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Iran Report: June 5, 2000

5 June 2000, Volume 3, Number 22

NEW PARLIAMENT AFFECTS KHATAMI'S STANDING. Hojatoleslam Mehdi Mahdavi-Karrubi, secretary of the Militant Clerics Association (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mobarez, MRM), was selected as the interim speaker of the sixth parliament in a unanimous vote (186 in favor and 63 abstentions) on 30 May. Karrubi served in the same post from 1989 to 1992. Information on the actual voting illustrates the divisions among the reformist groups that now dominate the parliament, and commentary from sources in Iran indicates that many difficult issues will confront the parliament and may, in turn, challenge the victors' unity even more. But it is President Mohammad Khatami who is likely to be judged for parliament's actions.

Although Karrubi's selection was unopposed, there was in fact another candidate for the post of speaker. The 60-plus members of the pro-Khatami Islamic Iran Participation Party (IIPP) agreed to back Mohsen Mirdamadi, "Tehran Times" and "Iran" reported on 28 May. The IIPP decided to propose Behzad Nabavi and Mohammad Reza Khatami (the president's brother) as deputy speakers. But on 29 May, M.R. Khatami said that the IIPP would not nominate a candidate for the speakership "so as to prevent eventual discrepancies among its constituent groups," according to IRNA. The Executives of Construction Party cooperated with the IIPP, according to observers in Tehran.

Two days later, Khatami told "Iran Daily" that compromises were made so that differences within the reformist camp could not be exploited by its opponents. Parliamentarian Hussein Anvari, however, was less generous, complaining that the MRM failed to fulfill previous commitments in electing individuals for parliamentary offices. After his selection, Karrubi said that there are no differences between the IIPP and the MRM, according to IRNA.

The big question now is where the parliament starts work. Should it first tackle the economy, or should it address social and political freedoms first? Economic issues will have the greatest impact on people's day-to-day lives, particularly if new laws attract foreign investment and help create jobs. Addressing more political issues, such as the press law, on the other hand, will help release some societal tension.

Karrubi told state radio that the parliamentary election was a continuation of the 23 May 1997 presidential election. He said its priorities would be "economic issues and issues that affect the people's lives, employment and unemployment, creating a secure environment for investment and eliminating problematic areas in the law." Karrubi added that "the parliament will, God willing, move in step with the government [i.e. executive branch] as well as the other branches of government and we believe that it will contribute to furthering the objectives of the revolution, the Imam, and the leader."

Alireza Nuri, another new parliamentarian, said in the 29 May edition of Brussels' "Le Soir" that "over the past eight years, the conservatives have passed many laws. These reactionary laws must be gradually amended." He advocated a cautious approach to this, however, because "one wrong move and a lot can go wrong." Nor did Nuri think that the Guardians Council would oppose all of the new laws, because the Guardians Council demonstrated in the recent elections that "when there was a strong popular will, the Council agreed to yield."

Ayatollah Mahmud Qomi, "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on 31 May, said that "[t]he new parliament must respond to our people's aspirations for individual and social liberties. The atmosphere of fear that has reigned in Iran for two decades must be eliminated. The parliament must take the legislative measures needed to ensure full respect for human rights for all Iranians." And new parliamentarian Ahmad Burqani called for a change in the restrictive press law.

Whichever way the parliament goes legislatively, the public will judge President Khatami. Khatami still is seen as the leader of the reformist movement and he still enjoys a great deal of public support. The previous parliament consistently blocked legislation he favored, according to his supporters. Now that a friendlier parliament is in place, the president and his supporters will have fewer excuses if they fail to meet public expectations. (Bill Samii)

BY-ELECTIONS AND TEHRAN RUN-OFF SCHEDULED. About 252 (out of a full complement of 290) new members participated in the sixth parliament's inaugural session on 27 May. The process of approving results of the 7 May run-off election is continuing, and once the final results are approved, the new parliamentarians will be able to take their seats. Six candidates will compete for seats in the Tehran run-off, "Bahar" reported on 27 May. They are Rasul Montajabnia, Ali-Akbar Mohtashemi-Pur, Elias Hazrati, Ali Akbar Rahmani, Mohsen Rezai, and Alireza Rajai. Interior Ministry official Mustafa Tajzadeh said the same day that the run-off for Tehran will be held within a month, according to IRNA. He said that four candidates will compete, and if the Guardians Council decides that Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani's vacated seat is to be decided in the run-off, two more candidates (Rajai and Rezai) will take part. Tajzadeh added that the parliamentary by-elections will coincide with the presidential election next year. Guardians Council member Reza Zavarei said on 29 May that Rafsanjani's replacement will be chosen in the by-election, IRNA reported. (Bill Samii)

