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Iran Report: November 25, 2002


25 November 2002, Volume 5, Number 43

NOTE TO READERS:
For daily reports on events in Iran, Southwestern Asia, and the Middle East, see www.rferl.org/newsline.

IRAN TENSE AS 'QODS DAY' APPROACHES. By instructing the judiciary on or around 17 November to "review" the death sentence against political activist and university lecturer Hashem Aghajari for alleged blasphemy, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appeared to give in to popular sentiment. (There had been demonstrations on Aghajari's behalf throughout the country since 9 November. Scholars had also approached Khamenei and requested his intervention, and Speaker of Parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi and President Mohammad Khatami criticized the verdict.) Nevertheless, the demonstrations continued even after Khamenei's order; there has been a violent reaction, and the situation could get worse as Qods (Jerusalem) Day -- the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan, 29 November -- approaches.

Indeed, the demonstrations are about something bigger than Aghajari or Iran's judicial system: They are about a desire for complete systemic reform. Abdullah Momeni of the Office for Strengthening Unity's majority branch (the Allameh branch) told RFE/RL's Persian Service on 17 November that there is dissatisfaction with the country's system of government and the demonstrators want it reformed, and on 13 November, Momeni told RFE/RL's Persian Service that the demonstrations are on behalf of all the country's political prisoners. Another student told RFE/RL's Persian Service on 13 November that the demonstrations are an expression of opposition to the regime. He added, "The students have lost hope in reform of the system."

The continuation of the demonstrations and the sentiments behind them may explain Khamenei's implicit threat in a 22 November Friday-prayers sermon that if people do not return to their homes popular forces would intervene against them.

There were gatherings in Mashhad, Qom, Shiraz, and Tehran after the supreme leader's speech. Some 80 people were arrested after student protests in Mashhad and Shiraz, according to the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA). In Tehran, a demonstration commemorating the deaths of national-religious activists Dariush and Parvaneh Foruhar turned into a six-hour brawl between the demonstrators and hard-line elements.

(Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between officially sanctioned repressive elements, such as the Basij Resistance Forces, and unofficial ones, such as the Ansar-i Hizbullah, who purportedly act spontaneously. Often, there is little real difference between them. Basij personnel staged a rally at the tomb of Father of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on 23 November and in front of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran on 24 November, according to IRNA, and they and their colleagues throughout the country railed against the United States.)

Until 18 November, events seemed to be contained and everybody seemed willing to constrain their behavior. In the following days, it became clear that many people have bigger concerns than the fate of a political activist such as Aghajari, however, so the Iranian leadership apparently felt obliged to lay down the law and demonstrate its ability to suppress any anti-regime actions. It is also possible that the hard-line extremists are getting the green light so that they do not feel completely alienated in the behind-the-scenes system of political compromise.

In Iran, the last week of November could be full of tension and violence. Qods Day is traditionally an occasion for the regime to stage rallies throughout the country, and it could turn into an excuse for some of the hard-line groups to act against individuals they see as domestic enemies. (Bill Samii)

JAZAYERI VERDICT TOUCHES ON EXTENT OF CORRUPTION... The 18 November sentencing of Shahram Jazayeri-Arab to 27 years in prison on corruption charges is just the tip of the iceberg. The long-running trial, which started last year, is only one of several corruption-related investigations that have exposed the corrosive influence of Iran's "aqazadehs," the offspring of high-ranking clerics.

Judge Husseini, who presided over the Jazayeri case, said on 18 November that in February 2000 "the judiciary opened an investigation into the illegal activities of the progenies and relatives of certain officials," and in this way it identified Jazayeri, according to state radio. Jazayeri is the primary focus of the case, which also includes another 49 defendants. All the money that Jazayeri is said to have paid to the other defendants has been identified and will be returned to the government. "We are trying to collect those funds," Husseini said, adding that Jazayeri's assets in Iran have been identified and frozen, and efforts are under way to sequester his overseas assets.

