Reaching Millions of Television Viewers in Iran Each Week

Washington, D.C. – February 25, 2008 . . . Major stories this week included the UN Security Council beginning formal consideration of additional sanctions against Iran following a new IAEA report; parliamentary election results in Pakistan; upcoming parliamentary elections in Iran; the resignation of Cuban President Fidel Castro after nearly a half century in power; interviews with State Department Middle East spokesman David Foley about Iran’s nuclear program and US foreign policy in the region; with Nasrin Sotoudeh on the honor killing in southeastern Iran of a 14-year-old girl and on the arrest of two prominent women’s rights advocates; with Emile El-Hokayem of the Stimson Center on the attitude of Persian Gulf countries toward Iran’s nuclear program; with Hossein Bagherzadeh, a London-based human rights activist, on worrisome legislation under consideration in Iran; with the State Department’s Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Gerald Feierstein, on Iran’s support for terrorism; and a series of exclusive interviews on the deteriorating human rights situation in Iran with Michael Cromartie, chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom; Jeffrey Feltman, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs; Iranian human rights advocate Payam Akhavan, co-founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center and a Professor of Law at McGill University; Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, and Iranian women’s activist and journalist Parvin Ardalan.

PNN correspondents will be traveling the next two weeks in higher numbers than usual: to Iraq to cover President Ahmadinejad’s visit to Baghdad and to provide a first-hand update on the war; to Dubai to talk with the large Iranian expatriate community about Iran’s parliamentary elections; to Ohio and Texas to cover the critical presidential primaries; to Vienna to cover the IAEA’s latest report on Iran’s nuclear program and its compliance with UN resolutions; and to Stockholm to cover the presentation of the 2007 Olof Palme Prize to Iranian journalist Parvin Ardalan for her work in trying to end discriminatory laws against women in Iran.

News and Views February 22 reported that the UN Security Council has begun formal consideration of a new resolution on Iran’s nuclear program that imposes restrictions on cargo to and from Iran, travel bans, the freezing of assets for people involved in the program and tightened monitoring of Iranian financial institutions.

News and Views February 23 reported on the new International Atomic Energy Agency report which says Iran has provided new information about its controversial nuclear program, but not in a consistent and complete manner. The IAEA says it is not yet in a position to determine whether Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes. The 11-page report from IAEA chief Mohamed El-Baradei says Iran needs to continue to build confidence about the scope and nature of its nuclear program. Energy analyst Bahman Aghaii Diba said the IAEA “cannot confirm that Iran’s nuclear program is intended for military purposes or not, making the report a failure for Iran’s nuclear program.” Mr. Diba said the report will expedite approval of a third round of UN sanctions against Iran.

News and Views February 20 interviewed State Department Middle East spokesman David Foley about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s latest comments on Iran’s nuclear program. In a televised address to a rally in the southern port city of Bandar Abbas, Mr. Ahmadinejad said Iran has brought world powers “to their knees” and successfully resisted US-led efforts to get Tehran to halt its uranium enrichment program. Mr. Foley said that based on his past experiences with the Iranian president, Mr. Ahmadinejad ratchets up his defiance right before the UN Security Council passes a new sanctions resolution. “This is not going to be a victory for the Iranian people. It will just add to the strain that the Iranian people feel in their everyday lives as the international community slaps on additional sanctions [because of] Iran’s defiance.” Mr. Foley said he hopes the International Atomic Energy Agency’s new report will put to rest all the outstanding issues with regard the Iranian nuclear issue. He declined to comment on a claim made by an exiled Iranian opposition group that Iran is actively pursuing a nuclear weapons program, giving details of what it said is an operational nuclear-warhead development site. Mr. Foley also declined to comment on the US intelligence chief’s statement that internal Hezbollah groups or Syria may be to blame for the killing of Hezbollah militant leader Imad Mughniyeh, saying only that “Mr. Mughniyeh had a lot of blood on his hands, including the blood of many Arabs.” Commenting on Russia and Iran (two of the world's biggest natural gas exporters) and the fact that the presidents of both countries have mentioned the possibility of creating an OPEC-like international gas cartel to control prices and supplies, he said he believed in free markets to determine prices and supplies.

