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Iran Report: August 29, 2007

Radical Right Renews Attacks On Moderate Clerics

By Vahid Sepehri
August 21, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The reformist Iranian newspaper "Etemad" has described a renewed "round of attacks" on senior clerics regarded as moderately conservative or reformist.

The allegations coincide with verbal salvoes and a threatened lawsuit against the moderate ex-President Mohammad Khatami, and they suggest increasingly bitter partisanship in the run-up to parliamentary elections in March 2008.

But they might also signal right-wing elements' bold use of public criticism to discredit opponents whom they no longer wish to see in the public sphere.

Government critics suggest that right-wing displeasure is behind some of the hostility targeting President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's political opponents.

Influential Targets

The reformist daily "Etemad" reported on August 19 that two prominent clerics are among its recent victims. They are Expediency Council Chairman Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi.

The recent attacks on Hashemi-Rafsanjani appear to have been triggered by political memoirs he is publishing in installments. The radical right believes recent chapters distorted or falsified developments touching on essential aspects of Iran's postrevolutionary image and character. "Etemad" cited an excerpt in which Hashemi-Rafsanjani claimed that officials -- with the approval of the late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini -- were planning in 1984 to end the practice of crowds shouting "Death to America" at Tehran's Friday congregational prayers, which are attended by politicians and broadcast on television. "Etemad" reported that the disclosure has prompted unspecified right-wingers to challenge Hashemi-Rafsanjani to rectify his claim and avoid falsely attributing statements to the late Ayatollah Khomeini. The daily asserted that "from [the right-wing] point of view, [Khomeini] never wanted to end the slogan of 'Death to America.'"

"Etemad" also cited verbal assaults against the judiciary chief, Ayatollah Hashemi-Shahrudi. Hashemi-Shahrudi criticized the recent removal of the ministers of industry and of oil, and he suggested it would be better to make good use of public officials than to keep shuffling them. Hashemi-Shahrudi has sought in the past to end abuse and inefficiency within the judiciary, and cuts a mildly conservative figure in Iranian politics. His latest remarks prompted "Iran," a daily close to the executive branch, to report the opening of "a new gateway" of antigovernment criticisms on August 18. "Iran" quoted politicians who defended the president's power to change cabinet members and stressed the separation of powers. The paper quoted a presidential adviser on press affairs, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, as saying that Hashemi-Shahrudi had made a "mistake" in meddling in executive-branch business and should avoid repeating the mistake. It quoted legislator Javad Arianmanesh as asking whether the judiciary had completed all the tasks set out for it in the current five-year development plan. Arianmanesh asked why Hashemi-Shahrudi had not criticized the reformist government in a similar fashion.

"It is unlikely that any politician today or in the former Khatami government would use a similar tone with senior right-wing clerics."

"Etemad" noted on August 19 that Hashemi-Shahrudi was criticized more vigorously by a deputy energy minister, Ali Yusefpur, writing in the daily "Siasat-i ruz." Yusefpur said the judiciary is in such an appalling state that it is only natural that the judiciary chief would try and shift attention elsewhere -- and "not [for the] first time."

Yusefpur also ridiculed some of Hashemi-Shahrudi's most widely quoted remarks. Hashemi-Shahrudi has implicitly criticized the government's anticorruption drive by saying harsh punitive measures that scare investors are themselves an "economic vice" akin to corruption. Yusefpur countered that "extra talk" like Hashemi-Shahrudi's is putting capital to flight. He used Hashemi-Shahrudi's famous description of the judiciary as a "wreck" when he took it over six years ago. Yusefpur accused Hashemi-Shahrudi of "comment[ing] on the change of ministers...instead of reorganizing the state of what can barely be called a wreck today."

Vicious Tone

The tone of the criticism is notable -- it is unlikely that any politician today or in the former Khatami government would use a similar tone with senior right-wing clerics, like Ayatollahs Ahmad Jannati or Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi. And if they did, it is not difficult to imagine an accompanying lawsuit. "Etemad" observed that "many are inclined to call Hashemi-Shahrudi a new member of the [government] critics' club."

Another cleric facing sharp attacks from the right is former reformist President Khatami. A presidential adviser on clerical affairs, Hojatoleslam Naser Saqa-i Biria, recently claimed that Khatami has little credibility left and accused him of spreading untruths designed to depict him as a respected figure among the most senior Shi'ite clerics in Qom. Saqa-i Biria urged Qom's special clerical court to process a complaint reportedly lodged by some seminarians over Khatami's handshakes with women on trips abroad. Under a strict interpretation of Islamic law, men are not allowed to shake hands with women other than close family members -- with transgressions considered indecent or sexually provocative.

Khatami recently felt obliged to defend foreign trips he has undertaken since the end of his presidency, many of which are intended to promote interfaith dialogue. He said in Tehran on August 18 that he was defending Islam -- "the Islam that defends the rights of humans" and "respects freedom" -- in the face of a growing, irrational Western fear of Islam, "Etemad-i Melli" reported on August 19. Khatami said those who "love power a lot" in Iran should rest assured that he is not interested in power. He added that "we and those who think like us do not wish to restrict the arena for anyone, but we...declare we do not want our space to be restricted." Khatami said, in a mild-mannered response that is seemingly typical of the reformist camp, that it is the people "who determine the places."

The new round of verbal jabs -- lying somewhere between criticism and insults -- could indicate a sense of security among the radical right and presidential allies in pushing the boundaries of inquisitorial discourse. They do what the other side cannot -- criticize senior clerics, and in no uncertain terms.

