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Iran Report: April 23, 2007

Iran Says Russia Is Losing Credibility Over Nuclear Plant

Russian work on the Iranian plant has been halted due to nonpayment (file photo)

April 22, 2007 -- Iran says Russia is losing credibility as a result of delays in the completion of a nuclear power plant at Bushehr in southern Iran.

The comment by Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini comes as the director of production of nuclear energy, Ahmad Fayaz Bakhsh, is holding talks in Moscow to try clarify the situation.

Iran denies claims by Russian contractor Atomstroieksport that Tehran has not made all payments on time.

(dpa, AFP)

Sanctions Controversy
On March 24, the UN Security Council adopted a new round of sanctions against Iran. Tehran denounced the move as "illegal, useless, and unjustified." more
Inside Bushehr
Iran's Bushehr nuclear plant is more than 90 percent complete. RFE/RL presents a gallery of images from inside the facility. more

Israeli Premier Prefers Diplomacy On Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Olmert (file photo)

April 22, 2007 -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said he prefers diplomacy -- as opposed to a military operation -- in dealing with Iran's nuclear program.

In an interview aired today, Olmert said international efforts to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions could be successful.

In Tehran today, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini made clear his country would not halt its nuclear-fuel-enrichment program.

But he said talks between Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani and EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana on April 25 could lead to a solution to Iran's dispute with the West.

The UN Security Council has imposed two sets of sanctions on Iran over its refusal to halt its uranium-enrichment activities. Tehran says its nuclear program is peaceful, but Western countries and Israel suspect Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons.

(AFP, AP, Reuters)

Afghanistan: U.S. Says Iranian-Made Weapons Found

By Breffni O'Rourke

Suspected Taliban fighters in custody in northern Afghanistan (file photo)

April 18, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. officials are expressing concern at the possibility that Iran might be moving to support the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The comments, on April 17 and today, mark the first U.S. suggestions that the Iranian government might be helping antigovernment fighters opposing Kabul's and NATO's efforts to bring security to Afghanistan.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher said in Brussels today that Washington has seen what he called "a series of indicators that Iran is maybe getting more involved in an unhealthy way in Afghanistan."

He said these included reports of arms supplies to the Taliban and involvement in what he called "political areas."

No 'Clarity' On Who Is Involved

Boucher's remarks follow a similar assertion on April 17 by the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace. Pace said that Iranian-made mortars and explosives had been intercepted in the Afghan province of Kandahar, on their way to the Taliban.

Washington has seen "a series of indicators that Iran is maybe getting more involved in an unhealthy way in Afghanistan."

Pace and Boucher avoided linking the arms directly to the Iranian government.

Pace said all that is known is that the material was made in Iran and was captured on its way to the Taliban. Pace acknowledged that the United States does not know "with the same clarity [that] we know in Iraq who is delivering those weapons, who is involved."

U.S. officials have frequently accused Iran's Shi'ite Islamic regime of supporting Shi'ite insurgents in neighboring Iraq with sophisticated explosive devices and training. Five Iranian nationals whom the U.S. suspects of being agents are currently being held in Iraq.

But this is the first hint from Washington that Iran could be supporting elements now waging a fierce campaign against NATO and Afghan government forces.

Change Of Tack?

Peter Lehr, an expert in Afghan-Iranian relations at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, said today that such a major policy shift is unlikely on the part of the Taliban.

"There was always a big distrust, or rather hatred, [by the Taliban] of the Shi'ites in their midst," Lehr told RFE/RL. "The Taliban is very Sunnite, and Pashtun, which means it is a very fundamental form of Islam, and they treat Shi'ites as heretics. So I don't see any warming up [of Iranian-Taliban relations] so far."

Lehr said there is the possibility that either the Iranians or the Taliban have decided that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Such thinking could prompt them to join in common cause against Western forces in Afghanistan. But he finds this scenario pushed "a bit far."

But Lehr also said weapons can be moved around and traded without the knowledge of the government.

'The enemy of my enemy is my friend'? (Fars file photo)

"There is organized crime, there are the usual smuggling routes, trucks are going from Afghanistan to Iran [with their cargoes] to be exported via Russia to Europe, so why not arms the other way, as a means of paying for the trucks?" Lehr said. "But that does not necessarily mean that the [Iranian] government is behind it."