News and Views February 21 talked again with David Foley, the State Department’s Middle East spokesman, about the latest developments in US foreign policy in the region. Mr. Foley announced that President Bush has ordered the assets frozen of the cousin of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This is part of widening sanctions against Damascus targeting officials engaged in “public corruption.” Mr. Foley said the Assad regime’s cronyism and corruption has had a corrosive effect, disadvantaging innocent Syrian businessmen and entrenching a regime that pursues oppressive and destabilizing policies, including beyond Syria’s borders, in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories. Mr. Foley added that the State Department is keeping a close watch on Lebanon and its political crisis. “We hope that the Arab League can find a compromise between Lebanon’s rival political groups and factions,” he said. Mr. Foley declined to confirm whether Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is planning to travel to the region to mediate the Lebanese crisis. On the IAEA report that is due shortly, he said that while the Bush Administration welcomes Iran’s efforts in clarifying its nuclear past, the important thing is for Iran to suspend enrichment in order to avoid further stiffer sanctions.

News and Views February 22 interviewed Emile El-Hokayem, a research associate at the Washington, DC-based Stimson Center on the attitude of Persian Gulf countries toward Iran’s nuclear program. He said the small Arab Sunni countries in the Gul are concerned that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons could be catastrophic and touch off an arms race in the region. Iran was considered the policeman of the Persian Gulf in the 1970’s and is still regarded as a major player in the region, he said. These Arab countries in the Gulf are not on the frontline of efforts to dissuade Iran from going nuclear. “But these countries are reluctant to take Iran on directly because of their size – they feel intimidated by a powerful Iran.” Mr. El-Hokayem said because of the boom in oil prices, Saudi Arabia has emerged as a financial powerhouse, gradually surpassing Egypt as the key player in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia has as sizable minority of Shiites in the north, and is worried about Iran instigating unrest there

VOA/PNN reported February 19 on preliminary election returns in Pakistan with Nafees Takar, the managing editor of VOA’s Radio Deewa, saying turnout started low but increased significantly as the day wore on. {Radio Deewa broadcasts in Pashto, primarily into the tribal areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan.] It appears the election turned into a referendum on President Parviz Musharraf, with a majority of Pakistanis saying they planned to vote for the opposition Pakistan People’s Party of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Word on the street was that if the PPP didn’t receive a fair amount of votes, those who had warned the elections were rigged would mount a major protest.

Sameer Lalwani, a policy analyst with the New America Foundation, a Washington, DC-based think tank, says corruption has become more rampant in Pakistan under the rule of President Musharraf. Mr. Lalwani told News and Views February 21 that is unlikely the new coalition government would be able to tackle Pakistan’s enormous economic, social and security challenges in the immediate term. “Party leaders are now trying to work out the terms of their coalition government,” he said. One of the pitfalls they face is that there is no love lost between the two main rivals in the coalition government. “They will have a tough time setting aside decades of political rivalry to challenge President Musharraf,” Mr. Lalwani added. He said the main challenge of the new ruling coalition would be to root out endemic corruption, especially in the Pakistan army. But charges of corruption are not limited to the army, he said, as both Mr. Sharif and Mr. Zardari are tainted in the eyes of many people.

News and Views February 22 interviewed Robin Lynn Raphel, Senior Vice President at the National Defense University in Washington, DC, on political developments in Pakistan. Ms. Raphel said the Pakistani people have spoken with their vote for a return to civilian government and by giving power back to the Pakistani People’s Party. She said, “The people of Pakistan showed their political maturity by holding a fair and free election.” Ms. Raphel added that President Musharraf would like to continue being a player in Pakistani politics and that it is up to the coalition government as to whether they envision a role for him to play. “Musharraf's future is uncertain at best,"” she said. The Pakistani Army is the most powerful institution in that country and will retain its predominant position in Pakistani politics, she concluded.

