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Iran Report: February 26, 2007

Nuclear Crisis Enters Next Stage

By Golnaz Esfandiari

IAEA chief el-Baradei's report is expected to confirm that Iran has expanded its nuclear program (file photo)

February 22, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued a report today saying that Iran has failed to halt uranium-enrichment activities, as demanded by the UN Security Council.

The report -- by IAEA chief Muhammad el-Baradei -- confirmed an open secret: that Iran has expanded its uranium-enrichment program instead of halting it. The report says that Iran has installed two cascades with many dozens of centrifuges in its underground Natanz enrichment plant and another two cascades that are close to completion.

The UN's 60-day deadline expired on February 21, and Iran has said it will continue its nuclear activities. The UN has warned, however, that it would take "further appropriate measures" if Iran refuses to comply and stop enrichment activities.

The report will be sent to the IAEA's 35-nation board of governors as well as to the UN Security Council. Then the five permanent members of the Security Council (Britain, France, China, Russia, and the United States) plus Germany will start consulting on the next steps to increase pressure on Tehran.

Much of the international community is suspicious that Tehran is seeking to secretly develop nuclear weapons. Therefore, they aim to curb Iran's nuclear program, in particular its enrichment of uranium. The result of that process can be used both for civilian and military nuclear programs.

Iran says its nuclear activities are strictly for peaceful purposes. Iranian officials have said they are ready to provide guarantees that they are not pursuing nuclear weapons as part of negotiations. But Tehran has rejected preconditions.

New Economic Sanctions

Mark Fitzpatrick, a senior nonproliferation expert at the London-based International Institute For Strategic Studies, says that Iran is now exposed to having broader sanctions made against it.

The Iranian uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz (MNA file photo)

"The Security Council will begin to discuss another set of sanctions," Fitzpatrick said. "In the last resolution of December 23, the Security Council said very explicitly that if Iran did not meet the 60-day deadline that the Security Council would take up additional measures under Chapter 41, these are economic sanction measures."

In December, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted limited sanctions on Iran. The resolution was approved following weeks of debate, reportedly due to objections by Russia and China, which can veto any proposal brought to the Security Council. Both countries are engaged in commercial dealings with Iran and they have called for diplomacy in the nuclear standoff.

Russian, Chinese Objections

A senior nonproliferation expert at the Stockholm International Peace Institute, Shannon Kile, is skeptical of Security Council members being able to agree on stricter sanctions because of possible resistance from Beijing and Moscow.

"In part for commercial reasons and in part for strategic reasons [Russia and China are] not going to be willing to go along with a set of sanctions, which would be genuinely punitive in nature as opposed to sanctions that were passed as part of [Security Council Resolution] 1737, which were really more aimed at denying Iran the ability to get a certain capability for its nuclear and ballistic-missile programs," Kile says.

Fitzpatrick says that the follow-through on this issue is likely to be slow and painful. Yet he believes Russia and China would be willing to accept additional sanctions against Iran.

"They will not be interested in applying sanctions that could affect their own strategic or commercial relationships with Iran, but they also have an important strategic relationship with the United States and Europe and they want to be part of the solution, they want to be international players," he says.

In recent months, pressure outside the Security Council has also increased on Iran. The United States has sought to isolate Iranian banks, including Bank Saderat, for its alleged involvement in financing terrorist groups. A number of European banks, such as Credit Suisse, have also curtailed their activities with Iran and Iranian firms. Analysts expect additional de facto sanctions such as these to increase.

Continued Diplomacy

Yet despite the increasing pressure, Iran has remained defiant and refused to suspend any of its sensitive nuclear activities. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final word on all issues in Iran, said in January that Iran will not abandon its right to nuclear technology and that Iranian officials have no right to deprive the nation of this right.

The uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz (MNA file photo)

Kile says that it is difficult to predict what's going to happen next in the nuclear standoff. "Obviously, at one end of the spectrum we do have the prospect of military action being taken -- perhaps by the United States, perhaps by Israel -- if Iran would be seen as closing in on the capability to actually produce a nuclear weapon," Kile says. "I think there is still time for diplomacy; I think that Iran won't have that capability until 2009 [or] 2010 at the earliest."

The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has said all options are on the table when it comes to dealing with Iran's nuclear program, but he and top U.S. officials have said they remain committed to diplomacy.

On February 21, German officials said they are not giving up hope for a return to talks with Iran but added that it is up to Iran to signal that it is sincere in wanting negotiations.

