Reaching Millions of Television Viewers in Iran Each Week

Washington, D.C. – January 22, 2008 . . . Major stories this week included continuing human rights abuses in Iran; President Bush wrapping up his visit to the Middle East; a flurry of activity in advance of today’s meeting in Berlin on further sanctions again Iran; a ban on Ashura rituals in Iran to quell possible resistance; a looming humanitarian crisis in Gaza averted; attacks on a US Embassy car in Beirut and a luxury hotel in Kabul; more primaries in the US presidential campaign (Michigan, Nevada, South Carolina); jockeying in Iran in advance of March parliamentary elections; and a series of exclusive interviews, with: Hossein Khomeini, a Muslim cleric best known as the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini; Laura Bush on Afghanistan (with VOA’s Afghanistan Service); Drewery Dyke from Amnesty International on its call for Iran to abolish death by stoning; State Department Middle East spokesman David Foley on new sanctions against Iran; Brookings scholar Tamara Cofman Wittes on the accomplishments of President Bush’s trip to the Middle East; Lebanese Cabinet Minister Nayla Moawad on her country’s political crisis; and University of Denver professor Esmail Nooriala on Forugh Farrokhzad, one of the giants of Persian literature.

VOA/PNN interviewed Hossein Khomeini, a Muslim cleric best known as the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, on Ashura. Speaking from his base in Qom, Mr. Khomeini said the Islamic Republic of Iran is afraid of the Iranian people, and does not want masses pouring out onto the streets for Ashura rituals. Ashura is the most mournful day on the Shia calendar when observers commemorate the martyrdom of Hossein, the grandson of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. The most observant of adherents to the faith parade in the streets in acts of self-flagellation and sword-cutting in symbolic acts of martyrdom. Mr. Khomeini said the Tehran regime has banned rituals such as these because Ashura is a symbol of resistance. Mr. Khomeini’s conversation with VOA kept getting interrupted when he talked about the Iranian regime, leading him to call VOA/PNN back from two different phones. But again the lines were cut. Mr. Khomeni was involved in the 1979 revolution led by his grandfather, but he has said on a number of occasions that he soon began to question the practicalities of an Islamic republic. In a speech in Washington several years ago, Mr. Khomeini said, “The Iranian people want democracy, they want freedom. Furthermore they have experienced everything, they have experienced theocracy in Iran, and they have come to understand that religion and government cannot be one and the same.”

News and Views January 16 interviewed London-based Drewery Dyke of Amnesty International on the human rights group’s new report on Iran. Eleven people in Iran – nine of them women – are waiting to be stoned to death on charges of adultery. Many have been sentenced after grossly unfair trials. Amnesty International is calling on the country’s authorities to immediately abolish this grotesque punishment, saying it is specifically designed to increase the suffering of its victims. Mr. Dyke said that despite official claims that stoning has been halted, including a moratorium issued by the Head of the Judiciary in 2002, several killings have taken place, with the latest only last year. He also said that the majority of those sentenced to death by stoning are women. Mr. Dyke said women are not treated equally with men under the law and by the courts, adding that they also are particularly vulnerable to unfair trials because their higher illiteracy rate makes them more likely to sign confessions to crimes they did not commit. “We urge the Iranian authorities to heed our calls, and those of the Iranians who are striving relentlessly to obtain an end to this horrendous practice. The people in Iran should know that they are not alone in fighting to abolish this barbaric punishment.”

