had to wait 38 days till it was officially announced."
The shah lived in exile until succumbing to cancer on 27 July 1980 in Cairo.
Two weeks after the departure of the shah, on 1 February 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Iran after 14 years of exile and took power. After a 1 April referendum, he declared Iran an Islamic Republic.
Behnud says that most Iranians took the departure of the shah as a positive development. "Twenty-five years ago on the day when the shah, the last king of the country, left Iran, only a small number of people thought about the fact that 2,500 years of monarchy or more were ending. People focused on the reality that a dictator was leaving the scene."
Behnud was there, and witnessed the celebrations in Tehran that greeted the news that the shah was gone. "As the radio carried the news, and with the early publishing of 'Ettelaat' newspaper with its big 'Shah Has Left' headline, all of a sudden the city exploded. In the queues in front of the gas stations, where people had gathered for gasoline and fuel -- it was winter -- people started to cheer and celebrate. And I had never seen either before that or after it -- in the last 40 years -- such joy."
Twenty-five years later, however, that joy has faded for most Iranians. Dissatisfaction is growing with theocratic rule. Many who despised the shah and feared SAVAK, his secret police, now remember his rule with nostalgia. Afshin Molavi, journalist and author of "Persian Pilgrimages: Journey Across Iran," says that economic hardship and lack of social freedom are the main causes for the change of heart.
"When you travel across Iran what you notice is that there is a substantial amount of economic nostalgia for the Shah's era," according to Molavi. "And you see that just about everywhere you go and among all classes from the working classes to the middle classes, the upper middle classes, and you know there is a reason for that. Since the days of the revolution, Iranians earn in real terms one-fourth of what they did before 1979. And everywhere you go people complain about the lack of jobs. They also complain about the low wages, which they say do not correspond to the high cost of living."
Molavi adds that the devaluation of the Iranian currency is another reason for nostalgia, a loss of value that is often used as an indication of the Islamic Republic's mismanagement. Molavi says that young people's discontent with theocratic rule is likely to be tied to the strict social regulations imposed under the Islamic regime.
Behnud says that many people regret the departure of Mohammad Reza Shah. But author Molavi says few Iranians would want a return to monarchy. "They've come to this sort of a unifying idea that the Islamic republic has not served us well, so what we need is a more democratic republic, and I think that the people don't necessarily believe that a monarchy is an answer to all of their ills." (Golnaz Esfandiari)
DESPITE TOUGH TALK, IRAN STILL SEEKS RELATIONS WITH U.S. Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi had a 90-minute meeting with Senator Joseph Biden (Democrat, Delaware) on 23 January during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, IRNA reported the next day. Kharrazi, according to the Iranian Foreign Ministry press bureau, said during the meeting that "the Iranian nation has suffered gravely from the antagonistic steps of the American government and so long as these wrong policies continue, there will be no ground for dialogue." He said that "American statesmen are required first to change their existing approach and prove their good will in order to pave the way for dialogue and diplomatic relations according to mutual respect."
Biden, according to the Iranian Foreign Ministry press bureau, "stressed the importance of Iran and the role that it can play in the sensitive and volatile region," and he also hoped for the removal of factors hindering relations between the two countries.
Kharrazi said in a 27 January press conference that his meeting with Biden was "just a chance encounter," state television reported. "He came up to me and wished to speak to me," Kharrazi explained. "We just talked to him unofficially." Kharrazi expressed his admiration of Biden, saying: "Of course, he is among the critics of the American administration. In view of his vast experience in foreign affairs, he has a more realistic view of this region and Iran.... However, well, [Biden] is not in a position to do anything."
During his 27 January press conference, furthermore, Kharrazi discussed the circumstances under which Tehran would engage in some sort of dialogue with Washington. "We welcome the cooperation of those countries that are ready to cooperate with Iran, keeping in mind bilateral respect and adherence [to] the dignity and independence of our country," he said. "We have no objections if American companies would like to come to Iran and contribute to the development of this country." In discussing the oil and gas sector, Kharrazi said, "American companies...have been deprived of taking part in this active market and they should ask the U.S. government to lift this embargo."
