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Iran Report: January 10, 2005

10 January 2005, Volume 8, Number 2

GOODS SMUGGLING HIGHLIGHTS ECONOMIC PROBLEMS IN IRAN. The chief of Iran's national police force, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, said on 2 January that the problem of smuggling is mounting in the country, according to Radio Farda.

Iran's confrontation with narcotics smuggling is well-known, but Qalibaf, who heads Iran's headquarters against contraband and currency smuggling, was referring to more common items, such as automobiles, household equipment, and computer parts, as well as tea and cigarettes. He said the total value of smuggled goods is $5.5 billion-$6 billion annually and that up to 80 percent of these goods enter the country through unregistered ports and jetties in the Persian Gulf. Qalibaf attributed the prevalence of smuggling in Iran to the country's overall economic situation.

Qalibaf identified some solutions to the country's economic problems in the 9 September "Sharq." First, he said, the large state enterprises and parastatal foundations that dominate the economy must have greater coordination. Second, he added, tariffs and other trade barriers must be reevaluated. Qalibaf noted that public needs are not met by overpriced, low-quality domestic goods. Imports should fill the gap between domestic demand and domestic supply, he said, and if the tariffs do not allow sufficient imports then there will be smuggling. This will only worsen the situation and undercut domestic production further. Qalibaf went on to say, according to "Sharq," that domestic producers need more government support, and he added that the current situation creates incentives for merchants to import goods. Qalibaf criticized Dubai for not observing international trade regulations and said the Iranian government is pursuing this issue.

In his 9 September interview with "Sharq," Qalibaf denied that any state enterprises are involved with smuggling. Accusations of this, he said, are related to factional and political disputes.

The case of smuggling at Payam Airport, which is south of Karaj, suggests otherwise. In that case, according to Radio Farda, some customs officials were implicated.

An individual identified only by the initials "A.T." arranged for four or five flights a day and up to eight flights on holidays to transport goods from other countries to Payam Airport, judicial official Hamid Reza Movahedi said on 27 October, "Toseh" reported the next day. Most of the goods allegedly came via Dubai, and the accused used illegal connections and paid bribes to bypass normal administrative and customs procedures. Accomplices in the Customs Department reportedly helped the main defendant falsify claims, get bills of lading that understated the amount and value of goods, and operate outside of normal business hours. Movahedi went on to say that the main defendant imported more than 300 tons of goods over two years, but he did not know the exact value of everything.

The main defendant, A.T., was arrested after an investigation by the Intelligence and Security Ministry, the Customs Department, and the judiciary's intelligence unit, judicial official Movahedi said, according to "Toseh." Twelve people were arrested initially, although some were released after posting bail. The authorities seized an 18-ton shipment that arrived at Payam Airport after the arrests.

This was not the main defendant's first run-in with the law, but his financial power is believed to have protected him in the past. "The first time he was fined more than 1 billion tomans [$1.265 million], it took him less than five minutes to deposit the fine," police chief Qalibaf said, "Sharq" reported.

The names of the smugglers were turned over to the judiciary on 14 December, state television reported. Presumably this indicates that preparation of a court case against them could begin. At a 14 December ceremony at Payam Airport, however, Information and Communications Technology Minister Ahmad Motamedi rejected allegations that airport employees were involved in smuggling, "Etemad" reported on 15 December.

Judiciary spokesman Jamal Karimirad threw cold water on Motamedi's denial of official involvement in smuggling at Payam Airport. Karimirad said 20 people are being detained, including the head of southern Tehran customs, ILNA reported on 4 January. The Sony company's warehouse at the airport has been sealed, he said, and 10 customs experts are analyzing the related documentation.

This is not the first corruption case in Iran, and the presumption of innocence applies, of course. Nevertheless, the apparent smuggling at Payam Airport serves as a case study of the problems that can emerge in a country with a state-run economy and an administrative system that depends more on personal connections than on justice and the rule of law. Earlier corruption cases, such as the ones involving Shahram Jazayeri and various "aghazadehs," or officials' offspring (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 25 November 2002 and 4 October and 1 November 2004), attracted more attention because they were used in factional infighting. It is doubtful the Payam Airport case will receive as much attention. (Bill Samii)

ABTAHI TO APPEAR IN CLERICAL COURT. Presidential adviser Hojatoleslam Mohammad Ali Abtahi, who until October was the vice president for legal and parliamentary affairs, may have to appear before the Special Court for the Clergy soon, ILNA reported. The prosecutor-general, police, and private citizens have filed complaints against for what they allege are falsehoods that appeared on his web log (

Abtahi recently wrote that he met for three hours with bloggers who were released from prison. They described beatings, humiliating questions about their sexual habits and relationships, solitary confinement, and lack of access to lawyers. The bloggers told Abtahi they were forced to write confessions that were similar to the "Spider Web" editorial in "Kayhan" (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 25 October 2004). Their interrogators promised that they would be released after newspapers published these confessions.

