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Iran Report: May 26, 2003

26 May 2003, Volume 6, Number 22

TEHRAN CALLS FOR ANTI-U.S. UNITY. Amidst almost daily accusations from Washington that Iran is harboring Al-Qaeda leaders and seeking a nuclear weapons capability, Iranian officials and politicians are increasingly wary of any appearance of favoring detente with the United States.

At Tehran Friday prayers on 23 May, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi called on Iran's factional leaders to lay aside their differences and unite against "foreign threats," IRNA reported. In thinly veiled criticism of Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, who reportedly told European journalists that Iran would like to have relations with all countries (including the United States), Yazdi said that "supporters of the detente policy" need to get their positions straight in order to "preserve calm" in the country.

More to the point, Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) commander Brigadier General Yahya Rahim-Safavi the same day warned against the "suspicious acts and behaviors" of pro-U.S. people in Iran, IRNA reported. He did not identify who they are, but said, "some of these people may be working in government organizations." Safavi echoed remarks made on 22 May by the IRGC's deputy chief, Brigadier General Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr, who warned that America aimed to bring down Iran both militarily and by undermining it from the inside. As reported by IRNA, Zolqadr said that America is carrying out a propaganda campaign aimed at undermining national unity by "provoking chaos and political differences" as well as by depicting Iran's "system and state apparatus as inefficient."

Probably reflecting sensitivity among some Iranian politicians toward any appearance of benefiting from U.S. goodwill, parliamentarian Mohsen Tarkashvand, a member of the parliament's National Security and Foreign Affairs Committee, said that proposed legislation by U.S. Senator Sam Brownback (Republican, Kansas) that would allocate funds to aid the establishment of democracy in Iran is "tantamount to interfering in Iranian affairs," ISNA reported on 23 May. He characterized America as pursuing its own interests rather than sincerely trying to promote democracy.

But not all parliamentarians are so wary of America. One deputy, Mohammad Ali Kuzegar, directed a letter to President Mohammad Khatami and the vice president for parliamentary affairs declaring, "the Iranian nation's message of peace to the American nation and its parliament," the Tehran daily "E'temad" reported on 21 May. Complaining that unnamed officials were meeting secretly with Americans, he demanded transparency in any negotiations. He asked if there was any legal basis for banning Iranian parliamentarians from meeting and holding talks with U.S. congressmen. So far he has not received a response. (Steve Fairbanks)

IRAN RESPONDS TO U.S. ON AL-QAEDA. Iranian officials are rejecting strongly Washington's accusations that Tehran harbors and supports Al-Qaeda terrorists, claiming that Tehran's policy is to crack down on members of the group. President Khatami's aide Saeed Pourazizi told AP on 22 May that Al-Qaeda is a terrorist group that threatens Iran's interests and "contradicts the Islamic democracy that Iran is trying to promote." Mustafa Tajzadeh, a former deputy interior minister and leader of the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front, said the presence of Al-Qaeda leaders in Iran would only "give the U.S. a perfect excuse to pressure Iran, something Iran is very careful to avoid," AP reported.

Intelligence and Security Minister Ali Yunesi on 23 May said the U.S. accusations were only intended for U.S. domestic consumption, IRNA reported. He said Afghanistan is under the "total control" of the United States, with Pakistan's help, so if it is true that Al-Qaeda members escaped into Iran the United States "must not blame others for its [own] intelligence weakness." Their presence in Iran, Yunesi asserted, would no more mean that Iran cooperates with them than Washington supports Al-Qaeda members currently in the United States.

Some of the strongest U.S. criticisms of Iran concerning Al-Qaeda were offered by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. At a joint news conference at the Pentagon on 21 May with Crown Prince Salman bin Hammad al-Khalifah of Bahrain, he said Iran harbors senior Al-Qaeda terrorists who are "busy" plotting attacks, international news agencies reported. Senator Sam Brownback (Republican, Kansas) said in Congress the same day that Iran's links with Al-Qaeda means that "you cannot and should not negotiate" with Tehran.

