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Iran Report: March 11, 2002

11 March 2002, Volume 5, Number 9

THREE WORDS THAT SHOOK IRAN. The initial reaction of the Iranian leadership and people to their country's inclusion in President George W. Bush's "axis of evil" was to express unity and readiness to defend the country -- a reaction that should be expected when the country is commemorating the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. One month later it is clear that the implied threat in fact imposed more pressure on the pre-existing cleavages in the Iranian body politic, and the real lack of unity has been revealed.

President Bush said that Iran, Iraq, and North Korea constituted an axis of evil during his 29 January State of the Union address. Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) commander Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr reacted to this during a 7 February interview with Iranian state television: "If the Americans were to do something insane and attack us, we shall not defend ourselves within our boundaries alone. We have a large and powerful hand that can threaten America's interest anywhere." Zolqadr described the Persian Gulf and added, "this region is within our sight and firing range." This was interpreted as a threat to the Persian Gulf's oil fields, and it did not sit well with Iranian parliamentarians.

In a letter to Minister of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Ali Shamkhani, 20 parliamentary deputies demanded an explanation for Zolqadr's comments. The parliamentarians argued that having individual military officers commenting in this way only caused chaos in Iranian foreign policy, according to the 17 February "Noruz." At their 18 February meeting, Shamkhani told the deputies that the comments attributed to Zolqadr were untrue, Shahrud parliamentarian Kazem Jalali said according to IRNA a day later.

Conservative figures defended Zolqadr and attacked the reformists. "Kayhan" managing editor Hussein Shariatmadari, whose paper is linked with the Supreme Leader's office, editorialized on 16 February that the deputies' protest was "a declaration of weakness and abandonment in the face of the enemy." And an 18 February editorial in "Kayhan" complained that "ignorant individuals -- and maybe some mischievous figures" are using Zolqadr's comments as an excuse that has "divided the officials of the system into two groups, those who favor war and those who desire peace." The editorial said that some local newspapers are encouraging such controversies, and "[t]his is precisely what America desires and what America's domestic agents are trying to bring about."

If the armed forces were meant to take the parliamentarians' letter as a warning, this clearly was not the case. IRGC commander General Yahya Rahim-Safavi said during a 22 February ceremony in Semnan Province that Iran would "sever the hands of any invader," IRNA reported, and he added that "[n]o government is as much terrorist as the American, since it is supporting the biggest terrorist government in the world, that is the usurper regime of Israel."

The Armed Forces general command issued a statement on 23 February that America "has not stopped plotting and committing crimes against the Islamic Republic and it is still pursuing its aggressive designs," IRNA reported. It added that Iran believes it is safeguarding regional peace and it does not intend to start any wars. "However, praise be to God, it is capable of responding to and repelling any foreign threats. It warns the bellicose American administration to refrain from causing tension and generating insecurity in the region." The Armed Forces general command also defended Zolqadr by threatening those who complained about his comments: "To insult a senior armed forces commander and undermine the armed forces when the country faces military threats...may be considered in line with enemy psychological operations and propaganda and liable to prosecution," according to the 24 February "Seda-yi Idalat."

Tension about this issue increased until Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei intervened, at President Mohammad Khatami's urging, and instructed all military commanders against interfering in foreign policy, according to the 1 March "Al-Sharq al-Awsat." The arguments about Zolqadr and the political-military divide were just the tip of the iceberg. The January discovery of a ship -- the "Karine-A" -- transporting Iranian-supplied arms to the Palestinian Authority and accusations that Tehran was sheltering Al-Qaeda and Taliban personnel also contributed to tensions in Iran.

Against this backdrop, government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh was quoted as saying that President Bush was focusing on a "minority group that interferes in foreign policy." This theme was picked up by former parliamentarian Yadollah Islami in the 13 February "Aftab-i Yazd," when he said that there are many factors and institutions influencing the Iranian foreign policy process. He warned against the use of "provocative words," because "America is an enemy with demonic power and with extraordinary economic and military capabilities." Vice President for Parliamentary and Legal Affairs Hojatoleslam Mohammad Abtahi cautioned against any statements that would encourage U.S. antagonism or would provoke a military confrontation, "Azad" reported on 18 February.

