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Iran Report: July 2, 2007

Iran: Officials Reportedly Ban Negative Gas-Rationing Stories

By Golnaz Esfandiari

A gas station in northwestern Tehran damaged by rioters on June 27

June 29, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Reports say Iran's Supreme National Security Council has warned journalists not to report on problems caused by gas rationing that led to great anger among some citizens who set fire to many gas stations in several cities on June 27.

Iranian and Western media report that the official warning came a day after the government announced the introduction of gas rationing on state television on June 26 just a few hours before it went into effect.

Rationing Sparks Protests

Citizens reacted immediately by rushing to gasoline stations to fill their gas tanks ahead of the midnight start of the rationing. Many were angry and in some cases reacted by burning gas stations, attacking banks and supermarkets, and chanting slogans against Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

"What can I do with three liters? Set myself on fire? Please let the authorities hear my voice that we cannot live like this. Life has become very difficult for us, I cannot support my wife and children anymore."

The unrest resulted in the arrest of some 80 people. Unconfirmed reports say that several people were injured and one woman was killed in southwestern Iran. The unrest, described by some as "gasoline riots," reportedly also led to the temporary closure of the country's mobile phone text messaging network by authorities who were trying to prevent unrest and protests from spreading.

The website reported that Iran's Supreme National Security Council reacted by ordering media to abstain from reporting on the damage, fires, and casualties that may have resulted from the protests over the rationing plan.

In recent months, Iran's top security body has also put journalists under pressure not to criticize the country's nuclear policies and not to depict the Iranian government's dealings in the nuclear crisis as unsuccessful.

Several Tehran-based journalists contacted by RFE/RL refused to be interviewed about the rationing and its results.

Banning The Story

A reporter from the daily "Sharq" told Radio Farda that journalists have been told not to talk to foreign media about the rationing situation and other related issues.

Despite the warning, reformist newspapers criticized the government's surprise move and said it disrupted people's life and created confusion.

Ruzbeh Mir-Ebrahimi, a pro-reform journalist and blogger, criticized the "security pressure" on the media. He wrote in his blog that many of the pictures that Iran's ISNA news agency had published on its website about the gas-rationing riots were "predictably" removed. He said he will publish "the censored pictures," adding that "the truth cannot be erased."

Other bloggers and websites have also covered the post-gas-rationing chaos and violence and some have even posted pictures of the torched stations, longs queues of citizens, and traffic jams.

In contrast, Iranian state television did not initially mention the violence that resulted from the introduction of quotas and advised people to remain calm and not to worry about the rationing. The TV reports also interviewed several citizens who expressed support for the plan.

The hard-line daily "Keyhan" blamed opponents of the government for the unrest in Tehran and other cities.

Officials have said that "enemies" and "opportunist elements" were behind the damages from the protests.

Anger At Ahmadinejad

A hard-line legislator, Amir Reza Khadem, was quoted as saying that Iran's enemies call the gas-rationing plan the "Islamic Republic's Achilles' heel," but he added that the overall results of the implementation of the plan will be positive.

Many observers believe the plan poses a threat to Ahmadinejad, who had promised to improve people's lives and share oil income fairly. Yet in recent months prices have gone up, and discontent over Ahmadinejad's economic policies has been growing.

Here is how a Radio Farda listener sees the situation: "[Authorities] raise the price of gas, arrest people in the streets; they have forgotten about freedom of expression, press freedom, and other similar issues. If they raise the price of gas they devalue themselves."

A gas station north of Tehran goes up in flames on June 27

The new rationing plan allows only about three liters of gas per day for private cars. Taxi drivers will be allowed to buy 800 liters a month at a subsidized, lower price.

Many low-income Iranians or jobless citizens use their vehicles as a private taxi to generate income. Those people will now have a more difficult time earning a living.

Among them is this man in Tehran: "What can I do with three liters? Set myself on fire? Please let the authorities hear my voice that we cannot live like this. Life has become very difficult for us, I cannot support my wife and children anymore."

