Why Did Iran’s Ahmadinejad Cut Short Armenia Visit?October 23, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Amid speculation over why Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad suddenly cut short a visit to Armenia today, senior Armenian officials have told RFE/RL that it may have been due to the "deteriorating health" of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Ahmadinejad had arrived in Yerevan on October 22 for two days of talks with President Robert Kocharian and other Armenian officials on joint energy and transportation projects. But today, the hard-line president suddenly skipped a planned visit to a memorial for the victims of the Ottoman Turkish massacre of Armenians some 90 years ago -- an event that Yerevan wants the world to recognize as genocide.
Armenian officials have said Ahmadinejad told them that he had to leave early due to unexpected developments in Iran. But upon his arrival in Tehran, the president told Iranian journalists that he had stayed even longer than planned.
Senior Armenian officials say Ahmadinejad may have left early because the health of Khamenei, long believed to be poor, had taken a turn for the worse. "There are different suggestions that some problems have arisen inside Iran connected to the health of Khamenei," leading parliamentarian Victor Dalakian told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service in Yerevan.
Another Armenian official, speaking to RFE/RL on the condition of anonymity, also cited Khamenei’s "deteriorating health" as a possible reason for Ahmadinejad’s sudden return home.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry insisted earlier this year that the supreme leader is doing fine, despite persisent reports to the contrary.
Reports in Armenia and elsewhere have also speculated that Ahmadinejad's early departure may have been connected to an internal Iranian power struggle tied to the recent resignation of Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, who was seen as close to Khamenei.
He was replaced by Said Jalili, who is reportedly close to Ahmadinejad. Both Jalili and Larijani were in Rome today for nuclear talks with European Union officials.
There's also has been speculation that Ahmadinejad cut short his visit to avoid planting a tree at a memorial to victims of the Ottoman massacre of Armenians -- a move that some believe would have angered Turkey.
The issue made headlines after the Foreign Affairs Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a nonbinding resolution that would recognize the killings as genocide.
"With this step, [Ahmadinejad] showed that Turkey, and relations with Turkey, are more important for Iran than Armenian sensitivities," Rasim Musabekov, a Baku-based political analyst, told RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service. "It's a rational move, and he's done it in a smart way."
But other have noted that Turkish-Iranian ties suffered no obvious damage in September 2004, after then-Iranian President Mohammad Khatami laid flowers at the same memorial in Yerevan.
And on his trip, Ahmadinejad commented directly on the massacre, saying on October 22 that he was "against the brutality" waged on Armenians during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire.
He also said that Iranian Armenians, who constitute one of Iran’s main ethnic groups, are free every year to commemorate the mass killings on April 24. He did not use the word genocide, but ethnic Armenians in Iran have a monument in Tehran which commemorates the tragedy as genocide.
Iran: Public-Transport Bill Offers Window On Political Divide
But the approval of the bill's framework on October 16 was far from overwhelming, with 108 of the 209 lawmakers present voting for its passage, "Etemad-i Melli" reported on October 17. That split appears to highlight the divide between the government and detractors who argue that gasoline rationing has been badly bungled and fear the government's implementation of the new proposal will be no better.
The framework bill to expand public transport and manage fuel use, as it's called, must still be approved by the powerful Guardians Council, a body of jurists with broad authority to vet legislation. But the framework's relatively narrow passage also signals potential obstacles when the detailed legislation eventually comes back before lawmakers.
The plan would commit the government to expand railways and public transportation, take ageing cars off the road, and convert gasoline-powered cars to dual-use vehicles that can run on gasoline and liquefied gas (LPG). It also calls for improved highways, more stations to sell liquefied gas, the manufacture of cars that run on LPG and support for the production of hybrid and electric cars, and greater fuel efficiency in general, "Etemad-i Melli" reported.
The framework bill urges the government to help create conditions that will dramatically reduce the flow of private vehicles on city streets. It advocates a goal of making buses and other public transport responsible for 75 percent of all city traffic.
The draft earmarks about $10.7 billion (10 trillion tumans) per year for its implementation. Reformist legislator Hadi Haqshenas told his parliamentary colleagues that the expenditure could represent half the entire state construction and development budget for the next fiscal year from March 2008, the financial daily "Donya-i Eqtesad" reported on October 17.
A Lack Of Focus
Some legislators warned of potential problems accompanying the draft bill and the limitations of legislative initiatives with such broad goals as "expanding public transportation and limiting fuel use across Iran." Minab representative Ali Moallemipur argued that the bill would channel funds to large cities at the expense of smaller constituencies, compounding problems in rural districts. Moallemipur claimed such districts are already facing fuel shortages under the current restrictions, in place since June.
A legislator from Lahijan, Iraj Nadimi, chided the government over the absence of a comprehensive policy on fuel use and transportation -- and stressed that specific plans in that area must be "focused," "Etemad-i Melli" reported.
The bill was defended in parliament by Iran's interior and transportation ministers. Transportation Minister Mohammad Rahmati said public transportation is presently "very weak" in cities and between cities, adding that the country needs 10 years to strengthen its transportation infrastructure. Interior Minister Mostafa Purmohammadi said the framework is in line with the current five-year (2005-10) development plan and the "20-year perspective," which sets out Iran's midterm development goals. Purmohammadi sought to deflect criticism at this stage by saying parliamentarians' queries can be addressed once the bill is debated in all its details.
