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Iran Report: September 24, 2001

24 September 2001, Volume 4, Number 36

IRANIAN OFFICIALS FALL IN LINE. Iran's top political and religious official has condemned the 11 September terrorist attacks in the U.S., but the likelihood of public and significant Iranian participation in any anti-Taliban coalition seems increasingly remote. Instead, Iran is trying to generate enthusiasm for a global movement under UN auspices that would condemn all sorts of terrorism.

"Mass murder of human beings is condemned.... If we are supposed to condemn such deeds, which we must, we must condemn it everywhere," Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a televised 17 September discussion. Khamenei said that "America's expansionist policies were the cause of recent developments," in response to a rhetorical question on why the country that "nominates itself to be the sheriff of the global village" is a terrorist safe house. "Most of the evidence points the finger of suspicion towards the Zionists for masterminding the recent incidents in America," according to Khamenei, and he went on to say that Israel is exploiting the situation to oppress the Muslim Palestinians.

President Mohammad Khatami initially condemned the attacks and expressed his sympathy (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 17 September 2001), and this led to expectations that Tehran and Washington might cooperate in an anti-terrorism or at least anti-Taliban coalition. "They have said something that is different than what we have heard from them previously. They, too, are shocked by what happened, they tell us. And so it seems to me that is an opening worth exploring," U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said, according to "The Boston Globe." Iranian parliamentarian Mohammad Kazem Jalili seemed to confirm this when he told "The Washington Post" of 18 September that "Iran is interested in joining the anti-terrorism coalition," and such a development could have an impact on the two countries' future relations. Contributing to the expectations of cooperation was an 18 September report in Canada's "National Post." That report said that Tehran sent a message to Washington via Toronto that it would not oppose military strikes against the parties responsible for the attacks against the U.S.

On 19 September, however, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi rejected the "National Post" report. Another Foreign Ministry official told the "Tehran Times" that Tehran does not recognize the legitimacy of Washington's anti-terrorism campaign. Parliamentarian Jalili had warned, in his interview with "The Washington Post," that the key to Iranian cooperation would be "if the U.S. and the West would agree to define terrorism to include all types of terror, including the kind occurring in Palestine, and not just according to their own interests."

In fact, after Khatami expressed his sympathies on the day of the terrorist attacks, some of his cabinet members, such as Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, indicated that Israel was taking advantage of the situation. Khatami also expressed this sentiment in a telephone conversation with the current Organization of the Islamic Conference chairman, Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani, when the Iranian president accused Israel of taking advantage of the current situation to escalate its "state terrorism," Xinhua reported on 17 September. (Bill Samii)

AFGHAN WAR WITHOUT IRAN ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE. Tehran has rejected almost any sort of overt involvement in a U.S. attack against Afghanistan, although Tehran's involvement with Afghan resistance forces may bring the two sides together covertly. Washington's experience with Iranian-backed Afghans in the 1980s, however, could make the U.S. government somewhat hesitant about involvement with Tehran's friends.

Statements from Tehran suggest that little cooperation will be forthcoming. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi, for example, said on 20 September, "We will never allow American airplanes to use Iranian airspace to attack Afghanistan." Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, furthermore, said on 17 September that "if America were to enter Pakistan and dispatch forces to Afghanistan so as to expand its might in the region, its problems will multiply daily."

Washington, on the other hand, is aware that sustained action against the Taliban will be difficult without Iranian involvement, not only because of Iran's location but because of its extended support for the Afghan opposition. This may explain British Prime Minister Tony Blair's telephone conversation with President Mohammad Khatami on 20 September, as well as British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's announcement that he would visit Tehran during his 25-27 September visit to the region. This realization, furthermore, may explain a message of gratitude from Washington to Tehran for Khatami's expression of sympathy last week.

