Who's calling the shots in Iran?

March 31, 2007 

It is not yet clear who ordered the arrest of 15 British sailors in the Persian Gulf, or what their motives were. But Tehran has shown it does not fear raising the stakes in its war of nerves with the West, writes Ramita Navai

As Iran judders towards confrontation with the West, at a time when it is already embroiled in an escalating nuclear crisis, there seems to be confusion behind the scenes.

On Thursday, Tehran withdrew an earlier offer to release leading seaman Faye Turney, the only woman of the 15 sailors and marines captured on a routine patrol in the Persian Gulf.

And while Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki recently said, "Iran welcomes any constructive suggestions to solve the issue bilaterally", he has also been quoted as saying Britain was "trying to politicise and make propaganda out of the issue, and such behaviour is not acceptable".

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'If nothing changes here, people are going to give up. Then they will die'

Ramita Navai
in Muzaffarabad 

November 21, 2005 

A thick, white cloud rises from the grounds of the Old University camp in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-Kashmir that was devastated by the earthquake that killed more than 86,000 people.

More than 2,000 survivors are crammed into the old sports stadium of the university, which has been reduced to towering mounds of crumbling rubble. Clusters of survivors huddle around small fires desperately warming themselves as the bitter cold night descends. They have run out of bits of wood to burn and so now they burn rubbish.

A potent mix of raw sewage, urine, sickness and the toxic fumes of burning plastic stings the eyes and burns the nose. There are no toilets here, only holes in the ground. With a recent outbreak of over 400 cases of acute watery diahoorea, a virulent condition that can be seen as a precursor to cholera, the residents have been reduced to defecating along the camp walls.

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Now the cold takes its toll on a people clinging to life

Villagers who survived the Kashmir earthquake now fear they are caught in a death-trap, writes Ramita Navai

November 17, 2005

The village elders had walked for miles, over mountains and across rivers from hamlets and villages scattered across the remote Lipa Valley in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, to make an appeal to a visiting UN delegation.

"We are part of humanity. We are part of the civilised world. We are not animals. We need help," said Sayeed in perfect English, clutching a scrap of paper on which he had noted their requests. It was a short list, but one that means the difference between life and death: tents, food, medical aid.

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Race against time for survivors as Himalayan winter looms

Ramita Navai
in Muzaffarabad

November 10, 2005 

Pakistan: The pungent smell of rotting bodies hangs thick in the air in Medina Market in the centre of Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani Kashmir, writes Ramita Navai in Muzaffarabad

"I know there's a family under there," says Nadim Mir holding a scarf over his nose to block out the stench. "But what can we do? We need bulldozers - we can't do this with our bare hands."

Muzaffarabad, in the lush Khaghan Valley, was razed in the October 8th earthquake that killed over 73,000 people. All that remains now is a tangle of destruction. Mounds of rubble, twisted metal, crumbled bricks and broken glass have turned the city into a shapeless mass with few navigable roads.

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Iran defies West by resuming nuclear activity

The Irish Times

August 9, 2005 | Ramita Navai in Tehran 

IRAN: Iran has resumed nuclear fuel work at a uranium conversion plant near the central city of Esfahan, putting it on a collision course with the West.

The move is likely to result in Iran being hauled in front of the UN security council and face possible sanctions.

"The uranium conversion facility in Esfahan has started its activities under supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency," Mohammad Saeedi, deputy head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation, told reporters at the plant.

The announcement came after UN inspectors finished installing surveillance equipment at the plant.

The EU, represented by Britain, France and Germany, had already called an emergency meeting of the IAEA board for today, during which an ultimatum demanding a suspension of nuclear fuel work is expected.

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Nuclear plan to stay, says Iran's new president

June 27, 2005 | Ramita Navai in Tehran

Iran: Iran's hardline president-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will not give up his country's nuclear programme, but will continue negotiations with European countries to find a peaceful solution to the crisis, he said yesterday.

The Tehran mayor won a landslide victory in Friday's second round poll against former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

"We need this technology for energy and medical purposes. We shall carry on with it," he said in his first press conference since winning the election. The diminutive politician, who coasted to an unexpected victory promising to redress social injustice and fight corruption, said he would not prioritise relations with the US.

