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Iran Report: March 12, 2001

12 March 2001, Volume 4, Number 10

FORTIETH PRESS CLOSURE. With the 8 March ban on "Harim," a Tehran-based weekly, the Iranian courts have closed at least 40 publications since last April. The Press Court banned "Harim" for an unspecified period for defaming President Mohammad Khatami in an article that "implicitly derided President Khatami for his promises of establishing the rule of law and a civic society in his 1997 presidential campaign," according to IRNA. Also, the Press Jury found Mohammad Hassan Alipur, publisher of the banned weekly Aban, guilty of "propagating against the Islamic system" and "spreading lies to incite the public," IRNA reported on 7 March. Journalist Masud Behnoud received a 19-month prison sentence for press offenses and possession of drugs and liquor, "Entekhab" reported on 28 February; he has 20 days to file an appeal. Next up is "Asr-i Ma," the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization's weekly mouthpiece, and its publisher, Mohammad Salamati, who is to face 800 complaints, "Iran" reported on 7 March. (Bill Samii)

INTIMIDATION OF PARLIAMENTARIANS CONTINUES. A new salvo in the hard-liners' campaign of intimidating Iran's press and reformist parliamentarians was launched recently. In an 8 March article, the English-language "Tehran Times" daily -- published by the hard-line Islamic Propagation Organization -- claimed that reformist Isfahan parliamentarian Akram Mosavar-Manesh had granted an interview to a local newspaper, and that publication passed on the recording to RFE/RL's Persian Service, which rebroadcast it. According to the contorted logic of "Tehran Times," this is clear evidence to support Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's accusation that the "enemy" had established bases in the reformist press.

When confronted by "Tehran Times," Mosavar-Manesh said that "I really don't know how come my interview was broadcast by the biased Radio Liberty and did not appear in that Persian publication?" In fact, no tape ever came from any Iranian paper. The brief "interview" that RFE/RL's Persian Service broadcast was simply Mosavar-Manesh's statements at an informal press conference in Paris, which she was visiting along with other parliamentarians.

The accusations of "Tehran Times" are not unexpected, and this is not the first time it has complained about RFE/RL's Persian Service. But when this incident is placed alongside the frequent court summons for reformist parliamentarians, the trials of reformist journalists, and the closure of at least 40 publications in less than one year, it is clear that the hard-liners want only one voice to be heard -- their own. (Bill Samii)

INTERNATIONAL WOMEN'S DAY. An important step in changing the unequal status of women in Iran was reported on International Women's Day (8 March). Newspapers said that the Guardians Council had approved a bill permitting single females to study abroad on state scholarships. The Guardians Council had rejected a similar bill in January. Women still must obtain a male guardian's permission to travel abroad.

The recent crackdown on the press, on the other hand, has been particularly hard on female journalists, and this promises to have an impact on the upcoming presidential election. Job opportunities for female writers increased after President Mohammad Khatami's election and the resultant "press boom," Pershing Vaziri writes in a 16 February 2001 MERIP Press Information Note. These women oppose the resurgence of the conservatives because of their restrictions on the press and the danger that poses to their careers.

For a woman to get a new job after her newspaper is closed is quite difficult because there is an assumption that a man is supporting her economically and because the press law says a journalist who worked for a banned paper cannot work for a new one. According to former "Neshat" reporter Minoo Badii, even in the reformist press the women face discrimination, especially at higher management levels.

Meanwhile, attitudes on issues such as the appropriate clothing for women still are manipulated for political reasons. Typifying such a tendency is an article about bareheaded foreign women at a conference in Tehran. Their appearance was "a small example of the corrupt and malignant reformist tumor that has been pricked and has poured out some of its foul puss," Fatimeh Rajabi wrote in the 21 February "Yalisarat al-Hussein." Rajabi also said, in a similar vein, that neither the government nor the parliament were likely to do anything about this event, and anyway, "[it] is clear that restoration of the monarchical culture and the revival of the Age of Ignorance have been the main aim of the 'civil society' and the program of the reformist movement.". (Bill Samii)

JEWISH PRISONER RELEASED. Ramin Nematizadeh, one of ten Iranian Jews convicted in July 2000 for espionage on behalf of Israel, was released from a Shiraz prison on 5 March, AFP reported two days later. Nematizadeh originally received a four-year sentence but this was reduced to two years on appeal. Prosecutors claimed that Nematizadeh was an unwitting accomplice to the whole affair. Fars Province judicial chief Hussein Ali Amiri had said that Nematizadeh would be released before the Iranian new year on 21 March according to IRNA. It is traditional to give convicts amnesties on major holidays. A later IRNA report said that the release was due to the Islamic Feast of Sacrifice. A member of Shiraz's Jewish community who saw Nematizadeh after his release told AFP that "Ramin was very well. He had nothing to complain about and was in high spirits." On the other hand, the entire Iranian Jewish community lives in constant fear and is cut off from the rest of Jewish world, according to Malcolm Hoenlein, head of the conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the "Jerusalem Post" reported on 20 February. (Bill Samii)

