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Iran Report: September 25, 2007

Ahmadinejad's Performance Gets Mixed Reaction From Iranians

Ahmadinejad speaking at Columbia University in New York on September 24

September 25, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Conservative politicians in Iran today began to align themselves with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad following his high-profile appearance at an academic conference in New York on September 24. Other Iranian reaction to the outspoken leader's first day in the United States has been slow to emerge, but early signs suggest Ahmadinejad is unlikely to have bridged any divides.

Iranian state television today broadcast nearly an hour of Ahmadinejad's appearance at Columbia University's World Leaders Forum, although it was initially unclear whether there were edits or omissions.

Ahmadinejad used the forum to rebut claims that his country is pursuing nuclear weapons, saying, "I think the politicians who are after atomic bombs, or testing them, making them, politically they are backward, retarded."

He "granted" that the Holocaust "happened," but said that it required "further research." He also urged greater scrutiny of the "root causes" of the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 -- including "why it happened, what caused it, what were the conditions that led to it, [and] who truly was involved, who was really involved."

Speaking with Radio Farda from Tehran following the broadcast, former Tehran University Chancellor Mohammad Maleki responded to Ahmadinejad's appearance by questioning his credentials in seeking to portray himself as a spokesman for broadly held views.

"If he is right when he says he's expressing people's views, then he should start from our Iran, since several years ago a number of Iranian personalities called for a free referendum to be held in Iran," Maleki said. "The question [would be]: Do people want this establishment and the current constitution or not?"

Conservatives Back President Against 'Zionists'

Unsurprisingly, early reactions from conservative elements in Iran reflected support for Ahmadinejad and his Columbia University appearance.

Hard-line lawmakers praised the president's performance and decried what they dismissed as the "Zionist" influence that was aligned against him.

Demonstrators outside Columbia University (RFE/RL)

Iran's international English-language broadcaster, Press TV, quoted the head of the parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Alaeddin Borujerdi, as saying the event allowed Ahmadinejad to "provide the public with accurate information." He said the audience was allowed access to Iranian positions without interference from what he described as the "Zionist"-controlled U.S. media.

Borujerdi said that "incoming reports" suggested "there were more pro-Ahmadinejad people [at] the session than people against him," although a report in "The New York Times" claimed the opposite was true.

Borujerdi also chided Columbia University President Lee Bollinger for his blunt criticism of Ahmadinejad, saying he had "degraded himself" through statements that were unsuitable for an academic and host.

Bollinger used his remarks to challenge Ahmadinejad's questioning of the Holocaust and his incendiary remarks about Israel. The Columbia president called Ahmadinejad's behavior reminiscent of "a petty and cruel dictator," and said his comments signaled he was either "brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated."

Another legislator, Kazem Jalali, echoed Ahmadinejad's perception that the Iranian president had been "insulted" by the Columbia president, blaming a "Zionist lobby" and U.S. neoconservative elements for Bollinger's comments.

Some Iranians Skeptical Of Trip

Early reactions from outside official Iran suggested skepticism of Ahmadinejad's motives to speak at Columbia.

Alireza Nurizadeh, a London-based journalist who is currently in New York, told Radio Farda that he thinks the September 24 appearances -- by video link with the National Press Club and in person at Columbia -- marked high-profile failures for Ahmadinejad.

Ahmadinejad "was able to speak in a free atmosphere," Nurizadeh said. "A White house spokesman has said that he hopes that Iranian people will also one day be able to speak freely. Finally, we have to say that Ahmadinejad in two confrontations -- one with the press, the other with students -- failed badly and this failure will remain in his record."

An Internet user who identified himself as Kian from Kermanshah wrote to Radio Farda to say that he thought the U.S. authorities "should have never given Ahmadinejad a visa to enter the U.S.!" He added, "Ahmadinejad only wants to appear on cameras and gain supporters."

Another message to Farda, from Saeed in Sweden, accused the Iranian president of simply trying to "use his trip for propaganda in Iran to say that he's reached success with courage in the land of the enemy."

Iran: Ahmadinejad Delivers Controversial Speech At U.S. University

By Nikola Krastev

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad speaking at Columbia University in New York City on September 24

NEW YORK, September 24, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad delivered a speech and took questions from U.S. students during a controversial appearance today at Columbia University in New York City.

Although influential politicians and public figures urged the university to cancel the event, hundreds of protesters gathered near the university’s campus, and police in riot gear patrolled the streets. There was no violence, and tensions were resolved peacefully.

