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News Reports - Iran

September 19, 2000

U.S. Asks Putin Not to Sell Iran a Laser System


The United States has been pressing Russia not to proceed with plans to sell Iran laser technology that Washington says can be used to make fuel for nuclear weapons, according to administration officials.

Officials said that since July President Clinton has raised the prospective sale of laser technology at least two times in meetings with President Vladimir V. Putin. The most recent occurred this month at the United Nations summit meeting.

Mr. Putin assured Mr. Clinton then that Russia would work with Washington to resolve the dispute, officials with knowledge of the discussions said. American officials said they were encouraged by that pledge.

But they also called the response ambiguous, because Russian and American technical advisers disagreed with each other over whether the equipment could help Iran in what Washington contends is a secret program to acquire nuclear bombs.

The administration officials said that Russian sales of nuclear technology to Iran had been a longstanding concern, but that the administration grew particularly worried about the laser equipment after an American private fuel provider abandoned the product, deciding that it was not economically competitive in a civilian nuclear program. And given America's own troubles in trying to develop a cost-efficient laser technology, the United States is said to believe that Iran was more likely to want to make weapons than to develop commercial plants. The United States apparently believes that the technology is too expensive for refining nuclear fuel for commercial uses and is mostly suited to producing fissionable material for bombs. As a result, the United States has been working for three months to dissuade Russia from letting a center associated with the D. V. Efremov Institute of St. Petersburg, part of the Atomic Energy Ministry, from proceeding with a contract to sell the technology to Iran.

Mr. Clinton raised the prospective deal with Mr. Putin in July in private talks at a Group of 8 meeting in Japan. The contract has also been raised by Vice President Al Gore and Samuel R. Berger, the national security adviser, with their counterparts.

Officials said the issue was also scheduled to be discussed over the weekend by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who met on Sunday with the Russian atomic energy minister, Yevgeny O. Adamov, at a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency. That organization helps states that rule out nuclear weapons and monitors their civilian nuclear centers to ensure that they are not being used for military purposes.

American allegations that Russia provides critical technology to Iran has roiled their relations for years. American intelligence agencies have long believed that Iran has a secret program to develop nuclear weapons, as well as biological and chemical weapons, dating from the rule of Shah Mohammed Riza Pahlevi, which ended with the 1979 revolution. Given its ample oil and gas resources, Iran's desire to generate electricity with nuclear power, the analysts argued, was automatically seen as suspicious.

Russian nuclear contacts with Tehran have expanded since 1995, when cash-strapped Moscow signed a contract with Iran to complete the Bushehr nuclear power station, which its German builders abandoned in 1979, at the onset of the revolution. Despite pressure by the Clinton administration and sanctions by Congress, which halved foreign aid to Russia's central government in the last two years, Russia has refused to abandon the project.

American officials reportedly do not regard Bushehr as a source of nuclear material that could be diverted to a bomb-making program. But the administration apparently fears that the project will train an entire generation of Iranian physicists and engineers in nuclear technologies, thus enhancing the nuclear scientific base, including any program to develop nuclear weapons.

Russian and Iranian officials argue that Iran has ruled out nuclear weapons and has put the Bushehr plant under the international agency's rules and safeguards.

Russia has refused to forgo revenue from Bushehr and future reactor sales, each of which could run up to $1 billion. But former President Boris N. Yeltsin pledged not to expand nuclear cooperation with Iran beyond Bushehr, which plans up to four reactor and turbine units.

Last spring, however, the United States learned that the Science and Technology Center of Microtechnology, a unit of the Efremov Institute, had signed a contract to provide the laser equipment to Iran. Separating isotopes is costly, intensive in time and energy and essential to making nuclear bombs or fuel for light water civilian reactors to generate electrical power.

To make a nuclear bomb or reactor fuel, uranium 235, whose atoms are used in chain reactions, has to be separated from the dominant uranium 238 isotope. The United States uses gaseous diffusion. Some Europeans and Russia use centrifuge technology to separate the U-235 from U-238, which is not good for making weapons.

The United States has developed at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory a third method, laser isotope separation, that can be used to separate fissile isotopes from both uranium and plutonium, both of which can be used in nuclear bombs.

The United States also had an extensive program to develop the laser isotope separation technology, known as Atomic Vapor Laser Isotope Separation, or Avlis, for commercial purposes. It hoped that Avlis reactor fuel could be enriched with one-tenth as much electricity, a boon to the nuclear power industry.

