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Iran Report: July 31, 2000

31 July 2000, Volume 3, Number 29

MORE NEWSPAPERS CLOSED DOWN. Staffers of banned publications--such as Tus, Khordad, Neshat, Akhbar-i Eqtesad, Asr-i Azadegan, and Fath--began producing the weekly "Gunagun" in early-July. But on 25 July the Tehran Justice Department announced that the weekly was banned and that its offices, formerly the home of two dailies, had been sealed.

Together with the closure of Ardabil's weekly "Cheshmeh" on 5 July, this brings to 22 the number of Iranian publications that have been closed since April. Moreover, these closures leave just four reformist major (Tehran) papers publishing in Iran today: "Kar va Kargar," "Hayat-i No," "Bahar," and "Hamshahri." Other relatively reform-oriented outlets which continue to operate are the Islamic Republic News Agency's papers, "Iran" and "Iran Daily."

"Cheshmeh" was closed for publishing articles that ridiculed the passion plays for Imam Hussein, "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported on 5 July. And, according to a Justice Department statement, "Gunagun" was banned because it was following the same course as its predecessors. In a 6 July editorial stating the goals of "Gunagun," Managing Editor Fatemeh Farahmandpur said she believed in discussing religion and the revolution, and she called for tolerance. She advocated reform, eradication of "Machiavellian politics from the bright and lively discourse of the Iranian nation," and respect for the constitution. And Farahmandpur spoke out strongly for defending the press. With such sentiments, it is surprising that the weekly was tolerated this long.

Trials of the journalists linked with the banned publications are continuing. Mostafa Izadi, editor of Najafabad's weekly "Ava," was sentenced in early-July. Attorney Mohammad Aghassi told RFE/RL's Persian Service about what he observed in the open trial. "They had 10 plaintiffs. The Press Oversight Committee, the Revolutionary Guard [Corps of] Qom and Najafabad, the prosecutor's representative, Isfahan's Special Court of Clerics--all the complaints were of a press nature. [Izadi] was accused of publishing lies and disrespectful material in his newspaper." Aghassi added that Izadi's chief fault was the perception that he is a supporter of Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri-Najafabadi, who has long been under house arrest.

This case was followed by hearings for Mohammad Reza Zohdi, publisher of the daily "Arya." The 61 charges read out against his newspaper included inciting public opinion, propaganda against the state, and striving to weaken the system. Among the plaintiffs are the Ministry of Intelligence and Security and the police intelligence department.

On 12 July, hearings for an IRGC complaint against the weekly "Omid-i Zanjan" began, IRNA reported. The weekly was accused of insulting the IRGC and its commander, General Yahya Rahim Safavi, by writing in 1998 that the military organization was planning a coup, referring to the IRGC headquarters in Zanjan as a "den of vampires," and more recently, accusing the IRGC of involvement in the March attempt to kill Said Hajjarian. Managing Editor Ahmad Hakimipur accepted responsibility and apologized, while his attorney added that the case should be heard before the press jury.

A few days later, "Fath" editor Emadedin Baqi received a 5 1/2-year jail sentence. He was charged with questioning tenets of Islam and the revolution. In a letter to Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, Baqi complained that he was being denied the necessary materials to appeal his conviction, "Bahar" reported on 22 July.

IRNA chief Fereidun Verdinejad appeared before the court on 23 and 27 July to face complaints by the Law Enforcement Forces, Ansar-i Hizbullah, Basij Mobilization Forces, state broadcasting, and private individuals. Most of the charges date from when Verdinejad was the managing editor of "Iran."

The trial for the banned daily "Manateq-i Azad" started on 24 July. Plaintiffs in the case include Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting and the Law Enforcement Forces.