'Problems Of Implementation'
The public-transportation framework is part of ongoing efforts to curb fuel use and costly gasoline imports. But in barely disguised rebukes of the government, some lawmakers have observed -- particularly in recent months -- that legislation is helpful only when it is implemented correctly.
Members of parliament have repeatedly criticized President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's government for failing to fully implement the current law restricting fuel use -- known as Addendum 13 (to the budget for the year to March 2008). That legislation allows Iranian drivers a monthly quota of 100 liters of gasoline at a heavily subsidized price (100 tumans, or roughly $0.11) while allowing further purchases at a higher price. But authorities still have not announced the higher price, essentially blocking any legal sales of gasoline beyond subsidized levels. The situation has reportedly fueled a bustling black market for gasoline, and some observers claim that traffic has crept back to prerestriction levels -- at least in the capital, Tehran.
Amid debate over the new framework bill, detractors argued on October 16 that the new public-transportation bill has nothing that is not already in Addendum 13 to curb fuel usage, "Donya-i Eqtesad" reported. Minab legislator Moallemipur said the problem is not a lack of legislation but rather a "problem of implementation." He said Addendum 13, as implemented by the government, has led to fuel shortages and inflation -- something the government promised would not happen. Moallemipur claimed that black-market fuel is sold in Tehran for 200 tumans a liter (about $0.21) and about five times that price in the southern port city of Bandar Abbas. He called that an illustration of the government's negligent implementation of current legislation.
A Question Of Management
Meanwhile, the reformist daily "Etemad" observed on October 17 that the basic problem with fuel remains. Fuel is subsidized and thus wasted, it said, and Addendum 13 has merely sought to reduce the economic cost of subsidies by restricting gasoline use. "Etemad" observed that state development plans seek to phase out subsidies, not restrict fuel use. The paper also estimated that Iran has spent about $17 billion in the past three years on imported gasoline and gas oil, a heating fuel, which it has sold at subsidized prices to Iranians.
A Shirvan representative and member of the parliamentary Energy Committee, Hossein Afarideh, has painted a similar picture of natural-gas waste. Afarideh said a cubic meter of gas costs about $1.30 in Iraq, $1.10 in the United Arab Emirates, $0.70 in Saudi Arabia -- and $0.08 in Iran. He said Iran is not exporting gas because it cannot manage consumption at home and has no "comprehensive energy plan." Afarideh said this national asset is being "burned away" and, with current consumption levels, "all the gas in the world" might not be enough to meet Iranians' demand. He claimed that "the wealth that [might otherwise] be used to create jobs has been destroyed [due to a] lack of management."
The buzzwords among Iranian parliamentarians and officials are "energy use" and fuel "management" -- notions that are being interpreted differently depending on people's economic ideas. Some Iranian politicians appear to think the market should be given a greater regulatory role -- like a seemingly thriving black market in gasoline. Others, including members of the Ahmadinejad government, seem to think that consumption can be curbed from above -- with an emphasis on reduced consumption rather than price liberalization, which they fear could fuel already persistent inflation. The framework bill appears to highlight the government's determination to force Iranians to reduce waste while it maintains a hand in their social and economic affairs.
Iran: Military Flaunts New Capabilities As Tensions Rise
In recent weeks, Iran has opened a new air base, unveiled new domestically produced military hardware, and issued defense pronouncements at a rapid-fire pace.
At a military parade on September 22 to mark the 27th anniversary of Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran, the Iranian military presented what it claimed was a new, medium-range ballistic missile.
The Qadr-1 appeared to be an advanced variant of the Shahab-3. A former director of Israel's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, Uzi Rubin, noted that the Qadr missile "which appeared in the 2004 parade was then said to have a range of 2,000 kilometers."
If those and other reports are correct, the Qadr-1 is capable of striking Israel, southern Europe, and U.S. bases in the Middle East.
Just days earlier, Iran unveiled three prototypes of what it claims is a domestically manufactured fighter jet. The aircraft, called the Saeqeh (Thunderbolt), is the latest generation of the previously tested Azarkhash (Thunder) fighter jet. A joint product of the Iranian Air Force and its Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Ministry, the Saeqeh has been described as similar to the U.S. F-18 fighter jet. Iranian authorities say they have begun industrial-scale production of the Saeqeh.
Military commander Major General Ataollah Salehi has described the domestic production of the Saeqeh as "a warning to Western countries that threaten" Iran. He added that such countries "must know that while they are trying to turn other countries against [Iran] with their limited capabilities in the region," Iran "possesses unlimited technology" with which it can oppose those threats.
On October 9, Iran inaugurated a production line for the manufacture of a one-ton smart bomb called the Qadr. Fars News Agency reported that this bomb -- a variant of the Qased (Messenger) smart bomb -- is an optically guided, air-to-surface, long-range bomb that meets the Iranian Air Force's need for a powerful weapon. Fars' defense reporter added that Iran's "attainment of the technology for designing and mass-producing smart bombs with a high degree of power and accuracy is one of the achievements of Iran's defense specialists," and said the Qased is one such weapon.