In London, Fitzpatrick says he expects heightened diplomacy from both sides in the coming weeks. "There have been some hints from Iran about some willingness to accept suspension [of nuclear activities] under certain conditions and we see on the other hand the United States with the deal agreed to with North Korea, a new flexibility to talk with countries that are considered the enemy," he notes.

The UN report comes as concerns inside Iran about the costs of a confrontation with the West are increasing. Earlier this week, a reformist party in Iran urged the government to accept a UN demand for a halt to sensitive nuclear work to prevent the adoption of new UN resolutions against the country.

Secretive Assembly Of Experts Begins Fourth Term

By Vahid Sepehri

Assembly of Experts Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Meshkini today at the opening of the assembly

February 20, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Assembly of Experts, an 86-member body of clerics that ostensibly elects Iran's supreme leader and supervises his work, today opened its fourth term since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Members of the assembly were elected to their eight-year terms on December 15. The assembly's authority in overseeing the supreme leader would appear to give it a decisive role in Iranian politics, but as with other institutions in the Islamic Republic, its power is more theoretical than actual.

Supervising the leader might imply supervising the work of bodies under his authority, but that is not the interpretation current members have of the scope of their power and the supreme leader's authority.

Lots Of Religious Expertise

After today's opening and the reading of a message from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ayatollah Ali Meshkini was reelected chairman of the assembly, garnering 71 of 80 votes cast. Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi were then elected first and second deputy chairmen, respectively.

In a system some might see as a modern "caesaropapism," Iran's supreme leader is to be a judge enjoying many and, ideally, every quality needed for him to exercise his political and religious supremacy.

This means that those who supervise him must be "experts" in both religion and politics, though past members of the Assembly of Experts have consisted principally of clerics rather than civilian technocrats.

The Guardians Council -- the body of jurists that must approve candidates for most elected offices in Iran -- has previously rejected a great many aspiring members of the assembly. That includes many incumbents of the last assembly because it was decided that they had an insufficient knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence.

Limited Supervision

The issue of membership has been a contentious one between reformers and conservatives: if the leader is to be held accountable to the people through the Assembly of Experts -- as reformers claim is intended by the constitution -- then the experts must include laymen and politicians in order to see if the leader is performing his secular duties adequately.

This partial exercise of the current assembly's formal duties was evident in remarks by a new assembly member from Lorestan in southwestern Iran. Mohammad Taqi Shahrokhi told ILNA on February 17 that members of the Assembly of Experts are not yet permitted to supervise the work of bodies working directly under the leader's authority, "though there are people inclined to supervise this sector." He was perhaps referring to bodies like state television and radio, or several immense financial and charitable foundations thought to answer to the supreme leader rather than parliament.

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad attended the opening of the assembly today (Fars)

Supervising the leader might imply supervising the work of bodies under his authority, but that is not the interpretation current members have of the scope of their power and the supreme leader's authority. Shahrokhi said the body would have to vote for powers to supervise such agencies.

Last December's elections are thought to have consolidated the position of veteran clerics and establishment figures -- like Expediency Council Chairman Hashemi-Rafsanjani -- against a current of political radicalism associated with Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, considered an ideological mentor of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

Choosing A Successor

With a little more than 1.5 million votes, Hashemi-Rafsanjani received the most votes in Tehran, followed by the body's ailing president, Ayatollah Meshkini, while Mesbah-Yazdi came in sixth, with a little more than half of Rafsanjani's votes.

This balance of power -- if it is real, because the assembly usually works in private -- may prove important in shaping coming decisions.

Mokhtar Mohammad Ali Aminian, an assembly member from Gilan in northern Iran, told ILNA that day that "choosing a successor for the leader is an issue that may be discussed from this session onward." He said the assembly will consider the matter this way: if there are two candidates for the leadership, both learned in theology, which would be the better choice, the more pious candidate or the one with a better grasp of statesmanship?

The issue of succession to the leadership may be topical at a time of pressures on Iran over foreign policy and its controversial nuclear program. Also, perhaps after recent speculation -- though publicly dismissed -- about the poor state of Ayatollah Khamenei's health.

If the next supreme leader is elected -- or "found" as some members believe -- in this assembly, then it is very important who will be searching and selecting.

The assembly is obliged to meet for two days, at least twice a year.

Cultural Critics Attack Dam Project

By Vahid Sepehri

Sunset at the ruins of Persepolis, the capital of the first Persian Empire (file photo)

February 23, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- If the Sivand Dam in the southern Fars Province is filled it is projected to flood a gorge and an archeological area called the Tangeh Balaghi.