The next day, 28 January, Tehran's United Nations representative, Mohammad Javad Zarif, visited Washington and met with a bipartisan Congressional group. About six members of both houses attended a dinner with Zarif that was hosted by Representative Robert Ney (Republican-Ohio) and Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania), "The Washington Post" reported on 29 January. According to the 30 January "USA Today," the people at that dinner, which took place in a room near the office of House of Representatives Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois), were Specter and Ney, as well as Representatives John Larson (Democrat-Connecticut), Doug Bereuter (R-Nebraska), and Vic Snyder (D-Arkansas). Ney said many more would have attended the dinner as there is "extreme interest on the Hill on both sides of the aisle," "The Washington Post" reported.
"The Washington Post" noted that although this was not an official visit, Zarif did have to obtain State Department permission because Iranian officials' movements are restricted to within 25 miles of New York City. Zarif told reporters before the dinner, "Dialogue on a good number of regional issues would be beneficial for both countries as long as there is an interest in moving forward with an open mind and a new approach." He added, "Iran cannot be excluded from any discussions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran is an important part of the region."
Zarif said in a 29 January telephone interview that Iran is thinking about receiving a U.S. Congressional delegation, "USA Today" reported. Zarif said a date for such an event has not been set yet, but guests at the 28 January dinner with Zarif said dates as early as 11 February were discussed for a preliminary visit by congressional aides. According to "USA Today," a congressional visit is unlikely before Iran's parliamentary elections take place.
A few days later, however, Iranian officials -- Foreign Minister Kharrazi on 1 February and ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi on 31 January -- denied that congressional aides would be visiting Iran soon, according to IRNA.
Other Iranian officials are taking a more doctrinaire approach to relations with the U.S. President Khatami said on 25 January in Tehran that it is up to the United States to improve the situation, IRNA reported. "If we observe a fundamental change in American policies, a new situation will prevail," he told reporters.
Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani told Semnan Province university students and officials on 28 January that the possible resumption of Iran-U.S. relations is remote, IRNA reported. "It is the Americans who should adopt a policy to enable us to resume ties with them," Rohani said, adding, "America is now considered as our enemy which threatens the Islamic Republic of Iran." "Whenever the Islamic Republic of Iran is assured that the U.S. does not pursue a policy of hegemony and plunder and instead favors logical relations to secure mutual interests, Iran can decide on the matter," Rohani said. (Bill Samii)
IRAN INVOLVED WITH ISRAEL-HIZBALLAH PRISONER SWAP. An aircraft bearing an Israeli businessman -- Elhanan Tenenbaum -- who has been held by Lebanese Hizballah since October 2000, as well as the remains of three Israeli soldiers, left for a German airbase in Cologne early on 29 January, as did an Israeli aircraft carrying 27 Arab prisoners. After the Israeli Defense Forces identified the remains of the three soldiers -- Beni Avraham, Adi Avitan, and Umar Suwayd -- Israel began releasing Palestinian prisoners and transferring the remains of Hizballah personnel.
This was effectively a bilateral deal, with Germany mediating between Israel and Hizballah, but Iran was involved, too. The extent of this involvement will probably always remain unclear -- Hizballah's long-standing practice of hostage taking is one of the murkier aspects of modern Mideast politics. It is noteworthy that an Iranian parliamentary delegation arrived in Beirut on 28 January to participate in ceremonies honoring the Lebanese returnees.
Tehran representative Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Mohtashami-Pur, one of Hizballah's founders, headed the delegation, which included Tehran's Hojatoleslam Hadi Khamenei, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's brother, and Assadollah Kian-Ersi, a member of the Bakhtiari Islamic Association who represents an Isfahan Province constituency in the national parliament.
Germany and Israel confirmed on 24 January that Hizballah would exchange Tenenbaum and the soldiers' remains for 400 Palestinians and dozens of other Arabs who have been in Israeli detention. Moreover, Israel agreed to provide Hizballah with the remains of 50 combatants, provide information on 24 other combatants, and provide maps of minefields in southern Lebanon, "The Jerusalem Post" reported on 26 January.
