Reaching Millions of Television Viewers in Iran Each Week

Washington, D.C. – May 12, 2008 . . . Major stories this week included continuing efforts to pressure Iran to comply with UN resolutions on its nuclear program; a devastating cyclone in Burma; the worst sectarian violence in Lebanon in nearly 20 years; Democratic presidential primaries in North Carolina and Indiana; ongoing violence in Baghdad; and US efforts to advance troubled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. News and Views had a series on Iran’s nuclear program, with interviews including Ambassador Greg Schulte, US Permanent Representative to the IAEA; Jeffrey Lewis, Director of the Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative at the New America Foundation; Jackie Shire, Senior Analyst at the Institute for Science and International Security; and Scott Kemp, a physicist and political scientist whose research focuses on gas centrifuge proliferation. Other VOA interviews this week were conducted with Lebanese Culture Minister Tariq Metri on the deteriorating situation in Lebanon; with State Department Middle East spokesman David Foley on the visit to Iran by an Iraqi parliamentary delegation; with veteran diplomat James Dobbins on US-Iran relations; with actress Angelica Huston, Human Rights Action Center founder Jack Healey and Sweden’s UN Ambassador Anders Liden on emergency aid for Burma; with one of the world’s most successful and beloved insurance agents, Mehdi Fakharzadeh, a senior executive with MetLife; with filmmaker Rahman Milani on his debut feature, Seahorses; with Nasim Daneshvar, the chief editor of a new Toronto-based women’s magazine called Banou; with exiled Iranian filmmaker Basir Nasibi on the regime’s all-encompassing censorship of film; and with publisher and editor Farkhonde Hajizade on the Tehran International Book Fair.

News and Views May 7 reported that Burma has approved a United Nations aid flight to help victims of last Saturday’s devastating cyclone as supplies begin to trickle into the tightly-controlled country. Approval for the flight comes five days after Cyclone Nargis paved a path of death and destruction across the southern tip of the country, killing nearly 23,000 people and leaving more than 42,000 others missing. UN officials say the flight is expected to leave Italy today (Wednesday) with 25 tons of aid and officials from the world body's relief agency (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs). Military-ruled Burma has welcomed international relief efforts, but some aid workers are still waiting for visas to gain entry to the country and help provide humanitarian assistance. The UN World Food Program says as many as one million people may have been left homeless with some villages almost completely destroyed.

News and Views May 6 reported on the mushrooming death toll from May 3’s devastating cyclone in Burma. International agencies are sending emergency aid as the number of dead has reached more than 15,000 and is expected to rise further as information comes in from hard-to-reach areas. Another 30,000 people are reported missing. Officials say Cyclone Nargis has left hundreds of thousands homeless and has created a severe shortage of food and potable water. The first planeload of foreign aid arrived in Rangoon May 7 from Thailand. More is expected to follow. Reclusive Burma has shunned international aid in the past, but amid this disaster, the country has told foreign officials and aid organizations it will accept their help. Since the storm hit, prices of food and fuel have risen dramatically. Witnesses in Burma say anger is building among residents who are complaining about the country’s military rulers’ slow response to the disaster.

News and Views May 10 talked with Academy Award-winning actress Angelica Huston, who also is a human rights activist who has worked to help free Nobel laureate and Burmese pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi. In an interview conducted at the United Nations, Ms. Huston said that the government of Burma should let international aid reach the people who need it. She said she has never met Aung Sun Suu Kyi, but feels a strong bond with her. [Editor’s Note: Ms. Suu Kyi is still under house arrest though the cyclone reportedly blew off the roof of her home.] Ms. Huston said she learned her moral code from her father, legendary film director John Huston, and got involved in human rights issues because of him and because of Jack Healey, founder of the Human Rights Action Center who was director of Amnesty International for 13 years. VOA/PNN also talked with Mr. Healey, who said the United Nations can do more. “The UN should be the voice of the hundreds of thousands of people in jeopardy in Burma. The world should put pressure on China as well, so the Burmese generals will let emergency aid reach the people.” Sweden’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Anders Liden, told VOA/PNN that the Burmese government is suspicious of the West. He said Burma’s leaders fear the West is after regime change, and that is why they are denying visas to aid workers. Ambassador Liden also said that, perhaps, they simply don’t know how to handle the situation.