Another corruption case involves the son of Ayatollah Abbas Vaez-Tabasi, who runs the Imam Reza Shrine Foundation in Mashhad. Nasser Vaez-Tabasi was released on bail on 22 July, according to IRNA, and barred from leaving the country. One week later, "Kayhan" newspaper reported that the State Audit Office would investigate the Imam Reza Shrine Foundation, which receives huge donations from pilgrims and wealthy benefactors. State Audit Office chief Hojatoleslam Ebrahim Raisi said the courts are investigating more than 60 cases involving the aqazadehs, and some of the corruption cases relate to the privatization of state firms. Raisi added: "These individuals took advantage of their fathers' status to commit some transgressions. The matter is being investigated by the courts."

Administrative Courts chief Qorban Ali Dori-Najafabadi said that public complaints against administrative and judicial institutions had increased 15 percent in the last year, according to state television on 26 October. He said that there were approximately 62,000 complaints last year and 41,000 complaints from March through October this year. Dori-Najafabadi called on institutions to be more disciplined and to act within the framework of the law. Dori-Najafabadi's son, Mohammad, allegedly received millions of rials in bribes from Jazayeri, "Hambastegi" newspaper reported on 16 February.

In yet another case, parliamentarian Mohammad Dadfar said on 21 April that the legislature would investigate the Marine Service Company for its role in the alleged disruption of oil transfers from Central Asia to the Persian Gulf, IRNA reported. Dadfar said that disrupting the flow of oil played into the hands of the United States, and "it was definitely at the request of the U.S. and other countries." Moreover, this discouraged other companies from undertaking oil transfers. On 6 August, parliamentarian Davud Hassan-Zadegan said that President Khatami had appointed a commission that included the minister of intelligence and security, the justice minister, and the Central Bank governor to investigate the case. Hassan-Zadegan said that "some circles" delayed the investigation.

The 28 October edition of "Kayhan" reported that the seven-man team that President Khatami appointed to investigate corruption at the Petropars Company has concluded its investigation. "Kayhan" did not reveal the outcome of that investigation. Petropars is a semiprivate company that had several major contracts with the Petroleum Ministry, and the case was significant enough that Khatami, Speaker of Parliament Karrubi, and judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi discussed it at a 21 April meeting on corruption, according to the Iranian Republic News Agency (IRNA). The case itself involved major oil contracts, and allegations of corruption were made against parliamentarian Behzad Nabavi and Central Bank Governor Mohsen Nurbakhsh.

In the last year, there have been other similar incidents. Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi said on 26 August that 15 bank officials had been arrested on charges of embezzlement and bribery, state radio reported. He added that 47 state officials were arrested for fraud. The chief judge in the Airport Judicial Complex announced, according to the 8 April edition of the "Tehran Times," the investigation of a corruption case involving Atlas Aviation Company and allegedly illegal income of some 208 billion rials ($119.5 million) through the "misuse" of subsidized gasoline. And in September 2001, some 5,000 Iranian businessmen, some of whom had run state companies, were barred from leaving the country because they had failed to repay loans, according to AFP. (Bill Samii)

...BUT THERE IS SKEPTICISM ABOUT TRIALS' EFFECTIVENESS. University professor Mohsen Sazgara said that the ruling establishment pursues cases such as the one against Jazayeri when there is an economic crisis, and by attributing the problems to a few individuals, the establishment tries to assuage the public, "Hamshahri" newspaper reported on 24 February. In reality, Sazgara said, this has little impact, because Jazayeri has cohorts in different government apparatuses that should be brought to justice as well. Sazgara advised monitoring the economic activities of all the "above-the-law apparatuses," and he added, "they should let the parliament and the press scrutinize such institutions closely even if they have not committed any economic fraud." Sazgara concluded that free economic competition and free participation in political affairs go hand in hand.