On 21 February more than half the parliament demanded an investigation into the "Karine-A" case and into accusations about Al-Qaeda personnel in Iran. Mohsen Armin of the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization accused the hard-liners of trying to use the perceived military threat and the creation of tensions as an excuse for declaring a state of emergency, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 25 February. He questioned how the hard-liners plan to improve the economy, about which they are always complaining, and at the same time they welcome the outbreak of war. Other officials, such as Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Sadr according to IRNA on 26 February, said that moving to a war footing merely conforms with U.S. desires.

Hussein Shariatmadari of "Kayhan" on 27 February registered his disgruntlement with the parliamentarians' call for an investigation. He called on the Judiciary and security forces to find out who was directing this ugly affair from behind the scenes and to expel them from the legislature. And Habibollah Asgaroladi-Mosalman of the hard-line Islamic Coalition Association said that those who fear a state of emergency "see their survival in chaos." He added, "Those who are encouraging despondency and calling on the people to surrender and accept humiliation, are members of the enemy's fifth column and the people will never forget their betrayal."

This is not the first time in which the reformists have warned of hard-line efforts to seize political power -- in April 2000 there were warnings that the IRGC intended to stage a coup (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 24 April 2000). And this is hardly the first instance of factional arguments. What is different now is that the infighting and expressions of anxiety are in direct reaction to an outside influence � President Bush's relegation of Iran to the "axis of evil." (Bill Samii)

RIGHT-WING PRESSURE GROUPS RESURGENT. Several recent events suggest that hard-line pressure groups may become a bigger force in Iranian national politics soon. These groups do not exist as an isolated fringe. Rather, they are linked with powerful individuals and often serve as back-up to the state security forces, so if the hard-line desire for a state of emergency is realized, these pressure groups could play a part in imposing order.

The Society of the Self-Sacrificers of the Islamic Revolution held its first congress on 28 February, according to a report in the 6 March "Jomhuri-yi Islami," and elected the members of its central council. This extreme-right-wing party consists mainly of war veterans. Society official Ali Darabi complained in December 2000 that "[c]ounter-revolutionaries and foreign media" bore a great deal of responsibility for trying to create a political stalemate in Iran.

Hamid Ostad, the head of Mashhad's Ansar-i Hizbullah, explained that his group was so offended by President George W. Bush's comments about Iran that his group decided to use the Internet to register people willing to commit suicide attacks in case Iran is attacked. But the site ( was, according to Ostad in the 4 March "Bonyan," "subjected to an Internet attack by American agents which led to the link with users being severed." He added that the site is being rebuilt. In fact, the site is hosted by a Canadian Internet Service Provider called GT Group Telecom Services Corp, Toronto's "National Post" reported on 28 February.

Some may be surprised that Ostad is out of jail. In summer 2001 Ostad and his group raided Mashhad's Shahid Beheshti Sports Stadium in order to halt a performance by comedian Hamid-Reza Mahisefat (also known as Iran's Mr. Bean) and the Pichak Troupe. The attack resulted in millions of rials in damage and frightened the families in attendance. Ostad was sentenced in early September to five months in jail and 25 lashes, pending an appeal.

It also could be surprising that Ostad is described as the head of Mashhad's Ansar-i Hizbullah, because national Hizbullah leader Hussein Allah-Karam denied giving orders for the attack and denied any affiliation with Ostad. Ostad would later say that his case resulted from Hizbullah infighting, and Allah-Karam is vying with Abdolhamid Mohtasham, managing director of the weekly "Yalisarat al-Hussein," for control of the organization (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 17 September 2001).

Supporting Ostad's assertions about Hizbullah infighting, in mid-January the Hizbullah Headquarters of Iran announced that it would reorganize and reactivate, "Jam-i Jam" reported. Mujtaba Bigdeli, the Hizbullah political director, said that shortly after the Iran-Iraq war his organization decided to stop its activities and maintain silence because people wanted to use it as a "political gladiator." Bigdeli said his organization is not associated with the Ansar-i Hizbullah.

