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Iran Report: May 8, 2007

Iranian Officials Reluctant To Hike Gasoline Prices

By Vahid Sepehri

Drivers keep an eye on price hikes

May 7, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- In an effort to curb consumption and reduce enormous state spending on gasoline imports, Iran's current state budget includes a hike in the price of subsidized gasoline and new limits on the amount each driver can consume at the highly subsidized rate.

Beginning on May 22, the government will be obliged to prescribe the amount of gasoline that each driver can consume at the subsidized rate, which will be raised to roughly 100 tumans (about $0.11) per liter from the current 80 tumans per liter. The state budget should also set the price for any gasoline purchased above the subsidized amount.

Motorists must use the millions of "smart cards" distributed in recent weeks to measure their consumption.

Those measures are part of a push to reduce the $5 billion that was spent on gasoline imports during 2006, as exports for hard currency and restricted refining capacity divert oil resources away from domestic consumers.

The daily "Etemad" commented on May 6 that the government's silence over the scheme -- just weeks ahead of its late-May implementation -- demonstrated a lack of concern.

There is an increasing awareness of waste, but also a fear of inflation and public dissatisfaction.

Most parliamentarians and other officials appear to accept the two-tier pricing. But comments by legislators in April suggested that the government was keen on maintaining the current subsidized rate of 80 tumans. Lawmakers warned that parliament would resist any move to keep that price, while many have observed that any effort to curb consumption and cut imports requires at least a 25-percent increase, to 100 tumans. They also made the point that the higher price was anchored in the current budget, valid for the year to March 20, 2008, and a change would force changes elsewhere.

Parliamentary Energy Committee Chairman Kamal Daneshyar commented recently that parliament is firm on the two-tier system, whether the basic quota costs 80 or 100 tumans a liter. The Mehr news agency on April 15 quoted Daneshyar as saying the basic quota would most likely allow private vehicles 90 liters per month and taxi cabs 750-900 liters per month.

Lawmakers and officials have speculated on prices above those quotas -- with some proposing numerous price tiers at decreasing subsidies and others saying drivers should be charged the market price for imported gasoline.

Technical obstacles

Parliamentarians have sounded uncertain about the gasoline initiative. On May 5, Daneshyar said the new system and the use of smart cards cannot be implemented by May 22 for technical reasons. But he urged raising gasoline prices to 100 tumans a liter anyway while the system is finalized. Daneshyar said "80 percent" of smart cards have been distributed, but that many of the machines designed to read them are faulty. But by the next day, he had apparently changed his mind; he said the new pricing system should go ahead, even with technical difficulties.

Abdolmajid Shoja, a member of the Energy Committee, noted on May 6 that 2 million drivers still had no smart cards. Shoja also said the system needs satellite connections to work, which is impossible in some parts of Iran.

Deputy Oil Minister Mohammad Reza Nematzadeh rejected reports of technical glitches on May 5, and said he knew of no delays.

Skepticism over what could be a complicated system has led some to suggest a simpler rise in the price of gasoline. One Tehran legislator, Mohammad Khosh-Chehreh, suggested a 50-90 percent increase to 120-150 tumans, or about $0.13-16, per liter. A member of the parliamentary Plan and Budget Committee, Hadi Haqshenas argued that it would have been better for parliament to raise gasoline prices by 25-75 percent to 100-140 tumans a liter. And a member of parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, cautioned that the government must ensure that the tiered system will not produce a new "fuel mafia," ISNA reported on April 25. He was referring to fuel smuggling, whereby traffickers take Iran's dirt-cheap fuel to neighboring Pakistan or Turkey to sell at much higher prices.

Others have wondered aloud whether the new pricing will really reduce consumption. A member of the parliamentary Energy Committee, Hussein Afarideh, said he doubts that Iranian motorists will be deterred by a 25-percent price rise on the basic quota. A Tehran-based economic observer, Mohammad Hussein Qadiri, called the 25-percent price hike an illusory increase, given Iran's double-digit inflation.

Some in government have suggested improving public transport and converting public vehicles to allow them to run on liquefied gas in order to reduce gasoline consumption.

Subsidizing waste?

The debate highlights the difficulty of liberalizing the key area of an economy that is highly dependent on oil and subsidies. On the one hand, there is an increasing awareness of waste -- of both fuel and the vast funds spent on importing fuel. On the other hand, there is a fear of inflation and public dissatisfaction.

Iranians are already seeing price rises in an economy where many goods are subsidized, and many prices officially fixed. Many wonder what impact a gasoline price rise might have on their daily lives. Some businesses might have already factored the price hike into retail prices, or could do so very soon. That would increase the inflationary pressure on weaker socioeconomic groups in a way that the government hopes to avoid.