News and Views May 10 interviewed Lebanese Culture Minister Tariq Metri on the deteriorating situation in Lebanon. He said he is worried the violence will turn into a civil war and that people will take to the streets, armed. Mr. Metri said he hopes this is not a coup by Hezbollah, but added that the way Hezbollah militants are taking up arms against Lebanese citizens is contrary to their pledge to use arms to defend Lebanon against Israel – not against the Lebanese people. Mr. Metro said, “Dialogue is the only way out of this deep, deep crisis, but there is no ongoing negotiation between the government and Hezbollah.” He said Prime Minister Fouad Siniora – who also is speaker of the Lebanese parliament and head of the Amal movement – cannot be an impartial mediator since Amal has participated in the violence. Sweden’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Anders Liden, who lived in Lebanon during the civil war, said Lebanon’s neighbors should stop their negative interference in Lebanon. He, too, expressed deep concern that the crisis might lead to another civil war. At least 29 people have been killed and scores wounded in gun battles since May 7 in the worst sectarian bloodshed since Lebanon’s 15-year civil war ended in 1990.

News and Views May 9 interviewed the former Washington bureau chief of Al Hayat newspaper, Salameh Nemat, a veteran Middle East watcher, on the Lebanese crisis. He said, “The situation is Lebanon is very explosive, and could lead to a full-scale civil war. Hezbollah has operated with impunity in trying to operate a parallel government with its own communication and intelligence service.” He said the takeover of west Beirut was a dramatic display of Hezbollah’s military might and capacity to impose its will against the government of pro-Western Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Mr. Nemat added that Iran has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build a power base in Lebanon through its proxy: Hezbollah. He said Iran is anxious to extend its influence beyond Lebanon and become a major regional power. “Iran is now using the windfall from soaring oil revenues to buy more influence.” Mr. Nemat dismissed Tehran’s claims that Israel and the United States are to blame for the flare-up of violence in Lebanon. “How could Tehran make such a claim when Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah himself called for undermining law and order?” He didn’t hold out much hope that the Arab League could do much, saying it has been ineffective in bringing peace and stability to Lebanon in the past.

News and Views May 11 reported that Lebanese security officials say heavy clashes erupted overnight in northern Lebanon between pro-government and anti-government forces, while the capital, Beirut, remained calm. Fighting in the port city of Tripoli was between Sunni supporters of the Western-backed government, and (Alawite) allies of the Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah. At least one person was killed, bringing Lebanon’s death toll in five days of clashes to 38. Meanwhile, security is tight in Beirut after Hezbollah fighters pulled back from areas they had seized, easing the worst sectarian violence to hit Lebanon since its 15-year civil war. The 22-member Arab League is scheduled to hold an emergency meeting in Cairo today on the Lebanese crisis. Speaking at a news conference in Tehran, Mohammad Ali Hosseini, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson accused Israel and United States of being behind the crisis in Lebanon, saying that they had applied all their efforts to incite discord among Lebanese parties.

