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Iran Report: January 21, 2002

21 January 2002, Volume 5, Number 2

AL-QAEDA IN IRAN -- NEVER AN HONEST WORD. Tehran has rejected accusations that Al-Qaeda terrorists have gained refuge in Iran, claiming instead that its borders are secure. Reports about the trafficking of narcotics and refugees, however, cast doubt on Tehran's claims. And even if Iranian officials are being sincere, there are ministries, semi-governmental organizations, and individuals with different agendas.

"We would hope, for example, they [the Iranian government] wouldn't allow Al-Qaeda murderers to hide in their country. We would hope that if that [is] the case, if someone tries to flee into Iran, that they would hand them over to us," U.S. President George W. Bush said on 10 January. Adding greater detail in an 18 January interview, U.S. envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad said that "quite a few" Al-Qaeda personnel were in Iran, Reuters reported. A large group of Arabs and their families entered Iran in mid-December with the help of a local commander. They crossed the border at Chagal, where they were met by more Arabs, then made their way to the town of Khash.

Tehran reacted quickly and vociferously to the initial reports that Al-Qaeda personnel were in Iran. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi declared, according to state television on 10 January, "since the outset of the recent Afghan crisis, Iran's fundamental policy has been based on preventing the entry of the members of the Al-Qaeda group into the country." He added, "Iran's borders are closed and are under the strict control of our country's forces." Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said, according to state television on 12 January, "Iran has completely closed its borders and it is carefully watching the people or various elements that are coming from or going to Afghanistan."

President Mohammad Khatami also addressed this topic in a telephone conversation with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, according to state television on 13 January. Khatami claimed that "[t]he borders of Iran and Afghanistan are totally closed and total border controls mean that we will never permit terrorists or terrorist groups to cross the borders."

Yet the claims about "sealed borders" are untrue, as reports about continuing narcotics smuggling and refugee flows demonstrate. On 16 January, state radio reported that the Law Enforcement Force discovered 277 kilograms of narcotics and arrested five smugglers in separate operations in Tehran, Yazd, and Iranshahr. On 12 January, police in Khorasan Province, which borders Afghanistan, seized a 402-kilogram shipment of morphine and opium, according to IRNA. In December and November, furthermore, there were numerous drug seizures in Iran, according to reports published by IRNA (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 17 December 2001). As for refugees, they pay smugglers over $100 a head to sneak them across the border, and IRNA reported in October that over 60 Afghans a day enter Sistan va Baluchistan Province illegally every day (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 22 October 2001).

If drugs and refugees can cross the border, what would stop Al-Qaeda from doing the same thing? And if the Iranian officials are preventing the transit of terrorists, does that mean that they are colluding in the transit of narcotics and refugees? Or has Tehran been lying about the quantity of narcotics and the number of refugees entering Iran?

Even if top officials are being honest about their lack of support for Al-Qaeda and are unified in this attitude, different government ministries may have different agendas. In the past, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have competed in their handling of the Afghan account. Individuals and groups within different ministries and semi-governmental organizations could be pursuing their own agendas, too. Indeed, this is an excuse to which Tehran has resorted in the past (ex: Said Emami and the killing of writers and dissidents in 1998; the Mehdi Hashemi gang, and the Mahdaviyat group).

Furthermore, the predominantly Sunni population of Sistan va Baluchistan Province and the lower portion of Khorasan Province may have greater sympathy for co-religionists across the border than it does with the government in Tehran. The Taliban backed an anti-Tehran Sunni organization called the Ahl-i Sunnah Wal Jamaat, which recruited Iranian Sunni militants from the Turkmen, Baluchi, and Afghan minorities. Moreover, there are Iranian Taliban. Nine Sunni Iranians who served in the Taliban ranks are now detained in Herat, according to the BBC's Pashto service on 14 January. General Mohammad Zahir Azimi, a provincial official, told the BBC, "There were some more of them who retreated with the Taliban from Herat when the Taliban fled. At the moment we do not know whether they have been detained or have managed to escape from Afghanistan via Pakistan." (Bill Samii)

