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Iran Report: May 27, 2002

27 May 2002, Volume 5, Number 19

GOVERNMENT STRUGGLES AS COUNCIL ELECTIONS APROACH. As Iranian political observers worry about the future of their country's reform movement (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 13, 20 May 2002) and parliamentarians criticize the executive branch, reformist leaders are trying to quell their concerns and hold the coalition together. Some of the jockeying may be connected with the approaching municipal-council elections.

In a 22 May meeting with the coordination council of the groups in the 2nd of Khordad Front (named after the date of Khatami's 1997 election), President Mohammad Khatami stressed the need to concentrate on issues such as "unemployment, corruption, and certain social dysfunctions," state radio reported two days later. He added, "We must not permit such facts to be ignored during political debates and tugs-of-war, even though such things are necessary in their own place." Khatami went on to say: "We must learn that our rivals are not our enemies. We must consider the criticisms of our critics as blessings," and he called on the reformists to practice self-criticism.

In a public speech he made the next day, Khatami struck a different tone. He said that letting people "rule freely on their own fate" would sustain their morale. Khatami added, according to IRNA, "This revolution said that we want an Islamic republic, not an Islamic dictatorship." Khatami also issued a warning: "When all the roads are blocked and the society sees itself under the siege of force and intrigues, it is drawn to use force in order to break the deadlock." When this second speech is contrasted with the one described above, Khatami seems to be trying to reassure the public that he has not wavered from his commitment to the reform movement.

Also on 22 May, Tabriz parliamentarian Ismail Jabarzadeh denied that there are any splits in the 2nd of Khordad Front, "Noruz" reported. Referring specifically to the Executives of Construction Party, whose differences with other reformist groups can be traced back to the 2000 parliamentary election, Jabarzadeh said, "The Executives continue to stand with the 2nd of Khordad Front."

But members of Khatami's cabinet and executive branch are under fire on a range of issues. Mashhad representative Gholamhossein Takaffoli, IRNA reported on 19 May, said, "If the rulers fail to appreciate the value of reforms, which are a golden chance set by the Iranian people before the state officials to streamline the government, there will remain no alternative for the nation except for making a new decision." And Qazvin representative Nasser Qavami said the cabinet needed changes because some of its members were blocking reforms.

Bijar representative Mohammad Mohammadrezai said that government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh, during the latter's governorship of Kurdistan Province, had sold flour that the central government had given to the province, "Resalat" reported on 14 May.

Sanandaj representative Jalal Jalalizadeh said on 26 May that Kurdish deputies in the legislature want to interpellate -- to question formally regarding an official action or policy, which could result in a no-confidence motion -- Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi because not enough Kurds and Sunnis are employed in Iranian embassies, ISNA reported. Jalalizadeh complained that the Foreign Ministry does not implement the president's policies, and he added that the Foreign Ministry must be more decisive and should not allow organizations to interfere in its affairs and duties.

The deputies also want to question Minister of Intelligence and Security Ali Yunesi about the purported kidnapping of Qom seminary student Mohammad Nazemzadeh, "Noruz" reported on 26 May. Nazemzadeh claimed in January that he was kidnapped and forced to admit to being Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri's liaison with Israeli radio and the BBC (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 4 February 2002).

Tabriz representative Akbar Alami complained that Housing and Urban Development Minister Ali Abdol-Alizadeh had acted in support of land speculators, IRNA reported on 13 May. Earlier in the month, 15 parliamentarians called for Abdol-Alizadeh's interpellation. Parliamentarian Musa Qorbani warned that if the Islamic Iran Participation Party leads the effort to eliminate Abdol-Alizadeh, it would mean that the IIPP is trying to increase its domination over Khatami's cabinet, "Resalat" reported on 21 May. In that case, the rest of the parliament would not support the interpellation effort.

Another issue that the parliament has questioned recently is the government's lack of success in gaining access to Caspian Sea resources, as Iran's northern neighbors make bilateral deals with each other. Earlier in the year, there was criticism, or at least questions were raised, about allegations that Iranian-supplied arms intended for Palestinian militants were seized from a ship called the Karine A. Members of parliament are also voicing differing views about Iranian relations with the U.S. All these issues are not strictly within the purview of the executive branch, but there is dissatisfaction with the end result of the policies and questions about why Khatami's government is not playing a more proactive role.