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World awaits Ahmadinejad's first move

Post-election some analysts now believe Iran is just one step closer to a dictatorship, writes Ramita Navai in Tehran

June 29, 2005 

IRAN: The apprehension is beginning to show. As news of the landslide victory of Iran's new president, ultra-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, over moderate cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani broke, Iran's fledgling stock market saw its shares plummet.

It is not just investors and rich high society who are feeling nervous. The major players in world politics are also distinctly uneasy.

US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Mr Ahmadinejad is "no friend of democracy . . . no friend of freedom". The EU has expressed concerns, as has Tony Blair and Israeli deputy prime minister, Shimon Peres.

Who can blame them? His revolutionary credentials are glowing. He trained Basij Islamic militia, was a member of the prestigious Special Forces unit of the Revolutionary Guard, where he was rumoured to have carried out covert operations in Iraq during the war, and he was part of the US embassy siege in 1979.

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Iran appoints new president as West fears future nuclear policy

The Irish Times

August 4, 2005 | Ramita Navai Tehran 

Iran: Ultra-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president yesterday, taking power as Iran edged closer to an international crisis over its nuclear ambitions.

In his first address as president, the former mayor and revolutionary guard pledged to fight for justice and prosperity for Iranians and also called for an end to weapons of mass destruction.

After officially appointing Mr Ahmadinejad president, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, delivered a strong anti- western speech ordering the new government not to give up "the rights of the nation". It was welcomed with chants of "Death to America! Death to Israel!"

Within hours of Mr Ahmadinejad's appointment, Tehran announced it would start work at a uranium conversion plant near the central city of Esfahan, defying yet another appeal from the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran does not resume its nuclear activities until next week.

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Shaken and stirred at Kabul's first cocktail bar
Letter from Kabul
Ramita Navai 

February 15, 2005 

Letter from Kabul: A pretty blonde woman wrapped in a beige pashmina sips a margarita at the bar. Perched on a tall aluminium stool she nods her head in time to the music as a barman rattles a silver cocktail shaker, sending flickers of reflected light streaming across the turquoise walls. Outside tanks roll through the city's dusty, narrow streets shaking crumbling, bullet-holed walls, still standing after 25 years of bloody war. Welcome to Kabul.

With over 1,000 aid agencies in Afghanistan and 10,000 troops in Kabul alone, two brothers from Cornwall spotted a gap in the market and a potential goldmine - after a hard day's slog in a city with some of the most challenging working conditions in the world, there were a hell of a lot of westerners in need of a stiff drink. And so Kabul's first cocktail bar was born. 

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Bush policy aids Iranian hardliners

IRAN: US pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme is reinforcing hardliners rather than encouraging reformers, Ramita Navai reports from Tehran

January 26, 2005 

Since President Bush's axis-of-evil speech in February 2002, Washington hawks have been vocal about the issue of Iran, culminating in charges last week that American special forces are covertly operating in the country and Condoleezza Rice's public commitment to get tough on its nuclear programme, which the US says is a cover for developing the bomb.

British Foreign Secretary Mr Jack Straw was dispatched to Washington, producing a substantial dossier arguing a peaceful solution led by Britain, France and Germany "in the best interests of Iran and the international community".

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Banning of the hookah keeps social life under tight control
Letter from Tehran
Ramita Navai

July 1, 2004 | RAMITA NAVAI 

Wafting out of chai houses from the slums of south Tehran to the glamorous restaurants nestled in the hills of north Tehran, the heady, rich aroma of the hubble bubble hangs like a cloud in the hot summer air. This is cafe culture Iranian style - soon to banned by hardline conservatives.

Obligatory with a glass of black, bitter tea and a requisite way of ending a meal, smoking the hubble bubble, or the qalyoun as it is known in Iran, is serious business, entrenched in Iranian culture for centuries.

Travel guide Lonely Planet advises its readers that smoking the pipe is "the greatest act of cultural integration that a foreigner can make in Iran, short of converting to Shi'ite Islam".

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