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Iran Report: January 24, 2000

24 January 2000, Volume 3, Number 4

KHARRAZI VISITS LONDON... Speaking at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs on 11 January, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said: "We welcome this new initiative, to bury the past and to start a new round of relations between Iran and Britain. I believe there are a lot of mutual interests between Iran and the United Kingdom, to work together and to help each other, not only economically but politically with regional matters, with international matters, on cultural matters and between Islam and Christianity." Kharrazi is the highest-ranking Iranian official to visit the UK openly since 1979. He met with Prime Minister Tony Blair and Foreign Minister Robin Cook, and he urged a gathering of Iranians to invest in Iran and praised the country's economic progress under the first two five-year plans.

During his two-day visit to England, Kharrazi also took the opportunity to say that a dialog with the U.S. is unacceptable under current circumstances. He simultaneously urged Britain to take the lead in encouraging a change in U.S. policies between Iran. Curiously, he told a meeting of academics and merchants: "The U.S. has isolated itself because of its sanction policy against Iran and U.S. companies have thus been deprived of participating in Iranian markets."

At the RIIA, Kharrazi said that Israel is the main source of instability in the Middle East, and he criticized what Iranian state television referred to as the West's "selective approach towards issues." He specifically criticized Israel's "clandestine nuclear program" for being outside the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran itself signed in 1968 and ratified two years later.

Both Iranian exile groups and British organizations protested Kharrazi's visit. The Iranians pelted Kharrazi's car with eggs and tomatoes. Jewish groups objected to the continuing imprisonment of 13 Iranian Jews on espionage charges. Britain defended itself by saying that at least by having a dialog its views can be expressed. Foreign Secretary Robin Cook allegedly called for a fair trial for the 13 Jews (as well as some Muslims). British Jewish groups also objected to Iran's hostility towards the Middle East Peace Process and its support for terrorist groups like Hamas. (Bill Samii)

...AND ANKARA. Israel and the PKK were at the center of discussions between Kharrazi and his Turkish hosts last week. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi earlier had promised to raise the subject of Turkey's security ties with Israel during his 17-19 January visit to Ankara. But his host, Turkey's Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, said on 16 January: "It is certain that many members of the PKK [Kurdistan Workers' Party] took shelter in Iran." Other topics of conversation were Iranian demands for compensation on a gas delivery contract that the Turks have postponed and alleged Iranian support of Islamist terrorists in Turkey.

Discussing the Turkish-Israeli ties, Kharrazi said "we have concerns that the existence of Israel in the region has negative effects. We hope to solve these problems through dialogue with Turkey." Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem sought to reassure Kharrazi: "It is not possible for any foreign force, including Israel, to adopt any hostile acts toward any of our neighbors from our territory."

"We categorically deny that the [PKK] are on Iranian soil," Kharrazi said at an 18 January press conference. Reports from Turkish publications present the other side of the argument. The PKK held its seventh congress on the Iranian side of Qandil Mountain, the semi-official Anatolia news agency reported on 10 January. Among the conclusions of the congress was that the PKK can continue its armed struggle because of aid from Iran, Armenia, and Iraq. And according to a General Directorate of Police report, "200 suicide bombers are being trained in camps in Iran under Faruk Bozkurt, code-named 'Dr. Nasir,'" Istanbul's "Milliyet" daily stated on 5 January.

Turkish intelligence units said in December that Iran is playing an important role in PKK logistics, and they add that Tehran has replaced Syria as the PKK's main sponsor. According to CNN Turk Television, the PKK has built underground shelters big enough for 500 people in a camp between Piranshahr and Lolansuyu. A 250-person camp is located between Serdash, Zivan, and Lalehy, and a 200-person camp lies near Shino village in the Gadar Valley, 80 kilometers west of Orumieh. The television report also states that Iranian military helicopters regularly transport PKK personnel, the PKK earns money by imposing "taxes" on smugglers in the border region, and PKK terrorists get medical treatment at the Artiyan Hospital in Orumieh. Cemil Bayik, a PKK leader, also received medical treatment in Orumieh, "Hurriyet" newspaper reported on 27 November.