Amid these signs of fractiousness, Tehran representative Jamileh Kadivar said in the 22 May "Noruz" that the alignment of political forces in the system would not change drastically in the near future. Kadivar explained that the municipal-council elections are approaching (they were held for the first time in February 1999) and that any changes would have an impact on those elections. She said that the reformists and conservatives are trying to attract voters, even those who effectively have been outside the system, such as the Freedom Movement and the national-religious forces. Kadivar reiterated, "there won't be any minor or major changes in the previous general lineup of the reformists or the opponents to the government." (Bill Samii)

KURDS CAUTIOUS ABOUT FOREIGN INTERVENTION. Officials in world capitals are planning for the removal from power of Iraq's President Saddam Hussein, and new plans may see Tehran and Washington on the same side. Some Kurdish groups, however, are reluctant to risk what they the have gained since 1991.

The Group of Four -- which includes the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and the Iraqi National Accord -- has gained prominence in the planning for a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, "The Boston Globe" reported on 21 May. The "emerging American strategy," according to "The Boston Globe," creates distance from the Iraqi National Congress, and the U.S. State Department intends to spend $5 million on this effort.

Meanwhile, the Free Officers Movement and the Revolutionary Struggle Movement (Harakat al-Kifah al-Thawri) have declared a joint alliance so they can combine their efforts to overthrow the Baathist regime in Baghdad, "Al-Zaman" reported on 21 May. In contrast, the Shia Al-Dawa organization has declared its opposition to U.S. plans for Iraq's future, "Al-Sharq Al-Awsat" reported on 20 May: "The party considers Washington's plans an open interference in an issue that does not concern it." Earlier, Al-Dawa said that it would cooperate with the U.S. in overthrowing Saddam (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 4 May 2002).

A role for SCIRI in the new U.S. plan is noteworthy. Washington has been suspicious about SCIRI because of its close relationship with Tehran, and SCIRI has reciprocated that sentiment because the U.S. did not help the 1991 Iraqi Shia uprising that it had encouraged. But SCIRI's Hamid Bayati said, according to "The Boston Globe," "I think the Americans have more positive attitudes toward the Supreme Council." Indeed, a SCIRI official met with American officials in London and will travel to Washington in June for more talks.

Yet the PUK, which is close to Tehran, is cautious about any outside intervention in local affairs. Dr. Barham Salih, who currently heads the PUK-led Kurdistan Regional Government, discussed the possibility of Iranian intervention in Iraq in a series of interviews that appeared in the "Kurdistan Nuwe" newspaper on 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, and 16 May. He said, "We will not commit ourselves to something that does not have a clear scenario or outcome." Salih explained this attitude: "We are concerned about protecting and maintaining the current situation [of Iraqi Kurdish self-rule]. We do not want our people to face a devastation that would lead to us losing what we already have.... Our policy is to observe carefully the situation and the changes in, and stances of, the U.S. policy and the stances of the Iraqi government, and to adopt appropriate programs."

Salih seemed distinctly unenthusiastic about the involvement of regional states in changing the Iraqi regime. He predicted that "the intervention of any regional government in Iraq will lead to civil war." He added, "Intervention by any of these countries [Turkey, Iran, Arab states] will lead to destabilization." Salih said that the PUK has sought to discourage these countries from intervening in Iraqi affairs.

Similarly cautious comments are coming from the KDP. Senior KDP politburo member Jawher Namak said in the 14 May "Financial Times," "The U.S. has promised that our people would not face another catastrophe." Namak continued: "But we do not have complete guarantees. To what extent President [George W.] Bush is serious about the future, I don't know."