Roundtable with You January 16 featured two guests who discussed Religious Freedom Day and the increase in inhumane punishments in Iran: Hossein Faraji, a Los Angeles-based journalist and political commentator, and Drewery Dyke, who researches Iran for Amnesty International. Before leaving for his tour of the Middle East, President Bush proclaimed January 16 as Religious Freedom Day. Mr. Faraji said freedom of religion does not belong to one nation. He said it belongs to everyone wishing to be free, and that this proclamation provides an opportunity for Iranians to learn from the American experience. He pointed out that religious freedom is the cornerstone of the United States and a core principle of both the American Constitution and fundamental human rights. Mr. Faraji added that while freedom of religion provides liberty for many people around the world, we are witnessing the suppression of religious minorities in Iran. He noted that Iran executed 298 people last year, the highest number in the world for 2007. Mr. Faraji also noted the amputation of the right hand and left foot of five people in Zahedan [the capital of Sistan and Baluchistan province]. Mr. Dyke said Amnesty International condemned these violations of human rights, adding that Amnesty has brought these complaints before the UN Human Rights Commission, expressing its displeasure with authorities in the Islamic Republic. Mr. Dyke said an unpleasant part of this story is that these acts are presided over by religious courts.

Today’s Woman January 15 focused on the latest Human Rights Watch report on human rights abuses in Iran and compared Iran’s execution rate with other countries’ records. The report says the Iranian government has increasingly cracked down on political activists, groups and organizations, and women activists since the 1979 Revolution. The report also singled out the abuse of prisoners at Evin Prison, including the placement of political prisoners in solitary confinement. The program touched on the arrest of the mother of jailed political activist Yaser Goli as well as the case of slain Iranian-Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi being sent to an appeals court. Discussion also focused on the 300 some executions that took place in Iran last year, including the case of Raheleh Zamani, the battered wife, hanged for murdering her abusive husband.

News and Views January 18 opened with news of the resignation of Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns. Mr. Burns says he will be leaving in March for family reasons. The program then proceeded to focus on Iran’s nuclear program and the possibility of further UN sanctions against Iran with David Foley, the State Department’s spokesman on the Middle East. Mr. Foley referred to the meeting the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany plan to have on January 22, saying, “The P5+1 will soon have a third resolution.” He also reviewed President Bush’s trip to the Middle East, and described it as positive. Mr. Foley refuted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s remark that the visit created more differences among people in the Gulf.

News and Views January 18 summed up the flurry of posturing by all players in advance of next week’s meeting on whether there should be another new round of sanctions against Iran. Tehran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, talked with reporters in Beijing after meeting with Chinese officials, saying Iran and China have “basically similar” positions on the Iranian nuclear program and US efforts for sanctions are a “failed policy.” China said Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told Mr. Jalili in a meeting January 17 that “China hopes all concerned parties, including Iran, make joint efforts to resume negotiations as soon as possible in a bid to promote the comprehensive and proper settlement of this issue.” After meeting with IAEA Director-General Mohamed El-Baradei Thursday, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said, “The conflict over the Iranian atomic program remains an issue also in 2008. Recently there have been new evaluations of the latest developments and research work there [in Iran].” Israeli’s Foreign Minister told her Russian counterpart that with delivery of nuclear fuel to Tehran by Russia, any further enrichment by Iran would point to a military program. Russia’s Foreign Minister echoed President Bush, who in December said it would not be economical for Iran to continue enrichment any longer. Meanwhile, the head of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, Lieutenant General Henry Obering, said at the Czech Foreign Ministry that Iran continues to manufacture long-range missiles that go beyond anything it would need in a regional dispute. He was making a case for the US missile defense program that Washington hopes to set up in the Czech Republic and Poland.

News and Views January 19 talked with energy analyst Bahman Aghaii Diba about the meeting of the UN Security Council and Germany scheduled for January 22, in Berlin. Mr. Diba noted that the Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed El-Baradei visited Iran last week for meetings with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. He said Iran’s response to Mr. El-Baradei’s questions are important and will be examined by the P5+1. He doesn’t think they will decide on additional sanctions at this particular time. Mr. Diba noted that senior officials from the US and Iran visited China last week courting China’s support, showing the importance of Beijing in determining UN involvement in whether there will or won’t be additional sanctions. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte urged China to back sanctions, saying Iran’s nuclear program remains a threat. Iran’s senior nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, also met with Chinese officials. Mr. Diba said he thinks China could go either way.

