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Iran Report: January 20, 2003


20 January 2003, Volume 6, Number 3

EXTREMIST SOCIETY'S RESURGENCE UNDERLINES SYSTEM'S DRAWBACKS. Shaykh Mahmud Halabi founded the Hojjatieh Society in the 1950s as an anti-Bahai group, and father of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ordered it to disband in 1983. Halabi withdrew to Mashhad, Khorasan Province, and the conservative Islamic Coalition Association (Jamiyat-i Motalifih-yi Islami) absorbed many Hojjatieh members, but reports have surfaced in the last year about renewed Hojjatieh activism. A few more extremists are nothing new for Iranian politics, but there are fears in Iran that these individuals could undermine the government.

One indication of a recent Hojjatieh resurgence was a statement by government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh during an 8 January press conference that any members of the Hojjatieh Society who infiltrate the government would be dealt with in the same way as other citizens, "Iran Daily" reported the next day.

The Hojjatieh renaissance was also in the news in the summer of 2002. Ministry of Intelligence and Security chief Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi confirmed the arrest of Hojjatieh Society members in Qom, "Toseh" reported on 27 August, and said that they were trying to exacerbate religious disputes.

Rudsar and Amlash parliamentary representative Davud Hasanzadegan-Rudsari said at the time that the society had "revived itself" and is "exacerbating Shia-Sunni conflict," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 1 September. Hasanzadegan said that Hojjatieh's efforts to exacerbate societal conflict on religious grounds threaten the country, and he called on theological leaders to act against this tendency.

Ali Akbar Siyaqi, who heads the Justice Department in Khorasan Province, attributed the renewed increased activism of the Hojjatieh Society to its belief that the Twelfth Imam's reappearance would be hastened if society was more chaotic, "Iran Daily" reported on 11 September.

If Hojjatieh Society members confined themselves to proselytizing, there would be little grounds for concern. But Ayatollah Khomeini demanded the society's dissolution in 1983, because its members opposed the concept of Vilayat-i Faqih. The group believed that the existence of a functioning Islamic government in Iran would delay the reappearance of the Hidden, or Twelfth, Imam (a.k.a. the Mahdi) and his elimination of all injustice and oppression.

The presence of Hojjatieh members in the Iranian government, therefore, worries some observers. Assembly of Experts member Hojatoleslam Hashem Hashemzadeh-Harisi said that the infiltration of the government by radicals from groups like the Hojjatieh Society undermines the search for national solidarity and threatens the Islamic system, "Iran Daily" reported on 9 January. Last summer, parliamentarian Hasanzadegan said of the presence of Hojjatieh members in what the "Aftab-i Yazd" newspaper termed "key positions," "They are not competent, and state officials are duty-bound to confront them immediately."

There is also concern that the Hojjatieh Society is part of a Third Group or Third Force in Iranian politics. A 21 May 2002 article in the "Mardom Salari" daily said that leftists who were driven out of the government after 1988 created the Third Group, and all the interviewees in the article agreed that the Third Group is not affiliated with the reformist 2nd of Khordad Front. Hojatoleslam Rasul Montajabnia told "Mardom Salari" that Hojjatieh is part of this Third Group, and he said that it is very active within the government and has access to the public purse. Montajabnia attributed its growth to the development of reactionary thinking.

"Kayhan," the newspaper affiliated with the supreme leader's office, published an article by Alireza Malekian on 1 September 2002 that said just the opposite. Malekian asserted that reports of 2nd of Khordad Front and Hojjatieh Society collaboration show the similarity in their views, as do reports about their members' past collaboration. Hojjatieh's opposition to the formation of an Islamic government because it might delay the return of the Hidden Imam, Malekian wrote, was similar to the intellectual and liberal reformers' opposition to an Islamic government and preference for a democratic republic. Malekian wrote that reformers and Hojjatieh members prefer affluent lifestyles and are inclined toward Westernization.

The Islamic Coalition Association held its sixth reunion in January 2002, "Hamshahri" monthly reported the next month, and former Hojjatieh Society member, Deputy Speaker of Parliament, and Education Minister Seyyed Ali Akbar Parvaresh was favored to succeed Habibullah Asgaroladi-Mosalman as its secretary-general. In the end, Parvaresh did not rise to the top spot, but he does serve on the association's central council and is Asgaroladi's deputy.

It seems unlikely that under current circumstance the Mahdi will reappear, and it seems equally unlikely that the Iranian theocracy will disappear. A political system that is neither transparent nor truly participatory will always have some radicals on its margins, but the renewed activism of the Hojjatieh Society and of other extremist groups indicates that they have not given up on pursuing their agendas. (Bill Samii)

FACTIONALISM LEADS TO COUNCIL DISSOLUTION. The dissolution of the Tehran Municipal Council a little more than one month before the country's second-ever council elections is much more than a local dispute: It is the result of factional political quarrels, and it threatens Iran's experiment with democracy.