This boldness might eventually yield power -- if the other side is shown to be diffident and unsure, and if it is cowed into political irrelevance. It is presumably easier to remove individuals from power once they are discredited -- just as it may prove easier, reformists fear, to disqualify reformist parliamentary aspirants once they and their figureheads have faced months of verbal attacks questioning anything from their records in government, to their close relations to the late Ayatollah Khomeini, to their loyalty to Khomeini's heritage, to religion or the political system.

Amid these exchanges, the chief of Iran's armed forces joint headquarters, Hasan Firuzabadi, warned on August 18 that some "people are creating a shadow movement against the government." Firuzabadi insisted that "we have to warn internal political factions that are servants of the Islamic revolution that...they have started a shadow current, and not only do not cooperate with Ahmadinejad but do things that are sometimes cooperation with the enemy against the government," "Etemad-i Melli" reported on August 19. Firuzabadi went on to insist that "everyone must know that this government is loved by the leader and the Iranian people."

Radio Farda Journalist Describes Life 'In Limbo' In Iran

Parnaz Azima (file photo)

August 27, 2007 -- For more than eight months, Iranian authorities have prevented Radio Farda correspondent Parnaz Azima from leaving the country. In an interview with Radio Farda's Mosaddegh Katouzian on August 26, Azima said she lives in a state of limbo, never knowing precisely what are the charges against her or where they may lead. A citizen of both the United States and Iran, Azima has not been allowed to leave Iran since January 25, when she returned to visit her ailing mother.

RFE/RL: Court authorities have shown your attorney, Mohammad Hossien Aghasi, the specifics of your case for the first time. What is your reaction to the fact that it is now official that you have been barred from leaving Iran indefinitely until Intelligence Ministry officials return your confiscated Iranian passport?

Parnaz Azima: It is like you are in an unknown situation spending time in a state of limbo.... It is hard to put up with this when you don't know how long [it takes] and for an indefinite amount of time you end up living in a temporary situation, especially when you suddenly left everything [in the Czech Republic] and find yourself in Iran due to the illness of your mother.... I have left my apartment abroad for eight months, hoping God would look after it.... My grandchild will be born soon in the United States and I wish I could be there to experience this. I was under medical treatment before coming to Iran and that is now interrupted.

"Now, imagine a life in which you permanently think and feel that you are under surveillance, your visits and probably your phone calls are under control, and it is not clear when these will end."

In addition to all of this, an article was published in a newspaper in Iran in which it was implied that I was under surveillance.... I mean it was said that my visits with others are related to my work and things like this, which shows that therefore I am under surveillance. Now, imagine a life in which you permanently think and feel that you are under surveillance, your visits and probably your phone calls are under control, and it is not clear when these will end.... On top of that, if I have a security-related case, you have the feeling of threat or this concern that at every moment they may come to your home to inspect your residence.... The situation has become such that my close friends hesitate to visit me because these arrests and all the existing conditions have caused a fear among people, to which I give them every right. But, well, it is not that easy to bear this situation, especially when it becomes long-term and when you do not know when it will end.

RFE/RL: Have any officials made hopeful promises to you?

Azima: Well, some institutions representing the judiciary have tried to do some mediation; but they, too, made some suggestions to me that the Intelligence Ministry had suggested to me before -- i.e., the conditions they set up were similar to those of the Intelligence Ministry and under no conditions did I bend over and accept them. This has been the limit of such efforts and this contact, of course, was made only once.

RFE/RL: Which institution within the judiciary was it that contacted you?

Azima: I prefer not to mention its name.

RFE/RL: What were the specific suggestions made to you that you alluded to?

Azima: There was, of course, a new condition added. The first condition was to cooperate with the Intelligence Ministry -- the Intelligence Ministry had already proposed this to me, but I had rejected it. Then they suggested resigning from my position at Radio Farda, to which I said I thought it was a personal issue for individuals to decide where to work or not work or to resign or not resign. These cannot be dictated. Therefore I rejected these suggestions. I said, if I make a decision to cooperate with Radio Farda and continue my cooperation or at another point in time to leave Radio Farda for whatever reason, this would be my personal issue and no one else can dictate this to me.

RFE/RL: You also alluded to the article published in the daily "Etemad" about two months ago. Before you had mentioned that you and your attorney would try to have your response to the article published. Where have these attempts led?

Azima: After the talks with the representatives of those institutions in the judiciary, an article against me was published in "Etemad," which was very strange because usually "Etemad" does not publish this kind of article. There are other specific newspapers that we are familiar with that publish such articles. It was clear that the writer of the article had access to my case file, and it probably was an article dictated by the Intelligence Ministry or those who have had access to my case. And, of course much of the information in the article was altered and unreal. The writer attempted to prove that I was involved in actions against national security because I work for Radio Farda, or that since allegedly Radio Farda is an institution that seeks to instigate a soft revolution, therefore someone who works for Radio Farda is also involved in actions against national security, which were the same issues that I was asked about several times and which were mentioned during the interrogations. I mean, I had said that what you refer to as "propaganda against the state" is the same thing that we in professional and international journalism refer to as "the free flow of information."

In this article, in short, several unreal allegations were brought up and since in it there were allusions to the content of my case file, it is itself a crime, because it is first of all regarded as a kind of exposure of classified documents and, secondly, parts of it can be regarded as unfounded accusations.

Therefore, I wrote a letter to "Etemad" and asked the newspaper to publish my response. Despite my attempts and the contacts I made with the daily's editor and publisher, several phone calls and numerous visits of the "Etemad" office, unfortunately without officially saying that my response would not be published, the issue was constantly postponed to future weeks.

Then I sought my attorney's help in this matter, and following all contacts, he also faced a similar response. And, it is very strange to me why this newspaper is not willing to publish the response of a citizen who wishes to defend her honor and prestige, although this newspaper is a pro-reform publication. This is very strange to me. I asked them to publish the response by the end of the last month. But more than one month has passed since then and the response has not yet been published.