News and Views January 18 talked with Tamara Cofman Wittes, a policy analyst with the Brookings Institution, about President Bush’s Mideast visit. She said Mr. Bush had a two-fold mission. “First of all, she said, “to assure US allies in the region that the US was going to stay the course in Iraq until there is a government in Baghdad that can sustain and defend itself.” Ms. Cofman Wittes said, “Secondly, President Bush was trying to demonstrate his commitment to the Arab-Israeli peace process. Mr. Bush said once again that he is committed to the process, and he said people in the region can rest assured he will remain engaged.” Ms. Cofman Wittes said Mr. Bush will put more emphasis on reaching a lasting peace in the Middle East in his last year as president rather than push Arab leaders for political openness and greater respect for human rights.

News and Views January 18 looked at the role of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in upcoming elections with Hossein Bastani, a journalist and member of the Rooz Online editorial board in Paris. Iran will hold parliamentary elections on March 14, and candidates have begun to register to compete for membership in the 290-seat legislative body. The elections could prove to be a serious confrontation between religious hardliners and those wishing to bring reformist candidates to the Iranian parliament. Mr. Bastani said, “After Ayatollah Khomeini’s death, the IRGC gradually increased its activities, and had an important role in President Ahmadinejad’s election.” He said the IRGC, in fact, has a determining role in approving candidates and definitely interferes with the process. In this regard, Mr. Bastani added that IRGC publications recently indicated to reformist candidates that they should not bother nominating themselves since their candidacies will not be approved, thereby ensuring their elimination in the first selection process.

Roundtable with You January 18 focused on Iran’s parliamentary elections. Alireza Haghighi, a political scientist who teaches at the University of Toronto at Mississauga, said it is the constitutional duty of all Iranians to actively participate in the election. He criticized the political activists who asked people to boycott past elections, saying the result was the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president. A leader of an Iranian political opposition group, Kourosh Zaeem, took a different position. Speaking from Tehran, Mr. Zaeem, an Executive Committee member of the Iranian National Front, said the constitution of the Islamic Republic, with all its shortcomings, has never been implemented correctly. He said religious authorities abuse the constitution, adding, “As long as the Guardian Council screens candidates, there is no possibility for a fair and just election in Iran.” He said March’s election is only a formality to give the regime a veneer of legitimacy. Also speaking from Iran, journalist Babak Dad criticized Iran’s reformist leadership. He said their undelivered promises demoralize the public and force people to shy away from accepting new voices for change. Mr. Dad said, “We must create an atmosphere where people can hope for change. The international community can help with this.”

News and Views January 21 reported that large parts of the Gaza Strip were without power Monday after the closure of Gaza’s main power plant. Fuel supplies to the plant ended January 17 as Israel sealed the border in retaliation for missile launches from Hamas-controlled Gaza. Israeli officials say they will ease the border closure when the rocket attacks stop. Palestinian and United Nations officials warned that Gaza could face a humanitarian crisis if the power outage and fuel shortage continues. Israel said such concerns are exaggerations and that Hamas deliberately cut the power to put the blame on Israel. Dr. Medhat Abbas, head of the crisis management unit at the health ministry in Gaza, said, “If diesel doesn’t get inside Gaza at once, what will happen today is that the hospitals will collapse and claim the lives of hundreds of Palestinians at once.” The Gaza director of the UN Relief and Works Agency – the UN agency in charge of Palestinian refugees – concurred that the situation in Gaza is extremely desperate.

VOA/PNN reported that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak decided to allow the delivery of some fuel and medical supplies into the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip beginning January 22, following warnings by UN officials and international human rights groups that Gaza was on the verge of humanitarian disaster. The decision means the European Union can resume fuel deliveries to Gaza’s main power plant, which shut down Sunday due to fuel shortages, plunging Gaza City into darkness. Israel also will allow delivery of fuel for generators, like those found in hospitals, as well as gas used for cooking. Israeli forces had sealed the border as a pressure tactic to stop Palestinian militants from firing rockets into Israel.