Vice President for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Mohammad Ali Abtahi on 14 January announced the dissolution of the Tehran council, because it has not fulfilled its legal obligations, such as holding regular meetings and dealing with the capital city's administrative affairs, the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. The elected council and the mayor, who is appointed by the Interior Ministry, had frequent run-ins over budget-related matters; Mayor Morteza Aliviri resigned in February 2002 (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 4 March 2002); and the council intended to interpellate the current mayor, Mohammad Hassan Malek-Madani, according to the 8 January "Iran Daily."

Even if one does not follow local Iranian politics regularly, it quickly became apparent to all but the most uninformed observers that the council's dissolution had a factional aspect. A statement signed by several political groups, including the Solidarity Party and the Islamic Labor Party, denounced the council's dissolution, saying, "This undemocratic and uncivil move has left a stain on [President Mohammad] Khatami's administration," IRNA reported on 15 January.

Indeed, some of the mayor-vs.-council conflict in Tehran is related to party politics and disputes between the Islamic Iran Participation Party (IIPP) and the Executives of Construction Party (ECP). The English-language "Tehran Times" on 15 January cited the IIPP's Ruydad website (http://www.saadabadpalace.org/nfa/main/ruydad/) as reporting that council member Morteza Lotfi had accused former council chairman Mohammad Atrianfar of embezzlement. Atrianfar and Mayor Malek-Madani are identified with the IIPP, and, according to "Tehran Times," this means that the IIPP is trying to distance itself from the ECP.

Another indication of the factional nature of the council dispute was a commentary in the 15 January issue of the "Kayhan" daily newspaper, which is affiliated with the supreme leader's office. A commentary in this conservative newspaper said that the people of Tehran did not react to news of the council's dissolution, because it was stillborn four years ago (Iran's first council elections took place in February 1999). The commentary said that politicians had used the councils as launching pads for other -- presumably, parliamentary -- elections. Moreover, "Kayhan" commented, the Interior Ministry's effort to downplay the council's dissolution is inappropriate, because Tehran is more politicized than the rest of the country and because the council's failure was due to factional disputes.

The council's problem was that it had been infected with "the virus of politicization," according to a 16 January editorial in the conservative "Resalat" daily. President Khatami's government may see the councils as a success, but the daily noted that, apart from some small achievements in the outlying regions, the public sees the Tehran council's performance as a major failure. A committee with representatives from the presidency, the judiciary, and the legislature should be appointed to investigate allegations of financial misconduct in the affairs of the recently dissolved Tehran council, according to "Resalat."

Dissolution of the Tehran council does not explain why it had problems in the first place, according to an editorial in the 16 January issue of "Entekhab" daily. The daily mentioned the monetary questions, and it also suggested that a committee investigate them. "Entekhab" asked why the council, rather than the mayor, was removed, and it noted that many of the individuals who backed the dissolution of the council are now listed as candidates for the February council election. The "Entekhab" editorial said that dissolving the council violates the constitution -- since the councils are popularly elected, it should be up to the people to dissolve them.

Iranian political commentator Said Leylaz described the impact of the council's dissolution in a 15 January Reuters report. "It's a blow for the whole institution of local democracy because Tehran city council served as an example of the whole of the country," he said. Leylaz predicted that the conservatives would take advantage of this situation to attack the councils in which reformists hold a majority.

President Khatami also tried to limit the damage caused by the council's dissolution. He said during a 15 January press conference that the Tehran Municipal Council had not lived up to expectations but that its dissolution was regrettable, Iranian state radio reported. Nevertheless, Khatami said, the council had done some good work, and the council elections were important as a democratic experience.

Tehran Deputy Governor-General Ebrahim Rezai Babadi announced on 18 January that the Interior Ministry had appointed Mir Abolfazl Musavi to manage the Tehran council's affairs until the election of a new council, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported. (Bill Samii)

KERMAN GOVERNOR DESCRIBES ECONOMIC PLANS, ROLE OF COUNCILS. Mohammad-Ali Karimi, the governor of Kerman Province, said in early December that a development project has been launched through which the province will have a million tourist visits a day, Kerman's "Sarallah" publication reported on 10 December. Karimi explained that if a tourist says in Kerman for five days, this would count as five tourists. Karimi went on to say that negotiations on the construction of new hotels have started and that steps are being taken to develop the necessary infrastructure. Turning to other topics, Karimi described the municipal councils as the "source of prosperity and welfare in small towns and villages," and he said that Kerman has fewer urban problems than Tehran because it is less densely populated. (Bill Samii)

