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Iran Report: April 14, 2008

Iran: Official Explanation Of Deadly Mosque Explosion Questioned

By Golnaz Esfandiari

Aftermath of the April 12 explosion

Two days after a deadly explosion at a mosque in one of Iran's largest cities, controversy has erupted over the cause of the blast.

Eyewitnesses and some local officials say it appeared to be a bomb blast, while Iranian officials in Tehran say the explosion was accidentally caused by leftover ammunition from an exhibition recently held in the mosque.

The latest official figures say 12 people died and some 200 were injured in the explosion at the Hosseynieh Seyed al-Shohada Mosque in the southern city of Shiraz on April 12.

The explosion happened as the main cleric, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Enjavinejad, was leading his regular service for some 800 people.

A video sent to Radio Farda (see below) of the blast shows worshippers standing in the mosque and listening to religious singing when the explosion goes off and people run and scream in a chaotic scene.

"I was there myself, it was around 9 p.m. when the explosion happened. The [mosque] has separate sections for women and men, the number of victims in the women's section was lower than in the men's section. I even saw some hands that had been blown off," one witness tells Radio Farda.

"It's a bad situation, the number of casualties is worse than the reports on websites, I saw it myself," he adds. "I think that the number of dead and injured is higher...based on what I saw and also because they had mobilized all the ambulances in Shiraz."

Distrust Of Official Version

While several officials have said that the blast was accidental, other sources, including Enjavinejad, raised the possibility that the explosion was an attack by unidentified militants.

Some Iranian media initially quoted local officials as saying the explosion was caused by a bomb and suggested that the attack could have been religiously motivated.

But one day later, some officials said the blast was likely caused by ammunition left over from a recent Iran-Iraq War exhibition at the mosque.

On April 13, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said that the investigation was going on and therefore no "prejudgment" should be made about the incident. Iran's judiciary chief, Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi Shahrudi, has appointed the state inspection organization and the Justice Ministry to head the investigation.

A number of Iranians complained in text messages and phone calls to Radio Farda that Iranian state television did not give much coverage to the story.

Abbas from Kazerun wrote that Iran's state television "is trying very hard to cover up this issue. Please look into it."

Another Radio Farda listener from Iran wrote: "I don't know why none of the officials have sent their condolences [to the victims] of the Shiraz explosion; if a Palestinian child would have been killed then [it would have been different]."

Mashaollah Shamsolvazezin, the spokesman of the Committee To Defend Press Freedom, confirmed in an interview with Radio Farda that Iranian media did not give much coverage to the tragic event.

"The Iranian society has in recent years had a higher level of security than the countries surrounding it. The government and security organs would like to keep this security superiority, therefore any [security breach] is dealt with based on that concept," he says. "The [government's] goals are being realized by restricting the media and not letting them investigate the real cause of the security incidents."

Shamsolvazezin believes that this leads to more people turning to Persian-speaking media outside the country for information on the Shiraz blast and other similar incidents.

Many say the lack of transparency by the government and limited media coverage of the event leads to confusion and conspiracy theories among those Iranians who have little trust in Iranian officials.

Many Iranians told Radio Farda that they doubt the official version of events. They said they believe the casualties are higher than reported and that the explosion was the result of a bomb attack, not an accidental explosion of some leftover explosives.

A number of listeners told Radio Farda they think the Intelligence Ministry or other state bodies might be behind the blast, without giving more explanation.

"The annihilation of the opposition members and creating fear and horror is the New Year's gift [the Iranian New Year began on March 23] of security organs for the innocent people of Shiraz," one caller from Mehrdad said.

Another listener made a similar claim in a message that came from an Iranian number: "This bombing is the work of the establishment's leaders."

Several listeners and some witnesses to the explosion who spoke to Radio Farda also dismissed the official claim that the blast was accidental.

"We went out with my friend for the prayer ablution. I looked at my watch and it was 9:13 p.m. when we heard a terrible sound; it was very scary, there was dust and smoke everywhere," said a woman in Shiraz, who did not want to give her name. "They said a bomb had exploded; the girls had glass in their necks, their faces were bloody, it was horrible."

When asked about the source of the explosion, the woman said she was sure it was a bomb.

Radio Farda asked her: "Why? What did you see to make you think it was a bomb? Officials have said that that there was an exhibition from the war there."

"No, it wasn't from that," she said. "They neutralized the [mines and other munitions] before putting them there."

The reformist "Etemad" newspaper said in an April 14 editorial that the explosion is unprecedented in recent years and it expressed doubt that it was caused by old war munitions.

"Giving reasons such as the explosion of a gas capsule or ammunition from an exhibition -- when such munitions are neutralized and sealed -- show that those who say these things ignore the people's intelligence," the editorial said.

Baha'i As Scapegoats

Meanwhile, some observers have expressed concern that the explosion could lead to more pressure on the Baha'i minority in the city.

