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Iran Report: November 13, 2000

13 November 2000, Volume 3, Number 43

TEHRAN WATCHES PALM BEACH. Tehran had viewed the U.S. presidential election with a hopeful, albeit jaundiced, eye before 7 November. But there has been greater interest afterwards, when controversy over the results in Florida delayed the declaration of a winner.

Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said in a 6 September interview on state television that "what is important for us is that those who come to power should have to reconsider their hostile policies towards the Islamic republic. The criteria for us is whether their policies will change or not." Kharrazi said that sanctions have isolated the U.S., rather than Iran, and they are harmful to U.S. firms, so he expected some changes with the next administration. The nature of those changes, he said, "depends on who comes to power and what his polices will be towards the region and towards Iran."

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on 6 November that he hoped the new president would revise U.S. policy towards Iran, IRNA reported. "Taking into account the failures it has experienced over the past 20 years, we hope that the US will revise its policy towards Iran. ... Experiences of the past 20 years reveal U.S. hostility towards Iran which have, on several occasions, denied Iranians their rights." Assefi did not explain when U.S. policies infringed on Iranians' rights.

An 8 November commentary on state television predicted that not much would change whatever the outcome of the U.S. election. That is because in the U.S. it is the system and its structure, rather than personalities, which determine domestic and foreign policy, it said. The commentary explained that "contrary to the superficial differences and distinctions between the Democratic and Republican parties, similar policies were pursued particularly in connection with foreign countries. For example, over the past eight years the Democrats have pursued the same policies that the Republicans initiated."

State television said specific examples of such continuity were the Democrats' continuation of the Republicans' Iraq policy and U.S. support for Israel since the 1940s, regardless of who was in the White House. "The dual-containment policy [against Iraq and Iran] was initiated during Bill Clinton's presidency, but one should seek the roots of this policy in George Bush's doctrine of erecting barriers so as to isolate Iran politically and to impose economic sanctions against our country. These and dozens of other examples demonstrate that basically the changing of presidents does not tangibly alter the direction of their foreign policy."

This jaded tone had disappeared by 10 November. That was when state television explained that the delayed announcement of the election result and the ensuing controversy had "paved the way for a new political scandal in the U.S." The television commentary explained that "such a scenario has also occurred many times in the U.S. and powerful political and economic lobbies have taken advantage of it in order to send their favorite nominee to the White House." The current controversy "sheds more light on the hidden aspects of the U.S. elections -- an issue which has always been avoided by US officials."

Expediency Council chief Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani also discussed the U.S. election at a conference in Qom. He noted the negative impact of the mass media on the political process, state radio reported on 11 November. He added that "the big scandal of the recent elections in America have demonstrated the flimsy nature of the pretenders to democracy, and proven that popular rule means nothing in America." Rafsanjani wondered why the U.S. "describes the Islamic system as undemocratic and autocratic" although "99 percent" of the Iranian people participate, while American elections, with only two candidates and low public participation, "are expected to stand as a role-model."

Rafsanjani also described the U.S. as an inept and fearful world leader. He said that "the chaos in Washington's political apparatus demonstrates the fear of that country's statesmen of Iran becoming a financial and spiritual power in the most sensitive part of the world." Rafsanjani claimed that the U.S. is providing Israel with Weapons of Mass Destruction, proving "that America is sacrificing mankind in order to safeguard its interest and those of hundreds of thousands of arrogant capitalists." (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN REACTS TO SANCTIONS RENEWAL. The White House released a letter on 9 November in which President Bill Clinton informed Congress of his decision to extend economic sanctions against Iran for another year. The sanctions have been in effect since the 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi, according to an 11 November broadcast, described the sanctions as a "violation of international and trade relations" that is condemned by Iran and many other countries. He added that such measures reveal the White House's misunderstanding of Iran, and the U.S. assumes that, through the imposition of sanctions, it can force Iran to resume relations with the U.S. On 8 November, Iranian parliamentarians had presented a bill that would require US nationals to be fingerprinted and physically searched when they arrived in Iran. One week earlier, the parliament approved legislation allowing "victims of U.S. interference" to sue the U.S. (Bill Samii)

GUARDIANS SHAPING LEGISLATION. The Guardians Council's 1 November rejection of a press bill supported by reformist parliamentarians has been referred to the Expediency Council, but the Guardians continue to put their conservative stamp on legislation. The parliament's bill would permit a publication to change from weekly to daily status without applying for a new license, but the Guardians Council rejected the bill on the grounds that it was un-Islamic and it contradicted the Supreme Leader's August 2000 guidelines.