News and Views May 6 interviewed Ambassador Greg Schulte, US Permanent Representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency, live from Vienna on the latest developments between the UN nuclear watchdog and Iran’s controversial nuclear program. Mr. Schulte said Iran does not need to enrich uranium. “Most countries that have nuclear power don’t enrich their own uranium. It doesn’t make sense. It is a shame that the leadership of Iran is acting with such a determination to defy the will of the international community and has decided to ramp up its uranium enrichment activity. This will definitely have a negative effect on foreign business willing to be trading partners with Iran and the people of Iran will pay a heavy price for the irresponsible behavior of their leaders.” Mr. Schulte said he could not disclose what was contained in the new package of incentives that was being offered to Iran, but noted that a very generous offer that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany made to Iran was rebuffed. This incentive package would have given Iran enough fuel for its reactors without giving it access to the technology to divert the nuclear fuel for military purposes. “It’s my sincere hope that the leadership of Iran thinks seriously about this offer because if it’s turned down again, it will face further isolation,” he added. He said the US will be looking for three things when the Director-General of the IAEA provides its report at the end of May. First is if “Iran has fully explained its past activities. There is real concern about what the IAEA experts have obtained.” Second, he said, is that “Iran has engaged in weaponization work. Is Iran ready to give the Agency full transparency into its current activities?” And third, “Has it fully and verifiably suspended uranium enrichment?” Mr. Schulte said this will allow for negotiations on the offer given to Iran by the UN Security Council and will allow the Security Council to suspend sanctions against Iran. “I hope Iran’s leaders will consider this offer,” Ambassador Schulte concluded.

News and Views May 9 interviewed two nuclear proliferation experts on Iran’s new generation of centrifuges. Jackie Shire, a Senior Analyst at the Institute for Science and International Security; said that Iran, according to the latest IAEA report, is operating 3,000 centrifuges. But she said, “We don’t know about their level of effectiveness and efficiency right now.” She said the IAEA can conduct snap inspections even without the additional protocol. “The IAEA can confirm that there has been no diversion to military uses from declared nuclear sites – but not from sites that have not been declared by Iranian officials.” She said, “The additional protocol is a very important tool in the toolbox that is available to the IAEA to make sure that Iran abides by its international obligations.” Scott Kemp, a physicist and political scientist whose research focuses on gas centrifuge proliferation, said the IAEA has been taking environmental samples to ensure that these machines are enriching uranium at a four percent level, which is required for nuclear energy, and not at the 90 percent level, which is what you need to build an atomic bomb. “The only way to make sure Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful,” he said, “is for Iran to conduct its activities with utmost transparency and abide by its international obligations.”

News and Views May 11 interviewed Jeffrey Lewis, Director of the Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative at the New America Foundation about Iran showcasing its next-generation centrifuges during President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Natanz, Iran’s main uranium enrichment facility. Mr. Lewis said that Iran has innovated quite a bit in producing a replica of P2 centrifuges. These new machines are called IR-2 and are designed to enrich uranium at a higher speed. Referring to the fact that Iran’s Defense and Intelligence Ministers accompanied the Iranian president to Natanz, he said, “I think this was bad public relations given that Iranian officials always insist on their program being of a peaceful nature. It runs contrary to their public diplomatic stand. Their presence has a lot to do with domestic politics in Iran. Iranian politicians want to associate themselves with this technology to bolster their positions.” Mr. Lewis said President Ahmadinejad’s predecessors’ visits to Natanz were low-key affairs. But he said Mr. Ahmadinejad wants to show the world that these new centrifuges are symbols of Iran’s power and modernity. Mr. Lewis added that Iran’s nuclear enrichment activity is closely watched by the IAEA through many cameras installed at the facility, but without the additional protocol that Iran has decided not to abide by, the IAEA does not have access to other areas where nuclear work can be conducted away from the prying eyes of IAEA inspectors.

News and Views May 8 reported on the arrival of Sung Kim, the State Department’s top Korea expert in Pyongyang for another round of talks aimed at convincing the isolated regime to fully declare is nuclear activities. He is hoping to resolve a dispute over Pyongyang’s failure to meet a December 31st deadline to reveal all of its nuclear activities under a six-nation agreement. Separately, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte is on a tour of Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing to discuss bilateral and regional issues as well as the push to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions. In Seoul, Mr. Negroponte told reporters that Mr. Kim’s visit is part of an ongoing process, linked to six-party talks on denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

