Two Years Into Term, Ahmadinejad Grapples With Economy
By Niusha Boghrati
July 31, 2007 (Radio Farda) -- Two years have passed since the former hard-line mayor of Tehran, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, came to power on a pledge to improve the economic conditions for Iran's citizens.
Yet many believe that the economy has in the past two years revealed itself as the Iranian president's Achilles heel.
"Iran's economy is currently moving just on the edge of a collapse," Paris-based economics professor Fereydoon Khavand tells Radio Farda. "Ahmadinejad's decisions have led to economic chaos in the country. At present, nobody knows which direction Iran's economy is heading or what the country's economic goals are."
Since Ahmadinejad's inauguration on August 6, 2005, the Islamic establishment has taken a tougher line on a number of domestic and international issues, including Iran's nuclear program.
But for many low income Iranians, it is the worsening economic situation that has most affected their lives.
In contrast to the previous reformist administration -- which had made international relations and civil-society values a priority -- Ahmadinejad won major support from economic promises, with the best-known among them his vow to "bring the petroleum income on people's tables" accompanied by a campaign motto promising that "It's possible, and we can do it."
Yet critics say the pledge to battle poverty with which Ahmadinejad initially began his presidency has gone unfulfilled.
Economist Fereidun Khavand believes the reason for the "chaotic" economic situation is that the president "shifted the circle of economic decision-making from the Ministry of Finance and Economics, the Planning and Management Committee, and the Iranian Central Bank to the presidential administration solely."
Among the tensions that Ahmadinejad's government has encountered in the first half of its term, it has been economical dissatisfaction that has provoked major and widespread protests and challenged his policies.
Protests for workers' unpaid salaries, nationwide teacher protests over low wages, and eventually protests against gasoline rationing in the country resulting in burned-out gas stations -- these have emerged as the greatest symptoms of friction confronting President Ahmadinejad.
Within the general population, sharp price rises and a lower standard of living in Iran under Ahmadinejad's administration have made his policies unpopular. In recent months, a number of significant protests and strikes by workers and employees over low or unpaid wages have been reported in Iran.
Perhaps the most vivid example of unrest came in the form of well-attended protests and demonstrations organized by Iranian teachers in March and April 2007 to call for higher wages.
The protests were confronted by the government, and hundreds of teachers across the country were arrested and detained.
"How I, my wife, and my two kids are supposed to live on 220,000 tomans ($240) a month when rent for our apartment alone is 180,000 tomans ($200) a month?" one of the protesting teachers who was arrested and spent a day in detention asked. " Where is the oil money that the government was supposed to distribute equally?" another protesting teacher in Eslamshahr asked, according to ILNA.
In two years of Ahmadinejad leadership, what critics have described as a "mishandling of the economic administration" has led to a sharp rise in the inflation rate, resulting in an unprecedented increase in prices across the country.
While the government says the inflation rate is currently between 12 and 13 percent, sources like Iran's Parliament Research Center indicate that the number is up around 20 percent.
Nevertheless "even an inflation rate of 12 percent is still far above the inflation rates of all other countries in the region, with the exception of Palestine and Iraq," Khavand says.
Khavand attributes Iran's economic problems to Ahmadinejad's disruption of international relations with the outside world, which he says have led international investors to look elsewhere than Iran. "Today, Ahmadinejad only manages the country on a day-to-day basis with the help of oil revenues," Khavand tells Radio Farda.
An open letter signed by 57 economists from around the country and issued in June lambasted Ahmadinejad's economic policies and accused him of "ignoring the basic principles of economy." The university professors warned in the letter that "government mismanagement is inflicting a huge cost on the economy and underscore that high oil revenues over the last two years can only delay the imminent economic crisis."
That crisis was not long in coming. On June 26, angry Iranians attacked several gas stations to protest the government's suddenly imposition of long-threatened new limits fuel rationing. The Oil Ministry announced the start of the new rationing regime just three hours before it was due to begin at midnight, and the rush of the car owners seeking one last chance to fill up appeared to spark the violence.
According to the head of the Council of Gas Station Owners, Nasser Raisifar, at least five gas stations were totally destroyed in blazes set by angry motorists in Tehran. Many other gas stations were seriously damaged in the capital without being completely destroyed.
The new rationing plan allows the owners of private automobiles just 100 liters of heavily subsidized gas per month. Taxi drivers are allowed 800 liters a month at the subsidized price.
Gasoline is sold at a price of around 1,000 rials ($0.11) per liter in Iran, about one-fifth of its actual cost.
Iran is the second-largest exporter of crude oil among Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). But its low refining capacity means it has had to import more than half of the gasoline it consumes. To keep prices low, the government subsidizes gasoline sales, saddling it with enormous costs.
Critics concede that escalating gasoline prices and tighter rationing were theoretically a necessary step for Iran, but they say the timing and mechanism for implementation were inexpertly handled.
"Was it a proper move? The answer is yes. But was it a moral move? Definitely no!" Parviz Mina, an energy expert tells Radio Farda. "In a period when the country suffers from a sick economy, when people cannot afford daily living, and when wages are delayed for months, economic morality surpasses theory -- especially for one of the top energy resources in the entire world."
The new rationing also sparked an overnight increase in already high prices for related and unrelated goods, from taxi fares to cigarettes to foodstuffs.