A FINGER IN EVERY PIE -- TEHRAN LOOKS EAST. Speaking to the "RFE/RL Iran Report" in Kabul on 5 January, Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Omar Samad discussed his government's relationship with Tehran. "Iran and Afghanistan have a lot to share.... Even in the most difficult periods of Afghan history in the past 20-something years, Iran has been a very helpful and friendly country and neighbor. So nothing has changed, and definitely nothing has changed in the negative sense. Everything has improved in our relationship with Iran.... Iran has many ideas on how to improve the relations with the new Afghan interim administration. The Afghan interim administration has also made it quite clear that it would like to pursue and continue friendly relations, whether it's in the economic sector, whether it's reconstruction, whether it's Iran helping us in the sphere of cultural and other spheres."

Samad's words suggest that Iran's interests are benign and friendly. From Tehran's perspective, nevertheless, developments in post-Taliban Afghanistan offer both threats and opportunities. Tehran is trying to gain influence in Afghanistan through political, economic, cultural, and humanitarian activities.

Perhaps the greatest threat from an Iranian perspective is the establishment of a long-term, U.S.-dominated military presence to its east. Iranian officials have, in the past, complained about U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf and in the Caucasus, they have leveled accusations that the U.S. is militarizing the Caspian Sea region, and they have criticized U.S. military activities against Iraq, such as Operation Desert Fox in late 1998. Now, Tehran must contend with American ground troops in Afghanistan, as well as the International Security Assistance Force called for in the Bonn agreement.

At the end of December, deputy commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps Brigadier General Mohammad Zolqadr declared, "One of the objectives of America and the CIA behind their presence in Afghanistan is to tighten the siege around the Islamic Republic and build bases in that country to spy on Iran and conduct their plots against the Islamic Republic through Afghanistan," according to the "Tehran Times." And in early December, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that "If they [the Americans, British, and Westerners] are seeking to enjoy a long-term military presence in Afghanistan, then they should be certain that they will have to face the people of Afghanistan." He added, "We will not in anyway condone or tolerate the intervention of hegemonistic, expansionist, and aggressive powers in Afghanistan."

One of the means by which Tehran is trying to fend off the perceived threat of Americans on the eastern border is by creating a "sphere of influence" or a buffer zone in western Afghanistan. Ismail Khan, who is now in charge of Herat Province and who at one time had a special relationship with Iran, shares Tehran's attitude to foreign forces. He said in December, "I do not see any justification for the presence of U.S. or foreign forces in Afghanistan, especially since the Afghans have proved that they have enough ability to manage the affairs of their own country." He also seems quite impressed with Iran, saying in November, "Iran is the best model of an Islamic country in the world and we approve of the policy of Iran."

In a January interview with RFE/RL's Tajik Service, Ismail Khan spoke about his relations with Iran. "The Islamic Republic of Iran since long ago has had a consulate office in Herat and it is open at present. Our relations are due to a long border of more than 600 kilometers with the Islamic Republic and due to its massive and honest support to us during the jihad and fight against the Taliban."

U.S. Special Forces operating in Herat report that Iranian agents have infiltrated the area, bribing some local leaders and threatening others in an attempt to undermine U.S.-backed programs there, according to "The New York Times" of 10 January. Ismail Khan rejected such reports in an interview with RFE/RL's Persian Service. He said that there is complete security in Herat and there has been no Iranian interference in the province. Iran, he said, has always supported the Mujahedin and also hosted refugees and various commanders.

Asked if Kabul's interim administration is concerned about Ismail Khan's relationship with Tehran, Said Nabi, the Iran desk officer at the Afghan Foreign Ministry, told the "RFE/RL Iran Report," "Ismail Khan is an Afghan first and Iran's neighbor second." And Foreign Ministry spokesman Omar Samad described Ismail Khan as a well-respected individual who is "now part of the administration. He has supported and voiced his support for the new administration; like some other people he may have had certain reservations, but that does not mean he is opposed to what is happening in Afghanistan." Samad conceded that "he has his opinions, he has his voice and his views, and I'm sure that what he says reflects majority opinion within the country."

