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Iran Report: May 1, 2000

1 May 2000, Volume 3, Number 17

EVER MORE PUBLICATIONS CLOSED DOWN. In the early hours of Friday, 28 April, a demonstration at Tehran's Shahid Beheshti University against the closure of 15 publications turned violent. Demonstrators burned tires and attacked buildings for about an hour, until Law Enforcement Forces and the Basij Resistance Forces dispersed them. Until that time, protests against the press closures had been fairly restrained.

On 23 April it was reported that a number of Iranian publications had been closed by the Press Court. That original group included eight dailies ("Guzarish-i Ruz," "Bamdad-i No," "Aftab-i Imruz," "Payam-i Azadi," "Fath," "Arya," "Asr-i Azadegan," "Manateq-i Azad"), three weeklies ("Payam-i Hajar," "Aban," "Arzesh"), and a monthly ("Iran-i Farda"). "The Justice Department said the tone of material in those papers had brought smiles to the faces of the enemies of the Islamic Republic and hurt the feelings of devout Moslems at home and even the leader of the Islamic revolution," "Tehran Times" reported on 25 April.

An unnamed Judiciary official explained in "Tehran Times" that a committee formed to investigate the press concluded that "despite frequent warnings given to them, they continued with their anti-Islamic and anti-revolutionary activities." He added: "Those newspapers which were suspended had supported the Jews accused of spying for Israel despite many warnings given to them." The Judiciary official warned that "we are also trying to detect the foreign links of some of these newspapers."

And on 27 April, "Ava," a weekly from Najafabad, Isfahan Province, was suspended on the orders of the Press Court. Charges against it include libel, publishing false news disturbing to public opinion, and desecrating Father of the Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Among the complainants are the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the Press Supervisory Board, the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance, the Special Court for the Clergy in Qom, and the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps in Qom and Najafabad.

"Mosharekat," the Islamic Iran Participation Party's daily, was closed on 27 April. A ban on "Sobh-i Imruz" was briefly waived by the Tehran justice department, but it too was closed on 27 April. A Justice Department statement explained that because license holder and managing director Said Hajjarian is hospitalized, he could not carry out his duties "while, so far, more than 90 penal cases have been filed against the newspaper under Hajjarian." Among the charges against "Sobh-i Imruz" are libel and spreading false information. The daily will remain closed "until further notice."

The hardline weekly "Jebheh" was closed on 29 April. The Revolutionary Court ordered its closure for repeated violations of the law and a complaint from the Supreme National Security Council for illegally publishing confidential documents, IRNA reported.

Iranian legal specialists told RFE/RL's Persian Service that this mass press closure has no legal basis and may not be sustainable in courts. Tehran lawyer Nemat Ahmadi explained that "One of the judiciary's responsibilities in this country is to enforce appropriate laws [that are] introduced to the parliament. But appropriate legal action does not include closure of newspapers until it has been proven in court that they have broken the law and are guilty. [Until then,] we cannot consider anyone a criminal."

Ahmadi continued: "There are laws which specifically govern the press and these papers have not been served a summons. [The reformist papers that I represent as a lawyer] 'Guzarish-i Ruz' or 'Asr-i Azadegan' have not been served a summons and just because there are a few complaints against them does not mean they have committed a crime."

Last July, Iranian students' protests against the closure of "Salam" resulted in a week of violence and demonstrations following a crackdown by police and hardline vigilantes. This time there was no violence until 28 February, due to calls for calm from the Office for Strengthening Unity, the main pro-Khatami student group. There were peaceful protests against the newspaper closures, however, in Tehran, Hamedan, Bandar Abbas, Mashhad, Sanandaj, and Kashan.

Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, director of the banned publications "Guzarish-i Ruz" and "Hoviat-i Khish" (banned in summer 1999) and leader of the Islamic Union of Students and Graduates, told RFE/RL's Persian Service that the students want to avoid unrest. He explained that "Every society has its own threshold for bearing with oppression and force, they will be patient up to a point. Last year they were patient and they are not scared now. They want to maintain unity and order."

The press crackdown did not come without a warning. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's 20 April speech served as one. Khamenei warned that the West first attacked Iran via its radio stations, but now it is building a "stronghold" in Iran. He said the press is creating anxiety, discord, and pessimism. " It seems as to if 10 or 15 newspapers are being directed from the same center to publish articles with similar headlines. They make mountains out of molehills ... kill the hope among the youth ... weaken the people's trust ... offend and insult." The Supreme Leader added that President Mohammad Khatami is unhappy with the press too. "We are trying to stop the enemy from realizing his propaganda conspiracy."