Inside the auditorium, it appeared a large number of Ahmadinejad sympathizers were present, as his speech was often interrupted by applause.

In introducing Ahmadinejad to the audience, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger described him as someone who exhibits all the signs of “a petty and cruel dictator” and said that his remarks on the Holocaust, whose existence he has denied in the past, make him look “simply ridiculous.”

Ahmadinejad’s composed demeanor during his 90-minute presentation was at times in stark contrast with previous behavior the West has come to see as irrational and insulting. This time, Ahmadinejad did not question the existence of the Holocaust, but only said “more research is needed.” He did, however, cast doubt on the official account of the events of 9/11, predictably drawing the ire of the audience.

Few Direct Answers

His introductory remarks -- a strange preaching about God and the virtues of scientific research -- was peppered with quotes from the Bible, as well as from the Koran.

Ahmadinejad’s main message was that man should preserve the “purity of spirit” during ordeals. Later in his speech he spoke about oppressive regimes using bacteriological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, and about the plight of the Palestinians in Israel.

"You should know that according to the Iranian Constitution, there is one MP for 150,000 persons, while for the Jews -- who are only one-fifth of that number -- there is one independent MP," he said. "Our suggestion for solving the 60-year-old problem of Palestine is a humanitarian, democratic solution: Let the Palestinian people choose their own destiny themselves. This is in accordance with the UN Charter."

Ahmadinejad continued, "Let the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian Palestinians decide about their future themselves. Let there be a free referendum. Do not let anyone interfere in Palestinian people’s affairs. Do not let anyone create discord. Do not let anyone sell billions of dollars of weaponry to some others. We say let the Palestinians choose their own destiny themselves."

During the question-and-answer session, the Iranian president avoided giving direct answers to questions he did not like, or responded with a question of his own.

Asked why his government provides aid to terrorists, as is alleged by the West, he said, "I want to ask you a question. If someone plants a bomb and assassinates your president, the cabinet members and members of the Congress, what will you do? Will you reward him or call him a terrorist? Of course, you will call him a terrorist."

Trying to appeal to -- or maybe to appease -- Columbia students, Ahmadinejad spoke in detail about his own academic pursuits. He emphasized the fact that he continues to lecture to students in Tehran.

The Holocaust 'Happened'

On the question of Holocaust -- which in this venue he did not deny, as he has many times before -- he said, “Granted, it happened,” but insisted that more research is needed to determine what exactly happened.

People demonstrating against Ahmadinejad outside Columbia University in New York (AFP)

"I am an academic, just like you. Can you say that a research about a subject is finished? Can you say that research about history is finished? Well, each research adds a new dimension. Why should research be prevented?"

Asked about the execution of homosexuals in Iran, Ahmadinejad drew derisive laughter from the audience when he said, "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals, like in your country. ... In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don't know who's told you that we have this."

Some students in the audience, like Dale Stahl, a 28-year old doctoral student of history, took issue with Bollinger’s harsh introduction and said that because Ahmadinejad was democratically elected, Bollinger should not have made such a personal attack. Stahl said, “Our own president [Bollinger] could’ve perhaps been less personal in his attacks on him. I think that if you are going to bring a head of state to a university -- a personal attack is not necessarily a conducive way to begin a conversation.”

Free-Speech Debate

Jewish students in the audience, like Alex Port, a third-year biology student, were more supportive of the school president’s comments.

“In terms of Ahmadinejad, I think that Bollinger issued a very, very strong challenge to him," Port said. "And in his typical fashion, he dodges questions because he can’t answer to his other statements, you know. He is a polemicist, and he can’t answer for himself.”

Ahmadinejad's invitation to appear at Columbia University sparked a wider debate beyond the campus about whether he should have been allowed to speak. Many Americans believe Ahmadinejad's government not only abuses the human rights of its own citizens but also is helping arm Shi'as in neighboring Iraq who may use those weapons against U.S. troops.

Walter Berns, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute -- a private policy-research center in Washington -- specializes in political philosophy and U.S. constitutional law. He calls Ahmadinejad "contemptible" and said that by allowing him to speak, Columbia bestowed false importance on him.

But John Samples, who studies the U.S. Constitution at the Cato Institute, another Washington think tank, said the only speech that can be muzzled in the United States is speech that puts people in direct peril. In Ahmadinejad's case, Samples said, the speech could have been canceled if it became known it was to be full of hateful invective or otherwise encouraged civil unrest. But the only overt reaction to his appearance was a series of protests, which Samples called simply "speech against speech."