In a 2 January update, Abtahi wrote that access to his blog was blocked after he wrote about this meeting. (Bill Samii)

GUARDIANS COUNCIL CALLS FOR OFFICIALS' NEUTRALITY. Guardians Council spokesman Gholam Hussein Elham said on 1 January that no governmental entity has the right to oppose or support a candidate for the 17 June presidential election, Mehr News Agency reported. Elham emphasized the need for neutrality on the part of state radio and television (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, IRIB) and parliamentarians. IRIB is routinely criticized for its hostility to reformist candidates and its biased election coverage.

This official call for impartiality is ironic, because Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati is a leader in the conservative Coordination Council of the Islamic Revolution Forces, a body that is trying to determine which candidate it will back. An even greater irony is that the Guardians Council vets prospective candidates for elected office. (Bill Samii)

CONSERVATIVE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE DEFENDS HIS RECORD. Ali Larijani, who recently declared his intention to run in the June presidential election, defended his record as head of the state radio and television organization Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) during a 3 January interview, "Etemad" reported on 4 January. Responding to a question about the amount of airtime given to President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, Larijani said many of his speeches were broadcast live and he received more news coverage than his predecessor, Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, a former president who is reportedly considering his own bid to return to the presidency. Responding to an "Etemad" question about the perception that IRIB was not impartial on domestic politics, Larijani said, "On some occasions, the circulars issued by the Supreme National Security Council prevented [IRIB] from broadcasting some reports and political programs." Asked if such a circular was behind IRIB's failure to report on the sit-in by legislators who were not allowed to compete in the 2004 parliamentary elections, Larijani said, "I can't remember." (Bill Samii)

REFORMIST LEADER CALLS FOR FREE ELECTION. A top official of the country's leading clerically-dominated reformist party, the Militant Clerics Association (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mobarez), on 5 January called on the national media to be evenhanded, and for the body that determines prospective candidates' eligibility to be broadminded, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported.

Massive public participation would undermine the country's enemies, Hojatoleslam Rasul Montajabnia said, and the media and especially the press can encourage people to go the polls. He added, "Those in charge of the media and the press should exercise [a] sense of responsibility toward the election." The broadcast media has been criticized from within the country and abroad for its antireformist bias.

Turning to the Guardians Council's vetting of candidates, Montajabnia said: "The issue that undermines the belief of the people in the election and the incentive to go to the polling booths is the way the Guardians Council will deal with confirming qualification of the candidates. The body is expected to adopt a broader outlook in scrutinizing the qualification." The council disqualified some 2,000 prospective candidates for the February 2004 parliamentary elections, including incumbent legislators. (Bill Samii)

REFORMIST FRONT WILL BACK SINGLE CANDIDATE. Seyyed Hadi Khamenei, who currently chairs the reformist front's coordinating council, argued in the 4 January "Sharq" that the reformists could win the upcoming presidential election if they were able decide on a single candidate. Khamenei said there is time to reach a consensus and that opinion polls will contribute to the ultimate decision.

Former President Hashemi-Rafsanjani, former parliamentary speaker Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, and former Science, Research, and Technology Minister Mustafa Moin stand the best chance of getting the reformist front's endorsement, Khamenei claimed. Nobody else is in the running, according to Khamenei, who added, "The reform front is not considering others whose names are mentioned."

Moin and Karrubi have already announced that they want to be candidates. Hashemi-Rafsanjani has not committed himself yet. (Bill Samii)

REFORMIST CANDIDATE CALLS FOR HIGH ELECTION TURNOUT. Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, secretary-general of the Militant Clerics Association (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mobarez), has stressed the need for public participation in the June 2005 presidential election, "Iran" reported on 6 January. Karrubi, who recently declared his interest in being a presidential candidate, addressed the Islamic Ladies Society, which is headed by his wife, Fatimeh Karrubi. He told the women that international pressure on Iran will increase if there is a low level of public participation in the election. He said that high turnout in the 1997 election deterred the United States' aggressive intentions. In a separate meeting with reporters, Karrubi said he will run to win, rather than participating in an event that people assume has predetermined results, "Iran" reported. (Bill Samii)

NOBEL LAUREATE WILL NOT BE A CANDIDATE. Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi has denied that she will be a candidate in the 17 June presidential election, "Sharq" reported on 3 January. "While I express my gratitude to my fellow countrymen, I declare again that I have never intended to become a government official and have never volunteered or will volunteer to run for president," Ebadi said.

