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Iran Report: December 4, 2000

4 December 2000, Volume 3, Number 46

CAN KHATAMI RETAIN HIS YOUNGEST SUPPORTERS? President Mohammad Khatami admitted during a 26 November speech that after three and a half years as president he still does not have the authority to fulfill his duties.

If the statement was meant to garner sympathy from his young supporters, it is unlikely to succeed. Not only is weakness not respected in Iranian society and not only does the rough-and-tumble of Iranian backroom politics favors the strong, but young Iranians are growing increasingly disenchanted with the patience advocated by Khatami and his older supporters and have already expressed their disappointment in Khatami himself.

Signs of their disappointment appeared already in May 1999, when he attended an official rally commemorating his election but ignored another meeting that was broken up by hardliners and security forces (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 31 May 1999). These feelings of Khatami's younger supporters intensified in July-August 1999, when Khatami not only failed to condemn hardline repression of students but actually praised the security forces and approved an official whitewash. On other occasions, Khatami's failure to show support or at least sympathy for students has had a similar impact, and there was incredulity when he failed to appear at a Student's Day event due to what appeared to be a diplomatic illness (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 13 December 1999).

Khatami is clearly aware of this popular frustration with his work. He has suggested that his critics may have a plan to "bypass" him because his efforts seem to have stalled (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 23 October 2000).

So when young people hear warnings like that of parliamentarian Meisam Saidi at a 26 November rally at Amir Kabir University -- "Extremism is something the opponents want to ignite because any irrational act on your part will create the grounds and give the pretext for them to resort to extreme measures" -- their frustration only grows. This is why some of the more radical student groups, such as Heshmatollah Tabarzadi's Islamic Union of Students and Graduates, have become more attractive to an increasingly radicalized youth.

At the same time, it has been the largest and most mainstream student organization -- the Office for Strengthening Unity (OSU) -- that has been Khatami's biggest supporter and has received the most attention. The splits within the student groups were visible already earlier this year (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 24 January 2000), but recently they have become more pronounced, with the circulation of samizdats and attempts to organize competing rallies. Meanwhile, the OSU and other Khatami allies -- such as the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization -- have advocated a policy referred to as "active calm" or "aramesh-i faal." (Bill Samii)

DEAD 'CALM' ON STUDENTS DAY. The slogan "active calm" or "dynamic tranquility" entered Iranian political discourse at the time of the February 2000 parliamentary election. But as Students Day (16 Azar, 6 December) nears, this approach is becoming increasingly unacceptable to the young. According to the last several issues of "Asr-i Ma," which is affiliated with the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization (MIRO), "active calm" was the 2nd of Khordad movement's reaction to the hardline mafia's attempt to create tension and crises that would bring about a violent crackdown by the security forces and their allies in the pressure groups. To achieve its objectives, active calm depended on social support and confidence-building.

By operating in a calm manner, the 2nd of Khordad movement intended to ignore the joint efforts of "totalitarians and extremists," "Mosharekat" reported on 26 April. The daily, which was affiliated with the Islamic Iran Participation Party, cited as examples of such joint efforts the programs of state television and the behavior of exile Iranian members of the Mujahedin Khalq Organization. In other words, the strip-tease performed by MKO members at the April 2000 Berlin conference, and state television's subsequent broadcast of this distasteful performance, were intended to cast the reformers in the worst possible light. "Active calm" was supposed to counter such actions.

This strategy is founded on the belief that the Islamic Republic can be reformed, so it does not advocate a revolutionary process. And because people are important to the Office for Strengthening Unity (OSU), "Bahar" reported in July, it does not want to sacrifice them in order to achieve political goals.

Journalist Ali Rejai, however, believes that "active calm" has outlived its usefulness. He told the 8 August "Hayat-i No" that it was appropriate during the period surrounding the parliamentary election, because there really was a need to maintain tranquility. But it is not proactive, depending instead on the actions of one's opponents. There also is concern that "active calm" will become "silence," according to the 11 September "Aftab-i Yazd." According to the reformist daily, "active calm" is a tactic, not a strategy, and if this tactic is used too long, there would be radicalization of the reform movement or deadlock within it. Seyyed Mohammad Tabatabai of the OSU also warned against active calm becoming an excuse for silence, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 18 September.

