Reaching Millions of Television Viewers in Iran Each Week
Washington, DC – December 18, 2006 . . . Major stories this week included Iranian elections, a controversial conference in Tehran on the Holocaust, a rare heckling by student protesters of President Ahmadinejad and new momentum at the United Nations in imposing sanctions on Iran because of its nuclear program.
Even as votes are still being counted from Iran's twin elections December 15, rival politicians are declaring victory for their own factions. Conservative groups are hailing the large turnout – around 60% of eligible voters – for local councils and the powerful Assembly of Experts as a public show of support for Iran's Islamic system and continued right-wing rule. On the other side of Iran's broad political spectrum, reform-leaning politicians appeared to have broken the four-year grip by conservatives on the Tehran City Council by winning a handful of seats there and on a string of local councils across Iran. Analysts say the inroads may prove the start of a comeback for reformists, who have been shut out of all power centers in Iran since the June 2005 election of arch-conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The biggest surprise – and perhaps the most important omen for future changes – is the support for Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president who was dealt a humiliating defeat by Mr. Ahmadinejad in last year's presidential runoff.
Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a consultant of former president Mohammad Khatami, told VOA Persian that reformists anticipate some victories because of dissatisfaction with the Ahmadinejad regime.
Tehran journalist Ahmad Zeydabadi told VOA Persian he expected rural turn-out to play a larger role in local council results than urban polling because of small town attention to civil needs. He predicted fewer votes for reformists because urbanites were disenchanted with politicians of all stripes and just weren’t voting in droves.
Switzerland-based journalist Nima Rashedan said all bets are off and because there is no independent polling, votes will have to be tallied to see who the winners are.
William Samii, author of the weekly Iran Report, discounted the elections, saying they were not transparent and that candidates are not responsive to or beholden to the voters.
Political analyst Mohsen Sazgara characterized the elections as fruitless. He told VOA Persian that as long as the Guardian Council exists, there will not be free elections in Iran. He said preliminary results indicate the Assembly of Experts will have a similar composition as its predecessor assemblies, and that he does not expect it to be anything but a rubber stamp for the country’s Islamic regime.
Mehdi Khalaji, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, called the Assembly of Experts the most dysfunctional organ of the regime, primarily because it is controlled by the Supreme Leader.
From Paris, journalist Cyrus Amouzgar said the most important development from Iran’s elections is the ascension of former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. But he said it was Ayatollah Khamenei’s support for Mr. Rafsanjani that made the difference – not the ballots cast.
From Switzerland, journalist Daryoush Homayoun said the elections might not be as meaningful as people want, but they do effect some change, especially for those who can read between the lines. He said there are more factions and disputes than in the past, and that even Ayatollah Khamenei must juggle factional interests. He said reformists, in gaining some power, will launch a new wave of struggle. Mr. Homayoun also addressed the heckling of President Ahmadinejad (see coverage below) at an Iranian university, saying it would lead to more student protests.
From London, political analyst Alireza Nourizadeh said the Assembly of Experts election does not depend in any way on the vote of the people. However, the local council elections actually serve the people – to some extent, and in fact, paved the way in the past for President Ahmadinejad to gain power by first being elected mayor of Tehran. Mr. Nourizadeh said the Assembly of Experts election might produce, down the road, a successor to Ayatollah Khamenei, as the country’s Supreme Leader is suffering health problems, including prostate cancer.
Student activist Ali Afshari, appearing in VOA’s Washington studio, said elections have no real power under an Islamic system of government, and that to achieve any reform whatsoever, the structure of government must undergo fundamental change.
From Cannes, Iran Press Service journalist Safa Haeri said the Iranian people must choose between bad and worse as long as the Ahmadenijad regime is in power. He told VOA Persian the main problem in Iran is that there is no such thing as a religious democracy, and that despite the veneer of elections, it is the supreme leader who “appoints” officials.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said December 12 that Israel “will be wiped out soon the same way the Soviet Union was, and humanity will achieve freedom,” drawing applause from participants at a controversial two-day gathering in Tehran of some of the world’s best-known Holocaust deniers. The President of the Committee for Religious Minority Rights in Iran, Faryar Nikbakht, told VOA Persian that Iran’s Islamic leadership has tried to rally world opinion against Jews and against Israel to create tension in the region. He suggested Iran’s regime might better spend its money uncovering human rights abuses in Iran today than in talking to people like former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke to determine whether the Holocaust took place. Mr. Nikbakht pointed out the widespread condemnation of the conference by US, European and other world leaders.