As Iranian officials strove to deny Washington's accusations, cabinet spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh on 21 May announced that Iran has so far expelled some 500 Al-Qaeda members, Iranian state radio reported. He said that if any foreign intelligence organization provides information about the presence of any Al-Qaeda elements in Iran, Tehran would expel them. (Steve Fairbanks)

TEHRAN DEMANDS THAT U.S. EXTRADITE MKO BOMBER. Iranian officials continue to complain that what they view as leniency by U.S. forces toward the armed, Iraq-based Iranian opposition Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO) shows that Washington is not serious about terrorism. Intelligence and Security Minister Ali Yunesi on 23 May demanded that the United States extradite an MKO member who he claims was behind a massive bombing at the shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad that killed nearly a dozen people in June 1994, IRNA reported. "The mastermind behind the crime at the pure shrine of Imam Reza is at America's disposal," he said, apparently meaning that the U.S. could punish the alleged terrorist if it chose to. Yunesi did not mention the name of the bomber who has supposedly taken refuge in America. (Steve Fairbanks)

FOREIGN MINISTER, INITIALLY UPBEAT, COOLS ON CONTACTS WITH U.S. Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi on 20 May told the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Affairs Committee that messages exchanged between Iran and the United States over an unspecified time period "have not only been fruitful and positive, but contributed to eliminating any skepticism," IRNA reported, citing the committee's rapporteur, Elaheh Kulyai. He said that since relations between the two countries were severed in 1980, Iran and the United States have been exchanging messages on issues of mutual concern via their interest sections in the Swiss and Algerian embassies, and he referred to more recent mutual contacts in Geneva on Afghanistan and at another, unidentified location on issues relating to Iraq.

Kharrazi's generally positive remarks may have exacerbated the discomfort of hard-liners with his handling of foreign affairs. That may explain why during a 22-23 May international conference in Paris on the narcotics trade, Kharrazi turned against a continuation of talks with U.S. officials. Upon returning to Tehran, he told reporters that "contacts and talks with America do not have any kind of benefit for our country," IRNA reported on 24 May. (Steve Fairbanks)

G-8 FOREIGN MINISTERS CONCERNED OVER IRAN'S NUCLEAR PROGRAM. In a statement issued at the end of their two-day meeting in Paris to discuss international security issues, the Group of Eight (G-8) foreign ministers on 23 May described Iran's nuclear program as "a cause of concern," international wire services reported. The ministers said that Iran needs to allay their questions and build confidence "by signing and implementing an additional protocol with the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] and by acceding to the international instruments to which it has not yet adhered," Tokyo Kyodo World Service reported on 23 May. The ministers also called on Iran to "pursue its efforts on the path of reforms" and to uphold its commitment to the fight against terrorism. (Steve Fairbanks)

RUSSIAN MINISTER SAYS NUCLEAR COOPERATION WITH IRAN TO CONTINUE. Russian Atomic Energy Minister Aleksandr Rumyantsev said on 19 May that Russia has no plans to freeze its nuclear-energy cooperation with Iran, Interfax reported. He said it is "irrelevant" to talk about freezing such cooperation with Iran because "Iran has not violated any international agreements in this sphere so far."

Following U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's 14 May talks in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin on issues that included Iran-Russia nuclear cooperation, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Georgii Mamedov on 15 May called for Iran to sign an additional protocol placing all nuclear facilities under the control of the IAEA. That led Western media to speculate that Moscow now shares Washington's suspicions about Iran's desires to develop nuclear weapons. However, Mamedov did not back the U.S. position nor did he indicate Russian cooperation would lessen. Mamedov said that "the Russian side has no reason to say that the Iranians are not acting transparently," according to Interfax on 15 May. (Steve Fairbanks)

EXPEDIENCY COUNCIL CHAIRMAN SAYS IRAN WILL DEVELOP FULL NUCLEAR-FUEL CYCLE. Expediency Council Chairman and former President Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani accused the U.S. government of double standards regarding Iran's nuclear industry, IRNA reported on 19 May. He said that during Shah Mohammad Pahlavi's reign (1941-79) the United States advised Iran to generate 20,000 megawatts of electricity and "presented large plans for building power plants." Rafsanjani asked why the United States recommended that Iran construct nuclear-power plants at a time when it was producing 6 million barrels of oil per day, whereas now, when Iran produces only 3.5 million barrels, Washington says Iran does not need such plants. Rafsanjani stressed that Iran will stick to its "strategic policy to make optimal use of [the] nuclear energy cycle" in its Bushehr plant, which is being constructed with Russian help. He said Iran has decided to produce 7,000 megawatts of nuclear power. In what was probably a reference to Iran's reluctance to depend on Russian fuel rods, and the need to return them when spent, Rafsanjani said, "We need fuel for our plants and for that matter a fuel cycle which we have to develop independently." He appeared to be justifying a need for the extensive centrifuge uranium-enrichment facilities in Natanz and a suspected heavy-water plant in Arak. (Steve Fairbanks)

