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Iran Report: August 14, 2000

14 August 2000, Volume 3, Number 31

HEATED REACTIONS TO CLOSING OF PRESS DEBATE. There have been strong reactions to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's 6 August letter blocking parliamentary debate on a strict press law. Questions have been raised about the permissibility of such a move as well as about the existing press law. At the same time, arrests of journalists and newspaper closures are continuing. Such developments are not very encouraging for the reformists or for President Mohammad Khatami's bid for a second term.

Former parliamentarian Qasem Sholeh Saadi suggested in an interview with RFE/RL's Persian Service that closing the debate on the press law, or on any subject, is not permissible. He said that "It is the right of the parliamentarians to request changes in the parliamentary agenda and not that of the presiding board. The parliament can do so, but the presiding board has sworn to abide by the agenda, remain neutral, and observe the rights of the parliament and the parliamentarians and not violate the law."

The issue is not dead, parliamentarian Elahe Kulayi told the 8 August "Bahar." She explained that "with regard to the viewpoints of the eminent leader [Khamenei], there are a diversity of views. So, the possibility of the renewed decision on the reading of the bill on the amendment to the press law is not totally non-existent."

The press law, as it now stands, is similar to the plan recommended by the now-deceased Ministry of Intelligence and Security official Said Emami (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 12 July 1999). The law permits Revolutionary Courts to prosecute press cases and prohibits the reappearance of banned publications under a new name. Also, the new law makes journalists, as well as publications' directors, liable for what appears in the press.

RFE/RL's Persian Service asked reformist journalist Masud Behnoud why the press law had been made so strict in the first place. Behnoud explained: "When the hardliners discovered that they were losers of the last elections, they made a few major changes to the press law at the end of the fifth parliament. These changes were based on one point only. They discovered they lost the election solely due to the presence of the press. Therefore, press has the power of making up the people's mind and they can be the determining factor, and observed the effect of the press campaign and advertisement in the past months. They changed the press law so that these things will not take place."

As reformists voiced their objections to the ban on the debate and criticized parliamentary speaker Hojatoleslam Mehdi Mahdavi-Karrubi for permitting it, hardliners demonstrated outside the parliament, the Tehran Bazaar and Guilds Association announced that it would stay closed for several hours to support Khamenei's action, and the demonstrations spread to Qom, according to London's "Al-Hayat" on 10 August. Parliamentary speaker Karrubi told state radio on 8 August "there is no need for demonstrations. ...I appreciate this, but there is no need for this..."

As disputes over these developments continued, so too did harassment of the press. A temporary detention order for journalist Mohammad Quchani was issued on 13 August, after he appeared in court to hear the charges against him. Satirical columnist Ebrahim Nabavi is being held after appearing before the court on 12 August. Journalist Masud Behnoud (see above) was imprisoned on 9 August after a lengthy interrogation. The warrant against Behnoud, who has written for several of the now-banned newspapers, was issued after he failed to appear in court to hear 85 complaints filed against him by state prosecutors and the Ansar-i Hizbullah. Writer Ahmad Zeydabadi was detained on 8 August.

Also, the Press Court closed "Bahar" by on 8 August--suspended temporarily pending a trial. Publisher Said Purazizi told IRNA that his daily was ordered shut for a 7 August interview about the press law and its headline on the same topic a day later. "Manateq-i Azad" editor Mohammad Reza Yazdanpanah was sentenced on 13 August to pay a cash fine and his daily received a five-month ban, retroactive from April, when it was initially closed. The trial of Ahmad Hakimipur, editor of "Omid-i Zanjan" weekly, started on 12 August.

The domestic media, furthermore, was accused of cooperating with foreign elements. Tehran Justice Department chief Hojatoleslam Abbasali Alizadeh said that the courts would work hard to eliminate this cooperation. He said, according to state radio on 7 August, "Some of these elements are at the origin of propaganda campaigns against the regime and cooperate with foreign media such as the Voice of America and Israeli radio, the BBC and Radio Free Europe."