Tehran provides the opposition Northern Alliance with weapons, large-scale funding, and training, while Moscow transports this Iranian aid, according to a July 2001 report by Human Rights Watch. Former U.S. government analysts note that the Northern Alliance controls about a quarter of Afghanistan's territory, and some observers of Afghan affairs have urged Washington to back the Northern Alliance against the Taliban actively. For their part, Northern Alliance spokesmen claim that they can form an army of 45,000 men and have offered to lead a ground attack against the Taliban, as long as the U.S. provides air support.

To date, Washington has avoided direct involvement with the Northern Alliance, preferring instead to act in the context of the UN's 6+2 Group (Afghanistan's immediate neighbors, and Russia and the U.S.). University of Maine professor Bahman Baktiari told RFE/RL that this solution still appeals to Tehran. Baktiari explained, "The leaders in Iran prefer the 6+2 Group formula at the United Nations -- that is, the formula that was created to solve Afghanistan -- because 6+2 allows Iran to participate in this coalition without publicly losing face that it is siding with the United States."

In addition to its involvement with the 6+2 Group and with the Northern Alliance, Tehran has been involved with two of the three "processes" -- the Rome Process and the Cypress Process -- that aim to resolve the Afghan conflict. The Rome Process centers on exiled Afghan monarch Zahir Shah. Washington is funding and organizing the travel of several Northern Alliance figures to Rome to confer with the exiled monarch, "The Guardian" reported on 21 September. The British daily cited "diplomatic cables from the Washington embassy of a key NATO ally" which said, "The king plans to call on all the Afghan tribes to rise up against the Taliban." Iranian state radio confirmed, on 22 September, that a delegation led by Northern Alliance spokesman Mohammad Yunis Kanuni had headed to Rome to meet with Zahir Shah. The Cypress Process is organized by the son-in-law of Gulbudin Hekmatyar, leader of the Afghan Hizb-i Islami and a resident of Iran. In an interview with the 21 September issue of "Le Figaro" Hekmatyar said that if the U.S. attacks Afghanistan, "we will have no other choice than to take up arms against the Americans in order to defend our country." Referring to Zahir Shah, Hekmatyar said he told the U.S. that "Mullah Omar would be better than that puppet of a former king." Hekmatyar also criticized Northern Alliance chiefs who called for coordination with the U.S. in attacking the Taliban, according to Reuters on 20 September.

This sort of attitude seriously undercut Tehran's influence over the Afghan Mujahedin during the 1980s, as did several other factors. Tehran condemned the reliance on Western arms and rarely allowed weapons from Pakistan to be transported through Iran to Afghanistan, yet the amount of Iranian assistance never matched Western assistance. Tehran's preference for the Shia Mujahedin, furthermore, drove away the majority Sunnis and reduced Tehran's influence among the main resistance groups. Iran then tried to channel all the aid through the Islamic Movement of Afghanistan (Harakat-i Islami-yi Afghanistan), which increased the resentment of the other Afghans. This culminated in actual fighting between some of the groups.

At that time, furthermore, there was American concern about the Iranians and their influence among the Mujahedin groups. This led to an emphasis on Pushtun groups in Pakistan, especially Hekmatyar, particularly after the provision of Stinger missiles to the Mujahedin, according to Ralph Magnus and Eden Naby ("Afghanistan: Mullah, Marx, and Mujahid," 1998). The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency opposed monitoring of the Stingers because Pakistani military intelligence insisted on controlling aid operations. This attitude changed after October 1987, when one of the sixteen Stingers a resistance commander sold to Iran almost hit a U.S. helicopter in the Persian Gulf. (Bill Samii)

IRAN'S PAST CATCHING UP WITH IT. The main suspect in the terrorist outrages of 11 September is Al Qaida and its leader, Saudi-born Osama bin Laden. Iran's links with Lebanese Hizballah, which the U.S. Department of State identifies as a terrorist organization, and that organization's purported links with bin Laden, have led to suspicions about some sort of Iranian involvement in the attacks.