FARMERS HOUSE COULD ALTER NATIONAL DECISION MAKING. The Iranian decision-making system suffers from a lack of societies that represent producers and consumers, but the recent creation of Farmers House may change this situation, according to a commentary in the 21 December "Hambastegi" daily. The only economic organizations are related to a small number of industries, and because many industries are state-owned, the influence of their managers is the most powerful covert lobby in the system. The creation of Farmers House (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 6 January 2003) could change this situation, and by getting involved in the parliament and its elections, Farmers House could influence Iran's decision-making process. (Bill Samii)

NEWSPAPER CLOSED OVER CARTOON CRISIS. Tehran's Special Court for the Clergy on 11 January ordered the suspension of "Hayat-i No" daily after it published a cartoon deemed insulting to the founder of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iranian state radio reported. Publication of the cartoon led to demonstrations on 10 January in the cities of Birjand, Isfahan, Qom, Shahrud, and Tehran, according to IRNA. Grand Ayatollahs Mohammad Fazel-Lankarani, Nasser Makarem-Shirazi, and Hussein Nuri-Hamedani criticized the cartoon, as did Ayatollah Abdullah Javadi-Amoli, the Qom Theological Seminary Lecturers Association, and the Supreme Council of the Qom Theological Seminary, according to state television. All the country's seminaries closed in protest on 12 January, as did the Qom bazaar.

The "Hayat-i No" daily apologized, voluntarily suspended publication for two days, and explained that the cartoon could be found on the Internet. Yet its closure went ahead, and on 12 January Ministry of Intelligence and Security chief Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi announced the arrest of the individuals responsible for publishing the cartoon, state television reported. They were identified as Alireza Eshraqi, Hamid Qazvini, and Rahman Ahmadi.

The firestorm of complaint over the cartoon, which was published in 1937 (http://www.ssa.gov/history/court.html), was drummed up for political reasons and was led by former judiciary chief and current Guardians Council member Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi. Evidence for a political calculus can be found in Qom seminarian Mohammad Reza Faker's comments to one of the protest gatherings that President Khatami's supporters are insulting people's beliefs by publishing such items, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 14 January. According to that report, Faker added that U.S. forces are in the region to defend the reformists.

There was even some violence. The "Hayat-i No" office in Khorramabad suffered an arson attack on 13 January, "Toseh" reported the next day.

Some observers were disturbed by the politicized nature of the cartoon crisis. Hojatoleslam Mohammad Reza Rahmat, who heads the Shahid Motahari seminary in Tonekabon, Mazandaran Province, told a gathering there that the cartoon itself was the only thing that was not mentioned in some of the recent protests, "Toseh" daily newspaper reported on 14 January. "The publication of a cartoon must not be used as a pretext for insulting the president's reform process and the president himself," he added.

President Khatami also spoke out against the politicized uproar. He said during a 15 January news conference that he did not approve of the cartoon, but he also criticized exploiting the issue to arouse public sentiment, Iranian state radio reported. Khatami added that the "Hayat-i No" newspaper's voluntary closure demonstrated its regret for causing any offense, according to Radio Farda on 16 January. (Bill Samii)

COURT SUMMONS RASHT JOURNALIST. Mohammad Kazem Shokuhi-Rad, the managing director of "Gilan-i Imruz" newspaper, said on 13 January that the Gilan Province judiciary summoned him to face a complaint by Rasht Friday-prayer leader Ayatollah Zeinolabidin Qorbani, IRNA reported on 14 January. Qorbani told IRNA, "I filed a complaint against Mr. Shokuhi-Rad for baseless accusations made against certain individuals in his daily, as well as [for] spreading a phony rumor in one of last week's issues of his paper." Qorbani said that it is a Friday-prayer leader's duty to bring the people's problems to officials' attention, and he also said that "Gilan-i Imruz" "raised some other accusations against me." (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN HUMAN RIGHTS STATUS CRITICIZED. Human Rights Watch on 14 January released its "World Report 2003," which notes that in Iran "assaults on freedom of expression and association remained serious problems and were especially acute" (http://www.hrw.org/wr2k3/mideast.html and http://www.hrw.org/wr2k3/mideast3.html). The report also criticized the judicial system: "Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Courts and Special Court for the Clergy were grossly unfair, operating with complete disregard for due process safeguards, usually behind closed doors." Attacks against the press continue, according to the report, which attributes the lack of progress in human rights to the continuing struggle between elected reformers in the executive and legislative branches and conservative clerics whose authority comes through the offices of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Guardians Council, the judiciary, and the armed forces. (Bill Samii)

NEW WRINKLES IN POLLING-INSTITUTE CASE. Two of the accused in the trial relating to a poll that found that the majority of Tehran residents favor resumption of dialogue and relations with the United States are a little closer to going home, but accusations persist that somebody in the executive branch of government provided them with classified documents.