News and Views May 8 reported that Mohamed El-Baradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, met in Brussels on May 7 with Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme. Mr. El-Baradei said he has a team in Iran to discuss Tehran’s alleged nuclear weaponization program. He said the more transparency on the part of Iran, the more assurance he will be able to give to the international community. US and European officials said senior envoys from five of the six nations bargaining with Iran over its disputed nuclear program – Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany – may try to get talks moving by making a special face-to-face appeal. The officials said only the United States would sit out the diplomatic trip. It was not clear whether the envoys would travel to Tehran or deliver the offer elsewhere. Diplomats have told The Associated Press that the Islamic republic sought direct contacts with at least some of the six world powers after years of inconclusive negotiations on the nuclear issue with their representative, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

News and Views May 6 interviewed the spokesman for the State Department’s Near East Bureau, David Foley, about an Iraqi parliamentary delegation’s visit to Iran. The delegation went to Tehran to present evidence of the West’s allegations that Iran is assisting Shi’ite extremists in Iraq. Afterward, delegates described the talks as positive, though Iran admitted to nothing. Mr. Foley said other delegates described the talks as successful while others called them only a beginning. “The Iraqi officials were surprised to see the evidence and information on Iran’s meddling, and now know better that [Iran is] arming those elements that are causing the deaths of the Iraqi people. The US army does not attack Iraqi people. The multinational force in Iraq fights the insurgents. It has been the Iranian government,” he asserted, “that has been controlling certain radical groups. And now we hear them saying the US is killing people.” Mr. Foley said this new comment is in contradiction with what Iran has previously said. “Iran must cease its nefarious support of the criminal groups and show that it can play a constructive role. It must stop supporting those who are attacking innocent people, not only in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan and elsewhere.” Mr. Foley said Iran needs to abide by what the EU, the West and the entire international community is asking of it – to comply with UN resolutions regarding its nuclear program.

News and Views May 5 reported that Iran has again ruled out halting its disputed nuclear activities, saying it will reject any incentives offered by world powers that violate the Islamic Republic's right to nuclear enrichment. Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said that the Iranian government will not consider any proposals that would limit Tehran’s access to atomic technology. Mr. Hosseini’s remarks followed Friday’s announcement that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany had agreed to new incentives intended to persuade Iran to halt its enrichment programs as well as a statement by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday that Iranian enrichment would have to be suspended during any talks.

News and Views May 6 reported that US and Russian officials say the two countries will sign a civilian nuclear cooperation pact in Moscow later in the day – the last full day of Vladimir Putin’s presidency. The agreement will allow the United States and Russia to widen cooperation in various areas, including a uranium bank and the storage of nuclear materials. The pact also calls for the two nations to work together on safe reactor technology.

Roundtable with You May 7 focused on the US presidential primaries in North Carolina and Indiana, which brought Senator Barack Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton further along in their marathon race for the Democratic nomination. VOA’s senior political correspondent Jim Malone, who is a veteran at covering US presidential races, explained why the race this year is unique and historical. He said the fact that a woman and a black man are competing for the highest position in the country – one of the most powerful in the world – gives the story an extra dimension. Roundtable also talked live with VOA/PNN correspondent Siamak Dehghanpour, who was in Indianapolis to provide coverage of the race. He talked about how North Carolina and Indiana became so important because of their spot on the primary calendar and provided demographics on the states’ urban and rural populations, and how this influenced the results. Senator Obama won North Carolina with a decisive victory while Senator Clinton won Indiana in a very close race. Mr. Dehghanpour also pointed out that while the media’s attention is on the Obama and Clinton campaigns, the presumptive Republican nominee, Senator John McCain is traveling and talking without the glare of 24/7 coverage.

VOA/PNN’s Congressional Correspondent Siamak Dehghanpour interviewed Terry McAuliffe, the chairman of Senator Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, in Indiana on May 6. Mr. McAuliffe said, “We are going to win in Indiana tonight. Hillary was down by 15 points here. She worked this state day in and day out and got her message out. This is a very important state for us and I feel comfortable about it.” Mr. McAuliffe said neither Senator Obama nor Senator Clinton can win without the endorsement of superdelegates. He also said the votes from Michigan and Florida need to be counted – something Democratic Party leaders are still debating because of both states flouting the proscribed election calendar. Mr. McAuliffe said the superdelegates need to reflect on which candidate can beat Senator John McCain in the general election. He says that candidate is Hillary Clinton. “We have three [more] weeks of primaries and the [uncommitted] superdelegates will make up their mind within a week. This is very good for the Democrats. We are getting record voter turnouts. Indiana has not mattered in 40 years. [No matter who wins] we all will come together at the end.”