TRIAL OF POLICE WHO ATTACKED UNIVERSITY ENDS. The final session of the trial of law enforcement officers charged with raiding a Tehran University hostel in July 1999 was held on 27 May. The 15 sessions of the trial, which began on 29 February, have been overshadowed by other events, such as the controversy over the results of the parliamentary election and the shooting of Said Hajjarian. But now that the atmosphere is somewhat more settled, public attention might return to this issue.

The highest-ranking person on trial is Tehran Law Enforcement Forces chief Farhad Nazari, who defended himself without a lawyer. The charges against Nazari include issuing orders to attack the university despite instructions to the contrary from the Interior Ministry. During the 16 May hearing, Nazari said that much of the damage at the university, which occurred during a raid by the security forces and individuals in plain-clothes, could be ascribed to the "culture of destruction" among the students, IRNA reported. Nazari also described the actions of a provocateur named Kianush Mozaffari, who supposedly pretended to be a Hizbullah member. Mozaffari was shot, Nazari said, and then gave his bloody shirt to a female accomplice who in turn gave it to Ahmad Batebi. Photos of Batebi appeared in international newspapers, for which Batebi received a prison sentence.

Nazari added that further provocations were carried out by Interior Ministry officials in a Tehran Governorate vehicle. The press corps also played a destructive role, according to Nazari, because it had "previous plans to create such a situation in order to escalate tension in society." And in the final hearing, Nazari again denied that he ordered the LEF to enter the campus.

The 19 other men in the dock are charged with forcible entry to the dormitory and use of excessive violence. One of their attorneys said during the 23 May hearing that hostility towards the LEF was due to "adverse propaganda launched by the press, unjustifiable measures by some officials, and � false films on entry of foreign media to the scene." The attorney also accused Tehran University officials of failing to curb the unrest.

In addition to the other charges, Lieutenant Orudali Badrzadeh also is charged with stealing an electric shaver (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 6 March 2000). During the 16 May hearing, Badrzadeh said he had received the device from one of the enlisted men, but he had not been able to return it because he got injured and then had to attend meetings at the Supreme National Security Council.

Originally, there were almost 400 complaints against the LEF. Prosecuting attorney Hojatoleslam Mohsen Rahami told the court on 20 May that the 20 foreign students who were injured had withdrawn their complaints "on political grounds." He went on to say that students who had lost body parts should be compensated 2 billion rials (about $1.14 million at the official rate), although "the moral damages inflicted on the students, particularly those who have fought once in the battle fronts, are difficult to be made up for." Rahami also called for a public apology from the LEF. The Ministries of Health and of Science, Research, and Technology also demanded compensation, IRNA reported on 21 May.

In the southern village of Kelestan (near Shiraz), meanwhile, a victim of the July riots in Tehran was buried on 23 May. The family of 19-year old Mokhtar Ebrahimi-Far finally received his body from the Tehran Revolutionary Court, and they said they would take legal action against the judge and police for hiding the truth about their son and preventing identification of his body, according to Reuters. A post-mortem photograph showed the top of his head torn away, apparently by a heavy-gauge projectile, and the family said that the coroner's report supported this conclusion. The family said the body was held in order to support the government's claims of few casualties. The mystery about Ebrahimi-Far's fate persisted until a sympathetic member of the coroner's office provided the photos.

And nothing has been done about last July's violence in Tabriz. Tabriz University dean Mohammad Husseini Purfeyz complained that the people who attacked the students still are at large. He added, according to the 26 April "Bayan," that "[t]he atrocities that took place in Tabriz University were far worse than the Tehran University campus incident, but for various reasons they have been played down or neglected by the press and officials, and the people's representatives." A number of the Tabriz students are still imprisoned. Purfeyz said that the students are being sacrificed "in order to support a bunch of thugs." (Bill Samii)

MUSLIMS ARRESTED IN JEWISH ESPIONAGE TRIAL. The tenth session of the Shiraz trial, in which 13 Iranian Jews and eight Muslims are charged with espionage, took place on 29 May. Afterwards, lead defense lawyer Esmail Nasseri said that "If the court is not politically influenced, the judge will have no choice but to clear all the charges against the defendants," AP reported. Nasseri reiterated his complaints about the televising of the defendants' so-called "confessions."

