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Iran Report: May 19, 2003


19 May 2003, Volume 6, Number 21

KHATAMI MEETS WITH HIZBALLAH LEADER IN BEIRUT. Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami met on 13 May, the second day of his trip to Beirut, with Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and said Hizballah is the key to Lebanon's success in fighting occupation, oppression, and invasions, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. Nasrallah thanked Iran for the support it has given the "Lebanese resistance against the occupation forces," Hizballah's Al-Manar television reported, and Khatami reiterated Iran's support for the Lebanese resistance.

The U.S. State Department identifies Iran as a state sponsor of several foreign terrorist organizations, including Hizballah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Tehran asserts that it provides only political support to groups that it sees as national resistance movements.

"Defending one's territory and driving the occupation forces out of it is resistance, while terrorism is the occupation of territories of others and driving their people out of them, and this is what Israel is doing," Khatami said. "Israel's occupation of your territory and its killing of civilians and innocent people are the most heinous forms of terrorism," Khatami added. Nasrallah said that Hizballah, Syria, Iran, and Lebanon must show solidarity against the threats they face, Al-Manar reported. Nasrallah also thanked Khatami for his efforts on behalf of the missing Imam Musa Sadr (see below).

Khatami delivered a speech in Arabic at Beirut's Sports City Stadium on 13 May and said Iran wants to create a region that is safe and free from oppression and aggression, Al-Manar television reported. He said U.S. pressure on Syria and Lebanon has increased, and expressed hope that the United States will leave Iraq to be administered by Iraqis. "We are warning the United States," he said. "We are warning the U.S. administration against creating new crises in the region and the world after the Iraq situation."

Khatami also said, "Palestine represents the most outstanding case of a state living under a blatant occupation." Resistance will continue and it is misleading to say that the resistance is externally sponsored, according to Khatami.

Khatami wound up his three-day visit to Lebanon on 14 May, telling a press conference that it is the Lebanese people's "natural right and national duty" to resist Israel's occupation of Lebanon, IRNA reported. Criticizing Washington's characterization of Hizballah as a terrorist organization, Khatami said, "The American government's problem is that it does not want to make a distinction between legitimate resistance and terrorism." (Bill Samii, Steve Fairbanks)

HIZBALLAH'S QASIM VISITS TEHRAN. Lebanese Hizballah's Deputy Secretary-General Shaykh Naim Qasim was in Tehran to speak before the 16 May Friday-prayer sermon, Iranian state radio and television reported. He said, "America intends to dominate the entire world and the attack on Iraq is a part of its hegemonist [sic] plans." He added that Hizballah believes in Jihad to confront Islam's enemies.

Qasim on 12 May described President Khatami's visit to Lebanon as historic, Al-Manar television reported. Qasim said the timing of the visit is important in light of the pressure being applied to Lebanon, and that Hizballah will continue to support Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine regardless. "We will not succumb to threats no matter how dear the sacrifices," he said. Khatami said in a meeting with Emil Lahud, his Lebanese counterpart, that Iran supports Lebanon's efforts to liberate "the remaining parts of its occupied territories in southern Lebanon," Tele-Liban reported. This is a reference to the disputed Shabaa Farms. (Bill Samii)

PRESIDENT, LEBANESE HOSTS CRITICIZE UNITED STATES. President Khatami said during his 12 May meeting with Lebanese parliament speaker Nabih Berri that Islamic countries must maintain their vigilance against efforts to spread discord among them, IRNA reported. "We should resist attempts to drive a wedge among Muslim nations, especially in Lebanon," Khatami said. Berri warned that "the main purpose of the American military occupation of Iraq is to ensure the security of the Zionist regime," Tehran radio reported. "That country is trying to create discord among Tehran, Damascus, and Beirut," Berri said.

In a 14 May address to the Lebanese Chamber of Deputies televised by Beirut's Tele-Liban, Khatami implicitly criticized American intervention in Iraq by saying that "Islamic states are in no need of imposed and imported democratic reforms" because "democracy begins from the inside." (Bill Samii)

SEARCH FOR MISSING CLERIC CONTINUES. Lebanese parliament speaker Nabih Berri told reporters after a 12 May meeting with visiting Iranian President Khatami that there have been some developments in the case of missing cleric Imam Musa Sadr, Tele-Liban television reported. The Iranian-born Musa Sadr came to Lebanon in 1959 and through perseverance turned the Shia community, which was the country's most dispossessed and downtrodden group, into a viable political force. Musa Sadr managed to make many enemies in the process, and during a 1978 trip to Libya he disappeared. Berri told the reporters that he and Khatami, who is related to Sadr by marriage, discussed the subject and agreed to continue efforts to find him. "There are some developments regarding this issue," Berri said. "This is the only thing I can say." (Bill Samii)