Judge Said Mortazavi announced that he has ordered the transfer from solitary confinement of Abbas Abdi, a member of the board of directors of the Ayandeh Research Institute, "Tehran Times" reported on 11 January. Saleh Nikbakht, Abdi's lawyer, confirmed this and said that his client had not been under mental or physical duress. Nikbakht said that Abdi's defense would be presented on 12 January.

Moreover, the court set bail of 2 billion rials ($250,000) for National Institute for Research and Opinion Polls Director Behruz Geranpayeh, IRNA reported on 14 January. Attorney Ramazan Haji-Mashhadi said that the bail is "hefty" and that his client's family cannot afford it, but they will post the bail anyway. Geranpayeh was released on 15 January after the judge agreed to commute the bail, Haji-Mashhadi said, according to IRNA on 17 January. Geranpayeh told ISNA that after the final verdict is announced, and if there are no problems, he would either work for the Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry or for the Fisheries Organization, of which he has been an employee since 2000.

Then, the yekhabar.com reported that Ayandeh Research Institute Managing Director Hussein Qazian had confessed that presidential adviser and IIPP member Mustafa Tajzadeh introduced him to officials at the Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry, according to the 16 January "Tehran Times." Moreover, some of the classified documents found at Ayandeh were from the Supreme National Security Council and dealt with Afghanistan, while others were confidential letters for the president, and a person with access to these materials gave them to people at Ayandeh, "Tehran Times" reported. (Bill Samii)

HEALTH-AWARENESS PLAN UNDER WAY IN IRAN. Deputy Minister of Health, Treatment, and Medical Education Ahmad Reza Jodati has unveiled a new health plan to raise public awareness of health issues, the "Entekhab" daily reported on 15 January. Approximately 250,000 Basijis and Tabriz Medical Sciences University students will be part of the plan in East Azerbaijan Province, he said. Jodati also said that only 25 percent of his ministry's budget is dedicated to public health and that the remaining 75 percent is not under the ministry's control. Hassan Aminlu, director-general of the Health Affairs Department at the State Management and Planning Organization, said on 14 January that the amount of money dedicated to the health sector in next year's budget will increase by 12 percent, IRNA reported. Aminlu said that the budget dedicates more than 12.965 trillion rials ($1.62 billion), or 8 percent of the overall budget, to the health sector. (Bill Samii)

A SHAKY MONTH IN IRAN. Hussein Jafari, the United Nations Development Program representative in Iran, said on 16 January that Iran ranks among the world's top 10 countries for natural disasters, IRNA reported. Indeed, Iran has been rocked by a number of earthquakes in the last month, according to IRNA and state radio dispatches. An earthquake measuring magnitude 4.6 on the Richter scale hit the city of Behbahan, Khuzestan Province, on 16 January, and on the same day a magnitude-4.5 earthquake hit the city of Gachsaran, Kohkiluyeh va Boir Ahmad Province. On 12 January, a 3.5-magnitude earthquake hit Kazerun, Fars Province. On 11 January, a magnitude-5 earthquake hit the cities of Nurabad and Kazerun, in Fars Province, and a local official said that houses in Bushigan, Deylami, Husseinabad, Mirzai, and Dehno villages were damaged. An earthquake measuring 4.2 on the Richter scale rocked parts of Khuzestan Province on 30 December. A magnitude-5.3 earthquake on 24 December damaged some 2,000 to 3,000 homes in Kermanshah Province. A magnitude-3.6 earthquake hit Qazvin Province on 22 December. A magnitude-4.2 earthquake on 17 December hit Oshnavieh city in West Azerbaijan Province. (Bill Samii)

IRANIANS GET NEW ID CARDS. The head of the Organization for Registration of Personal Status, Mohammad Reza Ayatollahi, announced on 14 January that all Iranians must have new identification cards as of September-October 2003, IRNA reported. Thirty-six million citizens already have the new cards, and Ayatollahi said that the new system is intended to update census data and prevent abuse of the old ID cards. These cards are required to vote, receive subsidies, and purchase food, and individuals must have their cards with them at all times. (Bill Samii)

CIA DOCUMENTS WMD PROLIFERATION IN IRAN... In the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's "Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions," which was sent to Congress on 7 January, it reports that, "Iran is vigorously pursuing programs to produce indigenous WMD [weapons of mass destruction] -- nuclear, chemical, and biological -- and their delivery systems, as well as ACW [advanced conventional weapons]." Foreign materials, training, equipment, and know-how from Russia, China, North Korea, and Europe are contributing to Iran's WMD pursuits, according to the report. For the full report, see http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/bian/bian_jan_2003.htm. (Bill Samii)