And regardless of court verdicts, in December Hizbullah hooligans blocked another performance by Mr. Bean at Mashhad's Bahman cinema. "Khorasan" reported that the show was sold out, but because of the Hizbullah protest it was cancelled. (Bill Samii)

PARLIAMENT APPROVES ANTI-TORTURE LEGISLATION. "All forms of torture for the purpose of extracting confessions or acquiring information are forbidden," according to Article 38 of the Iranian Constitution. In an open session on 5 March, the parliament discussed and approved a bill for enforcing this article of the constitution. An Iranian human rights activist warned that although the legislation could help detainees, it contains some flaws.

"Noruz" reported on 6 March that the bill includes 13 articles on how to deal with prisoners, and it calls for the creation of a council -- with three representatives from the Judiciary, three from the parliament, and three from the executive branch -- to oversee the treatment of prisoners. Paris-based human rights activist Abdolkarim Lahiji told RFE/RL's Persian Service that the law's definition of a "prisoner" does not include those who are kidnapped and interrogated for months without a court order. He added that the councils specified in the bill for reviewing the prisoners' treatment require the Judiciary's cooperation, and this has not been forthcoming in the past.

Sleep deprivation, psychological pressure, and denial of medical services are identified as forms of torture and are therefore prohibited, according to "Noruz." In a detailed letter addressed to the nation, nine members of the nationalist-religious coalition who currently are on trial claimed that they were quoted out of context to prove charges of insulting religion. Former Tehran University president Mohammad Maleki, who is out on bail, told RFE/RL's Persian Service that they issued the letter because the revolutionary court refused their requests for public trials. Maleki added that the defendants faced solitary confinement, nighttime interrogations, and drug-induced confessions, which also are banned in the new legislation.

Several of the accused in this case -- such as Mohammad Naimpur, Mohammad Tavassoli, Khosrow Mansurian, Abolfazl Bazargan, and Hashem Sabaghian -- have been released lately, but they are not allowed to speak to the press until a final verdict is handed down. But others have been imprisoned recently. A Hamedan court in early January sentenced local national-religious activist Hadi Ehtezazi to 91 days in prison. He was tried for making a speech that condemned the jailing of Hamedan parliamentarian Hussein Loqmanian. Ehtezazi was previously sentenced to a six-month suspended sentence for his comments during a ceremony commemorating the death of Freedom Movement leader Mehdi Bazargan. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN REJECTS U.S. HUMAN RIGHTS REPORT. Tehran has reacted to the U.S. State Department's annual report on human rights in Iran by ignoring the specific points contained in the report itself and by launching counter-accusations. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on 6 March that the report was "a set of repetitive, baseless, and biased accusations." Assefi said that America is not qualified to judge human rights issues and it should answer for the "unfavorable condition of colored races and regular scrutiny and discriminations as well as violations of civil rights."

State radio in a 5 March commentary said that the "American authorities" could not expect the rest of the world to take the report seriously. The commentary said that "the government of [George W.] Bush has been identified as the top violator of human rights," and the administration has "violated the rights of minorities and in particular the Muslim minority who have migrated to America." The commentary also said that the U.S. has been expelled from "membership of the international human rights organization because of its repeated violation of human rights." Under these circumstances, the commentary asked rhetorically, "How can...America allow itself to express an opinion over the issue of human rights in other countries?"

"Tehran Times," an English-language daily owned by the official Islamic Propagation Organization, criticized the human rights report on 6 March. It referred to "baseless charges," "unfounded allegations," and "baseless accusations." The "Tehran Times" commentary also accused the White House of "condoning the most atrocious human rights violations," mentioned the "ugliest U.S. prisons," and referred to "mistreatment of ethnic minorities by the U.S. police [which] has led to massive riots." The daily concluded that U.S. advocacy of human rights is "just empty rhetoric."