In his reports on Indiana, Mr. Dahghanpour talked with Daniel Parker, Chairman of the Indiana Democratic Party and a Clinton supporter: “This is the first time a lot of people in Indiana have actually seen presidential candidates. This is a good thing for democracy, for the state, and for the country….We need someone in the White House who is a fighter for working class folks. Cordelia Lewis Burks, Vice Chair of Indiana’s Democratic Party, is an Obama supporter: “If he has the most votes, the most delegates, and the most states it just stands to reason that he would be the nominee… Barack Obama has won states that the Democratic Party has not carried in years. Doesn’t that say something about his ability to win the general election? I think it does.” In his reports on North Carolina, Mr. Dahghanpour talked with Representative Melvin Watt, former Chairman of the Black Caucus, and a supporter of Senator Obama: “The nominee is going to be Barack Obama….I think this is going to be over well before the convention starts….White voters are concerned about same thing Blacks are…. Obama has made a commitment to put every state in play in November… North Carolina is a winnable state.”

News and Views May 8 reported that after a seven-year legal battle, Britain’s Court of Appeals has ruled that the British government was wrong to include an Iranian resistance group, the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran, on its list of banned terrorist groups. In a phone interview with VOA/PNN, Alireza Jafarzadeh, former spokesman of the National Iranian Resistance Council, hailed the decision and said it is significant because the British government has always been the prime mover behind the blacklisting of Mujahedeen Khalq in Europe. Mr. Jafarzadeh said this decision by the British court removes the basis for blacklisting the MEK in other European countries. He expressed hope that the ruling also will entice US officials to remove the MEK from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. The program host noted that until now, American officials have not given any hint that such a move is in the offing, and that the MEK remains blacklisted in the United States.

VOA/PNN May 7 interviewed the spokeswoman of the World Food Program, Bettina Luescher, on the world’s current food crisis – a “silent tsunami” that has affected five continents, especially their poorest citizens. Ms. Luescher said the urgency for the United Nations is to prevent food rationing in countries that depend on food distribution by the UN. She said the usage of agricultural products such as corn for fuel “biofuel,” the rapid rise in gas and food prices, and climate change are a few of the elements that have led to this food crisis. The owner of Kalustyan’s specialty food store in Manhattan, which imports from more than 65 countries, told VOA/PNN that the price of rice and flour has almost tripled in the past six months. Aziz Othmani said that people are buying and consuming less and that his profit margin has declined. Ms. Luescher said that aside from the urgent need for $755 million, the UN recommends mid-term and long-term plans to prevent more people from suffering from hunger and starvation. She said the difference between Western countries and developing countries is that in the West there is a safety net that other countries don’t enjoy.

News and Views May 8 reported on the dramatically rising cost of food staples in Iran, with prices for rice leaping up. An Iranian economic journalist, who spoke on terms of anonymity, told VOA/PNN that the price of rice has almost tripled in the seven weeks since the Norooz holidays. She said a group in Yaft Abad, a locality in Tehran, has demonstrated against the price hikes.

Roundtable with You May 8 focused on the clash of cultures in Iran with historian and scholar of Persian culture, Nasser Engheta. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, speaking in Shiraz, recently praised Shi’ite mausoleums in the city and the pre-Islamic archeological ruins, but stressed that it is in “the post-Islamic art in which the talent of Iranians blossom.” He also referred to Persepolis as a symbol of the “tyranny of dictators.” Mr. Engheta said the remarks triggered outrage amongst many Iranians and refreshed an old debate over the clash of cultures, which has been going on – off and on – since the inception of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Mr. Engheta said the “mistreatment of Persian culture didn’t work in the old days, and it cannot succeed today.” He said such an attitude only proves that Iran’s rulers lack a basic understanding of Iranian culture.