But after having invested almost $2 billion in the technology, the United States Enrichment Corporation, America's privatized nuclear fuel provider, abandoned the technology last year, saying the method was too expensive to commercialize and would probably always be so.

With that experience, Washington reacted with alarm to intelligence reports from multiple sources indicating that Iran was trying to buy such technology from Russia.

That is only the latest point of tension between Russia and the United States in terms of Iran.

In February, Russia promised to stop making plutonium out of fuel from its civilian power reactors as part of a $100 million joint research and aid package from Washington. The administration put a condition on the part of the package most attractive to Moscow, namely the $25 million for joint research into new reactors. Washington insisted that Russia had to stop all new sales and transfers of nuclear technology to Iran that could be used in a nuclear weapons program.

But Mr. Adamov, the atomic energy minister, has said since then that Russia would not stop competing to sell light water power reactors to Iran.

The Russian Foreign Ministry declined to comment today on the dispute. A spokesman for Mr. Adamov said he was traveling and could not answer questions.

A spokesman for the Iranian mission to the United Nations said Iran's cooperation with Russia posed "no threat of proliferation." Iran "does not seek a nuclear weapon and has exercised utmost transparency with regard to its program," he said.

But the spokesman added, "We do not accept any country's deciding in an arbitrary manner what type of peaceful technology we can or cannot have."

As a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran was "entitled" to technology "for peaceful purposes," the spokesman said.

"If the U.S. has any complaints," he added, "the proper forum is the I.A.E.A."

Administration officials said Washington and Moscow would continue talks. Otherwise Washington could decide to reduce the more than $250 million a year that the Energy Department gives Russia to support its hard-pressed nuclear sector and secure its arsenal from theft and accident.


October 4, 2000

Love Finds a Way in Iran: 'Temporary Marriage'


A dossier with the records of temporary marriages. The photo was taken from the records of a marriage registrar office in Tehran. The two big X's show that the time of marriage has expired.

TEHRAN, Iran — For five years, Maryam, the hairdresser, and Karim, the home appliance salesman, carried on a love affair, meeting secretly at the house where Karim lived with his parents. The young couple's relationship was officially sanctioned by Iran's Islamic Republic, even though unmarried couples who have sex or even date and hold hands can be arrested, fined, even flogged. That is because Maryam and Karim were married.

Sort of.

They had a valid contract of temporary marriage.

Iran is a country where rules are fluid, where people of all classes and degrees of religiosity pride themselves on finding loopholes in the Islamic system. Temporary marriage, or sigheh, is one of the oddest and biggest.

The practice of temporary marriage is said to have existed during the lifetime of Muhammad, who is believed to have recommended it to his companions and soldiers. The majority Sunni sect in Islam banned it; the minority Shiite sect did not. Historically, the practice was used most frequently in Iran by pilgrims in Shiite shrine cities like Meshed and Qum. Pilgrims who traveled had sexual needs, the argument went. Temporary marriage was a legal way to satisfy them.


A dossier with the records of temporary marriages. The photo was taken from the records of a marriage registrar office in Tehran. The two big X's show that the time of marriage has expired.

Maryam and Karim chose temporary marriage for a practical reason. "We went out a lot together, and I didn't want to get into trouble," Maryam, 31, said. "We wanted to have documents so that if we were stopped on the street we could prove we weren't doing anything illegal."

Their "marriage" ritual was simple. Even though they could have sealed the contract privately, they went to a cleric in a marriage registry office in Tehran with their photographs and identity papers. Maryam had been forced into a loveless marriage at 15 to an opium-smoking, womanizing factory owner nearly two decades her senior who divorced her nine years later; so she brought along her divorce decree. If she had been a virgin, she would have needed her father's permission to marry.

The couple could have gotten married for as short a time as a few minutes or as long as 99 years. They could have specified whether and how much money Maryam would be paid as a kind of dowry, or how much time they would spend together. Instead, they decided on a straightforward contract of six months, which they renewed again and again.

What was unusual about Maryam's situation was her willingness to talk about it. Despite its religious imprimatur, temporary marriage has never been very popular in Iran. Tradition dictates that women be virgins when they marry; even when they're not, they should pretend to be. Many Iranians regard sigheh as little more than legalized prostitution, especially since it is an advertisement that a woman is not a virgin. In some circles, even illicit sex is considered better — as long as it can be kept secret.