Turkey's General Nevzat Bekaroglu recently visited the headquarters of Masud Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party, the "Turkish Daily News" reported on 18 May, and after two days of meetings, Bekaroglu headed for the region controlled by Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. A Kurdish official told the "Turkish Daily News" that this shows that the Turks do not want to be excluded when Saddam Hussein is ousted. (Bill Samii)

ANY QUESTIONS ABOUT U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS? "Those who speak about talks with America, they either do not know the basics of politics or the basics of zeal," Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a 22 May speech to the people of Khorramshahr and the families of martyrs on the eve of the anniversary of the town's liberation in the Iran-Iraq War. "[A]ll of the hard work by America and the other manifestations of global arrogance are aimed at depriving us of our power, resistance, faith, hope, and unity." Khamenei concluded: "Establishing contact and holding talks with someone who clearly says that he wants to act against the Islamic system and particularly against the Iranian nation's will, and allocates budget [resources] for toppling [that system] would be an act of treason. It is both treason and foolishness."

Khamenei's comments may have stemmed from the news that the parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee had met on 21 May to discuss relations between Iran and the U.S. Parliamentarian Ahmad Burqani said that 70 of his colleagues participated in the meeting, as did former Deputy Interior Minister Mustafa Tajzadeh and Kazem Sajjadpur, IRNA reported. Other people who were invited, such as the Judiciary's foreign policy adviser Mohammad Javad Larijani, did not attend the meeting. Shahrud representative Kazem Jalali explained that the meeting's objective was to increase transparency on issues related to Iran's national interests.

One of the meeting's participants, Tehran's Behzad Nabavi, said: "Should the opportunity arise, I shall go to America to shake hands with members of the American Senate and the House of Representatives and I will hold talks with them. Furthermore, for doing so, I do not see the need to ask anybody's permission," according to the 23 May "Kayhan." Nabavi said that "the current circumstances are not conducive to such discussions," "Iran News" reported on 23 May, but strategic relations could be established in "the medium and long term." Tajzadeh also expressed the need for ties with the U.S., according to "Iran News," and he added that "We should set conditions and talk to them."

Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani addressed the issue of talks with the U.S. during the 23 May Friday Prayers sermon. His view is important because, as chairman of the Expediency Council, he is in a position to advise the supreme leader on what policies are in the country's interest. Rafsanjani criticized those who discuss relations with the U.S. In his words, "these gentlemen have raised issues in the country in such a way as if there is a race in Iran over negotiating with America, as if it is a bonus some people want to gain, and they are all lies, deceits, [and] rumors." Deciding on such issues is not up to them, Rafsanjani explained, "It is obvious that the leader of the revolution is in charge the state's policy."

Beforehand, Rafsanjani said that Washington created Al-Qaeda and the Taliban and was using this as a pretext for its actions. He also said that the U.S. had intelligence about what would happen on 11 September but it did not know the destruction would be so extensive: "They thought a few people would get killed and a part of a building would be destroyed and that this would provide a pretext for belligerency."

The next day, the Judiciary weighed in by banning the media from mentioning the prospect of talks with the United States. "Reports and references about opening talks with the United States -- considering the ban on talks by the supreme leader -- is a crime," the Judiciary said in a statement cited by IRNA. Mohammad Reza Khatami, the deputy speaker of parliament criticized this ban on 26 May, ISNA reported. He said, "It is not possible to hide and prevent the spread of the opinion of the experts by the use of threat, pressure, and force." Khatami said that it is the parliament's job to examine foreign and domestic affairs.

Yet there are still doubts about the situation. Tehran representative Fatimeh Haqiqatju said: "Discussions with America must be clear and open. However, some people are pursuing their own interest through secret discussions," "Noruz" reported on 25 May. (Bill Samii)

IRAN TOPS TERRORISM-SPONSOR REPORT. "Iran remained the most active state sponsor of terrorism in 2001," according to the U.S. State Department's annual Patterns of Global Terrorism -- 2001 report, which came out on 21 May, but there is no evidence of "Iranian sponsorship or foreknowledge" of the 11 September attacks in the U.S. Nevertheless, state support or toleration is a "critical foundation for terrorist groups and their operations," and "state sponsors still represent a key impediment to the international campaign against terrorism." According to the report, other state sponsors include Cuba, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria.