FOOT-AND-MOUTH OUTBREAK IN SHAHRUD. Shahrud Veterinary Center chief Ali Rezvani says three outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease affecting 300 animals have been found in northeastern Iran, "Qods" reported on 5 March. Rezvani said the main cause of the outbreak was the smuggling of diseased livestock from Afghanistan and other countries. Iranian officials had warned of the disease-bearing nature of the smuggled livestock in November (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 25 December 2000). Nor is this the first outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Iran. Incidents of Type Asia-1 foot-and-mouth disease have occurred in Iran since September 1999, and the disease spread into Turkey (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 19 June 2000). (Bill Samii)

IRAN ADMITS MORE REFUGEES. The recent displacement of about 700,000 Afghans as they struggle to escape Taliban massacres of the Shia minority and to survive harsh winter conditions and scarce food supplies in their own country promises to increase the demand for Iranian refugee support. Indeed, Iranian authorities in Herat, western Afghanistan, are issuing 100-150 visas a day to refugees on the border, AFP reported on 6 February, while other Afghans try to enter the country illegally near Zabol. Nearly 80,000 people had reached Herat by late February, and the number is expected to exceed 100,000 by the spring, UN official Hans Pulsen told the 22 February "Washington Post." Also, Tehran supplied 40 tons of food and blankets to the 13,000 Afghans caught on islands in the Pyanj River, between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Tajikistan will not allow them to enter, because, in the words of Tajik President Imomali Rakhmanov, "These are not just refugees there. There are several hundred men armed to the teeth. Not one refugee from the territory of Afghanistan will be allowed into Tajikistan."

Foreigners living in Iran enjoy "the same services, facilities, and subsidies as Iranians," Yazd Province Governor-General Gholamali Sefid told a visiting delegation from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), IRNA reported on 5 March. Yazd hosts 120,000 foreigners he said; in total, Iran hosts about 2 million foreigners. Although Sefid's statement about Iranian hospitality for the refugees was once accurate, it no longer is, and resentment about refugees is growing because many Iranians believe that they take scarce jobs and contribute to crime.

So even as Iran admits more refugees, it also has increased the pressure on the foreigners it already hosts. Afghans who arrived in the 1980s were issued a Blue Card that identified them as involuntary migrants (mohajer) rather than refugees (panahandeh) and which did not specify how long they could stay in the country. Those who arrived in the 1990s were given temporary cards that made it easier to repatriate them, and now they are considered to be illegal aliens. All foreign nationals were instructed to register with the government starting on 19 February, IRNA reported, with the promise that their documents would be returned afterwards.

The government must expel all foreign workers with no work permits by March 2001, and anybody employing an illegal worker after that date could be fined and/or imprisoned. This effectively makes a work permit the document needed to stay in Iran. Fartash, the head of the Hamedan Province labor inspection office, clarified the situation when he said that a residency permit or an entry visa is not equivalent to a work permit, Bandar Abbas' "Omid-i Sahel" reported in November.

Meanwhile, police in eastern Khorasan Province have ordered all foreign nationals living there to leave for their homes, IRNA reported on 1 February. This province hosts the most refugees, and they bear the brunt of the blame for crime there. Labor Ministry official Qoli Sheikhi predicted that 1.8 million jobs could become available once repatriation of the foreign nationals is complete. He added, IRNA reported on 9 March, that "with the repatriation of foreign nationals, a major part of the existing unemployment problem for unskilled workers will be solved." (Bill Samii)

AFGHANS DESTROY OPIUM, IRAN GETS AID. Bern has agreed to increase its cooperation with Tehran's counter-narcotics efforts, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Ahani announced after a meeting with Swiss Foreign Minister Joseph Deiss and Economy Minister Pascal Couchepin, IRNA reported in mid-February. And British Cabinet Minister Mo Mowlam indicated the United Kingdom's willingness to contribute over $100,000 to UN counter-narcotics programs in Iran and also signed a counter-narcotics Memorandum of Understanding during a late-February visit to Tehran. The agreements and pledges may be an act of futility because the Iranian parliament just refused to approve a budgetary allocation for strengthened defensive measures on the eastern borders, the head of the country's counter-narcotics headquarters just resigned amidst policy disagreements, and opium fields in Afghanistan were being destroyed.

