TEHRAN, 13 Jan 2006 (IRIN) - During 2005, Iran was on a rollercoaster ride of earthquakes, disasters, major political reshuffles and high-profile human rights cases. And all of this overshadowed by an escalating nuclear crisis and a new Islamic fundamentalist president.
Winning 62 percent of the vote in a second round presidential run-off poll, the victory of ultra-conservative former Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the June presidential elections marked the resurgence of the conservatives and was the end of an era of reformists in power. With a return to revolutionary values, and promising economic reform and an end to corruption, Ahmadinejad's shock win highlighted the stark class divides in Iran.
Human rights were again a major issue of concern for international human rights organisations. Iran's most famous political prisoner, journalist Akbar Ganji, was under the spotlight for much of the year.
Jailed in 2001 on a variety of charges, some relating to an article he wrote that linked some of the country's top officials to the 1998 murder of dissident intellectuals, he was temporarily released from prison in May for medical care when he came to the end of a 43-day hunger strike. However, he resumed his hunger strike and there were periodic reports that he was near death.
His struggle earned him cult status in Iran and he has become a symbol of resistance for Iran's embattled reformists. His case drew international condemnation, with US President George W Bush calling for his release.
The Nobel laureate and human rights lawyer, Shirin Ebadi, who represents Ganji and the family of Zahra Kazemi, the Canadian photojournalist who was killed while in custody in 2002, complained that Ganji has been banned from meeting his family.
A report from Ebadi's Defenders of Human Rights Centre based in Tehran, protested at human rights violations in Iran, including arbitrary arrests and detention of activists and journalists. The report also named activists arrested in Iran's western Kurdish province, which was blighted by a number of ethnic clashes in 2005.
"Prosecution of activists and journalists in incompetent courts has not stopped but increased, leading to very long jail sentences in Tehran and Kurdistan," stated the report.
In December, the European Union (EU) condemned Iran for continued human rights abuses and for banning political and women's rights Internet sites. Iran reacted by calling the EU rights resolutions "politically motivated" and said it would stop its human rights dialogue with the EU.
However, in 2005 Iran's judiciary released an unprecedented report admitting human rights abuses in the country's prisons were widespread, saying that prisoners faced torture, solitary confinement, unwarranted arrest and possibly sexual harassment when detained by Iran's judiciary, military and police.
Other high-profile human rights cases included the arrest of Abdolfattah Soltani - a human rights lawyer and part of Ganji's counsel - and the arrest of students Mojtaba Saminejad and Afshin Zareh after making political statements on their Internet blog sites. A number of death sentences were passed and two teenagers were executed for the alleged rape of a 13-year-old boy.
During the course of the year, the country was rocked by two earthquakes. More than 600 people perishing in the city of Zarand in February when a quake measuring 6.4 on the Richter scale injured over 1,400 people. Some 24,000 families were affected by the quake, which razed at least two villages and, according to some reports, destroyed some 8,000 homes. The Iranian Red Crescent Society (IRCS) said that 12,500 people were left homeless.
At least 10 people died and over 90 were injured when an earthquake measuring 5.9 on the Richter scale struck the Persian Gulf island of Qeshm in southern Iran in mid-December. Between 50 to 90 percent of some 12 villages were destroyed in the quake, which affected 2,000 people. Iranian authorities acted swiftly, deploying the military and the IRCS.
Another disaster struck in December when over 100 people - 68 of them journalists - were killed when a military plane smashed into a 10-storey apartment block in a densely populated residential district in southwest Tehran. The C-130 plane was reported to have had technical problems. Civil and military aircraft in Iran have a poor safety record and many officials blamed the crash on a lack of aviation spare parts due to US sanctions.
Last year, 67,000 Afghans were repatriated from Iran to Afghanistan assisted by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which was a lower figure than had been predicted. Crackdowns on Afghans continued, with the director-general of the Iranian interior ministry's Bureau of Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs (BAFIA) announcing stricter limitations on Afghans living in Iran.
Ahmad Hosseini said Afghans would no longer be allowed to settle in parts of several provinces and that police would also be permitted to arrest and hold any Afghan attempting to settle in these provinces, stating regional security issues for these latest restrictions. More benefits to Afghans were also cut in 2005 and UNHCR cut education assistance to Afghans in Iran and reduced assistance towards healthcare as part of a strategy to induce increased repatriation. School fees are now compulsory for all Afghan children who must pay the same rate as Iranians.
The government took a giant leap forward in tackling HIV/AIDS in the country, which has been a taboo subject for many years, by launching a massive campaign alongside the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and UNAIDS. Aimed at focusing attention on the impact of HIV/AIDS on children and young people, Iran's national broadcaster, IRIB, televised public announcements on its popular sports channel.
During the past year, Iran has been under international scrutiny over its nuclear programme, which the West says is a smokescreen for developing an atomic bomb. Tehran denies this, saying it needs nuclear energy for peaceful fuel purposes, stating that it has one of the highest electricity growth rates in the world. Playing a cat-and-mouse game with the EU with their negotiating tactics, at several points during the year Iran looked close to being hauled before the UN Security Council and facing possible sanctions over resuming parts of its nuclear programme that it had agreed to suspend.
The Year Ahead
With holocaust denials and calls to wipe Israel off the map, all at a time when the country's nuclear programme is causing international concern, Ahmadinejad appears to be edging Iran towards further international isolation. The country's human rights abuses have also provoked international condemnation and the EU has warned that Iran must address its human rights record if relations between the two are to improve.
Ahamdinejad has so far failed to deliver on his pledges of economic reform. He has already withdrawn his plans for a 'love-fund' that attracted young voters with promises of a lump sum and interest-free loans for newly married couples. He has still not unveiled any long-term economic reform plans.
Some analysts say that his victory, which gave conservatives control of Iran's two highest elected offices - the presidency and parliament - means that such a strong concentration of conservative strength at the top could ultimately bring Iran closer to a dictatorship.
High unemployment - unofficially between 15 and 25 percent - looks set to continue in 2006 and the country's increasing drug problems will remain a serious issue, with heroin abuse on the rise.
Riddled with fault lines, Iran is one of the world's most earthquake-prone countries and experts say on average there's a small earthquake every day. But Iran has developed an effective emergency response programme headed by the IRCS.
Some analysts say that the biggest threat to Iran's security, and even regional stability, in 2006 will be Iran's nuclear programme. So far the 35-strong board of the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) is split between countries that are against punitive measures against Iran and countries led by the US who are demanding action. If Iran continues to ignore international pressure the balance of the factions may change.
Iran escalated its nuclear standoff with the West on 10 January when it began removing UN seals on equipment used to enrich uranium, a process of purifying it for use as fuel in nuclear power plants or, when very highly enriched, in bombs.
Despite lack of infrastructure and jobs in Afghanistan, Tehran's new policies designed to encourage Afghans to return will result in a continued stream of returnees leaving Iran in 2006.
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