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Iran Report: May 12, 2003


12 May 2003, Volume 6, Number 20

CONFIDENT HIZBALLAH ANTICIPATES KHATAMI VISIT. President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami is scheduled to arrive in Lebanon on 12 May for a three-day visit, the first by an Iranian president.

Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah said in an 8 May interview with Beirut's "Al-Safir" newspaper that the timing of the visit is important in light of Iranian support for Lebanon and Syria in the face of what he described as U.S. and Israeli threats. In an 8 May interview with Al-Jazeera television, Nasrallah said, "According to my information, the [U.S.] demand is to end and disarm the resistance in Lebanon."

Nevertheless, Nasrallah said, Iran and Syria are committed to Hizballah and will not give it up in the course of negotiations with the United States. Nasrallah dismissed a question about Iranian statements on wanting to improve relations with the United States. "Iran always speaks about conditions when it talks about improving relations with the United States," he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell had visited Damascus and then Beirut, and after the latter meeting he told reporters, "We have emphasized strongly our concern about the continuing terrorist activities of Hizballah in the region and around the world," "The Daily Star" reported on 5 May. Hizballah official Haji Hussein al-Khalil seemed unimpressed, saying in the 11 May "The New York Times," "I look at Colin Powell as if he is an official spokesman for Israel." According to "The New York Times," Hizballah has tempered its rhetoric in the face of U.S. pressure.

Khatami is scheduled to meet with President Emile Lahud and parliament speaker Nabih Berri, Tele-Liban reported on 9 May. There will be a banquet (presumably one without alcohol). Khatami will receive an honorary doctorate from the Lebanese University and then he will go to St. Joseph University. It is almost certain that Khatami will meet with Hizballah's Nasrallah, but this was played down.

Khatami and Lahud are scheduled to sign several agreements, according to Tele-Liban. These include: "an agreement for an easy [sic] $50 million loan to finance a number of projects in a number of areas, an environmental cooperation agreement, an agreement for cooperation in customs administration, an agreement for cooperation in the fields of youth and sports, a memorandum for starting the trade negotiations between the two countries, an agreement for women's affairs." (Bill Samii)

THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS. Iranian Minister of Housing and Urban Development Ali Abdol-Alizadeh said on 10 May that President Khatami would arrive in Syria on 14 May, IRNA reported. Abdol-Alizadeh, who heads the Iran-Syria Joint Economic Commission, said that Khatami would stay in the Syrian capital for two days and would be accompanied by Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, Economic Affairs and Finance Minister Tahmasb Mazaheri, and Commerce Minister Mohammad Shariatmadari.

Khatami's first presidential visit to Damascus took place on 12-15 May. During that trip he met with Hizballah Secretary-General Nasrallah, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP) Secretary-General Ahmed Jibril, PFLP head George Habash, Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, and Hamas political bureau head Khalid Mashaal (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 17 May 1999). Khatami also met with the Syrian president, Hafez Assad. Khatami returned to Damascus in June 2000 to attend Assad's funeral (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 19 June 2000).

The U.S. State Department considers the above groups to be terrorist organizations, and during a 4 May visit to Damascus U.S. Secretary of State Powell said that some of their offices had been closed, "The New York Times" reported on 5 May. Nevertheless, according to the American daily, these offices continued to take telephone calls although local journalists said that they were unusually quiet and had smaller-than-usual staffs. (Bill Samii)

PARLIAMENTARIANS URGE IRAN TO CONSIDER RESTORING RELATIONS WITH UNITED STATES. Members of the reformist-dominated Iranian parliament on 7 May urged the Foreign Ministry to explore the restoration of relations with the United States as a "deterrent approach" to possible threats, IRNA reported. The statement by 154 parliamentarians said that to deal with threats to national security, Iran must be diplomatically active and have contact with the rest of the world. The parliamentarians said their call is in Iran's national interest. They pointed to developments in Afghanistan and Iraq and said that ignoring their recommendation could have disastrous consequences.

In their letter to the Foreign Ministry, the 154 reformist parliamentarians demanded that the conservatives accept the idea of holding national referendums on unspecified issues, the Tehran English-language paper "Iran News" reported on 8 May. They argued that referendums on important issues might break the factional stalemate in domestic politics and thereby end the "hopelessness and despondency" of Iranians. That, in turn, would make the nation stronger, for if the conservatives do not "heed the call for change" that the reformists apparently believe plebiscites would demonstrate, the people will "turn their backs on the system," particularly in the face of "foreign threats."