Iranian support for groups that use violence against Israel has increased since the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising, according to the report, as has its encouragement of Hizballah and rejectionist Palestinian groups to coordinate their planning and activities. Tehran funds Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement), which is responsible for many attacks against Israelis, including large-scale suicide bombings. Iran provides Hizballah (Party of God, a.k.a. Islamic Jihad, Revolutionary Justice Organization, Organization of the Oppressed on Earth, and Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine) with substantial amounts of financial, training, weapons, explosives, political, diplomatic, and organizational aid. The Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ) gets financial assistance from Iran, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) is "closely tied to both Syria and Iran."

A "hub for Hizballah and HAMAS activities," according to the State Department report, is South America's triborder area, where the borders of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet. Paraguay has arrested individuals suspected of fundraising for Hizballah or HAMAS, and it has raided businesses whose records show the transfer of millions of dollars to Hizballah entities and operatives.

Tehran also supports, or is believed to support, other terrorist organizations. Algiers accuses Iran and Sudan of supporting the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) -- which aims to overthrow the secular Algerian regime and replace it with an Islamic state � and the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC) � which has surpassed the GIA and is perceived as the most effective armed group inside Algeria.

Cairo believes that Tehran, as well as Osama bin Laden and groups of Afghan militants, support the Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya (Islamic Group, IG), which is Egypt's largest militant group. Cairo also claims that Iran supports Al-Jihad (a.k.a. Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Jihad Group, Islamic Jihad), according to the State Department report.

Iran provides the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) with safe havens and modest aid, as do Syria and Iraq, according to the State Department report. Turkish officials charge that Iran provides at least some assistance, including training, to Turkish Hizballah. Turkish Hizballah is a Kurdish Sunni organization that seeks to establish an independent Islamic state in southeastern Turkey.

Iran is also involved with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), according to the State Department report. The IMU includes Islamic militants from Central Asia who oppose Uzbekistan's secular regime, and it operates in Afghanistan, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. "Patrons in the Middle East and Central and South Asia" support the IMU, and its leadership broadcasts statements over Iranian state radio, the report claims.

Placement on the terrorism list means that the U.S. government will impose four sets of sanctions against a country. These sanctions include a ban on arms-related exports and sales, as well as controls over the export of dual-use items ("goods or services that could significantly enhance the terrorist-list country's military capability or ability to support terrorism"). Economic assistance will be prohibited, too. Other restrictions include opposition to loans from the World Bank and other international financial institutions, denial of tax credits to individuals and companies who earn income in listed countries, prohibitions on unlicensed financial transactions with listed governments, and prohibition of Defense Department contracts worth more than $100,000 with companies controlled by listed states. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN REJECTS TERRORIST LABEL. "America, as the main supporter of this regime [Israel] is the main supporter of terrorism in the world," a 22 May Tehran radio commentary said. It urged the White House to revise policies that support Israel, and it said that the U.S. State Department's annual Patterns of Global Terrorism -- 2001 report contains "almost the same repetitious and baseless accusation of the past years." Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said that the statements about Iranian support of terrorism are "baseless and outside the scope of U.S. authority." Assefi said that the charges against Iran reflected U.S. hostility to the Islamic republic and were meant as a whitewash of failures in U.S. foreign policy. Assefi said that Washington has a double standard, IRNA reported on 22 May, and the Palestinians' efforts to liberate the occupied territories reflect a "legitimate resistance." Assefi also said that Iran is a victim of terrorism.

The State Department report notes that Iran is the target of terrorist attacks by the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO). The MKO is also known as the National Liberation Army of Iran (NLA, the militant wing of the MKO), the People's Mujahidin of Iran (PMOI), and the National Council of Resistance (NCR), and it uses front organizations to secure financing. The MKO assisted Baghdad in suppressing Shia and Kurdish uprisings in northern and southern Iraq in 1991, and it continues to perform internal security services for Baghdad. It also is responsible for assassination attempts against Iranian officials. The MKO gets financial support from Baghdad and from private donors. (Bill Samii)

IRAN-KUWAIT RELATIONS EXPAND... Kuwaiti National Assembly speaker Jasem al-Kharafi is to visit Iran on 1 June at the invitation of the Iranian speaker of parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, "Tehran Times" reported on 25 May. Citing Iran-Kuwait Parliamentary Friendship Group chairman Jalal Musavi, who had just returned from Kuwait, the English-language daily reported that Al-Kharafi would meet with his Iranian counterpart, President Mohammad Khatami, and other officials. This visit, coming on the heels of the 19-22 May visit to Kuwait by Iran's Minister of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Admiral Ali Shamkhani, is indicative of the progress made in the two countries' relations since the signing last year of an agreement on crime-related issues (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 25 June 2001).