A High-Level Turkish-Iranian Security Cooperation Committee already exists to discuss such issues. When this body met in Ankara in August, a memorandum of understanding was signed in which Iran and Turkey agreed to conduct simultaneous (rather than joint-) operations against the PKK and the Iraqi-sponsored Mujahedin Khalq Organization. They also agreed to increase information exchanges and arranged for inspection visits.

After the August meeting, Iranian Interior Ministry official Gholam Hussein Bolandian said that Turkey "implicitly" agreed to provide compensation for damages incurred in an alleged Turkish air strike on Iranian territory. But Turkey had explained that if any Iranians were killed, it was because they were working in a PKK camp located in Iraq. Deputy spokesman of the Turkish Foreign Ministry Sermet Atacanli said on 5 January that negotiations on this subject were continuing, although Turkish inspectors determined that the bombed area was in Iraq, Anatolia reported.

Another topic of discussion was a pipeline for transporting Iranian natural gas to Turkey. The Turkish side of the pipeline is not complete, partly because the delivery of necessary components is being delayed by the U.S. Under U.S. law, it is illegal to engage in activities which might support Iran's energy sector. Gokham Yardim, Director-General of Turkey's state-run oil company (BOTAS), said the delay was caused partly by financial difficulties, Anatolia reported on 12 January. Yardim added that the gas purchases would start in September 2001. Hamadollah Mohammad-Nejad, Managing Director of the National Iranian Gas Company, said that Iran accepts this delay, but it expects compensation for its $200 million outlay so creditors can be repaid.

Also, Iran has been linked with the late-October assassination of Turkish intellectual Ahmet Kisali. Three Iranian officials, who had been in Turkey for four days, having been posted there for temporary assignments, were arrested at Ankara's international airport as they tried to leave the country. They were released following an Iranian request. According to Turkey's intelligence service (Milli Istihbarat Teskilati, MIT), the Islamic Great East Raiders Front (IBDA-C) is behind Kisali's assassination, and Iran is behind the IBDA-C, Istanbul's centrist "Radikal" reported on 27 October. The IBDA-C was previously linked with the PKK (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 26 July 1999).

In an indication that Iran and Turkey want to overcome these differences, Kharrazi and Cem signed a Memorandum of Understanding on 18 January. The MOU allows for continuing political discussions and discussions on expanding economic cooperation. Reduction of tariffs and customs duties was discussed, too. It also was agreed to promote cultural cooperation, according to IRNA. (Bill Samii)

ROHANI IN BELARUS. Belarussian Prime Minister Syarhey Linh said his country is ready to export military technology to Iran, and he called for "closer security cooperation," Iranian state television reported on 18 January. Iran's deputy speaker of parliament and secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Hassan Rohani, visited a factory that manufactures "defense lasers," during his three-day visit to Minsk. Iran purchases chemical fibers, motorcycles, optics, machine tools, tires, and fertilizer from Belarus, and 180 Belarussian trucks will be delivered to Iran soon, Belarus' government-controlled Radio 1 Network reported on 17 January. Also, Belnaftakhim [Belarussian Petrochemicals], Belaz production association [which produces vehicles], [the Zhlobin-based Belarussian] Metallurgical Works, the Intehral company [which produces electronics] and others are "actively working in Iran." Linh announced that Iran is "One of our reliable and promising partners in the Middle East." Rohani also met with President Alyaksandr Lukashenka; Pavel Shypuk, chairman of the Belarussian National Assembly's Council of the Republic (upper house); and Anatol Malafeyeu, chairman of the Belarussian National Assembly's House of Representatives (lower house). Before Rohani's arrival, the first ever Iran-Belarus Joint Transportation Committee met in Minsk, IRNA reported on 15 January. (Bill Samii)

IRAQI TRADE DELEGATION IN TEHRAN. Iraq attacked Iran in September 1980, initiating a war that lasted eight years and cost at least 150,000 Iraqi and between 350,000 and 400,000 Iranian lives. Although a cease-fire was achieved through UN Resolution 598, the two countries still are in a de jure state of war. But as recent events indicate, trade is more important than principles for the Iranian government in its dealings with Iraq.