"The prices of meat, beans, rice, and fruit went up," Peyman Pakmehr a journalist based in Tabriz, told Radi Farda less than 24 hours after the new rationing kicked in. "When people ask shopkeepers why, they say it was because of the rise in gasoline prices."
According to official government reports, 12 percent of the population in Iran lives under the poverty line; some skeptics think the true figure is much higher.
Ahmadinejad has defended his economic policies and called on his critics to offer practical solutions. His government has accused the media of exaggerating economic problems.
The Iranian president has on his numerous provincial trips sought to associate with the masses of the lower economic classes, but some observers think that what they describe as Ahmadinejad's "economic failure " has led to a decrease in his popularity.
"We all welcomed him to town cheerfully and with open arms when Mr. Ahmadinejad came to Semnan," a Radio Farda listener said in a message left days after the launch of the new gasoline rationing. "That, he can be sure, would never happen again!"
(Radio Farda's Roozeh Bolhari contributed to this story)
Iran: Proxy Battle To Counter Internet 'Filtering'
By Niusha Boghrati
Filtered cafe (file photo)
July 24, 2007 (Radio Farda) -- It is among the most familiar phrases to the roughly 8 million-11 million web surfers in Iran, the second-largest Internet user in the Middle East behind Israel.
"You Are Not Authorized To View This Page!"
More than 10 million websites are currently being "filtered" in Iran, according to the state Information Technology Company.
The range of blocked websites includes a handful of pornographic, political, or human rights-related addresses and even some forum websites.
At a time when the country suffers from what human rights defenders describe as a severe "information crackdown," a group of young Iranians inside the country is determined to battle the dominant policy of online censorship imposed by the Iranian leadership.
The group Iran Proxy is formed by some Iranian youngsters who believe that this "new dictatorial barrier" must be fought from inside of the country -- and that they must remain underground to be able to do so.
Iran Proxy describes itself as the first anti-filtering group inside Iran. It says it is focused on introducing and promoting simple -- and yet technologically advanced -- ways of helping Iranian users skirt web filters.
"Iran Proxy tries to teach to the Iranian users the advanced methods of getting around this new dictatorial barrier, which is the result of false policies of governments and religious extremists, in a simplified and understandable way through publication of a series of articles, one of the underground group's members tells Radio Farda on condition of anonymity. "We also plan to introduce the new anti-filter software and proxies to users."
Iran Proxy has so far created tens of proxy websites with search ability and also featuring fixed links to news websites that are currently being blocked by the Iranian government. The proxies, which get updated constantly and can be e-mailed to users, help surfers to enter the restricted pages.
Reporters Without Borders ranks Iran's press situation as "very serious," the worst ranking on the nongovernmental group's five-point scale. Iran's Internet censorship policy is described as "pervasive" by the OpenNet Initiative's global Internet-filtering map, the worst ranking it assigns to countries.
"According to the results of the worldwide research carried out between the years 2004 and 2005 by the OpenNet Initiative, Iran was filtering around 30 percent of the target websites," Iran Proxy tells Radio Farda. "The results revealed that Iran was practicing one of the strictest methods of Internet filtering."
The filtering in Iran primarily focuses on Persian-language websites, including numerous weblogs. In recent years and under circumstances in which writers, activists, and others complained of the absence of a free speech platform in the country, the phenomenon of blogging quickly found a place among the growing number of Iranian web surfers.
Rising Demand Meets With Official Intolerance
Weblogs rapidly earned a reputation as an electronic replacement that featured two basic and necessary characteristics of the desired political and social platforms for Iranians: capability to interact and security. The popularity of the platform reached a point that -- with around 700,000 enthusiast writers -- Persian language has become the fourth most-blogged language on the Internet.
But tolerance for the new phenomenon did not last long.
"As for the Persian websites, the blocked-pages figure totals something above 50 percent."
Shahram Rafizadeh, Sina Motallebi, Arash Sigarchi, Mojtaba Sami Nejad, Ruzbeh Mir Ebrahimi and Omid Memarian were among the journalists and bloggers who were arrested and prosecuted for their online writings. Along with the suppression, limitations were imposed on accessing websites, most of which included Persian news and analytical websites and weblogs.
"The statistics provided by OpenNet's research back in 2004 and 2005 showed that around 5 percent of English news websites were blocked at the time," an Iran Proxy member says. "As for the Persian websites, the blocked-pages figure totals something above 50 percent. Access to 100 percent of the pornographic websites and 95 percent of the proxy websites are restricted, too. This, of course, [was the case] three years ago."
Many Iranian officials have strongly defended the concept of "having control over the Internet" by highlighting what they described as the "necessity of preventing the access to pornographic sources." That point, which might win the support of concerned parents, later got overshadowed by features of the later versions of the Microsoft Windows operating system that provide its users with a chance to arrange their own restrictions and basically rule out the need for any external monitoring.
However, the new facilities to block pornography do not appear to have had much impact on Tehran's determination to keep -- and even broaden -- its surveillance over the use of the World Wide Web.
"In recent months, the Iranian state-run telecommunications center has begun the launch of an entirely new filtering system that includes a software robot able to observe viewed web pages and block them after drawing a comparison with the defined algorithms," Iran Proxy tells Radio Farda. "The new supervision system has got additional features that add to the country's filtering ability," the source adds. "The ability to block pages that link to filtered websites is one of the features of the new method that is currently being applied. Given these facts, if OpenNet repeats the research now, it will encounter blocking results so much higher that they might even be unimaginable."