Prior to leaving for Kuwait, Shamkhani was quoted by a Kuwaiti newspaper as saying that the foreign military presence in the region is a "historical insult," Reuters reported on 20 May. He also accused foreign forces of creating crises. Upon his arrival in Kuwait City, Shamkhani called for greater cooperation between the naval and military forces of Iran and Kuwait, IRNA reported on 20 May. Shamkhani mentioned their mutual defense and security objectives, and he also mentioned the possibility of establishing a "defensive mutual cooperation with Kuwait."

On the second day of his visit, Shamkhani met with Kuwaiti Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, according to IRNA, and he warned that foreign powers are trying to create misunderstandings among the Persian Gulf states. In a 21 May meeting with Kuwaiti Crown Prince and Prime Minister Sheikh Sa'd al-Abdallah al-Salim al-Sabah, Shamkhani called for joint cooperation in the Persian Gulf and Sea of Oman and warned about the creation of "false crises in the region," according to IRNA.

Meanwhile, Iran's regular armed forces staged exercises in the Sea of Oman. Lasting from 19-22 May, the exercises purportedly coincided with the anniversary of the liberation of Khorramshahr from Iraqi occupation in 1982. Paratroopers and scuba divers went through their paces, as did fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft. There were also coastal bombardments and amphibious operations.

Shamkhani also met with the Kuwaiti committee for POW and MIA affairs, Tehran radio reported on 21 May, and he expressed sympathies to the families of prisoners of war and those missing in action. Shamkhani said that he hoped cooperation between Iran and Kuwait would help resolve this issue. Iraq still holds Iranians captured during the two countries 1980-1988 war, and Iraq is also holding Kuwaitis captured in 1990-1991.

As he prepared to leave Kuwait City, Shamkhani repeated his complaints about foreign interference in the region. And after returning to Tehran, Shamkhani said, "The visit and meetings had the positive effect of identifying further areas and capacities for cooperation between Iran and Kuwait," IRNA reported on 22 May.

There are also other aspects to the Iran-Kuwait relationship. In early May 2002, Iranian Minister of Industries and Mines Ishaq Jahangiri came to Kuwait City to discuss a steel-mill project, and in mid-April 2002, President Khatami sent a message to Kuwaiti emir Sheikh Jabir al-Ahmad al-Jabir al-Sabah in which he called for collective action to stop Israeli violence. Iranian guest workers are employed in Kuwait in accordance with an agreement signed in January 2001 (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 29 January 2001), and Iran also has agreed to export water to Kuwait (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 14 May 2001). (Bill Samii)

...AS DO IRAN-OMAN RELATIONS. Ali Khatami, who heads the Iranian Presidential Office, called for the expansion of Oman-Iran relations, according to IRNA on 31 January. In a meeting with the Omani ambassador to Tehran, Abdallah Bin-Salim al-Shanfari, Khatami said he hoped for regional peace and stability while Oman heads the Gulf Cooperation Council. Shanfari called for the promotion of economic ties and increased business exchanges. These wishes appear to be coming true.

Iranian Energy Minister Habibollah Bitaraf was in Muscat on 21 May and met with Omani Deputy Prime Minister Sayyid Fahad Bin-Mahmud Al Bu-Said, according to IRNA. Bitaraf told his host that Iran could build a power plant there. Bitaraf also discussed Iranian cooperation with UNESCO in establishing a regional urban water-management center. One month earlier, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar-Zanganeh was in Oman for a conference on investment opportunities in West Asian oil and gas sectors, IRNA reported. Zanganeh called on Persian Gulf states to cooperate more. And on 22 April, Oman's Oil and Gas Minister Muhammad Bin-Hamad al-Rumhi said that he and Zanganeh had reached an agreement on sharing the Hengam-Bikhs offshore oil field, according to the Omani News Agency. (Bill Samii)

IRAN-UAE ISLANDS DISPUTE ENDING? United Arab Emirates Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Sheikh Hamdan Bin-Zayyid Al Nuhayyan arrived in Tehran on 26 May, having last been there in July 2001. He met with Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi and discussed the expansion of economic and trade cooperation and confidence-building measures, IRNA reported. One of the biggest obstacles in the two countries' relationship is their dispute over the islands of Abu Musa, and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs. Although it seems that this dispute may also be resolved, it will not be easy because it has existed for about 30 years.