Roundtable with You January 15, 2008 talked with London-based political analyst Alireza Nourizadeh about President Bush’s trip to the Middle East. He lauded the extraordinary reception Mr. Bush received in Israel and the Palestinian territories. He said one of the biggest obstacles to the peace process is the strength of extremists who hate freedom and democracy. Mr. Nourizadeh said the extremists use murder and fear to foment instability to advance their aims. But he said the greatest obstacle on the road to peace is the problem of Palestinian refugees. Mr. Nourizadeh also noted that a main part of the President’s trip was to confront the growing influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the region. He said President Bush stressed that Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terror, and that it sends hundreds of millions of dollars to extremists around the world. Mr. Nourizadeh added, however, that the Iranian people themselves face daily repression and economic hardship. President Bush spoke directly to the people of Iran, he said, saying: “You are rich in culture and talent. You have a right to live under a government that listens, and allows you to build better lives for your families.... so we call on the regime in Tehran to heed your will, and make itself accountable to you.”

Roundtable with You January 14 interviewed Salameh Nematt, a Jordanian journalist based in Washington and the former editor of Al-Hayat newspaper. He said President Bush had two goals for his Middle East trip. First was to advance the cause of peace by the creation of an independent state living in peace with Israel. In Ramallah, Mr. Bush said that before his term is over, he would like to see the two states at peace. Mr. Nematt said the second goal was to stop the influence of Iran in the region. He noted that while in the United Arab Emirates, President Bush said Iran is the main state sponsor of terrorism in the world, providing millions of dollars to extremists in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Mr. Nematt said the President reminded his audience in the Persian Gulf states that Iran provides a vivid contrast to other countries in the region that are moving toward greater freedom and openness.

News and Views January 14 provided a wrap on President Bush’s Mideast trip with PNN correspondent Setareh Derakhshesh, who traveled with the President on his visits to Israel and Palestine as well as his swing through the Persian Gulf countries. “The United States has no desire for territory,” she quoted him as saying. “We seek our shared security in your liberty.” In a major speech in Abu Dhabi, President Bush talked about all of the hot button issues that came up during his trip: the Arab-Israel peace process, Iran, Iraq, terrorism and al-Qaeda. News and Views also reported that Israeli and Palestinian officials formally launched negotiations aimed at reaching a final peace agreement by the end of this year. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei opened the talks at a hotel in Jerusalem. The two sides are expected to discuss the most intractable disputes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the status of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and the borders of a Palestinian state. President Bush said on a visit to Israel and the West Bank last week that he expects an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty to be signed by the time he leaves office in January 2009.

News and Views January 17 talked with Robin Raphel, former US diplomat and currently Senior Vice President for the Global Affairs and Trade Consultancy Group at Cassidy & Associates, about the impact of violence in Pakistan and Iraq on democracy. Ambassador Raphel began by saying it was a welcome development that sheikhs from Pakistani tribal areas have formed a group aimed at rooting out militants in Waziristan. “These tribal leaders are sick and tired of the violence perpetrated by al-Qaeda and the Taliban,” she said. “Rooting out these elements would pave the way for more stability, but this move has to go hand in hand with political reconciliation on a national level.” Ambassador Raphel said, “The political situation in Pakistan is very fluid at the moment. Elections scheduled for February 18 need to go ahead as planned, but more importantly, they need to be seen as legitimate and credible. For this to happen,” she continued, “the media should not be gagged and international observers need to be able to monitor everything to make sure there are no irregularities.” On Iraq, Ms. Raphel said that the Iraqi government needs to take advantage of a lull in violence to proceed with national reconciliation and economic reconstruction and development. “These will be the key for Iraq just as they are for Pakistan,"” she said. “The de-Baathification law that recently passed the Iraqi parliament is a positive step in that direction.”