Two Iranians are being held on San Miguel Island of Portugal's Azores archipelago and have been questioned by Portugal's Security Information Service and Foreigners and Borders Service, as well as a representative of the U.S. Embassy in Lisbon. When they were initially detained in early September, the two Iranians said that they were seeking asylum in Canada, Lisbon's "Publico" reported on 16 September. The two had forged Dutch and U.S. passports, as well as valid Iranian ones. The two had been left on their own on the island, but after the 11 September attacks in the U.S., they were detained. If a link with the terrorist attacks is not established, they will be tried for possession and use of forged documents.

American and European officials believe the terrorists belong to isolated cells that act in concert with bin Laden and one or more foreign governments: "In this order -- Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq," an unidentified "top-ranking U.S. law enforcement official" said in the 14 September "Los Angeles Times." These officials believe that the hijackers' handlers remain in the U.S., and the scope of the operation would have required assistance from "militant groups in Iran and Iraq." "The speculation at the end of the road is that [bin Laden] and his network were very much involved with Hizballah, Fatah, and other [terrorist organizations]," Senator Charles Grassley told AP on 12 September after a law enforcement briefing.

An example of such cooperation would be the aid provided by Hizballah to the bin Laden followers who attacked the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen in autumn 2000, according to authorities cited in the "Los Angeles Times." During an October 2000 trial relating to the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, furthermore, one defendant described the relationships between international terrorist organizations, such as bin Laden's Al Qaida and Lebanon's Hizballah. The defendant claimed that the "head of Hizballah" (presumably Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah) met with bin Laden, and Hizballah gave demolitions training to Al Qaida (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 30 October 2000). Moreover, the Justice Department alleges that a top Iranian religious leader met with bin Laden's representatives to cooperate against Western interests, according to AP.

President George Bush said in his 20 September address to the U.S. Congress that all the evidence points to Al Qaida. He went on to say that Al Qaida and bin Laden "are linked to many other organizations in different countries -- including the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan [IMU]." This statement also indicates Iranian involvement, because the U.S. State Department's "Patterns of Global Terrorism: 2000" report notes that Cairo believes that Iran, Sudan, and Afghan militant groups support Egyptian Islamic Jihad (a.k.a. al-Jihad, Jihad Group, Islamic Jihad, Vanguards of Conquest, Talaa' al-Fateh) and Al-Gamaat al-Islamiyya (Islamic Group). Moreover, Iranian state radio broadcasts IMU leadership statements.

President Bush warned: "Our war on terror begins with Al Qaida but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated." (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN MILITARY READIES ITSELF. The Iranian armed forces are likely to be very busy in the coming weeks, as they prepare to repel invaders and to commemorate the anniversary of the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. Commander of the Navy Vice Admiral Abbas Mohtaj said during a 17 September ceremony at Chahbahar that Iran's armed forces are "ready and alert to defend the national interests and territorial integrity of the country," according to IRNA. Citing a "military source in Tehran," the 18 September "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported the strengthening of air defenses around airports, military bases, and sensitive installations such as the Bushehr nuclear reactor and military-industrial facilities. U.S. intelligence satellites have detected Iranian naval forces steaming out of their ports and ground forces moving from their bases to remote locations. An unidentified U.S. intelligence officer said that both Iran and Iraq are hunkering down in anticipation of U.S. attacks against terrorist-backing states, "The Washington Times" reported on 17 September.

The armed forces also are marking the anniversary of the war with Iraq (also known as Sacred Defense Week). The "Memory of Epics" exhibition will be held at the Imam Khomeini mausoleum to mark the anniversary. Exhibitors will include the regular army, navy, and air force; the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps; the Basij Resistance Forces; the Ministry of Defense; and state broadcasting, state television reported on 16 September. Senior military and civilian officials participated in a 22 September parade.