Abdul Ghafur Younes, head of the Iraqi Union of Chambers of Commerce, met in Tehran with Ali Naqi Khamoushi, his Iranian counterpart, to discuss opening trade routes in order to expand bilateral trade, IRNA reported on 12 January. Younes explained that this would be a way to counter the UN embargo on his country, saying "U.S. [sic] efforts to tighten the embargoes imposed on Iraq will only be neutralized through the collaboration between Iranian and Iraqi officials and especially their private sectors." Khamoushi added that this would be a way to reduce international pressure on Iraq. Iraq's INA news agency announced the previous day that the specifics of any accord will focus on trade of food, medicine, agricultural goods, and industrial products, as well as promotion of tourism and visits to holy shrines.

Why this step is necessary now is not clear, because the two neighbors signed accords on cooperation in trade and tourism three months earlier, when Iranian Commerce Minister Hussein Shariatmadari visited Baghdad. During the signing ceremony, Iraqi Trade Minister Mohammad Mehdi Saleh said, "The two countries have overcome all obstacles facing trade exchange between them," AP reported on 12 November.

Iran opposes the UN sanctions Iraq faces, mainly because they somewhat hinder trade between the two countries. The Iranian assumption is that if Iraq could sell more oil, it would have more money to spend on Iranian goods. But Commerce Minister Shariatmadari said in November that trade between the two countries is worth $100 million annually. A 12 October report in "Al-Khaleej" explains how this happens. The Iraqi government gives its businesspeople oil at below market prices. The Iraqi businesspeople then enter into agreements with their Iranian counterparts, who provide documentation that the oil is actually Iranian. This permits its sale on the open market.

Even now, eleven years after hostilities ended, the relationship is still a rocky one. A persistent bone of contention is the issue of prisoners of war and those still listed as missing in action. Iraq claimed in August that 13,000 of its citizens were still in Iran, while Iran said Iraq still holds 3,000 Iranians. Actually, 5,000 of the people Iraq wants returned, "due to the conditions that prevailed in 1991, were obliged to seek asylum in Iran," according to a 21 August report in Baghdad's "Sawt al-Talabah." It seems quite unlikely that these people, who were fleeing Iraq's genocidal policies against the Shia in the south and the Kurds in the north, would want to go back to Iraq. Also, Iran unilaterally returned 276 POWs in October.

Another point of contention between the two countries is their respective support for armed opposition groups. The Mujahedin Khalq Organization, about which Iran complains so vociferously to England and the U.S., is based in Iraq and launches its military operations from there. Iran, for its part, hosts and sponsors the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shia organization that has launched military activities against Iraq with assistance from the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps.

Other factors which retard normalization of relations are the Iraqi aircraft that were flown to Iran for safe-keeping during the Gulf War, but which Iran has not returned; border delineation; and a strong Iranian veterans lobby that opposes normalization of relations. One would think that Iran would be upset by Iraq's killing of Iraqi Shia, but it has kept silent on this subject. Recently, for example, the Iraqi regime killed a family of four in Baghdad's Thawrah District; killed Hajj Qasim Abu al-Timman, the deputy of the murdered Imam Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr; and executed a family of eight in Shatrah, according to the Iraqi Turkmen Brotherhood Party newspaper "Qardashliq Yolu" on 20 December, but Iran kept silent. Apparently, trade is more important than protecting the Shia community. (Bill Samii)

IRAN-AZERBAIJAN RELATIONS WITHOUT THE SEPARATISTS. Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev believes his country should work for warmer relations with Iran, Turan reported on 17 January. Guliev went on to say that the construction of a Baku-Ceyhan pipeline does not preclude construction of another through Iran. U.S. Ambassador to Baku Stanley Escudero had argued against cooperation with Iran in the transit of oil, "Azadlyg" reported on 12 January. Escudero explained: "It would be a mistake because as an oil and gas producer Iran is Azerbaijan's rival ... I do not say that if oil and gas are transported via Iran, the latter will be used for political pressure and economic control. But this situation could lead to Azerbaijan's dependence on Iran." Escudero, who has served in Iran, went on to express the U.S. government's concern about Iran's opposition to the Middle East Peace Process, its support for international terrorism, and its Weapons of Mass Destruction program.