Mashhad parliamentary representative Ali Zafarzadeh seems to agree with the need for transparency. He said in the 20 October "Hayat-i No" newspaper that secrecy has become institutionalized in the administrative structure, and Iranian officials have feared transparency for a long time. He added, "Some secrecy has resulted in administrative and financial corruption, rentierism [exploitation of a locational advantage], cronyism, and nepotism." (Bill Samii)

CHANTING GANG AT AIRPORT ATTACKS PARLIAMENTARIAN. Twenty chanting people attacked and beat up Ahvaz parliamentary representative Mohammad Kianush-Rad and two companions when they arrived at Tehran's Mehrabad Airport on 17 November, according to ISNA on 18 November and IRNA on 19 November. Kianush-Rad refused to make a formal complaint against his attackers, saying that, instead, one should complain about those who gave the orders and about those who theorize about the acceptable use of violence. He told ISNA: "I am sorry that a group of ignorant young people, some of whom may even have religious concerns, use the foulest possible expressions when they encounter their opponents. They are doing so because they have been provoked by a closed-minded group that is acting under the pretext of defending our values." According to IRNA, which was quoting the "Mardom Salari" daily newspaper, police and security personnel who saw the event did not try to intervene. (Bill Samii)

DEBATE OVER COUNTERNARCOTICS STRATEGY... Byung Kun Min, heading a delegation from the United Nations Office of Internal Oversight Services, said on 18 November that Iran's Noruz drug-control plan is progressing in a satisfactory fashion, IRNA reported (the Noruz Plan addresses interdiction, demand reduction, legal reform, and public awareness; see www.odccp.org/iran/projects.html). The UN delegation also visited an outpatient clinic in Kermanshah, IRNA reported on 19 November, where it learned about a program that uses a new sort of anti-addiction medication and about a program to gather data about addicts. In Isfahan Province, however, Governor-General Seyyed Mahmud Husseini said that there must be change in the anti-trafficking and anti-drug-abuse strategies, IRNA reported on 17 November. Husseini called for a joint national-, regional-, and international-level strategy. (Bill Samii)

...AND A DISPUTE OVER THE CAUSE OF HIV/AIDS. Antonio Mazzitelli of the United Nations Drug Control Program praised Iran for the attention it has given the AIDS issue, IRNA reported on 5 November. He said that there is a relatively low level of the disease in Iran but warned that this could change in the future. Many Iranian officials say that drug abuse is the main reason for HIV/AIDS in Iran, but the director of Iran's Hemophilia Center blames sex.

Iranian Welfare Organization chief Mohammad Reza Rahchamani said on 16 November that drug addiction is the biggest contributor to the spread of HIV/AIDS in Iran, IRNA reported, and only 15 percent of the cases are contracted through sex outside marriage. Health Ministry official Ali Mansuri was quoted by IRNA on 5 November as saying that prisons are the main place for contracting HIV/AIDS, and Prisons Organization Health Director Parviz Afshar said during a 5 November seminar on "Prevention and Treatment of AIDS in Prisons" that about half the people in Iranian prisons are there on drug charges. Afshar said that by March 2005, there would be some 44 health clinics in Iranian prisons to deal with HIV/AIDS.

According to an article in the 26 October edition of "Imruz," 85 percent of the AIDS cases in Iran are contracted through sex but that it is taboo to acknowledge this. The article speculated that many more people have AIDS but are afraid to come forward, and it warned that the problem would become worse due to the prevalence of prostitution. (Bill Samii)

CONFUSION OVER DISRUPTION OF AFGHAN RIVER FLOW. Farmers in Iran's southeastern Sistan va Baluchistan Province depend on water from Afghanistan's extensively used Hirmand (Helmand) River to irrigate their crops, and the division of the waters has been a contentious issue for many years.