Some have suggested that Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance Ataollah Mohajerani should resign to protest the publication bans, partly because it his ministry that issues press licenses. Indeed, only days before the mass closure was announced, a meeting between Mohajerani and 22 publishers and chief editors, as well as IRNA officials, was held. At this meeting, Mohajerani said "if pressures are exerted to close down the newspapers, then I would be forced into becoming an instrument for closing them or resigning, in that case I would prefer to tender my resignation," IRNA reported. Journalist Ahmad Zeydabadi told RFE/RL's Persian Service a protest resignation by Mohajerani would not be enough to stop conservative attacks. Zeydabadi explained that "If Mr. Mohajerani were to resign there would be no significant effect or reaction to such an action. It might even encourage those people to go more on the offensive. I think if things move toward the dismantling or loss of everything [the reformists] have gained so far, Mr. Mohajerani should harmonize his actions with Mr. Khatami and I think Mr. Khatami has to step aside. I think this would be more appropriate than Mr. Mohajerani's resignation."

Khatami's comments on the press closures and the general atmosphere have been indirect. During a 23 April speech, he said that "The political tendencies and groups, by relying on religious sanctities and everything which is held in respect and honor by the people, take unfair advantage of the situation to enhance factional interests and specific [political] tendencies." And on 29 April, Khatami said that "The Iranian people are revolutionary and will remain revolutionary. They want a religious and Islamic state and no one can hinder the nation's process of reforms." According to the conservative weekly "Sobh," Khatami said "I was the one who started the reforms, but they (those who advocate much bolder steps) are trying to leave me behind. Given the present political climate and the state of the media, I already fear a shift toward secularism, and I am worried at some of the materials published in the dailies associated with the reformist camp. I am also disappointed by the actions of some journalists who have broken all norms and bounds."

If the intention of closing newspapers is to block commentary that might affect the upcoming second round of voting (see below), the authorities may decide to close even more publications. The sympathies of provincial newspapers on national and international issues are as varied as those in Tehran. They get far less attention in the Western media, and the provinces themselves are virtually ignored by all but a few Western journalists, so they may be safe for the time being. But if the now unemployed Tehran journalists and commentators seek a voice in the provincial media, these provincial journals may soon suffer a similar fate. (Bill Samii) WORLD CONCERNED BY IRANIAN PRESS REPRESSION.

Until Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's speech and the subsequent press closures and arrests, some foreign observers had been encouraged by what they saw in Iran. For example, the head of the French senate's foreign relations and defense committee, Xavier de Villepin, said that democracy was progressing in Iran, IRNA reported on 19 March. But now, foreign observers are reacting with concern to events in Iran. German government spokeswoman Charima Reinhardt said Bonn is paying close attention to the conflict between reformists and hardliners in Iran, and it hopes that President Mohammad Khatami will find the right way to continue reforms.

The International Secretariat of Amnesty International called for the immediate release of journalist Akbar Ganji, who was imprisoned on 22 April. The Amnesty statement, which was released on 27 April, also expressed concern about the recent imprisonment of newspapermen Latif Safari and Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, as well as an outstanding warrant for Hojatoleslam Hassan Yusefi-Eshkevari. The statement said that "Amnesty International considers these arrests and the closure of newspapers as a serious violation of freedom of expression and other basic human rights." When Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei spoke about the press on 20 April (see above), U.S. State Department Spokesman James Rubin reacted by saying that "Any time a free press is challenged anywhere in the world or any statements are made that question that fundamental right of free expression that we believe in, we're worried." "Tehran Times" responded that "Washington is indeed worried about losing its bases in the Iranian press." It went on to say that "shedding crocodile tears by the U.S. at this juncture indicates that Washington is only worried about losing its mouthpieces in Iran."