...AS BRITAIN SELLS IRAN DUAL-USE ITEMS... The British Foreign Office on 16 January denied making any exceptions in its arms embargo on Iran, IRNA reported, and an unidentified Foreign Office spokesman told IRNA the ban on dual-use goods and military equipment remains in place. The parliamentary undersecretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs, Baroness Valerie Amos, had said in a 15 January written reply to the House of Lords that, although pressed, high-explosive HMX pellets could be used in antipersonnel mines, and that the British government was convinced that Iran would only use the HMX pellets that Britain sells to it for oil and gas drilling and would not divert them to the military. Moreover, Baroness Amos on 13 January told the House of Lords that the government issued a license for the export of engine-inspection equipment used on Fokker 100 aircraft, IRNA reported the next day. She acknowledged that the particular items, called synchros, are made as military electronic equipment, but Her Majesty's government is "satisfied that these synchros are to be used only for the upkeep of the Fokker 100, a civilian aircraft," she said. (Bill Samii)

...AND GEORGIAN EXPERTS WORK IN IRAN. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze said during a 13 January briefing in Tbilisi that Georgia does not sell Su-25 Frogfoot ground-attack aircraft to Iran, although they are built in his country's Tbilaviamsheni Plant, ITAR-TASS reported. Shevardnadze added that some former employees at the aircraft factory are working in Iran now, attributing this to massive layoffs of the company's workers in the 1990s. Georgian Security Minister Valeri Khaburzania also discussed the layoffs and added, "We are in fact unable to control the dismissed personnel and [to] forbid them from starting work abroad," Tbilisi's "Mtavari Gazeti" reported on 13 January. Two days earlier, Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili denied that Georgian specialists had traveled to Iran last year to work on its Su-25 planes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 January 2003).

Shevardnadze also said on 13 January that nuclear specialists from the Sukhumi Institute of Physics and Technology, in the breakaway republic of Abkhazia, were working in Iran. Security Minister Khaburzania said on 15 January that information about the researchers from Sukhumi is being verified and that reports about nuclear experts from Tskhinvali, in the South Ossetia region of Georgia, are also being verified, Georgia's Prime News agency reported.

Iranian Minister of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Rear-Admiral Ali Shamkhani on 15 January conceded that Georgian technicians are working in Iran on the Su-25 aircraft, but he denied that any Georgian nuclear experts are in Iran, according to AFP. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi on 19 January also dismissed the reports on Iranian-Georgian nuclear cooperation, IRNA reported. (Bill Samii)

VISITING KUWAITIS DISCUSS IRAQ, DEFENSE, GAS, AND WATER. Kuwaiti First Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Shaykh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jabir al-Sabah said before his 11 January departure for Tehran that the main reason for his trip is to discuss the situation in Iraq, Kuwait's KUNA news agency reported. He added that the two sides would also discuss bilateral political and economic relations, as well as issues relating to water, gas, and the continental shelf. He hinted that he might meet with the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim.

Shaykh Sabah met on 11 January with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi and on 12 January with President Khatami and Speaker of Parliament Mehdi Karrubi, according to IRNA and KUNA dispatches. Khatami expressed to the shaykh Iran's opposition to a U.S. attack on Iraq.

Shaykh Sabah said during a 12 January meeting with Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani that the Gulf Cooperation Council, of which Kuwait is a member, is eager for joint security cooperation with Iran, IRNA reported. Kuwaiti Army Chief of Staff General Ali al-Mumin visited Iran in late December, and the two sides signed a defense-related memorandum of understanding in October (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 7 October 2002).

The Kuwaiti delegation included Information Minister and acting Oil Minister Shaykh Ahmad al-Fahd al-Sabah and Minister of Electricity and Water and Minister of Social Affairs and Labor Talal al-Ayyar, who met with Iranian Petroleum Minister Bijan Namdar-Zanganeh. On the evening of 12 January, Zanganeh and Shaykh Ahmad signed a memorandum of understanding dealing with Kuwaiti imports of natural gas from Iran and another memorandum of understanding calling for Iran to provide Kuwait with 795 million liters of desalinated water, IRNA and KUNA reported on 13 January. (Bill Samii)