News and Views is moving from spot reporting to in-depth reporting in its “Inside Iran” segment, looking at Iran’s economy on Tuesdays, school education in Iran on Wednesdays, workers on Fridays and universities and students on Saturdays. The first segment, on Iran’s workers, ran May 1. The second, on Iran’s economy, ran May 5.

News and Views May 8 reported that the Iranian government is placing increasing pressure on ethnic minorities. The judiciary at a Revolutionary Court in Tehran charged nine civil and political activists from Azerbaijan with acting against national security. The trial was held May 6 behind closed doors, but the verdict and sentences have not yet made public.

Today’s Woman May 8 talked about what role women play in Iranian politics with one of the country’s most prominent campaigners for women’s rights, human rights activist Fariba Davoodi-Mohajer. She discussed the history of women in the Majlis, or parliament. The current Majlis has 13 women, while that number will be declining to eight from the past round of elections. Overall, she said, women activists in Iran did not endorse any particular candidates. “It is better for women activists to choose for themselves who they want to vote for or if they want to vote at all,” Ms. Davoodi-Mohajer said. “There are greater goals than who is elected to the Majlis, such as gender equality for the women’s movement in Iran. But both the quality and quantity of women in the Majlis is important because it’s important to have as many qualified women as possible involved in the process.” Ms. Davoodi-Mohajer also talked about her participation in a conference on human rights in Ukraine last month. She said more than 400 people attended the conference, where the overall theme focused on the best way to put democracy in action and empower women. Ms. Davoodi-Mohajer emphasized that “The women’s movement in Iran is not political; it is a humanitarian effort that seeks to provide gender equality.”

News and Views May 7 interviewed veteran diplomat James Dobbins, Director of the Rand Corporation’s International Security and Defense Policy Center, about US-Iran relations. He said both governments have created obstacles. Ambassador Dobbins said the United States ignored opportunities in both 2001 and 2003 to talk with a receptive Iran, and said Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s aggressiveness toward the US is a big impediment. Mr. Dobbins said the major problem between the two countries is that neither one has spent much effort toward creating a constructive dialogue, adding that on this issue, he is more critical of the US government than he is of Iran.

News and Views May 5 reported that US forces in Iraq killed nine Shi’ite insurgents during battles in the Sadr City and Mansur districts of Baghdad late Sunday and early Monday. The clashes came hours after the wife of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani escaped unhurt from a roadside bomb attack that hit her motorcade in Baghdad. The motorcade was taking her to the city’s national theatre when the bomb went off in the capital’s Karrada district. In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ali Hosseini said Iran will not hold a fourth round of talks with the US on security in Iraq, as long as US forces continue to attack Shi’ite militias in Baghdad. Ryan Crocker, the US Ambassador to Iraq, and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, held three rounds of talks in Baghdad last year in the first direct diplomatic contacts between Washington and Tehran in nearly 30 years.

News and Views May 8 reported that the US military says a Kuwaiti man who carried out a recent suicide bombing in Iraq was a former detainee at the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A military spokesman says Abdallah Salih al-Ajmi was one of three suicide bombers who struck the northern Iraqi city of Mosul last month. The attacks killed seven people. Iraqi medical officials say seven people have been killed in fresh clashes between Shi’ite fighters and US forces in Baghdad’s Shi’ite stronghold of Sadr City. At least 20 other people were wounded in the fighting. US and Iraqi forces have fought fierce battles in Sadr City against Shi’ite militiamen loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr for the past month.

News and Views May 7 focused on a number of international developments, beginning with travel by a top US diplomat, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, to South Korea, Japan and China to discuss North Korea’s nuclear program and other regional issues. The program also reported that in Vienna, IAEA Secretary-General Mohammad El-Baradei asked Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, John Rood, for Washington to show m