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Iran Report: July 15, 2002

15 July 2002, Volume 5, Number 26

AMERICAN COLUMNIST BANNED FROM IRAN. The director for foreign correspondents' affairs in Iran's Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance, Mohammad Hussein Khoshvaqt, said in the 2 July "Kayhan" newspaper that "The New York Times" columnist Thomas Friedman would not be allowed to return to Iran. The conservative press had accused Friedman of espionage after he wrote a series of op-ed articles in June about his one-week trip to Iran, and it asked why Friedman was allowed to visit the country in the first place.

"Resalat" daily on 17 June asked if Friedman traveled to Iran to censor the realities there, and it implied that he is an Israeli or American spy, saying that he had been educated in Israel and trained at the Central Intelligence Agency. "Resalat" took exception to Friedman's 12 June piece in "The New York Times," when he wrote about "a Muslim country where many people were sincerely sympathetic to America after 11 September,...a country where so many people on the street are now talking about -- and hoping for -- a reopening of relations with America...." Friedman also described an unrealistic sense that problems ranging from unemployment to "a general political malaise" would be reversed upon the restoration of relations with the U.S.

"Kayhan" newspaper on 30 June claimed that Iranian reformists had invited Friedman so he could help them, and U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice "briefed [Friedman] on the details of his mission to Iran...using maps, films, and slides."

The "Jomhuri-yi Islami" daily, in a 2 July editorial, said, "The malicious remarks made and commentaries written by Thomas Friedman...once more highlight the reality and truth that our essential contradiction is with the domineering, overambitious, and bullying government of America." The daily cautioned against the airing of political disputes and called for unity: "The country, revolution, Islamic Republic regime, and the nation are all in dire and grave need of unity, solidarity, and watchfulness vis-a-vis the conspiracies of the enemies."

Mohammad Kazem Anbarlui, an editorial-board member at the hard-line "Resalat" daily, said that the ministries of Intelligence and Security and of Foreign Affairs should have declared Friedman persona non grata and not accepted his journalist credentials. Anbarlui continued, ISNA reported on 3 July: "Of course, in view of the fact that we are the freest nation and have the most democratic state in the world, we have nothing to fear. However, it has to be seen what our nation gained in exchange for this generosity.... Why is it necessary to show such kindness to an American spy in Tehran under the guise of a journalist?"

Anbarlui likened Friedman's reports to those of the CIA about Iran in the 1970s, and the "Resalat" editorial-board member concurred with Friedman's assessment (in "The New York Times" of 17 June), that a bomb is "ticking away in Iranian society." Friedman had suggested that this bomb is the result of the generation gap between participants in Iran's Islamic Revolution, those who came of age during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, and the third generation of 16-30-year-olds who do not have a stake in the revolution or the war. According to Friedman, this third generation is "young, restless, modern-looking, and often unemployed," its members want "the good life, a good job, more individual freedom, and more connections with the outside world," and although they embrace Islam, "they don't want it to occupy every corner of their lives."

Friedman wrote that President Mohammad Khatami has failed to fulfill this generation's hopes, and he predicted that it would "eventually find a new political horse to ride and, when it does, Iran will change -- with or without the ayatollahs' blessings." Anbarlui agreed with Friedman's assessment partially: "He has understood things correctly; the bomb will explode, but, instead of destroying the system, the explosion will deliver the coup de grace to America's national interests in Iran."

Friedman interviewed Amir Mohebbian, another member of the "Resalat" editorial board, for a column that appeared in "The New York Times" on 19 June. Mohebbian reportedly said: "At the time of the revolution we offered certain [religious] values to the society in a maximalist way.... Now we are witnessing a backlash.... If we go on pressing for maximalist religious values we will increase the gap between the generations." Mohebbian defended himself by saying that he assumed that Friedman had gone through the appropriate legal channels to enter Iran, ISNA reported on 3 July. Nor did he see anything wrong with giving newspaper interviews, Mohebbian said, although he drew the line at foreign radios.

"Jomhuri-yi Islami" daily on 7 July claimed that Friedman was invited by a "certain political current," is "an envoy of an adviser to the American president," and has "recommended the overthrow of the Islamic Republic of Iran's system." Hamedan parliamentarian Hamid Reza Haji-Babai, in an interview with "Jomhuri-yi Islami," declared his opposition to any contacts with the U.S. outside of official channels. Haji-Babai went on to say that Friedman "published the worst and most insulting articles in 'The New York Times' against Iran's Islamic system," and he condemned the official failure to react to "the presence of an American national who has entered the country only for the purpose of conspiring against and overthrowing the state."