Defense production and acquisition activities are continuing, too. Three models of the Takvar light military vehicle will be introduced during Sacred Defense Week, state television reported, and all of its parts are domestically produced. On 20 September, state television described the Tondar-5 project; equipment designed and manufactured by Iranian specialists that can detect damage to the barrels of artillery pieces, thereby preventing further damage or explosions in the tubes. Minister of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Vice Admiral Ali Shamkhani is due to arrive in Moscow on 24 September, according to "Tehran Times," having postponed a trip that was planned for earlier in the month. The trip is expected to produce several arms contracts. Iran intends, furthermore, to buy advanced weapons systems from France, Germany, China, Pakistan, and North and South Korea. The French have proposed the sale of Mirage aircraft, "Siyasat-i Ruz" reported on 9 September, and the Germans have proposed the sale of tanks and submarines.

Discussing strategy, Shamkhani said that Israel is Iran's main "problem" at the moment, "Noruz" reported on 25 August. He went on to say that Iran should concentrate on the acquisition of "security software" and on reducing tensions in its relations with other countries, because concentrating on arms and other military hardware would lead to an arms race with Israel. (Bill Samii)

A PEOPLE AND ITS GOVERNMENT. Discussing the consequences of the terrorist attacks in New York City, Mayor Rudy Giuliani said on 20 September: "The official number [of missing] right now is up to 6,333. We have recovered 241 bodies, and there are officially now 6,291 injuries." Many individual Iranians have expressed their condolences for these losses, and some have indicated a willingness to help.

"When I saw the first pictures I knew as a fireman that there were going to be colleagues there in the World Trade Center," Deputy Tehran fire department chief Mohammad Bayat said, adding that many of his personnel have asked to go to New York to help. Bayat expressed his condolences for the families of lost firemen, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on 18 September, and he told their children, "You should live with pride all your lives for having such heroic fathers."

About 2,000 people gathered in Tehran on 18 September to hold a candle-light vigil in recognition of the victims of the 11 September terrorist attacks in the U.S. The Interior Ministry initially gave permission for the rally but then withdrew it, citing potential traffic problems. Police were at the rally site when people began to arrive, according to "Hambastegi," but their attempts to disperse the crowd failed. People chanted against terrorism and expressed their sympathy with America. There were a few scuffles between the ralliers and hard-line vigilantes, and the police did not intervene.

Reformist parliamentarian Ahmad Burqani on 17 September visited the U.S. Interest Section at the Swiss Embassy in Tehran to sign the book of condolences. Tehran's Mayor Morteza Alviri and Municipal Council head Mohammad Atrianfar sent a letter to New York's Rudy Giuliani: "Tehran's citizens express their deep hatred of this ominous and inhuman move, strongly condemn the culprits and express their sympathy with New Yorkers."

Mohammad Reza Khatami, who heads the Islamic Iran Participation Party, said, "This blind and unjustifiable terrorist attack against defenseless people can despite the many innocent victims be the start of a new era." He went on to say that Iran's stance should be clarified so the country could avoid being isolated in the next decade. The IIPP stance is none too clear: last week it criticized the U.S. government for "staunchly supporting the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world, Israel."

Parliamentarian Meisam Saidi condemned the terrorist attacks in the U.S. and expressed his belief that whoever carried out the attacks had collaborators inside the U.S. intelligence community, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 20 September. The Tehran-based Association of Muslim Journalists expressed its sympathies on 18 September and said that "firm evidence" exists which proves that the terrorist attacks in the U.S. "could not have been designed out of the U.S. security system and without aid from individuals inside the system," according to IRNA. Tehran's Arabic-language Voice of the Palestinian Islamic Revolution on 19 September suggested that Israel was behind the terrorist attacks in the U.S. And on 21 September, state television mentioned a "news report" which claimed that the "4,000 Jews" who worked in the World Trade Center "had all decided to take a day off on 11 September." The report went on to say that "there were no Jews among those who were killed." (Bill Samii)

SACRED DEFENSE WEEK -- TWENTY-ONE YEARS AGO TODAY. Iran will mark Sacred Defense Week, the anniversary of its eight-year war against Iraq, at the end of September. The two countries' conflict ended with a cease-fire in August 1988, but for many Iranians -- such as the disabled and the families of the dead -- the war will never end. The heaviest burden, furthermore, might be on the families of prisoners of war and the missing in action. As long as these latter issues are not resolved, Iranian veterans and the families of martyrs are likely to continue lobbying against improving relations with Iraq.