First Lady Laura Bush granted VOA’s Afghanistan Service an exclusive interview on January 17, which News & Views ran in its entirety on January 19. She spoke about the great strides Afghanistan has made in the five years since the Taliban was driven from power, saying “I think education is the single most important function that the government can provide because it will make all the difference for the next generations of Afghanis. But also, there is a huge need for basic infrastructure: for roads, so that remote areas of Afghanistan can be joined to the rest of the country, clean water, food, shelter… all of those are basic necessities that the international community can help and has helped.” Mrs. Bush said there was no way she could have predicted the restrictions women would face under the Islamic fundamentalism of the Taliban when she first visited there, but said since a new government was established, she has seen dramatic changes. The First Lady said she hopes to return to Afghanistan as a private citizen and continue working to improve the lives of women and children there. “I want Americans to know about Afghanistan and I want Afghanis to know about Americans. I want the people of Afghanistan to know how invested the American people are the success of Afghanistan. And how we want to make sure that Afghanistan succeeds and builds a democracy and builds a place of rule of law and where the rights of women and men are protected.”

Today’s Woman January 18 talked about the empowerment of women in Afghanistan with Rangina Hamidi, Field Director for Afghans for Civil Society. The organization manages several programs designed to empower women and girls, improve their economic standing, civic engagement and education opportunities. The program run by Ms. Hamidi provides an outlet for women who cannot work outside the home, enabling them to earn an income from their intricate hand embroidery known as khamak. Ms. Hamidi said this program is highly successful, with over 500 women participating all over the city of Kandahar and more asking to be included every day. She said 95% of the women in southern Afghanistan are uneducated, and khamak helps them to earn a living inside their home without going to school. Their handicrafts and clothing, financed with micro-loans, are sold inside Afghanistan, Europe and in the US. Ms. Hamidi said her own mother was not able to complete her education because of Kandahar’s strict traditions. Now, these women, who are much like her mother, have a reason to be hopeful for their future. For her work helping to empower Afghan women, Ms. Hamidi was recently honored as a CNN Heroes finalist.

News and Views January 18 interviewed Raouf Mehrpoor of VOA’s Dari Service about Iran’s decision to temporarily halt plans to expel more than one million undocumented Afghan refugees. Mr. Mehrpoor said the Afghan government welcomes Tehran’s decision. Iran reversed itself following a lobbying campaign by Afghan officials, who said the expulsions would create a humanitarian disaster if carried out during the current harsh winter. According to Mr. Mehrpoor, the Afghan government views the issue as humanitarian and claims it does not have the capacity to accommodate the repatriation of one million refugees. The Iranian government, on the other hand, says these immigrants are illegal and should be repatriated.

News and Views January 15 reported on the commando-style attack on Monday at the Serena Hotel in Kabul, killing at least eight people, including one US citizen, a Philippine employee at the hotel, and a Norwegian journalist, along with several hotel security guards. Officials said the attackers wore suicide vests and police uniforms. They were also armed with grenades and rifles. The Taliban has claimed responsibility for the attack. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon suggested that Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere, who was preparing for a meeting at the hotel, was the target of the gunmen. Mr. Stoere was unharmed, but Norwegian officials said he has decided to cut his visit short, and that he would be leaving later in the day after meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The attack on foreign civilians appeared to be a new tactic by the Taliban. In the past, the Taliban has typically targeted Western and Afghan government security personnel.

News and Views January 17 reported that Palestinian witnesses said an Israeli air strike in northern Gaza killed at least two people. Earlier, Israeli officials said the army would continue to attack militants in Hamas-ruled Gaza until they stop firing rockets into Israel. Officials said the previous day, Palestinian militants fired more than 40 rockets at the Israeli town of Sderot, in the Negev just across the Gaza border. Israel declared Gaza an “enemy entity” after Hamas overran Fatah last June and has carried out numerous incursions and air strikes in the sovereign territory.

News and Views January 16 reported that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says the US will not be intimidated by the fatal bomb blast that struck a US Embassy vehicle in Lebanon. Four people were killed and 16 wounded. Speaking in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, Ms. Rice said, “To the degree that there is any thought of intimidation in an attack of this kind, the United States will, of course, not be deterred in its efforts to help the Lebanese people.” Lebanese government minister Ahmad Fatfat said, “Some people consider [the blast] a message for the Americans regarding Bush’s visit. He didn’t visit Lebanon, and he will not under these circumstances. [But I believe] what happened was to target Lebanon, [to keep it in turmoil]. The country is currently in a state of political crisis and it has been without a president since November.