Guardians Council secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati explained on 6 November that the Council's actions did not impinge on the parliament's powers. "Parliament has the right to pass legislation," he said, "and the Guardians Council has the right to assess and see whether the legislation conforms to the Sharia and the constitution or not."

Speaker of Parliament Mehdi Karrubi said in an open session of parliament that the proposed bill did not contradict the Supreme Leader's guidelines, IRNA reported on 7 November. Karrubi explained that "what the parliament has done now is interpretation of the Press Law which the second parliament approved in March 1986." The next day, Karrubi warned that these legislative events are following a normal course, so people were trying to create controversy. He added that he and Jannati had discussed the matter privately.

Because the parliament refused to change the bill after the Guardians Council sent it back, it went to the Expediency Council for adjudication. Mashhad representative Ali Tajernia told the 9 November "Hayat-i No" that this step was unnecessary because the law was constitutionally acceptable, but to avoid controversy the parliament accepted the Expediency Council's role. Sanadaj deputy Jalal Jalalizadeh suggested that the Guardians Council was acting against the national will.

Jannati said during the 10 November Friday Prayer sermon in Tehran that foreign radios were just making a fuss about the press bill. This was not the first time the Guardians and the parliament have disagreed about legislation, Jannati said, and these disagreements have been referred to the Expediency Council in the past.

It is not just press laws that are attracting the Guardians' attention. A parliamentary bill necessitating court approval for the marriage of males under 18 or females under 15 was deemed un-Islamic. According to Islamic law as understood by the Guardians, IRNA reported, boys above 15 and girls above 9 can marry. (Bill Samii)

FOUNDATION AUDITED AGAIN. Iran's State Auditing Foundation has begun a review of the Oppressed and Disabled Foundation's (Bonyad-i Mostazafan va Janbazan) accounts, state television reported on 4 November. Also, the Foundation has eliminated some executive positions and is attempting to shed some of its assets. These developments could reflect submission to parliamentary pressure and an attempt to increase profits, or they could reflect the Foundation's adoption of a new charter in August.

The Foundation rarely produces an annual report, and the parliament's efforts to get firm figures, through the Article 90 Committee, have been fruitless. An earlier 420-page parliamentary report about the Foundation's activities, according to Javad Kooroshy's essay for the November 2000 Middle East Studies Association conference, revealed extensive wastefulness, but it was never released to the public. The shorter, 21-page version of the report, which was read in parliament, revealed incorrect and illegal contracts, as well as payments that were uneconomical and insufficiently justified.

For example, the foundation purchased $30 million worth of goods from a German company. According to the contract, the foundation paid $16.2 million in cash and exchanged real estate in Iran. Although the company was German, the managing director was an Iranian citizen and its representative in Iran was the cousin of the managing director. In addition to the $ 16.2 million, the foundation turned over buildings and estates with a value of about $21.7 million. Based on the exchange rate at the time, the foundation paid $7.8 million more than the amount in the contract. According to the parliamentary report, furthermore, the Iranian partner of the German firm received a $1.2 million "secret-commission."

Yet nobody was punished, and nothing changed. The Foundation's chief at the time, Mohsen Rafiqdust, used the cloak of its charitable activities, as well as its support from high-ranking individuals in the conservative political and religious establishment, to defend the Foundation.

According to the Foundation's website, the hundreds of companies it owns are involved in agriculture, transportation, commerce, tourism, civil development, and housing. The foundation is estimated to have $12 billion in assets and 400,000-700,000 employees, although its deputy-director said there were 63,000 employees.

The current audit could be a reaction to renewed parliamentary criticism about its activities. In mid-October, parliamentarian Qolam Hussein Ebrahimbay complained that the Foundation is not audited and its activities seem to be independent of any real strategy. Ebrahimbay, who represents Khaf and Rashtkhar, pointed out that the Foundation and other para-statal organizations take advantage of their privileges (such as tax-exempt status and preferential exchange rates) to conduct their activities, but in so doing they undermine economic competition. He also complained about the lack of oversight: "The foundation's revenues are not recorded anywhere and nobody knows about them, and this has meant that their economic activities take place in a shadowy unofficial economy."