TURKISH FOREIGN MINISTER DISCUSSES IRAQ IN TEHRAN. Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul visited Iran for one day on 12 January as part of his tour of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia to ward off a war in Iraq. First Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref-Yazdi told Gul that Iran opposes any unilateral actions on Iraq, IRNA reported. "Iran believes that [the] Iraq crisis should be settled through diplomatic and peaceful means," Aref said. Aref warned that the United States cannot be trusted and predicted that success in Iraq would lead the United States to turn on another regional state. IRNA wrote that President Khatami told Aref, "unilateral and military action by the U.S.A. in the Middle East was meant to serve the Zionist regime." Gul, who also met with Foreign Minister Kharrazi, said that a glimmer of hope remains to avoid a conflict. (Bill Samii)

SYRIAN FOREIGN MINISTER STOPS IN TEHRAN. Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara was in Tehran on 18-19 January for what IRNA described as a "whistle-stop visit" on the way to Saudi Arabia. Al-Shara said that he was conveying a message from President Bashar al-Assad to President Khatami and the Iranian leadership, Syrian Arab television reported. An unidentified Syrian Foreign Ministry official told IRNA that the two sides would discuss an upcoming regional summit in Damascus about a possible war in Iraq.

President Assad's scheduled 15 January visit to Tehran was cancelled on very short notice: An unidentified "official source at the Iranian presidency" announced the cancellation on 15 January, Al-Jazeera satellite television reported. Assad's visit would have focused on avoiding a conflict in Iraq, and he was to have met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Khatami, IRNA reported on 14 January. Al-Jazeera's Tehran correspondent Ghassan Bin-Jiddu reported later on 15 January that the trip was not cancelled but that it was postponed at the Syrians' request. (Bill Samii)

IRGC'S CULTURAL MISSION AND THE U.S. THREAT. Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) commander Brigadier General Yahya Rahim-Safavi told a three-day seminar of IRGC cultural commanders in Mashhad on 16 January that the United States intends to dominate the economic resources of Muslim countries, ISNA reported. He claimed that U.S. strategists depict all the Asian and African Islamic states as a belt of strategic instability that threatens the United States and that must be confronted. The IRGC has a military, security, and cultural mission to defend the revolution, he said, and the cultural mission has the highest priority. He encouraged preparation of cultural programs for the Basij. (Bill Samii)

MORE IRAN-U.S. CONTACTS? Minister of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Rear-Admiral Ali Shamkhani reacted to a question about secret Iran-U.S. contacts regarding a war in Iraq during a 15 January interview with Al-Jazeera satellite television. "This is a sheer lie. Iran does not have any relations with the Americans.... No one in Iran is authorized to make such contacts. Furthermore, Iran does not need this relationship," he said. Regardless of such denials, there is something in the air concerning interaction between Tehran and Washington.

A journalist asked at the U.S. State Department's 14 January press briefing if Washington and Tehran are "coordinating something on Iraq." State Department spokesman Richard Boucher hinted that this might be the case, when he responded, "let me get back to you and see if there's anything I can say." "In terms of any contact we may or may not have had, I would have to double-check and see if there's been anything like that," he said.

The Western press reported in November about Iran-U.S. talks and an agreement on cooperation in the case of a war in Iraq, and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan leader Jalal Talabani said that he conveyed Washington's reassurances to Tehran during his 6-10 January visit to the Iranian capital (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 2 December 2002 and 13 January 2003). (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN SKEPTICAL OF U.S. GOALS IN IRAQ. Expediency Council chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani said on 15 January in Mashhad, "The Americans are currently faced with serious trouble in this region, and the psychological war that they launched against Iraq has backfired against them," IRNA reported the next day. Rafsanjani said that the United States expected Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to step down but that now the whole region opposes the United States. Under these tense circumstances, Rafsanjani said, clerics and the country should be extremely alert. On the night of 16 January, Hashemi-Rafsanjani told clerics assigned to the armed forces in Khorasan Province, "If the clergy remains united, it will be able to defend the country well," IRNA reported on 17 January.

Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq chief Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim recently told a group of seminary students and clerics that the United States and some Arab countries do not want to see an independent and democratic Iraq, because they want to control the country's national resources and wealth, IRNA on 13 January quoted the Qom-based weekly "Badr" as reporting.