In recent months, there have been a number of reports about threats and the harassment of Baha'i followers in Shiraz.

Enjavinejad, who is also the head of the Friday Prayers congregation in Fars Province, is known for having preached against Baha'is and Wahhabism. The controversial cleric was quoted on April 14 by the hard-line daily "Kayhan" as saying that it's up to intelligence officials to find out who's behind the explosion. But he added that "we believe that it's possible that Baha'is had a hand in this."

The concern over the fate of Baha'is in Shiraz was also highlighted in several messages by Radio Farda listeners.

"I'm Ahad calling from Shiraz. For now the police forces are trying to portray this as an accident, on the other hand they're pretending they're the victims by showing the injured and dead. It seems that they want to use this in the right moment for their benefit; it means that because of what was being said against our dear Baha'is in the meetings [in the mosque] they want to put the blame on the Baha'is."

Radio Farda's Niusha Boghrati contributed to this report

Video of the Shiraz mosque blast sent to Radio Farda:

Arrests, Jailings Of Iranian Political And Rights Activists Continue

By Farangis Najibullah

A poster for the women's rights movement of jailed activist Khadija Moghaddam

The Iranian authorities this month have added several more names to the list of political activists, human rights campaigners, and journalists who have been imprisoned for voicing dissent.

The leader of the unregistered Democratic Party of Iran, Abbas Khorsandi, is among the latest targets of the Iranian security services. Khorsandi was sentenced last week to eight years in prison after being found guilty of threatening Iranian state security by setting up "an illegal political group."

A 50-year-old economics professor in the northern town of Firuzkuh, Khorsandi was arrested about seven months ago and has spent more than two months in solitary confinement in Tehran's notorious Evin prison.

Khorsandi's wife, Forozandeh Seylespur, tells RFE/RL that her husband has become a prisoner of conscience because of his stated opposition to the Iranian government.

"He got this sentence only for holding opposing views," Seylespour says. "He hasn't done anything to justify getting such a sentence. He was only involved in writing. He has acted -- in a totally peaceful manner -- as a writer and human rights activist. He has voiced his views only through the pen and in speeches."

The news of Khorsandi's lengthy prison sentence followed reports about the arrest of another peaceful campaigner, Khadija Moghaddam.

The women's rights activist and member of the One Million Signatures Campaign was arrested by security officers, who Moghaddam said "forcibly entered her home" and treated her in a "despicable manner."

Moghaddam has reportedly been charged with spreading propaganda against the state, disrupting public opinion, and acting against national security.

The court has set a bail of some $110,000 for her release.

The One Million Signatures Campaign was launched in 2006 as a nonpolitical movement that calls on parliament to change what it calls "discriminatory laws in Iran," including laws on inheritance, divorce, and child custody, which the campaign says treat women unfairly.

In an interview with RFE/RL earlier this year, Moghaddam said it is time to abolish such laws, which were set up many centuries ago.

"What I say now is the opinion of all Iranian women," Moghaddam said. "We live in a century when women take an active part in political, economic, social, and cultural affairs alongside men. We work, we study, and we should not be considered as half of a man. Sixty-four percent of [Iranian] university students are women. They cannot accept a 1,400-year-old rule that considers a woman as half of a man."

Some 600 Iranian activists have signed an open letter condemning Moghaddam's arrest and calling for her release. "Moghaddam has been active for years in creating jobs for women and forming women's cooperatives," the letter says. "Who would believe that she has harmed national security or caused public offense?"

Arrests 'Routine'

Rights activists say that the arrests of peaceful campaigners, independent journalists, and anyone who is critical of the government have become routine under President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's government. International organizations including Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) have harshly criticized Tehran for cracking down on all voices of dissent in the country.

RSF has called Iran "the biggest prison in the Middle East" for journalists and authors whose views differ from the government's. According to the media rights group, dozens of Iranian journalists and rights campaigners have been imprisoned and accused of undermining national security for "simply being outspoken."

On April 5, 30-year-old Elham Yaqubi was arrested and accused of threatening national security for taking part in a peaceful demonstration.

On the same day, Parvin Ardalan, an award-winning rights activist, was charged with spreading propaganda against the state, a month after she was banned from traveling to Sweden to collect her Olof Palme Award.

Ardalan has been summoned to court at least three times this year. She received a summons two days after the Olof Palme Foundation announced that she had won the prestigious award for human rights activists.

'Skepticism In Order' On Claims Of Iran's Nuclear Progress

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad inspecting the Natanz nuclear plant on April 8

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad says Iran is beginning to install 6,000 additional centrifuges to accelerate the pace of its uranium-enrichment program, which could lead to the eventual tripling of Iran's capacity to produce nuclear fuel or -- at higher levels of enrichment -- fissile material for nuclear weapons.