Wife Of Missing American Seeks Information

An undated photo of Robert Levinson

August 20, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The wife of former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who went missing in March while on a business trip to Iran, says she might travel to Iran to search for him. Christine Levinson told RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari on August 17 that she is planning the trip even though the State Department has advised against it. Iranian authorities have reportedly denied any knowledge of Robert Levinson's whereabouts.

RFE/RL: Your husband disappeared in March while on a business trip to Iran. When was the last time you spoke to him?

Christine Levinson: I spoke to him on March 8 before he got on a flight from Dubai International Airport to Kish Island. And he did arrive there and checked into the hotel Maryam. And we haven't heard anything since then. He had told me he would not be available for about 24 hours, he would not have cell service or e-mail service, and he would call me when he got back to Dubai. By Friday afternoon [March 9] he had not called me. So I started to call his cell phone and to e-mail him and got no response. By Saturday [March 10] he was supposed to have flown from Dubai to London. And so Saturday morning, on March 10, when I got up I checked with the hotel in London and he had not arrived there. So then I called up the people in Dubai. They said he had not checked out of that hotel and the last we heard he was still on Kish Island.

"I really would hope that anybody who can give me any information anywhere, can get in touch with me through the website and if they don't have e-mail access, they can go to the Swiss Embassy because they have been helping us."

RFE/RL: Do you know if he had checked out of the hotel on Kish Island?

Levinson: No. My understanding is that he met someone there. And that person said that he himself was picked up to have his papers checked -- and that Bob was at the hotel when he left. When [that person] came back several hours later, he was told that Bob had left. He subsequently learned that Bob also had been picked up [by authorities who wanted] to check his papers. I was told this was not unusual, but we haven't heard anything since then.

RFE/RL: Dawud Salahuddin is the person who says he met your husband. Salahuddin is an American fugitive living in Iran since the 1980s when he allegedly murdered an Iranian opposition activist in the United States. Do you believe what he says? And did your husband mention that they were going to meet?

Levinson: I do believe he met with my husband. Bob had not mentioned that he was going to meet with this particular person. But that was not unusual. He didn't give me exact details of all his travel.

RFE/RL: What was the purpose of your husband's trip to Kish?

Levinson: The purpose of him going to Kish Island and talking to Dawud was to investigate cigarette smuggling for a couple of major corporations. He has his own business and he is a subcontractor. And so he does his investigations for people.

RFE/RL: Was he concerned about his safety while traveling to Iran? Did he mention anything to you?

Levinson: No. He was not.

RFE/RL: You have been contacting Iranian authorities about the disappearance of your husband. Have you received any response?

Levinson: No. I haven't received any response. I have asked them a number of questions. But I haven't received any answers yet. They just say they don't have information on him.

RFE/RL: Can you tell us which authorities you have contacted in Iran?

Levinson: I wrote a letter to the president of Iran and he has not replied back. I've also been in contact with the Iranian mission to the United Nations and spoken to someone there who has relayed messages for me to Tehran. And he has not received replies back from them. And I've also asked through the [U.S.] State Department. And they've gone through the Swiss to ask the Swiss to find out some answers for us and to ask the Iranians if they have information. So far, we have not gotten any information. We still have nothing since March 10 when we started looking for Bob.

RFE/RL: Do you think your husband is still In Iran -- even though Iranian authorities have not confirmed it?

Levinson: Yes I do. I believe he is in Iran because the last time he was seen was with this gentleman [Dawud Salahuddin]. And he has not been seen since. His passport has not been seen anywhere else. And he's not listed on any manifest to anywhere else.

RFE/RL: And did the Iranian authorities say that your husband left Iran?

Levinson: They believe he was in Iran. They have not given me any further details.

RFE/RL: Are you still planning to travel to Iran to search for your husband? Have you applied for a visa?

Levinson: I'm working on that. Actually, I'm hoping that Bob will come home before I have to do that. But I am in the process of working on going over to Iran if we don't get any more information about Bob.

RFE/RL: But the U.S. State Department has advised you not to travel to Iran.

Levinson: I'm just a wife looking for her missing husband. I understand that the State Department has advised me against it. But [I'm doing what] any other normal person would. My husband is missing and I want to find him any way I can.

RFE/RL: The past six months must have been very difficult for you and your seven children.

Levinson: They are. They [have been] very difficult. Two weeks ago was my youngest daughter's 17th birthday. I tried to make it a nice birthday for her. Even though it was a nice day, when it was time to go to bed she came to my room and started crying because she missed her father. That's just one example of what we are going through every day. Every day, we keep hoping that it will be the day he will be with us.

RFE/RL: This interview will be aired in Iran. What is your message to those who might have some information about your husband? What do you want to tell them and how can they get in touch with you?

Levinson: First of all, my husband is [1.83 meters tall]. When he left here, he weighed [about 130 kilograms]. He's a very outgoing man. He is 59 years old, so he would be a person that would normally speak to everyone. I believe he has talked to people over there. And I'm hoping that anyone who has seen him or heard anything about him will contact us on our website and give us any information they have.

RFE/RL: Meanwhile, will you continue to contact Iranian authorities?

Levinson: Yes. I am contacting them almost daily. I tried to get in touch with them and see whether they have any new information for me because I find it very difficult to believe that they can't find him. I really would hope that anybody who can give me any information anywhere, can get in touch with me through the website and if they don't have e-mail access, they can go to the Swiss Embassy because they have been helping us.

Environment Takes A Back Seat To Development Plans

By Vahid Sepehri
August 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Kavir National Park is a semi-arid, protected zone in north-central Iran that is home to several rare native and endangered species.