In one of its latest unexpected policy actions, Iran's Internet service providers (ISPs) have been banned since late 2006 from providing Internet connections faster than 128 kilobytes per second (kbps) to homes and cafes. It is a move that critics regard as part of a media clampdown.
Experts believe that the decision is much broader in scope than the previous policy of suppression. It can also be considered among the first times that the Iranian government has openly denied its people access to "technology" in favor of censorship.
Human rights groups accuse Iran of launching an accelerating crackdown on information sources, including the Internet, in an effort to silence critics. They charge that the process has intensified since Mahmud Ahmadinejad became Iran's president two years ago.
Tehran denies the charges.
(with contributions by Radio Farda's online staff)
Iranian Leaders Appear Pleased With Televised 'Confessions'
By Vahid Sepehri
July 24, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Western media or rights bodies might be disconcerted at the spectacle of three detainees purportedly "confessing" on Iranian state television to "subversive" activities against the Iranian government. But Iranian officials and government allies appear to regard the recent televised confessions of three middle-class Iranian-Americans as satisfactory evidence that the United States is using Iranians to gradually overthrow Iran's polity.
Iranian officials have claimed that the type of academic or civil-society initiatives in which the detainees were engaged essentially served as a front for a longer-term strategy to bring about a "velvet revolution" in Iran.
The Islamic Republic of Iran News Network (IRINN) broadcast statements by Haleh Esfandiari of the Woodrow Wilson Institute; Kian Tajbakhsh, a city planning consultant working with the Soros Foundation; and a former detainee, sociologist and philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo in a two-part program called "In The Name Of Democracy" that was broadcast on July 18 and 19.
The program documented what its producers argued were U.S. plans for peaceful regime change in Iran.
Government spokesman Gholamhossein Elham told reporters on July 22 that the televised confessions did not constitute "legal" evidence but rather revealed "the nature of a cultural assault" on Iran by the United States. At the same time, he said the security-related "criminal" charges against Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh are separate issues to be dealt with by the judiciary and investigators. He suggested that "the issue of their being spies and charges against them concern judges and the judiciary," adding that "they have committed a criminal offense, an act against national security with the methods they used."
The head of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Alaeddin Borujerdi, argued on July 21 that the program provided "outstanding" evidence of alleged U.S. "interference in Iran's internal affairs," the "Javan" daily reported. He said the detainees' statements showed how the United States is allocating what he described as "enormous sums" to "obstruct" Iran.
Elsewhere, Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai said the televised statements demonstrate that -- despairing of swiftly removing Iran's government -- Washington has turned to more gradualist and "long-term" initiatives. Rezai urged state television to provide the public with "in-depth" programs informing them of "the tricks and tactics of this new conspiracy."
The conservative Islamic Coalition's Hamid Reza Taraqqi said the televised remarks showed the way the United States is violating international laws, adding that countries in the region should take note. Taraqqi said Iran should present evidence and take unspecified legal action against the United States for allegedly violating the UN Charter. He avoided saying whether he thought the detainees' televised statements constituted such evidence. Iran's judiciary has reportedly said those broadcast remarks have no "legal weight." Taraqqi expressed concern that the United States was seeking out "political elites and students" to use as allegedly subversive instruments in the country. He said those groups are well-suited to such a purpose because of their tendency to criticize.
Conservative dailies have echoed such approving positions. The daily "Iran" commented on July 22 that the program has shown the public the real aims of apparent civil-society programs run by groups like the Soros Foundation -- allegedly to create interconnected "lobbies," detach society from government, and incite social groups such as students or workers. The paper noted that the "current" that includes the Soros Foundation might have had some success in attaining allegedly subversive aims in recent years in countries like Georgia or the Ukraine -- where mass demonstrations forced initially unyielding governments to stand down. It added that in Iran, however, it has "merely managed to take up two hours of the national broadcasting medium's time needed to identify and reveal these sinister goals." "Iran" daily also denounced an unspecified website for criticizing the broadcasts, and speculated that that criticism itself might be a sign of the United States' ongoing efforts at what it called "infiltration."
The right-wing daily "Resalat" commented on July 22 that the confessions indicate Iran has gone on the "offensive" against alleged U.S. plans to subvert it. It accused Esfandiari's lawyer, Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, of being one of a wider circle of Iranians possibly involved with these subversive plans. The paper asked how Ebadi -- suggesting she was herself a suspect -- could presume to defend Esfandiari and criticize judicial procedures in the case. It claimed that Iranian security agencies have already identified a number of other Iranians involved with a broader plot -- including presumably Ebadi. But it said authorities are not revealing those names -- or have censored the names of some of them mentioned on the television program -- to give them time to consider whether they are "with the Iranian nation" or its "enemies."
Some Iranian Critics
The programs showing Esfandiari, Tajbakhsh, and Jahanbegloo have also faced some criticism inside Iran. The pro-reform daily "Hambastegi" argued, according to AP, that this is no longer the age of televised confessions, adding that Western states would be using the method if it were useful.
Tehran-based analyst Mohsen Shafii told AP separately that the televised statements were "propaganda," as the people shown were not free. Iranian government spokesman Elham denied that the detainees had been pressured, saying that Iranian authorities "act within the bounds of the law" and adding that "that is the policy of our Islamic and moral system."