Some members of the media nonetheless are fighting back. "Guzarish-i Ruz" publisher Mohammad Ali Mahdavi Khorram filed a complaint against the public relations administrator of Tehran's Justice Department. Khorram described his complaint in an interview with RFE/RL's Persian Service, saying, "It is a matter of retrieving our dignity, our forgotten rights, and of reviving our forgotten rights. It seems that during these recent few years, a selected few who are backed by some political power, or especially some protective power, are using libel and slander against other citizens. Despite the fact that in our philosophy, dignity is of no less worth than one's life, a few people have without any basis blackened our reputation."

"Mosharekat" Managing Editor Mohammad Reza Khatami lodged a protest against the ban on his daily. Khatami said the ban was illegal, IRNA reported on 23 July, because "I was neither summoned to court prior to the banning of my newspaper nor was notified of the charge which would have led to issue the verdict on banning the publication."

Although encouraging for advocates of press freedom, such efforts may not be enough. Pressure against the media has approval at the highest level of the government. More ominously, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei continues to criticize the media. His statements about the media in April foreshadowed the first round of press closures, and during a 26 July speech in northwestern Meshkinshahr, Khamenei continued his criticism. He said that "a number of journalists in Tehran wait for opportunities in order to make a mountain out of a molehill in the political arena. They wish to keep the government, the officials, and the people engaged with political and factional issues."

Khamenei accused them of treason and cooperating with foreign intelligence services. "The journalists stop the officials from carrying out their duties and this is an act of treason. Talking about matters that are desirable by the CIA and Mossad; or writing about issues in order to please them [CIA and Mossad]; or taking stances for their benefit, do not serve the people's interests."

As a result, it is easy to understand why Sirajedin Mirdamadi, a member of the "Hayat-i No" editorial board, said that "currently, journalists' hands tremble when they write." (Bill Samii)

'I WILL SUBMIT TO THE PEOPLE'S VOTE.' With these words during a 26 July speech to university chancellors and educational leaders, President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami declared his intention to stand in the next presidential election (expected in May 2001). Before making this declaration, Khatami vowed that he would not back down from the course of reform. His declaration comes at a time when objections to his inaction are being voiced by some of his supporters, and simultaneously, objections to his reforms are being voiced by his opponents.

Early in his speech, Khatami indicated irritation with the outcome of the trial of the policemen who attacked the Tehran University dormitory in July 1999. Not only did the original incident result in six days of nationwide unrest, but the acquittal of the accused on the eve of the riots' one year anniversary caused further disturbances. And during the demonstrations in early-July, some of the protesters indicated their disappointment with Khatami's policy of silence and inaction.

Khatami then said that needing "reforms" means that there are "insufficiencies in society," be they political or economic. "We cannot say that everything is fine and we still need reforms. ...Therefore, we should also accept insufficiencies and not become dogmatic about them." He later said that ensuring the rule of law is "the most important step towards reforms."

"So what did people vote for?" the president asked rhetorically. They voted for the stances that he espoused during his campaign, and which were subsequently endorsed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. For those reasons, Khatami explained emotionally, "It is a commitment between me and my God, and between me and the great Iranian nation, and it will remain until my last breath." Until new voting shows that the people want something new, Khatami vowed, he will stay the course that brought him to office.

Khatami restated his commitment to reform and to the mandate the public gave him. But then he hedged, saying, "Of course, I should note that not everything is up to me, but I will never lose my way."

Conservatives and hardliners blame the Khatami government for numerous problems. A 6 July article in the hardline weekly "Shoma" claimed that there has been a progressive decline in voter participation since Khatami's election; the rising inflation rate indicated the failure of the reformists' economic program; and non-oil exports had dropped by 24 percent. And, according to "Kayhan" on 29 June, Khatami refused to answer a judge's question on how to deal with newspapers that have become "enemy bases."