Iranian Denial

In Tehran, the Iranian ILNA news agency quotes an unnamed official with Iran's Foreign Ministry as calling Pace's remarks baseless and aimed at obscuring U.S. and British failures in Afghanistan.

For Iran to support the Taliban would also represent a considerable change in policy. When the Taliban were in power in Kabul, Shi'ite Iran threw its weight behind Taliban opponents, such as the warlords of the Northern Alliance, who were the key to ousting the Taliban after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.

Iran came close at one point to itself invading Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, because of the pressure being exerted on the Shi'ite Afghan minority by the militia.

Tehran's role in helping to establish a UN-backed government in Kabul following the removal of the Taliban regime was also widely praised.

The United Nations Security Council passed a resolution in March banning all Iranian arms exports. However, the British paper "Daily Telegraph" reported today that the Iranian Defense Industries Organization (DIO) nevertheless has an exhibit of weapons at an international arms fair starting today in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Kabul Mulls Relations With Iran
Afghanistan has recently been preoccupied with its relations with Pakistan. But increasingly, ties with Tehran are coming to the fore. more
Between Washington And Tehran
Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta told RFE/RL in May 2006 that his country could help improve relations between Iran and the United States. more

U.S. State Department Spokesman Discusses Relations With Tehran

Sean McCormack at RFE/RL's Washington studios (file photo)

WASHINGTON, April 18, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Sean McCormack is the principal spokesman of the U.S. State Department. Radio Farda correspondent Parichehr Farzam spoke with McCormack about U.S. policies regarding Iran and the prospects for improved relations.

Radio Farda: If the people of Iran were to ask you what exactly is your position, the U.S. position, regarding the government of Iran, what would you tell them?

Sean McCormack: Well, we have clear differences with the Iranian regime, the current Iranian regime. It is not a difference with the Iranian people or Iran as a nation. The Iranian nation is a great nation with a proud culture and proud history that has a lot of offer to the rest of the world.

The problem is with the policies of the current regime. It is pursuing development of a nuclear weapon to the detriment of the Iranian people. We think that the development of nuclear weapon is a grave threat to our interests as well as to the interests of others in the region and that it is a destabilizing act. We have offered the Iranian regime negotiations, in which they can realize their right to peaceful nuclear energy. They can also realize potentially a different kind of relationship with the rest of the world, including the United States.

"We have to underline that we have no differences with the people of Iran. Our differences are with the policies of the current regime."

On their support of terrorism, their support for terrorism is contrary to interests of Iran's neighbors as well as to our interests. It results in the taking of innocent life, and I remind there is no cause that justifies the taking of innocent life.

And also, on the issue of human rights in Iran, we -- as well as others -- want the Iranian people to have the same freedom as others around the world enjoy. It is a universal right for each individual to be able to freely express their opinions, to be able to live their lives in the context of a society as they see fit, without fear of retribution from the state. That is not the case in Iran. So we will continue to speak out on those issues. But we have to underline that we have no differences with the people of Iran. Our differences are with the policies of the current regime.

Radio Farda: Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said on April 11 in Boston that military conflict with Iran was neither "inevitable nor desirable." And you, at the same time, insisted on the importance of diplomacy to solve the nuclear standoff. Do you really believe Iran will give up its nuclear ambitions like North Korea did?

McCormack: We are not asking Iran to give up its ambitions for a peaceful nuclear program. That is not at all what we are asking them to do. As matter of fact, it that's what the Iranian people want them, then we and others in the world are ready, willing, and able to work on ways in which they can realize that goal. We understand that there will be substantial energy needs for the Iranian people into the future that may or may not be the gas supplies or oil supplies. So, we don't want to deny the Iranian people the right to peaceful nuclear energy. Our problem is with the Iranian regime that says it is trying to develop peaceful nuclear energy, but in fact is our belief, along with the belief of others in the world, that they want to develop the nuclear weapon and that is unacceptable. That is an abrogation of Iran's treaty obligations. And for years they have sought to deceive the world, sought to deceive the [International Atomic Energy Agency] IAEA.