Parliamentary discussions in April-May 2002 about relations with the United States were greeted with threats of legal action by the judiciary, and in this most recent statement the parliamentarians urged other components of the system to be confident in the Islamic Republic's popularity and not to let weak diplomacy and policy making expose Iran to danger. (Bill Samii)

DID HE, OR DIDN'T HE? Foreign Minister Kharrazi, on a brief stop in Luxembourg on 7 May, said that Iran "wants to expand its relations with all countries, even with America," Reuters reported on 8 May, citing IRNA. Kharrazi said Iranian opinion is divided on this issue.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi, however, said on 9 May that Kharrazi had been misquoted, according to IRNA. Assefi said that "both camps" (presumably a reference to political factions) question U.S. readiness to have balanced relations with Iran, and although Iran wants to have good relations with all countries, all Iranians do not trust U.S. intentions. (Bill Samii, Steve Fairbanks)

IRAN EXTRADITES REPUTED ANSAR AL-ISLAM FIGURE. The Iranian authorities recently arrested Nureddin Drissi (a.k.a. Abu Ali), a Tunisian citizen who allegedly left Italy with his family last December to wage a jihad with Ansar al-Islam in Iraqi Kurdistan, and extradited him to Italy, where he was arrested upon his arrival in Milan, "Corriere della Sera" reported on 6 May. According to the Milan daily, Drissi fled to Iran after U.S. forces and their Kurdish allies defeated the pro-Al-Qaeda organization during the war in Iraq. Abu Ali was wanted in Italy in connection with a probe into links among Ansar al-Islam, Al-Qaeda collaborator and associate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and sympathizers in Europe. Al-Zarqawi reportedly transited Iran in early 2002 after fleeing Afghanistan, and U.S. Secretary of State Powell in his 5 February address to the UN Security Council accused Iraq of harboring al-Zarqawi's network. (Bill Samii)

SCIRI INCREASINGLY ACTIVE IN PLANS FOR IRAQ'S FUTURE... Iraq's Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance head Jay Garner met on 8 May with Iraqi National Congress head Ahmad Chalabi, Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Mas'ud Barzani, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan leader Jalal Talabani, Iraqi National Accord head Ayad Allawi, and Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) Jihad Bureau chief Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim. Representatives from Al-Da'wah al-Islamiyah and Nasir al-Jadirji, the son of a pre-1968 Iraqi democratic leader, reportedly will join this group soon, and the meeting's participants agreed to have a conference on creating an interim government by late May, Reuters reported.

SCIRI is making serious efforts to avoid being left out of the Iraqi endgame, and SCIRI representatives were dispatched to Washington to meet with U.S. officials. SCIRI's Imam Husham al-Husseini, who is from Detroit, came to the Pentagon equipped with a fatwa from Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim that instructs his followers to cooperate with U.S. troops, "The New York Times" reported on 7 May. Al-Husseini touted this as a sign that SCIRI leader al-Hakim could make a positive contribution to Iraq's future.

Al-Husseini also appeared to threaten the United States. "If you don't make a deal with their [the SCIRI's] representatives, the frustration level will go up," he said he told his American hosts, according to "The New York Times." "But if you make a deal with [SCIRI's] representatives, they will use their influence with the people and things will cool down."

Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim had said in the 5 May issue of London's "Al-Hayat" that the SCIRI would participate in an interim or transitional government if it is created within the framework of the December London conference or the February conference in Salah Al-Din.

The December framework called for a 65-member "Follow-Up and Coordination Committee" that would "liaise between the various groups and represent them in talks with world and regional leaders." Some reports of the committee's membership indicate that about 35 percent of the 65-member committee would be individuals or groups that represent an Islamist stance, while 25 percent would be parties or individuals with a secular leaning. Another 25 percent of the members represent minority/autonomy interests, and 15 percent represent military groups, minority organizations, or are independents (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 2 May 2003). (Bill Samii)

...AND SCIRI LEADER RETURNS TO IRAQ. SCIRI leader Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim returned to Iraq on 10 May after a 23-year exile in Iran. He promptly gave a speech in Basra in which he demanded that foreigners leave Iraq, called for unity among Iraqis, and appeared to praise a theocratic system of government, according to Iranian state television. "We should speak with one voice. The Marjaiyat [sources of emulation] is one of the institutions that unifies our people and we shall be serving it."