With the closure of so may reformist publications, it is very difficult for Khatami and the reformists to get their messages to the general public. Khatami's announcement of his candidacy typified the problem. Although he made the speech early in the day, and IRNA reported it by 12:30 pm local time, state television did not carry the speech until 8 pm. And restricted media access could make campaigning quite difficult. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN MEETINGS WITH HAMAS, PIJ UNDERCUT PEACE CHANCES. Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said that the "failure" of the 15-day meeting at Camp David between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat "clearly showed that the Zionist regime is not ready to accept even the minimum demands of the Palestinians," IRNA reported on 26 July. His remark is just one of the indications that Tehran will seek to exploit the impasses on major issues like the status of Jerusalem and the future of Palestinian refugees by increasing its support for organizations which use violence to pursue their objectives.

In the fourth week of July, while the Camp David meetings were being held, Iranian leaders reiterated their negative sentiments about the Camp David talks, and top Iranian officials met with the leaders of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), HAMAS, and Hizballah in Tehran, Damascus, and Beirut. Earlier in the month, Iranian and Hizballah officials had met in Tehran (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 17 July 2000).

Official Iranian views were equally implacable. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that "while the flag of struggle and resistance flies, the line of compromise is doomed to fail," IRNA reported on 25 July. He added that "Israel is a false and fictitious entity which is why it will vanish, and followers of all religions will live in Palestine in peace."

President Mohammad Khatami said that the fate of Jerusalem affects all Muslims, state television reported on 25 July. Khatami stressed that "the international community and Islamic countries must adopt fundamental and comprehensive solutions aimed at opposing the radicalism and organized efforts of the Zionist regime which has begun Judaizing Bayt Al-Muqaddas [Jerusalem]...They must prevent the demographic situation from being changed and they must also prevent holy religious places from being desecrated."

Meanwhile, PIJ Secretary-General Ramadan Abdallah Shallah was in Tehran, and he met with Khatami on 25 July. At this meeting, according to IRNA, Khatami "lauded the resistance of the Palestinians to the Zionist regime," and referring to the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon, he said that "the Islamic Resistance Movement demonstrated that loyalty to goals and Islamic faith will eventually bring freedom and victory."

The day before, Abdallah met with Expediency Council chairman Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and parliament speaker Hojatoleslam Mehdi Mahdavi-Karrubi. Rafsanjani told Abdallah that because Jerusalem belongs to the Islamic world, all Muslims should strive for its liberation. He added that Israel only understands "the language of force," IRNA reported. Karrubi rejected compromise and promised Iran's continuing spiritual support. Abdallah replied that "the people of Palestine surely consider the Islamic Republic as their sole supporter."

During his trip to Iran, Abdallah discussed the Palestinian people's future, saying that they will "rise to create the same miracle that the Lebanese people have made and achieve victory." He added that "our option which is capable of triumphing is the option of jihad and resistance, which has proved its ability to achieve victory and defeat Israel in Lebanon. Our option is the option of force, the only language that Israel understands and the one that compels it to retreat." Asked if there would be more cooperation between the PIJ and Hizballah, Abdallah told the 25 July "Al-Hayah" that "We are a Palestinian Islamic movement and consider ourselves to be in the same trench with Hizballah against Israel. The cooperation between Hizballah and us has helped bolster the fighting capabilities of our movement and Mujahedin."

At the same time, former Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Velayati visited Syria and Lebanon as the special envoy of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In Damascus, Velayati met with HAMAS officials Khaled Mashaal, Musa Abu Marzuk, and Ibrahim Ghouseh, IRNA reported on 25 July. He told the HAMAS representatives that the supreme leader believes the key to the Palestinians' survival is continuation of the struggle against Israel. Mashaal called for "all out support of the Iranian leadership, government, and people." (HAMAS leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin had urged cancellation of the Camp David talks, Ramallah's "Al-Ayyam" reported on 18 July.)

Velayati also met with Ahmed Jibril, secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine -- General Command, and Colonel Abu Musa, secretary-general of the Palestinian National Liberation Movement (Fatah Intifada, which split from Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization in 1983 and is hostile to the MEPP), according to IRNA.