This is not the first time that a foreign reporter who has written about his/her observations in Iran has been accused of espionage by the hard-line media or has been made to feel unwelcome. In December 1998 Douglas Jehl of "The New York Times" and Alexandra Avakian of "National Geographic" were accused of espionage, too (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 21 December 1998). Other times, foreign journalists cannot get visas for a few years, and then they are informally told that their next visa application will be successful.

Foreign journalists who live in Iran face difficulties, too. Genevieve Abdo of "The Guardian" and Jonathan Lyons of Reuters had to leave Iran in February 2001 after they quoted jailed journalist Akbar Ganji as saying that "future events [in Iran] may act as a detonator for an explosion." Moreover, resident correspondents must renew their exit visas every three months, and sometimes one's departure is delayed if the renewal is not forthcoming.

But Friedman's work was hardly espionage, and it did not cover new ground. RFE/RL Persian Service correspondent Siavash Ardalan pointed out on 3 July that Friedman's columns were intended for a Western audience, whereas Iranians read about the country's political disputes and problems every day in the reformist newspapers. (Bill Samii)

PRAYER LEADER'S RESIGNATION HAS POLITICAL SIGNIFICANCE. "I flee what I can no longer tolerate," Isfahan Friday prayer leader Ayatollah Jalaledin Taheri-Isfahani announced in an 8 July resignation letter reprinted in "Noruz" two days later, and he proceeded to lambaste the faults he sees in the country's leadership. Taheri's resignation will have an impact on clergy/state relations, on the future of the reform movement, and on the Friday prayers institution. Taheri's final statement was so controversial, in fact, that Iran's Supreme National Security Council issued a directive asking managing editors of the country's newspapers to refrain from "posturing in favor or against Ayatollah Taheri," "Noruz" reported on 11 July. And Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on 12 July asked state officials to refrain from making remarks that could be "misused by internal and external enemies," IRNA reported.

"Woe and alas! A thousand promises and not one kept," Taheri wrote. He described corruption among the elite and their children, unemployment, poverty, greed, discrimination, drug addiction, and abuse. Taheri pointed out that the Shah and America no longer control Iran, so they cannot be blamed. Instead, he wrote, "society's dregs and fascists who consist of a concoction of ignorance and madness, whose umbilical cords are attached to the centers of power,...act not just as jurisconsults, but as philosophers and as sheriffs and as rulers and as jurists and as judges!" Taheri pointed out that unelected bodies -- such as the Expediency Council and the Guardians Council, which were not mentioned by name in the letter -- as well as unofficial ones, act without any accountability.

Taheri is a supporter of Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri-Najafabadi, who has been under intermittent house arrest since his dismissal as successor to the supreme leader in 1988. Taheri openly supported Montazeri's student Hojatoleslam Abdullah Nuri during his highly publicized trial in November 1999, and he often scoffed at the scapegoating of Montazeri's in-law Mehdi Hashemi years after his execution.

What is the basis for the house arrest of "a dignified jurisconsult, brave struggler, combatant religious authority, the second in command of the revolution, and one of the pillars of the system and the seminary, one of the great jurisconsults and among the country's great personalities," Taheri asked in his 8 July letter. In a reference to the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Taheri asked, "Which jurisconsult and religious authority can match the laudable record and qualifications of His Eminence Ayatollah Montazeri, may his shadow extend?" Khamenei, who until his appointment as supreme leader was only a mid-level cleric, still is not recognized as a source of emulation.

Despite his outspoken and controversial views, it has been impossible to replace Taheri because Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini approved his appointment some 30 years ago. Khamenei therefore appointed Ayatollah Hussein Mazaheri as a counterweight in Isfahan. If anything, that step only increased tensions. Taheri staged a march past Mazaheri's institution -- Madrasah-yi Sadr-i Bazaar-i Isfahan -- and gave the sermon marking the end of the 1999 Ramadan fasting period, after his supporters tore down posters promoting Mazaheri's sermon.