The Iranian Embassy in Baku responded to what it termed Escudero's "interventionist statement" in the 14 January "Azadlyg." It said that because Iran has the second largest gas reserves and is the second biggest OPEC producer and exporter of oil, it does not need to compete with anybody. The Iranian Embassy also complained that: the U.S. has placed Iran under an economic embargo, it supports "anti-Iranian terrorist organizations," Congress has allocated funds to overthrow the Iranian government; the U.S. supports Israel; and it shot down an Iranian civilian aircraft in July 1988. The Iranian Embassy summed up by saying that Escudero's comments were intentionally timed to coincide with "the creation of a hullabaloo by opposition elements in Iranian-Azerbaijani relations."

Meanwhile, a report in the 14 January "Yeni Azerbaijan" noted that there are signs of a "lukewarm spring" in Iran-Azerbaijan relations, and this might lead to the opening of an Azerbaijani consulate in Tabriz and the extradition of Mahir Javadov from Tehran. Another sign of the "lukewarm spring" is the 17 January announcement that joint construction of a power exchange line between Iranian and Azerbaijani Astara may be completed by February 2000. The line will be 60 kilometers long and will have a capacity of 230 kilowatts, Azer-Press reported. (Bill Samii)

KHORASANDI RELEASED, THEN HOFER ACQUITTED. On 20 January, German businessman Helmut Hofer, who was arrested in September 1997 and tried in Tehran for having extramarital relations with a Muslim woman, then was detained for having "contact with suspicious elements," and then faced trial for insulting a prison guard, was acquitted by a Tehran court but told to pay a $6,700 fine. In what is probably a coincidence, on 19 January a German court gave Hamid Khorasandi an 18-month suspended sentence and fined him $2,600, according to DPA. Khorasandi was arrested in July for trying to infiltrate Iranian opposition groups on behalf of the Iranian government. He did this from 1995 until he was arrested, and his phone calls to his controller were intercepted by the German authorities. So far, there is no change in the status of Kazem Darabi, who was imprisoned for his role in the 1992 murder of Kurdish dissidents � the Mykonos affair. (Bill Samii)

ANGER WITH MONTAZERI'S COMMENTS ON GUARDIANS COUNCIL. Once more there is an uproar over the statements of dissident cleric Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri-Najafabadi about the Guardians Council and advisory supervision (the power to vet candidates for electoral office, per constitutional article 99). Montazeri's faxed response to questions submitted by Reuters and England's "The Guardian" newspaper was published on 13 January. Afterwards, directors of three Iranian newspapers � "Sobh-i Imruz," "Fath," and "Asr-i Azadegan" -- had to appear in court because they had published parts of the interviews.

Montazeri criticized the Guardians Council, saying: "The law [constitution] is explicit on the fact that the supervisory role of the Guardians Council pertains to 'supervision over the elections' and not 'supervision over the candidates'." Montazeri's views on the powers of the Council are particularly relevant because he was president of the first Assembly of Experts that drafted the 1979 constitution.

Although Reuters and "The Guardian" were told that this was Montazeri's first interview, this was not quite true. His responses to questions from Qom seminary students were published in the 12 June 1999 "Aban." Montazeri said then that Iran has a two-stage election process. First, the council approves the candidates, then the public can pick from among the approved candidates. "That is clearly in contravention of the spirit and the wording of Article 99. Experts who drafted and approved the Constitution at the first Assembly of Experts never intended Article 99 to convey such a meaning." In several cases, Montazeri said in "Aban," "the Guardians Council's decisions were motivated by factional political interests, and candidates with impeccable credentials regarding devotion to Islam and services to the people were rejected with no legal justification."

The hardline media responded angrily to Montazeri's recent comments. Habibollah Asgaroladi-Mosalman of the Islamic Coalition Association said elements of Mehdi Hashemi's gang were active in Montazeri's household, "Abrar" reported on 20 January. "Jomhuri-yi Islami" complained on 18 January that Voice of America praised Montazeri, while the Iranian dailies "published Mr. Montazeri's interview with the Zionist news agency, Reuters, and the British newspaper, 'The Guardian.'" "Resalat" editorialized on 18 January that Montazeri's "house arrest" was a joke if he could give interviews to foreign news agencies, newspapers, and radios. On 16 January, "Kayhan" published a lengthy critique of Montazeri.