Velayati went on to Beirut, where he met with Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and spiritual leader Sheikh Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah. While there he said that "we hope to see the liberation of Palestine and Jerusalem in the near future, God willing." Velayati advised that "Jihad against the Israeli enemy is the only way for lifting the injustice and ending the occupation of Palestine," "Al-Hayah" reported on 27 July.

There are likely to be questions about how wholehearted Iranian backing for the terrorist groups would be. Such actions by Iranian officials may not necessarily reflect the wishes or interests of the Iranian people, many of whom are more concerned with day-to-day life than with events in other countries that have little impact on their lives. Indeed, some observers have already suggested that Iran's hardliners are trying to block Khatami's openings to the West by inviting the PIJ leader to Tehran or by meeting with HAMAS officials. But Khatami met with the leaders of the PIJ, PFLP-GC, HAMAS, Hizballah, and PFLP during his May 1999 trip to Damascus. That being the case, Iran's stand on the MEPP and its subsequent support for terrorist groups seems to reflect a consensus on the part of the country's leading officials. (Bill Samii)

HIZBALLAH ALL OVER AGAIN. There have been an increasing number of reports of Hizballah's international activities, some of which depend on mysterious sources and revive old stories, while others are more transparent and more current. But both the timing and number of the stories, all three of which broke in the first three weeks of July, suggest that this is may be more than a coincidence.

The most recent case involves the 21 July arrest in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Northville, Michigan, of 18 people--six of whom were released subsequently on bond--on charges that included immigration violations, weapons offenses, money laundering, and smuggling cigarettes in order to raise money for Hizballah. Not only is the group accused of sending money to Hizballah, it allegedly provided it with night vision equipment, Global Positioning Systems, digital photo equipment, and computers.

A 100-page affidavit used to get federal search warrants alleged that group leader Mohammad Yussef Hammoud received Hizballah-sponsored military training and after a 1999 trip to Lebanon, he "bragged about going to Syria with the [Hizballah] political representative to Iran and Syria," AP reported on 23 July. The brother of another member, Ali Fayez Darwish, is reportedly a Hizballah leader, and Darwish allegedly sent $1 million to Lebanon over an 18-month period. A third member allegedly fought for Hizballah.

Neighbors and acquaintances of the suspects registered disbelief. A Charlotte man named Ahmed told the 23 July "New York Times" that FBI agents had searched his home and confiscated his Koran, but any money sent to Lebanon went to the arrested people's relatives or to charities. [Lebanese charities linked with Hizballah include the Imdad Committee for Islamic Charity, the Al-Shahid Organization (also linked with Iran's Martyr's Foundation, Bonyad-i Shahid), and the Islamic Institution for Education and Teaching (which runs the Al-Mahdi schools and is linked with Iran).] And one of Hammoud's neighbors said that "we thought they were strange because they didn't wave back or talk to anybody on the block. But that doesn't mean we thought they were helping terrorists or anything."

Hizballah has denied any links with the arrested people.

Another recent case arose in Manila. The Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines arrested an Iranian--Behrouz Vafajoe--suspected of ties with Lebanese Hizballah, ABS-CBN news reported on 17 July and "The Manila Times" reported the next day. According to the Filipino sources, Hizballah has linked up with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which is the largest Philippine Islamist separatist group, and the New People's Army, which is the military wing of the Philippines Communist Party. The arrest of Iranian national Alireza Vafakish Homaee, a "suspected international terrorist" and "suspected saboteur," was reported in the 9 April edition of "The Philippine Star."

Discussing Islamist groups in the Philippines, Defense Minister Orlando Mercado told the 25 May "Al-Hayah" that the MILF is estimated to have about 15,000 members, and the more extreme Abu Sayyaf Group is believed to have about 1,000 members. Mercado suggested in "Al-Hayah," the Arabic-language London daily that these two groups are instructed and advised by personnel from Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia. But an April report in a Malaysian daily that Iran had founded the Abu Sayyaf Group was dismissed as "baseless and unfounded" by the Iranian embassy in Kuala Lumpur, according to IRNA.