The ban on a debate of the press law, the arrests, and the Bahar closure, have elicited international condemnation. The World Association of Newspaper and World Editors Forum voiced their objections in an open letter. Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said in a statement that the debate ban represented another act of repression from a leader who she said has made clear his disdain for freedom of the press. Amnesty International expressed concern about the medical condition of Behnoud, Zeydabadi, and reformist cleric Hojatoleslam Hassan Yussef Eshkevari, who was detained on 5 August. And Reporters Without Frontiers said that "after Burma, Iran is the biggest jail for journalists in the world."

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that "[w]e would expect the government of Iran to uphold the international Human Rights Standards, including the right to freedom of expression." Boucher added, however, that the decision by Khamenei would not affect the measures the U.S. has taken recently to improve relations with the people of Iran.

The developments in Iran come at a sensitive time. President Mohammad Khatami, who represents the reformists, just declared his intention to run for executive office again in 2001. State broadcast media is heavily biased against the reformists, as are most of the remaining high-circulation publications. Without unfettered access to friendly media, Khatami will have an uphill battle.

Furthermore, Khatami's habitually subdued reaction to press closures and other restrictions may become harmful to him now. "Bahar" noted on 5 August that "Khatami's silence in the face of restrictions imposed on the press is an indication of his protest to the status quo." The now-banned daily also said that Khatami is "hailed as a champion of press freedom and indeed as a staunch defender of freedom."

On 8 August, after returning from a trip to Kurdistan Province, Khatami mentioned the importance of a healthy press in serving as a watchdog over the state. But it was Iran's Journalist Day, so he had to say something. The question now is: who will carry his and the reformists' views? And if he will not defend the vestiges of a free press, who will defend him, his programs, and his electoral platform? (Bill Samii)

WARNING AGAINST 'UNIDENTIFIED' RADIO STATION. "Most of my remarks are addressed to the young people," Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani said as he started the second sermon of the 11 August Friday Prayers, and he then discussed, among other points, RFE/RL's Persian Service. "Many people know the name of this radio in Europe, which is... [pauses]. No, I do not wish to name the radio. ...It continued influencing the public opinion until the USSR collapsed. Now the same radio station is working against Iran. I have heard that they have altered the position of the radio's transmitting mast in order to direct its beams to Iran. No doubt they have increased the radio station's output too. I am certain about changing the position of the mast, but I am not sure about the budget. At any rate, they have increased the hours of its Persian broadcasts."

Emami-Kashani had more warnings about the unnamed radio station. "They steal the people's thoughts by broadcasting deceptive words. They pose as friends but in reality they sow discord. ...Imagine what happens when some sources inside the country join in unison with them [the enemies abroad]. These sources include the press and the people [who write or speak] outside the press." Emami-Kashani continued: "One must understand the basis of the enemies' radio propaganda. One must understand their objective. They are trying to deceive the people." (Bill Samii)

INTERESTING APPOINTMENTS BEHIND THE SCENES... Changes in personnel or organizational structures at the upper-levels of government often can have more symbolic than substantive meaning. But behind the scenes and at less elevated levels, where work gets done by sometimes faceless technocrats, there have been some interesting and instructive developments.

A defender of the Guardians Council, which has the right to interpret the Constitution per Article 98, has been appointed to a board charged with review and implementation of the provisions of the constitution. In a 29 July decree President Mohammad Khatami appointed Assembly of Experts member Hojatoleslam Hashem Hashemzadeh Harisi as a member of the aforementioned review board. "This appointment is made due to your proven commitment and experience," the decree stated, according to IRNA.

Harisi was the parliamentary representative from Tabriz and chairman of the Articles 88 and 90 Committee (which deals with questioning government ministers and complaints), and he is a defender of the Guardian Council's prerogatives. When the council was criticized for rejecting some parliamentary candidates earlier this year, Harisi said that the Guardian Council had documents to support its actions. He added that "the members of the Guardian Council had only God in mind. They had the happiness of the spirit of the Imam, Islam, and revolution at heart when they vetted candidates," "Jebheh" reported on 15 January.