Guarding The Eastern Front
Also this month, Iran opened a new air base near its eastern border with Afghanistan. The new air base -- named Qa'em Al-e Muhammad in a reference to Shi'a Islam's 12th, or hidden, imam -- lies in Birjand, the capital of the sparsely populated province of South Khorasan, and is about 1,300 kilometers from Tehran. While most of Iran's air bases, mainly constructed under the Pahlavi Dynasty between 1925-79, lie along its western borders in anticipation of threats from that direction, the Qa'em Al-e Muhammad facility is meant to enhance the presence of Iran's air force along its eastern borders, together with three other bases in Mashhad, Zahedan, and Chah Bahar.
The commander of the Iranian air force, Brigadier General Ahmad Miqani, told state television after the base was opened that "in light of the threats that Iran faced in the past, Iran paid more attention to the southern and western region." But he said that "the inauguration of this air base is aimed at responding swiftly if an attack is launched against the country."
Miqani accused "extra-regional and global powers" of "attempts...to threaten the Islamic republic," and said the country's air force is fully prepared to respond to possible attacks.
In addition to these efforts to boost its military capabilities, Iran has taken steps to improve its passive defenses -- such as radar and other detection -- that might minimize damage in the event of hostilities by the United States or Israel.
On 27 September, Iran's Defense Industries Organization held its first conference on passive defense, inviting representatives of engineering consultancies, as well as planners and managers from a number of ministries.
In a reference to Iran's experience in passive defense during the Iran-Iraq war in 1980-88, the head of the country's Passive Defense Organization, Brigadier General Gholam Reza Jalali, has argued that "implementing the principles that govern passive defense can reduce costs and provide a durable defense" against enemy attack.
Calculated Show Of Strength
The rising tensions between Washington and Tehran have no doubt influenced the timing of Iran's displays of military progress.
While U.S. officials have repeatedly stressed their desire to resolve the Iranian nuclear standoff diplomatically, administration officials have pointedly avoided taking a military option "off the table."
U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney on October 21 described Iran as an "obstacle to peace in the Middle East," and warned that "the international community is prepared to impose serious consequences" if Iran's leadership maintains its "present course."
Two new European leaders, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, have issued blunt statements on the topic of a possible military option if diplomatic efforts fail to curb Iran's nuclear activities.
While Iran's top brass have suggested that the United States is in no position -- economically or politically -- to attack Iran, current and former generals are well aware of U.S. military might.
Addressing students at Tehran's Sharif University recently, former Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Yaha Rahim-Safavi warned against "looking at military issues simplistically." Rahim-Safavi went on to say that "America, with its military forces in the region, has the capacity to cause problems" for Iran.
Reports of an alleged Israeli air attack against mysterious targets in Syria in September has compounded Iranian concerns. Iran's generals appear to be wondering why two state-of-the-art, Russian-built radar systems in Syria failed to detect Israeli jets entering Syrian territory.
Iran in January received a $750 million shipment of 29 Tor-M1 short-range, mobile surface-to-air missile systems from Russia to help guard Iranian nuclear facilities.
Iran: New Crackdown On Dissidents 'Seeks To Create Despair’
Baqi, who was jailed on October 14 on charges of “endangering national security,” is considered one of Iran’s leading dissidents. He was previously jailed for three years on security charges for his writings about the serial murder of dissidents and intellectuals in Iran in the late 1990s. The founder of the Society To Defend Prisoners' Rights, Baqi in recent years campaigned to defend prisoners’ rights and against the death penalty in Iran.
His latest detention came on the basis of a previously suspended one-year sentence. His lawyer said he has been charged with revealing secret information about prisoners. His family has been quoted by Human Rights Watch as saying that since his release in 2003, he has been summoned by officials 23 times.
Baqi's detention has been strongly condemned by rights groups in Iran and elsewhere, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. It has also sparked concerns among other Iranian activists that authorities could jail other dissidents who have suspended jail sentences hanging above their heads like a sword of Damocles.
Shirin Ebadi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and head of the Tehran-based Center of Human Rights Defenders, called Baqi’s arrest the latest sign of an intensifying government crackdown on civil society. "Unfortunately, pressure on Iran's civil society continues,” Ebadi told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda on October 15. “The arrest of Baqi is against Iranian law."
Joe Stork, Human Rights Watch's deputy director for the Middle East and Northern Africa, said that, "the Iranian government should applaud Baqi for his efforts on behalf of prisoners' rights, not arrest him."
The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said in a statement that his arrest is an example of the "strategy of harassment and pressure" used against activists by Iranian authorities "who are trying to silence the growing number who are demanding the legitimate right to a free and independent press."
Amnesty International also strongly condemned Baqi's arrest and said the charges against him are politically motivated and aimed at "silencing the human rights defender's criticism of the human-rights situation in Iran."
U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said on October 18 that Baqi's arrest demonstrates Tehran's "disregard for Iranian citizens campaigning for their basic rights."
Baqi’s case has also highlighted concerns that the regime is purposely leaving legal cases against dissidents and activists unresolved, in order to be able to detain them at will at later dates. "Individuals are detained for some time secretly or publicly; they are then released on a large bail and their case remains unresolved,” Hadi Ghaemi, the Human Rights Watch researcher on Iran, told Radio Farda recently. “As a result, even though they are not in prison they remain -- to a large extent -- hostage to Iran's judiciary."
Meanwhile, Detentions Increase
On October 17, three Iranian student activists were sentenced to jail terms of up to three years on charges of "insulting Islam’s sanctities and its authorities" in a student newsletter. Reformist student groups have rejected the charges as "fabricated" and said the students are the latest victims of what they have described as a "government project to silence critics in universities." Journalists and intellectuals have been also under pressure.