Iranian POW and MIA Commission chief Brigadier General Abdullah Najafi told the families in August that there are about 10,000 Iranian MIAs. Tehran is already searching for its MIAs in the Iraqi part of Shalamcheh, IRNA reported on 11 September. Tehran and Baghdad agreed that searches for MIAs in other parts of Iraq could commence on 22 September.

The International Committee of the Red Cross sent a letter to both parties in October 1988 in which it asked for the unconditional release and repatriation of all prisoners, Djamchid Momtaz wrote in "Iranian Perspectives on the Iran-Iraq War" (Farhang Rajaee, ed.), and by November the two sides agreed to release 1,200 Iraqis for 400 Iranians. Baghdad released the first batch of Iranian POWs in 1990, and it and Tehran have exchanged about 100,000 POWs since the war's end.

Baghdad and Tehran dispute how many more POWs remain. Tehran says that 3,000-6,000 Iranians are still in Iraqi prisons, while Baghdad claims that about 30,000 Iraqis remain in Iran. Both sides reject the opposing claims. Baghdad claims that it released the last prisoner, pilot Hassan Reza Lashkari, in April 1998. Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri al-Hadithi explained that Lashkari was not actually a POW because he was shot down in September 1980, before the war really started, Amman's official Petra-JNA news agency reported on 18 August. Baghdad television claimed the next day that Iraq even released "Iranian prisoners who participated in the chapter of treason and treachery in 1991 [presumably the Shia uprising after the Gulf War]."

Iran's General Najafi explained that 8,000 Iraqi POWs have requested political asylum, IRNA reported on 19 August. Red Cross officials have frequently stated that thousands of the Iraqis want to stay in Iran. (Bill Samii)

'IT SEEMS BANNING PAPERS IS THE GENERAL RULE...' "While lifting the ban is an exception," a commentary in the 21 August issue of the reformist "Noruz" stated. Indeed, media events in August and September followed a pattern that is all too familiar for observers of Iranian affairs, with bans, trials, and calls for self-censorship.

The provincial justice administration of Qom on 20 September ordered the temporary suspension of "Rahiyan-i Faziyeh" weekly for insulting President Mohammad Khatami, Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari, and former Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance Ataollah Mohajerani, according to IRNA. The weekly implied that the three officials had betrayed religion during the president's first term.

The managing editors of the weeklies "Gonbad-i Kabud" (Mohammad Safizadeh),"Harim" (Hassan Akhtari), and "Milad" (Qolam-Reza Husseinifar) appeared in court on 10 September. The Tehran-based "Harim" was banned in March for defaming President Mohammad Khatami. "Gonbad-i Kabud" and "Milad" were accused last September of printing offensive photographs.

The Special Court for the Clergy held an open session on 3 September to review a complaint by imprisoned journalist Akbar Ganji against his guards. Ganji had complained in October that the guards had beaten him up and tortured him before a court hearing. Moreover, Ganji filed an appeal in mid-August for a reduction in his sentence. His lawyer said that he had requested a reversal of the current sentence of six years, which at one point had been reduced to six months. His original sentence, passed down by the Revolutionary Court, was 10 years in jail followed by five years of internal exile.

Tehran's Special Court for the Clergy temporarily closed "Mehr" weekly on 9 September for spreading lies, causing anxiety, and spreading insults. Editor in Chief Seyyed Ali Mir-Fatah registered his incredulity in an interview with the Islamic Students News Agency, saying that the staff and writers are "Hezbullahi" and asking, "if we cannot tolerate this group of people which is pious and loyal to the Islamic revolution, to whom will the cultural and press sphere remain open?"

