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Poll on US ties rocks Iran Wednesday, 2 October, 2002, 23:59 GMT 00:59 UK

Popular support for Iran's reformists is strong Media heads face prosecution in Iran over a ground-breaking opinion poll on mending relations with the United States.

It showed a large majority of the population in favour of dialogue with the "Great Satan" and nearly half showing sympathy with US policy on Iran.

The conservative judiciary has shut down a state-run polling institute and is taking both its director and the head of the state news agency Irna - which published the poll - to court.

The reformist-dominated national parliament, which commissioned the poll, has defended it and called for the prosecutions to be dropped.

According to the poll of 1,500 Iranians, conducted by three separate institutes including the National Institute for Research Studies and Opinion Polls (NIRSOP) and published by Irna on 22 September:

74% of respondents over the age of 15 support dialogue with the US 45.8% believe Washington's policy on Iran is "to some extent correct".

But the judiciary has responded by charging NIRSOP director Behrouz Geranpayeh and Irna's Abdollah Nasseri of "publishing lies to excite public opinion", the Iran newspaper reports.

Mr Nasseri has already appeared in court while Mr Geranpayeh's institute was sealed off by court officials on Monday as he faced his appearance.

'Valid poll'

The parliament, or Majlis, confirmed on Wednesday that it had commissioned the poll as part of a study of ties with the US.

Its presiding board sent a letter to the chief of the judiciary, Ayatollah Majmoud Hashemi-Shahroudi, demanding a halt to the prosecutions.

One MP, Ahmad Burqani, stressed that the poll had been conducted by three separate institutes.

"The fact that the results are similar shows they have been conducted correctly," he told Irna.

A spokesman for the government of reformist President Mohammed Khatami, Abdollah Ramazanzadeh, described NIRSOP as "one of the most credible" in Iran.

"It has done nothing wrong - it just carried out a poll that was ordered by parliament," he said.

Tensions have simmered for years in Islamic Iran between the conservative clergy led by spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the elected president.

Relations with the US are a particularly thorny issue after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 led to a dramatic split with Washington, typified by the Tehran hostage crisis.

The parliament called for a new dialogue with Washington earlier in the year after relations appeared to dip when President George W Bush ascribed Iran to a global "axis of evil".

Iranian artists in trouble over kiss Thursday, 3 October, 2002, 20:59 GMT 21:59 UK

Physical contact between unrelated men and women is banned A well-known Iranian actress has landed herself and an award-winning young film director in court, for kissing him on the forehead and shaking his hand in public.

Etemad newspaper reported that Gohar Kheirandish made her display of affection last week after Ali Zamani was chosen as best film maker at a film festival in the central city of Yazd.

The incident triggered protests in the Islamic republic, where any physical contact between unmarried and unrelated men and women is strictly forbidden.

The two have since apologised for their behaviour, insisting it was a spontaneous gesture.

"She kissed me like a mother kisses her child," Mr Zamani said.

But this did not prevent the head of the local justice department ordering their arrest for disturbing public morality.


Mr Zamani appeared in court on Wednesday but was released on bail of 20 million rials ($2,500).

Ms Kheirandish is reportedly returning to Yazd to face the charges.

Etemad said Mr Zamani, who is in his 20s, was a student of the middle-aged Ms Kheirandish's late husband.

Mohsen Talebpour, the local representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, organised protests against the pair and called for legal action.

Conservative newspapers also condemned them.

"Our enemies are trying to harm Islam through our culture and this event is an example of that fact," said an editorial in Ya Lessarat weekly.

Iranian cinema has received high acclaim in recent years at international festivals, but remains subject to restrictions and oppressive laws at home.

Film-maker Tahmineh Milani - known for her liberal, feminist views - was arrested last year for allegedly supporting counter-revolutionary groups.

Iran 'brothel' plan rejected Sunday, 28 July, 2002, 11:12 GMT 12:12 UK

Plan has run into trouble with women's groups

By Jim Muir BBC correspondent in Iran

A controversial plan to set up what are being denounced as licensed brothels in Iran has been rejected by official bodies.

The growing problem of prostitution in the country has been the subject of mounting concern, but this attempt to find an Islamic solution was not well received in some quarters.

The detailed plan for the establishment of what are being coyly referred to as "decency houses" was drawn up by the Interior Ministry's deputy for social affairs.

But according to senior police officials, the plan was rejected by the Ministry's own Social Council, having run into opposition from religious quarters and women's groups.

Medical services

The aim of the scheme was to arrange and regulate encounters between men and women who want to have sex but who, for one reason or another, are not ready for full marriage.

The idea was that people would sign up at a registration centre, then be referred to a health clinic for medical checks and a free contraceptive service.

An advisory centre would then pair them off, while another would issue a temporary marriage licence under which the man would pay an agreed sum.

The couple would then be directed to specific hotels or guest houses where they could consummate their arrangement without police harassment.

In fact, the police, the judiciary, and religious officials would be involved in the board of trustees running the scheme.

'Licensed prostitution'

The plan was discussed by senior officials and details were published in the press.

But women's groups and others reacted angrily, denouncing the scheme as little more than licensed prostitution.

"It's a euphemism for the official establishment of houses of corruption, the normalisation of illegitimate relations, and the destruction of the family," said the Women's Social and Cultural Council.

"If this plan had been approved, it would have been a stigma of shame on the forehead of the Islamic system," said Seyyed Reza Hosseini, acting Social Deputy of the Law Enforcement Forces, who had opposed the proposal.