Less than a week after Ebrahimbay's comments, Foundation director Mohammad Foruzandeh said 200 of its firms would be privatized, according to state television. Then, Deputy Director Yahya Al-Eshaq promised some streamlining in the Foundation's activities and divestment of its holdings because only one-third of its companies realized a profit. He said studies were underway to rid the Foundation of 300 of its firms, according to the 30 October "Iran Daily."

Indeed, profitability could be a major factor in determining which assets to shed. Akbar Ghamkhar, managing director of the Tourism and Recreation Centers Organization of the Oppressed and Disabled Foundation, announced in late May that the Foundation would attempt to sell some of its hotels in Abadan, Isfahan, Shahr-i Kord, Tehran, Yassouj, and Yazd to the private sector. Ghamkhar did not say the hotels were unprofitable, he just said the private sector was not interested in constructing hotels in these places, presumably because such hotels would not be profitable.

Another step indicating some sort of streamlining is the elimination of 90 out of 120 Foundation directors' positions and 24 out of 32 executive positions, moves that were announced in mid-August. Whether these people would be reassigned or just retired was not specified.

The Foundation's willingness to submit to an audit and (possibly) to dismiss personnel, on the other hand, may reflect its adoption of a new charter in August. The new charter has 19 articles and nine notes, according to IRNA. It dissolved some old positions and transformed the section dealing with veterans into a new organization. (Bill Samii)

REFORMING THE 'UNKNOWN SOLDIERS.' Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security -- home of the "unknown soldiers of the Lord of the Age" -- may undergo some changes soon, although earlier attempts to place some oversight on the organization failed. MOIS chief Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi said on 4 November that his organization has "submitted a bill to the parliament on reforming this ministry." Two days later it was reported that the bill would permit the early retirement of personnel who have been with the MOIS for more than 25 years or who are over 50. Yunesi said that early retirement would make way for hiring and training new employees. This move probably reflects Yunesi's statement about one year earlier that he has little control over MOIS elements who have their own agendas.

The MOIS is already infamous for its part in the repression of the Iranian people and the assassination of dissidents at home and abroad. The MOIS is, furthermore, just one of many powerful state bodies which operate with very little oversight due to their connections with high-ranking individuals in the regime. There are mixed signals as to how meaningful these most recent changes will be: in July, four MOIS officials were arrested for providing classified documents to an unidentified political party, but in the Spring, the MOIS opposed increased oversight.

Discussions about reform of the MOIS came in early 1999, when the government stated that rogue agents within the ministry were behind the serial killings of intellectuals and dissidents. It seemed that such plans would reach fruition after the reformist victory in the February parliamentary election. Some of the demands of the MOIS were greater openness, when this would not undermine national security, less frequent use of cover names by MOIS personnel when dealing with the public, and declassification of documents, "Asr-i Azadegan" reported in April.

At the same time, there were warnings that the hard-liners in parliament would try to sidestep the MOIS by creating a new intelligence organization or an oversight body that would be the "warden" of the MOIS, according to the 5 May "Khabar va Nazar" from Rasht. Creation of the new organization would necessitate elimination of part of the MOIS and establishment of a parallel organization with its own leadership. Conservative lawmakers, such as Tehran's Mohammad Reza Bahonar, said an oversight body was needed to prevent the recurrence of problems like the serial murders. Tabriz's Mohsen Mojtahed Shabestari added that creation of the oversight body was a reaction to demands by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, IRNA reported on 9 May. The MOIS was specifically criticized for its inability to protect classified documents. A "double urgency" bill for creation of this oversight body was put forward, in an effort to have the bill approved before the new parliament began its business.

MOIS chief Yunesi argued against the bill on the grounds that the MOIS was not consulted on the issue, IRNA reported on 10 May. Akbar Alami, parliamentarian-elect from Tabriz, Osku, and Azarshahr, argued that the bill was unconstitutional, as did a number of other people. Alami wrote in "Bayan" that constitutional articles 60 and 113 specify that the president should wield executive power, while the Supreme Leader's powers are specified in article 110. And article 110, Alami wrote, says nothing about the MOIS.