VOA Persian interviewed Menashe Amir, a leading Israeli expert on Iran, who said the Iranian government wants to lead the Islamic world, and believes that by denying the Holocaust, it will gain followers in Arab countries. Speaking from Jerusalem, Mr. Amir said the Tehran conference also was an effort to deflect Iranians’ attention from economic disarray at home. Journalist Nasser Mohammadi, who writes for Kayhan from London, said the conference was a just a show, an opportunity for President Ahmadinejad to promote controversy.
VOA Persian also covered Germany’s counter-conference and the Holocaust remembrance ceremony in Berlin attended by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. While there, Mr. Olmert told German television that Iran openly and publicly threatens to wipe Israel off the map. “Can you say that this is the same level, when they are aspiring to have nuclear weapons as America, France, Israel, Russia.” Olmert aides said the remarks did not constitute an admission that Israel had atomic weapons. But his remarks set off a firestorm of comments within Iran. In fact, anger over the Tehran conference could further isolate Iran as the West considers sanctions in the standoff over Tehran’s nuclear program.
Georgetown University professor Sohrab Sobhani told VOA the conference was an affront to all people and a particular insult to the Iranian people. Los Angeles-based journalist Homa Sarshar said it is ironic that someone like David Duke can speak freely in Iran while the Iranian people are muzzled. Researcher Alireza Namvar Haghighi dismissed the conference as unimportant, saying neither President Ahmadinejad nor Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki hold any real power in Iran. “From a legal standpoint,” Mr. Haghighi said, “the president is nobody.” It is the Supreme Council that matters.
Political analyst Alireza Nourizadeh talked to VOA Persian about the students at Amir Kabir Technical University who heckled President Ahmadinejad. Several dozen students started chanting against the President as he addressed a University audience. Students lit firecrackers and set a picture of Mr. Ahmadinejad on fire. While students shouted “Death to the dictator,” the president continued his speech after describing the hecklers as an “oppressive minority.” The president’s supporters eventually drowned out the protesters with their own chanting. Mr. Nourizadeh said there were no reports of arrests; however, student protesters are said to have gone into hiding to avoid reprisals.
Diplomats at the United Nations told VOA Persian that the UN Security Council could approve a resolution imposing sanctions on Iran by the end of the year. France’s ambassador to the United Nations, Jean-Marc de la Sablière says the latest draft – presented by Germany, Britain and France – calls for a ban on trading with Iran in materials and technology that can be used to enrich uranium or develop missiles. The proposed resolution also would impose a travel ban and freeze assets of Iranian individuals and agencies involved in the country’s nuclear and missile programs. Britain’s UN envoy, Sir Emyr Jones-Parry, voiced hope a compromise text will be completed at anytime. Russia’s UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, also reported progress, although he said Russia still had reservations about some minor points in the draft.
From the Pentagon, VOA Persian reported on the meeting between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Undersecretary Gordon England and their Australian counterparts. In addition to talks on Iraq, the two countries agreed that Iran’s failure to comply with international obligations remains a grave concern. While acknowledging Iran’s right to civil nuclear energy, they noted that without full transparency and cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the international community is unable to verify that Iran’s nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes.
Secretary of State Rice announced three key initiatives on December 14 in support of non-governmental organizations and all who advance the cause of freedom. In commemoration of the 58th anniversary of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Secretary Rice outlined the initiatives, one of which includes a million dollar fund to cover the emergency needs of human rights advocates. VOA Persian’s coverage included a sound bite of Secretary Rice noting that “President Bush remains firmly committed to a foreign policy rooted in human freedom and a central component of that policy is defending the work of NGOs.” She said the United States resolves “to work with all free and democratic nations in defending the defenders of human dignity and democracy across the globe.”