On October 18, a reformist journalist, cleric Mohammad Javad Akbarin, was reportedly detained at the Tehran airport. Akbarin is said to be close to Iran's main pro-reform party Mosharekat, or Iran's Islamic Participation Front.
Initially, it was reported that he was detained on the order of the Special Court for the Clergy before leaving Tehran for Beirut where he was due to continue his studies. Yet hours later several websites reported that he was not detained but was being prevented from leaving the country. Akbarin is due to appear before the Special Court for the Clergy next week.
The incident comes about a month after the arrest of another reformist cleric, Hadi Ghabel, who was also jailed by the Special Court for the Clergy. Ghabel -- an outspoken member of Mosharekat -- was detained in Qom in September on security charges. Ghabel had also been jailed in the past for criticizing Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Ghabel's son has said that two sessions of his father's trial took place behind closed doors and without allowing him access to a lawyer.
While the arrest of critics in Iran is hardly new, the latest wave of detentions has increased their scope and is “extremely worrying,” according to Issa Saharkhiz, a prominent journalist. The Tehran-based Society To Defend Press Freedom also warned on October 18 that freedom of speech in Iran is deteriorating.
Some observers, including Ghabel’s brother, Ahmad, say the latest arrests are an attempt to silence critics ahead of March 2008 parliamentary elections. "As some of his party members had speculated, it seems that they have arrested him so that it provokes reactions [among reformists] and would give [authorities] an excuse [to confront them],” Ahmad Ghabel told Radio Farda recently. “This is one analysis. The other one is that ahead of the elections they want to say that reformists cannot protect their own forces. They want to create despair.”
Iran: Top Nuclear Negotiator Resigns
Government spokesman Gholamhussein Elham said today that President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has accepted Larijani's resignation as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council.
He announced that Deputy Foreign Minister Said Jalili will replace him.
It was unclear why Larijani resigned, although the timing of his departure raises questions about possible tensions with the fiery Ahmadinejad.
Following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Tehran earlier this week, Larijani announced that the Kremlin leader had made a new proposal to break the deadlock over the nuclear crisis.
Larijani said the offer came during Putin’s talks with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and that it would be carefully considered.
But President Ahmadinejad later was quoted as saying he knew of “no nuclear proposal.”
Will Tehran Pursue Tougher Line?
Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science at Tehran University, told Radio Farda that although he was seen as conservative, Larijani was known to have differences with the president. "From the very beginning there has been a kind of contradiction between Ali Larijani and Ahmadinejad regarding Tehran’s nuclear case,” he said.
“Mr. Ahmadinejad has been more drawn into a radical policy which is based on the ideological confrontation of the Islamic Revolution of Iran with the West," he added, "whereas Mr. Larijani had a more realistic view and believed that the nuclear program must not endanger Iran’s national security."
Larijani took up the nuclear portfolio in 2005, after Ahmadinejad's election as president. He oversaw two years of sensitive talks with EU officials over Iran's nuclear program that ultimately proved inconclusive.
But Zibakalam told Radio Farda that Larijani's resignation could translate into a more radical Iranian approach on the nuclear issue. "It is still the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] who has the last word in the nuclear case. But it is obvious that the leader does not make decisions in a vacuum,” he noted.
“He consults with officials first. And the important point is that whenever the role of radicals becomes bigger in the atomic program, there is a higher possibility that the leadership might tend to take a more hard-line approach."
That remains to be seen. So far in public, Said Jalili has adopted much the same tone as his predecessor. In an interview with “The Boston Globe” last year he said Iran had no interest or intention of developing nuclear weapons, calling such a move “unhumanitarian, illogical, inefficient, and illegitimate.”
Like all top Iranian politicians, he has steadfastly defended Tehran’s right to develop civilian nuclear power.
Scheduled Talks With EU Unaffected
Larijani’s resignation comes three days before the next scheduled round of talks between Iran and the European Union on the issue.
Both Iran and the EU have confirmed that Larijani's replacement will meet EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana as planned on October 23 for more discussions about Iran's nuclear ambitions.
To date, the United Nations Security Council has imposed two rounds of sanctions against Iran over concerns that Tehran may use its nuclear program to develop a nuclear weapon.
The United States and its European allies are discussing a possible third round of sanctions if Tehran continues to refuse demands that it suspend uranium production.
Tehran says its nuclear efforts are aimed only at producing electricity for civilian purposes and it has continued to reject such demands.
UN Security Council permanent members Russia and China have so far not backed efforts to strengthen sanctions against Iran.
Iran: International Unions Condemn Treatment Of Jailed Activist
Three months after he was dragged from a bus, beaten, and jailed, Osanlu's health is reported to be deteriorating rapidly. Osanlu's wife, Parvaneh, told Radio Farda that Iranian authorities ignored her urgent pleas for treatment to preserve his eyesight until only very recently.
"The prison doctor who was sent to see Osanlu has said that he must be operated on," she says. "Now prison and judiciary [authorities] should save Osanlu's eye as soon as possible -- otherwise, nothing can be done for his eye. Right after Osanlu's arrest, a few days later, I gave prison officials the medical files regarding his eye condition and I followed the issue regularly. But because judiciary officials attended to his eye condition quite late, his retina was torn."