Several observers have claimed that the public will not accept the new prices and lacks the "culture" needed to make a new pricing system work. Iran's postrevolutionary government has arguably encouraged a "culture" of subsidies and the widespread view that the poor are entitled to cheap petrol, cheap water, and cheap gas and electricity. Wasting "national" resources is a proletarian right, it seems. The government's silence on the gasoline-pricing issue may indeed indicate officialdom's reluctance to see any price increase.

Even the legislature, which appears more in favor of a price rise, took a backward step on May 6 when it reversed a recent increase in the price of gas oil, a heating fuel. Lawmakers had raised the price of gas oil from 16 to 45 tumans a liter as part of this year's budget, but then voted to restore the lower price.

The Iranian state thus appears willing to finance -- at least partly -- heavy fuel consumption by Iranians, both rich and poor.

U.S. Official Says Tehran Has 'No Right To Nuclear Weapons'

Ambassador Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, speaking in London on May 2

LONDON, May 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns was in London for talks on Iran's nuclear program with British and EU officials. He told Radio Farda correspondent Sharan Tabari that international pressure is mounting on Tehran to enter into earnest negotiations on the standoff.

RFE/RL: After the meeting of the 5+1 group of political negotiators in London on Iran’s nuclear program yesterday, the British foreign office spokesperson said no new decision was made at the meeting, that the members only reiterated their existing position, as well as their strong support for negotiation between EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and the Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani. You met with them last night. Would you kindly tell us what your view on that is?

Nicholas Burns: Well, I think all the countries are unified in saying that Iran is not meeting its international commitments to the International Atomic Energy Agency or to the United Nations Security Council. Iran is not allowing the inspection of its nuclear facilities to the extent it should. And Iran is not responding to the Security Council resolutions that have been passed. This is a problem for Iran, because Iran is rather isolated in the world. Even countries like Brazil and Egypt and India and Indonesia and South Africa are all voting for sanctions against Iran, and Iran doesn’t have any supporters because it refuses to negotiate. And so there was a strong feeling at the meeting that Iran must respond now and agree to negotiate.

"We would like to help build a civil nuclear power facility in Iran. But we’re not going to help Iran with scientific research that would lead to nuclear weapons development."

RFE/RL: While the meeting was taking place, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said Iran was not going to give in “one iota” from where it stands, whereas the 5+1 said that they want Iran to comply with the IAEA and Security Council’s requirements. How do you think this standoff can be resolved?

Burns: Well, I think that it’s important that the Iranian people know that our argument is not with them. We would like to provide civil nuclear power and electricity to the Iranian people. We would like to help build a civil nuclear power facility in Iran. But we’re not going to help Iran with scientific research that would lead to nuclear weapons development. That’s the distinction that I think it’s important for the Iranian people to know about. And we hope that the Iranian government will understand that it’s really in its best interest to sit down and have a peaceful negotiation with us.

RFE/RL: By saying that, are you asking the Iranian people to put pressure on their government, and tell them, yes, we want nuclear energy but we don’t want nuclear weapons?

Burns: I think this is something that Iranians have to decide, obviously in their own country. But I think that is the right thing for Iranians to be saying to their government. Obviously, no one wants to deny Iran electricity that would help farmers, that would help business people, and students. No one wants to deprive Iran of that. But everyone does believe that Iran has no right to nuclear weapons, and the government is irresponsible, and there’s no international trust in the government of Iran that would warrant a nuclear-weapons program.

RFE/RL: If no progress is made, do you see the military option as a choice?

Burns: Well, we have never taken that off the table, but frankly our clear preference is for a diplomatic solution. We wish to negotiate with Iran, we are not seeking a confrontation with Iran, and we ought to give diplomacy a chance to succeed, and we hope it can succeed.

RFE/RL: On the topic of [the conference at] Sharm el-Sheikh: In your speech yesterday, you said that if U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice does meet with [Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr] Mottaki, it will only concentrate on issues of Iraq. But she has been quoted as saying that she’s ready to talk to Mr. Mottaki on all issues, including Iran’s nuclear program, is this right?

Burns: Well we’ll have to see what kind of posture the Iranian government decides to take in Sharm el-Sheikh. We believe that it’s positive that Iran be represented at the conference. We believe that Iran should take more steps to prevent weapons, or fighters, from crossing the border from Iran into Iraq. And we think it’s very, very important that Iran be a more constructive partner to the Iraqi government, to preserve peace and stability, and that will be the point that Secretary Rice makes when she sits down around the table with the Iranian foreign minister.