"Iran" newspaper, which is run by the official Islamic Republic News Agency, reported on 1 January that a number of human rights organizations, the Office for Strengthening Unity, scholars, and legal activists intend to propose Ebadi as a candidate.

Emaddedin Baqi, who heads the Association for the Defense of the Rights of Prisoners, told "Sharq" of 2 January that his organization is not involved in electioneering. He said that, while the association respects Ebadi, reports that human rights organizations are backing her as a candidate are false. Although women can serve in the Iranian parliament, the wording of regulations on a presidential candidate's qualifications is vague on gender. (Bill Samii)

REVOLUTIONARY GUARDS SUSPICIOUS OF U.S. INTENTIONS. "America is hostile to Iran because Iran is constantly talking about the Koran," Hojatoleslam Gholamreza Safai -- head of the ideological and political bureau of the commander in chief of the armed forces, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- said in a 1 January speech, Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported. Addressing the closing ceremony of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps' (IRGC) 24th Holy Koran competition, Safai said the United States has noticed that only the Koran can mobilize other countries against it, and, "for that reason, it considers Iran to be the biggest obstacle to the realization of its goals."

"The presence of forces from beyond the region will cause insecurity in this region," IRGC commander Yahya Rahim-Safavi said in a 4 January speech in Bandar Abbas, state radio reported. He went on to say that the U.S. objective in the region is to control energy resources and destroy occupied countries' national identity. Rahim-Safavi said Iran is monitoring regional developments.

Rahim-Safavi repeated his concerns about regional developments during a flag-raising ceremony in Bandar Abbas on 6 January, ISNA reported. Foreign military forces are in the region under false pretexts, he said, adding that "the presence of foreign forces in the area and the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq by America are causing insecurity in the region." The IRGC presence in the Persian Gulf's waters is necessary for regional security, he said.

Rahim-Safavi accused the United States of having colonialist ambitions in the region. "America wants to use the Middle East, including Iraq and Afghanistan, to [improve] its access to Central Asia and the [South] Caucasus, but it will not succeed," he added. "As we can see, after a 20-month occupation, America, entangled in a quagmire in Iraq, has experienced its first defeat in the region." If the United States does not accept the outcome of the Iraqi parliamentary election, Rahim-Safavi said, it will demonstrate its deception and interference. (Bill Samii)

IRAN GIVES IAEA ACCESS TO MILITARY SITE. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) spokesman Mark Gwozdecky said in a 5 January interview with Radio Farda that the agency's inspectors expect to visit the Parchin military site south of Tehran in the next few days or weeks. Radio Farda reported that the IAEA has pressed for access to the site for months.

Washington suspects that nuclear-weapons-related activities take place at Parchin, and Gwozdecky expressed the hope that the inspection will reveal that this is not the case. Nevertheless, he told Radio Farda, the site could be used for weapons-related activities. If Iran has nothing to hide, Radio Farda asked, why did Iran not agree to the inspection of military sites sooner?

Gwozdecky said sensitive military activities take place at such sites, and the Iranians do not have to give permission for access to them. Usually the IAEA has access to all nuclear sites in a country, Gwozdecky told Radio Farda, but this does not apply to military sites. (Bill Samii)

URANIUM ENRICHMENT FREEZE IN FORCE. In Vienna, IAEA Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei said on 5 January that Iran is still adhering to its pledge to suspend uranium enrichment, AFP reported. Referring to Iran's processing of uranium tetrafluoride (UF4), el-Baradei said the IAEA has been "told this will be completed in February." Anonymous diplomats say this process has been delayed by mechanical problems, AFP reported. (Bill Samii)

IRAQI SHI'A LEADERS DENY ACCUSATIONS OF IRANIAN INTERFERENCE DURING VISIT TO TEHRAN. Muhsin Abd al-Hamid, secretary-general of the Islamic Party of Iraq, met with Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi on 1 January, IRNA reported. Kharrazi said the participation of Iraqis in political affairs would hasten the foreigners' withdrawal. Kharrazi spoke out against delaying the election and said, "The Islamic Republic, despite Saddam Hussein's oppressive rule, does not accept Iraq's occupation and is against it." Kharrazi also informed his guest that terrorist groups and Israel's Mossad intelligence agency are behind many of the problems in Iraq.

Abd al-Hamid met with Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani in Tehran on 2 January, state television reported. Hashemi-Rafsanjani discouraged delaying the Iraqi elections planned for 30 January, and he alleged that the United States does not want to withdraw from the country.