Union Federation Wants End to 'Persecution'
A spokesman for the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) in London, Sam Dawson, says the ITF is shocked at what he says is "ill-treatment piled upon ill-treatment" of Osanlu, and wants Iranian authorities to abandon their "persecution" of Osanlu and other union leaders. "We would like to see him released immediately -- it's long overdue -- and an end to the persecution of Mansur Osanlu and his colleagues, who include Ebrahim Medadi, who we believe is also ill, and not receiving the necessary medical attention," Dawson says.
In September, the ITF sent a representative, Hanafi Rustandi from Indonesia, to Tehran to urge better treatment for Osanlu and the other jailed unionists of the capital's bus union. ITF representatives told Radio Farda that visit was initiated by the Iranian side, which vowed to allow the Indonesian to visit Osanlu in prison to verify that he was in good health.
But Rustandi was prevented from meeting Osanlu, with prison authorities saying he had been transferred to a separate facility for surgery. ITF spokesman Dawson says this turned out to be a "complete lie," and that nothing has been done to improve Osanlu's condition. Dawson finds the situation "unbelievable" the way the union "is being repressed and Mansur being targeted, as are his colleagues and people in other free syndicates and unions."
ITF envoy Rustandi has challenged Iran's ambassador to Malaysia to a televised debate on what he calls the "victimization" of trade unionists in Iran.
Osanlu has been in and out of jail since he helped organize a protest action in the Tehran bus system at the end of 2005. He has suffered a knife attack and at least one other beating, and has spent months in solitary confinement.
Coordinated International Action, Protests
The UN's International Labor Organization (ILO) has already called on Iranian authorities to release Osanlu and drop any charges against him. But ITF representative Mac Urata told Radio Farda that his group is also urging its ILO colleagues to use a visit to Iran next week to demand meetings with Osanlu and Medadi.
"I think it would be very hard for the Iranian authorities to refuse such [a] small encounter between Brother Osanlu [and] Brother Medadi and the ILO mission," Urata says. "I don't think that would go down very well with their public relations, with the international community. If such a thing happens, then what we can do is to keep up the pressure [on] the Iranian government, that we are not forgetting this case and that we are outraged by the latest incidents, when we [were given] false information about Mr. Osanlu's eye surgery."
The ITF has posted a nearly nine-minute video on the Internet chronicling Osanlu's battle for Iranian workers' rights. Urata noted that ITF member bus drivers are already wearing "Free Osanlu" badges. He said federation members in other areas of transportation -- land, sea, and air -- could don similar badges to pressure the Iranian authorities if Tehran continues to persecute unionists.
In Canada, the National Union of Public and General Employees on October 18 called on all unionists to write to Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to demand recognition of labor rights, under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
(Radio Farda's Ruzbeh Bolhari contributed to this report.)
Iran: Top U.S. Official Says Financial Clampdown Is Working
Levey, the undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the U.S. Treasury, has been at the forefront of recent U.S. efforts to persuade banks and financial institutions around the world to curtail or cut off their dealings with the Islamic Republic of Iran. And a growing number of them -- reportedly 40, including major European banks -- have agreed to jump on board the Levey-led U.S. campaign to squeeze Iran’s economy in a bid to persuade it to suspend uranium enrichment, a key process in making nuclear weapons.
“Iran is seeing itself isolated politically through UN sanctions,” Levey told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda in an exclusive interview in Washington on October 16. “They’re seeing themselves isolated financially because the conduct that they’re engaged in is so offensive to financial institutions around the world that those financial institutions have decided that they don’t want to do business with Iran now, in any currency.”
Since the beginning of the year, Iran’s ability to finance major oil deals and generally do business with the rest of the world has been curtailed. Two of Germany’s biggest banks -- Deutsche Bank AG and Commerzbank AG -- announced an end to most ties to Iranian companies, a step taken also by UBS, the world’s biggest bank as measured by total assets. HSBC, Britain’s biggest bank, announced it would conduct no more new business with Iranian clients, as have three of Japan’s biggest banks. And many other international financial institutions have followed suit, Levey says, although they have preferred to remain anonymous.
Shady Business Practices
“You’ve seen a dramatic decrease in foreign investment in Iran, including in its oil infrastructure, which is really the future of the country,” Levey said. “A lot of companies are pulling out of Iran, not only because of the sanctions that are imposed but because there are deceptive commercial practices that Iran is engaged in, and companies are worried that they may not know with whom they are really dealing, that they might be dealing with a company, for example, that holds itself out as a legitimate commercial enterprise but is in fact connected to the military or connected to the IRGC [Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps].”
Two key Iranian targets of the international community are Bank Sepah and Bank Saderat. The United States has moved against both. Last year, it banned U.S. institutions from doing business with Bank Saderat, which Levey said has been a lynchpin in funding terror groups like Hamas and Hizballah. In January, Washington passed a similar measure against Bank Sepah, accusing it of financing much of Iran’s missile program, including payments to a North Korean group that exports such technologies.
Adding to the financial pressure on Iran is a tougher approach from Europe. President Nicolas Sarkozy, for one, has called on France’s largest firms not to bid for projects in Iran. While Germany and Italy, Europe’s two biggest traders with Tehran, have been slower to join efforts to clamp down financially on Iran, Levey says he is encouraged that the overall trend toward isolating Iran will achieve the desired effect.