Youthful frustration with the "active calm" policy was clear during summer 2000 and especially after the August violence at a student gathering in Khorramabad. Students told their leaders that they should be armed so they could fight back against the hardline thugs. But these leaders, such as parliamentarians Mohsen Armin and Ali Shokuri-Rad, warned that this was exactly what the opponents of reform wanted so they would have an excuse for a violent crackdown. As a MIRO statement in the 20 September "Aftab-i Yazd" warned, "The anti-reform mafia increased, and is still increasing, its pressure, attacks, and suppression against the press, the intellectuals, the political activists, and the students' movement, with the hope of testing the patience of the reformists, and compelling them to violent and harsh reactions, so that the ground may be prepared for insecurity, anarchy, and social disturbances."

The MIRO statement added that "active calm" did not equal passivity, it just avoided disorder. It called for a "special program" that would attract more students, as well as teachers, workers, women, and high school students (the voting age is 16). Political activities should be expanded, while "intelligently confronting anarchist motions." Also, according to the MIRO statement, ties with other bodies in the reformist 2nd of Khordad movement should be strengthened.

At the same time, hardliners also appear frustrated with "active calm," equating it with a "silent coup." There also were suggestions that, as a student organization, the OSU should not be involved in politics. Besides, "Resalat" reported on 25 September, the University Basij, rather than the OSU, was the biggest student organization. (Bill Samii)

CRACKDOWN ON PRESS CONTINUES. The Iranian regime continues to close media outlets, try journalists, and then imprison them. The much-heralded release of one or another journalist or the granting of an occasional press license only serve as the exceptions that proves the rule.

On 28 November, Press Court Judge Said Mortazavi banned the "Iran-Javan" weekly, which covers youth topics. His action follows complaints from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and the head of the Justice Department (Hojatoleslam Mohammad Ismail Shushtari), according to IRNA. "Iran-Javan" was specifically accused of publishing lies, unsubstantiated accusations, and materials against public decency, as well as promoting corruption.

Meanwhile, Yadollah Eslami, managing editor of the banned "Fath," appeared in court on 27 November to face charges that include insulting the system and publishing lies, state radio reported.

Satirical journalist Ebrahim Nabavi, who has written for "Sobh-i Imruz," "Asr-i Azadegan," and "Arya," also appeared in court in mid-November. He pleaded guilty to charges of spreading lies and insulting officials, and he issued an apology, which was published in the 19 November "Resalat." "We went too far," he wrote. Nabavi expressed regret that his and others' radicalism had resulted in the press closures, and he suggested that their message could have been expressed more moderately. Presiding Judge Said Mortazavi reduced Nabavi's sentence and he was released on 200 million rials bail, "Iran" reported on 20 November.

Ghafur Garshasbi, managing-editor of "Asr-e Azadegan," was fined one million rials in a verdict that was handed down in mid-November. The daily was banned temporarily in July, and in November the court revoked its license and banned it from any press-related activities for two years.

Journalist Akbar Ganji's trial in connection with an April conference in Berlin started in early-November. Ganji told the judge that he had been beaten and forced to wear a striped prison uniform. Other press people who are being tried in the context of the Berlin affair are publishers Shahla Sherkat and Shahla Lahiji, as well as journalists Hamid Reza Jalaipur, Ezzatollah Sahabi, and Alireza Alavi-Tabar. Amnesty International, PEN American Center, Reporters Sans Frontiers, the Writers in Prison Committee, the International Press Institute, and the World Association of Newspapers have expressed concern about Ganji's safety and about the trial.

During the 30 November hearing Ganji repeated accusations that appeared previously in his news columns. He said that former Intelligence and Security Minister Ali-Akbar Fallahian ordered the 1998 serial murders, and Special Court for the Clergy chief Hojatoleslam Gholamhussein Mohseni-Ejei had ordered another killing. Ganji also said that Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi had authorized the murders, and he repeated his allegations about the Haqqani seminary, a sort of "gladiator school" for extremist clerics (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 3 April 2000).

Regarding charges that the Berlin conference was organized by Germany's Green Party, which "is affiliated with the Zionists," Ganji asked, "If connection with the Green Party is a crime and the party is affiliated to the Zionists, then why did its leader, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, visit Iran and hold talks with Iranian officials?"