The rationing plan is an attempt by Iran's government to curb consumption and reduce enormous state spending on gasoline imports.

Despite Iran's status as a major crude oil producer, the country lacks the necessary refining capacity and must import about 40 percent of its gasoline.

Some newspapers have criticized the government for taking citizens by surprise and implementing the plan without giving proper prior notice.

There has been also criticism from some legislators who have said the plan causes public discontent.

Tehran's New International TV Station Faces Hurdles

By Farangis Najibullah
June 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Press TV, a 24-hour English-language news channel, says it aims to break the Western hold on the world's broadcast media by presenting an alternative view on global news when it goes on the air on July 2. Experts question the Tehran-based news network's ability to compete with organizations like CNN, the BBC, and the new Al-Jazeera International.

Press TV is Iran's round-the-clock, English-language news channel set to go on the air on July 2.

Network Of Correspondents

On its website, which was launched in January, Press TV says that it aims "to break the global media stranglehold of Western outlets."

Experts question Press TV's capacity to attract many viewers worldwide.

The news network says it has a staff of more than 400, including 26 reporters outside Iran, including in Britain, the United States, and such cities as Jerusalem, Gaza City, and Ramallah.

The Tehran-based channel pledges to broadcast a half-hour news program followed by talk shows and documentaries, some of them live from Damascus, New York, and Washington.

Press TV says it will "specifically focus on the Middle East." It will be joining an already crowded 24-hour English-language news market, which for years has been dominated by the BBC and CNN.

Russia Today, France 24 and, most recently, Al-Jazeera International, have also entered the international English-language news arena in the past year.

Some experts both inside and outside Iran say it is unlikely that Press TV will find a large audience.

Free Of Propaganda?

Isa Saharkhiz is a member of the Association for Press Freedom in Iran. Speaking to RFE/RL from Tehran, Saharkhiz says that in a country where freedom of information is suppressed, it is almost impossible to set up an objective and propaganda-free news outlet.

"When there is censorship and self-censorship, obviously, editors in international news networks -- including the one we are talking about -- are forced to comply with censorship and self-censorship by ignoring some news and exaggerating other unimportant news," he said.

Additionally, some observers argue that because of what they consider the repressive nature of the Iranian regime, a state-run news channel would not be trusted by Westerners as a reliable source of information.

Saharkhiz adds that the probable Islamic dress code for the broadcasters on the Tehran-based news channel might be another obstacle for Press TV to find an audience in the West.

He says Press TV will face a dilemma over the way its broadcasters dress. "If female presenters do not wear headscarves -- in order to appeal to Western audiences -- there will be a backlash in Iran with hard-liners protesting and trying to close the channel down," Saharkhiz says.

News agencies quoted Mohammad Sarfaraz, the head of international services for the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) as saying that Press TV will try "to give a second eye to Western audiences." However, experts question Press TV's capacity to attract many viewers worldwide.

Glimpse Into Iranian Society

Claire Spencer is the head of Middle East programs at the London-based think tank Chatham House.

Spencer says Press TV might find some viewers in the West -- especially those who are interested in views coming out of Iran -- but it will not be a massive audience.

"I think occasionally from the outside people are mystified as to how the Iranian political system works," she said. "And if [Press TV uses] the opportunity to demonstrate the diversity of Iranian society as well as just covering politics, then I think that may be beneficial for those who are unaware of what is going on in Iran in all its senses -- culturally, socially, economically, as well as politically."

Iranian President Ahmadinejad (file photo)

Alireza Nurizadeh, the head of the Center for Arab and Iranian Studies in London, says Iran's other international channels have failed to attract viewers.

"Iran has spent millions of dollars in the past years to set up channels such as Sahar or Al-Alam," he said. "But, unfortunately, these investments have brought no results. The Islamic republic has never succeeded in attracting viewers who want to watch or to hear alternative news."