News and Views February 19 reported that the Fars News Agency in Iran published the third list of approved parliamentary election candidates. A former Interior Ministry official, Mashallah Abbaszadeh, told VOA/PNN that publishing the list without having previously informed the candidates is illegal.

VOA/PNN interviewed political activist Taqi Rahmani on next month’s parliamentary election. Speaking from Tehran, Mr. Rahmani said “In today’s political scene in Iran, even the political factions that are part of the government are against the undemocratic way the election is being conducted.” According to Mr. Rahmani, reformists outside of the government want a democratic election and those inside the government will not be re-elected – either because they have not submitted their names seeking re-election or because their candidacies have been disapproved by the Council of Guardians.

Today’s Woman February 19 focused on parliamentary elections in Iran, which are scheduled for March 14. Panelists talked about the role women have played in parliament, the concerns and participation of young people and the lack of legitimacy associated with the electoral process in Iran. From Iran, student activist Mahdieh Golrou said many young people are inactive politically and said they plan to boycott the election. However, those who think they might need to prove participation in the future will vote. “They are pressured into voting,” she said, “If at any point they want to hold a government position, a background check would indicate the person did not vote, and that could be used as a discriminatory factor.” Ms. Golrou stated that she would not be participating in the elections “because they are not democratic.” Lawyer and human rights activist Leili Pourzand joined the show from Boston. She said the number of women in the Iranian parliament has declined, that the few in the current parliament are not particularly influential, nor are they strong advocates for women’s rights. Ms. Pourzand said she, too, would not vote if she were in Iran. “It shouldn’t matter whether a woman or a man is in the parliament,” she said. “The most important thing is a democratic process. And these elections are not democratic.”

News and Views February 21 interviewed Isa Saharkhiz, an independent journalist in Iran, about the upcoming parliamentary election in Iran. He said the Islamic regime’s Cultural Ministry has warned against electoral violations posted on illegal web sites. Mr. Saharkhiz said there are no such violations and that the Ministry’s edict is a pretext for an intensified crackdown on the media with regard to election coverage.

Roundtable with You February 18 compared Iran’s Constitutional Revolution with the Islamic Revolution with Mashallah Adjudani, a former professor of History at Isfahan University and founder and director of the Iran National Library in London. Mr. Adjudani said the Constitutional Revolution took place in the early days of the 20th century and was the first event of its kind if the Middle East. It led to the establishment of Iran’s Parliament and opened the way for cataclysmic change in the country, heralding the modern era. The old order was replaced by new institutions, new forms of expression and a new social and political order. Mr. Adjudani, discussed the role of Haj-Mirza Hassan Roshdieh, founder of a new educational system which was the first step toward modernization of schools and the establishment of universities and westernization of Iran. The times were marked by a considerable reduction of power of religious elements in all aspects of government. Establishment of a Justice Department took away the power of justice from religious groups. Mr. Adjudani then discussed the Islamic Revolution, saying from the start, leaders turned against the west and achievements of the Constitution – namely, justice, education, Iran’s past and Iran’s national identity. “The Islamic Revolution destroyed all hopes and aspirations of the Iranian people for a better life,” he said. “The Constitutional Revolution, with all its shortcomings, brought us into the 20th century. The Islamic Revolution returned us to the Middle Ages.”