According to a 10 May report in "The Times" of London, al-Hakim's supporters compare his return to Iraq with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's return to Iran in 1979. His opponents, on the other hand, see him as old news and criticize his alliance with Iran during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. These opponents see Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Hojatoleslam Muqtada al-Sadr, Iraqis who stayed in Iraq, as more representative.

Al-Hakim's planned return was announced almost as soon as Baghdad fell to coalition forces in early April, but there were delays in connection with plans for his security. Abd al-Karim al-Jazayeri, who represents SCIRI in Basra, told Al-Jazeera television on 7 May that talks are under way with the British forces in Basra. Al-Hakim wants to return with his own forces as protection, whereas the British want to provide security, according to al-Jazayeri. SCIRI, however, does not think the British are capable of doing the job. SCIRI official Salah Musavi told IRNA on 4 May that in a recent meeting with British military personnel during their visit to the SCIRI office in Basra, SCIRI expressed its readiness to provide security in southern Iraqi cities.

Al-Hakim himself said in the 5 May issue of London's "Al-Hayat": "The Iraqi people are now demanding U.S. and British withdrawal. This is also a regional and international demand and all the neighboring countries share it with us."

There also is speculation about al-Hakim's plans for the future. London's "Al-Hayat" newspaper reported that he intends to resign from his post once he returns to Iraq so he can concentrate on Islamic scholarship as a source of emulation, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported on 5 May. This would transform al-Hakim from an opposition figure into a senior religious figure and pave the way for his political leadership, according to ILNA. However, al-Hakim is not known as a source of emulation in Iran, where he has spent the last 23 years, and he therefore has not had much interaction with the ulama of Iraq, where he is said to be going. According to the "Al-Hayat" report, SCIRI jihad bureau head Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim is the top candidate to succeed Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim as SCIRI leader.

SCIRI leader al-Hakim told ISNA on 7 May that, contrary to the "Al Hayat" report, he would not step down as the organization's leader after he returns to Iraq. (Bill Samii)

MARTYRED IRAQI CLERICS COMMEMORATED IN IRAN. Hojatoleslam val Moslemin Javad Shahrestani, who represents Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Qom, said on 4 May that the Shia sources of emulation in Qom and in Lebanon have agreed that seminaries will hold a day of mourning on 7 May in honor of 130 clerics who were martyred by the Ba'athist regime, ISNA reported. Shahrestani said an afternoon ceremony will be held at Qom's Azam Mosque and an evening ceremony will take place at Tehran's Arg Mosque. Moreover, Grand Ayatollahs Mohammad Fazel-Movahedi-Lankarani, Nasser Makarem-Shirazi, Hussein Vahid-Khorasani, Javad Tabrizi, Safi-Golpayegani, Ardabili, and Musa Shobeyri-Zanjani expressed their indignation at the Ba'athists' atrocities and announced that they will not teach any classes on 7 May, Tehran television reported.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei released a message of condolence on 4 May that noted that the religious figures represent just a small portion of those killed by Iraq's rulers, Iranian state television reported. Khamenei said, according to the report, "The arrogant powers who helped the Iraqi regime with their biased silence will be as accountable as the Iraqi criminals in the altar of God."

Khamenei offered his condolences to judiciary head Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, whose three brothers died in Iraqi prisons, and SCIRI leader Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, 18 of whose relatives died in Iraqi prisons. Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein "did things that would even put savage beasts to shame," Shahrudi told ISNA the next day. "Acting under the guise of disingenuous populist slogans, Saddam committed savage acts."

Hadi Ansari, son of executed Iraqi Shia cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Ansari, told a Tehran press conference on 5 May that the Ba'athist regime executed as many as 750,000 people after 1980, IRNA reported on 6 May. "According to reports from inside Iraq, some documents retrieved confirm this figure," Ansari said. "Resistance Iraqi groups are collecting and classifying documents relating to these martyrs that will be made public once they are complete." Ansari said the final calculation might be twice the current estimate. Ansari also claimed to have documentation of the regime's execution of 182 senior Shia clerics in the holy city of Al-Najaf, 138 of whom were Iranians. He also claimed to have a document from Karbala taken from the Ba'ath security offices, which documents the regime's killing of well-known cleric Ayatollah Bahr al-Ulum.