It includes some 4,000 square kilometers that stretch within 120 kilometers of the capital, Tehran. Its habitats include desert and steppe that provide homes to hyenas, gazelles, Persian leopards, and Asiatic cheetahs, which Iranian conservationists are battling to protect.

The area has been protected since 1964-65 and was declared a national park and biosphere reserve under the monarchy in 1976.

The scale, purpose, and seemingly unstoppable advance of such infrastructure projects are at times reminiscent of Soviet or Chinese projects of the 20th century.

The daily "Etemad" reported recently that two Iranian Oil Ministry projects would affect the entire area of the park. The ministry reportedly envisages digging for oil and storing gas under the reserve in two projects that would require building pipelines and saltwater canals throughout the park.

But "Etemad" added that those plans had yet to receive the approval of Iranian environmental authorities. The daily said the ministry has had to postpone one oil-exploration project because of resistance from local environmental authorities. The ministry's proposed activities would involve blasting, the digging of exploratory wells, and the construction of pipelines.

Kavir In Peril

"Etemad" and ISNA quoted the head of an Iranian conservation project for the Asiatic cheetah as saying that the injection of 4 billion cubic meters of gas under the national park would force large amounts of saltwater to the surface. That would destroy the park's soil and, presumably, vegetation. The conservationist warned such actions would spark desertification in an area where water is already scarce. He said the projects would damage ongoing or planned ecotourism projects in the Kavir National Park.

Pipeline construction in northern Iran (Fars file photo)

A former head of the state environmental authority for the Tehran province, Mohammad Hasan Pirasteh, said the park's environment was already degraded by military exercises, construction of military bases, disrespect for environmental "norms" -- perhaps by seasonal hunters permitted to use the park -- and unspecified "exploitation" of the terrain. Tehran academic and wildlife specialist Esmail Kahrom called the area "very sensitive and important" and cautioned that "if this habitat is destroyed, it is like destroying a house on top of its inhabitants." He argued that "when we commit ourselves in the world to name an area a protected area, it means the area is entrusted to nature alone" and went on to say that "oil exploration and gas storage in the Kavir National Park [would] damage [Iran's] international commitments."

Widespread Disregard For The Environment

The Kavir park situation is not exceptional in Iran. Earlier this year, the government decided to divert water in connection with the Sivand Dam in the southern Fars Province -- against the protests of environmental and heritage activists and at the risk of damaging nearby archaeological sites and grazing grounds.

And the daily "Etemad-i Melli" lamented on August 26 that the government has given the go-ahead for the construction of petrochemicals plants and a refinery in three provinces of the northern Caspian coast. It cited two petrochemical projects in the Golestan and Gilan provinces and a refinery in Mazandaran and expressed alarm that "the location of those projects is none other than the forest and the swamp!" It reported that the petrochemical plant in Gilan -- which it said is on hold -- would destroy 120 hectares of forest if it resumes. Seven to eight hectares have already been razed to start the project.

Hossein Akhani, a botanist and academic from Tehran University has written a long appeal to the head of the state Environment Organization, Fatemeh Vaez-Javadi, to point out the damage to soil, water, and the health of local residents that the Golestan project would cause. Akhani wrote that the swampland of Sufikom, near the planned plant, would dry out and become a dust bowl, "Etemad-i Melli" reported. He wrote that the Golestan petrochemicals plant might generate jobs and money for some, but it would destroy the local environment and lead to long-term and more generalized poverty and sickness for locals. He compared it to the destruction of the Aral Sea in the 1970s by Soviet planners who used that sea's waters to irrigate cotton crops in Central Asia.

State Environment Organization head Fatemeh Vaez-Javadi (Fars file photo)

Akhani urged Vaez-Javadi to consider the problems that petrochemical pollution has caused to residents of Bandar Abbas in southern Iran and in Tehran. He urged a reconsideration of some of the plans for northern Iran. Akhani said that such projects in his birthplace of Arak have polluted the air and water, and hurt local farming. He suggested that industrialization and the degradation of the environment in Arak have led to rising crime and other local problems.

Akhani noted that "the government and parliament [have] concluded that one has to prevent senseless fuel consumption" and went on to ask why the state is not using the savings from the recent national fuel restrictions to develop agriculture, instead of producing pollutants? "Which is more important," Akhani asked, "food security or the construction of a petrochemicals complex whose technology is foreign and [whose profits] may also go into their pockets?"

The newspaper did not report whether the Environment Organization leadership had replied. But it pointed out that President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's government recently lifted a long-standing ban on large-scale and polluting projects on Iran's northern Caspian coast.

Spike In Birth Defects

"Etemad-i Melli" reported separately that 270 cases of birth defects were registered over a six-month period in the port of Mahshahr in the southwestern Khuzestan Province -- possibly due to oil and related pollutants flowing into the Persian Gulf. The newspaper reported that officials accept that the pollution of local waters is a factor in increased sterility among men and women in Khuzestan, but it noted the lack of any action from the state. It claims that if "anywhere else in the world...a small town and in a period of six months almost 270 children were born with birth defects and sometimes without a head, the country would be thrown upside down and some officials forced to resign." But "Etemad-i Melli" says that "amazingly, this...disaster has occurred in Iran...without [officials] paying much attention."

Construction of the Sivand Dam in Fars Provicne (Fars file photo)

These cases and Iran's relentless pursuit of what the government asserts is a purely civilian nuclear program highlight the importance that the state assigns to large-scale infrastructure and development projects. The scale, purpose, and seemingly unstoppable advance of such initiatives are at times reminiscent of Soviet or Chinese projects of the 20th century. Indeed, one might plausibly argue that environmental degradation is characteristic of authoritarian governments with leftist leanings, where the state takes a preeminent role in economic development. These recent Iranian moves suggest an ongoing devotion to state-generated industrial development and a rejection -- bordering on contempt or willful ignorance -- of some of the concerns of the early 21st century -- in this case, the environment.