The Press Supervisory Board announced on 28 November that 17 new periodicals had been licensed. Some of the new publications are affiliated with Razi University, Imam Sadegh University, and the Law Enforcement Forces University. Others are affiliated with the Martyrs' Foundation and the Anti-Narcotics Headquarters.

But even as all these court actions were taking place, another Iranian journalist has earned international recognition. Mashallah Shamsolvaezin received an international press freedom award from the Committee to Protect Journalists on 22 November. Shamsolvaezin could not attend the awards ceremony because he is currently in prison. The audience at the New York awards ceremony heard a letter from him instead. He expressed sadness over the state of the media in Iran, but he added that "I am certain the great family of the fourth pillar of democracy (that is, a free press) in the world will defend the right of human beings to learn and live in the world of peace and freedom." (Bill Samii)

AIDS IN IRAN. World AIDS Day, a United Nations-sponsored observance established in 1988 by the World Health Organization, was marked around the world on 1 December. In Iran, however, the commemoration took place four days earlier because of the start of the holy month of Ramadan. Official Tehran statements about HIV/AIDS suggest that the government is slowly coming to terms with the seriousness of the problem, albeit with some reluctance.

The UN Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), in its "Epidemiological Fact Sheet" on Iran, says that the data reported are provided by host countries. It warns that the quality of national surveillance systems varies greatly, and "low reporting rates are common in developing countries due to weaknesses in the health care and epidemiological systems." With that caveat in mind, UNAIDS reports that in Iran there are no cases of HIV/AIDS being transmitted through homosexual activities. In Iran, the report says, HIV/AIDS is transmitted only through heterosexual sex, blood transfusions, intravenous drug use, and from pregnant mothers to their offspring.

Dr. Mohammad Mehdi Guya of the Health Ministry told the 28 August "Abrar" that he believes 10,000 people are carrying the HIV/AIDS virus. At an AIDS seminar held at the Medical Sciences University, Dr. Bahram Yeganeh, secretary of the National Committee to Combat AIDS, said that 2,307 people have been infected with HIV since 1987. He went on to say, according to IRNA, that 65 percent of the cases were contracted through intravenous drug use, 12 percent through sexual contact, 9 percent through transfusions, and 13 percent through "unknown ways." Also, HIV/AIDS is spreading throughout the Iranian penal system, Prisons, Security, and Correction Organization head Seyyed Mahmud Bakhtiari told a July seminar. "In case of negligence," he continued, "a great deal of financial and human harm will be inflicted on society."

The initial cases of HIV/AIDS in Iran were linked with the use of tainted blood sold by France. Sixty-five percent of the HIV/AIDS cases in 1987-1993 were contracted through blood transfusions. Iranian sources continue to blame foreigners for the disease's spread. In May, Iranian state radio declared that "the spread of AIDS in the world has to do with the spread of culture of carelessness wherever the United States is present." In August, it was reported that the Health Ministry would examine Iranian women returning from the Persian Gulf states to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Yet the stigma associated with the transmission of the disease is slowly giving way to concern about the spread of the disease. Health Minister Mohammad Farhadi compared HIV/AIDS to a time bomb, and he called on all sectors of the society and the government, especially state broadcasting, to confront its spread. And Mohammad Taqi Husseini-Tabatabai, Chancellor of the Sistan va Baluchistan Province Medical University, said in April that his institution is distributing relevant pamphlets and posters. He criticized the Health Ministry, however, for insufficient attention to the problem. (Bill Samii)

REFUGEE FLOWS UNDER SCHOLARS' CLAIMS. The participation of several scholars from Iran in the mid-November meeting of the Middle East Studies Association provided a chance for Americans to hear from Iranians directly. But the Iranian scholars who did take part appeared to feel constrained and the information they were willing to share bordered on the absurd. One visiting scholar, for example, described a survey of young Iranians in which they described great optimism about their own and Iran's future. (The Iranian scholars' names will not be used, per their direct request to the RFE/RL Iran Report.)

But this reported optimism among Iran's young people is contradicted by news reports from Iran's neighbors, Europe, Asia, and the Americas that describe the continuing influx of Iranian refugees and asylum seekers. For example, 27 Iranians were arrested for entering Kuwait illegally in early-November, the KUNA news agency reported on 3 November. In late-October the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry complained to Tehran about Iranians entering the Caucasian republic as a transit point to Europe and then refusing to return to Iran after being turned away from Europe ("525 Gazet," 24 October). And in July, the Iranian navy arrested 14 stowaways who were trying to escape the Islamic Republic (AFP, 10 July).