"The Iraqi Ba'ath regime's aim in killing ulama [clerical leaders] was to create disunity in Al-Najaf and Qom howzehs," Seyyed Ammar al-Hakim, a relative of SCIRI's Ayatollah al-Hakim, told reporters at the same press conference on 5 May. (Bill Samii, Kathleen Ridolfo)

INTELLIGENCE MINISTER EXPLAINS INACTION IN IRAQ. Iranian Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi told an 8 May meeting of West Azerbaijan Province's Administrative Council that Iran has not, and will not, interfere in Iraq, IRNA reported. "Even when we had the opportunity, we did not send forces into Iraq to destroy the [Mujahedin Khalq Organization]," he said. "This is because we believed that the victory of the Iraqi nation would bring about the automatic destruction of that group." The U.S. government has claimed that assets of the Iranian Islamic Revolution Guards Corps Qods Force are active in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 28 April 2003). (Bill Samii)

LEGISLATOR CRITICIZES CENSORSHIP. Parliamentarian Fatimeh Haqiqatju on 6 May called for an end to the censorship imposed by the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance, Fars News Agency reported. Speaking at Tehran's 16th International Book Fair, she criticized the persecution of authors and the investigation of books at the same time the country is propounding President Khatami's "Dialogue Among Civilizations" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 December 2003). Haqiqatju said cumbersome judicial and disciplinary policies can lead to an insecure atmosphere for intellectuals and could contribute to a brain drain. If authors see that their books will not be published in Iran, they might try to be published abroad, she said. Haqiqatju, who in early 2001 encountered politically inspired legal problems, said there should be juries in publishing-related trials. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN CRACKS DOWN ON INTERNET USE. Prosecutor-General Abdonabi Namazi said on 5 May that the judiciary will create a special unit to deal with Internet-related issues, "Iran Daily" reported the next day. Namazi explained that promoting corruption, on paper or on the Web, is a vice.

In what could be a related matter, emrooz.org Director Ali Reza Alavitabar said in the 5 May issue of the newspaper "Aftab-i Yazd" that he has been summoned to court. Alavitabar said the line on the summons form that is supposed to show the charge against him had been crossed out, but for profession it said, "director of Emrooz website." Alavitabar speculated that the summons relates to his current-affairs website or to what newspapers have written about his website. The Internet is becoming increasingly popular as a source of news for Iran's elites, and news that is not available elsewhere often appears first on rooznegar.com, emrooz.org, alliran.net, and other websites.

Government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh on 7 May said that Iran's Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution has set up a committee to crack down on "immoral" websites, IRNA reported. He said the state telecommunications company has already started blocking access to such sites. IRNA, quoting Prosecutor-General Namazi, also reported that the judiciary is drawing up a bill to investigate Internet offenses.

In addition to obscene and immoral material, the Islamic Republic is concerned about political material. IRNA cited a "Jomhuri-yi Islami" report that some websites are "ridiculing religious and political figures of the country in an obscene manner." "Cyber-acquaintanceships" are also to be regulated, according to IRNA. This appears to be a response to the great popularity of chat rooms as a means for young Iranian men and women to get acquainted. (Bill Samii, Steve Fairbanks)

IRAN'S ECONOMIC, LABOR PROBLEMS MOUNT. Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Safdar Husseini has promised that a new series of private labor agencies will be created this year in an effort to boost employment, "Iran Daily" reported on 4 May. Rather than creating jobs, the agencies will offer counseling services to facilitate finding jobs both inside and outside the country, he said. "Different countries can inform us about vacancies in their job markets so that we could dispatch specialized workforce there," Husseini said. That would depend, however, on the quality of Iran's political ties with other countries, he cautioned.

Tehran's "Iran Daily" reported on 3 May that a group of workers complained to parliament speaker Mehdi Karrubi that the government fails to enforce existing labor laws, resulting in an increasing lack of job security. Employers are hiring workers only on one-, two-, or three-month contracts to avoid having to provide heath insurance, pension, and retirement benefits, they claimed. Husseini placed the country's unemployment rate at 12.61 percent, considerably lower than other figures appearing in Iranian media recently.

Meanwhile, "Aftab-e Yazd" on 4 May cited Fars News Agency as reporting that, on the occasion of Teacher's Week, teachers have held "quiet" protest rallies in a number of cities across the country to complain about their low wages. (Steve Fairbanks)

TEHRAN ACKNOWLEDGES STEEP FALL IN PER CAPITA INCOME SINCE REVOLUTION. Government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh said on 6 May that, as far as per capita oil income is concerned, average Iranians earn only one-12th what they earned 25 years ago, "Iran Daily" reported on 7 May. He explained to members of the administrative council in Kerman Province that daily oil income fell by nearly 50 percent, from $66 million to $35 million, over those years, while the population almost doubled to 70 million. He warned that the government is heading for budget deficits unless the state curbs expenditures. (Steve Fairbanks)