Development -- But For Whose Benefit?

These recent reports also reveal contradictions in the nature of Iran's polity and development. Such projects are ostensibly aimed at benefiting the "people." But one might wonder what their real motive is, if people become sick.

For a polity that declares its concern for piety and the afterlife and praises the culture of martyrdom, it shows an uncommon devotion to earthly prosperity and wasteful development models. Destruction of the environment to produce fuel, plastics, and consumer goods while enhancing the state's capacity to generate cash is surely materialism in one of its most insidious forms.

Given these reports, it seems ironic that Ahmadinejad should have compared, as he did on August 25, Iran's nuclear program to the "confrontation of the culture of the Islamic revolution with the arrogant and material world." His government seems determined to earn cash and put oil money on people's dinner tables -- as he has pledged -- even if swaths of the country are turned into toxic junkyards in the process.

U.S.: 'We Have Time For Diplomacy' With Iran

Burns at a briefing with RFE/RL in Washington

WASHINGTON, August 21, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns said the diplomatic option must "be exhausted" before other methods of persuading Iran to abandon its nuclear program are considered.

But at a briefing in Washington today he dismissed the suggestion that Iran’s recent decision to answer questions from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) should delay or derail efforts in the UN Security Council to pass a new set of sanctions.

Following are key excerpts of Burns' responses to questions from the briefing audience.

On whether U.S. allies, like those in the European Union, are willing to join the United States in taking more vigorous action if progress at the UN on additional sanctions doesn’t go as quickly as the United States would like:

"I think the European allies, particularly France and Britain, have been very strong and very supportive of this effort. I don’t worry about that at all. But there’s more than we can do just at the Security Council. We’ve now seen several European banks decide to shut down all lending to Iran. Now, Iran is not North Korea. They are not willing to live in isolation. They want and need investment credit, and trade with the international community. And the action of these banks - to shut down lending - is very important. Because it shows it’s not going to be business as usual.

"[Sanctions are] going to be a major issue in the month of September at the UN Security Council, we intend to push it very, very hard, and we certainly will never agree that because Iran has some meetings with the IAEA we should stop all of our efforts."

"We would also hope that the European Union and some of the other large trading partners of Iran would even agree to take action outside the Security Council, perhaps stronger action, to show their displeasure against the continued program of the Iranian government to engage in nuclear research at the [Iranian uranium-enrichment] plant at Natanz. So I think there are a variety of things that we need to be doing if diplomacy is to succeed and it’s our fervent wish that this problem be settled by diplomacy, be settled by peaceful means. We certainly have time enough to do that, but we’re going to need to see a greater buy-in from some countries around the world - particularly those countries that have active trade relations [with Iran.]"

On whether Baghdad’s recent willingness to come to the table and talk with the United States an attempt by Iran to buy time and possibly stave off action on the new sanctions being discussed at the Security Council:

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad at the Natanz nuclear facility, February 2006 (FARS)

"Oh, I think it’s obvious what the Iranians are up to. It’s totally transparent. They have this dalliance with the IAEA right now. And they’re pretending to have meaningful negotiations in order to try to convince the rest of the world not to go forward with the Security Council resolutions. The Iranians have been refusing to answer major and significant questions from the IAEA for the last two or three years.

"And so now the Iranians, over the last month of two have turned back, and they’ve made a great show of being willing to talk to the IAEA to answer questions that they’ve refused to answer for the last couple of years that the IAEA believes are central to the issue of whether or not Iran is trying to seek a nuclear weapons capability. Our view is Iran should have answered these questions years ago.

"So now you have the Iranians, and even some other people in the IAEA system saying, well as long as the IAEA is talking to Iran about questions they haven’t answered for the last couple of years, we shouldn’t sanction [them] in the United Nations Security Council. That is absolutely unacceptable logic. It is not logical at all to reward a country that has held out for so long. To reward a country for answering a few questions, we’re going to turn off the sanctions? That’s not possible.

"The United States is making a point to everybody concerned that we hope the IAEA can be successful. We hope the Iranians can finally be truthful to the IAEA about what they’ve been doing. But that should not turn off the third Security Council resolution that we believe should be passed in September. This is going to be a major issue in the month of September at the UN Security Council, we intend to push it very, very hard, and we certainly will never agree that because Iran has some meetings with the IAEA we should stop all of our efforts."

On how Iranian domestic media has been lately filled with stories about how Pakistan and India successfully made deals with the United States to acquire nuclear weapons technology, and the fact that some Iranians are wondering why the United States allows other countries to develop this technology, but works so hard to prevent Iran from getting it:

U.S. President George W. Bush (left) with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during a joint press conference to announce a new nuclear technology deal in New Delhi, March 2006 (epa)

"Well, the reason that so many countries, including nonaligned countries, are voting for sanctions against Iran, is that countries don’t trust the Iranian government. We trust the Indian government, which has been a responsible steward of its nuclear materials, nuclear fuel and nuclear technology, and has not sold it on the black market. We certainly trust Britain, France - two nuclear powers. We don’t trust Iran.

"I think the IAEA would be the first to say that for 18 1/2 years, Iran lied to the IAEA is now public knowledge about the secret nuclear research activities that respective Iranian governments had undertaken. We certainly don’t want to see an Iran that is violating Security Council resolutions and arming Hizballah and Hamas and the Shi’a militants in Iraq, with nuclear capabilities.