In March 1969, for example, Kabul would agree to ensure water flow to Iran only in exchange for credit facilities, improved access to Iranian ports, and development assistance, according to the diaries of Iranian Minister of Court Asadollah Alam ("The Shah and I," Alinaghi Alikhani, ed., London, 1991). And when the Afghan legislature discussed a new agreement on the Hirmand in October 1972, Tehran feared that it would be costly: Iranian monarch Mohammad Reza Pahlavi said, "authorize him [the Iranian ambassador to Kabul] to make the payoffs if you really think they're necessary."

The prime ministers of Iran and Afghanistan signed an accord in 1973 that determined the specific amount of water that should flow into Iran: 26 cubic meters of water per second. Taliban violations of this accord, four years of drought, and the silting up of the waterways combined to badly damage farms in Sistan va Baluchistan Province. A new agreement was reached during President Khatami's 13 August visit to Afghanistan, and the Hirmand's waters reached Iran on 25 October (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 4 November 2002). This did not last very long, however, and the water stopped about 10 days later (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 11 November 2002).

Afghan Minister for Housing and Urban Reconstruction Yusef Pashtun on 15 November registered surprise regarding the interruption of the flow of the Hirmand River's water to Iran, according to IRNA one day later. Pashtun told Iranian officials in the city of Zahedan that the water is supposed to flow for 60 days, and he speculated that Afghan farmers might have diverted the waters for their own use. Khalid Pashtun, the spokesman for Afghanistan's Kandahar Province, said in an interview with Mashhad radio's Dari Service on 16 November that he reassured Iranian Ambassador Ebrahim Taherian that the Hirmand water would reach Zahedan in 10 or 15 days. (Bill Samii)

NORWEGIANS AND IRANIANS EXCHANGE HOSPITALITY. During an official visit to Norway on 18 November, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for European-American Affairs Ali Ahani met with Norwegian Petroleum and Energy Minister Einar Steensnaes, IRNA reported the next day. Steensnaes said that Norway believes there are good prospects for long-term cooperation between Tehran and Oslo, and he expressed the hope that during his forthcoming trip to Tehran he would discuss cooperation in the energy sector, Norway-OPEC collaboration, and efforts to stabilize oil prices. Ahani credited superior Norwegian technology with that country's increased access to Iran's oil-and-gas sector. Norway's Statoil and Iran's Petropars recently signed a $330 million deal to develop the South Pars natural-gas field (see "RFE/RL Iran Report, 4 November 2002).

Ahani met with Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Vida Helgesen on 19 November, IRNA reported, and he suggested cooperation in fisheries, as well as cooperation in parliamentary, judicial, scientific, and academic affairs. Helgesen noted Oslo-Tehran collaboration in the oil market, and mentioned Iran's counternarcotics activities and its assistance to Afghan refugees.

Meanwhile, a delegation of Norwegian parliamentarians, including Foreign Policy Committee head Thorbjorn Jagland, was in Tehran. Jagland met with Speaker of Parliament Karrubi on 19 November, and Karrubi called for the expansion of bilateral ties, according to IRNA. Karrubi said that Europe can play a major role in settling the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, and Jagland noted Iran's constructive role in Afghanistan. (Bill Samii)

IRAN PURCHASES DANISH ARMS. The Foreign Ministry in Copenhagen issued a report that Denmark sold some $77.1 million in arms to Iran, Libya, Ukraine, China, and other countries in 2001, whereas in the previous year, Denmark sold only $31.1 million in arms, according to a 19 November report from the Danish government's official "Danmarks Radio P1." The deputy chairman of the Danish parliament's Foreign Policy Committee, Jeppe Kofoed, said, "It is deeply reprehensible that we are selling military equipment to Iran, which has one of the most loathsome administrations in the world." Danish legislators did not seem to have such moral qualms a few days earlier, when according to the "Jyllands-Posten" daily newspaper on 14 November, the Danish parliament gave the green light for the government to continue with its new policy toward Iran, so that Tehran is "rewarded for democratic progress with political and commercial agreements." (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN'S TAKE ON NATO EXPANSION. The Iranian government probably watched the 21-22 November NATO summit in Prague very closely because of its concerns over the organization's enlargement. Tehran believes that its archenemy, the United States, dominates NATO, and it is reluctant to see any increase in U.S. power and influence. Moreover, the U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and, possibly, in Iraq contributes to Iran's growing sense of isolation and apprehension.