But he appeared not to rule out submission of a revised scheme.

"In addressing or regulating the issue of street women all Islamic, legal and social aspects should be taken into account, and we would have to carry out expert studies," he said.

Growing problem

The plan was defended by Ashraf Borujerdi, Deputy for Social Affairs at the Interior Ministry, who helped draw it up.

"Some people believe that talking about such issues is taboo, but they are part of the reality of society, and turning a blind eye will not solve the problem," she said.

Given the furore it has raised, it seems unlikely that the plan will become reality, even if it is amended.

But its motivation was to address the serious problem of street prostitution, which is becoming increasingly common with the worsening economic and social conditions to which some of Iran's population are vulnerable.

Welfare officials say there are at least 300,000 prostitutes working in the country.

Drug abuse and crime are on the increase, and the number of girls running away from home is rising steadily.

Officials say nearly two million women are without homes, and one million lack any kind of social benefits.

'Social protest'

So the reasons for the rise in prostitution are clear - and they are not going to be easily eliminated.

Under Iran's Islamic system, it is possible to take out a temporary marriage licence - known as Sigheh - even for a few hours.

The device is used to cover casual transactions which in many societies would be regarded simply as prostitution.

The authorities have tried to clamp down on prostitution, but with little success.

In many cities, street women ply their trade undeterred.

Not all those entering the profession appear to do so out of desperation.

For some young women, chicly clad and carrying mobile phones, it appears to be a form of social protest.

Welfare officials are concerned that younger and younger girls are being drawn into the practice.

In April, a man convicted of murdering 16 prostitutes in the holy city of Mashhad was hanged.

And this month, it was announced that two members of the Iranian national football squad were given lashes after being caught in a brothel.

Khatami rejects 'dictatorship' claims Sunday, 20 October, 2002, 16:23 GMT 17:23 UK Khatami said threats would not stop his reforms Iran's reformist President Mohammad Khatami has hit back at his hard-line opponents, accusing them of being afraid of greater democracy and his programme of reforms.

Addressing the parliament, Mr Khatami rejected claims that his two recent bills were aimed at giving him dictatorial powers, saying instead that unelected institutions posed a greater threat to democracy.

"Only dictators fear democracy," Mr Khatami said to the applause of the reformist-dominated parliament.

"If we're going to be concerned about the formation of a dictatorship... those establishments which have the power of violating constitutional law and are not accountable, should be referred to."

The BBC's Jim Muir in Tehran says the bills - aimed at enhancing the president's powers and reforming election procedure - are seen as a last ditch attempt by the frustrated reformists to break through the obstructions raised by entrenched hardliners.

He says the proposed legislation is expected to pass easily through the parliament, but conservative Council of Guardians is equally expected to reject it, leading to a political crisis.

Important message

Mr Khatami ridiculed attacks in right wing circles and media that the proposed bills were dictatorial.

The president said he was struggling for democracy, while it was dictators and would-be dictators who feared the sovereignty of the people.

He said he had both the right and the duty to ensure compliance with the constitution, a power he is seeking in one of the bills currently under review.

"As an elected president who represents the will of the nation, I have responsibility to protect the constitution. I have no right to breach my promises and ignore my responsibilities in getting the constitution enforced."

He said the other bill was aimed at preventing people - a reference to the Council of Guardian - from imposing their personal tastes in the selection of election candidates.

The president said he was willing and even proud to put up with insults and criticism along the way.

But he stressed that his government would not be deflected by threats and pressures and would not put up with obstacles and delays.

Our correspondent says it was an important message of determination from Mr Khatami, at a time when some of his followers were talking about pulling out of the system because of the obstruction by the powerful hard-line minority.

Mr Khatami put the bills to the parliament last month and they are expected to be debated in the coming days.

Sunday, 9 June, 2002, 20:18 GMT 21:18 UK Iranian watchdog rejects torture bill

Khamenei appoints most of the Guardian Council Iran's conservative constitutional watchdog has rejected a parliamentary bill banning torture to obtain prisoner confessions, according to press reports.

The Guardian Council, a 12-member body, rejected the bill as unconstitutional and contrary to Islamic sharia law.

The bill sought to outlaw the use of torture in all forms - physical and psychological - as well as solitary confinement and night-time interrogations, Iranian newspapers said.

The reformist-dominated parliament, which is keen to promote the rule of law and protect individual and political freedoms, passed the bill last month.

Iran's constitution already prohibits torture, but families of pro-reform detainees have complained of suffering physical and psychological torture by judicial officials during detention.

The bill sought to define specific cases of torture and protect detainees' rights.

"The approval of the bill by parliament does not mean there is torture in the country, but deputies want to bring transparency to the present law," said reformist parliamentarian Ali Tajernia.

But he added that "the Guardian Council has been generally against bringing up the torture issue and establishing a law in this regard".

Power struggle

The Guardian Council is made up of six clerics appointed by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and six lawyers selected by parliament from a list submitted by the head of judiciary, himself appointed by the ayatollah.

If parliament does not make the changes demanded by the Guardian Council, the bill will go to the Expediency Council for a final decision.

Mr Khamenei also chooses the Expediency Council's members, who tend to be pro-conservative.

Reformists complain that unelected hardline bodies such as the Guardian Council have thwarted practically all bills passed by the elected parliament in a bid to undermine reforms pursued by President Mohammad Khatami.

Mr Khamenei is locked in a power struggle in Iran with President Khatami.