"We don’t want to see that kind of impact on the balance of power in the Middle East. And so the answer I think to the question -- why some countries and not Iran? -- is because Iran’s foreign policy is so mercurial, so violent and so destructive that no one wants to see a government of the type of government run by [Iranian President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad in possession of nuclear weapons. It’s as simple as that."

On whether the Iranian people realize that their government is viewed with such distrust:

"I think it’s very important that the Iranian people understand that South Africa is voting against them. And Indonesia is. And India is. And Brazil. They’ve got four countries supporting them --- the ‘Gang of Four.’ They’ve got Syria supporting them, they have Belarus supporting them -- Iran. they’ve got Venezuela and Cuba. That’s it. Nobody else will stand up for the Iranian government in the IAEA or the UN or anyplace else in the world. That is highly significant. This is not just the United States saying no to nuclear weapons. It’s the entire international community and every leading country."

On whether the United States, in its talks with Baghdad, made any progress in convincing Iran to stop arming Shi'ite militias in Iraq:

"The whole purpose of these talks that [U.S.] Ambassador [to Iraq Ryan] Crocker has been holding is to say to the Iranian government: ‘We’re willing to sit down with you, we’re willing to have an open and active dialogue with you on this question of security, but that’s the agenda. We’re not going to talk about other issues in that particular venue.’

"And we’re going to judge the Iranians based on whether or not they do the right thing, which will be to fight against the terrorist groups that are in Iraq, including the Shi’a terrorist groups that are attacking both the Iraqi Army as well as American soldiers and others, and frankly I don’t think we’ve seen the type of response from the Iranian government that we would have liked. Now, we’ll continue to talks in the hopes that we’ll see a change of behavior but that is the agenda."

On what lies at the end of the U.S. timeline to let diplomacy and sanctions work:

"Nobody should doubt that we’re focused on diplomacy. We have spent the last 2 1/2 years focused on diplomacy in Iran, specifically dating back to February 11, 2005, when [U.S.] Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice announced that the United States would be working with the European Union allies to support their then-negotiations with Iran.

"Since then we’ve created this large international coalition, which includes Russia and China, the European countries, and the U.S. We’ve made the offer to negotiate. We’ve pulled in almost every other major country in the world to support our strategy at the UN and the IAEA.

"I personally have, I think, made 20 trips to Europe and Asia to be involved in these negotiations, to work with the Russians and Chinese, and the Indians, and the Europeans, to stimulate diplomatic talks with the Iranians, and we have dedicated ourselves to it, we believe it’s the right thing to do.

"We have some time to make diplomacy successful. We know that diplomacy is a combination of offering -- as we have -- to help Iran to help cope with its electricity shortages by helping to build a civil nuclear power system. But also being willing to sanction. And to increase economic pressure on Iran, should that be necessary, and it is definitely necessary. Frankly I think the United States has made a good faith effort. I believe we should continue that effort. I think we should stay focused on diplomacy, and as I said before, exhaust diplomacy.

"But President [George W.] Bush has been very clear, and many senior members of both parties of the Congress have also been very clear: the United States ultimately has a variety of options, including, of course we’ve never taken the military option off the table, but we certainly prefer and are dedicated to a peaceful diplomatic solution and I think that will be the focus of the international efforts -- diplomacy -- over the coming months as we try to get the Iranians to accept our offer to negotiate."

Iran Vows To Use One-Ton 'Smart' Bomb Against Enemies

Iranian Defense Minister Mohammad Mostafa Najjar (file photo)

August 26, 2007 -- Iran vows to use a new 1,000-kilogram "smart" bomb against its enemies and unveiled mass production of the new weapon.

Tehran first announced development of the long-range guided bomb on August 23, saying it could be deployed by the country's aging U.S.-made F-4 and F-5 fighter jets.

Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar said on state television today that Iran will use these bombs "against our enemies when the time comes."


Iran: Mideast Expert Talks About Possible U.S. Blacklisting Of Revolutionary Guards

Rasool Nafisi (file photo)

August 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Reports in Western media suggest that the Bush administration is considering declaring Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) a foreign terrorist organization.

The IRGC, founded after the 1979 revolution, is an increasingly influential player inside -- and outside -- Iran. The list of IRGC veterans includes President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and a number of his cabinet members and senior aides. RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari discussed the Revolutionary Guards with Rasool Nafisi, a Washington-based expert on the Middle East and Iran who has researched the IRGC and its activities.

RFE/RL: The IRGC was founded following the 1979 revolution as a force to protect the newly founded Islamic establishment and prevent a military coup. Since then the IRGC has gone through changes and it has expanded it's operation and involvement. Could you first talk a bit about its creation?

Rasool Nafisi: The creation of the IRGC was probably the most significant action or policy of the Islamic republic. In terms of who is ruling the IRGC, it was created by a schoolteacher -- his nickname was Abu Sharif -- and Ayatollah Lahuti and Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani were the representatives of Ayatollah [Ruhollah] Khomeni (the father of Iran's Islamic revolution) who controlled the creation of IRGC. The IRGC was originally formed by a number of terrorist and non-terrorist groups that were involved in actions against the Shah. And also it found tremendous growth during the war against Iraq, when numerous agencies came under its control and also created the militia or the Basij, [which] was fundamental to the expansion of power of the IRGC. And eventually various foundations came under its control; now it's a major actor in the economic sector as well. So in essence it is a very different organization from the Iranian military. The military still carries out the same old mission -- meaning being a nonpolitical entity -- while the IRGC is a military-political force. And this force, with the mission of protecting the revolution, is a guardian of the leaders of the Islamic republic; and it carries out military as well as political missions of the Islamic republic, inside and outside the country.