In the "Guardian" interview, Montazeri also commented on the Leadership, saying "The leader is equal to any other person before the law. He can never be above the law, and he cannot interfere in all affairs, particularly the affairs that fall outside his area of expertise, such as economics and international relations." This did not go over well, either. The Hizbullah Assembly told Montazeri it was not interested in his remarks and warned him to stay out of politics. (Bill Samii)

SPLITS AMONG STUDENT GROUPS. Iranian students demonstrated their political power last July, when an attack on a Tehran dormitory resulted in Iran's heaviest violence since the Islamic revolution. The Iranian government punished many of them through imprisonment, torture, and death sentences. Some of the students are objecting to this via a hunger strike, while others are contacting officials to demand justice.

Among those holding a hunger strike is Ahmad Batebi, whose photograph in a bloody shirt appeared in the international media, "Sobh-i Imruz" reported on 12 January. Five days later, the Student Movement Coordination Committee for Democracy in Iran (SMCCDI) reported that the hunger strike was continuing. The strikers' demands were the immediate and unconditional release of all students held in Tabriz, Shiraz, and Kerman, and an open trial for those who attacked the Tehran University student housing in July.

The Office for Strengthening Unity (OSU), an Islamist student group, sent a letter inquiring about the status of students arrested in July to Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Shahrudi, "Sobh-i Imruz" reported on 18 January. In another letter to Shahrudi, the Organization of Past and Present Majlis Deputies expressed concern about the imprisoned students, "Sobh-i Imruz" reported on 17 January.

The status of one of the students was raised in an open letter to President Mohammad Khatami from Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, leader of the Islamic Union of Students and Graduates, Tabarzadi condemned the status of Mohammad Reza Kasrani, who received a ten-year prison sentence for his part in the July unrest. The letter said Kasrani had been severely tortured at the Tohid detention center and had been bastinadoed, the SMCCDI reported on 18 January. Tabarzadi, whose candidacy for the parliamentary election was rejected, claimed that he was rejected on the grounds that he "engaged in activities against the Islamic republican system," according to the 13 January "Asr-i Azadegan."

About 300 students and staff at Tehran University sent a petition to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei asking that the Akbar Mohammadi, who was sentenced to death for his part in the unrest, be given a reprieve, AFP reported on 2 January. Mohammadi was convicted for being "at war with God" (Mohareb) and for using Molotov cocktails, "Fath" reported on 25 December.

In Tehran, some 500 students from Qom's Fatemieh Medical School demonstrated in front of the Health Ministry against the poor quality of their instructors and staff, "Manateq-i Azad" and "Aftab-i Imruz" reported on 19 January. They also demanded personnel changes in the Qom Supreme Cultural Revolution Council. Following this event, the student dorm was set ablaze, the SMCCDI reported. Seven students were arrested, but they blame hardline vigilantes and claim that the Basij has taken over the dorm.

The Islamic Union of Students and Graduates condemned a ban against the political activities of some students, SMCCDI announced on 19 January. A specific reference was made to the cases of Mohammad Ali Karimpur and Mehran Saljoughi of the University of Bandar Abbas.

Semnan University's Islamic Association of Students claimed that Hizbullah vigilantes beat up its members on 16 January, "Fath" reported three days later. The group's leader, Abbas Pazouki, has not been seen since then, AFP reported on 18 January. The Islamic Association of Students claims that there have been several attempts to kidnap Pazouki.

Four members of the Islamic Association of Students at the University of Yasuj in Boir Ahmadi va Kohkiluyeh Province were summoned by the court after a protest gathering in mid-December, and Vahid Mohammadi-Tabar was expelled from the university, "Sobh-i Imruz" reported.

Despite their common concerns and problems, student groups are not completely unified. Several former members of the Office for Strengthening Unity split off and formed a new group, called the Nationwide Union of Independent University Students. Naim Hamidi, one of the founders of this group, said in an interview with the 5 November "Qods" that the split started at Shahid Chamran University in Ahvaz over attempts to stifle ideological differences and over the belief that the Culture and Higher Education Ministry supported the OSU. These differences led to splits from the OSU at universities in Hamedan, Yazd, Kashan, and the medical school of Zanjan. The new group now has 15 affiliated members. (Bill Samii)