But experts say that Tehran often overstates the achievements of its nuclear program, in part to persuade the United Nations it is too late for sanctions to stop its uranium-enrichment drive. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel asked nuclear expert Shannon Kile of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute to assess Iran's progress.

Iran's president made his claim that Iran is ready to begin installing 6,000 more uranium-enriching centrifuges as he marked the country's second annual National Day of Nuclear Technology on April 8. It was a ceremonial occasion, with banners in Tehran congratulating the people on their "glorious nuclear achievement" and mosques holding prayers of gratitude. Given those circumstances, should we take some of what Ahmadinejad said with a grain of salt?

Shannon Kile: Skepticism really is in order, and we have seen this in previous announcements that have been made on the national nuclear technology day, where President Ahmadinejad has made claims, very grandiose claims, that later proved to have been more than a little exaggerated.

[But] I think no one doubts that Iran is moving forward with its uranium-enrichment program and there is a lot of evidence that it is beginning now to install centrifuge cascades at the main fuel-enrichment plant at Natanz, that is, the big underground facility that is designed to eventually hold up to 54,000 centrifuges.

Again, there is evidence for this that the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] inspectors have already seen, so that part of the claim is plausible. I think it is important to keep in mind that the Iranians are nowhere near actually having installed 6,000 centrifuges at the main enrichment plant, but clearly they are moving in that direction.

Doubts About Real Efficiency

RFE/RL: Ahmadinejad said the 6,000 machines would be put into production "after two to three more months of testing," and that this would triple the size of its industrial base for enriching uranium to produce nuclear fuel. That would be a major expansion of its existing capacity based on 3,000 other machines that are installed in an aboveground facility at Natanz. How efficiently are those existing machines operating?

Kile: Based upon the most recent reports from the IAEA director-general to the board, it seems that Iran's centrifuges aren't running particularly well. They seem to have technical problems and they are running at a relatively low capacity compared to what they theoretically could do.

So, they clearly have some technical problems to iron out and that seems to be connected primarily with getting large numbers of cascades [of machines] operating together in parallel. They clearly have made some progress in that area, but they obviously have some distance to go.

RFE/RL: The other claim that Ahmadinejad made is that Iran is moving toward inaugurating a second-generation centrifuge that is "five times more efficient" than the current machines. He seems to be referring to a domestically produced centrifuge dubbed the IR-2 that is an upgrade from Iran's existing P-1 model based on old Pakistani technology. What do we know about this improved centrifuge?

Kile: There is a lot of debate among Western analysts about how much more efficient that centrifuge is going to be. I think there is a general agreement now that that program is probably still at the experimental stage and we would not really expect the Iranians to begin installing the IR-2s in an operational way, that is, where they will actually be used to produce enriched uranium, at this point.

But what it does point to is that the Iranians are moving forward with their technology program and that they are getting closer to mastering more advanced enrichment technologies.

Are Sanctions Working?

RFE/RL: Of course, it is just this mastery of uranium-enrichment technology that the UN sanctions upon Iran are intended to prevent. Have the efforts to isolate Iran from the rest of the nuclear-energy community had much impact upon Iran's efforts?

Kile: The Iranians clearly have made some good progress but they are facing obstacles, and some of the obstacles arise from the fact that they are the subject of a rather comprehensive technology embargo.

And quite frankly, I think that is one of the reasons that Ahmadinejad made the statements that he made yesterday, that not only was Iran showing its defiance at the UN Security Council resolutions that have been imposed on it but it also was trying to signal that the Iranian program is not going to be stopped by commercial technology sanctions and that Iran will proceed with mastering this technology and that, ultimately, technology stewardship for the centrifuges is already in Iran's hands. So, I think there is some degree of political posturing in what Iran had to say yesterday.

RFE/RL: A central point in the UN's showdown with Iran is the argument over just why Tehran wants to master uranium enrichment. Iran says it only is interested in low-level enrichment for nuclear fuel; its critics say Tehran's ultimate goal is to be able to enrich uranium to the high levels needed for nuclear weapons when it wants to. To what extent do the centrifuge capabilities Iran is developing now contribute directly to that kind of "breakout" option for producing fissile material?

Kile: The technology is the same and it is inherently dual-use, so the centrifuges that enrich uranium for nuclear fuel could obviously be used to enrich uranium at a higher level to produce nuclear weapons. And, frankly, going from natural uranium to low-enriched uranium is more difficult than going from low-enriched uranium to high-enriched uranium to produce a nuclear weapon.

But of course, if it is the case, as the Iranians claim, that their program is entirely for peaceful purposes, and the facilities are under IAEA safeguards, that really isn't a concern, per se, at the Natanz facility. I think what people are more worried about is the possibility that Iran may have an undeclared facility somewhere whereby they could divert low-enriched uranium and then enrich that up to weapons-grade levels.