KHATAMI HEADS TO SYRIA. President Khatami on 14 May moved on to Syria, the second stop of a four-country regional tour that also includes Yemen and Bahrain. In meetings with President Bashar al-Asad and other Syrian officials, Khatami was expected to discuss Iraq as well as U.S. pressures on Syria, particularly Washington's demands that Syria curb the activities of Damascus-based Palestinian rejectionist groups and Lebanese Hizballah. The "Al-Ba'ath" newspaper, the mouthpiece of Syria's ruling party, said the visit "emphasizes that the two countries have something to say in view of the pressure led by Zionist groups in Washington against Syria, Lebanon, Iran, and the resistance" against Israeli occupation, Reuters reported on 14 May. (Steve Fairbanks)

IRAN WILL NOT BACK DOWN ON NUCLEAR EFFORTS. U.S. national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice expressed concern during a 14 May press conference about Iran's nuclear pursuits, but this is unlikely to deter Tehran.

Rice said: "The United States has raised alarms about this nuclear program over a long period of time. And now with the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Administration] visit to Iran, which seemed to raise a lot of questions about what the Iranians were doing under so-called civil nuclear-uses measures, really those concerns have got to be addressed," according to the State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs (http://usinfo.state.gov). Rice said that the U.S. has "lots of evidence" that the Iranian activities are "a disguise for a nuclear-weapons program."

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said, according to a 16 May Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) report, "Our country's nuclear programs are very transparent and progress towards peaceful objectives without any ambiguities."

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei used the example of nuclear concerns when he was asked about U.S. plans for Iran during a 12 May question-and-answer session at Shahid Beheshti University, Iranian state radio reported. Khamenei pointed out that some Iranians believe the United States should make concessions to Iran on this topic. Khamenei said the United States makes Iran's nuclear activities an issue in an effort to weaken the country and if there is a favorable environment, "it will launch an attack even without a pretext." The United States will not attack if it does not think the environment is suitable, he added.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said on 8 May that the United States has "serious concerns" about Iran's active pursuit of nuclear weapons, according to the State Department. Washington rejects Tehran's claim that its pursuit of a complete nuclear fuel cycle is "for peaceful purposes," Boucher said. "Our concern is about the potential acquisition of nuclear weapons by a state that's a known supporter of terrorism." Boucher questioned a resource-rich country's need for nuclear power. (Bill Samii)

SUPREME LEADER RULES OUT RESTORING IRAN-U.S. RELATIONS. Supreme Leader Khamenei, addressing students at Shahid Beheshti University on 12 May, said that restoring relations with Washington would be "a surrender to the enemy," IRNA reported. Iran's oil wealth and geopolitical situation placed it high on the "agenda of U.S. greed," he explained, warning that Washington is on an anti-Iran propaganda campaign to "prepare world public opinion for a military or semi-military action against Iran."

While "USA Today" and other Western media on 12 May reported ongoing debate within Iran's Islamic government over reestablishing relations, it is clear that it is still too soon for ties to be advocated openly. The hard-line daily "Jomhuri-yi Islami" on 12 May criticized Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi for his "gaffe and botched comments," made during a European trip last week, that Western media interpreted as being receptive to relations with Washington. The foreign minister, the paper pointed out, does not make foreign policy.

This does not mean that the two countries do not communicate. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice on 12 May confirmed that U.S. officials, led by White House representative Zalmay Khalilzad, met as recently as 3 May with unidentified Iranian officials in Geneva to discuss Afghanistan and Iraq. Both Powell and Rice said the restoration of formal relations with Iran is not on the horizon. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi at a 12 May press conference in Tehran stressed that the Geneva talks did not touch on mutual relations, IRNA reported.

Tehran's "Iran News" daily, citing an unidentified source, on 13 May named Iran's UN Ambassador Javad Zarif as the primary, hitherto unnamed Iranian official who met with U.S. officials recently in Geneva. The English-language newspaper said the Geneva discussions were direct, without any intermediaries present, and centered around issues such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Iraq-based Iranian opposition group Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO). It said the U.S. delegation asked the Iranians to stop provoking Iraqi Shia, while in return Iran asked that the MKO be disarmed.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi on 13 May denied that the meetings touched on restoring diplomatic ties, IRNA reported. The Geneva talks generated a flurry of commentary in the Iranian press. The reformist "Aftab-i Yazd," for example, on 13 May demanded to know why Iranians only learned about the talks through "foreign news sources," and why such breakthrough, direct talks only dealt with Iran's role in Afghanistan and Iraq. (Steve Fairbanks)