RFE/RL: Let's talk about the IRGC's role on the Iranian political scene and also its reported involvement in a number of countries, including Iraq. What role is it playing in Iran?

"Although it has been a dominant force in the past...[now] it's almost in charge of the entire country."

Nafisi: The IRGC is in charge of protecting the revolution -- in other words, it is in charge of protecting the Iranian regime. So it has tentacles across [state] organizations from the Information Ministry all the way to the judiciary. Of course, [there is also] the famous Quds Force, which is infamous for its role and activities outside the country. The Quds Force -- which is supposed to be only a thousand-member organization -- is reportedly a force that is involved in supporting the Hizballah in Lebanon, supporting even Hamas, supporting militias in Iraq.

Quds Activities

RFE/RL: What kind of support are we talking about here? Financial aid or training?

Nafisi: It is reportedly in charge of training and financing both. So if you think of the role that the Quds Force plays in the Middle East, then you can understand the significance of the Revolutionary Guards in the region. The IRGC is emerging in the region as a very important factor in terms of enforcing the ideology and the will of the Islamic republic's leaders across the region.

RFE/RL: You said that the Quds Force is supporting groups like Hamas, which have terrorist links or are involved in terrorist activities. Is the Quds Force, which is said to be secret brigade of the IRGC, also directly involved in terrorism?

Nafisi: Iranians are too smart to get involved directly in any kind of terrorism. From the early days, they have been able to employ other forces. We have seen that in the assassination against the U.S. military force in Lebanon, [and] against targets around the world -- they never use their own members. They routinely use other forces and, to my understanding, they have slowed down since the invasion of Iraq. And the reason [for the slowdown] is quite understandable, because they don't want to endanger the Iranian regime. But, according to the American forces, they are very active in Iraq.

RFE/RL: You said that inside Iran, the IRGC is in charge of protecting state values. What does that mean in practice?

Nafisi: If you think of the proclamation by 24 IRGC commanders when [reformist former President Mohammad] Khatami was in power -- they warned him that they would take matters into their own hands if the [student] demonstration and irregularities continued -- then you can appreciate the role they play in politics. Also, when Imam Khomeini Airport was inaugurated under Khatami, the [construction] contract was given to a Turkish company -- not to the IRGC; the IRGC essentially blocked flights into the airport by sending in fighter jets and not allowing landings of civilian planes at the airport. So you can imagine how active they are in the internal politics of Iran. Or if you look at the present Ahmadinejad administration, it is almost entirely formed of former members of the IRGC, and his cabinet and all the people he's been appointing to different organizations and national institutions are basically former IRGC members. So you might think that, at this point, the IRGC is a dominant force -- although it has been a dominant force in the past, as well -- but [now] it's almost in charge of the entire country.

Economic Might

RFE/RL: The Revolutionary Guards is also an important economic force, reportedly with huge assets and companies. How extensive are its economic activities?

Nafisi: The IRGC is involved largely in construction. If you travel across Iran, you see how many construction projects are being built by the IRGC -- it is involved in dam and port building in Iran, the IRGC is heavily involved in the oil industry in Iran [and] even in the manufacture of automobiles. So it's taking a large chunk of the economy out of the private sector. And if you think about it, that is one reason why the private sector is unable to function well -- because the juiciest part, the most important part, of the economy was in fact swallowed up by the IRGC.

RFE/RL: What, in your view, would be the impact on the group if the United States designates the IRGC as a terrorist organization?

Nafisi: Many analysts have dismissed [the blacklisting] as symbolic. But I think it is very important, because from now on, if the policy is carried out, the movement of IRGC members abroad would become very, very hard -- especially in neighboring countries. They could easily be detained as terrorists. So I think that's a major blow to the status and movement of the IRGC. Secondly, because it is a large conglomerate with a tremendous amount of assets and is involved in business, it would not be able to do business with Afghanistan, with Iraq, with neighboring countries; and that's going to be another major issue. Thirdly, if you look at the fact that a large organization like that is put on the [U.S.] list of terrorist organizations and if the Interpol accept that, then it's going to be a major issue for the IRGC, as a legitimate Iranian institution. I think that's basically a very major blow to the status, prestige, and economic activities and the movement of the organization.

Iran: Campaign Against Discriminatory Laws Marks First Year

By Golnaz Esfandiari

Iranian women at an Internet cafe in Tehran (file photo)

August 29, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A campaign by Iranian women's rights advocates to gather 1 million signatures to protest discriminatory laws marked its first anniversary this week.

Organizers of the "One Million Signatures" campaign hope to pressure lawmakers and demonstrate that many Iranians are unhappy with gender discrimination in Islamic law as it is applied in Iran.

They hope to change mindsets and achieve equality before the law despite government pressure.

Simin Behbahani, one of Iran's leading modern poets, was among the first people to join the campaign. She thinks believes campaigners have been successful so far in bringing women's rights issues to the attention of Iranian society and the international community.

"We have been able to contact a big number of people [and] we have talked to many women and gained their support," Behbahani says. "I think this is a major achievement. We had to do something to get decision-makers and the world to hear our demands. I believe that Iranian women should exercise their rights as soon as possible."

The campaign targets laws that organizers say treat women like second-class citizens and deny them equal rights in divorce, inheritance, child custody, and other areas.

It includes 400-500 volunteers who have been collecting signatures online and in person in public places like parks and beauty salons.

Organizers told RFE/RL that they are opting not to say how many signatures they have gathered since the campaign began a year ago.

The campaign followed a peaceful protest in Tehran in June 2006 against discriminatory laws, during which some 70 people were arrested.