CIVIL-SERVANT SALARY GROWTH LIMITED. Iranian economist Bahman Partovi has said that Iran's State Management and Planning Organization (SMPO) will limit salary increases for government employees to 14 percent, which is the inflation rate the SMPO predicted for the current Iranian year that started on 21 March, IRNA reported on 4 May. That rate is somewhat higher than the 12.61 percent that Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Safdar Husseini announced the same day, as reported by "Iran Daily." Partovi said the SMPO was "optimistic" in its estimate of the inflation rate, which he said might top 20 percent. A parliamentary commission has projected the rate will exceed 21.7 percent, he said. (Steve Fairbanks)

EXPEDIENCY COUNCIL CHAIRMAN'S SON DENIES FAMILY WEALTH INCREASE. Mehdi Rafsanjani, a son of Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, on 4 May said the financial status of the Rafsanjani family has not improved since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, the "Iran Daily" reported. His remarks to reporters in Tehran were prompted by an unidentified "foreign TV network's" report that the family's land and business assets had increased significantly. Mehdi Rafsanjani denied that his father owns the Persian Gulf island of Kish, hotels in Dubai, villas in France, or the Sanyo Corporation in Iran. The father, who served two terms as president and before that was parliament speaker for several years, remains a powerful figure in Iranian politics, but widespread rumors about his family's lucrative business dealings have long limited his standing among the Iranian public. (Steve Fairbanks)

TOP FOREIGN MINISTRY OFFICIALS SLATED FOR AMBASSADORIAL POSTS. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi is to be appointed ambassador to Canada, Deputy Foreign Minister for European and American Affairs Ali Ahani will be ambassador to Belgium, and Deputy Foreign Minister for Economic Affairs Hamid Reza Adeli will be named ambassador to Britain, the Baztab website reported on 5 May, citing Iran's Fars News Agency. (Steve Fairbanks)

INFERIOR TECHNOLOGY SAID TO BE CAUSING PROBLEMS IN ENERGY SECTOR. Davud Yusefi, the head of the National Iranian Gas Company's Department for Investigation of Resources and Projects, told IRNA on 5 May that Iran cannot recover some 6 trillion cubic meters of the country's gas resources due to the "inferior standards of domestic technology." He said only about 20 trillion out of 26.6 trillion cubic meters are being exploited. He added that a project is under way to lay a fourth nationwide gas pipeline. Meanwhile, a member of parliament's Energy Committee, Mohammad-Reza Esmaili-Moqaddam, told IRNA on 4 May that the country's worn-out refineries are in need of renovation and optimization if Iran is to reduce its need for imported gasoline. (Steve Fairbanks)

BARBIE INVADES MASHHAD. The conservative daily "Jomhuri-yi Islami" complained on 29 April that the bazaar in the city of Mashhad has been flooded with "foreign dolls named 'Barbie.'" The paper said that "no supervision is exercised" on the advertisements for the dolls, which "teach bad lessons to children" and are so pervasive that they even appear on food wrappings and clothes. In recent years the Islamic Republic expended great effort to develop a properly veiled "Sara" doll, who along with her friend "Dara" were meant to compete with Barbie and Ken. But, "Jomhuri-yi Islami" rued, the Iranian pair is not to be found anywhere in the shops of Mashhad. (Steve Fairbanks)

FORMER TEHRAN MAYOR ALVIRI ACQUITTED. Former Tehran Mayor Morteza Alviri, who was sacked from his post last year on charges of mishandling the affairs of the Tehran municipality and was temporarily barred from government service, has been acquitted, ISNA reported on 5 May. He will reportedly be appointed to a diplomatic post abroad. Alviri was dismissed in the manner of both his predecessor and successor -- Qolam-Hussein Karbaschi and Mohammad-Hassan Malak-Madani, respectively -- and was widely seen as a victim of intense factional politics within the Tehran Municipal Council and quarreling between the council and the Tehran municipality. (Steve Fairbanks)

FORMER IRANIAN GUESTS MEET IN AFGHANISTAN. Former Afghan President Burhanudin Rabbani, who heads the Jamiyat-e Islami party, met with the governor of western Herat Province, Ismail Khan, on 7 May, according to Iranian state radio's Mashhad-based Dari service. Mashhad radio suggested that the visit is connected with Rabbani's plans to participate in a future election. Both Rabbani and Ismail Khan were guests of the Iranian government after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. (Bill Samii)

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