Akbar Ganji criticized the reformist media for not publishing any of his articles recently, according to an early September report, but he added that he sympathizes with the conditions the media currently faces. In light of Deputy Minister for Islamic Culture and Guidance Shaban Shahid-Moaddab's 21 August call for managing editors to exercise greater care in the statements they publish -- in other words, to practice self-censorship -- Ganji's sympathies are appropriate. Shahidi also said that reporters and editors must be more careful.

"A journalist should be able to understand realities and take certain issues into consideration up to the point that his professional responsibility is not harmed," according to Rajabali Mazrui, the head of the journalists union and an Isfahan parliamentarian. Nevertheless, Mazrui said in the 6 August "Aftab-i Yazd," "Under the current conditions in the country, the journalists and reporters will be treading a minefield if they want to do a professional job."

As has been the case before, the press closures and trials coincide with the granting of new publication licenses and the removal of bans against existing publications. A popular Tehran daily newspaper reappeared in August. The Tehran Justice Department temporarily lifted the ban on "Hambastegi" daily on 20 August and it resumed publication on 25 August after its managing editor admitted to publishing offensive articles inadvertently. The reformist daily was closed for having published an interview in which a parliamentarian questioned the patriotism of the Iraqi-born Judiciary chief. In a 21 August "Noruz" commentary about the "Hambastegi" case it was noted that "the right to publish is the general rule, [whereas] the imposition of a ban on that right is an exception to that general rule.... No only God knows how can lifting of a ban on the right of a publication be a temporary measure."

Two new publications came out, too. The weekly "Hamdeli," exclusive to Khuzestan Province, appeared on 19 August, and its publisher is Behbahan and Aghajari parliamentarian Valiollah Shojapurian. "Negin-i Kuhistan" monthly began publication in Fars and Kohkiluyeh va Boyer Ahmad Province in the middle of the month. The publisher is Mohammad Reza Didehbandan and the managing director is Ruhollah Sakhabi. And on 10 September, according to IRNA, the Press Supervisory Board approved the publication applications of a weekly, a biweekly, five monthlies, and two journals.

Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, chief editor of the banned dailies "Neshat" and "Asr-i Azadegan," was released on bail, "Hayat-i No" reported on 13 September. Shamsolvaezin was jailed in April. An estimated 14 journalists have been released from prison recently, according to the German dpa news agency. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN PURCHASES ROMANIAN PUBLICATION. In June four Romanians sold all their shares in Fundatia-Editura-Revista Romania Mare SRL (Romania Mare Publishing House Foundation) to Maria Magdalena Dumitru, the sister of the Greater Romania Party leader and owner of the weeklies, Corneliu Vadim Tudor. Nine days later she sold all her shares to an Iranian man named Reza Kaja. According to Bucharest's "Ziua Romanian" on 31 August, this is one of the means by which companies can launder their debts. The purchasers, in this case Reza Kaja, then disappear, having used a false passport for identification purposes. It subsequently turned out that the same Reza Kaja had falsified documents to rent some offices for his new company. Now the directorate in charge of fighting economic and financial crime within Romania's General Police Inspectorate is investigating the sale of the magazine and is searching for "the Iranian."

Bucharest's "Evenimentul Zilei" on 4 September tried to drum up some nationalist outrage at the sale of the magazine to a foreigner. Cluj-Napoca Mayor Gheorghe Funar, who by coincidence is secretary-general of Tudor's Greater Romania Party, said he would cooperate with the newspaper anyway. "I like the Iranian people, so I would not mind if 'Romania Mare' was run by an Iranian citizen.... I wish to say that in the following days the municipality of Cluj-Napoca will be twinned to a great Iranian city." (Bill Samii)