U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT LAUNCHES NEW WEBSITE IN PERSIAN. U.S. Secretary of State Powell on 12 May unveiled a new Persian-language State Department website aimed at educating Iranians on U.S. policy toward Iran, according to international news agencies. In an open letter posted on the website (http://persian.usinfo.state.gov), Powell explained that the United States' differences are not with the Iranian people. Rather, he said, "It is the Iranian government's decisions to support terrorism, to pursue weapons of mass destruction, and to deny human rights to the people of Iran that are the obstacles to improved relations between our two countries." (Steve Fairbanks)

IRANIAN OPPOSITION GROUP DISARMED. The Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO), an armed Iranian opposition group based in Iraq, agreed on 10 May to hand over its weapons to U.S. forces, RFE/RL reported the same day. Unidentified officials with the U.S. Army's 5th Corps told AP on 10 May that the MKO, based some 45 miles northeast of Baghdad, will now be "protected by American forces." The capitulation of the group, which London's "Al-Hayat" newspaper reported on 23 April as having as many as 20,000 associates in Iraq, shores up U.S. control of the situation on the ground. The broader question of the organization's future in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq remains open. Hussein supported the MKO in its struggle against the Iranian government, and the group, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States, allegedly helped to train the ousted Iraqi leader's Republican Guard.

The London-based daily "Al-Hayat" reported on 12 May that U.S. and MKO forces have imposed a press blackout at the Al-Ashraf Camp where the MKO is disarming. "The orders we have since the morning is to ban correspondents from entering," an MKO official told the daily. "Al-Hayat" reported that it was also banned from photographing the camp, located near Al-Khalis. According to the report, the U.S. 2nd Armored Division entered the Al-Ashraf Camp on 9 May to seize the group's armored vehicles and heavy weapons that are stored there. Al-Ashraf was the main base of three MKO camps in Iraq.

U.S. Central command (CENTCOM) announced in a 13 May press release that coalition forces are continuing their work to disarm the MKO. According to the release, the MKO forces "have left their border checkpoints and they are complying fully with coalition instructions and directives." The press release added that the MKO forces would be treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. The forces are "consolidating their weapons and personnel to separate holding areas under close control of coalition forces," the press release noted. (Kathleen Ridolfo, Daniel Kimmage)

IRAN TO HELP REBUILD AFGHAN AIRPORTS. During a recent visit to Tehran, Afghan Air Transport and Tourism Minister Mir-Wais Sadeq signed an agreement with Iranian Transport Minister Ahmad Khoram to help rebuild airports in Afghanistan's Balkh and Herat provinces, IRNA reported on 13 May, citing Afghanistan's Bakhtar news agency. Under the agreement Iran will also train Afghan pilots. Sadeq noted, however, than an unnamed "foreign entity" has also signed a $1 billion deal to rebuild Afghanistan's airports, IRNA reported. (Steve Fairbanks)

TEHRAN SIGNS LONG-TERM GAS DEAL WITH INDIA. India has signed a 25-year agreement to import liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Iran, the "Tehran Times" reported on 14 May. Indian Oil Minister Ram Naik told the newspaper that this is a "major development in Indo-Iranian relations" and indicated that Indian firms will cooperate with Iran in oil exploration, production, transfer, and refineries. India's Ambassador to Iran Pripuran Singh Haer noted that the value of the LNG contract has yet to be worked out. (Steve Fairbanks)

IRAN TO CUT WATER FLOW TO NEIGHBORS. Iran plans to complete 35 new dams throughout the country that would conserve some 25 billion cubic meters of water annually, "Iran Daily" reported on 14 May. Twelve of the dams would be in border regions and would curb excessive water flows to neighboring countries, according to Deputy Energy Minister for Water Affairs Reza Ardakanian. In addition, feasibility studies are under way for 61 additional dams. Ardakanian indicated that talks are continuing with Kuwait regarding possible water sales to that country. (Steve Fairbanks)

PLANNED EVENT FALLS VICTIM TO REGIONAL DEVELOPMENTS. Iran's Skiing Federation on 13 May said that its world grass-skiing tournament has been "victimized by regional developments," IRNA reported. Iran had expected to host the world event in late July. But when the Grass Skiing Committee of the International Skiing Federation asked the Iranian federation to guarantee the security of skiers and members of its committees, the Iranians refused to comply. The committee decided to let Iran host the world grass-skiing competitions in 2005. (Steve Fairbanks)