The ministers of intelligence and security, of foreign affairs, of the interior, and of defense have been summoned by the parliament to explain the reasons for increased insecurity along the country's eastern borders, IRNA reported on 5 March. Indeed, the degree of insecurity in eastern Khorasan Province has gotten so bad that "after the evening prayers, people barricade and imprison themselves in their houses, and nobody leaves his house until the next morning; people are in the grip of fear and terror all the time." Zuzan district education officer Nurollah Javanshiri continued, according to the 24 January "Qods:" "Insecurity in the region has reached such proportions that in one of the villages people have completely evacuated their homes and fled to other villages nearby."

And in the following month, the state news agency reported at least 10 arrests or killings of assorted bandits, as well as the liberation of some 57 people who were being held for ransom, in the eastern provinces of Khorasan, Sistan va Baluchistan, and Kerman. The Afghan "drug lord" Asqar Khan, who was arrested in January, was hanged in the border town of Kashmar on 7 March. And the drugs continue to get through. In Tehran's Khak-i Sefid district, a massive operation resulted in the arrest of 1,000 drug traffickers, IRNA reported on 27 February. 165 people were arrested on Kish Island in seizures of drugs and alcohol, "Kayhan" reported on 3 March.

Disagreements over counter-narcotics methodology and strategy may explain the failure to approve the requested budget allocation of 200 million rials (about $114 million at the official rate or $25 million at the market rate) and its reduction to 50 billion rials (about $28 million or $6.25 million). Sabzevar parliamentarian Hassan Seyyedabadi told the 28 January "Khorasan" that money was not the answer, explaining that only 3 billion of the 200 billion rials allocated last year for security in Khorasan was spent, and if anything, the security situation worsened. Mashhad parliamentary representative Tajernia said that "physical blocking of the borders will be effective only when it is coupled with development of the eastern parts of the country..." Torbat-i Jam representative Ahmad Khas-Ahmadi said that physically sealing the borders would be necessary only if insecurity continues after addressing locals' "social and economic problems and difficulties." Khas-Ahmadi also recommended creation of a unified military and political command for the border areas.

Foreign relations issues also may complicate counter-narcotics efforts. Freed hostages were told by their captors that as long as Iran recognizes the government of Afghan President Burhanudin Rabbani and supports the opposition to the Taliban, insecurity in the eastern provinces will continue, "Hambastegi" reported on 31 January. Mashhad representative Tajernia and Sabzevar representative Seyyedabadi both told "Khorasan" that relations with Afghanistan need some sort of strategy and reappraisal.

Security officials have a different take on the issue. Javad Erfanian, superintendent of the disciplinary-security department of the Khorasan governor-general's office, told "Khorasan" that construction activities had started on the basis of the previous year's allocation, and the projects that are in progress may come to a halt if the credits for the coming year are not forthcoming. Khorasan Governor-General Mohsen Mehralizadeh continues to advocate arming of villagers and creation of Basij units in the villages. Khorasan Province Deputy Governor-General for security and law enforcement affairs Hussein Zaresefat warned that the LEF has devised several new and innovative programs, "Khorasan": reported on 21 January, but they cannot be implemented without the necessary "advanced equipment and financial help."

Meanwhile, problems continue with Iran's Anti-Narcotics Headquarters. On the one hand, Mohammad Fallah, secretary of the organization, has complained previously about the lack of cooperation he receives from other branches of the government. Other branches of the government, on the other hand, have complained about Fallah and what they see as an ill-formed counter-narcotics strategy. These differences seemed to reach a head at the end of February, when the distinguished British guest, Mo Mowlam, was in town to attend a counter-narcotics event, sign an MOU, and pledge more money. Fallah was supposed to host Mowlam, but instead her escort was Vice President Mohammad Hashemi. According to the 26 February "Financial Times," Fallah had just resigned due to policy differences. President Mohammad Khatami later persuaded Fallah to resume his post, "RFE/RL Iran Report" was told.

In theory, Iran's difficulties with Afghan opium smugglers may be a thing of the past. After UN Drug Control Program personnel spent two weeks in Afghanistan in February and visited Helmand, Kandahar, Urzgan, and Nangarhar Provinces, as well as two others, they declared that the Taliban have effectively ceased production of opium. UNDCP spokesman Sandro Tucci said that only about 60 acres are still under cultivation, AP reported on 16 February. Furthermore, Taliban leader Mullah Omar had announced in July 2000 that the cultivation of opium was banned. Reacting to skepticism about whether or not all opium production has been eliminated, Tucci advised "careful optimism."