Roundtable with You February 19 featured Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, or NED. He began by saying many people think the NED is run by the government. It’s not. “It’s a private, non-profit organization created in 1983 to strengthen democratic institutions around the world through non-governmental efforts. It is governed by an independent, non-partisan board of direction. But the NED budget does come from Congressional appropriations.” From this budget, he said, the NED is able to offer hundreds of grants to support pro-democracy groups in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. Mr. Gershman, in response to a viewer’s e-mail said, “Democracy cannot be achieved through a single election. And it need not be based on the model of the United States or any other particular country. It evolves according to the needs and traditions of diverse political cultures. We believe the NED helps strengthen the bond between indigenous democratic movements abroad and the people of the United States – a bond based on freedom as a way of life.” Mr. Gershman said the NED is political by its very mission, but it “does not fund nor support any political party, as this is forbidden by law.”

Iranian women’s activist and journalist Parvin Ardalan told Roundtable with You on February 22 that “If you were a woman living in Iran, you would realize soon enough that you have to struggle to obtain your rights.” Ms. Ardalan recently won the 2007 Olof Palme Prize for calling for equal rights for men and women as a central part of the struggle for democracy in Iran. She will receive the award at a March 6 ceremony in Stockholm. Speaking by phone from Iran, Ms. Ardalan said “It is an honor for me to receive this award because it magnifies the voices of Iranian women all over the world.” When asked whether her most recent court summons is connected to the award – she was ordered to appear within the next 48 hours – Ms. Ardalan said “There was no reason given for my court summons.” She continued: “People are not notified why they are being summoned. You don’t know until you get to court, and they announce the charges against you.” As a founder and active member of the One Million Signatures Campaign, a movement that aims to establish equal rights for women in Iranian society, Ms. Ardalan explained “Our objective by launching this campaign is to remove all these legal discriminations based on gender like divorce laws, children’s custody....” She added that “These discriminations are enshrined in Iranian law.” Ms. Ardalan said the One Million Signatures Campaign “may not have reached our objective yet. But we have succeeded in changing the Iranian people’s attitude toward discriminatory laws. We have been able to give the issue of inequality a bigger profile in society, and by gaining society’s attention for women’s rights, we could well be promoting democratic values too.” Ms. Ardalan said the One Million Signatures Campaign has nothing against Islam or the Islamic political system, “but many of our members have been detained by the police and intelligence services and charged with spreading propaganda against the state.” She said many of the campaign’s supporters are still imprisoned. “Along with women’s rights activists and human rights activists, feminist publications are being shut down. This award will give the One Million Signatures Campaign wider visibility and provide hope to Iranian women – inside and outside Iran.”

Also appearing on Roundtable with You February 22 was Hossein Bagherzadeh, a London-based human rights activist. He said the Iranian parliament is now considering legislation that would institutionalize a series of gross human rights violations that would affect not only Baha’is, but many other religious minorities. Mr. Bagherzadeh said the greatest concern is one section of the legislation which mandates the death penalty for anyone who converts from Islam to another religion.

News and Views February 22 interviewed Peyman Aref, a student activist who heads the National Front Student Organization, on his impending incarceration. After five years of advocacy, Mr. Aref has been ordered to present himself at Evin Prison within 72 hours of having received “instructions to appear.” Mr. Aref said the order was issued because of his participation in a demonstration to protest the government’s giving the death penalty to university professor Hashem Aghajari. Mr. Aghajari was condemned to death after being convicted of blasphemy after he said in a speech that Muslims were not “monkeys” to blindly follow the teachings of clerics. The government subsequently lifted the execution order, but Mr. Aref said the National Front Student Organization’s call for a boycott of next month’s parliamentary election was “very instrumental in the issuance of a judgment against me.”

News and Views February 20 interviewed attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh on the honor killing in southeastern Iran of a 14-year-old girl by her father for allegedly having a relationship with a man. Ms. Sotoudeh said the man’s wife reported him to police after he and a friend killed the girl in Zahedan, the capital of Baluchistan province. The man reportedly showed no sign of remorse when apprehended by police. He told them, I suspected that my daughter had a relationship with a man and I had to stone her to death as she had besmirched my honor. I had no other choice.” Ms. Sotoudeh said Islamic laws in Iran encourage the spread of such violence in the country.