Germany's Ernst Urlau, the mediator in this issue, touched on the Iranian aspect of the deal when he said on 24 January that Iran was helpful, Jerusalem's Channel 2 television reported. Urlau said he and the German government would create committees to investigate the cases of Ron Arad -- an Israeli Air Force officer whose aircraft went down over Lebanon in 1986 and who is believed to be in Iran -- and four missing Iranians -- Charge d'Affaires Seyyed Mohsen Musavi, diplomats Ahmad Motevaselian and Taqi Rastegar-Moghaddam, and IRNA photojournalist Kazem Akhavan -- who disappeared in Lebanon in 1982.
The creation of these committees is effectively the second phase of this process. In exchange for information on Arad, more Palestinians and Lebanese would be released, as would Samir al-Kuntar, who headed a Palestinian terrorist squad that killed a number of Israelis in 1979. German sources cited by "Ha'aretz" on 25 January and "The Jerusalem Post" one day later said that the release of an Iranian and two Lebanese imprisoned for murdering Iranian-Kurdish dissidents in Germany in 1992 might be part of this second phase.
Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah confirmed at a 25 January press conference an Iranian role in the prisoner-swap negotiations. "The Iranians did not complicate the process. The Iranian brothers could have said -- as a result of the close relationship they have with us and because there are four missing Iranians in Lebanon -- please brothers, do not proceed without the four Iranians. They did not say this." Al-Manar television reported that Nasrallah went on to say: "On the contrary, they said: Do whatever you see is appropriate, what makes the negotiation process easier, and what secures the release of the largest number of detainees. We have no problem. Our diplomats are like your sons and brothers, and whether you deal with them in the first stage or second stage, we have no problem. So the Iranians were helpful and cooperative."
Nasrallah also insisted that Arad is not in Iran. "The Israelis claim that Ron Arad is in Iran," he said. "I categorically deny this, based on my personal follow-up. Iran also denies this." He added, "I mean, Ron Arad is in Lebanon, and not in Iran or elsewhere."
Adding further detail was a 25 January analysis in "Ha'aretz" that cited anonymous German sources as saying that when the talks were at an impasse in November, Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani "encouraged" Hizballah to conclude the deal.
Top Iranian officials spoke approvingly of the prisoner exchange. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a 30 January letter to Nasrallah that this demonstrated Israel's vulnerability, IRNA and al-Manar television reported. Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi on 26 January hailed the exchange of prisoners as, in the words of state television, "a great victory for the resistance of Lebanese people and government." Kharrazi said he hopes this would determine the fate of the diplomats and ease the suffering of their families.
President Khatami, in a 29 January telephone conversation, congratulated his Lebanese counterpart, Emil Lahud, on the prisoner release, Iranian state radio reported the next day. Lahud thanked Iran for its support and reportedly hoped that the final status of four Iranian diplomats who disappeared in Lebanon in 1982 would become clear.
Mohammad Reza Dehqani, the Iranian charge d'affaires in Beirut, said in the 28 January issue of "Al-Mustaqbal" newspaper that an Iranian delegation will come to Lebanon soon to investigate the matter of the missing Iranian diplomats. "We believe they are still alive," he said. "Those who claim they are dead or martyred have to offer evidence and information to this effect."
Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah spoke about the missing Iranians on 29 January at Beirut's Seyyed Al-Shuhada Complex during a ceremony for the returnees, Al-Manar television reported. He reminded the families of the missing Iranian diplomats that they are a "Lebanese responsibility, because they were Lebanon's guests on its soil. They were abducted in Lebanon by Lebanese groups," he added, before shifting the blame to Israel. "These groups have turned them over to the Israeli enemy and Israel is responsible for revealing the fate of the four Iranian diplomats." (Bill Samii)
TEHRAN BANS ASIAN BIRDS IN FACE OF FLU. The Iran Veterinary Organization (IVO; http://www.ivo.org.ir/) on 27 January urged the country's chicken farmers not to import any poultry from countries affected by a lethal strain of the avian flu, IRNA reported. The IVO also said that neither returning Iranians nor visitors should import any birds, and it urged travelers to countries hit by the avian flu not to visit locations where birds are kept.
The flu strain -- H5N1 -- has been detected in Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam, and weaker strains have appeared in Laos, Pakistan, and Taiwan, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
On 28 January, WHO urged these countries to aggressively cull poultry to prevent the spread of the disease to humans, "The Financial Times" reported on 29 January. WHO official Shigeru Omi said culling is the only way to eliminate this virus, to which humans have no known immunity. (Bill Samii)