The Muslim defendants are accused of giving information about Lebanese and Palestinians living in Iran to Israel.. "It was very important information," provincial judiciary official Hussein Amiri said. He said the Muslims received women and alcohol from the Jews, AP reported, although he did not say if these commodities were exchanged for information. Two of the Muslims were arrested on 31 May. It is not clear why they have been out on bail all this time, while the Jews have been imprisoned for over a year.

Despite its insistence that the trial is an internal issue, Tehran remains sensitive to foreign commentary about it. For example, Dutch Foreign Minister Jozias van Aartsen said on 29 May that "We have come to Iran to express our concern about the 13 Jews and we hope the trial will be fair and just." Iranian state television reacted the next day by asking why Holland is so concerned about the issue when "the Netherlands is a base and a safe haven" for terrorist groups which it said attack Iran -- "Their hands are stained with the blood of our country's offspring."

In a statement conveyed by Minister of Science, Research and Technology Mustafa Moin, President Mohammad Khatami thanked former South African President Nelson Mandela for his support in the case. Mandela had said that the trial was a "purely domestic matter" and "foreigners should avoid any action that may be regarded rightly or wrongly as interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state," IRNA reported in early-May.

Finally, state radio claimed (falsely) on 29 May that "a large number of foreign and local correspondents, including a TV group from Channel 2 of the French television and an Australian diplomat have been allowed to attend the trial." (Bill Samii)

REFUGEES REPATRIATED WITH INTERNATIONAL ASSISTANCE. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on 23 May that some 18,000 Afghan refugees have returned home from Iran over the past six weeks under a joint Iranian-United Nations program. 12,000 others who fear going back have filed claims at screening centers in Iran.

Hassan Parvar, director general of foreign nationals and expatriate affairs in Khuzestan Province, said on 13 May that Afghan refugees who do not hold resident status have until 11 October to go home. Those who do have residency permits are being encouraged to leave, too. Parvar said that although there are two million Afghan refugees in Iran, only 1.4 million are officially registered. Repatriation facilities have been made available in Tehran, Mashhad, and Zahedan. Ahmad Ahmadzadeh, director general of foreign nationals and expatriate affairs in Bushehr, warned on 11 May that those who did not leave voluntarily would be "dealt with strictly according to the national laws for illegal aliens," according to IRNA.

Iran is not facing this problem on its own; the international community is also involved. Responding to reports that the refugees are being forcibly repatriated, a Foreign Ministry official told state radio on 14 May that the UNHCR is cooperating with Iran. Mohammad Al-Hadid, head of the Jordanian Red Crescent Society, will mediate between Iran and Afghanistan regarding U.S. assistance to the Afghan refugees. He told Amman's "Al-Ray" on 17 May that he will visit Iran and Afghanistan in July to become familiar with the refugees' needs.

The agreement for repatriating the refugees was signed in February, and Isfahan Province director general of foreign nationals and expatriate affairs Morteza Lotfollah Khajou told IRNA on 2 May that he expected 3,000 refugees a month would be repatriated. Indeed, the numbers have been impressive. From 10 April to 18 May, 7,000 of them had returned to Afghanistan from a camp near Mashhad, a UNHCR official told Iranian state radio. Some 1,100 refugees in Sistan va Baluchistan Province had registered for repatriation, provincial director general of foreign nationals and expatriate affairs Ali Shabani told IRNA on 17 May. And Seyyed Mahmud Musavi, director general of foreign nationals and expatriate affairs in Fars Province, told IRNA on 8 May that 500 Afghans had registered for repatriation.