Iranian Minister of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Shamkhani said on 22 May that it is possible that Iran and the United Arab Emirates could resolve their dispute over the islands of Abu Musa, and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs, according to Abu Dhabi's WAM news agency. Shamkhani said that his country has not set any limit on its dialogue with the UAE. According to WAM news agency, Iran lauded the UAE's willingness to improve their relationship. Yet just 10 days earlier, Iranian state radio accused the UAE of using "political and propaganda leverage" to get other countries to support its "baseless claim." It added that raising this issue would "only serve Israel's objectives."

In early March, the Arab League indicated its support of the UAE claim to the islands. Hamedan legislator Hamid Reza Haji-Babai, who is a member of the Foreign Relations and National Security Committee, said in the 31 March "Resalat" that Arab League support of the UAE's claim comes at a time when there should be a united stance against Israel, explaining that "They pointed their arrows at a country such as Iran, which stands in the front line of battle against Israel." Robat-Karim representative Hassan Qashqavi voiced a similar concern, and he added, "Iran has repeatedly stated that, in order to remove misunderstandings, it is prepared to hold direct talks with the UAE authorities. Iran rejects any remarks about issues that threatens our country's territorial integrity."

A European Union-Gulf Cooperation Council (EU-GCC) Ministerial Council meeting on 28 February also expressed concern about the UAE-Iran dispute, WAM reported. Their communique noted the improvement of relations with Iran and hoped that it would be possible to address outstanding issues of serious concern.

The GCC on 31 December 2001 called on Tehran to resolve the dispute or accept arbitration by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). "The GCC rejects the continued Iranian occupation of the UAE islands and backs the UAE's full sovereignty over its islands as part and parcel of the UAE," the GCC communique said. Omani Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Yusuf Bin-al-Alawi said on 14 December that improvements in the Tehran-Abu Dhabi relations would not affect the GCC's support for the UAE's claim.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said the next day, according to IRNA, that Tehran rejected the GCC statement. He said the islands are, and will be, "inseparable parts of the Iranian territory forever," and he said that the only solution is direct negotiations. And on the same day, Tehran radio said that the UAE's "baseless claims" overlooked "historical realities." This claim, Tehran radio said, "has its roots in the era of British colonialism, [when] the Iranian central government was weak and thus parts of this land were dominated by colonialists."

Regardless of this long-running dispute, the two countries maintain trade ties. Iran exported a consignment of liquefied gas -- 40,000 tons worth $8 million -- to the UAE, IRNA reported on 29 April. Iran also exports tar to the UAE, IRNA reported on 24 April. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN-BAGHDAD RELATIONS QUESTIONED. During the 26 May session of parliament, the deputy from Ardabil, Pirmoazen, questioned Foreign Minister Kharrazi on relations with Iraq. Pirmoazen asked Kharrazi: "In view of the sensitive and particular situation in the region, what was the reason for a visit by the Iraqi foreign minister [to Tehran] in the second week of last Bahman [late January 2002], two days before the American president termed Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as an 'axis of evil.'" Kharrazi responded that the visit was in exchange for his own earlier visit to Iraq, but Pirmoazen was dissatisfied and forwarded the question to the relevant parliamentary committee, according to state radio.