But now an odd mix of feminists, clerics and officials have begun to discuss sigheh as a possible solution to the problems of Iran's youth. An extraordinarily large number of young people (about 65 percent of the population is under 25), combined with high unemployment, means that more couples are putting off marriage because they cannot afford it. Sigheh legally wraps premarital sex in an Islamic cloak.

"First, relations between young men and women will become a little bit freer," said Shahla Sherkat, editor of Zanan, a feminist monthly."Second, they can satisfy their sexual needs. Third, sex will become depoliticized. Fourth, they will use up some of the energy they are putting into street demonstrations. Finally, our society's obsession with virginity will disappear."

Even conservatives like Muhammad Javad Larijani, a Berkeley-educated former legislator, favor temporary marriage. As Mr. Larijani put it: "What's wrong with temporary marriage? You've got a variation of it in California. It's called a partnership. Better to have it legal than have it done clandestinely in the streets."

Though most of Iran's reformist publications have closed in recent months, newspapers and magazines that remain have begun to discuss the issue. A recent front-page article in a weekly tabloid, "World of Medicine," about a chador-wearing, AIDS-infected prostitute who took pleasure in infecting her clients included a recommendation on avoiding infection: take a temporary wife.

Advocates of temporary marriage also point out that children of such unions are legitimate and entitled to a share of the father's inheritance.

More rarely, unrelated couples have used nonsexual "temporary marriage" in order to live or work in close quarters.

But the popular response to such a sweeping societal solution has not been favorable. After "The Hope of Youth," a weekly, ran an article in favor of sigheh, readers called and wrote in with scathing attacks.

"I am 23 years old," one unnamed young man told the paper. "If I temporarily marry a young woman for three years and then divorce her, would anyone be willing to marry her? It would be impossible that any man would want to have a family with this woman."

Another unidentified caller was quoted as saying: "Those who want to promote temporary marriage don't understand that they would be promoting prostitution. Who would be there to be a father for the children from temporary marriage?"

The paper wrote back: "The reality is that young men and women do have sexual relationships. If these relationships are defined within an Islamic framework, we will not have the danger of prostitution."

As for what to do about children of temporary marriages, the editor added, "It is not so complicated to use birth control anymore."

This is not the first time that people in the Islamic Republic have tried to promote sigheh. The first person to discuss it openly was none other than Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani when he was president. In a sermon in 1990, he called sexual desire a God-given trait. Don't be "promiscuous like the Westerners," he advocated, but use the God-given solution of temporary marriage.

That sermon brought thousands of protesters to Parliament, in part because a married man can have as many temporary wives as he wants, and up to four permanent ones, and can break the contract anytime he wants, whereas women cannot. Many secular Iranians are irked by what they perceive to be the hypocrisy of clerics, who have made ample use of temporary marriage over the years but are adamantly opposed to premarital or extramarital sex.

Clerics seldom talk about their experiences. But in the book "Law of Desire," Shahla Haeri, a Boston University cultural anthropologist and granddaughter of an ayatollah, cited interviews with clerics.

One proclaimed that because God banned alcohol, he allowed temporary marriage.

Ms. Haeri, who lectured on the subject in Iran, said that neither the clerics nor leading thinkers had begun to analyze its implications in a coherent way. "If they are really serious," she said, "they should study the matter in the context of sexuality, birth control, sexually transmitted diseases, morality, religion and gender relations."

But what of Maryam and Karim?

He gave her clothes and a little money from time to time during their "marriage," but not the gold coin he had promised her with each renewal of their contract. He told her she was beautiful, something her husband had never done. She cleaned his house occasionally and even met his brothers. He met her mother — who, twice divorced, had married (permanently) for the third time. They kept their temporary marriage a secret, even from her.

"She knew that I was with a man," Maryam said, "but would have preferred I was with him illegally than his sigheh."

In fact, Maryam and Karim are not the couple's real names. Maryam remains so ambivalent about what she did that she asked that not even their first names be used.

In the fifth year of their relationship, Karim began to call less frequently. Maryam went to a fortuneteller, who told her that Karim was to be married. When she confronted him, he said that it was over. After their contract ran out, he married a virgin chosen by his parents.

Because of her divorce, she said, "he told me right from the start that he couldn't marry me permanently. But he treated me so nicely that I thought things would change."

Maryam was so much in love that she even offered — half jokingly — to become Karim's temporary wife again after he was permanently married. He refused.

"I think sigheh is good, very good," she said, but added that she would not do it again. "I want to get married permanently now, as soon as possible."

Last Updated: 8/12/16