RFE/RL: And finally, how likely is it that the Americans will sit at the negotiating table with Iran, with all areas of concern being negotiated?

Burns: Well certainly, we want to discuss with Iran a more peaceful Iraq. We also want to sit down and discuss the future of the nuclear issue, and Iran should know that we are not going to support, ever, in any way, shape, or form, its achievement of a nuclear weapons capability. But we will support civil nuclear power for the Iranian people.

Afghan Refugees Allege Abuse From Iran Repatriation

By Ron Synovitz

Afghan refugee children in Herat, in western Afghanistan (file photo)

May 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Tehran has expelled tens of thousands of Afghans from Iran since mid-April in a move Iranian authorities say is aimed at repatriating 1 million unregistered Afghan refugees by March 2008.

But Afghans affected by the campaign claim that even legally registered refugees are being forced to leave. They say those who remain in Iran face pressure that makes it difficult for them to survive.

Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta says Iran should immediately stop repatriating large numbers of Afghan refugees because Afghanistan does not have sufficient resources to help them resettle.

Spanta told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that the reported expulsion of 50,000 Afghan refugees from Iran during the past two weeks is contributing to instability in Afghanistan.

"The massive expulsion of Afghan refugees [from Iran] is against the friendly and neighborly principles between our two countries," Spanta said. "It's very unfortunate that, on one hand, Iran is helping Afghanistan with reconstruction in order to build stability but, on the other hand, is expelling the Afghans en mass. This causes instability for Afghanistan. We are not able to provide the thousands of returning refugees with a place inside Afghanistan."

'Illegal Citizens'

Authorities in Tehran say they are only expelling those Afghans who are living illegally in Iran and have failed to register their presence.

A statement issued by Iran's Interior Ministry stresses that only refugees with valid documents may stay in Iran. The statement also argues that every country has sensitivities about "illegal citizens" on its territory. It says the presence of so many Afghan refugees has created "political, social, economic, and security consequences" for Iran.

Millions of Afghans fled to Pakistan, Iran, and Central Asia to escape the wars that have devastated Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion of 1979.

Iran accepted several million Afghans -- mostly Shi'ite Hazara or Sunni Persian-speaking Tajiks.

Since the collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001, Iran has been working with authorities in Kabul and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on a voluntary repatriation program.

Illegals 'Not Of Concern' To UN

Vivian Tan is a spokeswoman for the UNHCR's Southwest Asia office in Islamabad -- the office responsible for UNHCR activities in Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Tan told RFE/RL that the UNHCR's mandate is to help those individuals who have the legal status of refugees. Afghan refugees in both Pakistan and Iran must therefore be legally registered in their host country to qualify for UNHCR aid.

"Anyone outside of this group who was not around to register is not of concern to UNHCR. They are not refugees," Tan said. "They are not of concern. Everybody who is not registered is considered an illegal migrant. In Iran, from what we know, the recent deportations are of unregistered Afghans. So these are people who did not take part in the registration and did not get the [reintegration] cards that were issued by the Iranian government."

But some Afghan refugees tell a different story.

Several Afghans tell RFE/RL that Iranian authorities in the past two weeks confiscated and destroyed their registration cards before expelling them from the country.

Others say their money and personal property -- even extra clothing -- was confiscated by Iranian authorities before they were forced across the border back into Afghanistan.

...But Legality Is Not Everything

Haqdad, an Afghan refugee originally from Ghazni Province, is still living in Iran. But he says Tehran's repatriation campaign makes life difficult even for those who are legally registered.

"We live in a very difficult situation here because the [Iranian authorities] detain us and send us to the other side of the border," Haqdad said. "There are even some families whose wives remain here but their husbands have been sent to the other side of the border. The Iranian officials who detain us take all the money we have in our pockets."

Agha Mussa, an Afghan refugee from Herat, in western Afghanistan, who also is struggling to survive in Iran, says many Afghans he knows have been beaten by Iranian police -- alleging there is a campaign of intimidation aimed at driving out all Afghans refugees, regardless of whether they are registered or not.

Afgha Mussa told RFE/RL that many Iranian employers are taking advantage of the vulnerability of Afghan refugee laborers by refusing to pay them wages that they are owed.

"We -- refugees living in Iran -- are under a lot pressure," Afgha Mussa said. "Our jobs are left here. The employers don’t pay our money. We are being detained and sent out of the border. They harass us and they beat us."

Tan said UNHCR officials have not heard such complaints. But she said any legitimate refugee who is being intimidated in Iran or Pakistan can get help from her organization.