Ahmadinejad’s appearance at Columbia was part of the university’s annual World Leaders Forum. Among other prominent participants this year are the presidents of Chile, Georgia, Estonia, and Turkmenistan.

(RFE/RL Washington correspondent Andrew F. Tully contributed to this story.)

Three Iranian Students On Trial In Tehran

September 22, 2007 -- Iran's Mehr news agency today reported that the trial of three Iranian students jailed on charges of acting against national security and insulting Islam has started in Tehran.

The three students from Tehran's Amir Kabir University were among eight arrested on suspicion of publishing anti-Islamic images in a student newspaper. The other five arrested have since been released.


Iranian President Defies West At Military Parade

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (File photo)

September 22, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has reiterated his call on foreign forces to leave neighboring Iraq. Speaking at a large military parade outside Tehran, Ahmadinejad also warned that international sanctions will not succeed in stopping Iran's technological progress. The comments come as major powers are discussing new punitive measures against Iran for its refusal to suspend sensitive nuclear work.

Today's parade marked the start of Iran's annual "Sacred Defense Week."

The weeklong events commemorate the 27th anniversary of the start of the Iran-Iraq war, which ended inconclusively for both countries, after heavy losses, in 1988.

In his speech, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad called on the United States to "show courage" and leave Iraq.

Ahmadinejad said the "roots of insecurity and discord" in the region were caused by the presence of foreign troops in Iraq.

He also said threats and economic sanctions will not stop Iran's technological progress.

"Those who think today that by using such outmoded tools as psychological warfare and economic sanctions they can stop the Iranian nation's fast and growing progress, are making a mistake," he said.

Ahmadinejad added that the country will defend itself in case of any military attack and make the attacker "regret its action."

Iranian Show Of Force

As he spoke, troops, tanks, and other military hardware passed by the podium. The military also showed off its domestically manufactured fighter jet, the Saegheh, and a new missile named Ghadr, saying it had a range of 1,800 kilometers. The Ghadr appears to be an upgrade of the long-range Shahab-3 missile.

The United States accuses Iran of supporting Shi'ite militants in Iraq. Tehran is also under international pressure to stop its controversial nuclear work, which is suspected to cover an atomic weapons drive.

The United States has never ruled out using military strikes to punish Iran for its defiance in the nuclear standoff.

Iran, which says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, has threatened to hit back at U.S. interests in the Middle East if attacked.

Britain-based military expert Hossein Aryan, speaking to Radio Farda, said he wouldn't read too much into Ahmadinejad's latest comments.

"I think these are reactions rather than threats, based on the weapons Iran is producing. Its military doctrine is based on defense," he said. "These comments are a reaction to threats that are sometimes mentioned here and there against Iran. They are also a reaction to reports that the U.S. military option is still on the table and is still being considered. "

The UN Security Council has already imposed two rounds of limited sanctions on Iran aimed at trying to force Tehran to halt uranium enrichment activities.

Meeting in Washington on September 21, officials of the five permanent Security Council members and Germany said they will keep pursuing a "dual track" approach to Iran -- trying to persuade it to abandon enrichment via negotiations while considering new sanctions.

While France and Britain strongly back a U.S. push for harsher Security Council sanctions, China and Russia oppose this.

Ahmadinejad is due to leave on September 23 for New York to attend the UN General Assembly, where he is to give an address.

Ahmadinejad is also scheduled to speak at a question-and-answer forum at Columbia University in New York on September 24.

His request to visit "Ground Zero," the site of the two fallen World Trade Center towers, has been denied by U.S. authorities.

Iran: Expert Doubts Impact Of New Sanctions On Nuclear Program

By Jeremy Bransten

Shannon Kile of the Stockholm Peace Institute

September 21, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The UN’s nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, is due to wrap up a weeklong meeting in Vienna today that has largely focused on Iran’s nuclear efforts and its refusal to halt its uranium enrichment program. Later today in Washington, representatives of the five permanent UN Security Council countries, plus Germany, are due to discuss a possible third round of sanctions against Iran. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten interviewed Shannon Kile, a senior nonproliferation expert at the Stockholm Peace Institute, about the state of Iran's nuclear program and what international sanctions can or cannot do to stop it.

RFE/RL: A possible third round of UN sanctions against Iran will be discussed soon. Can you tell us what the effect has been of the two sets of existing UN sanctions, which mostly target Tehran’s arms industry and its nuclear program?

Shannon Kile: Opinion is actually divided on that. I think the consensus is that it's had some effect. But the effect has been quite limited. And certainly, the two sets of sanctions that have been imposed to date haven't been punitive enough to change the structure of incentives for Iran in terms of persuading it to suspend its uranium enrichment program, as the Security Council resolutions call for.