After the first round of press closures, Rubin told reporters on 24 April that "More than anything, these actions are a blow to the people of Iran, which have clearly expressed their desire for openness and this kind of freedom in successive elections." Secretary of State Madeline Albright said on 27 April that "I think we clearly are very concerned about what is happening there now, and would hope that this is not the overwhelming trend, because we were very encouraged by the Majlis elections and some of the other activities there that indicated that there was a movement towards reform." Albright went on to say that "I think we're going to have to watch this very carefully. There really clearly are two contending approaches for the future of Iran. And what -- in speeches that I've given and in comments I have pointed out a number of times that those who have voted for President Khatami or for the Majlis reform members are the younger generation, and they are the future of Iran. And so we will watch this very carefully." (Bill Samii)

COUP RUMORS REJECTED. Rumors of a possible coup against President Mohammad Khatami initially gained currency in summer 1999, during the violent July demonstrations. At that time, Islamic Revolution Guard Corps commanders warned the president that if he did not defuse the situation somehow, they would take matters into their own hands (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 26 July 1999). Such rumors re-emerged in April 2000 (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 17 April 1999), and concern grew after the 16 April IRGC statement that "enemies ... will feel the reverberating impact of the hammer of the Islamic revolution on their skulls."

Reformist journalist Masud Behnoud told RFE/RL's Persian Service that a coup is unlikely. He said that "This is not going to happen in Iran because the Revolutionary Guards are not in a position [to launch a coup] and the regime is in no danger of destabilization. Even the opponents of reform, or conservatives, are trying to solve everything through legal channels. This is what the reformers also want. A coup requires a lot of elements which Iran does not have [and] one of the main reasons is that the Revolutionary Guard is formed of the people and ideologically tied to them, and its relationship with the people is much stronger then [its involvement in] the politics of power."

Former parliamentarian Qasem Sholeh Saadi echoed these sentiments in an interview with RFE/RL's Persian Service. He said that "The Revolutionary Guards and the military are on the same wavelength as the people, even the high-ranking personnel is pro-people and pro-reformist, and if the conservatives think they can start a coup with them they are wrong ... Also, more than 70 to 80 percent of the Revolutionary Guard and the army voted for Khatami."

Such statements may reflect wishful thinking on the part of reformists. Through such public statements, they may be trying to defuse the situation and avoid giving the IRGC and hardline forces a pretext for further violence. Their private sentiments may be quite different, because the reformists supposedly know of a planned coup.

An unnamed reformist figure provided Reuters on 26 April with notes of a recording of a 14 April IRGC meeting at which plans for a coup were developed. Preliminary steps included arrest and prosecution of reformists and labeling them as foreign agents, closing reformist publications to interrupt the flow of information, and convincing Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of the danger to the system. Other steps included disrupting the Tehran bazaar and the seminaries to provoke senior clerics, silencing intellectuals, and using terror against Khatami supporters. The IRGC has supposedly prepared a "crisis headquarters" as part of the plan.

Basij commander Brigadier General Mohammad Hejazi rejected the possibility of a coup, saying that the IRGC and Basij (which is part of the IRGC) only act within a legal framework, "Iran Daily" reported on 19 April. The next day, an IRGC statement also rejected the possibility of a coup, saying such rumors are part of a propaganda campaign.

The actual target of a coup is the IRGC and the Basij, Khalil Esfandiari wrote in the 5 April "Resalat." The coup will be conducted by "opportunists whose security and freedom is beholden to [the IRGC and Basij's] bravery and martyrdom" and who use the media. Esfandiari wrote that March 1998-99 was the year of a coup against the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, March 1999-2000 was the year of a coup against the Law Enforcement Forces, and the year beginning March 2000 is the year of a coup against the IRGC and Basij. (Bill Samii)

HAJJARIAN TRIAL COMMENCES... It has been almost a year and a half since a group of Ministry of Intelligence and Security officials were arrested for the serial murders of Iranian dissidents and political figures. A year passed before 13 Iranian Jews facing espionage charges were brought to trial. But the trial of Tehran city councilor Said Hajjarian's attackers, who were arrested in late-March, has started already.

Among the eight people who went on trial on 25 April were Said Asqar and Mohsen Majidi, the shooter and the get-away driver, respectively. Their accomplices include, Mohammad Ali Moqaddam, Mehdi Roqani, Musa Jan-Nesari, Safar Maqsudi, Ali Pur-Chaluei, and Said Gagnonani. Tehran city council member Ahmad Hakimipur, who was arrested on 14 April, was also present, but he was not in the dock because he had been released on bail on 20 April. He may testify later.