Speaking off-the-record, however, several members of the Afghan cabinet told "RFE/RL Iran Report" that Ismail Khan specifically is a concern, and more generally the central government's lack of control in the provinces could seriously undermine it. Recent comments by Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah about the security situation in Afghanistan are revealing. He acknowledged the need for foreign soldiers from the International Security Assistance Force in cities other than Kabul, saying, "there is the need for positioning multinational forces in different parts of the country -- east and south." In other words, areas that border Pakistan need foreign troops, but areas closer to Iran do not need them.

Moreover, Tehran would like to maximize its influence in Kabul's interim administration, and it has continuing contacts with Afghan officials. For example, Afghan Defense Minister General Mohammad Fahim visited Iran on 15 and 16 January and met with Islamic Revolution Guards Corps commander Brigadier General Yahya Rahim-Safavi and with Minister of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Admiral Ali Shamkhani. Safavi said. "The Islamic Republic of Iran wants an independent Afghanistan and security on its borders, but not the establishment of foreign forces in this country." Fahim thanked Iran for its contribution to peace and security in Afghanistan, Iranian state television reported on 16 January. And on 15 January, Fahim and Shamkhani discussed restructuring the Afghan Defense Ministry and armed forces. Nevertheless, Fahim rejected allegations of Iranian interference in Afghan affairs.

Yet Fahim's visit to Iran is just the most recent example of Tehran's close relationship with the Afghan administration. President Mohammad Khatami and interim administration chief Hamid Karzai spoke on the phone on 14 January, according to IRNA, at which time Khatami described Iran as "a friend and brother" of Afghanistan and stressed Tehran's willingness to cooperate with Kabul. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi attended Karzai's 22 December inauguration. Labor and Social Affairs Minister Mir Wais Sadeq is Ismail Khan's son. And there are five Shia in the Afghan cabinet. One of these cabinet members, Minister of Planning Mohammad Mohaqeq, is a leader of the Hizb-i Wahdat, a party with close links to Iran. (Another Shia minister asked the "RFE/RL Iran Report," "Why do you foreign radios always link Iran and Shia organizations?")

Tehran is not confining itself to influencing Afghanistan's political elite, it is going for hearts and minds, too. When Afghan television went back on the air in November, it was with assistance from Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). And when Foreign Minister Kharrazi visited Kabul, he was accompanied by IRIB personnel.

In an interview with "RFE/RL Iran Report," state radio and television chief Abdul Hafiz Mansur said that Tehran donated a 50-kilowatt radio transmitter, a 200-watt television transmitter, and satellite equipment, and it offered to repair or replace transmitters in cities outside the capital. Tehran also offered to set up training courses, and it sent four technicians to work with Afghan broadcasting. IRNA reported on 14 January that Tehran also is working on the technical facilities of Herat's TV station; this would not only strengthen the Afghan station's signal but it would permit the retransmission of three out of six IRIB networks.

Influence over the broadcast media is particularly important because there is little print media outside of Kabul, and because of Afghanistan's poor literacy rate -- an estimated 40 percent overall and less than 4 percent for women. Tehran also is offering educational scholarships to Afghan students, and it has offered to pay the salaries of Afghan schoolteachers for six months. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Educational Affairs Sadeq Kharrazi was in Kabul on 11 January.

"Iran will play a fundamental and leading role in the reconstruction and renovation of Afghanistan," Hamid Karzai noted in a 14 January interview with ISNA. This reconstruction is another opportunity for Iran and it could pay off economically and politically. It is estimated that $15 billion over 10 years will be required for Afghanistan's long-term development needs, according to "The Irish Times" on 18 January, and Kabul will ask for $22 billion at a 21-22 January donors conference in Tokyo. Afghanistan's physical requirements seem endless -- roads, schools, hospitals, houses, factories, office buildings, mine clearance, and on and on.