RFE/RL: Does Iran’s nuclear program rely on imports of technology, or has Tehran become self-reliant at this point?

Kile: Again here, there's not a consensus. My understanding is that Iran is still having to import some types of dual-use items and equipment. The Iranians, for their part, say they have now mastered uranium centrifuge technology, which is really the key issue here. They claim that [the program is] completely indigenous now and that they don't need to import additional equipment from outside the country -- that they have mastered the technology and that they can proceed on their own. I suspect that the Iranians are probably overstating the case somewhat. But to what extent, I just don't know.

RFE/RL: Russia and China have expressed their opposition to a third round of UN sanctions against Iran, so chances that the Security Council will approve any new measures appear limited. Nevertheless, what is being contemplated by the proponents of new UN sanctions?

Kile: It's a tightening, basically, of the existing sanctions. I don't think anyone is talking about something that would be very severe, such as a ban on refined petroleum products imported into Iran. I don't think anyone's talking about that. I think they're talking basically about a tightening of the sanctions that are already in place and extending them to additional companies and commercial entities that are connected, for example, to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. But I don't think we're talking about anything beyond that at the present time.

Separate EU Sanctions?

RFE/RL: France has indicated it favors EU sanctions against Iran that would go further than what the UN could do. What does Paris mean exactly, and will the EU go along?

Kile: What the EU's talking about is extending the existing sanctions and it's important to keep in mind that the European Union actually already has gone beyond the Security Council resolutions to some extent. For example, the language of the [UN] resolutions calls for a reconsideration of travel visas for key figures in the Iranian leadership, which the European Union has interpreted as meaning a ban on those individuals being able to travel. So to some extent the EU has already gone onto its own autonomous sanctions program.

I think what the French are talking about is something which is much more in line with the American position, which is that there need to be more wide-ranging and comprehensive economic sanctions imposed against Iran. And I must say I see no support for that inside the EU. The EU is very badly split on this issue. In fact, one of the noticeable absences in recent months has been [EU foreign policy chief] Javier Solana, because he simply can't make any statements on behalf of the European Union, because the EU member states are so divided on how to move forward.

RFE/RL: Would unilateral economic French sanctions against Tehran hurt the Iranian regime significantly?

Kile: France would have some leverage but of course Germany is really the key trading partner within the European Union for the Iranians. It's by far the largest of the European trading partners for Iran, so the German position is actually more decisive. And Germany itself has indicated that it doesn't see a need for additional sanctions at this point. It hasn't gone as far as the Russians and the Chinese, but it's somewhere between the Russians and the Chinese on the one side and the French and the Americans on the other side.

RFE/RL: The Iranians have repeated again and again that they will not halt their uranium-enrichment program. Are there any sanctions you believe can make them change their minds?

Kile: What I was told by the Iranian delegation at the IAEA [this week] is that there was no set of circumstances under which Iran would give up its uranium enrichment program. And again they emphasized that they've mastered the centrifuge technology, that they are now capable of indigenously producing the centrifuge equipment, including the cascades, that they don't need foreign assistance for it, and under no set of circumstances would they be willing to give that up. They consider that to be an inalienable right, part of their national sovereignty and really -- reading between the lines -- for them it's very much a reflection of Islamic modernity and their place as a modern state in the developed world. So I must confess I think it's going to be very difficult to find any package that's going to make Iran give up its enrichment program.

Tehran Releases Iranian-American Jailed Since May

Kian Tajbaksh spoke to reporters visiting him at Evin prison on September 11

September 20, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Tehran has freed an Iranian-American man, Kian Tajbakhsh, who was jailed in May on charges of acting against Iran's national security.

Tajbakhsh is a social scientist, specializing in urban planning, who was working in Tehran as a consultant for the Open Society Institute, a nongovernmental organization created by U.S. financier and philanthropist George Soros.

He is the third Iranian-American facing security-related charges in Tehran to be released by Iranian authorities this month, following the release from prison of Haleh Esfandiari and Tehran's decision to allow Radio Farda correspondent Parnaz Azima to leave the country.

The IRNA news agency reports that Tajbakhsh was freed on the evening of September 19 on bail of about $100,000. A judicial spokesman in Tehran says Tajbakhsh is not allowed to leave Iran unless he obtains special permission.

Mohammad Ali Dadakhah, a prominent Iranian lawyer who cofounded the Tehran-based Center of Human Rights Defenders with Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, told Radio Farda today that under the provisions of Iranian law, Tajbakhsh was imprisoned for too long without a trial.