Said Asqar admitted shooting Hajjarian because he and his accomplices thought Hajjarian opposed Islam. Asqar denied intending to kill Hajjarian, however, saying that they just wanted to "punish" him. Asqar denied being ordered to shoot Hajjarian and said it was an independent decision. The hearing ended after about two hours, and the trial will resume on 3 May. (Bill Samii)

...AND SERIAL MURDERS INVESTIGATION CONTINUES. Eight of the 22 suspects in the serial murders case were released on 26 April, the Judiciary announced, because there was no proof of their guilt. They had been arrested on the basis of statements made by the initial arrestees, but subsequent investigations disproved these statements. The judiciary added that pursuing these issues had diverted and delayed the investigation. Additional arrests were made recently. (Bill Samii)

POLL RECOUNTS CONTINUE AS SECOND ROUND LOOMS. Campaigning for the second-round of Iran's parliamentary election began on 27 April. Two days earlier, the Guardians Council confirmed the election of 185 out of 290 parliamentarians, according to IRNA. The Guardians Council also announced the rejection of more poll results.

The final result for the 30 seats in Tehran awaits the recount that was resumed recently. The council stated that the recount in Tehran showed major discrepancies with the previously announced results. Guardians Council secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, however, said that "nullifying Tehran election results is out of the question."

The 2nd of Khordad front, which is named after the date of President Mohammed Khatami's election, issued a statement urging the public to be calm, even though the Guardians Council's statement regarding Tehran, "instead of clarifying matters, could only lead to more ambiguities." The statement warned that "the questionable move of the Guardians Council could certainly heighten tensions."

Furthermore, the Guardians Council overturned the election results in Jiroft, Kerman Province. Reformist Mohammad Farrokhi had won 48 percent of the votes there during the 18 February balloting, according to Interior Ministry Director General for Elections Javad Qadimi Zaker. He added that the supervisory board had not received any reports of irregularities in the constituency, and the minutes of the election and vote-count were signed by a Guardians Council representative, IRNA reported. Mohammad Ali Karimi, head of the provincial election headquarters, told IRNA that the Guardians Council election monitors had not presented any documentation or given any reasons for overturning the results.

In sum, Zaker said, this means that results have been overturned in seven constituencies and changed in four constituencies. 12 parliamentarians elect have been disqualified, and one now faces a run-off. Zaker said all 13 individuals are reformists.

Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry announced that the second round of the election, which was originally scheduled for 21 April, will beheld on 5 May, state radio reported on 26 April. The second round matches candidates who failed to achieve 25 percent of the total votes cast in the first round. One of parliament's first moves will be the selection of a new speaker. An informal poll of 106 members of the Islamic Iran Participation Party put Behzad Nabavi as first choice for speaker of parliament. Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi and Mohammad Reza Khatami were the next two favorite choices, "Tehran Times" reported on 25 April.

But the new members of parliament recognize that the tasks facing them are tough. ""I am a bit concerned about whether we can fulfill the high expectations of the people," newly-elected parliamentarian Fatimeh Haqiqat-Jou told the 27 February "Christian Science Monitor." Are those expectations focused on issues like press freedom or satellite television? "Whenever I meet someone now, they present their personal difficulties as the most important thing," Haqiqat-Jou said. "Retired people say 'Don't forget our pensions'; government workers say 'Don't forget to raise our salaries.' Expectations are very high." (Bill Samii)

'THE GUTS TO TRY.' Iran's Army Day was commemorated on 24 April this year, in order to coincide with the day, twenty ears ago, when eight Americans died in the failed hostage rescue mission in Tabas, Khorasan Province. President Mohammad Khatami said, in a speech broadcast by state television, that "The 5th of Ordibehesht [24 April] is the day of the disgraceful defeat of the American aggressors in the desert of Tabas." The Armed Forces General Command Headquarters' statement said that the incident was "one of the most glaring and disgraceful examples of the plots hatched by America." A statement by the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps said that "that defeat shows the righteousness of the Iranian people."

Historical revisionism has its limits. U.S. forces were trying to rescue 52 Americans held hostage by individuals acting with the connivance and protection of the Iranian government, in violation of international law. The failure of the mission can be attributed to bad weather (a sand storm, specifically), rather than any activities by Iranian forces.