Finally the world has said that we will not stand for that anymore, we will not be deceived anymore, we want real answers. So that's the dilemma. And we have proposed a way out of that dilemma through negotiations. And we are not asking the Iranian people to give up any right, but only to make some reasonable accommodations in order to realize these negotiations.

Radio Farda: President George Bush has said, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said, and you have said as well many times that there is no freedom of speech in Iran, there is no rule of law, and there is no respect for the basic rights of Iranian citizens. How can people there have access to the free world, to accurate news?

McCormack: Well, they can tune in to Western and other news organizations. They can listen to Radio Farda; they can get on Internet, but I expect that many of those things blocked by Iranian regime. So it is very difficult to communicate directly with Iranian people through media organizations or from outside. And we don't have any presence on the ground there for reasons everybody understands.

So what have decided is that we are encouraging people-to people-contacts. Our wrestling team went to Iran, for example, and we have invited the Iranian team to United States. There have been exchanges of medical professionals, disaster-preparedness officials. So we encourage those kind of people-to-people exchanges, which is a good way for us to get know the Iranian people after 27 years, and for the Iranian people to get to know us a little bit better.

Radio Farda: Almost half of the $66 million U.S. foreign aid to Iran for 2007 is earmarked for broadcasting to Iran. There are some critics in Congress, as well as in the executive branch, regarding the effectiveness of the contents and impact of such broadcasting. What is your reaction?

McCormack: Well, you have to try the number of different ways in order to communicate with the Iranian people. Broadcasting is one of them, and it's an important medium through which people receive news and it is important that we try to use that medium to communicate with the Iranian people. It is difficult because of the controls and blocks the Iranian regime puts on free media and access to free media other than Iranian state-controlled media. But just because it is difficul, doesn't mean you don't' try.

Radio Farda: Many people are asking if the U.S. goal is changing the regime in Iran. Is this so?

McCormack: We think that the Iranian people should be able to choose in free, fair, and transparent elections who leads them. And who leads the Iranian people under those circumstances is going to be up to Iranian people. It is not for anybody else to decide.

Our differences are with the behavior of the regime and the policies that it pursues. If the Iranian regime changes its policies and changes its behavior, they can have a different kind of relationship with the United of States and the rest of the world. But as to who governs Iran, that should be something that is left to the Iranian people in a free, fair, ant transparent electoral process.

Radio Farda: What kind of message would you send to the Iranian people?

McCormack: Well, to the Iranian people it would be the same massage that we try to convey very often. That is, we want a good, peaceful, respectful relationship with the Iranian people. We have a lot to learn from you and we believe that we have a lot to offer to the Iranian people.

And, despite our differences with the policies of the government, don't mistakes those differences for differences with the Iranian people. We have a great deal of respect for your culture, for your history, for your literature, for your art, and we have a great deal respect for your views. And we would like very much to be able to understand those more directly, and for you to understand our views more directly. The obstacle to that, currently, is the behavior of the regime on the issue of the nuclear-weapons program. And we would hope the Iranian people speak out to their government and make it clear to them that, while they want peaceful nuclear energy, they do not support the pursuit of a nuclear weapon at the cost of ruining Iran's relationship with the rest of the world.

Washington's Options
A panel of experts at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York discussed the policy implications for Washington of the nuclear standoff with Iran. more
U.S. Approach 'Not Fruitful'
A former adviser to the a U.S. National Security Council on the Middle East says U.S. efforts to discourage Iran's nuclear ambitions have not worked. more

Iran's Nuclear Claim Brings Fallout

By Golnaz Esfandiari

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad during his Natanz speech on April 9

April 10, 2007 (RFE/RL) --Tehran's announcement on April 9 of industrial-scale nuclear enrichment is regarded by critics as a further act of defiance by a government that has resisted international pressure to suspend sensitive nuclear work.

In late March, the UN Security Council tightened its sanctions against Iran for its refusal to halt uranium-enrichment activities. It is a process can be used in civil nuclear efforts as well as a military ones.