Qom-based reformist cleric Ahmad Qabel, who was released last month on bail after more than three months in jail for criticizing the supreme leader, discussed Taheri's resignation with RFE/RL's Persian Service. Qabel said that the resignation is a continuation of President Mohammad Khatami's offer to quit in May. He continued, "In essence, the parliamentarians and presidency and others who have concern for Iran are worried about the situation and are perpetually warning that if change does not occur they cannot withstand and witness all the difficulties and essentially the system is irreparable and nothing can change it and as Ayatollah Taheri said, this is autocracy."

Indeed, 125 members of parliament expressed their support for Taheri in a letter reproduced by the Iranian Students News Agency on 10 July. The letter concluded, "We understand your pain, and sincerely hope that those who are listening, before reacting rashly, would hear your outcries and God-pleasing wishes and move towards fulfilling the people's demands." Moreover, the main organization of Iranian students, the Office for Strengthening Unity, expressed its sympathies with and support for Taheri in a 10 July statement, ISNA reported.

Former Isfahan parliamentarian Ahmad Salamatian told RFE/RL's Persian Service that Taheri's letter could be compared with the works of Ali Shariati, an Iranian author who in the 1960s criticized aspects of clerical conservatism. He continued, "This is one of the most important disagreements among the ruling clergy in more than 20 years and the vital significance is that a Friday prayer leader, appointed by the supreme leader, for the first time states that his remaining in power would be detrimental to his reputation."

And in a further indication that Taheri's comments touched a nerve, Supreme Leader Khamenei tried to take credit for some of them. Khamenei claimed, in a statement read out over state radio on 12 July, "These are just issues about which I have been giving warnings, in the past few years, at public gatherings and at meetings with relevant officials." Khamenei also warned that Iran's enemies -- the counterrevolutionaries, who live and feed under the shadow of America and Israel and with their money -- are trying to misuse Taheri's statement.

Since Ayatollah Khomeini's death, central control of the Friday prayer's institution has increased, and the number of independent-minded preachers has dwindled. With Taheri's resignation, the last remaining pro-reform Friday prayer leader is Ayatollah Kazem Nur-Mofidi in Gorgan. In Isfahan, Hojatoleslam Haj Seyyed Ali Qaziaskar and Hojatoleslam Haj Sheikh Mohammad Taqi Rahbar will serve as the interim Friday prayer leaders. (Bill Samii)

STUDENT DEMONSTRATIONS IN MAJOR CITIES. Student activist Heshmatollah Tabarzadi told RFE/RL's Persian Service on 3 July that his organization, the Democratic Union of Iranian Students, has called for a rally on 9 July, the anniversary of the violent, weeklong July 1999 student demonstrations. He went on to say that he had urged the Interior Ministry to protect the gathering. But on 7 July, the Interior Ministry announced that nobody would receive a permit to hold a rally. The Office for Strengthening Unity, Iran's largest student group, called off its rallies, but the Tabarzadi group said in an 8 July interview with RFE/RL's Persian Service that it would go ahead with its planned demonstration in front of Tehran University.

Both official and unofficial security groups readied themselves for any unrest. The Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) announced in early July the creation of special police units (Yegan-i Vizhe) riding brand new black Toyota Land Cruisers and tasked with enforcement of Islamic codes of dressing and behavior, according to RFE/RL's Persian Service. Eyewitnesses told RFE/RL about bloody beatings by the unit's green-uniformed, club-wielding members, and Sweden-based political commentator Nima Rashedan said that the Intelligence Ministry has asked the police to withdraw the special unit from Tehran's streets. Sadeq Ashk-Talkh, who heads the Kermanshah branch of the Ansar-i Hizbullah pressure group, said on 8 July that his group would confront any insults against religion at 9 July gatherings, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported.

Regardless of the Interior Ministry ban, public gatherings and clashes occurred. Students and others (about 1,000 according to the "Financial Times," nearly 3,000 according to "The New York Times," 5,000-6,000, according to AFP, and "tens of thousands" according to a op-ed in "The Washington Times") gathered in front of Tehran University, and there were rallies in other parts of the city. A group chanting "Unity, unity" marched from 16 Azar Street near Tehran University towards Revolution Square, according to ISNA. As they strode along they chanted: "Law Enforcement Forces, Support us, Support us," "Political prisoners should be freed," "Leave Palestine, Think of us." Hassan Bakhshi, the father of four martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war, headed Ansar-i Hizbullah vigilantes who chanted slogans such as "Death to those who oppose the supreme leader's authority," and "Death to America," according to AFP.