But this is only one side of the coin. In mid-March, it was reported that the police were rounding up Afghan refugees and forcibly repatriating them. Witnesses told AFP of police sweeps and spot-checks of identity cards. The Afghans were then bussed to Afghanistan's western provinces. AFP reported that 90,000 Afghans had been forcibly repatriated in the last year. UNHCR spokesman Jacques Franquin told Reuters that "We have complained to the authorities, that is, expressed our concern to President Khatami and relevant authorities... We were hoping for a positive answer, but it seems deportations are still going on."

Iranian Interior Ministry official Mohammad Reza Rostami denied that there were any mass deportations. He told IRNA that the sweeps were needed to round up burglars, drug addicts, felons, and the indigent prior to the Iranian new year. Rostami said only a few of these people were undocumented Afghans.

But it is clear that Iran is keen to see the last of the refugees because of the costs they impose. Minister of Health, Treatment, & Medical Education Mohammad Farhadi complained to a UNHCR official in February about the expense of caring for all the refugees. Mohsen Mehr Alizadeh, governor-general of Khorasan Province, asked the UNHCR for international assistance in repatriating the refugees. Iran also has participated in international fora, such as a March conference in Mecca and a May seminar in Dushanbe, that are trying to find ways to settle the conflict in Afghanistan, recognizing that this is a major reason why the refugees are reluctant to go back.

There also is resentment about the Afghan refugees' impact on employment. "These foreign national have taken job opportunities that belong to our dear compatriots," "Kar va Kargar" noted on 16 April. The pro-labor daily complained that the refugees, particularly in the eastern and southeastern parts of the country, are also involved in "unacceptable economic activities, such as trafficking narcotic drugs." Their presence is "considered to be one of the obstacles to economic and human development and advancement," so "we hope that the process of returning the foreign nationals to their countries will be accelerated." (Bill Samii)

ISRAELI WITHDRAWAL LEAVES QUESTIONS UNANSWERED. As jubilation in Lebanon and Iran over the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon continues, Hizballah promises to continue its campaign against Israel, states which raise questions about Iran's future role and also about the movement itself.

Congratulatory comments came from Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Fazel Lankarani, Iranian state radio reported on 28 May, as well as the Office for Strengthening Unity student organization and the state-created Green Party, "Tehran Times" reported on 29 May. Senior Iranian officials, such as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, congratulated Lebanon last week (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 29 May 2000).

But this does not mean that the struggle against Israel is over, Hizballah Secretary General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said, adding that Israel's withdrawal is not complete until the Israeli occupation of the Shabaa farms ends and Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid is freed from detention, Hamburg's "Welt am Sonntag" reported on 28 May. He commented that "we will ... now also help Syria to regain full control over its territory," and furthermore, "[w]e can offer knowledge and equipment for the Palestinians' struggle for their homeland." Nasrallah warned that "the danger is not over. No one is guaranteeing that we will not suffer further attacks," Milan's "Corriere della Sera" reported on 31 May.

Sheikh Nabil Qawaq, the Hizballah official in charge of South Lebanon, was more blunt. He told Radio Monte Carlo on 28 May that because of Sheikh Obeid's continuing detention, "the war is still going on." And Hizballah Deputy Secretary General Sheikh Naim Qasim said that the resistance will continue until the Shabaa farms are liberated, Baalbek's Voice of the Oppressed reported on 30 May.

Hizballah wants to continue its struggle in order to maintain itself as an armed force in south Lebanon, so it can present itself as the Lebanese Shia's only political representative as well as to have a significant role in regional affairs, Magnus Ranstorp of the Center on Terrorism and Political Violence in Edinburgh told RFE/RL. According to Ranstorp, "One of the things that the Iranians want and the Hizballah want is that they want [Hizballah] to become -- because of its popularity, because of its lead role in leading the victory against Israel -- [they] want Hizballah to become the sole representative of the Shia community at the expense of the rival Amal."

Ranstorp suggests that this process is part of a calculated Iranian plan. "The fighting in the south, Hizballah's victory, is only one phase of trying to advance its political agenda. I think that Hizballah now, with its stature having been raised not only in Lebanon but in the region, is going to forge closer alliances with those groups working toward trying to destroy Israel." Supporting such a suggestion are reports that Iran is shipping arms to Hizballah (Iran denies such reports).