IRIB, an Iranian state broadcaster, already runs the Arabic-language news channels Al-Alam and Al-Kawthar, as well as the Persian-language Jam-e Jam, which broadcasts to Iranians living abroad.

Iran: Amnesty Criticizes 'Child Executions'

By Valentinas Mite

Amnesty says Iran has executed 24 children since 1990 (file photo)

June 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- In April, 20-year-old Said Mohammad Reza Musavi Shirazi was executed. His crime? A murder he allegedly committed when he was 16.

According to a June 27 Amnesty International report, in Iran, defendants younger than 18 are being hanged after quick decisions and hurried procedures.

The 41-page report, titled "Iran: The Last Executioner of Children," lists names and details of each known case. It also says the actual number of executions is higher because many death-penalty cases in Iran go unreported.

"Amnesty International has issued this report to point to the crisis that Iran's children, juveniles, in Iran face when they commit a crime and they face execution," Amnesty International spokeswoman Nicol Shoueiry said.

Capital Offenses

In Iran, capital offenses include adultery by married people, incest, rape, four convictions of an unmarried person for fornication, three convictions for drinking alcohol, or four convictions for homosexual acts among men.

Amnesty says that several of those on death row belong to minority groups -- Iranian Arabs, Afghans, homosexuals. The report says that some on death row are young girls who had been abused.

Shoueiry said Amnesty International is calling for concrete steps to stop the practice. "One of the main things that we are calling for in this report is a change of the law that continues to allow or to sustain heinous practices," she said. "One of the other things that we also are calling for in the report is that there should be a moratorium on all executions [in Iran]."

Amnesty says at least 71 child offenders are believed to be currently awaiting the death penalty in Iran, while 24 child offenders have executed since 1990, more than any other country in the world.

"The only countries in which the executions of child offenders have taken place since 2003 are China, Sudan, and Pakistan," Shoueiry said. "And as I said, there is a trend, there is a tendency towards either abolishing this practice in other countries or even imposing a moratorium on such executions. So in a way, Iran unfortunately is still going against the trend by continuing to execute children."

Both the Chinese and Pakistani authorities have insisted that those executed were aged 18 or over at the time the crime was committed.

Iran has signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which forbid executing anyone for an offense committed under the age of 18.

Is Iran Sending Weapons to Afghanistan's Taliban?

By Ron Synovitz
June 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The discovery of Iranian-made weapons in western Afghanistan has been confirmed by the United States, NATO, and the Afghan government. But there is no clear evidence to prove the Iranian government has had a role in sending those weapons to Taliban militants, though several independent experts say it's involvement appears likely.

U.S. and British officials say weapons crossing the border from Iran into Afghanistan are turning up in the hands of Taliban fighters.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said there is no evidence to confirm a direct role by the Iranian government in smuggling weapons to the Taliban. He says the Taliban could be using funds obtained from the illicit opium trade to purchase weapons from criminal groups. But Gates says Washington suspects the Iranian government is involved.

"Our enemy [and the enemy of the Iraqi fighters] is the same and we have the same goal." -- Taliban spokesman

Suspicious But Unproven

"I haven't seen any intelligence specifically to this effect, but I would say, given the quantities we are seeing, it is difficult to believe that it is associated with smuggling or the drug business or that it is taking place without the knowledge of the Iranian government," he said.

Imad Jad, a Mideast expert at Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan today that the Iranian government appears to be aiding militants throughout the region.

"Iran has relations with the Hamas movement and is using the issue [of Gaza] for it's own regional vision," Jad said. "And also, for leverage in negotiations with Western countries in order to try keep its nuclear program. So there is an Iranian role in Gaza, indeed. And there is also an Iranian role in Lebanon through Hizballah. There is an Iranian role in Iraq and strong cooperation between Iran and Syria. So Iran is involved in more than one country in the region."