"Even if you are an unregistered Afghan in Pakistan or Iran, UNHCR's doors are always open," Tan said. "So if you wish to claim asylum, you are free to come in and protest. If you have the proper grounds and you are recognized as a refugee, then we will offer you the protection that you need in the host country -- in Iran or in Pakistan."

Beleaguered Society

Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary confirmed that Afghan refugee families are being separated by Iran's expulsion campaign.

Beshary said those being repatriated also face other serious problems when they arrive back in Afghanistan -- including a lack of food, employment, and shelter.

"These problems are a result of a lack of a system and also haste in this work," Beshary said. "I say, once more, that we are willing to have more cooperation with our friendly [neighbor], and we hope that they will provide us assistance regarding this issue."

The UNHCR has helped provide resettlement aid to millions of repatriated Afghan refugees since the start of 2002.

That includes a six-week campaign earlier this year in which Pakistan repatriated 200,000 unregistered Afghans who had been living in Pakistan.

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report)

Former Iranian Nuclear Negotiator Arrested On Security Charges

By Golnaz Esfandiari

Hossein Musavian (file photo)

May 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Hossein Musavian, a former official in Iran's National Security Council and onetime member of Iran's nuclear negotiating team, has been detained in Tehran on security charges.

Little is known about the circumstances surrounding the arrest of Musavian on April 30 or the official charges against him.

"There is a view that this incident is to some extent related to the increasing political struggle ahead of the parliamentary elections."

'House Arrest'

Mehdi Ghassemi, a journalist with the Iranian daily "Etemad Melli," which was among the first to report on Musavian's arrest, told Radio Farda that the former official was arrested at his house in Tehran.

"Apparently from what is being said he was detained around 1900 in front of his house," he said. "For now all of the information is limited to this."

The official Iranian news agency IRNA confirmed on May 2 the arrest of the former nuclear negotiator and quoted an unnamed "informed source" as saying that Musavian is facing security charges, without giving further details.

Iran's semi-official Fars News Agency reported -- also quoting an unnamed source -- that Musavian has been charged with having "connections to foreign elements and [the] transfer of information to them."

Spy Charges?

The source told Fars that Musavian was probably detained for exchanging information on Iran's nuclear program and added that espionage charges have been brought against him. He added that Musavian, who is currently at Tehran's notorious Evin prison, is being interrogated.

Musavian, a former Iranian ambassador to Germany, was head of the Foreign Policy Committee on Iran's Supreme National Security Council. He was also a key member of Iran's nuclear negotiating team with the European Union.

He was replaced following the 2005 election of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, and since then has been working as deputy head of a Tehran-based think tank, the Center for Strategic Research.

Musavian is seen as a moderate close to former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

In January, Musavian called for renewed diplomacy in the nuclear standoff with the West and said Iran has no choice other than to return to the negotiating table. He also warned that Iran should not ignore the UN Security Council resolution that called on Iran to suspend its sensitive nuclear activities.

Moderate Voice

In March, Musavian called for a three-pronged approach to negotiations -- including bilateral talks between Iran and the United States that could resolve the nuclear dispute.

Iranian officials have not publicly commented on his case, and there is growing speculation about the reasons for his arrest.

Mohammad Atrianfar, a prominent journalist with ties to Rafsanjani, has told the "Financial Times" that the unconfirmed charge against Musavian is "financial scandal," but he has said that there is "strong speculation" that his detention is related to the nuclear issue.

Atrianfar added that "The move exerts pressure because Musavian was a link to some lobbies outside of Iran." He said: "This is to create a police atmosphere, which is worrying."

Ghassemi said that there is also speculation that an internal power struggle has led to Musavian's arrest.

Political Infighting

"There is a view that this incident is to some extent related to the increasing political struggle ahead of the parliamentary elections [at the end of the year]," he said. "In the seven, eight months that remains before the elections the alignments are becoming clearer. Musavian, as a prominent figure of one of the camps, could maybe play a role in bringing unity among different reformist groups; he has good relations with [former President Mohammad Khatami], with Hashemi Rafsanjani, and apparently also with [moderate reformist cleric and head of the reformist Etemad party, Mehdi Karrubi]."

Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, is quoted by news agencies as saying that drawing conclusions about the arrest is complicated because it is difficult to see inside the Iranian regime. He said it might simply be one more step in a slow dance for power.

The "Baztab" website reports that senior officials and allies of Musavian are involved in efforts to secure his release.

Musavian apparently felt government pressure: he told the ISNA news agency last week that he is in political exile.

(Radio Farda's Hamid Fatemi contributed to this report)