Security forces used tear gas against the demonstrators, and there were many arrests. The Student Movement Coordination Committee for Democracy in Iran also claimed that in Tehran security forces shot at the demonstrators and there were at least two deaths; and there were other violent incidents in Ahvaz, Isfahan, Mashhad, and Sanandaj.

Rezai Babadi, the Tehran Province deputy governor-general for political and security affairs, told the Iranian Students News Agency on 9 July that much of the violence encountered was the work of plainclothes vigilantes. He went on to say that the vigilantes claimed they were associated with government agencies, but the government agencies disavowed them. Babadi claimed that many of the vigilantes were arrested.

Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, the student leader, was arrested, too.

Government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh on 10 July praised the LEF for exercising restraint and commented that the rally in front of Tehran University was illegal since it lacked a legal permit. (Bill Samii)

WHITE HOUSE REACTS TO STUDENT UNREST. "As we have witnessed over the past few days," President George W. Bush said in a 12 July statement from the White House, "the people of Iran want the same freedoms, human rights, and opportunities as people around the world." He advised, "Their government should listen to their hopes." The statement went on to say that although the Iranian people have voted for "political and economic reform" in recent elections, "their voices are not being listened to by the unelected people who are the real rulers of Iran.... Members of the ruling regime and their families continue to obstruct reform while reaping unfair benefits." President Bush's statement concluded by saying that as the Iranian people move towards "a future defined by greater freedom, greater tolerance, they will have no better friend than the United States of America."

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi reacted by saying, state television reported on 13 July, "This intervention is a sign of the continuation of the enmity of the American administration to the Iranian nation." And on the same day, IRNA said that Washington has demonstrated its hostility to Iran by freezing Iranian assets, and also by orchestrating Iraqi aggression in 1980 and supporting Iraq during its war against Iran. IRNA also said that the U.S. Congress has earmarked $20 million for "subversive operations" against the Iranian regime.

President Mohammad Khatami said during a 14 July cabinet meeting, "We advise those who are pursuing war-mongering policy under the influence of certain lobbies, to get rid of the false interpretation of situation in Iran and apologize to the Iranian nation and government for the misdeeds of the past." Khatami added, according to IRNA: "It is surprising that the U.S. says it supports democracy while it has always been the supporter of every military coup taking place in the world community. The U.S. always supports unpopular and despotic regimes around the world." (Bill Samii)

VIOLENCE IN KURDISH REGION. Unknown assailants failed to kill Mullah Seyyed Mohammad Abubakri, the Sunni prayer leader of Rabt, West Azerbaijan Province, in a 6 July shooting, "Azad" newspaper reported on 8 July. Abubakri was taken to the Shahid Motahari hospital in Urumiyeh for surgery and is recovering. Mullah Abdolqader Beyzavi, who serves as the supreme leader's representative for Sunni affairs in West Azerbaijan Province and the Sunni prayer leader in Urumiyeh, speculated that alcohol smugglers could be behind the shooting because "in recent weeks, Mullah Abubakri had issued a serious warning to smugglers of alcoholic drinks." Sardasht Governor Ismail Mirzai said that the shooting is being investigated and the results would be announced. Abubakri told "Toseh" newspaper that the outlawed Kurdish Democratic Party-Iran had threatened him, according to AFP. (Bill Samii)

KURDISH TO BE TAUGHT IN SCHOOLS. Kurdish parliamentary representatives during the 22 May session demanded the presence of the education minister for questioning. The parliamentarians asked, in a letter to the speaker of parliament, "While the respected Kurdish people demand that the Kurdish language to be taught in schools in addition to the Persian language, why hasn't the Ministry of Education practiced the rule [Article] 15 of the constitution until now?"

Article 15 states that Persian is Iran's official language, and official documents and textbooks must be in Persian. Nevertheless, regional and tribal languages can be used for teaching literature in schools, and also in the press and mass media.