This year's opium crop may be smaller than usual because of the drought afflicting the region. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization believes that Afghanistan is the worst hit by the drought, which has caused extensive losses of livestock and crops. The drought comes on the heels of a 1999 outbreak of pests that cut Afghanistan's cereal production by some 16 percent. Also, opium prices have increased. A kilo of opium cost $35-40 last year, but this year it can cost $200-350.

According to International Narcotics Control Board chief Hamid Qods, there are indications that large stockpiles of drugs remain in Afghanistan -- enough to meet European consumption needs for three or four years, IRNA reported on 21 February. The most recent INCB report is more specific: "because of the opium stocks from previous harvests, the ban, if implemented, will have no immediate impact on the prices or availability of opiates originating in Afghanistan."

An agreement to restrict the availability of acetic anhydride, a chemical used to manufacture heroin, was signed in Antalya, Turkey, in October. UN Security Council Resolution 1333, which was passed on 19 December, calls on countries to "prevent the sale, supply or transfer, by their nationals or from their territories of the chemical acetic anhydride to any person in the territory of Afghanistan under Taliban control." (This means that areas under the control of the opposition Northern Alliance, where opium also is harvested, can continue their activities.)

Yet the abuse of heroin in Iran has increased in the last year, despite interdiction efforts and the destruction of Afghan heroin laboratories and opium crops. The case of Haji Jumar Khan in southern Afghanistan, as reported in the 14 February "Guardian," may show why. He reportedly runs "one of Afghanistan's biggest heroin production and smuggling operations." He operates beyond the reach of Pakistani authorities, and his personnel are equipped with the most modern equipment, such as night-vision goggles and new four-wheel-drive vehicles. Furthermore, his operations are essential for the local economy, which means that the security forces activities are not appreciated. Captain Saif Riaz of the Pakistani ANF is based near Khan's area of operations and he explained that his post has been attacked three times by villagers. "We are sitting in the drug traffickers' den.... This is their area." (Bill Samii)

REACTIONS TO TERRORIST ARRESTS. Reactions to the recent crackdown by the U.S. and U.K. on the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO, but also known as the National Liberation Army of Iran, the People's Mujahedin of Iran, Organization of the People's Holy Warriors of Iran, National Council of Resistance, Muslim Iranian Student's Society) have ranged from appreciative and skeptical in Tehran to threatening and whining in Baghdad.

A "reliable source" with the Iranian Foreign Ministry said that his agency welcomed the late February arrest in Los Angeles of seven people on charges of fund-raising for the MKO. The source added, IRNA reported on 2 March, that the arrests were proof of the MKO's presence and activities outside Iran.

Iranian state radio's 2 March commentary was more skeptical. "It seems that such measures of the West, specially the United States, are a temporary move so as to prove the alleged claims of the White House over its campaign against terrorism and while Washington's dual policy in the face of terrorism should not slide into oblivion." The commentary also said that the arrests are proof that in spite of legal prohibitions in the U.S., the group is still active in anti-Iran activities.

The MKO claimed on 2 March that one of its camps which is located 370 kilometers south of Baghdad came under Iranian 107-millimeter rocket attack, according to Kyodo News. In a cable sent to the United Nations, MKO supremo Masud Rajavi claimed that the attack was linked with Britain's decision to include his group on a list of terrorist organizations, "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on 3 March. In another statement, the MKO claimed that it would "use all resources and legal means available to it to protest and file a lawsuit to prevent the proposed proscription of the organization."

Turning to the seven people arrested in Los Angeles, a Paris-based spokesman for the MKO said that allegations that the money was funneled to them were "absolutely bogus." "The Mujahedin have no connection whatsoever" with the charity for which the funds purportedly were being raised, according to the 3 March "Los Angeles Times." (Bill Samii)

OFFICIALS COMMENT ON RELATIONS WITH U.S. During his recent trip to Athens, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi predicted that there are "chances that there may be a change of policy by the new U.S. administration" towards Iran, but "it is too soon to judge," IRNA reported on 8 March. Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Mohtashemi-Pur, described as "President Mohammad Khatami's adviser and head of the parliamentary reformist bloc," said he is "optimistic" about the Bush administration because the signs from it are "positive." Mohtashemi discussed the conditions for normalization of Iran-U.S. relations in an interview with the 8 March "Al-Hayat," which is a Saudi-owned daily from London. Referring to Iranian assets that are frozen in U.S. banks, Mohtashemi said that "[t]he conditions include the establishment of equal relations based on respect and fulfillment of the rights of Iran and its people." He added that "[t]he US administration should not interfere in Iranian affairs, should deal with the Islamic countries in a peaceful manner, and recognize the rights of the Palestinian people as well as all the Islamic peoples." (Bill Samii)