Tehran indicated its interest in the reconstruction effort in early December (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 17 December 2001), and it has maintained its interest, hosting on 7-8 January a UN Development Program conference on reconstruction. Participants at the conference included Afghan professionals and entrepreneurs, representatives of Afghan NGOs, Afghan Commerce Minister Mustafa Kazemi (a Shia), Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and Norwegian Ambassador Svein Aass, who chairs the Afghanistan Support Group. IRNA quoted Kazemi as saying, "We are interested in the active participation of Iranian experts and investors in the global move towards the reconstruction of Afghanistan." Iranian Minister of Roads and Transport Ahmad Khoram on 11 January added that his ministry is ready to cooperate with the Afghan government to reconstruct the road from Tayebad to Herat, and he added that his ministry is ready to extend the railways to Afghanistan, too.

Some of the interest in trade ties is based on proximity. A delegation from Iran's Khorasan Province, which borders Herat Province, visited Herat recently and indicated its interest in opening a trade agency there, "Ittifaq-i Islam" reported on 7 January. The Iranian visitors invited an Afghan delegation to Mashhad, too. The Iranians also indicated their interest in establishing and running medical aid centers. Afghan Commerce Minister Kazemi on 8 January called for a joint Iran-Afghanistan chamber of commerce in Khorasan Province.

U.S. envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad said on 18 January that it is a "fair assumption" that Tehran is encouraging opposition to the interim administration, AP reported. Even if this assumption is not entirely accurate, it is clear that Tehran is utilizing political, economic, linguistic, and cultural ties to maximize its influence in Afghanistan's future. (Bill Samii)

BEGINNINGS OF A FREE AFGHAN PRESS. Afghan leader Hamid Karzai said in a 9 January speech broadcast by Afghanistan state radio, "the interim administration will allow a nongovernment press to publish newspapers within the framework of the press law." So far, the main news publications being produced in Kabul are state-supported -- "Anis," "Heyvad," "Payam-i Mujahid," and "Kabul Times." Publication of another newspaper entitled "Shariat" ended when the Taliban left Kabul.

An independent weekly is scheduled to hit the newsstands on 1 February. The new arrival is "Kabul Weekly," which was founded in 1992 by male and female Afghan journalists, and which carried articles in Dari, Pashtu, and English. When the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996 they banned the weekly and confiscated everything in its headquarters.

Now, the founders of the new Afghan Media Center have decided to revive the weekly using a mixed-gender staff that is representative of Afghanistan's complex ethnic mix. They will do this mainly with their own money, but also with the assistance and approval of UNESCO. Reporters Sans Frontiers and a Danish journalist's organization have made contributions, too. Afghanistan's Ministry of Culture has offered its help.

National Geographic photographer Reza Deghati, who is the president and founder of the Afghan Media Center, explained the importance of establishing an independent Afghan publication during a 2 January interview in Kabul with the "RFE/RL Iran Report." "The free press, but free press brings democracy. This is really what I'm trying to do here, to plant the seeds of democracy. And that's what this country really needs, also.... Maybe this is the time to start, and just show that a free press really can exist and write different things. This is the reason."

Editor Fahim Dashti described the objectives of "Kabul Weekly" as the promotion of national rights, women's rights, human rights, and antiterrorism.

Starting up and continuing the publication will not be easy. Less than a month before the inaugural issue is scheduled to appear, a printing house had not been located. Moreover, meeting the financial expenses will be difficult unless donors are more forthcoming or advertising revenues come in.

"Kabul Weekly" could face competition, too. The Afghan Media Center is considering a publication for women and a humor magazine. This latter publication was available secretly during the Taliban's control of Afghanistan, and open publication could give it a much wider readership. Several journalism school graduates who could not work during the Taliban era have approached the Afghan Media Center and indicated their interest in founding an intellectual magazine called "Roshanfekr." Even the establishment of all of these periodicals will not bring Afghan publishing up to its earlier heights -- in 1994 there were 63 publications in Kabul alone.