The reformist Participation Front issued a statement questioning the usefulness of such programs in informing the public of allegedly "unfriendly" U.S. polices, "Etemad-i Melli" reported on July 23. The Participation Front said the program was likely designed for "domestic consumption" and "in line with" allegedly restrictive policies of the "governing current" ahead of parliamentary elections. The party warned of "preparations" made "in the shadow of such scenarios and spectacles" to "pressure the country's political society."
It should be noted that Iranian authorities also continue to limit the freedom of two other Iranian-Americans on security-related charges -- including Radio Farda broadcaster Parnaz Azima, whose passport was confiscated, and Ali Shakeri, a founding board member of the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding at the University of California at Irvine.
Iranian officials might concede that the televised remarks do not constitute legal evidence against Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh. But one might suspect they also claim to have other evidence for use in any trial. The broadcasts appear to provide them with the political evidence they might need to accuse the United States and its alleged agents of foul play and subversion in Iran.
That might prove useful in quelling dissent in Iran, as the Participation Front has warned. As the comments of officials in recent weeks have shown, the government does not see subversion coming from a restricted quarter. Its logic appears to be that many groups -- students, journalists, workers, feminists, "elites," reformists, and liberal aspirants to parliamentary seats -- are potential, and perhaps unwitting, agents of Iran's enemies. Last week's broadcasts appear to represent an effort by the Iranian government to provide substance to the frequent -- but vague -- claims of subversion and "creeping coups" that it has made in recent months.
Iraq: Al-Maliki Urges U.S., Iran To Support Stability
By Andrew Tully
Iran's ambassador to Iraq, Hasan Kazemi-Qomi (left) and his U.S. counterpart, Ryan Crocker (file photos)
July 24, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has urged Washington and Tehran to support stability in Iraq. His call came at the opening of talks on Iraqi security in Baghdad between ambassadors from the United States and Iran.
Al-Maliki said he hoped both countries would support stability in an Iraq "that doesn't interfere in the affairs of others nor want anyone to meddle in its own affairs."
The two envoys -- Ryan Crocker and Hasan Kazemi-Qomi -- had a first round of talks in May, the highest-level meeting between the two countries since 1980.
There appears to have been little change in either country's public pronouncements since then, however, and many observers express little optimism this second round will make much progress, either.
That feeling may best be summed up by Mithal al-Alusi, a Sunni Muslim member of the Iraqi parliament.
"Well, really I believe that nothing will [come] out of this meeting," al-Alusi said in an interview with Radio Farda. "We haven't seen any kind of Iranian willing[ness] to stop supporting the terrorists and the militias, and the corruption in Iraq, but also in Lebanon, also in Syria, also in Hamas. So Iranian [policy] is very aggressive, not useful, and against the interests of many nations in the Middle East. So that's why I will be really wondering if something will [come] out of the meeting."
Playing For Time?
If today's meeting accomplishes nothing else, al-Alusi says, it will demonstrate Tehran is merely playing for time, perhaps as a way to advance its nuclear program.
Iran has in the past denied such accusations and said that it wants a stable Iraq. But Washington accuses Tehran of fomenting unrest in Iraq and says Iran needs to match its actions with words.
"[The meeting] is designed to see if Iran will change its behavior, and we can talk about issues related to Iraq," U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters on July 23. "We think that this kind of engagement is important, that at the very least, we can have a direct message to the Iranians that if they truly do want a more stable, secure, prosperous Iraq, they're going to have to change their behavior."
Mehrdad Khonsari, a former Iranian diplomat, tells Radio Farda that success for either or both sides is mostly a matter of will.
"It is definitely a positive step," Khonsari says. "But for the talks to reach a result and lead to a solution, both sides should really want it."
Khonsari says perhaps each side sees the other's demands as unacceptable. He says the United States probably believes it can't persuade Iran to end its suspected involvement in Iraq, while Iran likely believes it can't persuade the United States and Britain to withdraw its troops quickly from Iraq.
A Success, Of Sorts
Houshang Amirahmadi takes a different view. Amirahmadi is a professor at Rutgers University in the United States and head of the nongovernmental American-Iranian Council.
He tells Radio Farda that the very fact the two sides are meeting again proves the first meeting was a success, of sorts.
"I evaluate positively the fact that both countries have agreed to face each other and talk to each other directly," Amirahmadi says. "It means that both sides had a positive assessment of the first round of talks, apart from the fact that they have continued to make accusations against each other."
"I evaluate positively the fact that both countries have agreed to face each other and talk to each other directly." -- Houshang Amirahmadi
Carah Ong, a policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, a private think tank in Washington, believes the time lag between the two meetings may be working against the kind of momentum that the United States and Iraq need to begin building mutual trust.
Eight weeks is too long between meetings, she says, recommending instead interim sessions, perhaps involving lower-level diplomats, to maintain an improved relationship.
"I think the way the structure of meetings has been set up -- with eight-week intervals and a long time to set them up -- I think that at this point, no, they're not really set up for success," Ong says. "It seems that there [are] a lot of accusations going back and forth in the media in both countries. It seems like a far better approach would be for more sustained dialogue occurring more frequently, perhaps, in between some of these larger meetings."
There's been some speculation that the meeting might include topics other than Iraq -- such as Iran's nuclear program. But the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has been emphatic that the talks will focus solely on how Iran can help stabilize Iraq.
But wouldn't a casual broadening of the subject matter breed familiarity and help generate friendly momentum?