Quiet Pressure

Since then, government pressure on women's rights advocates and campaign members has continued. A number of campaigners have been threatened, summoned to court, charged with security crimes, and sentenced to prison in recent months. The campaign's website has been also blocked several times.

But campaign participants remain determined to push their fight against gender discrimination in Iranian law.

Poet Behbahani says rights activists know that they need to withstand pressure in order to succeed in their effort.

"So far, five of the people who were gathering signatures have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from two to several days, and they've been under pressure," she says. "Some are facing suspended prison sentences. This is not important for the campaign members -- we will do our best and continue our work, and I hope we will succeed."

Activists campaigning for gender equality in Iran have been accused of seeking a "velvet revolution" and receiving money from the United States and other countries.

State pressure on women's rights activists comes amid a broader crackdown on students, intellectuals, and workers.

Concerns In Tehran

Nayereh Tohidi, professor of women's studies and chair of the Women's Studies Department at California State University, Northridge, tells RFE/RL that one of the reasons for the increasing pressure on the women's movement is the Iranian government's view of security.

Tohidi says international and U.S. pressure on Tehran over its nuclear program and its role in Iraq and Afghanistan has led to concern among Iranian leaders, who have taken a tougher line on dissent.

"Women are collecting signatures in public places," Tohidi says. "This is the most peaceful and transparent way to express civic demands. Being afraid of this shows the weakness and lack of self-confidence of that establishment."

Tohidi says that what she describes as a close relationship between the current Iranian government and hard-line clerics is contributing to the pressure on women's rights activists.

Marking the first anniversary of the "One Million Signatures" campaign on August 27, Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi said she has asked the United Nations to investigate the situation of women in Iran. She said about 50 people have been detained in the past year for involvement in women's rights protests.

Iranian officials deny accusations of discrimination and say women in Iran enjoy equal rights.

Activists counter that Iran is a male-dominated society where -- because of the laws -- women face difficulties in getting divorces and a woman's testimony in court is worth half that of a man.

More Than Names

Campaigners have given themselves two years to reach their goal of 1 million signatures.

But Tohidi thinks there is more to the campaign than collecting names.

"It's not important how many signatures they gather," Tohidi says. "It's symbolic -- what is important is that [campaign members] have learned to talk to people face to face, to teach people and to learn from them. They learn about people's attitudes regarding these issues -- what do they think? [Or] whether [women's issues] are among their priorities. So the main purpose of this movement is to raise awareness and promote equality ideas. It is in fact about building civil society."

Campaigners have said that after the signature drive, the next phase of their drive would focus on proposing news laws.

(Radio Farda's Tara Atefi contributed to this report from Washington)

Iranian Writer On Trial Over Fictional Events

By Mehrdad Sepehri and Azadeh Sharafshahi
August 28, 2007 (Radio Farda) -- The trial has begun in southwestern Iran of what is believed to be the first novelist to face prosecution for allegedly insulting an ethnic group in a work of fiction.

Award-winning author Yaghub Yadali went on trial in the city of Yasuj on August 23 on charges of spreading false information in his novels.

The charges relate to two books by Yadali that were published years ago and that portray a woman in an extramarital relationship. Because his female character speaks in the Lori (aka Luri) dialect of his native province, Yadali's critics have accused him of trying to insult all Lori women. Yadali has rejected such accusations and said he is himself is an ethnic Lor and that he would never offend this ethnic group.

His lawyer has suggested that personal, regional, or local grievances might have motivated the charges.

Dissuading Critics?

Yadali was jailed for some 40 days before his release in late April.

Some observers have accused Iran's government of using ethnic sensitivities as a pretext for censuring publications with which it disagrees.

"You can't take life out of literature."

Observers say that while journalists, writers, caricaturists, and filmmakers have faced similar charges in the past -- and lost their jobs or ended up in prison as a result -- Yadali's marks the first case of a novelist being targeted by such allegations.

One of Iran's most prominent poets, Simin Behbani, argues that under no circumstances should such charges be leveled at a storyteller. Behbani tells Radio Farda that there is no reason to apply the portrayal of an individual of a certain ethnicity to her entire ethnic group. Behbani says such a move is based on a false notion that will limit and isolate literature and prevent novelists from getting their work done. "You can't take life out of literature," Behbani says, adding that and you can't order a novelist to write this way or that way. "If we want to consider everyone else's suggestions in our work, we have to censure half of our country's literature," Behbani says. She adds that the context in which an author raises an issue must always be considered.

Always Watching

Mansour Koushan, an Iranian playwright, novelist, and journalist who lives in Norway, says a writer should never be persecuted for the contents of his work. He argues that as long as Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance oversees the approval and licensing of books, writers are absolved of any responsibility relating to the contents of their work.

But Koushan says authorities are not abiding by their own rules or fundamental principles. He argues that they are merely looking for pretexts to attack anyone expressing views that are not in line with the official ones. Koushan fears that a writer might become a victim of such government "pretense" at any time.

Some observers argue that Iran's multiethnic composition and the sensitive nature of the issue in Iranian society cannot be disregarded.

Alarm Bells

Akbar Masumbegi, a Tehran-based novelist and member of the Iranian Writers Union, says Iran is a multiethnic state with many languages and dialects.

He says that last year's unrest in the predominantly ethnic Azeri region in northwestern Iran -- over a cartoon deemed insulting -- has been exploited by the government and given it an excuse to suppress anyone who expresses an opinion with which the government does not agree.

But what appears to worry analysts most is increasing self-censorship by writers as a response to the government actions.

In recent weeks, a number of writers in Iran have expressed concern over Yadali's detention and trial. Supporters have urged the judiciary to dismiss the case against him, adding in a public statement that "the incident" has alarmed Iran's intellectual circles at a time of increasing pressure on some of those same intellectuals.