An older case that involves Hizballah--acting on Tehran's behalf--relates to the 1994 attack on the Jewish Mutual Association building in Buenos Aires, which resulted in 86 casualties. Buenos Aires' "La Nacion" reported on 17 July that President Carlos Menem asked Tehran to deposit $10 million in a Swiss bank account in exchange for his silence on the issue. One of the sources of this information is the same Witness "C" whose testimony led to the indictment of leading Iranian officials for the 1992 murder of Iranian dissidents at Berlin's Mykonos restaurant. "C" is part of the Argentinean witness protection program and has been living in Germany.

"C" also claimed that Tehran sponsored Menem's election campaign. Yet the commodities trade between the two countries was suspended for about one year. More recently, Argentine Agriculture Secretary Antonio Berhongaray said that Tehran has promised $500 million in agricultural purchases.

The New York-based World Jewish Congress urged Argentina's current president, Fernando de la Rua, to start the trial of the men arrested in connection with the case, Reuters reported on 21 July. De la Rua has created a special unit to help with the investigation. (Bill Samii)

BOSNIAN MUSLIM COMMANDER IN IRAN? Bosnian Muslim military commander Ramiz Delalic has escaped from prison and is on his way to Iran using forged documents, Sarajevo's "Oslobodjenje" daily said on 12 July, Belgrade's "Fonet" reported two days later, as did Sarajevo's "Dnevni Avaz" on 18 July. Delalic, better known as "Celo" (Baldy), led a gang of military racketeers linked to robberies and assaults against foreign journalists and aid workers. Celo was imprisoned in 1999 for beating a policeman after being pulled over for a traffic violation, but other charges against him since 1990 included murder, robbery, theft, and assault. Many cases were dropped after witnesses withdrew their testimonies. Although captured in a 1993 anti-crime drive, Celo was released. (Bill Samii)

IRAN AND SRI LANKA TO COOPERATE IN DIVERSE FIELDS. Sri Lanka's minister of internal trade, international commerce, and food, Kingsley Wickramaratne, told the sixth Iran-Sri Lanka Joint Economic Commission meeting in Tehran that Iran is an important venue for access to Central Asian markets, IRNA reported on 22 July. The next day, Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Ataollah Mohajerani and Wickramaratne signed a Memorandum of Understanding covering a variety of subjects in Tehran, according to IRNA. The memorandum contains clauses addressing educational issues, such as scientific contests, research, and scholarships. It also covers cooperation between news agencies and broadcasting services, film festivals, and joint cinematic productions. Also addressed are health issues, construction of cultural centers, and expanded tourism.

Iranian Minister of Economic Affairs and Finance Hussein Namazi told the 22 July meeting that although relations between Colombo and Tehran are good, the level of bilateral trade could be higher. At this point, Iran's main export to Sri Lanka is crude oil, while its main imports are tea and coconuts. IRNA reported in April that Colombo's state-owned Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPA) would buy 50 percent of its crude oil requirements (1.08 million tons of light crude out of a planned 2.1 million tons) from Tehran.

And at the end of the meetings on 25 July, two economic agreements were signed on the elimination of double taxation and encouragement of foreign investment. Wickramaratne suggested that near-term projects could include establishment of a center in Sri Lanka for distribution of Iranian liquid gas, and the establishment of a firm in Iran for packaging Sri Lankan tea for its resale in the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Colombo also has tried to increase the amount of non-oil Iranian goods entering the country. After the Tamil Tigers routed government forces at the important Elephant Pass and Iyakkachchi garrisons in April, Sri Lankan defense officials met with arms manufacturers' representatives from Iran, Russia, the Czech Republic, Pakistan, Israel, Singapore, and Great Britain to secure replacements for heavy weapons that were lost to the rebels. Sri Lanka's "Sunday Times" reported that quick delivery was a key condition. (Bill Samii)