Ali Reza Shaykh-Attar, who serves in the Iranian Expediency Council's Strategic Studies Center, said during a recent presentation on the possibility of a war in Iraq that the United States may hope for a post-Hussein theocracy there, ISNA reported on 13 January, but it does not want that new government to resemble Iran's. Other possible scenarios envisioned by Shaykh-Attar include a U.S.-appointed military strongman leading Iraq or a mix of opposition groups that would limit Iranian influence in Iraq. Shaykh-Attar said that the appointment of an Iraqi general by the United States would allow it to control oil resources. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN SENDS MIXED SIGNALS ON IRAQI REFUGEES. Iranian police chief Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf said on 15 January, "no refugee will be allowed into our territory if America attacks Iraq," IRNA reported. Ahmad Husseini, the Iranian Interior Ministry official in charge of dealing with refugees, also said on 15 January that, in case of a war, Iran would get assistance to potential refugees while they are still in Iraq, IRNA reported. Husseini said that Iran envisages establishing 19 camps in a strip along the border, so that no camp is more than 10 kilometers inside Iranian territory. Husseini predicted that a war in Iraq could create some 800,000 refugees and said that, "The Islamic Republic's policy is to help Iraqi officials settle refugees inside the Iraqi territory, and Iran will refrain from accepting refugees onto its soil. (Bill Samii)

AFGHAN FOREIGN MINISTER VISITS IRAN. Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah said in Tehran on 11 January that he hopes for expanded commercial and economic cooperation with Iran, as well as greater cooperation in refugee issues, IRNA reported. Iranian Foreign Minister Kharrazi called for a permanent solution to the problem of the Hirmand River's irregular flow into Iran, and he called for cooperation in counternarcotics efforts. After a meeting with Iranian Economic Affairs and Finance Minister Tahmasb Mazaheri, Abdullah Abdullah said that construction of the Dogharun-Herat highway and connection of the Herat Province electrical-power grid with Iran are among the most important projects that are under way. Abdullah Abdullah also said that he and Mazaheri signed an economic, cultural, and social-affairs memorandum of understanding, Mashhad radio reported on 12 January. The Afghans also visited the southern Iranian town of Khash. Abdullah Abdullah on 12 January said his visit was fruitful and added, "No country can strain relations between Tehran and Kabul," IRNA reported. (Bill Samii)

IRAN TO PROVIDE HERAT WITH ELECTRICITY. Iranian Deputy Energy Minister Masud Hojat and Afghan Water and Power Minister Mohammad Shaker Kargar signed an agreement on 13 January in Kabul for the provision of Iranian electricity to Herat Province, Afghanistan television and IRNA reported. The two-phase project will be completed in a year's time at an estimated cost of $16.5 million, and this amount will be deducted from Iran's earlier pledge of some $500 million for Afghanistan's reconstruction. The Iranian delegation also visited a thermoelectric-power plant in Kabul's suburbs and promised to help rebuild it. (Bill Samii)

AFGHAN OFFICIAL SAYS IRANIAN WOMEN BETTER OFF. Afghan Women's Affairs Minister Habiba Sorabi met with Iranian presidential adviser for women's affairs Zahra Shojai in Tehran on 13 January and said that 23 years of war in her country had forced women into their houses, IRNA reported. Sorabi described her main goal as ensuring that women's social, political, and economic rights are respected, and she added that illiteracy is the main problem affecting Afghan women now. Sorabi told Radio Farda in an interview that was broadcast on 14 January that an unidentified U.S. organization is helping Afghan women to overcome the illiteracy problem. Sorabi said that Afghan women continue to encounter difficulties, although the situation varies from province to province. She said that women in Iran face a much better situation than their Afghan counterparts, especially in terms of literacy. (Bill Samii)

REMAINING AFGHAN REFUGEES FACE DIFFICULTIES. Afghan Women's Affairs Minister Sorabi said during a 15 January visit to the eastern Iranian city of Mashhad, Khorasan Province, that she appreciated Iran's hosting of many Afghan refugees over the last few years, IRNA reported. Ahmad Husseini, the Iranian Interior Ministry official in charge of dealing with refugees, said on 15 January in the western city of Sanandaj that 1.9 million Afghan refugees remain in Iran and that 466,000 have been repatriated since March 2002, IRNA reported. Some 80,000 of those who were repatriated were in Iran illegally, he said.

Last summer, Husseini warned "that Iranian citizens must avoid marrying foreigners, especially Afghan nationals," "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported on 29 July, and Husseini added that, "All Afghan refugees must leave Iran" (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 19 August 2002). Husseini's desire to see the last of the Afghans may reach fruition.

The parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee on 15 January rejected a bill that would grant Iranian citizenship to Afghan men who have married Iranian women, IRNA reported. According to IRNA, parliamentarians were concerned that the bill's passage would encourage Afghans to emigrate to Iran and it would discourage them from being repatriating. (Bill Samii)

AFGHAN OPIUM CULTIVATION COULD YIELD IRAN-U.S. COOPERATION. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration chief Asa Hutchinson said on 8 January that opium-production levels in Afghanistan currently are comparable to those during the Taliban era, "The Washington Times" reported on 9 January. And the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that poppy cultivation in Afghanistan will yield 3,400 tons of opium this year. The desire to end opium cultivation in Afghanistan could result in Iran-U.S. cooperation.