IRAN SIGNS DRILLING CONTRACT WITH JAPANESE COMPANY FOR SOUTH PARS GAS FIELD... The National Iranian Oil Company on 17 May signed a five-year contract, valued at $182 million, with the Japan Drilling Corporation to drill in the South Pars gas field, IRNA reported. The South Pars field stretches over some 10,000 square kilometers in the Persian Gulf, of which 3,700 square kilometers is in Iranian territorial waters. The remaining area belongs to Qatar. Development of South Pars is expected to be completed in 28 phases, with the first going on-stream in September. (Steve Fairbanks)

...AND INKS AGREEMENT ON SOUTH PARS REFINERY. Iran signed an agreement on 17 May with a foreign consortium for the construction of an onshore refinery relating to the sixth, seventh, and eighth development phases of the South Pars gas field, IRNA reported. The contract is valued at $1.27 billion. Japan's Toyo Engineering Corporation and Iran's Industrial Development and Renovation Organization will each have a 28 percent stake in the refinery project, while the Japan Gasoline Company and South Korea's Dailem will each have 22 percent. (Steve Fairbanks)

SUBDUED SECOND OF KHORDAD ANNIVERSARY. In a statement marking the 23 May anniversary of his 1997 landslide election as president -- known as the Second of Khordad, after the Persian calendar date -- President Khatami played down connections of the anniversary to the reformist camp that supports him. "The Second of Khordad belongs to all Iranians and not to special groups or individuals," he said in his message, as reported by IRNA. In his message he appeared to further water down what had been the key annual event for the reformists, known as the Second of Khordad movement, when he congratulated Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Iranian people on the liberation of Khorramshahr, the southern Iranian city from which Iraqi forces were driven on 24 May 1982. Conservative leaders such as Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, in his Tehran Friday sermon on 23 May, commemorated the Khorramshahr anniversary and ignored altogether the Second of Khordad.

It was a gloomy week for Khatami and the reformists. In a delayed reaction perhaps postponed because of his 12-17 May trip to Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain, the president lashed out against the Guardians Council for its 9 May rejection of legislation meant to enhance the president's powers. Khatami described the council's actions as "unacceptable" and said he believed that "without the bill, the president is not that much effective in office," IRNA reported on 21 May. Repeated threats by reformist parliamentarians to quit over the issue also seem to have had no effect.

Yazdi, in his 23 May Friday sermon, appeared to have the final word, IRNA reported. "Listen, the Guardian Council is engaged in a legal procedure," he said. "The Guardian Council has not, does not, and will not want to fight anyone. The council simply states that a certain action, a certain wording is contrary to the constitution or the Islamic canons." (Steve Fairbanks)

STUDENT FACTIONS CLASH. At Hamedan's Bu Ali Sina University, some 60 Basij members staged a sit-in to protest "the laxness of university officials in dealing with lawbreakers" that forced the deputy chancellor to resign, according to the hard-line daily "Jomhuri-yi Eslami," as cited by Tehran's "Iran News" on 20 May. The Basijis had been angered by a mock referendum on the constitution that had been organized by the reformist Office for Fostering Unity. Tehran's "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 18 May that the controversial referendum, which took place the day before, asked participants if they preferred the current constitution of the Islamic Republic as amended in 1989, the 1979 constitution as approved that year by the Assembly of Experts, or the 1979 draft constitution prepared by the revolutionary council before being changed by the Assembly of Experts.