Karzai said in his 9 January speech: "I agree with permitting opposing views and healthy criticism, and I will respect them. The spirit of healthy criticism should develop in order for the people to participate in a free press and media and to strengthen the rule of the people...." The revival of "Kabul Weekly" could be a step in that direction. (Bill Samii)

AFGHAN REFUGEES 'SPONTANEOUSLY' LEAVING IRAN. The Iranian Interior Ministry's deputy director-general for foreign nationals and expatriates, Mohammad Reza Rostami, said in December that the Islamic Republic hosts about 2.5 million Afghans, and 1.3 million of them are there illegally. Many Afghans have gone home in recent months, with UN spokesperson Stephanie Bunker telling an early-January press conference in Kabul about "spontaneous repatriations," but there is reason to believe that some Afghans are being forced to leave Iran.

Maki Shinohara of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told a 9 January press conference in Kabul that about 45,000 Afghan refugees have left Iran since November, and another 35,000 have returned from Pakistan. There are about 3,000-4,000 returnees a day, although that rate varies greatly.

So far, the UNHCR has not determined how many of the Afghans are being forcibly repatriated from Iran, although Shinohara acknowledged reports of such occurrences. She said that UNHCR hopes to create a mechanism by which it can monitor the repatriations. Shinohara also acknowledged that an unknown number of the refugees resettle in camps in Afghanistan, rather than going home.

It is not immediately clear why a person would leave one refugee camp to settle in another one, especially when conditions in the camps in Afghanistan are quite bad. Speaking at an 11 January press conference in Islamabad, World Health Organization spokesperson Lori Hieber-Girardet reported numerous deaths at the Maslakh camp in Afghanistan's western Herat Province. She said that there are 40-60 deaths per week, but the graveyards would be monitored to get a more accurate count. The main causes of death are acute respiratory diseases, such as pneumonia and tuberculosis. Hieber-Girardet went on to say that health conditions in Herat are poor, the local hospital is understaffed, overworked, and grossly underpaid.

The Maslakh camp, which is located on the site of a former slaughterhouse, hosts more than 350,000 Afghans, and its population is growing. One woman said that it took her family, drawn by promises of food, a month to get there. But so far, she said in "The Guardian" of 3 January, they have not gotten any food. "When I arrived I had four children, now I have two. We've had nothing to eat for a week." "The Guardian" reporter wrote of the camp: "Men thrust papers in my face, asking me to register them for aid, while women pointed to their mouths, miming their hunger. Children, too malnourished to move, sat shivering and listless, their eyes black holes. Many wore only rags for clothes, some wrapped in plastic in a vain attempt to generate heat. Most were barefoot."

Moreover, some of the refugee camps already are filled to capacity. The Makaki camp near Zabol, Sistan va Baluchistan Province, could not accommodate everybody, so some 300 families dug shelters outside the camp and moved into those. Tehran built eight camps for displaced persons in western Afghanistan, despite repeated requests from the international community that it accommodate Afghans fleeing the fighting in their own country. Indeed, Tehran made an effort to block its frontiers, and in mid-October UNHCR chief Ruud Lubbers urged Tehran to open its borders for refugees.

Many Iranians want to see the refugees go home because of their belief that the Afghans take jobs that would normally go to Iranians. Afghan refugees also are blamed for crime and are seen as a drain on social services. Tehran, therefore, hopes to see an acceleration in the pace of repatriations. The Interior Ministry's deputy director-general for foreign nationals and expatriates, Mohammad Reza Rostami, said on 21 December that Tehran, Kabul, and the UNHCR were discussing a plan in which repatriations would begin in spring 2002 and 400,000-450,000 Afghans would go back to their country in a year. Rostami expressed the hope that reconstruction of Afghanistan would discourage the repatriated refugees from leaving their country again.

A commentary in the 15 November issue of "Noruz" declared that the new Afghan government must establish a secure and stable situation that would encourage the refugees to return. This would, the commentary hoped, resolve or alleviate "the problems which have emerged in our country in the last two decades as a result of the presence of Afghan refugees in our country and the negative consequences of this unregulated and unnatural demographic process."

Mr. Adeli, deputy director-general of the Tehran Province Office for Foreign Residents, explained why it would be impractical to send all of the refugees home in an interview with the 8 October "Hambastegi." He said: "if we want to send all of these people out of the country, just imagine how many buses will be required to take them to the border and this is something fundamentally difficult.... This task requires time and very strong planning and right now we are unable to do this." (Bill Samii)