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Iran Report: February 5, 2007

Pakistani President Seeks Support To Curb Mideast Conflict

By Breffni O'Rourke

Presidents Ahmadinejad (left) and Musharraf (center) in Tehran on February 5

February 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is in Iran today for talks with President Mahmud Ahmedinjad and other Iranian leaders on how to break the cycle of violence in the Middle East region.

The focus is particularly on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but also in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon. Musharraf has been in contact with a series of Muslim countries in recent weeks to gain support for his initiative.

Pakistani Information and Broadcasting Minister Mohammad Ali Durrani told the official IRNA news agency that Musharraf is seeking to build a consensus of Muslim states on how to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict. Musharraf is said to regard that dispute as the "root cause" of extremism and terrorism throughout the entire Mideast.

Musharraf launched his mission in Malaysia on February 1, saying that "things are deteriorating, worsening," according to Reuters. He advocated "trying to convert this downward slide towards upward momentum, towards resolution of disputes."

Why Now?

There has been no word on the details of Musharraf's plan, nor why he is undertaking this mission now.

But senior regional expert for Jane's strategic information services, Rahul Bedi, speculates that Musharraf -- a key ally of Washington -- may be visiting Tehran at the urging of the Americans.

Bedi notes there are reports circulating that Tehran and Washington are engaged in diplomatic contacts behind the scenes, despite the frosty silence between them in public.

"It is quite possible, I can't say definitively, but I think the visit of President Musharraf to Iran may have something to do with the background diplomacy which the United States is trying to implement with the Iranians," Bedi told RFE/RL from New Delhi.

Growing Concern

Bedi's hunch comes at a time when tensions in the region are rising, as the United States begins to move more troops into Iraq and is renewing accusations that Iran is supporting Iraqi insurgents. In reply, Tehran has continued to voice defiance of United Nations' calls for it to halt uranium enrichment. A visit from Musharraf could help hold the lid on.

Alireza Nourizadeh, an analyst at the Center for Iranian and Arab Studies in London, also thinks the visit could have its unstated focus an effort to prevent the tensions between the United States and Iran spilling into open hostilities.

"The Pakistanis are as concerned as the Iranians about peace in the Persian Gulf, they are worried that if there is a [U.S.-led] war on Iran, they too are going to suffer," Nourizadeh says.

This being the case, Nourizadeh says Musharraf may be trying to persuade Iran to give up uranium enrichment. But he sees little likelihood of success in this.

Musharraf's Own Agenda

Analyst Bedi in New Delhi says there are also bilateral issues between Pakistan and Iran that could make Musharraf's visit worthwhile.

"President Musharraf has his own motivations for visiting Iran because there are a lot of probems in Baluchistan, which straddles the territories of Pakistan and Iran," Bedi says. "There is a Baluch population in Iran as well as in Pakistan, and they are in a restive, rebellious mood."

Returning to the broader picture, reports by IRNA and Reuters suggest that Musharraf has been in contact also with the Saudi Arabian and Turkish leaders. While in Southeast Asia last week, Musharraf met the chairman of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who is also Malaysia's prime minister. In Jakarta, he conferred with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Adding a word of caution, Abdullah notes that previous efforts by the OIC, the Nonaligned Movement and the Arab League have failed to cool the conflicts of the Middle East.

U.K. Groups Appeal To Blair To Defuse Tensions

By Golnaz Esfandiari

British Prime Minister Tony Blair (file photo)

February 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A coalition of civil-society groups in the United Kingdom has urged Prime Minister Tony Blair to do all he can to prevent any possible U.S.-led military strike on Iran. The U.K.-based unions, think tanks, and religious groups warn in a report issued today that an attack on Iran could further destabilize Iraq, undermine Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, strengthen Iranian hard-liners, and drive up oil prices.

The report is titled "Time To Talk: The Case For Diplomatic Solutions On Iran." It warns of "unthinkable" regional and international consequences of a strike on Iran. It also calls for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis and "face-to-face talks" between Washington and Tehran, which have not had formal diplomatic relations since the embassy hostage crisis that followed the Iranian revolution in 1979.

The report was issued by 15 British organizations -- including the Foreign Policy Center, the Oxford Research Group, and Oxfam.

“We think that it is important that every effort is made to pursue a diplomatic option because we think that the consequences of military action are just far too serious and would be unthinkable in their extent and damage,” Oxfam’s director for Middle East, Adam Leach, told RFE/RL today.

The plea comes as senior U.S. officials publicly downplay the risk of a military confrontation over Washington's mounting grievances against Tehran.

Washington has assailed Iran over its nuclear activities and alleged Iranian support for insurgents in Iraq. The United States has toughened its language in recent weeks, and it has increased its military presence in the Persian Gulf.

'Highly Dangerous'

Speculation has emerged over possible U.S. or Israeli military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities.

Blair has been among Washington's staunchest allies throughout the nearly five-year conflict in Iraq.