“I think it was very dramatic to have the French government say that they are encouraging their companies not to invest in new projects in Iran,” the senior U.S. official said. “If I were a young person in Iran, I would be very worried about that kind of trend and what it says about the prospects for young people as they enter the workforce and try to make a living, that so much of the world is deciding that Iran is not a viable place to do business.”
Impact Felt, Not Only At The Top
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged last December that while the financial crackdown on Iran is aimed primarily at its elite, the effort “is not surgical” and will naturally have an affect on ordinary Iranians. But Levey, like Rice, points out that President Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s government is ultimately responsible for Iran’s political and economic isolation, due to its defiance of UN sanctions and because, in his words, “they’re mismanaging their economy terribly.”
Independent experts have estimated Iran’s actual unemployment rate to be about double the officially reported rate of 11 percent. Tehran also claims that inflation is at 17 percent, but many experts believe is it far higher. At the same time the government has forced the central bank to cut interest rates below the rate of inflation. “They’re not following through on their economic promises to the people,” Levey said. “On top of that, they’re making it even worse for law-abiding, good citizen Iranians, if you will, because the regime is funneling all these no-bid contracts to the people associated with the Revolutionary Guards, which means that law-abiding Iranians don’t have economic opportunities.”
Broadly, the U.S.-led financial clampdown is making it harder for Iran to raise loans, obtain foreign currency, or hold offshore assets. Greater European participation is also making it much harder for Iran to simply shift oil transactions out of dollars and into euros.
Some observers have said the campaign’s impact on Iran may even be more significant than two rounds of sanctions passed against Tehran by the UN Security Council over the past year.
The first sanctions, passed last December, ordered countries to stop supplying Iran with materials that could contribute to its nuclear and missile program, and also froze the assets of some Iranian firms and individuals related to those programs.
A second round of sanctions, passed in March, broadened the previous ones to include a ban on all Iranian arms exports. It also asked countries to restrict financial aid and loans to Tehran, and froze the assets of 28 additional officials and institutions linked to Iran's nuclear and missile programs. About one-third of those officials are linked to Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards Corps.
The United States and Western powers now want to get a third round of even tougher UN sanctions passed against Iran. President George W. Bush has also said that the United States is keeping all options on the table, including the military one, in its bid to reel back Iran’s nuclear program.
Levey acknowledged that the sanctions and U.S.-led financial squeeze have yet to achieve their desired effect -- namely, to force Iran to suspend its most sensitive nuclear activities. But he hopes that the political and financial efforts now under way will persuade Iran that it is in its best interests to cooperate with the international community.
Although Iran says it will continue to pursue its nuclear program, that doesn't mean "that the sanctions can’t possibly have the desired impact,” Levey said. “We think that there is a likelihood that these measures will have the desired impact, because a rational look at this would suggest that Iran is acting in a way detrimental to its best interests in the long run.”
Odd Couple In Tehran?
Historically, Russia and Iran have long been rivals, and the last trip to Tehran by a Kremlin leader came in 1963 by Leonid Brezhnev. But Moscow finds itself in a different role these days, for its own pragmatic reasons.
The bilateral talks followed a regional summit of Caspian Sea states. As expected, Putin reaffirmed Russia’s support for Iran’s development of nuclear energy in a statement at the end of the summit. "All the Caspian countries reiterate their commitment to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty on condition that each of our countries has the right to develop peaceful nuclear programs without any restrictions," Putin said.
In recent years, Russia has become one of Iran’s key international partners. Ahmadinejad, in an interview with Russian television on the eve of Putin’s visit, said the two countries are “natural allies from the geographical as well as from the political and cultural point of view.”
But the historical record belies this assertion. In fact, Russia and Iran have mostly been adversaries. In the 19th century, Russian imperial forces battled with the Persians over control of Central Asia and the Caucasus. Early in the 20th century, Russian soldiers even occupied parts of northern Persia and later tried, with Britain, to carve up the country into spheres of influence.
During World War II, the Soviet Union together with Britain reinvaded the country to secure its oil fields. Soviet troops later tried to establish a puppet regime before withdrawing. More recently, in the 1980s, the Soviet Union backed Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in his bloody war with Tehran.
Yet to paraphrase the 19th-century British statesman Lord Palmerston, in politics there are no permanent allies -- or enemies -- only permanent interests. And the interests of Moscow and Tehran currently align on several fronts.
United Against 'Unipolarism'
Politically, both countries find their new alliance a useful counterweight against pressure from the West. Both Putin and Ahmadinejad frequently talk about the need to resist “unipolarism” -- code for U.S. influence.
Ahmadinejad, in his interview with Russian television, tried to appeal to the anti-Western camp in Moscow, saying both Iran and Russia were “countries of the Eastern type with the same Eastern features.”
Economically, the U.S. embargo against Iran has driven Tehran closer to Moscow. Iran has turned to Russia to renew its civilian air fleet, to update its military and industrial infrastructure, and of course, to build its first nuclear power plant, at Bushehr.
Nina Mamedova, who heads the Iranian department at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Eastern Studies, says Iran remains a reliable economic partner for Russia. "We are involved in a lot of mutual projects – in the spheres of oil, gas and transport. And of course for Russia it’s important to support these good relations with Iran, in order to participate in all these projects,” Mamedova said.
But the nuclear issue risks forcing Russia into a corner. Next month, the International Atomic Energy Agency is due to report to the UN Security Council on Iran’s level of cooperation with UN nuclear inspectors. If the report is negative, Washington and its European allies will push for a third, tougher round of sanctions against Tehran.