Ahmed Rashid, a journalist from Pakistan and author of the book "Taliban," has been reporting on Afghanistan since 1979. He tells RFE/RL that he is certain that Iran is also supporting factional warlords and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.

Financial Support

"I have no doubt that Iran has been involved in channeling money and arms to various elements in Afghanistan, including the Taliban, for the last few years," he said. "They have long-running relations with many of the commanders and small time warlords in western Afghanistan. I think Iran is playing all sides in the Afghan conflict. And there are Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns who are being funded by Iran who are active in western Afghanistan. If the Iranians are convinced that the Americans are undermining them through western Afghanistan, then it is very likely that these agents of theirs have been activated."

Rahul Bedi, a South Asia correspondent for the London-based "Jane's Defence Weekly," says he thinks Washington has good reason to suspect the Iranian government is sending weapons to the Taliban.

"There is something to be said for this," Bedi said. "There are Iranian-made weapons that are turning up both in Iraq and in Afghanistan. And I think it is a sense of deja vu, because it is duplicating what the CIA did when the Soviets were occupying Afghanistan. A lot of the weapons that were given to the mujahedin fighters to dislodge the Soviet [forces] were sourced in third or different countries because of the element of deniability. In this case, I think the Iranians have probably learned from that experience of the CIA and the mujahedin and they are trying to duplicate, more or less, a similar operation."

Earlier this month, Afghan President Hamid Karzai rejected allegations that the Iranian government was sending weapons to Taliban fighters in an attempt to destabilize his country.

"We don't have any such evidence so far of the involvement of the Iranian government in supplying the Taliban," he said. "We have a very good relationship with the Iranian government. Iran and Afghanistan have never been as friendly as they are today."

NATO spokesman James Appathurai also says the alliance cannot prove the Iranian government has been directly involved in smuggling weapons to the Taliban.

Iranian Origin

"The line that you have seen from NATO remains the same, and that is that ISAF and international forces have come across weapons that seem to be of Iranian origin in Afghanistan," he said. "There is, from the point of view of NATO and ISAF, no clear intelligence linking this to the active involvement of the Iranian government."

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Sharafudeen Stanikzai has documented and photographed Iranian-produced land mines and other weapons that are being used by militants in western Afghanistan near the border with Iran.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer also announced this month that a powerful and sophisticated type of roadside bomb that is prevalent in Iraq has been discovered near a university in Kabul.

Until that discovery, suicide and roadside bombs in Afghanistan had never been as deadly or sophisticated as those in Iraq.

The so-called EFPs -- or explosively-formed projectiles -- are capable of penetrating armored vehicles. And the U.S. military has accused Iran of helping Iraqi insurgents to build and deploy EFPs.

Copying Iraqi Insurgents

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan by telephone from an undisclosed location this week that Taliban fighters are, indeed, studying and copying the techniques and weaponry used by Iraqi insurgents.

"We are studying which operations are the most effective on the ground," he said. "We will focus our future operations on Kabul because our enemy is concentrated there. Our enemy [and the enemy of the Iraqi fighters] is the same and we have the same goal. That's why we want to conduct the same kind of operations as the Iraqi mujahedin. The reason is that their operations have caused a large number of casualties to the enemy. They have been successful and so we are now following exactly the same tactics and structure of operations."

In May, Turkish authorities reportedly seized a cargo of machine guns and pistols hidden among construction materials on a Syria-bound train from Iran. Turkish officials say that discovery has led them to suspect that Iran is using Turkey as a transit point to send arms to Lebanon's Hizballah movement via Syria.

For its part, the Iranian government denies it has provided military support to militants in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, or the Palestinian territories. But Tehran does admit sending what it calls political, moral, and humanitarian support to Hamas and Hizballah.

But even humanitarian support to those groups has led to criticism within Tehran from ordinary Iranians who say their government should be more concerned about worsening economic conditions in Iran.