The report says any military action against Iran could be "wholly counterproductive" and "highly dangerous." It also argues that any attack would increase Iran's nuclear determination and lend credibility to Iranian hard-liners. It warns that a conflict would set back hopes for stability in Iraq, hurt counterterrorism efforts, and lead developing countries into greater poverty.

Leach warned of the risk to Iran's civilian population.

"We know from [the experience in] Iraq that it's been much more serious than was ever anticipated, and the numbers of civilians affected is rising with a hundred people estimated dying a day in Iraq," Leach said. "So we don't want that kind of thing to happen again. We know that the sighting of nuclear targets in Iran is very complicated -- they're diverse, they're fortified, and they're hidden. And we fear that [an] attack on Iran would have very serious civilian consequences."

The report echoes concerns expressed recently by some other observers. Three retired U.S. commanders who warned on February 4 in the "Sunday Times" newspaper of the dire consequences that an attack would have on Middle East security and neighboring Iraq.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei warned recently at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that an attack on Iran would be "catastrophic" and would encourage the development of a nuclear bomb.

Talking Diplomacy

U.S. officials have said that -- for now -- they are committed to diplomacy. But they also say that no options have been ruled out concerning Iran.

U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told CNN on January 31 that Washington is on a "diplomatic track" and has no intention of launching military action against Iran.

Inside Iran, there appears to be growing unease.

On February 4, influential former President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani said Washington has planned aggression against Iran and will see how Iranians stand up to it.

Despite the ongoing war of words between Tehran and Washington, the "Time to Talk" report aid agencies and think tanks emphasizes that there is still room for diplomacy.

It says the potentially devastating consequences of military action can only be avoided through direct U.S.-Iranian talks.

The report makes a number of recommendations -- including a compromise on the U.S. demand for Iran's suspension of uranium enrichment as a precondition for negotiations.

It also calls for a further developing a "grand bargain" package of incentives -- expanding on those offered by major world powers in June 2005 -- in return for Iran's suspension of sensitive nuclear activities.

Oxfam's Leach said Britain should push for talks between Iran and the United States.

“We want to see full effort by other governments, including the U.K.’s government, to bring that about," he said. "There are various measures suggested in the report as a way of making it possible for negotiations to begin again.”

Senior Iranian officials have remained defiant amid the sharpened U.S. rhetoric, and said their country will not abandon its right to uranium enrichment.

Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful, but it has done little to appease Western skeptics. In December, the UN Security Council adopted limited sanctions against Iran aimed at curbing its nuclear program.

Today in Tehran, Iranian government spokesman Gholam-Hossein Elham rejected the possibility of concessions to the West and said that such a move would simply lead to "more concessions" in the future.

Iran, he said, has "no other alternative than continuing resistance" to the pressure being exerted by the West.

Legislators Warn That Country Has Exhausted Petrodollars

By Vahid Sepehri

Running on fumes?

February 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian parliamentarians voted recently to allow the government to spend hundreds of millions of dollars from Iran's foreign-exchange reserves -- which hold Iran's surplus cash from sales of petroleum. Critics claim the move essentially bankrupts a fund designed to serve as a savings and emergency account.

The vote on January 24 permits the withdrawal of 637 billion tumans -- or a little under $700 million -- to finance shortfalls in the health and health-education sectors, according to the daily "Etemad-i Melli" on January 25.

Opponents of the motion objected on various grounds -- constitutional, procedural, and financial. The motion was passed as an amendment to the law on Iran's current five-year development plan (2005-10). It is earmarked to plug urgent gaps in the health and medical-education sectors -- including paying overdue wages, inspecting and possibly constructing new hospitals to replace those that are more than 50 years old, and subsidizing treatment for some patients.

Empty Tank?

The fund was created to help cushion Iran's economy from oil-price fluctuations -- and absorb excess oil revenues, "Etemad-i Melli" reported.

One Tehran-based legislator, Gholamreza Mesbahi-Moqaddam, cited a purported Finance Ministry warning that the fund is now empty, "Etemad-i Melli" reported. The lawmaker accused the government of having already taken out twice as much in the current year (the Persian year to March 2007) as it did the preceding year.

There was a contentious debate ahead of the fund transfer's passage. A member of the parliamentary Economy Committee, Elias Naderan, claimed that "the foreign-exchange reserve account has no cash in it to take out."

The lawmaker who heads the parliamentarian research center, Ahmad Tavakkoli, challenged the government to present a formal bill to legislators if it needed funds above those already approved in budget bills, "Etemad-i Melli" reported. He claimed the account held about $400 million and wondered aloud where exactly the parliamentary presidium thought the money would come from.

It was not immediately clear -- except perhaps to accountants -- how the government can spend from a seemingly empty fund.

The daily "Etemad-i Melli" suggested on January 25 that the account is not merely empty -- but vastly overdrawn. It said the nominal reserves of $9 billion appear to fall $3 billion short of the $12 billion that the government has actually spent.

Other Concerns

This dispute arises amid concerns that Iran's oil revenues might not rise in 2007, given the recent easing of crude-oil prices.