Ordinarily, she says, she would prefer the broadest possible contacts between the two countries. But in this case, she concludes, a well-focused agenda is best.
"Because of the process itself, it's taken essentially eight weeks for the U.S. to really approve of this meeting, even though the Iranians had put forward the suggestion of having a follow-up meeting sooner after the May 28 meeting," Ong says. "I think it suggests that actually both sides have a harder line -- that they're going to stick to this subject [of Iraq security]. And I actually think, at this point, that they should focus on Iraq for the time being until there has been more ground work laid to better the relations between the two countries."
After all, Ong says, Iraq is now the most important topic for both Iran and the United States. If they can make even small progress on that topic, perhaps the stage will be set for progress in other areas, as well.
Those disputes include the international effort to curb Iran's nuclear program and U.S. suspicions that Tehran is turning a blind eye -- or worse -- to militants and weapons crossing Iran's border into Afghanistan.
Today's meeting also comes after Iran aired "televised confessions" on July 18-19 of two detained Iranian-Americans who are accused by Iranian officials of involvement in efforts to carry out a U.S.-backed "velvet revolution" in Iran.
The broadcasts were strongly condemned by human rights groups and the United States.
Iranian authorities also continue to hold two other Iranian-Americans, including Radio Farda broadcaster Parnaz Azima and Ali Shakeri, a founding board member of the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding at the University of California at Irvine.
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Iran: Case Of Canadian Citizen's Prison Death Unlikely To Be Reopened
By Vahid Sepehri
July 20, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- An Iranian judiciary official recently
admitted to some procedural flaws with investigations into the 2003
death in custody of the Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi.
But those comments and a recent Supreme Court hearing complaints from
Kazemi family lawyers indicate that the case is unlikely to be reopened.
Kazemi died in July 2003 -- perhaps as a result of a vigorous interrogation that included beatings in Tehran's Evin prison -- while in the custody of Intelligence Ministry and judiciary agents.
Her detention and interrogation are believed to have been supervised by Tehran's chief prosecutor, Said Mortazavi. She had been arrested for taking pictures of protesters outside the prison.
The judiciary later acquitted one Intelligence Ministry agent charged with involvement in her death, but this has proved neither satisfactory to Tehran's chief prosecutor's office -- which insists the agent should have been convicted -- or the Kazemi family lawyers, who believe he was a scapegoat and that others, perhaps including Mortazavi, should have been questioned in court.
Lawyers have objected to several aspects of the case. First, they say the judiciary should have been prosecuting a murder case, not Kazemi's "unintentional" killing during interrogation. They add that more people should have been summoned to court, as many people were likely involved in her detention, interrogation, or medical examination inside and outside prison.
'Silence Accomplice To Impunity'
Rights groups have seconded lawyers' demands for a full reexamination of her case. Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said on July 10 that the case should be fully reexamined if there is any hope of finding the true culprits in her death, Radio Farda reported.
RSF's Reza Moini told Radio Farda on July 10 that the case should continue to receive publicity, as "silence is an accomplice of impunity" in Iran.
Moini rejected the Iranian government's insistence that there should be no mention of "murder" in relation with the incident. He said that "as [Abdolfattah] Soltani and [other attorneys] have said, this case must start over again. Investigations were not complete and there were many flaws. Injustice has been done to certain people in this case, and claims that this was an unintentional or quasi-intentional killing is basically not the case. This was a murder." Procedural Flaws
Iran's judiciary disagrees, as indicated by the recent comments of a representative of the Iranian prosecutor-general who attended a July 1-2 session to hear the lawyers' complaints. The session was attended by four lawyers representing the Kazemi party, the attorney of the Intelligence Ministry agent acquitted in earlier trials, the Tehran chief prosecutor's representative, and the prosecutor-general's representative, Yadollah Alizadeh, the daily "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on July 15.
The Kazemi lawyers argued that the Tehran Chief Prosecutor's Office should have investigated a murder. Kazemi, they said, was killed by an "intentional" blow to the head, the daily reported. But, they added, it decided to investigate an "unintentional killing," which determined the course of subsequent proceedings and choice of courts dealing with the case. Instead of the Tehran provincial penal court, the case was sent to a public court the lawyers say was not competent to deal with this case.
Zahra Kazemi remembered (epa file photo)
Alizadeh's response to the objections indicated that the judiciary admits a procedural flaw, but seems disinclined to reopen the case. He said the lawyers can claim that murder was committed, but only the investigating judge can legally define the offense to be investigated.
Alizadeh said the Tehran Chief Prosecutor's Office had determined the offense to be an unintentional killing, for which it issued an indictment that led to the case's prosecution in the Tehran public and revolutionary courts.
Alizadeh admitted the Prosecutor's Office should have first informed the various parties of its findings on the nature of the offense, before proceeding with subsequent stages. He rejected, however, the legal validity of claims by the Kazemi lawyers that she had been tortured. Even if she had, he said, these claims are not legally valid in a court. Hitting someone on the head, Alizadeh said, does not equate with international definitions of torture.
Alizadeh concluded that the Supreme Court should address the procedural flaw -- the Prosecutor's Office failure to issue a formal statement after its findings on the nature of the offense -- but he effectively rejected the objections of lawyers that the wrong offense had been investigated and the wrong court had investigated the case.Deeper Questions
Alizadeh said he regretted Kazemi's death, but stated she was an Iranian when in Iran and subject to Iranian laws, and he rejected the interference of rights bodies in the case. The Tehran prosecutor's attorney, however, rejected the acquittal of the Intelligence Ministry agent, insisting he should be convicted of manslaughter.