Many Iranians only make it as far as Turkey. 206 people of Iranian and Palestinian origin were apprehended in Turkey's Bursa Province as they tried to enter Greece (Anatolia news agency, 31 August). 19 Iranians were arrested in eastern Van Province (Anatolia, 18 August). Other Iranians were arrested as they waited in a ship bound for Italy (Anatolia, 6 July). Many of the Iranians who make it to Turkey wait there for many months due to documentation problems and then are repatriated. One Iranian refugee, Mohammad Enver Rahimzadeh, told the "Turkish Daily News" in October that he had fled to Turkey three times, while another, Mehdi Kamal, said that he wanted to go on to the U.S. A third, Hamid Reza Nurollah, said that he had temporary asylum in Denmark but was repatriated. He fled to Turkey again and hopes to return to Denmark.

Some of the Iranian refugees do make it to Europe, but then their luck typically runs out. Five Iranians were arrested in late-November as they tried to cross the border between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia (Sarajevo's private ONASA news agency, 25 November). And 25 Iranians in Petrovac refugee center requested political asylum after their arrests (Banja-Luka RTRS radio, 24 November).

October was not a good month for Iranian travelers in the area between Italy and Slovenia. Around 130 Iranians, including many children, were arrested in Gorizia (Rome's ANSA news agency, 31 October, 17 October, 2 October). Another 159 immigrants -- mostly Iranian and Turkish Kurds -- were arrested in Gorizia, too (ANSA, 27 October).

Some 252 Iranians were returned from Croatia; 35 Iranians were arrested at the Svilaj border crossing; and 25 Iranians were stopped by police in Srebrenik as they tried to transit through Bosnia ("Dnevni Avaz," 25 October). Police arrested a Croatian as he picked up 21 Iranian immigrants near the Bosnian border, and in a 24-hour period, 85 foreigners, mostly Iranians and Turks, were caught as they tried to cross the border (Zagreb's HINA news agency, 19 October). Thirty-eight Iranians, including 15 children were found in a truck near Gvozd, and five Iranians were caught near Dvor (HINA, 17 October). Bosnian police arrested 37 illegal immigrants from Iran and Turkey (AFP, 9 October).

There was a similar pattern in September. Douglas Coffman, the UN spokesman in Bosnia, said that 18,718 Iranians and Turks entered B-H via Sarajevo and Tuzla airports, but only 3,795 of them returned to their countries of origin ("Vecernje Novine," 29 September). Croatian police arrested 185 Iranians who tried to cross the border illegally in just a six-day period, according to Coffman. Italian coast guards rescued ten Iranian and Iraqi immigrants as their boat foundered near the island of Ischia (ANSA, 21 September). 12 Iranians were arrested as they tried to cross the Sava River into Croatia, and in the first two weeks of September, 154 Iranians were arrested by Croatian police (ONASA, 14 September). About 80 Iranian and Turkish refugees were stopped in Gorizia ANSA, 5 September). Many Iranian Jews are waiting in Vienna to get visas for the U.S. (Vienna's "Profil," 4 September).

The plight of Iranian refugees received some publicity in August, due to the tragic death of nine Iranians as they tried to enter Croatia by boat. It was noted that many young Iranian men arrive in Sarajevo, but they see it only as a transit point on the way to London or Amsterdam. In Gorizia, about 100 Iranians of different ages were arrested (ANSA, 27 August 30 August). Bosnian police detained 31 Iranians in Orasje for entering Croatia without documents (AFP, 22 August). Croatian police arrested 26 illegal immigrants from Iran and Turkey as they hid in a truck ("Vecernje List," 11 August) A van carrying 12 Iranians was stopped by police in Derventa (ONASA, 4 August).

Some of the refugees head east. According to Antara news agency on 30 October,133 Iranians and Iraqis were apprehended by Indonesian police after their ship stalled near Suyatan. Another 60 Iranians and Iraqis were caught and turned over to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, according to Bandung's "Pikiran Rakyat," 27 September. Around 100 Iranians and Iraqis staged a violent demonstration at an Australian refugee center, Melbourne's "The Age" reported on 29 August.