News and Views also interviewed Ms. Sotoudeh on February 18 regarding the arrest of activists Raheleh Asgarizadeh and Nasim Khosravi. The two women were arrested in Tehran on February 14 while collecting signatures in support of the Million Signatures Campaign Demanding Changes to Discriminatory Laws. Ms. Sotoudeh said the two women are being held in Evin Prison until bail of 20 million toman ($2,000) is paid. She said the amount is not proportionate to the so-called crime.

VOA/PNN covered a hearing held February 21 by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom to address the State Department’s designation of Iran as a Country of Particular Concern for its “egregious and systematic violations of freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief. The situation has deteriorated in particular for religious minorities, including Baha’is, Sufis and evangelical Christians.” VOA/PNN conducted exclusive interviews with Michael Cromartie, chair of the commission;

Jeffrey Feltman, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs; and with Iranian human rights advocate Payam Akhavan, co-founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center and a Professor of Law at McGill University. Jeffrey Feltman said the State Department is deeply concerned about the deteriorating human rights situation in Iran, including religious freedom. “We are doing our best to raise awareness of this issue. We are trying to work with international NGO’s on how best to highlight theses issues in order to bring about improvement. And we hope that the Iranian regime will cease its denial of basic human rights with its own population. The Iranian regime is notorious for abuse of its own citizens….They need to simply stop oppressing their own people.”

Commission Chair Michael Cromartie said anything that sheds light on the current situation in Iran is good, including talking with people who will be honest and open. “In this situation, we have to be keenly aware of who we are talking to. And there is a lot of untruth that comes out of the mouth of the president of Iran. So one just has to be careful…. Sure there were some abuses in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. And the people who did those things have been prosecuted under US law. Comparing that situation to Iran as a moral equivalent is just absurd. The kind of awful torturous injustices that are occurring in Iran are ongoing, systematic and daily; and there is simply no comparison.”

McGill law professor Payam Akhavan said the human rights situation in Iran must be addressed, adding that the scale of violation committed by the US cannot be compared to the sort of systematic use of widespread torture against dissidents in Iran and a number of other countries. “Who said the US is the voice of human rights in the world? We have a UN Declaration of Human Rights that is the voice of the people of the world.” Mr. Akhavan said he himself was a counsel against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in the case of Yassir Hamdi, a detainee held at Guantanamo Bay. “I see no problem at the same time vigorously condemning Iran’s human rights. We need to hold those Iranian leaders that have committed crimes against humanity individually accountable. We need to send a message that holding public office is not a license for abuse – otherwise we are only going to replace one group of abusive leaders with another group of abusive leaders.”

VOA/PNN interviewed Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi on the continuing suppression and arrest of women activists in Iran. Ms. Ebadi said she and other women’s rights and human rights advocates are demanding changes to discriminatory laws with the One Million Signatures Campaign. “We raise this question with the Islamic government: Why don’t you honor your international commitments?”

Roundtable with You February 23 interviewed the State Department’s Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Gerald Feierstein. Commenting on Imad Mughniyeh’s assassination earlier this month, Mr. Feierstein said, “He was an individual that had the blood of many individuals on his hands, including many innocent Americans.” He added that, “It would be a good idea to ask the Iranian leadership why they would embrace someone who was clearly such a negative and destructive influence on the world.” Mr. Feierstein said Mughniyeh and the Hezbollah were implementing a key element of Iranian foreign policy, and “that is why the US is labeling Iran as the leading sponsor of terror in the world.” On accusations that Washington was celebrating Mughniyeh’s assassination, Mr. Feierstein said, “We don’t celebrate the death of another human being, but we have to put into context the actions that he took during his life. At moments like this, rather than thinking about Mughniyeh, it’s more appropriate to think about his victims and the grieving families he left behind.” On Iraq, he said, “We see Iran using the Hezbollah to build up the capabilities of anti-coalition forces.” There has been close collaboration between Iran, Syria and the Hezbollah, he added. Mr. Feierstein said Iran’s ties with South American countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia are expanding. “The US government is concerned with Iran’s attempt to extend its destructive influence into the Western Hemisphere. We are particularly worried about reports that Iran’s Latin American allies are providing Iran’s intelligence agents travel documents and passports to travel freely around the world.”