IRAN'S GLOOMY PRESS SITUATION. The total circulation of Iranian dailies dropped from 2.5 million in the 1990s to 1.6 million in early 2000, according to Taha Hashemi, the managing director of the centrist Persian daily "Entekhab," "Iran Daily" reported on 14 May. Hashemi attributed the decline to "the people's wrath and the deepening gulf between the print media and the masses." A 14 May editorial in the reformist daily "Mardom Salari" described this year's annual "press festival" as the "gloomiest" in the event's 10-year history. Describing Iran's remaining newspapers as working in a "mine-planted battlefield," the paper said Iran's press has always been "the accessible scapegoat." That is why, "Mardom Salari" explained, some 90 newspapers have been banned in the past three years. (Steve Fairbanks)

STATE BROADCASTING REJECTS LEGISLATIVE INVESTIGATION. On 13 May, 172 members of parliament demanded an investigation into alleged multimillion-dollar financial offenses by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), IRNA reported. A 228-page report on IRIB was read out during the 7 May session of parliament, and senior officials of the organization were blamed for major infractions, such as concealing revenues, insufficient documentation and accounting, and failure to pay customs and duties, "Hambastegi" and "Resalat" reported on 8 May. The report also noted a lack of cooperation from IRIB. The head of IRIB dismissed this report as being cursory, denied all charges of financial misconduct, and said he will turn to the judiciary, IRNA reported on 12 May. (Bill Samii)

LEGISLATION'S REJECTION PROMPTS STUDENT PROTEST AND RESIGNATION THREATS. Rejection by the Guardians Council of legislation favored by the executive branch is causing sharp reactions, including threats of parliamentary resignations.

The bill in question, submitted in September 2002, would give the president the right to warn and even punish officials in the executive, legislative, or judicial branches. It would also empower a committee of experts chosen by the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary to overrule court verdicts. President Khatami is also seeking the power to investigate constitutional violations by entities that normally answer only to the supreme leader.

The Guardians Council rejected this bill on 9 May, saying it violated 15 articles of the constitution, and sent it back to the parliament, IRNA reported. IRNA reported on 10 May that Khatami expressed surprise at the rejection and that the executive branch began gathering documents to convince the guardians of their error.

Seven Tehran University students staged a sit-in on 13 May to protest the Guardians Council's rejection of the bill, ISNA reported. One of the protesting students said they seek to ensure the introduction of reforms without starting a riot.

Deputy parliament speaker Mohammad Reza Khatami threatened to resign on 11 May, according to the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA). On 5-6 May, parliamentarians threatened to begin resigning every 10 days in protest against the system's rigidity, the Baztab website reported, and Tehran representative Elaheh Kulyai said that this plan has been under consideration for the last six months, ILNA reported.

Several members of parliament denied in interviews that appeared in the 13 May "Nasim-i Saba" newspaper that they intend to resign over the current legislative dispute. Abolqasem Sarhadizadeh said he has not heard the subject discussed, and he added that it is premature to discuss anything like this. He expressed optimism that the Expediency Council will approve of the legislation. Majid Ansari, a prominent reformist from Tehran, said that rather than resigning it would be more productive for the two legislative bodies to interact. He therefore challenged the Guardians Council to a debate. Ansari also complained that the Guardians Council's role in supervising elections causes unrest during every election cycle, and said this issue must be resolved. Ahvaz representative Mohammad Kianush-Rad also criticized the call for resignations. Instead, he said, the parliamentarians must discuss more bluntly the impediments to reform.

An editorial in the 15 May issue of "Mardom Salari" advised reformist parliamentarians against resigning. If reformists boycott the upcoming parliamentary election, according to "Mardom Salari," the conservatives would gain access to power by receiving the minimum number of votes, as was the case in the Tehran municipal-council election. The former deputies would not be in a position to organize "civil resistance" and the people would not forgive them, the newspaper commented. Even if the resignations lead to the absence of a quorum in the parliament, the conservatives would just manipulate the system through the Expediency Council or the Guardians Council so they could carry on under a legal veneer, according to "Mardom Salari." (Bill Samii)

UNREST RETURNS TO CAMPUSES. A three-day mid-May seminar at Isfahan's Medical Sciences University entitled "Islamic Republic: Opportunities and Threats" turned chaotic when men in plain clothes attacked students, Tehran's "Nasim-i Saba" reported on 17 May. An anonymous student leader said that the attackers were from outside the university community, and another student leader said that the judiciary is fabricating files on them and stated that there would be a strike if any arrests occur.