Released by the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, the "Country Report on Human Rights Practices -- 2001" for Iran can be found at "The [Iranian] government's human rights record remained poor," the report states, and it describes significant restrictions in citizens' right to change their government. The report also mentions summary executions, disappearances, torture, stoning and flogging, harsh prison conditions, arbitrary arrest and detention, and prolonged and incommunicado detention. Citizens often do not receive due process or fair trials, and the government restricts freedom of religion, especially for Bahais and Jews. (Bill Samii)

UN HUMAN RIGHTS REPORT BEFUDDLES JUDICIARY CHIEF. Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi on 7 March was incredulous about UN special rapporteur Maurice Copithorne's view on the human rights situation in Iran, according to state television. Copithorne on 1 March had decried the rise in floggings and executions in Iran, and he said that the typical flogging consisted of 70-80 lashes administered in public. Copithorne noted that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urged an end to floggings, "a punishment generally recognized to be cruel, inhuman, or degrading." Copithorne also criticized the detention of journalists and the banning of publications. Hashemi-Shahrudi said that "[w]e are really surprised" by this report, because Tehran had provided Copithorne with documentation. Hashemi-Shahrudi explained it by saying that there is a difference in the definition of human rights: "They consider many things as human rights, while Islam does not consider them as human rights. And, conversely, there are things that Islam considers as human rights, but they trample on and disregard." Hashemi-Shahrudi also said that some punishments that "they" see as contrary to human rights are not seen the same way in Iran. (Bill Samii)

TEXTILE WORKERS GO ON STRIKE. A widow with one child who has been employed by Karaj's Jahan textile factory for 18 years told RFE/RL's Persian Service on 6 March that her colleagues are on strike because they want four months of back pay. She added that more than 2,000 of the factory's 3,700 workers have been laid off during the last year. Workers at Isfahan's Bafnaz textile factory staged a protest outside the factory gates because they had not been paid for five months, ISNA reported on 8 February. Workers at textile factories 1, 2, and 3 in Kashan held a sit-in opposite the governor's office to protest not getting their wages since September, ISNA reported on 7 January. October 2001 demonstrations by unpaid textile workers in Isfahan turned violent, according to IRNA. In previous years, textile workers have held protests in Mazandaran. And "Afarinesh" reported in March 2001 that the textile factory in Rey had been sitting idle for several months, and its 1,600 workers may soon lose their jobs.

These textile factories currently belong to the Foundation for the Oppressed and Disabled (Bonyad-i Mostazafan va Janbazan), or they were recently privatized. One of the striking workers told RFE/RL's Persian Service that the foundation is intentionally bankrupting the factories. Karaj-based journalist Arash Arayafar told RFE/RL's Persian Service that Jahan and other textile factories suffer from outdated machinery, low-quality products, and high costs. The management changes frequently, and the workers strike often. (Bill Samii)

FEMALE PROGRESS NOTED ON WOMEN'S DAY. International Women's Day was commemorated on 8 March, and in the weeks beforehand Iranian and foreign commentators discussed changes in female employment, related legislation, and the political impact of how women dress.

Women's participation in economic activities has increased from 9.1 percent to 11.6 percent in recent years, and the proportion of women in the total number of employees increased from 11 percent in 1999 to 17.6 percent in 2000, Iran's presidential adviser for women's affairs Zahra Shojai said at a 25 February conference in Tehran. She suggested changes in the law so women would have a better chance to become economically active, according to IRNA. Six days earlier, Shojai said that the unemployment rate for Iranian women is 18.3 percent, IRNA reported. She went on to say that 88 percent of Iranian women are not active in the national economy.

Iranian women's employment is at a level lower than the global standard, Secretary of the Women's Rehabilitation Conference Tahereh Seyyed Shakeri said according to IRNA on 16 February, and an effort is being made to improve that situation. Five employment funds are to be established in order to aid women who support their families and in order to improve their working conditions. Similar funds were established last year in Bushehr, Gulistan, Kurdistan, Sistan va Baluchistan, and Tehran provinces.

Presidential adviser for women's affairs Shojai said on 4 February that women's nongovernmental organizations are a great asset to Iran's post-revolution Islamic system, according to IRNA. Another participant in this meeting of women's NGOs said that such a gathering could help create jobs for deprived and unskilled women. And a third participant recommended that the NGOs start their activities in rural areas.

Meanwhile, Homayra Rigi was appointed as the first female district governor of Chahbahar by the governor of Sistan va Baluchistan Province, "Tehran Times" reported on 7 March. A woman was appointed as the deputy for planning and human resources in the Ministry of Education and Training, IRNA reported on 17 December. Effat Abbasi must raise the skill level of the ministry's managers, teachers, and administrators, and she must make plans to further their professional development through both short-term and long-term training courses.