Roundtable with You February 20 looked at the economic policies adopted in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution with Hadi Zamani, an economic consultant with the United Nations and author of several books on the Iranian economy. He said after three decades, high unemployment along with 18% inflation is threatening Iran’s stability. Mr. Zamani said in 1979, when the rest of the world was beginning to remove trade barriers and move toward a more global economy, leaders of the Islamic Revolution decided to move in a different direction. “Hundreds of thousands of the best and brightest Iranians were forced to leave t he country. News laws based on Islamic teaching and preaching were implemented. These laws retarded the country’s economic development,” he said. “Today, these Islamic laws and policies, both domestic and international, are incompatible with the realities of the 21st century,” Mr. Zamani said. “Despite $70 billion in oil revenue, Iran has a deficit. Youth unemployment is at an all-time high, with some estimates putting it at over 27%.” Mr. Zamani was particularly concerned that so much of Iran’s budget relied on oil revenue. The economy also is marked by a hostile investment environment and capital flight.

Some 150,000 people gathered in the Serbian capital to protest Kosovo’s declaration of independence. News and Views February 22 reported that a group of protesters broke away from the larger peaceful demonstration in Belgrade and stormed the US Embassy, setting fire to the building’s façade an office. The fire was put out quickly, but a charred body was found afterward, and the Embassy believes it was one of the protesters. Demonstrators also set fires and threw stones at the Croatian Embassy, torched a guardhouse at the German mission and burned a car outside the British Embassy. Serbian President Boris Tadic said, “I appeal to all citizens of our country to protest only in a peaceful way. I appeal to everyone taking part in riots or disorder to pull back from the streets and stop attacking the embassies. It does not contribute to the defense of Kosovo, or to the defense of our integrity and dignity. It only distances Kosovo from Serbia.”

News and Views February 19 reported on the resignation of Fidel Castro as Cuba’s president after 50 years on the job. Granma quoted Mr. Castro as saying will not aspire to, nor accept another term as president when the country’s newly-elected National Assembly meets on Sunday. Fidel Castro has not appeared in public since undergoing intestinal surgery in July 2006. His brother Raul has served as acting president since then. The 81-year-old Castro said in a letter in December that he did not want to stay in power forever. In that letter he said his duty is not to hold on to positions or block the path of younger people, but to share the experiences and ideas from his life. The Cuban leader seized power in a 1959 revolution.

News and Views February 20 reported that Western leaders are reacting to the resignation of Cuban President Fidel Castro with expressions of hope for a peaceful transition to democracy, while his allies are paying tribute to his near half-century of leadership. Spain, Britain, the United States and the European Union also expressed hope for peaceful political change. France, meanwhile, expressed hope that there would be increased democracy in Cuba. Cuban allies such as Russia, Vietnam, and China reacted with praise for Mr. Castro's tenure as president. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao pledged to continue friendly ties with Cuba, wishing a speedy recovery to Mr. Castro, whom he called an old friend of the Chinese people.

“The world powers established this filthy bacteria, the Zionist regime, which is lashing out at the nations in the region like a wild beast,” the Iranian president told supporters at a rally in southern Iran February 20. Referring to the assassination of Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyeh, the Iranian leader said that Israel “uses terror as a threat every day, and afterwards is happy and joyful.” VOA/PNN interviewed Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel for his reaction to President Ahmadinejad’s newest comments on Israel. “It’s below any reasonable level that would merit our reaction,” he said. “And basically, it says more about him than it does about Israel. It just shows you who he is, and that’s it. It’s a comment about him, not us.”