Alizadeh's comments were made not long before those of another Iranian official, Mohammad Javad Larijani, the head of the Tehran-based Iran Human Rights Headquarters, who spoke in support of the recent stoning of a man convicted of adultery.
The comments by the two officials display an admission of procedural flaws coupled with a complete rejection of any criticism of the way Iran exercises its laws, the nature of those laws, and the treatment Iranian citizens -- or even foreigners or former Iranians -- receive under Iran's justice system.
There is also a rejection, by the refusal to mention it, of the possibility that some cases are not ordinary but considered political -- relating to the state -- and thus far too inconvenient if investigated thoroughly.
The most inconvenient aspect of this case for the government, it seems, are the comments or claims by some domestic and foreign observers on the possible involvement of Tehran's chief prosecutor in a criminal offense.
While Alizadeh's comments show the usual proficiency of Iranian officials in citing laws and engaging in argument, they fail to answer some basic questions about the case, namely, why has the judiciary not sought to question all those who are conceivably involved with or likely have information about Kazemi's death? On a more basic level, someone died while in the custody of the Iranian government and those responsible for the death have not been found. What does Iran's judiciary intend to do about that?
Detained Americans Shown Again On Iranian Television
By Heather Maher
Images from the broadcast: Haleh Esfandiari (left), Ramin Jahanbagloo (center), and Kian Tajbakhsh
July 19, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- For the second night in a row, Iranian state television has shown a program featuring two detained Iranian-American scholars who authorities have accused of trying to undermine the regime.
As in the previous night's broadcast
, the program mixed footage of street demonstrations and revolutions in Eastern Europe with shots of U.S. government officials and statements by the two U.S. citizens being held, giving viewers the impression that all were connected.
Haleh Esfandiari and Kian Tajbakhsh were again seen separately on the program, each speaking to an unidentified interviewer. Neither looked physically unwell or seemed distressed.
Toward the end of the 36-minute program, Esfandiari, who runs the Middle East program at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said she had been part of group whose aim was to bring “major change” to Iran.
“It’s been close to five months that I’ve been in Iran, and I found the opportunity to think about the issues, and discussions that we had," Esfandiari said. "I [have come] to the conclusion that we [the Woodrow Wilson Center] became rings in a chain of institutions, research centers, and universities, which tried -- in the name of democracy, in the name of empowering women, in the name of dialogue -- to create networks that would cause major changes in the Iranian regime and would shake this system.”
Esfandiari described meeting a representative of the Soros Foundation in New York -- part of philanthropist George Soros’ Open Society group -- who told her “they were interested in supporting sessions of lectures on Iran.” The implication was that the goal was to create a network of Iranian activists, academics, and foreign supporters interested in sparking government change.
Tajbakhsh, who is an urban planning consultant with Soros’s Open Society Institute -- and, like Esfandiari, has been held in Iran’s Evin prison since May -- said his employer had a “long-term aim” to divide the Iranian government and people, “to put pressure on the government to change.”
He also said that the Soros Institute, a pro-democracy nongovernmental group, has begun to focus its activities on the Islamic world, particularly Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Pakistan.
Video Of Revolutions Shown
Tonight’s broadcast also featured footage of an interview, presumably filmed last year, with Ramin Jahanbegloo, a prominent Iranian-Canadian author and philosopher who spent several months in jail in 2006. He was released in August of 2006 after saying publicly that he had helped the United States undermine the Iranian government.
“Now that I look back at my years of activities from [when I was in the] U.S. to Iran [now], I recognize that I [did] activities that served the interests of the enemies rather than the interests of Iranian people, and I regret that, and I think I have to compensate that the best way possible,” he said.
As before, the broadcast was heavily edited and remarks by Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh were shown in seemingly random order. Their statements were again interspersed with scenes of revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, and President George W. Bush was shown delivering speeches on democracy in Bratislava and Tbilisi.
Rights groups and relatives of the two Americans have condemned the programs and said any statements given are coerced.
The U.S. government has demanded the scholars’ immediate release. Two other Iranian-Americans -- Parnaz Azima, a journalist for Radio Farda, and Ali Shakeri, a member of a California-based peace group -- have also been prevented from leaving the country.
(Radio Farda online editor Fatemeh Aman contributed to this report.)
Turkey/Iran: Gas Deal Marks New Stage In Energy Cooperation
By Breffni O'Rourke
Turkey will also join in developing Iran's South Pars field (file photo)
July 19, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey's agreement with Iran to transport some 30 billion cubic meters of Iranian and Turkmen natural gas westward to Europe has prompted criticism in the United States, where officials are seeking to isolate Iran over its disputed nuclear program.
But Turkey seems intent on expanding its energy ties with Iran despite the controversy surrounding Iran's nuclear program and its alleged role in destabilizing Iraq.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has rejected U.S. criticism, saying Ankara is looking after its own interests.
Tehran and Ankara reached a preliminary agreement last week under which Turkey will receive 30 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year from Iran, for domestic use or to sell onward to energy-hungry consumers in Europe.
The deal envisages construction across Turkey of two separate pipelines to ship gas from Iranian and Turkmen gas fields. It also foresees Turkey developing three gas wells in Iran's South Pars field, with a reported investment of $3.5 billion.