But instead of halting the program, officials including President Mahmud Ahmadinejad on April 9 reasserted Tehran's determination to continue and expand its nuclear activities, and touted its nuclear achievements.

Today, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Agency, Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, said his country is seeking to install up to 50,000 uranium-enriching centrifuges at Natanz.

The president was speaking at a large ceremony at the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility in central Iran, where he also called on countries to accept Iran's right and stop "bullying" it.

In the United States, spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the White House's National Security Council is "very concerned" at the Iranian announcement.

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McComack predicted that Iran's decision to continue enrichment will have increasing "costs for the Iranian people."

The EU urged Iran to halt uranium enrichment, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also called on Tehran to comply fully with UN demands.

Spin Doctors?

Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki followed the April 9 announcement with a call today for the international community to accept the "new reality" of Iran's nuclear program.

"We think that the other side and other parties should act with the understanding of the new realities, and if they have something new to say, we have always said that we are ready to take part in complete and full negotiations, without preconditions, to find a solution to the nuclear issue," Mottaki said.

Iran's claim, if true, could mean significant progress in the country's nuclear program.

The centrifuges spin to enrich uranium hexafluoride (UF6), producing fuel for power stations or, at higher levels of enrichment, for bomb material.

Iran says it will only make fuel for energy. But many in the West are suspicious of Iran's nuclear intentions.

Some observers have cast doubt on the announcement, saying Iranian officials are exaggerating their nuclear achievements in order to generate public support and present the world with a fait accompli.

The Natanz enrichment facility (Fars file photo)

Reza Taghizadeh, a professor at the University of Glasgow in Scotland and an analyst on Iranian political affairs, told Radio Farda that Tehran has not provided evidence to support its claim.

"Iran wanted to announce that it has entered a stage where it can produce nuclear fuel on an industrial scale because it has started operating more centrifuges that are used as tool for enriching uranium and had solved some technical problems," Taghizadeh said. "But since [Iranian officials] did not announce the number of centrifuges, it is very difficult to believe that Iran has really entered the industrial stage. By making [the announcement] Iran was emphasizing that it will continue its nuclear activities."

Some Iranian officials have suggested that 3,000 centrifuges have been installed at the Natanz facility. Today, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Agency, Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, said his country is seeking to install up to 50,000 uranium-enriching centrifuges there.

Questions Linger

News agencies have quoted David Albright, a former UN nuclear inspector, as saying that 3,000 centrifuges would be enough to build a nuclear warhead within a year. But he added that it would be very hard to believe that Tehran has been able to enlarge its centrifuge cascades so dramatically.

A nonproliferation expert with the Institute for Strategic Studies in London, Mark Fitzpatrick, described Iran's announcement as a "boast." He told the British daily "The Guardian" that he doesn't believe that Iran has 3,000 centrifuges running at Natanz, and he adding that there has been no evidence that Iranians can run test cascades in a continuous manner.

The April 9 event at Natanz was held as part of the Islamic republic's official "National Day of Nuclear Technology," which included an orchestral performance. The government had also called on schools to ring their bells and to hold special ceremonies.

Iran printed an "atomic banknote" in March to mark the country's achievement in accessing nuclear technology. The note depicts electrons in orbit around an atom on a map of Iran.

Officials in Tehran have in recent months stepped up their efforts to portray Iran's right to a nuclear program as one of their citizenry's most important and urgent rights.

Yet a number of activists in Iran have questioned the wisdom of the move. They argue that citizens have other rights that are equally important but have been ignored -- rights connected to democracy, freedom, and equal rights.

Iran: Detainee Release Fosters Hope Of Reinvigorated Dialogue

By Golnaz Esfandiari

The detainees meeting with Iranian President Ahmadinejad (right) after he announced their release on April 4

April 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- It was this unexpected announcement by hard-line Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad that ended the 13-day standoff with Britain:

"I announce that the great Iranian nation and the government of the Islamic republic -- while insisting on our power and rights to try [in court] these military personal -- have pardoned these 15 people and we offer their freedom as a gift to the British people in emulation of the Great Prophet of Islam," he said.

While Ahmadinejad portrayed the release of the 14 men and one woman as a gift and a goodwill gesture, there has been a lot of speculation about other motives behind the move.