President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami met with al-Hamid on 4 January, state radio and IRNA reported. "Every effort should be made for the Iraqi elections to be held on schedule," Khatami told his guest.

Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi al-Mudarrisi, spiritual leader of the Islamic Action Organization, also visited Tehran, Al-Arabiyah television reported on 2 January. He said Iraqi Shi'a, Sunnis, and Kurds have an interest in running the country jointly. Until his April 2003 return to Iraq, al-Mudarrisi lived in Iran for 32 years.

Al-Mudarrisi said during his visit to Tehran that King Abdullah's allegations of Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs are untrue, "Resalat" reported on 4 January. "Jordan is afraid of and worried about the consequences of the elections for that country," al-Mudarrisi said. "You might be able to keep the Jordanian society under dictatorship, but the Iraqi society will not go back to the previous regime and dictatorship." (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN AMBASSADOR DESCRIBES CLERICS WITHOUT BORDERS. Mohammad Irani, Tehran's ambassador to Amman, has dismissed allegations that Iraqi Shi'a clerics take their orders from Iran, "Al-Dustur" reported on 3 January. He said all Shi'a Muslims emulate specific individuals above anybody else, and these religious authorities do not take their orders from any government. The connection between a Shi'a Muslim and his source of emulation is a matter of creed, Irani said, and it does not matter where that religious authority resides. Many Iranians emulate Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah in Lebanon, he noted, and people in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon emulate Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Iraq. "If we understand this concept, we will realize that these religious authorities do not take orders from the governments," Irani said. "They have the people as their grass roots." (Bill Samii)

IRAQI EXPATRIATES CAN VOTE IN IRAN. Deputy Interior Minister and Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs chief Ahmad Husseini said on 3 January that Iraqis resident in Iran will be able to vote in six provinces on 28-30 January, IRNA reported. The provinces are Kermanshah, Khuzestan, Khorasan, Qom, Tehran, and West Azerbaijan. Husseini said more than 200,000 Iraqi nationals are currently in Iran. They were born in Iraq but hold Iranian identification cards, he explained. Iraqis will be able to vote in Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Iran, Jordan, the Netherlands, Sweden, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States, AP reported on 3 January. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN BACKING FOR JORDANIAN TERRORIST UPSETS KING ABDULLAH. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on 2 January in Tehran that Foreign Minister Kharrazi would not attend the upcoming conference on Iraq that is scheduled to be held in Amman, Islamic Republic of Iran News Network reported. Assefi explained that this measure indicated Tehran's irritation with King Abdullah's early-December comments about Iran's regional ambitions and its interference in Iraqi affairs.

"Well, what they have said is baseless. We have already announced that Iran does not interfere in Iraq's internal affairs," Assefi said. "It believes that security and stability in Iraq mean security and stability in the region and ultimately in Iran." He continued, "Those who interfere in Iraq's affairs are the ones who hold meetings with Ba'athists in their own countries and invite them for talks to find out how they can put obstacles in the way of the elections." Tehran is not boycotting the event, however. Assefi said, "Despite the fact that we care about developments in Iraq and have been in a way the initiator of such conferences, we will participate in the conference at a lower level."

Jordan's King Abdullah accused Iran of trying to create a Shi'a regime in Iraq because he received a report on ties between Jordanian extremists on the one hand and the IRGC's intelligence unit and its special operations Qods Force on the other, "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on 5 January. Information on Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi and other Jordanians was provided by an anonymous "senior officer" in the Qods Force who recently fled Iran, "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported. This information reportedly includes a photograph of al-Zarqawi and another Jordanian fugitive in an IRGC camp in western Iran.

Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Ahmad Salih said he regrets Iran's decision to avoid the upcoming Amman conference, "Al-Ufuq" reported on 3 January. "We were in Jordan some time ago and we talked to King Abdullah on his recent statements," Salih said. "He explained the situation to us and said he was misunderstood." Salih said Baghdad and Tehran resolve their differences "wisely and rationally," conceded that "we have objections to the behavior and intentions of some neighboring countries," and added that efforts are under way to resolve any problems.

Asked about Defense Minister Hazim Sha'lan's repeated statements about Iranian interference, Salih said this does not reflect Baghdad's position. "We have several known problems with the Iranian side, and we have objections to some of its actions," Salih said, but he said his colleague's approach smacks of "racist logic" and gives the false appearance of an "Arab-Persian conflict." Salih said, "We look forward to establishing balanced relations and we must deal with Iran in a different manner."