More Than A Conduit
Turkish Energy Minister Hilmi Guler says Turkey wants to be more than just a transit route for gas. Instead it wants to set up a joint venture with Iran and Turkmenistan to market gas in Europe.
The preliminary agreement has caused ripples in Washington, which seeks to isolate Iran internationally because of the nuclear and Iraq issues.
U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack made clear that Washington does not favor increased energy links between NATO ally Turkey and Iran.
"It's going to be up to the Turkish government [and] Turkish entities to decide whether or not they want to do business with Iran at this point in time," McCormack said. "If you ask our opinion, 'Do we think it is the right moment to be making investments in the Iranian oil and gas sector?' No, we don't think so."
Significantly, the deal comes as the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that would compel the U.S. government to impose sanctions on foreign companies investing more than $20 million in Iran's oil and gas sector.
It also comes ahead of Turkish national parliamentary elections on July 22 that appeared likely to hand Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan a parliamentary majority.
Erdogan made a sharp reply to the State Department comments, saying the Iranian offer is "attractive" and that Ankara does not need U.S. "permission" to pursue its own interests.
Political analyst Seyfi Tashan, of the Turkish Foreign Policy Institute at Bilkent University, explains Erdogan's comment by saying Turkey is not in a position to ignore any offer of energy.
"Energy is something very important for Turkey, because we do not have substantial indigenous energy resources," Tashan said. "Therefore we rely on imports, and I do not think at this moment we are in a position to choose that we will accept the energy of 'this' country and reject the energy of 'that' country. [We will buy from] whoever supplies energy."
The U.S.-based Stratfor information group believes there are larger geostrategic considerations at stake.
Turkey presently has an estimated 140,000 troops poised in its border with northern Iraq, ready for a massive incursion to attack Turkish Kurd guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Ankara blames the PKK for terror attacks in Turkey, and it wants to root out that movement from bases in northern Iraq. The United States, however, has warned Turkey against cross-border military strikes, and the grounds that it would further complicate the political situation in Iraq.
Stratfor sees a link between the PKK issue and Turkey's willingness to develop closer ties with Iran. A Stratfor commentary of July 18 says that "Turkey is clearly sending a political message to the United States that it still has a number of ways to pressure Washington into cracking down on PKK rebels in northern Iraq."
Stratfor suggests the price for Turkey to take greater distance from Iran is that Washington must take a stronger hand in controlling the PKK's activities in northern Iraq.
Iran: Ex-Detainee Provides Radio Farda With Window Into 'Confessions'
July 19, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- State television in Iran aired a program on July 18 featuring two Iranian-American scholars who have been detained and charged with crimes against Iran's national security. The broadcast has been condemned by rights groups and the United States, which calls the charges "groundless." Radio Farda spoke ahead of the Iranian broadcast with Faraj Sarkuhi, a dissident Iranian journalist who was forced to make compromising public statements several years ago. He told Radio Farda's Fereydun Zarnegar that such spectacles are aimed at instilling fear in the Iranian leadership's staunchest critics.
Radio Farda: Under what conditions do you think these so-called confessions took place?
Faraj Sarkuhi: Prisoners are subjected to severe psychological and physical pressures -- such as torture, regular interrogations, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, and so forth -- and forced into forced interviews or [confessions]. A film on the Internet depicting the interrogation of the wife of Said Emami [an Intelligence Ministry official who was charged in the serial murders of dissidents and critics] bears witness to these kinds of torture. Keep in mind that Emami's wife was a deputy in the Information Ministry. So the Information Ministry dealt with one of its own members in a harrowing way and tried to coerce her into confessing that she was a spy for Israel, when in fact she was one of the most dedicated defenders of the Islamic republic. This film is credible evidence of psychological torture and also shows torture rooms and flogging procedures. It was produced by the Information Ministry itself and distributed by those factions within the Education Ministry who supported Emami. And this film shows how such forced interviews take place and what methods are used.
Radio Farda: What are [authorities] trying to achieve by putting pressure on prisoners and [airing] these kinds of interviews?
Sarkuhi: In the early years of the Islamic republic, the goal was to rally people behind the government by convincing them that foreign enemies had mobilized and strengthened some elements within the country. But as the number of forced interviews increased, especially following 1981, and the victims of these interviews [publicly] stated the truth about them, the Islamic republic realized that people weren't buying into them any longer. In the current phase, [authorities] are pursuing several goals. One of them is to convince its supporters that it is speaking the truth. Secondly, the Islamic republic has always claimed that the enemy has plans like "cultural invasion" or "velvet revolution" and "soft subversion." But because the Islamic republic doesn't think [people] understand these theoretical discussions, the government is trying to illustrate by providing examples. It is singling out individuals to blame for all social ills. It is calling them the enemy's Trojan Horse. This is a long-term goal, but the short-term goal is very important. When the Islamic republic was facing problems with writers, who were publicly opposing censorship, the government forced them into confessing that they had received orders from the West.
Now the Islamic republic is faced with the issues of women, students, and workers -- different levels of society are expressing their dissatisfaction not only with words but through social and political actions. And the Islamic republic claims that these movements that stem from people's dissatisfaction are organized by the West and by the enemy. Another important point is that the radicals in Iran are trying to hurt people from other factions of the establishment.
Radio Farda: Considering that the public is aware of the government's reasons for conducting these forced interviews, why does the government still resort to such practices?