Amnesty International interviewed Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi in its Winter 2006 magazine. Ms. Ebadi, Iran’s foremost human rights lawyer, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her courageous efforts to stop political imprisonment and her championing of Iran’s homegrown democracy movement and by crafting careful legal arguments to challenge Iranian authorities to respect the rights of women and dissidents. In the interview, Ms. Ebadi said the situation has worsened for women, minorities and reform-minded politicians since President Ahmadinejad came to power 18 months ago. The magazine noted that Iran’s regime has declared her Center for the Defense of Human Rights illegal, claiming it did not have a proper permit, and now is threatening to arrest Dr. Ebadi and the center staff for continuing their work on behalf of women and children.
US / Iraq / Iran
Secretary of State Rice rejected the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations that the United States seek the help of Syria and Iran in Iraq, saying the “compensation” required by any deal might be too high. She argued that neither country should need incentives to foster stability in Iraq. VOA reported on the Secretary’s wide-ranging interview with the Washington Post, in which she said she did not want to allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon as a price for peace in Iraq.
VOA Persian interviewed Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State James Jeffrey who said the Secretary’s remarks did not mean the United States would or wouldn’t enter talks with Iran, saying the scope of such talks is a total unknown. However, he said if Iran were to suspend its uranium enrichment program, a whole new scenario would open up, one where talks could include not only Iran’s nuclear program, but Iraq and other regional security issues as well.
Senator Tim Johnson
VOA Persian used in-house medical reporter Vahid Behravan to describe the brain surgery undergone by Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) after being diagnosed with a congenital arteriovenous malformation, a rare condition that causes arteries and veins to grow abnormally large, becoming tangled and sometimes bursting. Political reporter Vafa Mostaghim talked about the balance of power in the US Senate being threatened by the health of one individual because of the razor-thin one vote majority enjoyed by the Democrats following last month’s midterm elections.
Bam – Three Years Later
The spirit of Bam remains intact, but only just. A catastrophic earthquake devastated the city of Bam in the early hours of December 26, 2003, killing more than 26,000 people and injuring tens of thousands of others. Doctor Amir Ganchi, Chairman of the Board of the Iranian American Medical Association and Jahangir Golestan-Parast, Iranian director and filmmaker, talked to VOA about Bam and the serious problems still needing to be addressed three years after the fact.
Dr. Firouz Naderi, the associate director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory responsible for project formulation and strategy, was a special guest on Roundtable. Before his current assignment he was the head of Mars Exploration Program, having been named to that position in 2000 after the program had suffered two consecutive failures. He helped replan the program as a chain of scientifically, technologically and operationally interrelated missions with a spacecraft launch to Mars every two years. Dr. Naderi led the program for the next five years, a span of time that included the successful launch of Mars Odyssey, landing of the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, and the development of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. He talked with viewers about current space issues, including the recent discovery of water on Mars.
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News Talk, an hour-long program featuring a panel of experts discussing the day's top news stories, had its debut in October. News Talk opens VOA's daily four-hour Persian-language television block every day with a brief recap of the day's top headlines. It features in-depth discussions of the issues of greatest concern to Iranians and closes with a segment on worldwide media coverage of Iran. News Talk is followed by News and Views, Roundtable with You, and Late Edition, all one-hour shows that constitute a four-hour daily block of Persian-language television broadcast by satellite to Iran. News and Views, which debuted in 2003, features correspondent reports, interviews, and the top news stories from Washington and around the world. Roundtable with You, which debuted on television in 1996, takes calls from viewers and features a wide variety of guests discussing issues ranging from popular culture to politics. Late Edition, a youth-oriented program which first aired in July, looks at major world events and issues of interest to young people.
VOA's Persian television shows complement VOA Persian's daily radio broadcasts and Radio Farda, a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week, youth-oriented radio program that is a joint project of VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. VOA's Persian language Internet site is at www.VOANews.com/persian.