Minister of Science, Research, and Technology Mustafa Moin met with the parliamentarians and it was agreed to create a committee -- consisting of parliamentarians from the committees of culture, research, and national security, representatives from the Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology, and parliamentarians from the Kurdish faction -- to discuss implementation of Article 15. Sanandaj representative Jalal Jalalizadeh was quoted as saying that Moin welcomed the idea of teaching Kurdish and promised to pave the way in the cabinet and the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution for implementing Article 15, "Noruz" reported on 3 July. (Bill Samii)

IRAN GETS NEW COUNTER-NARCOTICS CHIEF... President Mohammad Khatami on 7 July appointed Ali Hashemi as the new head of the Drug Control Headquarters. Hashemi succeeds Mohammad Fallah, who was hailed by the Iranian president for his "commitment, experience, and capability," according to IRNA. When Fallah tried to resign in February 2001 due to policy disputes with bureaucratic competitors Khatami persuaded him to stay on (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 12 March 2001). This time, sources in Tehran told "RFE/RL Iran Report," Fallah submitted his resignation in March and cited health concerns -- he has already had a heart bypass -- but he stayed on during the search for a replacement. Fallah, in fact, recommended Ali Hashemi as his successor. Hashemi reportedly is close to President Khatami and has experience in the Ministry of Intelligence and Security and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He is from Mazandaran and is not related to former President Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. (Bill Samii)

...AS IRANIANS COMPLAIN ABOUT AFGHAN ALLIES AND U.S. Law Enforcement Forces counternarcotics official Brigadier General Mehdi Aboui said, state radio reported on 6 July, "The Western forces in Afghanistan have links with the smugglers and strengthen them." Aboui added that the LEF is holding discussions with its Afghan counterpart in order to make the border "unsafe for smugglers." Yet in December Khorasan Province Deputy Governor-General Hussein Zare-Sefat said that security along the eastern border had improved greatly and drug smuggling had dropped since the Northern Alliance took control of neighboring Herat Province, and he singled out for praise Herat Province Governor Ismail Khan (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 17 December 2001).

Expediency Council Chairman and former President Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, meanwhile, blames the U.S. He claimed on 7 July that the current amount of narcotics production in Afghanistan exceeds the amount produced under the Taliban. His explanation: "This is because America is silent and does not take action regarding this issue...."

A report issued by the Iranian police on 7 July described the seizure of 35 tons of narcotics over the 21 March-21 May 2002 period, according to IRNA, which is a 29 percent rise compared to the previous year. Security forces arrested 28,000 drug smugglers and 46,000 addicts during the three-month period, too. Also on 7 July, First Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref said that international organizations and the world community should launch a coordinated campaign against illicit drugs, according to IRNA. On 10 July, Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari met with UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (ODCCP) Executive Director Antonio Mario Costa. (Bill Samii)

FOREIGN HELP NEEDED FOR JOB-CREATING INTERNET PLAN... Only 2.5 percent of Iran's population has access to the Internet, according to an Iranian state radio analyst on 4 July, and the government's information-technology-expansion plan that was announced the previous day was long overdue. The secretary of Iran's Supreme Information Technology Council, Nasrollah Jahangard, had announced on 3 July that the government of Iran intends to spend 1 trillion rials ($125 million) in the current year to develop information technology as part of its emergency plan to create jobs, according to IRNA. Jahangard also said that short-term and medium-term targets would have to be clarified, and the council charged with preparation of an IT strategy should finish its work within two months.

Jahangard predicted that there would be great demand for IT experts in Iran, according to state radio, and he encouraged expatriate Iranian IT experts to "contact us as individuals or as members of [foreign] firms. We hope to be able to utilize their expertise in the country, too." Moreover, the IRIB analyst said on 4 July that the government could recover its investment by taxing the profits of IT companies.

Yet it does not appear that the government has sought the advice of the private sector so far. In June the Internet Networks Employers Guild complained about efforts to control Internet access and said that the relevant ministries had ignored the private Internet providers' advice on this subject (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 24 June 2002). (Bill Samii)

...AS GRASSROOTS INTERNET PROJECTS TAKE OFF. Mohammad Ali Abbasi, the webmaster of, said in a 9 July interview with RFE/RL's Persian Service that his village's 350-member association of university students and graduates is in charge of the website. Since 1999, the association has trained more than 500 young and old village residents to use the Internet. Abbasi told RFE/RL's Persian Service that the association of university graduates believes that the future of the world is tied to information technology, and although Iran is a latecomer to this field, grassroots actions such as Shahkooh's can help Iranians make up the lost time. Gharnabad (a.k.a. Qarnabad) is the second Iranian village to connect with the Internet, according to the Shahkooh website. This is where Shahkooh residents migrate in the winter, along with their computers. (Bill Samii)