Another interesting appointment is that of Ali Ashraf Mojtahed-Shabestari as ambassador and assistant to the Permanent Representative Office of Iran at the Geneva office of the UN Recognized for his professionalism by foreign diplomats who have dealt with him, Shabestari previously served as Ambassador to Tajikistan, head of the Foreign Ministry's Finance Department, and head of the Center for Political Studies' International Department.

Shabestari's family background is more unusual. One brother, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mojtahed-Shabestari, is a professor of theology at Tehran University who advocates a dynamic version of religion. He has criticized the prevalence of violence in Iranian society, and he has advocated women's rights. Because of his views, Shabestari has been severely criticized by both clerics and laymen, and he was imprisoned. The other brother, Ayatollah Mohsen Mojtahed-Shabestari, is a Tabriz Friday Prayer leader, a member of the Assembly of Experts, and was a hardline member of parliament representing Tabriz.

Iran's new ambassador to Saudi Arabia will be Asqar Khaji, who currently serves as the Foreign Ministry's director-general for Persian Gulf Affairs, "Bahar" reported on 7 August. Furthermore, an annual meeting of Iranian diplomats will start in Tehran on 12 August. "The ambassadors, attaches, and heads of consulates will take part in this one-week gathering to meet Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and be informed of his guidelines," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said, IRNA reported on 7 August.

There was a great deal of speculation about possible changes in the executive branch after the new parliament was sworn-in. One daily suggested that there would be a major reshuffle, with changes in the leadership of the Interior; Labor and Social Affairs; Islamic Culture and Guidance; Education and Training; Post, Telegraph, and Telephone; Economic Affairs and Finance; and Energy Ministries.

The most obvious change, so far, is the 19 June creation of the Management and Planning Organization (MPO) through a merger of the Plan and Budget Organization and the Employment and Administrative Affairs Organization. The heads of the now-defunct organizations, vice presidents Mohammad-Ali Najafi and Mohammad Baqerian, were tapped as President Mohammad Khatami's personal advisers. The MPO's new chief is Mohammad Reza Aref-Yazdi, former head of the Post, Telephone and Telegraph Ministry. (Bill Samii)

...AND IN THE UNIFORMED SERVICES. Major-General Mohammad Salimi said on 5 August that Tehran has appointed 34 military attaches for foreign duty and more may be appointed soon, "Tehran Times" reported. Attaches have duties such as intelligence gathering, liaison with local counterparts, and promotion of arms sales. In light of Salimi's reference to "the Army's technological achievements," such as the Zolfaqar tank and the Boraq personnel carrier, it seems that the attaches will function mainly as salesmen. Another possible export item is the Babr 400, which can transport tanks weighing as much as 50 tons, and which was introduced during April's Armed Forces' Week. Qatar's Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, said in mid-July that he is ready to send an attache to Tehran, according to IRNA.

There also have been changes in the higher echelons of the military and security forces, possibly because of questions about budget allocations and the military's role in Iranian politics. Joint Staff of the Armed Forces chief Major General Ali Shahbazi-Zolqadr resigned in May, and Supreme Leader and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Ayatollah Ali Khamenei immediately appointed him as chief of military advisors of the Armed Forces General Command. Shahbazi was replaced by Major General Mohammad Salimi. Salimi was born in Mashhad in 1937, and on finishing high school he entered the military and served in various communications units. He apparently sided with anti-monarchic elements in 1978-79, and after the revolution he was selected as the Imam's representative in the army. Salimi was charged with insurgency operations in the south during the Iran-Iraq War and was wounded. He later served as Minister of Defense.

Army deputy chief Major-General Nasser Arasteh was replaced by Brigadier General Mustafa Torabipour, who was, in turn, succeeded by former deputy commander of the Iranian Air Force Brigadier General Shahram Rostami. A decree from the Supreme Leader appointed Arasteh as "military advisor to the Commander-In-Chief of the Armed Forces in charge of ground affairs," IRNA reported on 25 June.

In late-June, the Supreme Leader appointed IRGC Air Force chief Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf as the commander of the LEF, succeeding Brigadier General Hedayat Lotfian. Lotfian was appointed as Deputy Inspector General of the Armed Forces General Staff. IRGC Navy chief Rear Admiral Ali Akbar Ahmadian replaced Brigadier General Hussein Alai as chief of the IRGC Joint Staff central headquarters. Brigadier General Ahmad Kazemi was tapped as IRGC Air Force chief.