A plan to establish a Family, Women, and Youth Committee was submitted to the parliamentary presidium during the 27 February session. Isfahan parliamentarian Akram Mosavari-Manesh, who head's the Women's faction in the parliament, said that this committee should include subcommittees that work on different social, cultural, and economic areas and they should be active in planning and lawmaking. Currently, she said, the Cultural Committee and the Women and Family Committee deal with such legislation, but despite their efforts women's needs are not met.

Mosavari-Manesh told a women's gathering in Hamedan Province that the majority of social problems stem from a lack of respect for women and girls, IRNA reported on 10 February. Mosavari-Manesh added, "Our women should be encouraged to actively participate in various activities including political, social, cultural economical, similar to women living at the climax of Islamic era." She went on to say that before the revolution, Iranians were made to believe that women had no role in running the country, but "with the victory of the Islamic Revolution, women were given their denied rights." Mosavari-Manesh made a similar point in a 15 January meeting with Hans Ulrich Klose, the visiting chairman of the German parliamentary Commission on Foreign Affairs.

UCLA's professor Nikki Keddie notes in a 17 February op-ed in the "Los Angeles Times" that the expansion of women's roles is one of a number of "hopeful long-term developments" in Iran. Women's legal rights that were nullified by Father of the Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini have been restored, she writes, and "[c]onservative curbs on dress and behavior are routinely flaunted with impunity." A February article in "The New Yorker" by Joe Klein also notes the subtle change in the way Iranian women wear their headscarves, and it says that the placement of the scarf is a "political or social statement."

Much more remains to be done. According to the most recent annual U.S. State Department report on human rights in Iran, the authorities "harass women if their dress or behavior is considered inappropriate," and women could be flogged or imprisoned for such violations. (Bill Samii)

ARMY AND CLERICS WARNED OF U.S. HOSTILITY. Armed Forces Judicial Organization head Hojatoleslam Mohammad Niazi said on 7 March that the U.S. is trying to destroy Iran's culture because it feels threatened by the Islamic system, according to state radio. He went on to tell ground forces commanders that the U.S. is falsely portraying itself as nonthreatening, and it is trying to weaken the armed forces by fanning differences. This is because "[w]henever the country has been faced with a crisis, the armed forces have countered it with all their might, and that is why the enemy is always in pursuit of inflicting a blow on these forces." On the same day, Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani told a gathering of clerics at Qom's Fayzieh seminary that the U.S. will plot against Iran's Islamic system, according to state television, because Iran's Islamic Revolution "destroyed" America's regional achievements. (Bill Samii)

SHIP SEARCH ANGERS TEHRAN. The Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned the Swiss ambassador to protest the U.S. interception and search of a ship believed to be smuggling Iraqi oil products, IRNA reported on 6 March. The Swiss Embassy serves as the U.S. interests section in Tehran, since Tehran will not allow a U.S. diplomatic presence in the country. Tehran protested against the 3 March interception of the "Sandy," which is leased by the government of Iran, saying that this act was in contravention of international regulations and principles of free shipping. U.S. ships stopped two Iranian vessels during the previous week, IRNA reported on 5 March. As for the "Sandy," this is the third time it has been stopped in the last three months, "Resalat" reported on 5 March. When it was stopped on 18 December, Pakdasht representative Mohammad Qomi said this proved that "America is the mother of all corruption and it cannot be reformed ('omm al-fesad ast va adam shodani nist')," "Resalat" reported. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN LOOKS INTO SAUDI PEACE PLAN. It is very likely that Tehran will make a serious effort to influence discussions at a late-March summit of Arab states in Beirut about a recent Saudi proposal for resolving the conflict between Israel and the Arab states. The first step will be for Tehran to learn about the plan, and then it must shape its policy partly in reaction to domestic pressures.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Sadr arrived in Jeddah on 6 March on what could be a mission to learn more details about Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz's "peace plan." So far, however, there do not seem to be any real details, other than the crown prince's suggestion that the Arab states would normalize relations with Israel in exchange for a full withdrawal from all occupied territories including Jerusalem, in accord with UN resolutions.

Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said on 6 March that Tehran would welcome any plan that accounts for the return of Palestinian refugees and the full liberation of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Syria's President Bashar Assad expressed similar sentiments when he was in Beirut, the "Daily Star" reported on 4 March, and Kharrazi made his comments at a joint press conference with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara. Kharrazi appeared to throw some cold water on the peace proposal when he said that he was sure Israel would not fulfill the plan's requirements.

Two groups that are associated with Tehran have denounced the Saudi proposal already. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad announced its "total rejection" of the plan, London's Qods Press reported on 3 March. It urged the Palestinian Authority to halt its meetings with Israel, release all the political detainees in its jails, hand out weapons, and begin a resistance. Hamas spokesman Mahmud al-Zahhar also called for arming the resistance, Radio Monte Carlo reported on 2 March. He said the Saudi initiative was dangerous because "Palestine is an Islamic trust" and there can be no compromise over it. It also is dangerous because it "offers normalization of ties with Israel in exchange for the so-called Israeli withdrawal."

Iranian media were divided on the Saudi proposal. State radio said on 4 March that the Israeli rejection of the proposal showed that "one cannot reach an agreement with the Zionist regime through talks and negotiations." It called for return of the refugees, liberation of occupied territories, and official recognition of Palestine. The hard-line "Resalat" daily said on 2 March that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is using the plan to save his political future.

The reformist "Noruz" daily said on 2 March that those who emphasize only the negative aspects of the Saudi plan are trying to ruin Tehran-Riyadh relations under the guise of protecting the Palestinian people. And it is those people, according to "Noruz," who must decide what is really good for them. "Bonyan" on 6 March referred to the proposal as an "opportunity," because backing it would improve the relationship between Iran, its neighbors, and Europe, and it would eliminate a pretext for the presence of U.S. forces in the region. The 6 March "Aftab-i Yazd" said that the Saudi proposal undermined the atmosphere which permitted a hardening of Israel's stance. "Aftab-i Yazd" warned, "We should not let this important opportunity [slip away] through irresponsible remarks and inflexible and rigid persistence," and it warned, "If Iran becomes the solo player of this very important historical era, it is not certain if the future will be to our benefit." (Bill Samii)

KHATAMI HEADING TO AUSTRIA. Iranian President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami is scheduled to visit Austria from 11 to 13 March. Meanwhile, on 6 March Vienna suspended the Schengen agreements for visa-free travel so it could prevent exile Iranian oppositionists from entering the country. Germany did the same thing before Khatami's visit in July 2000. Austrian President Thomas Klestil, who visited Iran in 1999, said on 7 March that Khatami's visit would be important in strengthening bilateral ties. Austrian parliamentary leader Heinz Fisher on 27 February also described Khatami's pending visit as very important, according to IRNA. Austrian Defense Ministry official Erich Reiter said that Iran is important because it can have a stabilizing or destabilizing influence in Southwest Asia, the Persian Gulf, and the Transcaucasus, Vienna's "Die Presse" reported on 1 March. Austrian Defense Minister Herbert Scheibner is to visit Iran in the near future. (Bill Samii)

BERLUSCONI VOWS TO BACK KHATAMI. Speaker of Parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi arrived in Rome on 7 February for a three-day visit, and he was scheduled to meet with President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, President of the Chamber of Deputies Pier Ferdinando Casini, and President of the Senate Marcello Pera. Karrubi also visited the Vatican and met Pope John Paul II and Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano. After they met, Berlusconi promised that Italy would support President Mohammad Khatami's reform process, Rome's "La Repubblica" reported on 8 March.