"Kayhan International" -- a hardline English-language daily -- said that the bodies of the American dead "have long disappeared, but photographs remain to remind us of how swift divine wrath is." Indeed, pictures of Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali toying with the corpses are a potent reminder. But in a 20 April memorial ceremony at Florida's Hurlburt Field, where some of those Americans were based, eight rose bushes were planted to honor men who had, in the words of one speaker, "the guts to try." (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN WANTS MONEY FOR INTERCEPTING IRAQI OIL. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said on 24 April that Tehran has asked the international community to compensate it for intercepting ships smuggling Iraqi oil in violation of the UN sanctions against Baghdad. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi discussed the subject on the sidelines of a recent conference. According to Annan, "They raised the issue of what is the international community going to do to make it easier for them -- and possible for them -- to continue that operation in the way of financial assistance." In the first two weeks of April, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Navy claimed to have seized 12 ships carrying Iraqi oil (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 17 April 2000).

The provision of compensation by the international community would, in theory, go directly to the Iranian military, since it is conducting the interceptions. Also, compensation provided by the international community would fill the gap left by money Tehran used to make by facilitating the smuggling operations. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN COMPLAINS ABOUT ACCESS TO NUKE TECHNOLOGY. Tehran's embassy in Georgia denied that 920 grams of illegal uranium seized in Ajaria last week were destined for Iran, Tbilisi's Prime-News reported on 27 April. Four people were detained in connection with smuggling uranium-238, which had been enriched with uranium-235 isotopes. U-235 is used for weapons and for power production. Four people were arrested in Ajaria last year for trying to smuggle uranium, amidst suspicions that Iran was the final buyer (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 1 November 1999).

Two days earlier, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi complained that "One cannot but express dismay over the systematic denial of transfer of technology to developing non-nuclear weapon states ... and restrictive export control policies exercised by the nuclear suppliers," Reuters reported. He added that "The main objective of these regimes, disguised under the pretext of non-proliferation, is to secure the dominance and exclusive possession of nuclear technology by developed countries." Kharrazi went on to criticize the "unilateralist approach of certain states, with a less than desirable record on non-proliferation, who have arrogated to themselves the right to determine compliance by others and to take interventionist and extra-territorial measures to prevent access to peaceful nuclear technology" by NPT signatories.

Iran ratified the NPT in 1970. But some observers believe that Iran is trying to develop facilities that could be used in developing fissile materials. Furthermore, Tehran's many civilian and military cut-outs are used in the acquisition process. (Bill Samii)

RUSSIAN REPRIMANDED FOR REARING ROCKETEERS. U.S. State Department spokesman Jamie Rubin on 25 April announced the lifting of economic sanctions against two Russian organizations that are suspected of helping Iran's missile development program. Rubin said that INOR Scientific Center and the Polyus Scientific Production Association had terminated their contacts with Iran, according to ITAR-TASS.

One day earlier, Rubin had said that the State Department will impose sanctions against Yuriy Savalyev, rector of St. Petersburg�s Baltic State Technology University (BGTU). Savalyev will be sanctioned for contributing to Iran's missile development program, on the basis of a Russian Education Ministry investigation. Rubin said administrative action has been taken against Savalyev, specialized courses for the Iranians were cancelled, and training of Iranians at BGTU was cancelled.

The Iranian students' expulsion, Russian Education Minister Vladimir Filippov explained, does not mean that "foreign students will not study subjects connected to military technology in Russia". He added that a new plan for training foreign specialists was being developed, but Iranian rocket specialists were under a ban. The Iranian embassy in Moscow sent an official note to the BGTU expressing " its bewilderment caused by the cancellation of the program of training of specialists which our country badly needs," Moscow's NTV International reported on 25 April.

Russian Education Minister Vladimir Filippov provided some clarification on the nature of the "sanctions" against Savalyev in a 21 April interview with Moscow's official RIA information agency. Filippov said Savalyev "was given a severe reprimand and a warning," and his dismissal was considered. Furthermore, Savalyev will be ineligible for U.S. financial assistance, and U.S. funds will not be used to procure his research results, "Izvestiya" reported on 26 April.

Russia's Foreign Ministry questioned the U.S. sanctioning of Savalyev, "RFE/RL Newsline" reported on 27 April 2000. According to the ministry, the U.S. sanctions "go against the main principles of international law" and constitute "an obvious attempt to call into question the efficacy of measures already taken by Russian authorities against the rector." The sanctions against Savalyev show that "he has effectively been made a personal enemy of the United States, like the terrorist, Usamah Bin-Laden," Moscow's daily "Kommersant" claimed on 26 April. (Bill Samii)