According to a report in the 22 May "Al-Sharq al-Awsat," Shahbazi resigned after disagreements with General Staff of the Armed Forces chief Major General Hassan Aqai-Firuzabadi over potential escalation of border clashes with Iraq and separating the responsibilities of the regular armed forces and the IRGC. The London daily added that Shahbazi disagreed with Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani about favoritism for the IRGC, and he demanded that a greater proportion of the defense budget be allocated to the regular military. Shahbazi's support for President Mohammad Khatami also caused problems. The other personnel moves may have been harbingers of the recent crackdown on political debate, reflecting efforts to install hardline elements in the military leadership. (Bill Samii)

'THAT BREAD SHOULD BE SO DEAR...' "...and flesh and blood so cheap," poet Thomas Hood wrote in 1843. That seems to be the trade-off Tehran is making in order to help balance the economy by eliminating subsidies, while simultaneously continuing its imports of foreign foodstuffs.

Mohammed-Reza Saidi-Nejad, head of Iran's Trade Promotion Services, announced on 29 July that Iran is to import $1.1 billion worth of rice, sugar, and vegetable oil or seeds in the year that began on 20 March. Iran is trying to buy Pakistan's surplus wheat harvest, "Karachi Dawn" reported on 28 July, and in June it promised to buy $500 million in agricultural products--including wheat, rice, and vegetable oil--from Argentina.

Ron Verdonk of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said on 25 July that private Iranian traders have purchased more than 600,000 tons of American corn since April, Reuters reported, and he saw a chance of rice sales "in the not too distant future." The USDA forecasts 1 million tons of Iranian corn imports for 1999/2000, and 1.4 million tons in 2000/2001. According to Iran's Foreign Trade Yearbook issued on 1 August, furthermore, agricultural imports from the U.S. in the last year included $31.5 million worth of cornseed and $6 million worth of soya oil.

Many Iranians find it difficult to afford these foodstuffs. 35 percent of the total population--23 percent of urban families and 30 percent of rural families--live below the poverty line, and income distribution is worsening, according to an unpublished report from the Management and Planning Organization. This report says that the poverty line stands at 881,600 rials ($504) for a five-member urban family and 520,057 rials ($207) for a rural family, the 30 July "Bahar" reported. Furthermore, 16 percent of children in Iran suffer from malnutrition, Deputy Minister of Health, Treatment, and Medical Education Akbar Sayyari said on 10 August, according to IRNA.

So people can eat under such circumstances, prices for agricultural products in Iran are kept artificially low through the provision of subsidies. Subsidies for wheat make up 85 percent of all subsidies for basic foodstuffs, and 70 percent of the lower-income sector of the Iranian population's diet consists of bread. But these subsidies are imposing a tremendous cost on the Iranian economy. Direct government wheat subsidies stand at 6 trillion rials (about $3,428,571,429) annually. Commerce Minister Gholamhussein Shariatmadari announced on 6 August that elimination of subsidies is a major priority of the Third Five-Year Development plan.

Even with subsidies, however, bread prices have risen sharply. Bakers in Isfahan gathered in front of the governorate to protest the increase, "Tehran Times" reported on 3 July. And in Ardabil, the price of bread increased by 50 percent in the last few months, "Hayat-i No" reported on 3 July. Keeping bread prices artificially low had caused production and distribution problems, the bread quality had dropped, and flour was distributed illegally.