Berlusconi's pledge of support could be related to Italian Minister of Productive Activities Antonio Marzano's late February trip to Tehran. At that time Marzano held an unscheduled meeting with President Khatami, Milan's "Il Sole 24 Ore" reported on 26 February, and the Italian emphasized the importance to his country of relations with Iran and its determination to emphasize this in international fora. The two countries do about $3 billion in trade annually, and Italy was described as an important potential customer for Iranian gas. About 20 major Italian firms are active in Iran, and during the Fifth Tehran-Rome Joint Economic Cooperation Commission meeting in late February, Managing Director of the Italian insurance company Georgia Tellini pledged to consider more credit for Iran, "Tehran Times" reported on 27 February. (Bill Samii)

PARLIAMENT QUESTIONS FOREIGN MINISTRY ON AFGHANISTAN. Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi appeared before the parliament on 5 March to provide further information about the presence of Al-Qaeda and Taliban personnel in Iran and about Tehran's relationship with the Afghan interim administration. Parliamentarian Ali Tajernia later said that, according to Kharrazi, 70 children and 40 women crossed the border, and the rest are "Arab Afghans," and all of them have been repatriated to their home countries in Africa and Europe. Tajernia said that the deputies were not convinced and have demanded additional information from the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, IRNA reported. In what could be a related matter, "Jane's Islamic Affairs Analyst" reported on 1 March that Libya has "spearheaded the repatriation of 'Arab Afghans,'" and it sent a Libyan Air Force plane to Pakistan to fetch 44 Afghan Arabs. The Libyan equivalent of a foreign minister, Secretary of the General People's Committee for Foreign Liaison and International Cooperation Abd Al-Rahman Shalgam, visited Tehran in mid-February (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 18 February 2002). (Bill Samii)

HEKMATYAR'S WHEREABOUTS IN DOUBT. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on 4 March that he has no news on the whereabouts of former Afghan Premier Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who was living in Iran until his late-February expulsion for making incendiary comments about Afghanistan's interim administration. An anonymous Afghan Foreign Ministry official based in the Herat Governorate Office said that Afghanistan's interim administration does not have any information about Hekmatyar's arrival, IRNA reported on 4 March and the "Peshawar Post" reported on 6 March. The official said that no trace of Hekmatyar has been found in Herat or any other part of Afghanistan. Nevertheless, Haroun Amin, the acting Afghan ambassador to Washington, said that Hekmatyar has gone to Herat, "The Washington Times" reported on 5 March, and an anonymous Afghan official said that Tehran pressured Herat Governor Ismail Khan to admit Hekmatyar. An Afghan Embassy official in Tehran, Mohammad Qasem Danesh-Bakhtiyari, said, "We got reports on Tuesday (5 March) that Hekmatyar has been traced in Helmand Province," AP reported on 7 March. (Bill Samii)

REVOLUTIONARY GUARDS DETAINED IN AFGHANISTAN. An anonymous U.S. military official confirmed on 8 March that a group of Iranians was being held and interviewed at Kandahar's airport, "The New York Times" and AP reported. The approximately nine Iranians were seized by Afghans and turned over to American military officials. Afghan royalist Izzatullah Wasafi identified a General Razavi and said there were five other members of the Revolutionary Guards, as well as three Iranian border guards and three Afghan guides. The Iranians were distributing money and weapons to their allies in western Afghanistan, but one of the Afghans they were trying to bribe -- a militia commander in Shindand, Herat Province -- feigned interest and then detained them. The Iranians were deposited in the Kandahar city jail.

Another militia leader, Walid Jan Agha of Farah Province, told AP, "There are some commanders under the governor of Herat who are supported by Iran." Izzatullah Wasafi said he believed the detainees were not the only Iranians recruiting western Afghans to Tehran's banner. "I'm sure there are still others. They will carry on." Tehran's efforts to influence events in other parts of the country have been noted in Mazar-i-Sharif and in Bamiyan. A United Nations official said on 7 March that Iran had been bringing weapons into northern Afghanistan -- Iranian planes carrying both aid supplies and arms had been landing in the Shibarghan airport, which is controlled by General Rashid Dostum. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi rejected these reports as "poisonous propaganda and malicious adventurism," IRNA reported on 10 March. Government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh also rejected the reports, IRNA reported on 10 March, saying that Iran does not have a military presence in Afghanistan and none of those who have been recently arrested in the country are Iranian nationals. Herat Governor Ismail Khan explained the whole affair by saying that Taliban had arrested members of the Hazara Hizb-i Wahdat and then transferred them to the Kandahar jail in an effort to demonstrate their loyalty to the interim administration. (Bill Samii)