Sarkuhi: One of the main reasons is to create fear. When [authorities] arrest someone, torture [and] interrogate him and neutralize him, they are sending a clear message to others. When [they] arrest a university professor, that sends a message to other professors; and when they arrest a writer, that sends a message to other writers -- that "we will deal with you also in the same fashion, so sit at home [and] don't do anything and don't [make trouble]." While nobody believes the forced confessions, people know that the victims of these interrogations and confessions have been tortured and held in solitary confinement. So the message [the leadership] is sending to its opponents is: "This is how we deal with our opponents or critics, so sit at home and be quiet."
Iranian State Television Shows Detained Americans ‘Confessing’
By Heather Maher
Haleh Esfandiari (left) and Kian Tajbakhsh, as seen on the program broadcast by Iranian state television
WASHINGTON, July 18, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Against objections from human rights groups and the U.S. government, Iranian state television has broadcast a program featuring two Iranian-American scholars who have been detained and charged with crimes against Iran’s national security.
The program, called “In The Name Of Democracy,” focused on U.S. citizens Haleh Esfandiari and Kian Tajbakhsh, both of whom have been jailed in an Iranian prison for several weeks. It aired at 21:45 local time on the Islamic Republic of Iran News Network (IRINN).
A second part of the program is scheduled to be broadcast on July 19.
The hour-long broadcast contained extensive footage of scenes from the so-called colored revolutions -- Ukraine's Orange Revolution, Georgia's Rose Revolution, the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan -- that led to the toppling of authoritarian governments.
U.S. President George W. Bush was also shown praising revolutionary leaders while a narrator described the United States as the force behind the overthrow of governments around the world.
The 67-year-old Esfandiari was shown first in the documentary, and appeared sitting on a couch with a bottle of water on a table in front of her. Dressed in the Islamic hijab, she described her duties as the director of the Middle East program at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
These confessions have no validity whatsoever and we’re afraid that they might be used against them in some sort of legal proceedings to come.” Joe Stork, Human Rights Watch
Her primary responsibility, she said, was to organize conferences led by prominent experts on Iran, many from Iran themselves. “When a speaker comes from Iran and speaks at a center as important as Woodrow Wilson, many people come to listen."
Esfandiari defined "policy makers in Washington" as members of government institutions, the U.S. Congress, intelligence agencies, the media, nongovernmental organizations, universities, and research centers. At the conferences, she said, "a network was formed” of policy makers and scholars.
“My role was first to identify the speakers. Because I was away from Iran for many years, as a first step I would consult Iranian experts based in Washington or the United States, working in universities and research centers, etc., and ask them for contacts," Esfandiari said. "When I traveled to Iran, I also got in touch with people whose names I had been given. In this way, acquaintances were made.”
Esfandiari was also shown saying the United States wants to “bring about a change in the decision-making bodies in Iran from within, to bring about a change in the decision makers themselves.”
The program was edited in such a way that her comments seemed to be shown out of order, and taken together, left the impression that she was making a confession.
Washington Calls For Release
Tajbakhsh was shown in a similar setting, talking about his job as an urban planning consultant with the New York-based George Soros' Open Society Institute. "The fact that the U.S. administration gave money to the Soros Foundation reflects the fact that Soros and the United States share the same views on Iran," Tajbakhsh said.
Esfandiari (left) and Tajbakhsh before their arrests (RFE/RL)He added, "I was giving consultations to Soros about the social and political affairs of Iran.”
The narrator described the pair’s remarks as “revelations.”
Iranian officials announced earlier this month that fresh evidence against the two had prompted its judiciary to launch more investigations into their cases.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack condemned the program and described the government as “outraged” that two U.S. citizens were “paraded” on Iranian state television. "These people should be allowed to return and be reunited with their families immediately," McCormack said. "There is no reason to detain or in any way further harass these people."
The broadcast was also condemned by many rights groups and prominent activists, some of which have accused Iran of detaining the two scholars for political reasons.
Forced Confessions Not Valid In Iranian Courts
Earlier today, Human Rights Watch called on the Iranian government to pull the broadcast from its schedule. Joe Stork, the group’s Middle East program director, said forced confessions are used by dictatorial regimes around the world to crush prisoners' spirits and scare citizens into remaining silent.
Any words spoken during the Iranian broadcast, he said, cannot be believed.
“We know that these individuals themselves have been held in almost incommunicado detention, they’ve not been able to see legal counsel, they’ve been only provided the opportunity to have very brief phone conversations with some of their relatives," Stork said.
"So under the circumstances, these confessions have no validity whatsoever and we’re afraid that they would be used -- since the individuals are charged with various national security crimes -- that they might be used against them in some sort of legal proceedings to come,” he added.
Mohammad Hossien Aqasi, a lawyer in Tehran, told Radio Farda that a forced confession cannot be used against someone under Iranian law.
"In our legal system it has been stressed that confession can be carried out in a condition in which the accused possess free will," he said. "The accused, specially, cannot be in a situation that is seen as stressful.”
Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh are not the only Iranian-Americans being detained by Iranian authorities. Parnaz Azima, a journalist for Radio Farda, and Ali Shakeri, a founding board member of the University of California, Irvine, Center for Citizen Peacebuilding, have also been prevented from leaving the country and are facing criminal charges.
(Radio Farda online editor Fatemeh Aman contributed to this report.)