Nor is bread readily available, resulting in long queues at bakeries. One housewife complained that "I have been in the queue from morning till now, that is, 12 o'clock. I left the queue twice to go home, and check my children, and then I returned, but still my turn has not arrived, and it is not clear whether it finally will or not." (Bill Samii)

ARAFAT VISITS TEHRAN TO DISCUSS JERUSALEM. Palestinian Authority chairman Yassir Arafat arrived in Tehran on 10 August, in what might seem like an unexpected development. For quite a while, Tehran has expressed its hostility to the Middle East Peace Process and its scorn for Arafat, and more recently, Iranian officials were outspoken in their negative sentiments towards the Camp David negotiations between Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Since the Camp David talks ended, Arafat has made several trips to meet with Arab and Islamic leaders, and Iran currently chairs the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Tehran has spoken out against Jerusalem being under Israeli control, and Arafat has said he will ask President Mohammad Khatami to convene a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference to discuss the status of Jerusalem. And on his arrival in Tehran, Arafat announced that "We are victims of aggressions by the Zionists and their oppressive actions against the Holy Qods," and he added that the peace talks are "dead," IRNA reported.

Khatami told Arafat at their meeting that Palestine should be "liberated" and then local Muslims, Christians, and Jews could decide its fate. Khatami added that "we will take every possible action at our disposal to solve the issue of Palestine and Bayt Al-Muqaddas, although Bayt Al-Muqaddas is not something that could be swallowed by the aggressor enemy," IRNA reported. Arafat also met Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi and Expediency Council chairman Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani.

In recent months, Iranian officials have made repeated trips to the region to discuss the future of Jerusalem and other issues. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's representative, Ali-Akbar Velayati, visited Damascus and Beirut in July, and according to state radio on 3 August, Khatami dispatched "special envoys to the region to help specify the future of Al-Qods [Jerusalem]." Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Mohammad Sadr traveled to Amman, Beirut, Tunis, and Damascus, and Riyadh.

In Damascus on 8 August, Sadr met with Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq Shara. At this meeting, the official SANA press agency reported, "both Syria and Iran agreed that the rights of the Arabs and Muslims should be preserved and not relinquished and that occupied Arab territories, including the Golan Heights and Jerusalem, should be regained." The "main topic" of Khatami's message to Assad was, according to Iranian state radio, "the issue of Holy Qods, the president of our country has referred to the sensitivity of the matter, as well as to the joint efforts which OIC members must make in order to prevent the Palestinian side from making too many concessions [to Israel]." Sadr also "called on Islamic states to neutralize the conspiracies of the Zionist regime and the U.S.," according to IRNA.

In Beirut on 9 August, Sadr met with President Emil Lahud and parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri. Sadr told Lahud that Muslim countries "should not allow any compromise on Holy Qods and Palestine," IRNA reported, and he told Berri that "Holy Qods belongs to all Muslims and should return to them." Sadr also met with Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and members of the Hizballah Council, as well as Shia Supreme Council head Mohammad Mehdi Shamsedin.

There are various opinions about Arafat's recent travels. Palestinian Islamic Jihad official Abu Imad al-Refai said that Arafat was "only trying to justify his setbacks and his concessions to the Zionist regime," IRNA reported. Israeli Defense Forces intelligence chief Major General Amos Malka told the Knesset on 2 August that Arafat is trying to keep the situation in the occupied territories calm as a means of increasing his international support, "The Jerusalem Post" reported. Malka also said that Iran is strengthening its relations with Palestinian rejectionist groups in the occupied territories on the assumption that the next battle will be "over Jerusalem," Tel Aviv's "Haaretz" reported.

[Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi denied reports that Iran is encouraging Palestinian groups to foment tension, and he said this is a "propaganda tool" intended to exert pressure on "militant Palestinian forces" after the "failure of the recent talks," IRNA reported on 8 August.]

Malka added that Iran is dispatching weapons and ammunition to Hizballah, and it provides Hizballah and other Lebanese organizations with guidance and training. A "senior military source" also told "The Jerusalem Post" that Hizballah is receiving arms, equipment and money from Iran, but at the moment, both Hizballah and Amal are concentrating their energies on the up-coming parliamentary election. But according to a report in Beirut's "Al-Mustaqbal" on 1 August, Hizballah's interest in the Palestine issue increased sharply after the organization's leadership visited Tehran in July.

This may explain Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah's 30 July threat to destroy the U.S. Embassy if it moves to Jerusalem. "You can move your embassy to Jerusalem and send your diplomats there. But honest people can turn your embassy to rubble and send back your diplomats in coffins." (Bill Samii)