Indeed, Iran's reaction to the Israeli withdrawal, as well as the Palestinians' reaction, are the wild cards in this hand. Israel Defense Forces Intelligence chief Major General Amos Malka told the Knesset that "although Hizballah and Amal take long-term goals into consideration, the Palestinians in Lebanon -- who are being egged on by Iran -- are less so inclined," the Voice of Israeli noted on 30 May.

The Damascus-based Alliance of Palestinian Forces (which is hostile to Yassir Arafat's Palestinian Authority) thanked Iran for its "solidarity, support, and backing" and described its "resolve to continue the path of struggle and jihad to achieve our people's objectives for liberation and repatriation. It deeply and firmly believes in the inevitability of the defeat of the Zionist scheme in Palestine," reported the clandestine Al-Qods radio, which is run by the Iranian-backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine -- General Command.

And in a 3 June address, Ayatollah Khamenei said that the events in Lebanon "could recur, and occur in Palestine itself." The only requirement is that "the Palestinian nation draw on its inherent power and not become weary. ...In the same way as southern Lebanon was liberated after 21-22 years, it is possible that in several years time sections of occupied Palestine, and ultimately the entire occupied Palestine, will be returned to the Palestinian people."

It is not just the Palestinians living in Israel and the Occupied Territories who may be open to Iranian encouragement. Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hizballah, all of which are linked with Iran, are seeking members from among the 350,000 Palestinians refugees living in Lebanon, Nicole Brakeman of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy wrote on 30 May. It is likely, therefore, that these new members will not be satisfied with confining the conflict to the Lebanese stage. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN PROMOTES REGIONAL SECURITY PACT. Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Morteza Sarmadi told journalists in Yerevan on 21 May that Tehran believes that "at the initial stage," a proposed South Caucasus security system should include only the countries of the region, although other states could join once that system has developed, according to "RFE/RL Newsline." This statement reflects Iran's concern about a Western presence in the region, as well as its support for Russia's regional role.

When Turkish President Suleiman Demirel visited Tbilisi in January and proposed the regional security pact, he suggested that the three South Caucasus states draft the pact and their presidents and the world's leading countries should sign it, "RFE/RL Newsline" reported. International organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe would be asked to participate, too. In late-March, furthermore, Armenian President Robert Kocharian told the Georgian parliament that the pact should address security issues and conflict resolution and also provide a basis for economic cooperation and democratic reforms. He suggested a 3 + 3 + 2 formula, meaning an agreement between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, with Russia, Iran, and Turkey as guarantors and the U.S. and the EU as sponsors.

Moscow indicated its unhappiness with the pact in January, when Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov visited Ankara to make clear that creating the pact without Russia is "unthinkable," ITAR-TASS reported. Possibly in reaction to Moscow's continuing sensitivity, Kocharian said during a recent interview that Russian military bases in Armenia and Georgia must be incorporated into the planned South Caucasus security system, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported on 30 May.

But it is clear that Tehran is reluctant about Western (and specifically U.S.) inroads into the region. In mid-April, for example, Iranian Deputy Oil Minister Mehdi Husseini said that the U.S.- backed Baku-Ceyhan pipeline is not economically viable, and he blamed the U.S. for promoting the project with the ultimate objective of "taking control of all countries in the region," Baku's "Zerkalo" weekly reported.

And while the Turkish presence is a geographical reality, Ankara's membership in NATO, its relationship with Israel, and its generally pro-Western stance also worry Iranian observers. Writing in "Bayan" in late-April, for example, Alireza Eshraqi warned that "[Turkey] is an official member of NATO and thus severely threatens its neighbors, such as Iran, Iraq, and Syria, because...a conflict between Turkey and one of its neighbors will lead to NATO's intervention."

Some regional observers are not happy about Iranian activities in the Caucasus, either. Former Azerbaijani President Abulfaz Elchibey, now chairman of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan, told a 25 May hearing in Washington of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe that if the Azerbaijani people turn toward Iran (or Russia), "it will be good neither for democracy in Azerbaijan nor for the United States." A day earlier, Elchibey said at the National Democratic Institute in Washington, that "[w]e are opposed to Iranian participation and instigation." And at a January CIS summit meeting in Moscow, Azerbaijan's President Heidar Aliyev and Georgia's President Eduard Shevardnadze rejected Tehran's participation in the South Caucasus security pact, Baku's ANS television reported. (Bill Samii)