Despite the chill in Tehran-Amman relations, the Foreign Ministry official representing Iran at the 6 January meeting sounded upbeat. Before leaving Tehran, Deputy Foreign Minister Gholamali Khoshru told reporters that the conference comes at a sensitive time, Radio Farda reported. Not adhering to the election timetable would contribute to insecurity, he said, and in turn this would lead to continuation of the occupation and more terrorism.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar al-Zebari said that the world should not expect a reproduction of the Iranian form of government just because some Iraqis have links with Iran, Radio Farda reported. He urged the officials gathered in Amman to resist interfering in the election scheduled for 30 January in any way, Radio Farda reported. Also in attendance were representatives of Egypt and Bahrain, as well as Ashraf Ghazi on behalf of the United Nations and Amr Musa on behalf of the Arab League. (Bill Samii)

IRAN FACING CRITICAL AIR POLLUTION PROBLEM. A breath of clean air. That's what most Tehran residents long for -- especially when pollution in the city of 12 million people reaches critical levels. The Iranian capital experiences such days quite often, forcing schools to close and people with heart and lung problems to stay home. According to official figures, Tehran had over 125 days of unhealthy air pollution over the last year.

And that is having serious consequence on people's health. Some 4,600 Tehran residents reportedly die each year from pollution-related illnesses. Tehran-based journalist Alborz Maleki told RFE/RL that respiratory problems as well as eye and throat irritation have become commonplace. "It causes headaches, burning eyes, especially children and elderly people are facing many [health] problems. On Saturday afternoon after walking for only 15 minutes in Vanak Square [in the center of Tehran], I got a terrible headache. People suffer from eye allergies; nose irritation is very common. In the last week, it was announced that some 360 people in Tehran have sought emergency medical help because of respiratory problems and some 300 persons because of heart problems," Maleki said.

Cars are chiefly to blame for Tehran's heavy pollution. Most of the city's more than 2 million cars are at least 20 years old and do not have filters such as catalytic converters to reduce pollutants. Experts say the geographical position of the city, which sits in a basin surrounded by mountains, worsens the pollution.

Tehran is usually enveloped in a cloud of smog and, according to a recent study, each resident inhales between 7 and 9 kilograms of dust per year. In recent years, due to the increase in the population, the pollution problem has worsened.

The Iranian government has announced various steps to combat the problem, but none so far have proven effective. In 2001, a 10-year program was launched to reduce air pollution by phasing out old motor vehicles. Construction on a subway line was begun in Tehran. And every year a National Clean Air Day is held to urge city residents not to use their cars on that day unless necessary.

Hussein Abolhassani, a member of the Women's Society Against Environmental Pollution, says other immediate steps should be taken to fight the pollution. "The first thing they should do is that they should immediately apply the odd-even license-plate system so a big number of cars are not allowed into the city. They can also ban the passage of cars with one passenger. They should also improve public transportation and clean fuel should be used. There have been talks for a long time about phasing out old smoke-producing cars; they should do it as soon as possible," Abolhassani said.

Environmental experts also say that the government should subsidize the purchase of new cars, enforce emission controls from old cars, and increase green spaces in the city.

Abolhassani says that environmental NGOs are playing an important role in the fight against pollution. The Women's Society Against Environmental Pollution has organized several demonstrations against pollution with the participation of children. "The children were shouting, 'We also want to live,' 'Why do you make the air so polluted?' and 'Do something so that after you, we can live too.' They were small children. Such steps are efficient and from the time that NGOs began their activities in that regard, some 30,000 to 40,000 taxis are using [clean] gas as their fuel. And the government has announced that buses will also use [clean] gas. These are things that are being done and it's all because of the cries of the people," Abolhassani said.

Maleki, the Tehran-based journalist, says people are becoming more aware of the danger of pollution and government warnings are being taken more seriously. "People really felt the danger yesterday with the announcement regarding the closure of schools. It does not happen very often. I think people have taken the warning seriously. As I witnessed myself yesterday afternoon -- when it's usually the peak of Tehran's traffic -- the streets were less crowded, there were fewer cars," Maleki said.

Experts say it will take several years before Tehran's pollution level is decreased or at least kept at the same level. Meanwhile, the capital's residents are taking their defense into their own hand by wearing masks. "People wear masks even though experts say wearing mask is not very efficient," Maleki said. "At the same time, these masks are a real help because they absorb some of the pollution and prevents some of the carcinogens from entering the respiratory tract."

According to Tehran's official Air Quality Control Unit, the 1 January Pollutant Standard Index -- a measurement that incorporates carbon monoxide and other pollutants -- reached 168, or close to "very unhealthy." By comparison, the index in New York City was 52 and in Bangkok 57. (Golnaz Esfandiari)