"From the time Britain changed its tone and talked to Iran with more respect, things started to move quickly," a Tehran-based analyst told RFE/RL.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said no deal was made in gaining the Britons' release. But at the same time he said "new and interesting lines of communication" were opened with Iran in the course of the crisis and offered the tantalizing possibility that a different relationship is possible if Tehran desires it.

How Was The Standoff Resolved?

However, many believe the release came as a result of growing pressure on Tehran. Some commentators argue that the crisis was resolved in part because of intervention by outside parties such as Iraq and Syria.

Others observers -- pointing to the almost simultaneous release of an Iranian diplomat in Iraq and the reported access by Iranian officials to five Iranians seized by U.S. forces in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil in January -- say a deal was brokered.

Iranian diplomat Jalal Sharafi (left) returning to Tehran from Iraq on April 3 (AFP)

But the U.S. and British governments have said there is no connection between the status of the Iranians held in Iraq and the release of the British service members.

Rosemary Hollis, director of research at London's Chatham House, doesn't believe any deal was made between Britain and Iran. But she says the British captives were released following "critical communication" between the two sides.

She tells RFE/RL the move to release the sailors suggested that Iran's leadership did not want to push the standoff too far.

"I would imagine it was a careful calculation [by the Iranians] that they had extracted some benefits from this episode but to drag it out any further could backfire on them," Hollis said.

A Crucial 'Change Of Tone'

The crisis was an opportunity for Iran to flex its muscles and to say that it cannot be bullied. At a time of increasing international pressure over its sensitive nuclear work, Tehran also signaled that it will respond to confrontation with confrontation.

Yet there is speculation that pragmatists in Iran pushed for the release of the British detainees because of the risks involved and the damage that could be caused by holding a trial for the detainees and imprisoning them long-term.

Sadegh Zibakalam, a Tehran-based professor of political science, says the decision to release the British detainees came after Britain took a softer tone on Iran and stopped making confrontational and threatening statements.

"From the time Britain changed its tone and talked to Iran with more respect, things started to move quickly," Zibakalam said. "Mr. Ahmadinejad tried to exploit the issue politically inside the country and also outside by saying 'I am the decision maker and I'm important.' At the same time, he tried to [improve] his image."

Some have characterized the episode as a major "propaganda coup" for Iran. But Iran had sought a public apology from Britain for entering what it claims were Iranian waters, which it didn't get. Instead Britain kept insisting that its personnel were unlawfully seized in Iraqi waters on a routine UN mission. Meanwhile it relied on a diplomatic approach to secure their release.

Diplomatic Victory Offers Hope For Better Relations

Following Ahmadinejad's sudden announcement that the Brits will be freed, British Prime Minister Tony Blair told reporters that his country had "taken a measured approach, firm but calm; not negotiating, but not confronting either."

Chatham House's Hollis sees the release of the British sailors and marines as a victory for diplomacy.

Ahmadinejad (left) giving state awards to the officers who detained the Britons, shortly before he announced they would be released (Fars)

"I think the Iranians have not changed the minds of anybody in the world at large," she told RFE/RL. "It has not fundamentally altered opinions about their nuclear program or their regional influence. But it could present an opportunity for the British and Iranians to try and avoid any unplanned episodes in the head waters of the Persian Gulf in the future."

In Tehran, Zibakalam argues that the diplomatic approach over the former British captives could also be applied to the crisis over Iran's sensitive nuclear work.

"The Islamic establishment of Iran showed that if you treat me [with respect], if you stop using the language of threat and instead use a civilized language, then you'll get a civilized answer as was demonstrated in this issue," he said. "In my opinion the interesting lesson that can be learned is that the West should pursue the nuclear issue with the same approach that was used in the case of the British sailors."

The EU's current German presidency issued a statement today saying it hopes "Iran uses this opportunity to find solutions to other issues in cooperation with the international community and the European Union."

"This applies in particular to the proposal by the foreign ministers of China, Germany, France, Great Britain, Russia, and the United States to resolve the controversy over Iran's nuclear program through dialogue and negotiations," the statement continued.