Hardline sources, meanwhile, have accused the reformists of trying to undermine the MOIS and Iranian national security. In a mid-October speech at Kermanshah's Ayatollah Borujerdi Mosque, Islamic Documentation Center chief Hojatoleslam Ruhollah Husseinian said that neither the serial murders nor the Berlin conference would have happened if the MOIS had not been weakened by the reformists. "Their main aim was to destroy the MOIS, and they succeeded in that and they achieved their aim. How did they achieve their aim? They arrested some of the best personnel of the MOIS, including Said Emami [the alleged ring-leader of MOIS "rogues" who reportedly committed the serial murders], who was a powerful and capable intelligence officer."

Furthermore, according to articles in May and June issues of the hardline "Ya Lesarat al-Hussein," reformists who had previously served in the MOIS had already formed their own "intelligence committee"-- "that committee has placed psychological warfare and creating crises at the top of its agenda." Led by "Khosro T.," this committee was to cause problems in the Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Basij Resistance Forces.

In a sudden and unexplained about-face, the hardline parliamentarians dropped the bill's "double urgency" designation on 10 May, effectively removing the proposal from the agenda. This development almost undoubtedly reflected behind-the-scenes negotiations involving the offices of the president and the Supreme Leader. And if the recent proposal to allow early retirement of MOIS personnel is approved, reformist efforts to increase control over the MOIS will be strengthened. It remains to be seen, however, whether or not the employees will retire voluntarily, and if they will not, what problems will their dismissal cause. (Bill Samii)

'CHERAQ' RE-LIT. Islamic Documentation Center chief Hojatoleslam Ruhollah Husseinian has reignited controversy about who is really responsible for the 1998 serial murders of dissident writers, intellectuals, and ideologues. The early-1999 arrests of Ministry of Intelligence and Security personnel for their alleged parts in the serial murders seemed to confirm speculation that hard-liners within the government were pursuing their own agendas and would employ the most extreme measures to achieve their ends. But shortly afterwards, Husseinian appeared on the "Cheraq" television program and said President Mohammad Khatami's supporters and associates were behind the murders.

Husseinian revived his accusations in September 2000, and he added that Khatami sent an emissary who asked that he cease and desist. Hardline publications, such as the 13 September "Qods," urged the president to respond to these accusations. If they were false, it said, Husseinian should face the Special Court for the Clergy.

Husseinian described the serial murders as part of a wider conspiracy during a mid-October speech to Kermanshah's Hizbullah at the city's Ayatollah Borujerdi Mosque. He said that the reformers were seditious and were planning a rebellion, in which "they negated all the good things that had existed in the past, and they magnified any mistakes that had been committed." Husseinian described complaints about violence from "reformists," such as former prosecutor Ayatollah Abdol-Karim Musavi-Tabrizi or "hanging judge" Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali, as ludicrous.

Husseinian went on to say that Emami was tortured and given the poisonous depilatory solution with which he supposedly killed himself. This did not work, Husseinian said, and Emami actually was killed with an injection of air. The real guilty party was Mustafa Kazemi (a.k.a. Musavi). And the serial murders actually started with the actions of Hojatoleslam Mehdi Hashemi in the 1980s, according to Husseinian.

The Armed Forces Judicial Organization said on 24 October that it felt obliged to respond to Husseinian's accusations. It described the accusations as "mere lies," according to IRNA, and it said that it was pursuing a complaint against Husseinian. His accusations, furthermore, were based on a fake videotape. If Husseinian accepted Kazemi's confessions, then he must accept Emami's confessions, according to AFJO statement.

Husseinian is not the only person who believes there is wider conspiracy behind the serial murders. Nasser Zarafshan, an attorney handling the murders of Jafar Puyandeh and Mohammad Mokhtari, said the murders started in 1990, according to the 20 July "Gunagun." Among the 43 victims he described were Sunni and Christian clerics, intellectuals, writers, and political figures. The Devotees of Pure Mohammedan Islam took credit for the most recent murders, saying they were authorized by religious decrees from three senior clerics.

As Zarafshan points out, there have been many contradictory official statements about the serial murders. First it was said that the killers were trying to protect the system, then it was said that they were trying to destroy the system, and later it was announced that they were foreign spies. He went on to say that the investigation appears to have been sidetracked, and there are efforts underway to make the murders seem like isolated incidents. Zarafshan rejected this, and he wondered why nothing has been done about all the earlier murders. (Bill Samii)