Iranian immigrants have turned up in other remote places. Hussein Tajgardun, who was once Iran's ambassador to Holland, has applied to emigrate to Canada ("National Post," 11 October). Five Iranians were arrested in Angola after entering the country illegally (AFP, 4 October). An Iranian and seven Turks, all of whom had forged visas, were arrested in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (Xinhua, 20 July).

Perhaps the quality of higher education is what encourages emigration. Dr. Mostashari of Sharif University said: "Everybody says that we have Ph.D. programs here. However, we know better, since we award Ph.D. degrees to each other. Our libraries are not even adequate to see the needs of undergraduate studies," according to the January 2000 "Loh." And Behnam Dashtipur, who is studying in the U.S., explained that he finds much greater intellectual freedom outside Iran, as well as superior academic facilities.

Discussing education in quantitative terms, Alinaqi Bafandeh of the Welfare Organization said on 15 November that there are 10 million illiterate and 20 million semi-literate people in Iran. He added that adult education programs have been organized, and he expressed the hope that "the literacy campaign that is underway for government employees, army personnel and prisoners will have a positive effect on the literacy rate," IRNA reported. (Bill Samii)

THE RUSSIAN REVIVAL. President Mohammad Khatami is expected to visit Russia during the first half of 2001, unidentified diplomatic sources in Moscow told Interfax on 25 November, in order to give "new impetus to bilateral cooperation in different spheres." This cooperation could be in at least three areas: conventional arms, nuclear power, or regional security.

The United States is very concerned about such developments. "We have made clear to the Russian government that there will be consequences if Moscow withdrew from such commitment and that certain kinds of arm sales could lead to sanctions," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said on 28 November. Just one day earlier, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov had told Interfax, "We are ready to supply Iran with everything that does not contradict our country's international obligations." And on 23-24 November, Russian media outlets had reported that Moscow was withdrawing from the 1995 Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement and would renew arms sales to Iran. The reason for this move, Interfax reported, was because aspects of the agreement were no longer confidential, having been discussed in the "New York Times" and "Washington Times."

Russian sources claim that they had lost the opportunity to sell military goods to Tehran, such as fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft, submarines, and S-300 and hand held missiles. The Russians also claim that they had forsaken licensing agreements to build tanks and armored personnel carriers, as well as the opportunity to build submarine pens and missile complexes. Among those advocating resumption of military cooperation are Russia's chief of the armed forces general staff, General Anatoliy Kvashnin, Duma defense committee chief Andrei Nikolayev, and Klebanov.

Tehran sees the end of the agreement as a positive development. "Mosocw's no to the secret agreement of 1995 is to be termed as a major victory for Iran," state radio reported on 24 November. Israel is unlikely to agree. According to a report in the 24 November "Yediot Aharanot," shoulder-launched Igla missiles have been shipped to Iran. If they end up in Hizballah hands, the missiles could be used against Israeli aircraft.

A second subject of mutual interest to Iran and Russia is nuclear power. Russian Nuclear Power Ministry spokesman Andrei Edemskii said in the 30 November edition of Moscow's "Vedomosti" that Russia has been awarded a contract -- worth about $1 billion -- to build the second unit of the nuclear reactor in Bushehr. Two days earlier, however, Duma deputy Kurban-Ali Amirov, who had visited Iran, said the Iranians are unhappy that construction of the first unit has dragged on for ten years. His Iranian hosts pointed out that Western firms provide much more specific deadlines, Interfax reported. (Apparently they forgot to say that Western firms are reluctant to build a nuclear reactor for the Iranians.)

And a third area of cooperation is regional security. State Duma International Affairs Committee Chairman Dmitri Rogozin said on 30 November that Russia, India, and Iran are likely to work out a single position on the Taliban, according to RFE/RL Newsline. Also, Iran has again expressed an interest in purchasing a Russian border security system, ITAR-TASS reported on 29 November. Initially, a 40 kilometer section of the border with Afghanistan would be covered. This idea dates from at least January 2000, when deputy speaker of parliament Hassan Rohani visited Moscow to discuss construction of an "iron curtain" along the Iran-Afghanistan border. (Bill Samii)