"It's very joyful news that finally Kian Tajbakhsh was released from prison," Dadakhah said. "Based on Iranian laws, temporary arrest should last only two months unless the court finds new reasons to prolong the temporary arrest, and the accused does not protest" against the reasons for the prolongation, he said.

Still Detained

Tehran is still holding Iranian-American peace activist and businessman Ali Shakeri on security charges.

Shakeri serves on the Community Advisory Board of the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding at the University of California, Irvine. He reportedly was arrested at Tehran's international airport while trying to leave the country for Europe. In June, Tehran confirmed that Shakeri was imprisoned. His family says they have been informed that Shakeri is in solitary confinement at Tehran's notorious Evin prison.

Tehran's deputy prosecutor has said that Shakeri's case was not related to the cases against other Iranian-Americans who have been charged with acting against Iran's national security.

Last month, in the last official word about Shakeri's case, the deputy prosecutor said, "The time had not yet arrived for providing full information about his situation."

Shakeri's son, wife, colleagues, and human-rights groups have all expressed concern about his fate. Shakeri's son said he sounded very depressed in a short telephone call to his family while in detention.

Meanwhile, the case of an American national in Iran remains unresolved. The whereabouts of former FBI agent Robert Levinson have been unknown since he disappeared during a visit to Kish Island off the southern coast of Iran on March 8. According to Levinson's family, he had gone to Kish on business to seek information about cigarette smuggling.

Safely Out Of Iran

On September 3, Tehran allowed scholar Haleh Esfandiari to return to the United States after she had spent several months at Evin Prison.

Esfandiari heads the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. Charged with acting against Iran's national security, Esfandiari was released from prison on August 21 after she posted bail of about $320,000.

RFE/RL correspondent Parnaz Azima had been virtual prisoner in Tehran since authorities seized her passport in January while she was visiting her ailing mother.

Though Azima was charged with acting against Iran's national security, she was never incarcerated. She returned to the United States on September 18 after she posted bail of about $300,000.

(Radio Farda contributed to this report.)

Iran: RFE/RL Journalist Reflects On Ordeal

Radio Farda broadcaster Parnaz Azima after her arrival in Washington on September 18

September 20, 2007 -- Radio Farda correspondent Parnaz Azima went to Iran in January to visit her ailing 94-year-old mother, who had fallen and broken her hip, and then suffered embolisms. But after Iranian authorities took her passport upon entry, Azima began what became an eight-month ordeal of being unable to leave again as she became one of four Iranian-Americans held against their will. Now, back in the United States, she reflects on what happened in this conversation with RFE/RL correspondent Mosaddegh Katouzian.

RFE/RL: Can you tell us a bit more about why you went to Iran and whether you suspected that you might face difficulties in doing so, given Tehran’s opposition to your employer, Radio Farda, the Persian-language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the tensions in general between Washington and Tehran?

Nazy Azima: I was almost sure that I would be in trouble but I thought that, I mean, in the end I decided to go because otherwise maybe my mother wouldn't be alive. That is the truth. According to her doctors, they told me that they had no hope that she would recover and then suddenly at the hospital they found that she had changed and she told them, 'do you know that my daughter is here?' I think it was very important. Before I entered the country she had been in a coma but when I entered Iran she was in ICU (intensive care unit) for the third time because she had an embolism in her lung and also in her leg, and her doctor told me that she could face a very difficult situation.

RFE/RL: Once you were in Iran, how did you cope with the stress of suddenly no longer being in control of your own fate?

Azima: I was with my mom, and many people, as well as her doctor, told me that my presence there was very good for her health and for her recovery. But there were bad sides, as I was feeling that I am constantly under (security) control. But maybe it was not like that, I don't know. But I had that feeling, especially during the first two or three months. And then I tried to convince myself that I can’t go on like this, so I tried to just ignore things. And I found that others -- my friends and others that I knew in Iran -- were doing the same thing. They felt that maybe they are under control but they ignored it and they continued their ordinary life.

RFE/RL: Now that you are out, has the experience left you somewhat traumatized?

Azima: I don't want to say yes, but I think I am. Because I don't want to give in, or give up. My time in Iran, as I told you, I had good times but also I had bad times. For example, I didn't write anything, or I didn't keep anything in written form because I was all the time thinking that maybe they would again come to my house and make a house search. You never know what could happen. So that is why maybe I am traumatized.

While two are freed, three other Americans are still being held or are missing in Iran. Read about their cases here.