The Isfahan Friday-prayer leader, Ayatollah Yusef Tabatabai-Nejad, described the participants in the seminar as "cretins," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 18 May, and he said that seminar itself was insulting to the establishment and the clerics. "If another roundtable discussion is held to insult the great religious personalities, I warn you that I will order the ears of the participants and organizers to be cut off," he said.

Meanwhile, a mock referendum on the constitution was held at Hamedan's Bu Ali Sina University (http://www.akunews.org/News/view.asp?ID=1906). Participants in the referendum were asked which constitution they would choose: the draft constitution that preceded the creation of the Guardians Council, the official 1979 constitution which includes the Guardians Council, or the revised 1989 constitution.

The Hamedan Hizbullah protested the organization of the mock referendum, ISNA reported on 14 May. Hizbullah's statement accused hidden hands of working behind the scenes with the intention of causing tension, and "they will settle for nothing less than the overthrow of the system." The statement hinted that the referendum is meant to distract people from "economic problems, poverty, corruption, and discrimination." Hizbullah of Hamedan urged the authorities to take legal action.

The results were announced on 18 May, according to Fars News Agency. Out of 635 votes, 91.4 percent favored the draft constitution, 2.5 percent favored the 1979 constitution, and 1.5 percent chose the 1989 constitution. (Bill Samii)

SPECIAL JUDICIARY BRANCH TO DEAL WITH INTERNET OFFENSES. The Iranian judiciary has set up a special branch to deal with "Internet offenses," the Tehran reformist daily "Yas-i No" reported on 15 May. "Its judges have been learning about computers for some time now," the paper revealed. A 10 May "Yas-i No" commentary criticizing the Internet restrictions, which recently increased in Iran, pointed out that no legislation has been passed that would provide a legal framework for limiting the use of the Internet. Government restrictions only "lead to clandestine activity," it said. Iran is one of the world's most prolific sources of cyber attacks because "Iran's bored youth" are wasting their enormous potential by hacking Internet sites, according to "Yas-i No." (Steve Fairbanks)

SCIRI LEADER PRAISES KHOMEINI, CRITICIZES UNITED STATES. Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) leader Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, who lived in Iran as an exile from Iraq during the 10 years that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ruled Iran (1979-89), said in a 12 May speech in Iraq that Khomeini and Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr are "role models," Iranian state radio reported. "Those who relied upon real Islam became prosperous, but those who accepted American Islam ended up in the same position as the Taliban," he said in the holy city Al-Najaf, which he was unable to visit for 23 years until the fall of the Ba'athist regime at U.S. and U.K. hands.

Al-Hakim told a crowd of some 30,000 supporters that the Howzeh-yi Elmieh theological institution should be the source of authority for all Iraqi Shia Muslims, according to Al-Jazeera television. Al-Hakim added that he would not participate in any opposition meeting, no matter if Iraqis or Americans run it. Al-Hakim is scheduled to meet soon with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, according to Al-Jazeera. Al-Sistani is revered in Al-Najaf and is considered the senior cleric in the country.

Al-Hakim said at a 13 May news conference in Al-Najaf that his organization does not want Iraq to copy another country's government, Reuters reported. "The Shia form a majority in Iraq and they want political, religious, and cultural freedom," al-Hakim said. "We must have a political role within the government but not at the expense of other parties. We must participate with other groups. To those who ask if it will be the same political system as in Iran, we do not believe in cloning, nor do we believe in cloning any other system," he said.

He also said the Badr Brigade, SCIRI's military wing, should play a part in Iraq's future, Fars News Agency reported. "In view of the role that the Badr Corps has played in the past, I hope the corps will be able to play an active role in reconstructing Iraq," he said.

In a 12 May interview with Cairo's Voice of the Arabs radio, SCIRI media-affairs official Muhammad Hadi al-Assadi reiterated al-Hakim's denial of wanting to emulate the Iranian theocratic model. He said that SCIRI advocates democracy and recommends waiting to see what the nation wants. "If the nation wanted an Islamic regime, we must accept this. If it wanted a secular regime, we must also accept this."

SCIRI appears to have plans that go beyond waiting to see how the public votes. Its memorandum on choosing the interim national council that would name the interim government and prime minister was published in the 11 May issue of Manama's daily "Akhbar al-Khalij." It said that that the 65 members of the Coordination and Follow-up Committee (chosen in London in December 2002) would be invited to attend a council meeting. Nominees from inside the country who are selected on the basis of one for every 100,000 citizens would join them. The five-member leadership board would call for a meeting of this national council before the end of May. The leadership board would submit the names of temporary government members to the interim council. The interim council would name a sovereign council, which would in turn name the prime minister. (Bill Samii)

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