The reformist Tehran daily "Nasim-i Saba" reported on 20 May, citing the Baztab website, that members of the Student Basij had recently refused to let the chancellor of Allameh Tabatabai University, Dr. Najafqoli Habibi, leave his office, reportedly to protest his granting permission to reformist students of the Allameh faction of the Office for Fostering Unity to hold a meeting on campus. A commentary in the reformist daily "Towse'eh" on 20 May saw the Student Basij's actions as symptomatic of the methods of the hard-line conservatives that currently dominate Iranian politics. "Apparently," the commentary stated, "a large section of the faction in power does not have the capability of absorbing an independent, democratic faction that is critical of its actions." Neither paramilitary forces nor "rigged-up" student groups (referring to the Student Basij) will ever be able to deprive the student movement of "its inspirational, freedom-seeking, neo-intellectual structure," "Towse'eh" wrote. (Steve Fairbanks)

AGHAJARI TRANSFERRED FROM HAMEDAN TO TEHRAN PRISON. Professor Hashem Aghajari, whose death sentence last year for alleged apostasy sparked widespread campus unrest in Iran, refused to attend the first day of his retrial in Hamedan on 17 May, ISNA reported, unless the trial was opened to the public. The judge in the case asserted that an open trial "would offend people's religious sensibilities."

The Hamedan court reduced Aghajari's prison term from eight years to three and ruled he should serve his sentence in Tehran, IRNA reported on 21 May. He was also granted a one-week prison leave on bail. His additional punishment of 74 lashes was reduced to an unspecified fine.

Aghajari is in jail for an August 2002 speech in which he criticized the role of clerics in government and likened adherence to the Shiite principle of emulating religious leaders to the imitative behavior of monkeys. There is no new decision on his death sentence for blasphemy, which Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered to be reviewed. (Steve Fairbanks)

MONEY LAUNDERING SAID TO ACCOUNT FOR 20 PERCENT OF IRANIAN ECONOMY. At an annual meeting in Tehran on monetary and fiscal policies, Hossein Heshmati Moulai, a member of the financial Research Center of the Central Bank of Iran, said on 21 May that domestic money laundering has risen steadily since the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, when it reached 15 percent of Iran's gross domestic product, IRNA reported. He said that underdevelopment of financial institutions, a repeated theme of the conference, allows underground financial activities to flourish. Moulai said that to stop such illegal financial activities the government would have to strengthen the national currency, control inflation, promote the private sector, enact stringent banking regulations, and expand social and job-related insurance. A new government-proposed bill to counter money laundering and to help in the campaign against drug smuggling would require depositors to fill out special forms at Iranian banks in which they would have to specify their source of income for large sums of money. (Steve Fairbanks)

NEW TEHRAN MAYOR SIGNED INTO OFFICE. Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari on 20 May signed into office Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad, who was elected Tehran mayor two weeks earlier by the city council, IRNA reported. The new mayor will have his work cut out for him if he is to avoid the fate of his three predecessors, who were dismissed on charges of graft or for bitter wrangling with the city council. The Tehran daily "Seda-ye Edalat" on 5 May said the new mayor needs to put an end to the municipality's perennial factional conflicts if he wants to tackle the city's many problems, which the paper described as including a deteriorating traffic situation, "moral insecurities," hardware and software shortages, a one-sided, capitalistic economy, and the "absence of an urban administration system." In addition, the municipality's Urban Services Department recently noted the problem of the city's "mega-muck residents," who generate a total of 5.9 million tons of garbage daily, Tehran's "Iran Daily" reported on 20 May. (Steve Fairbanks)

IRAN'S GROWING AIDS PROBLEM. At Iran's first "training workshop" for combating AIDS, Health Ministry official Mohammad Mehdi Guya noted the spread of AIDS in Iran, which he said is because the country "straddles one of the busiest routes for the transit of illicit drugs," IRNA reported on 20 May. Guya blamed Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other regional states for allowing HIV-positive people into Iran. He said that officially Iran has 1,846 patients, though he admitted that "unofficial data" indicate the figure to be more like 22,000 to 23,000. Nearly all get the disease through contaminated needles, whereas only 9 percent of patients in Iran get it through sexual contact, Guya said. Official figures put the number of addicts in Iran who inject drugs at close to 300,000. (Steve Fairbanks)

BRITAIN TO SUPPLY NIGHT-VISION GOGGLES TO IRAN. Britain will provide night-vision equipment to Iran to help border guards combat drug smuggling from Afghanistan, IRNA reported on 20 May. Foreign Office Minister Mike O'Brien told the British Parliament on 19 May that the export is being funded by the UN Drug Control Program and that the British government is "satisfied that these goods would only be used for the end-use stated and there is no risk of these goods being diverted for use by the Iranian military," IRNA reported. (Steve Fairbanks)