Six days earlier, Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri said that Iran has reneged on a deal to resume direct flights from Tehran to Baghdad, Reuters reported. Sabri was quoted as saying, "The Iranian side relinquished an agreement to operate four flights a week between the two countries and to open airline offices in Baghdad and Tehran." He continued, "Iraq is awaiting any initiative by Iran to develop relations between the two countries." But when Iraqi Transport Minister Ahmad Morteza Ahmad enthused in January about the original agreement, Iranian Deputy Transport Minister Behzad Mazaheri was relatively restrained, saying that flights would resume "once suitable ground is prepared" (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 28 January 2002). (Bill Samii)

ISAF EXTENDED BUT LIMITED TO KABUL. With Afghanistan's political process entering a crucial phase, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously on 23 May to extend the mandate of the 4,500-member International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in the Kabul region by another six months after its initial term ends on 20 June.

ISAF is served by what diplomats call a "coalition of the willing" -- not UN peacekeepers -- and contributions have come from nearly 20 countries, most of them NATO members. Britain will transfer leadership of the force to fellow NATO member Turkey next month. Turkey's UN Ambassador Mehmet Pamir told the Security Council that his country is committed to helping Afghanistan return to peace and stability. "Turkey, who has had traditionally warm relations with this beleaguered country [Afghanistan] and its people, is happy that this opportunity to contribute distinctly to this evolution towards normalcy will now be carried out," Pamir said.

The council vote to maintain a limited force follows an appeal by UN Undersecretary-General Kieran Prendergast to authorize an expansion of the international force. Prendergast expressed concern about the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, where rival warlords have battled for control, as well as eastern and southern Afghanistan.

Prendergast said the fragile security situation could undermine the process to build a representative, multiethnic government, including next month's Loya Jirga. "We cannot expect a sustained reconstruction process to be launched in Afghanistan without real improvements in security outside Kabul and its environs," Prendergast said.

Pakistan's Deputy UN Ambassador Khalid Masood also urged the council to strengthen the mandate of the international force. He said Pakistan supports efforts to train the fledgling Afghan national army and police but said the process is too slow to address Afghanistan's immediate security needs. "We feel that [the force's] size and scope must be expanded and extended to encompass the entire country, especially its major urban centers," Masood said.

Nevertheless, the 15 council members and many other UN states have shown little interest in contributing to a force that would deploy outside of Kabul. The focus has shifted instead to rebuilding Afghanistan's army, police, and judicial system.

U.S. and British forces have taken the lead in training Afghan national-army members. A first Afghan battalion -- numbering more than 600 members -- is expected to be in place when the Loya Jirga begins next month. France has also announced it will begin to train two Afghan army battalions starting next week. Germany has taken the lead role in reforming and rebuilding the police, and Italy is leading efforts to reconstruct the legal and judicial system. Japan and the United Nations will help in a program to demobilize hundreds of thousands of fighters.

An international pledging conference in Geneva last week agreed to provide enough funds to launch Afghanistan's proposed program to build a national army and air force of nearly 70,000, as well as a border-guard service and police force. Security Council diplomats acknowledge this will take time to carry out, but some expressed confidence yesterday that interim measures will help provide enough stability for the political process to mature.

Meanwhile, about 12,000 U.S.-led coalition troops are searching for remaining Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters. A U.S. representative, Richard Williamson, told the Security Council that those forces will help make sure the Loya Jirga does not take place in a security vacuum. Williamson said coalition forces have provided a stabilizing element in areas outside Kabul and will continue to monitor the security situation throughout the country. Williamson said, "We believe that United States and coalition efforts to address the security imperatives beyond Kabul have been successful to date. We continue to envision potential security concerns outside of Kabul being addressed as necessary by coalition forces in Operation Enduring Freedom."

Despite security concerns, UN officials say they are encouraged by the participation of Afghans in the Loya Jirga process. UN Undersecretary-General Prendergast said that there are continuing concerns about intimidation by local military or political leaders of Afghans involved in the preparatory process for the Loya Jirga. But he said there has been an impressive turnout by Afghans in the holding of district assemblies throughout the country. In some cases, he said, the high level of popular support helped organizers to resist intimidation or corruption in the preliminary voting process.

The assemblies will select "electoral colleges" of between 20 and 60 members that will elect by secret ballot the representatives to the Loya Jirga. Prendergast said UN officials believe the political process so far has shown the capacity for reconciliation and compromise among Afghans. (Robert McMahon)