The impact of narcotics is felt among all of Afghanistan's neighbors, and Iran has been especially active in trying to address this problem. Iranian Drug Control Headquarters head Ali Hashemi said on 1 January that the ease with which Afghan narcotics enter Iran is contributing to drug abuse, Iranian state radio reported. Hashemi said Iran will increase its interdiction efforts with the addition of X-ray equipment and radar systems. He added that Iran will train Afghan policemen, strengthen guard posts on both sides of the border, and increase intelligence exchanges. Four days later, Hashemi and a delegation of Iranian officials arrived in Kabul to discuss the campaign against narcotics with Afghan, British, German, and UN officials.

Hashemi met with Afghan Interior Minister Taj Mohammad Wardak on 6 January, Radio Afghanistan reported. Wardak asked for help in training the police, and he asked the Iranians to share their experience, IRNA reported the next day. Hashemi called on the Afghans to get serious about counternarcotics efforts, according to IRNA. Hashemi warned against victimizing already impoverished farmers, and he said it would be more effective to train Afghan police, formulate effective laws, and develop alternatives for farmers. Hashemi said they should strengthen border-control cooperation, and he described the need for a "security belt" around Afghanistan to interrupt the flow of smuggled drugs.

Hashemi on 7 January participated in a counternarcotics conference that was also attended by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his national-security adviser Zalmay Rasul, UN Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, a delegation from the UN, and a British delegation. A 7 January IRNA report said that U.S. and German delegates were expected to attend the meeting, but it did not say whether they did so.

Hashemi said in a 9 January interview with Mashhad radio that the trip to Afghanistan and the conference in Kabul were successful. He described meetings with relevant officials at the Afghan Foreign, Interior, and Justice ministries and with national-security forces. Hashemi said the conference dealt with crop substitution in Afghanistan, and he conceded that this could take time to yield results.

Opium cultivation was a source of money for the Taliban, but the current Afghan leadership is keen to end dependence on this crop and, as a result, it banned opium cultivation in January 2001. President Karzai's national-security adviser Rasul said in late December that Afghanistan's five-year plan for crop substitution would soon become operational, and he met with Iranian officials in Tehran to discuss increased cooperation.

Afghan Antidrug Commission head Abdul Hai Elahi said in a 4 January interview with Mashhad radio that Kabul is determined to eliminate opium-poppy cultivation, and the government has promised farmers they will be compensated with alternative crops. Elahi vowed on 3 January that the necessary resources to fight narcotics production and trafficking will be mobilized, and he called on the international community to help, IRNA reported.

By the time the Afghan interim administration announced the poppy-cultivation ban in January 2002, however, farmers had already planted their crops, and subsequent efforts at crop eradication and crop substitution failed because of inadequate finances, corruption, and incompetence. These problems persist to this day.

Helmand Province Deputy Governor Haji Hayatollah complained on 5 January about the failure of the central government to help farmers who have destroyed their opium-poppy crops, Mashhad radio reported. Hayatollah described crop destruction in seven provincial districts. The central government vowed to compensate or otherwise help the farmers, but this has not happened. "High-ranking officials have made many promises," Hayatollah said, "but they have not carried any of them out." To stop poppy cultivation, Hayatollah said, farmers should receive food assistance, financial compensation, and seeds, and irrigation systems should be repaired.

According to Iranian officials, some 2 million people in the country are addicted to, or are casual users of, narcotics that mostly originate in Afghanistan. Afghan narcotics are not a similar problem for the United States. Seizure data suggest that only around 5 percent of the heroin (which is made from opium) imported to the United States originates in Afghanistan, according to a March 2001 U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration report. Nevertheless, Washington is trying to eliminate the trafficking of heroin from Afghanistan because of its connection to terrorism.

The U.S. Justice Department has therefore implemented a $17.4 million program called Operation Containment in its fiscal year 2003 budget, "The Washington Times" reported. The program aims to identify, target, investigate, disrupt, and dismantle transnational heroin-trafficking organizations in Afghanistan. This will be a "multifaceted approach to drug enforcement," according to the Justice Department.

Tehran and Washington, therefore, share an interest in eliminating Afghan opium cultivation, and in the past this subject has been the basis for dialogue between the two countries. The State Department's March 2001 "International Narcotics Control Strategy Report" noted that Iran and the United States have worked together productively on counternarcotics issues within the context of international forums, such as the Six Plus Two group. Given their continuing interest in this subject, they may be working together again. (Bill Samii)

CORRECTION: The name of the Afghan minister of information and culture was reported as Rahim Makhdoom in the 13 January "RFE/RL Iran Report." The minister's name is actually Seyyed Makhdoom Rahim.

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