One of the individuals seemingly most concerned about NATO expansion is General Yahya Rahim-Safavi, the commander of Iran's elite Islamic Revolution Guards Corps. In several speeches in September, he warned that the United States would like to extend NATO into the Middle East and the Caucasus by changing some regional governments. "Over the next 20 years, the Americans intend to extend NATO from Turkey to Iraq, the Persian Gulf littoral, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and, finally, Central Asia," Rahim-Safavi told one gathering, according to an ISNA report on 27 September. He added that the United States aims to consolidate its "military and political foothold in three sensitive regions -- namely, the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Caucasus" -- in order to control most of the world's energy resources. In an interview with state radio on 26 September, Rahim-Safavi described another U.S. objective: "They want to help the Zionist regime by providing security for the Zionist regime."

Tehran is also worried about NATO expansion in the context of the Caspian Sea. Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani said in a 29 August interview with the newspaper "Al-Watan" that, although Tehran believes the Caspian should be free of any military activities, it would conduct naval maneuvers there because, "If we do not carry out the necessary measures, one can imagine a situation in which the NATO countries will conduct such maneuvers in the near future."

Within this context, Russia's improving relationship with NATO is a matter of some concern to Tehran. Elaheh Kulyai, who serves on the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Relations Committee, said in the 4 July issue of the "Hayat-i No" daily that Russian-led multinational naval exercises then being conducted on the Caspian are worrisome. "At a time when Russia has established a close relationship with NATO, as a member of that collective body, it is natural that staging a military exercise in the Caspian Sea could in a way become protracted thanks to that country's dominant role," Kulyai said.

Not all members of the Iranian legislature share this concern, however. Parliamentarian Ali Tajernia, who also serves on the National Security and Foreign Relations Committee, said Tehran should not react negatively to a Russia-U.S. relationship as long as it does not threaten Iran, ISNA reported. He stated Russia's weakness relative to the United States leaves it little choice but to acquiesce in NATO's eastward expansion. However, in light of Iran's regional importance, "Russia attaches great importance to relations with Iran," Tajernia said.

Other comments from Tehran over the last few years also indicate concern about NATO expansion and the Western military presence in the region. Tehran promoted a South Caucasus security system in May 2000 that would include only regional states, and the previous month Iranian Deputy Oil Minister Mehdi Husseini accused the United States of promoting the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline with the ultimate objective of "taking control of all countries in the region." Chief of the Joint Staff General Hassan Firuzabadi warned in January 1999 that "the Israelis and the Americans are approaching us from the north," and he made veiled threats about "Shiite Azeris with Iranian blood in their veins." Army commander Major General Mohammad Salimi told a Tehran military seminar in November 2000 that the armed forces must be on the lookout for an attack by NATO or Israel near the Caspian Sea. "Iran's powerful army is the messenger of peace and security in the region, and with the blessings of God, Iran and other regional states will foil all threats posed by the trans-regional troops," he said.

NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia in 1999 on behalf of Kosovar Muslims also greatly disturbed Tehran, although Iran chaired the Organization of the Islamic Conference at the time. Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei said in September 1999 that NATO's actions were meant to "legitimize a new mode of crisis-handling behavior that would merely set a precedent as a rule for future contingencies." Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani said during his Friday-prayer sermon on 2 April 1999 that "if the Islamic world was coordinated and had stopped these atrocities, NATO would not have had a pretext to go there." He admitted that helping the Kosovars is a good thing, but "the problem is that this is being done by an organization like NATO, led by America." (Bill Samii)

For RFE/RL's special report on the NATO summit in Prague, see www.rferl.org/specials/nato/specialreport.asp.

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