Water Damage

The flooding is expected to greatly increase humidity in the environs and this change is what protesters say could damage the nearby Pasargadae plain, which includes the sixth century B.C. tomb of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the first Persian Empire under the Achaemenid dynasty.

Alleged hostility to the non-Islamic past has its logic: this heritage is not religious and it is closely associated with monarchs and princes the present Islamic regime denounces.

Cyrus's successors built another Iranian landmark, the palatial complex at Persepolis that is near the southern city of Shiraz. Activists say increased humidity will damage the Cyrus mausoleum, while flooding would cover areas that have not yet been fully excavated.

Supporters of the Sivand project point to the hydroelectric power that the dam will generate for the area and possibilities for economic growth.

The dam was due to begin filling with water on February 19, "Kargozaran" reported on February 15, despite protests on February 12 in Tehran by environmental activists at the Energy Ministry and in front of parliament two days later. It will take one year to fill.

Teams of Iranian and foreign archeologists from Japan, Germany, Italy, France, and other countries have been working feverishly to finish archeological excavations at sites due to be flooded.

Organized Protests

A letter of protest was also signed by 30 groups and parties, including prominent formations like the reformist Islamic Revolution Mujahedin Organization, the Association of Qom Seminary Researchers and Teachers, a reformist clerical grouping, and members of the graduate-wing of the Office to Consolidate Unity, Iran's leading umbrella student group, the daily "Etemad-i Melli" reported on February 13.

Their statement observed that the water would not only threaten sites, but flood traditional grazing grounds for nomadic tribes, and drown at least 8,000 trees -- some of them 500 years old -- that they claim are unique in their genetic variety.

"Etemad-i Melli" cited Hamid Baqai, the deputy head of the Cultural Heritage Organization, as saying on February 12 that the Energy Ministry has made several studies on the dam and consulted with some archeologists who he says report that there are no longer any excavations to be done in the area.

Baqai told ISNA that unspecified protective measures could be taken to protect Cyrus's mausoleum. He said studies on the dam were carried out 40 years ago, and the dam has been constructed during the last 11 years. He asked: "This dam was not built secretly overnight, so...where were these opponents before?"

Imad Afrugh, the head of the parliamentary Culture Committee, said on February 14 that protestors should provide solid evidence of the damaging impact of the dam in order for the committee to discuss the matter with the relevant bodies, "Kargozaran" reported. But he said parliamentarians cannot challenge the ministry on the basis of expressions of "love" or "devotion" for buildings.

Critical Issues

There are several important aspects at play in this issue: one being the need to efficiently use water in a country where water resources are scarce. Another is a perception of government indifference to public demands.

Yet another aspect concerns national identity. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran's government and especially its more conservative clerics and politicians have often underemphasized Iran's pre-Islamic heritage, sometimes even expressing contempt for it.

The Sivand Dam project may seem to some Iranians like the latest in a list of actual, reported, or rumored instances of government hostility to non-Islamic Iran.

For some time after the revolution, for example, some Iranians alleged that the government wanted to ban Novruz, the ancient new year holiday that falls on March 21.

There have also been persistent rumors that after the revolution, "a mob" of revolutionaries went to the Persepolis site to loot and chisel away its bas-reliefs, amid the indifference of officials.

Disrespect For Pre-Islamic History?

This alleged hostility to the non-Islamic past has its logic: this heritage is not religious and it is closely associated with monarchs and princes the present Islamic regime denounces.

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (file photo)

Iranians will almost certainly not have missed the contrast between the government's attitude to Persian heritage and the anger voiced by the highest officials over past or recent damage to Shi'ite shrines in Iraq or the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

The indignation was, of course, at the desecration of religious sites -- not mosques as historical buildings. But these strengthen a perception among Iranians that officials are more concerned about Muslims and Shi'a in general -- or even Palestinians -- than they are for Iran.

At the same time, the protests and the statement against the Sivand Dam along with certain editorials in newspapers show that the government has not yet forged the communal identity it cherishes for Iran -- one of strictly pious, Shi'a Muslims.

Finally, the protests show that the civil society that was breathed to life by the 1997-2005 governments of Mohammad Khatami remains alive. One may be surprised to read in an editorial, written on February 13 in "Etemad-i Melli" -- 28 years after a revolution that toppled the Persian monarchy -- makes references to Cyrus the Great and to his being "one of Iran's greatest rulers."