President Ahmadinejad presenting his budget to parliament on January 21 (Fars)

Legislator Mohammad Khosh-Chehreh has observed that the government's proposed budget -- for the Persian year from March 21, 2007 -- remains greatly dependent on oil revenues. That represents a departure from the goals of the fourth five-year plan and the "20-Year Outlook," a document that sets out Iran's medium-term development goals, "Etemad-i Melli" reported.

There are conflicting reports of the price per barrel on which the government has based its spending plans for the next budgetary year. The head of international affairs for the National Iranian Oil Company, Hojjatollah Ghanimifard, said recently that the government has proposed a per-barrel assumption of $33.70, ISNA reported on January 27. He added that Iran expects to earn about $60 billion from oil sales in 2007.

But Economy Committee member Naderan has said a close examination shows that government spending plans are based on a $45-a-barrel price, although he conceded that the proposed budget was generally more disciplined than in the past.

These revenue concerns come amid new calls by senior officials -- including Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi -- for an acceleration of stated privatization plans and backing for private-sector activities.

A deputy head of the state Privatization Organization, Ismail Gholami, has suggested that Iran might raise about $7.5 billion in the next year by privatizing large-scale state concerns, including in shipping, and steel and aluminum production, ISNA reported on January 27.

Fajr Film Festival To Screen Documentary On Israeli Photojournalist

"...More Than 1000 Words" follows photojournalist Ziv Koren, who has spent 15 years covering Mideast violence

January 31, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Islamic Republic of Iran has consistently refused to recognize the state of Israel, and mutual antagonism has been rife since the rise of Iran's hard-line president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

Despite those tough official stances, Iran's most ambitious international film festival, the Fajr Film Festival scheduled for February 1-11, will screen a documentary film about an award-winning Israeli photojournalist.

The film is called "...More Than 1000 Words" and has been seen at more than 20 festivals around the world. It chronicles the exploits of Israeli photographer Ziv Koren, who has been at many of those viewings.

But he can't be on hand in Tehran this week because organizers of the Fajr Film Festival have not invited Koren -- whose Israeli passport makes him a persona non grata in the eyes of Iranian officials.

Still, Koren told Radio Farda that he's delighted that the Hebrew-language film, by Israeli director Solo Avital, will make an appearance.

"I wasn't exactly invited to the opening ceremony," Koren said. "I wish I could go. But I must say [that] I'm very happy they're going to show the film in Iran, because, first of all, it's a Hebrew-speaking film. It talks about freedom of speech and freedom of the press. So regardless of the fact that I cannot travel with the film, I'm very happy [about] the fact that it's going to be shown in Iran."

15 Years Of Mideast Conflict

Koren has been covering the deadly Israeli-Palestinian conflict for years. His photographs have appeared on the covers of major Western magazines like "Time" and "Newsweek."

In the film, Koren laments that most people don't want to know about the conflict.

Filmed over a two-year period, "...More Than 1000 Words" follows Koren to the scene of suicide attacks, riots, demonstrations, and Israel's pullout from Gaza in 2005.

MORE: To read Radio Farda's Persian-language report and view a slide show of Ziv Koren photos, click here.

Iranians have expressed surprise that a documentary by an Israeli director, Solo Avital, about a Tel Aviv photojournalist will appear at Fajr. The festival has been held every year since 1982 to commemoration Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

For Koren, the news came as a political shock.

"It doesn't surprise me that they invited the film," Koren said. "[But] the fact that it's an Israeli film that was [selected] surprises me from a political point of view -- not from an artistic [point of view]. The film has already proved that it is successful and interesting. But I think what triggered the [Iranian interest] is that I talk a lot about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a journalist documenting the conflict for the past 15 years."

The conflict is a favorite theme of Iranian President Ahmadinejad, who has suggested a "new wave in Palestine" will wipe Israel from the face of an Islamic world. Ahmadinejad has also described the Holocaust -- in which 6 million Jews were massacred -- a "myth" and recently offered a platform in Tehran for Holocaust deniers.

Public Attention

Koren said that denying the Holocaust is "outrageous." But he also said he believes there is a difference between Ahmadinejad's rhetoric and the feelings of most Iranians.

"Unfortunately, I find the Iranian regime ridiculous and dangerous at the same time -- but it has nothing to do with the public," Koren said. "I think the act of denying the Holocaust is a provocative action by Ahmadinejad, [who] is a very extreme figure in the world of politics today. I don't care if Ahmadinejad will see the documentary or not. But I wish that the people of Iran will see it, because among them there are open, liberated people who wish to live in democracy."

"...More Than 1000 Words" could cast the Middle East conflict in a whole new light for some Iranians, who are used to seeing it through the eyes of Iranian state television and radio.

For them, the impact of Ziv Koren's work -- and Solo Avital's attempt to get behind the images -- might remain long after the 25th annual Fajr Film Festival closes its doors on February 11.

(Radio Farda's Parsa Shams interviewed Ziv Koren for this article.)