Iran has reason to be hopeful and Western business interests have cause for concern as the five Caspian Basin states gear up for a critical conference that aims to create a framework for the division of the sea's natural resources.
Azerbajani President Heidar Aliyev on March 12 began a state visit to Turkey. The same day, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami was wrapping up a landmark summit meeting in Moscow with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. The travels of these two key Caspian region leaders indicate that the competition over the region's vast oil and gas resources is kicking into high gear.
Evin prison, the sprawling complex nestled at the foothills of the quiet, brown Zagros mountains in north Tehran, recently admitted a group of high-profile inmates. The inmates - leading reformist journalists and pro-democracy activists -- have turned the prison into a critical base for Iran's faltering reform movement.
One jail cell, measuring 12 square meters, houses four of the most popular (and in the eyes of Iran's conservatives, most dangerous) reformist journalists. Akbar Ganji, the popular investigative journalist, is there. As is Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, the soft-spoken, Islamist pro-democracy editor and Latif Safari, the chest-thumping publisher of several shut-down reformist newspapers.
When a political shift in Tehran placed a reform-minded cleric at the head of the Islamic Republic, the United States eased sanctions, toned down official rhetoric, and offered the coolest of overtures to its erstwhile enemy. This diplomatic thaw has helped to dispel many of the erroneous stereotypes propagated by the respective governments. Yet fundamental barriers still remain.
Ahmad Hojatzadeh, a 28 year-old engineer, was an enthusiastic supporter of Mohammad Khatami in Iran's presidential elections nearly four years ago. Like millions of Iranians, Hojatzadeh was captivated by the moderate cleric who spoke of democracy and freedom and challenged the conservative status quo.
Tajikistan's five-year civil war also has eroded security in Central Asia. The country's eastern provinces have served as a staging area for opposition forces and international terrorist organizations such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).
Ganji, with his fearless reporting and vocal criticism of Iran's powerful conservatives, has become a leading voice in Iran's nascent pro-democracy movement. He is widely believed to have eclipsed in popularity all other reformist figures, including President Mohammad Khatami, who calls for a more cautious approach.
With his bright, dancing eyes and easy smile, Akbar Ganji does not look like a man holding dark secrets of political assassination and government-sponsored violence. The 40 year-old journalist, however, has spent the last few months in jail for exposing some of those secrets.
The Iran Air flight to Damascus was fully loaded and prepared for take-off from Tehran's Mehrabad International Airport. In the front half of the plane, elderly pilgrims headed to a famous Shia Muslim shrine in Damascus were urged by their tour leader to say a group prayer. "Peace and blessings to Mohammad and the family of Mohammad," the tour group responded appropriately.