VOA/PNN had an exclusive interview with Lebanese politician Nayla Moawad, the former First Lady of Lebanon and current Minister of Social Affairs in the cabinet of President Fouad Siniora. She was elected to the National Assembly in 1991, two years after the assassination of her husband, former President René Moawad. She was appointed to the Cabinet two-and-a-half years ago. Ms. Moawad blamed Iran and Syria for the bomb blast that blew up a US Embassy car in Beirut January 16. “As long as there is a state within a state in Lebanon, and armed groups are present in our country, sovereignty won’t mean anything,” she said. Ms. Moawad – who is part of the anti-Syrian majority in parliament – said she “holds Iran and Syria responsible for the current political deadlock in Lebanon.” Presidential elections have been postponed eleven times to allow pro- and anti-Syrian groups time to agree on a compromise candidate. Lebanon has been without a president since November 24.

Late Edition January 21 aired a special, in-depth report featuring exclusive video and interviews from inside Iran on how much Tehran has grown in the past 30 years. “The city that was on its way to compete with other developed cities in the west is now classified as part of the third world.” The report focused on the controversial economic decisions made since the 1979 Revolution have had both short-term and long-term effects on Tehran. “Unemployment is society’s greatest problem. A young graduate in civil engineering is still hunting for a job eight months after graduating. The more he looks, the less he is successful.” Harmful economic decisions, rapid changes in government and ideological authority, and corruption have impacted people’s lives. Iran has undergone crisis after crisis: the hostage taking at the US Embassy, turmoil of the revolution, the Iran-Iraq War, ongoing domestic political infighting, and the showdown with the UN over its controversial nuclear program. The economy and the average Iranian citizen are the ones paying the heavy price for these crises.

Panelists on NewsTalk this week talked about how President Bush should bring up the issue of human rights violations in Saudi Arabia with Saudi leaders; how no leader has criticized authorities in Iran as much as President Bush and that this is a blessing; failure of the Iranian government to help those impacted by the cold weather and blizzards; how Iran is expelling independent reporters from the country prior to parliamentary elections; the increase in application of Islamic Sharia punishments, from being thrown from a mountaintop to stoning to paying blood money; the impact of the Iranian government’s mismanagement of the economy on the daily life of the average Iranian; how Iran is diverting peace between Israel and Palestine; the German media has begun referring to President Ahmadinejad as the “Hitler of Iran”; how Iran has stopped the flow of gas to Turkey, forcing Ankara to find gas elsewhere; India ending fuel sales to Iran; two French banks stopping new letters of credit for the Iranian government; President Bush talking with Persian Gulf governments about the dangers Iran poses to the region; how Iran doesn’t like Sunnis and other minority ministers in the cabinets of neighboring countries; the likelihood of parliamentary speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel succeeding Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president and how political veteran Mehdi Karroubi could become parliamentary speaker, a job he has previously held; Iran is thinking about selling natural liquid gas to Kuwait even though there is a shortage of NLG in Iran; criticism of human rights abuses by members of Italy’s parliament; Turkish newspapers criticizing Iran for stopping the export of natural gas to Turkey; the US and China both lobbying other members of the UN Permanent Council and Germany in advance of next week’s meeting on further sanctions against Iran; and about the introduction of women-only buses in Mexico City in response to women’s complaints of harassment from some of the male passengers.

Today’s Woman January 14 interviewed Esmail Nooriala, poet, writer, and film director on one of the giants of Persian literature, Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-1967). Now a professor at Denver University, Mr. Nooriala talked with PNN about Ms. Farrokhzad, who was his friend. He said she was an artist who used her literary work as a catalyst to discuss world issues from a woman’s point of view. But, as Mr