Russia, along with China, has repeatedly indicated it does not favor the move, but Moscow appears to be leaving itself some maneuvering room. Putin recently told visiting French President Nicolas Sarkozy that Russia operates “on the principle” that Iran does not plan to make or acquire nuclear weapons.
If the UN’s nuclear watchdog indicates otherwise, Moscow might change its position. In a signal that Moscow could get tough if Tehran continues to defy calls to halt its uranium enrichment, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently emphasized that “Iran must respond to the demands of the international community.”
In another not-so-subtle signal from Russia, cooperation on finishing the Bushehr nuclear plant has also recently foundered.
Up to now, the rapprochement between Tehran and Moscow has served Russia’s interests. But it’s not a very stable alliance. And ultimately, as many analysts note, Russia has little interest in seeing Tehran get the bomb.
(RFE/RL correspondent Chloe Arnold in Moscow contributed to this report.)
Iran: Politicians Stake Out Territory Ahead Of Caspian Summit
There was a flurry of diplomacy ahead of the October 16 meeting after unsourced reports claimed a plot had been uncovered to assassinate Russian President Vladimir Putin after his arrival in Tehran. That commotion, and Iran's official reaction to the reports, highlighted the potentially momentous nature of the summit.
The five states that border the Caspian are still seeking a framework to replace the 1921 treaty dividing the sea between Iran and the Soviet Union, and two subsequent agreements on fishing and trade.
This week's summit will be just the second conference to bring together those littoral countries' heads of state -- the first one took place five years ago in Turkmenistan.
Iranian government spokesman Gholamhossein Elham told reporters on October 14 that the leaders are expected to sign a joint declaration at the end of the summit.
Comments by Iranian politicians and commentators indicate concerns that Tehran might find it difficult -- at this and future conferences -- to hang on to what it regards as its fair share of the Caspian. Most estimates of what represents a "fair share" vary anywhere between one-fifth and one-half of the sea.
Distrust Of Russia
Broadly, the coverage appears to reflect a latent distrust of Russia, which is regarded as a key player on a number of international issues of crucial importance to Iran -- including its nuclear program. Iranians are not entirely convinced by Russia's official posture as Iran's friend and partner, given what some in Tehran perceive as surreptitious bargaining and last-minute agreements with the West against Iran, a history of diplomatic bullying and territorial encroachments under the tsars, and subversion through political proxies under the Soviets.
Independent observers in Iran have focused on the legal issues at stake, while virtually all have commented on the Caspian Sea's lamentable ecological state. A former diplomat and head of the private Caspian Studies Institute in Tehran, Abbas Maleki, set out certain legal issues. He said the Caspian legal framework has become a "wearisome" issue unlikely to be resolved at this week's summit. Maleki said Iran does not in principle oppose the shared use of the sea's surface and division of the seabed, which he said is the position favored by Russia. He said Iran is essentially willing to agree to a shared-use or a divided framework. But he also cited Iran's share as 20 percent in that case, which was the percentage for which Iran bargained under reformist President Mohammad Khatami earlier this decade.
Maleki also cited some of the potential disadvantages of a divided regime for Iran. Firstly, he said the absence of a cooperative management regime would harm the sea environmentally and added that the Caspian would soon be unfit for swimming. Maleki also observed a strategic danger to Iran in dividing up the Caspian. He said his country is "threatened by America" and needs access to the world's waters. A jointly administered lake would allow Iran to sail its ships north, into the Volga and beyond. A framework of division would separate Iran from the Russian side with the territorial waters of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Maleki said participants have "concluded" that an agreement is necessary, and he said Iran's current government appears able to take "difficult and revolutionary decisions."
Tehran-based analyst Rasul Musavi has said that to be effective in pursuit of a framework if they manage to agree at this summit -- or soon -- on issues like the environment, shipping, fishing, and underground resources. He told ISNA that he has seen increasing realism among participants, and he pointed out that a strict division or sharing framework does not meet the various states' interests. He said the 50 percent share that some Iranian politicians have touted applied to the Soviet period, and indicated that previous ministerial meetings on the Caspian have to some extent brought the countries' positions closer. Musavi cited some agreements that states have reached in principle -- on ships navigating only under the flag of a littoral state, on restricting military forces on the Caspian, or on exclusive territorial strips for each state although with no agreement yet on its width.
Iranian politicians have taken a broader view of the summit, citing its significance for their country. The head of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Alaeddin Borujerdi, said that the summit was important in raising Iran's international profile and providing a model of regional cooperation. Borujerdi expressed hope that the parties might reach a mutually satisfactory agreement.
A fellow committee member, Reza Talai-Nik, called the summit an opportunity to reach an agreement that is crucial to the Caspian environment and trade, and an occasion to hold consultations with the Russians on key issues like the nuclear issue and the stalled construction of the Bushehr power plant.
Another committee member, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, suggested that Tehran and Moscow can play a decisive role in shaping a framework for the Caspian. Falahatpisheh said Iran's share is "at least 20 percent," and added that Iran and Russia could agree to ensure that figure does not decrease. He also cited a need to demilitarize the Caspian and curb pollution.
Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai said the summit would give Iran an opportunity to press its claims with Russia. Rezai told a gathering that President Putin's visit provides an opportunity for Tehran to state in a "friendly but firm manner" its claims of "several years," presumably on the nuclear issue, Bushehr, and the Caspian. Rezai said his country has to "make the Russians understand that we are not prepared to overlook our evident rights," adding that "if the Russians continue their friendship and cooperation with us, we too will continue."
Rezai's comments reflect the ongoing concerns of a number of Iranian politicians, although the candor with which those worries are expressed increases with the distance of those politicians from official posts. The concerns include Iran's need for allies in an increasingly hostile international environment, Russia's increasing significance in that context, and fears that Moscow will abuse its position to the detriment of Iran.
In contrast with the vigorous and polemical language that Iranian officials and even diplomats use when discussing domestic politics or Middle Eastern affairs, senior Iranian officials have been loathe to make dramatic statements concerning Russia. Moscow cuts a murky and sinister profile in the discourse of some Iranian politicians and papers. One daily, "Aftab-i Yazd," commented that Moscow's portrayal might lie at the heart of certain right-wing legislators' recent tendency to blame Khatami's former government for a purportedly soft approach to the Caspian. The daily suggested that reformists are regarded as an easier target than Russia, and it urged those same parliamentary critics to press the current government to defend Iran's rights -- if they are firm in their views. Beneath these exchanges, there could be a collective concern that there is little that Iran can do to impose its views on -- or even persuade -- increasingly assertive and seemingly unscrupulous states like Russia.
Iran: Students Grab Spotlight With Challenge To President
Student activists in Iran have faced growing government pressure in the past two years, including threats, detentions, and jail terms.
But the October 8 protest appears to signal limited success in silencing dissent at Iranian universities.
Iran's largest pro-reform student group, the Office to Foster Unity ("Daftare Tahkim Vahdat"), claimed in a recent statement that 550 student activists have been sent to disciplinary committees, 43 student groups shut down, more than 130 student publications closed, and 70 members of the Office to Foster Unity jailed during Mahmud Ahmadinejad's two-year presidency.
Ahmadinejad generally enjoys being in the spotlight. But the president kept a low profile around his speech at Tehran University, and students protesting against him grabbed media attention.
Some angry students shouted, "Death to the dictator," while others called Ahmadinejad a fascist and told him there was no room for him at the university.
Ahead of the speech, pro-reform student activists had challenged Ahmadinejad to meet them and answer their questions. They sought the meeting after Ahmadinejad spoke at a question-and-answer session at Columbia University in New York, where he faced tough questioning.
The Office to Foster Unity issued a list of 20 questions and called for a prompt and detailed response from Ahmadinejad. The list included questions about the detention of student activists, discrimination against women, and foreign policies issues like Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust, which the Office to Foster Unity says has damaged Iran.
The student group criticized a perceived clampdown on dissent at Iranian universities, asking Ahmadinejad "what freedom of speech means" to him and where it is possible to see the president's recent claim in New York that freedom of speech is "incomparable" in Iran.
The letter pointed to Ahmadinejad's invitation to U.S. President George W. Bush to give a speech in Iran and asked "how...the U.S. president [can] be allowed to give a speech at Iranian universities while critical Iranian scholars and students are banned from expressing their opinions."
Questions included a request for an explanation of the president's "constant traveling and generosity to South American countries" and another accusing Ahmadinejad's purportedly "wrong" policies of causing price increases. The group called on Ahmadinejad to meet with at least one of their representatives to discuss issues of concern.
The Iranian president avoided the student demands, and reports suggested that he delivered his speech to a small group of his supporters.
Some members of the Basij volunteer militia chanted slogans in support of Ahmadinejad and scuffles were reported between Basiji members and Ahmadinejad critics.
Iranian state media accused opposition groups of trying to create tension at the university with the help of U.S. and British media, adding that their plan had failed.
Mohammad Hashemi, an Office to Foster Unity leader, told Radio Farda that the protest was a response to a nationwide crackdown on universities and student activists.
"Those who are familiar with the university atmosphere in Iran know it is quite odd to be able to organize a student protest gathering at the start of the school year," Hashemi said. "The policies of officials at the Education Ministry and Ahmadinejad's attitude toward universities and human rights in the past two years triggered these protests."
Hashemi added that the Iranian government views its opponents and critics as "enemies" and treats them as security threats.
In its letter, the Office to Foster Unity highlighted the cases of three Amirkabir University students -- Ehsan Mansuri, Majid Tavakoli, and Ahmad Ghasaban -- who have been in jail for the past five months over accusations that they defamed Islam in student publications.
The student group called the charges fabricated and said it thinks the students were detained in response to a demonstration against Ahmadinejad in December. In that incident, during a visit to Tehran's Amirkabir University, students demonstrated against Ahmadinejad -- and some burned photographs of the president.
Following the more recent protest, Iranian officials said no one was arrested. But some observers are concerned that the protesters could eventually be targets for retaliation.
Hossein Bastani, a Paris-based journalist, warned in an article in the online daily "Rooz" on October 11 that students who protested against Ahmadinejad are "in danger." Bastani expressed concern about "each and every student" who chanted slogans against Ahmadinejad, adding that "he and his supporters are not the type to easily disregard such protests."
After the Amirkabir University protest, Ahmadinejad defended the rights of the demonstrators.
This time, the Iranian president has been silent about the rights of those who called him a "dictator" on October 8.
(Radio Farda's Fereydun Zarnegar contributed to this report)