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Iran Report: January 11, 1999

11 January 1999, Volume 2, Number 2

IRANIANS DIVIDED ON PROPOSED GAS PRICE HIKE. Part of the government's new budget calls for reduced consumption of various goods, including gasoline, which in turn will reduce dependency on imports (RFE/RL Iran Report, Vol. 1, No. 3, 7 December 1998). This explains the government's proposed 275 percent increase in gasoline prices.

Some members of parliament object to this proposal, which comes up for parliamentary debate soon. "Aria" newspaper, on 23 December, wonders why some parliamentarians object to the price hike. Only 16.64 percent of urban families and 4.33 percent of rural families own cars, after all. And thus the paper asks who would suffer from the price increase.

Morteza Zaringol, chief of the parliamentary oil commission, is concerned about deviation from the five-year plan, "Aria" said on 29 December. And although the action may help the economy in the long-run, he reportedly is concerned that it will cause inflation and psychological trauma.

An "Iran Daily" editorial on 23 December, however, says that people consume gasoline excessively because it is subsidized and, therefore, cheap. Parliament is to blame for this, the editorial continues, and adjustments should be made so everybody gets the same benefit from price subsidies.

RUSHDIE'S PROBLEMS CONTINUE. On 5 January, Mexican media reported that Salman Rushdie's public appearances during a recent visit to that country had been canceled because an Iranian hit squad was thought to be operating there. The local authorities took this step even though Mexico City is a member of the "refuge city" program for persecuted writers in the International Parliament of Writers.

Meanwhile, the Iranian newspaper "Keyhan" reported on 20 December that Karbalai Yazdan Najafpour, a rural Basiji, had pledged one year's income to anyone who carried out Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's hokm (edict) decreeing death for Rushdie, the author of "The Satanic Verses." Najafpour earns about $1,700 (at the official exchange rate or $700 at the unofficial rate). Ayatollah Abdol-Karim Musavi-Ardabili said on 2 January that Khomeini's edict is unchangeable, "Keyhan" reported, thus contradicting Israeli radio reports that he had revoked the edict. "Keyhan" is a hard-line daily under the direct supervision of the Supreme Leader's Office.

IRAN SEEKS EXTRADITION OF AZERI SEPARATISTS. Piruz Delenchi, a leader of the National Liberation Movement of South Azerbaijan, said at a press conference in Baku on 5 January that Iran has requested the extradition of Mohammad Ali Galibi, Turan news agency reported. Galibi reportedly is a founder of the separatist New Union organization in Iran, and Delenchi expressed fear that Galibi would be killed for his beliefs. An Iranian Embassy spokesman denied this, saying Galibi would face criminal charges in connection with his failure to repay a loan. On 6 January, an alliance of opposition groups called the Democratic Congress called on the Azerbaijani government to give "political asylum to our compatriots because they are being persecuted for attempting to secure their national and political rights in Iran," "Yeni Musavat" reported. An extradition treaty between the two countries was ratified by Azerbaijan's Parliament at the end of December. When the issue was considered in early December, reported Turan, Turkic nationalists and groups that "struggle for the national independence of southern Azerbaijan (northern Iran)" demonstrated "against the participation of Iranian oil companies in extracting Caspian oil from the Azerbaijani sector." The demonstrators vowed to continue the Azeri "national liberation" struggle, and they demanded the annulment of the intergovernmental legal agreements, release of Azeri prisoners from Iranian prisons, better conditions for the use and teaching of the Azeri language in southern Azerbaijan, and the opening of an Azerbaijani Republic consulate in Tabriz.

Around the same time that the extradition treaty was being considered, Azerbaijan's National Assembly speaker, Murtuz Aleskerov, visited Tehran and met with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and other officials. Overall, the visit was judged a success by Azerbaijan. Afterwards, the head of the Iran-Azerbaijan Parliamentary Friendship Group, Sultan Mohammadov, called Iran "a close friend." Mohammadov regretted that "some opposition groups have recently been trying to sow discord between the two neighboring and brotherly nations."

ARRESTS IN IRAN FAVOR HARDLINERS OR MODERATES? Several employees of Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security were arrested in Tehran on 5 January for their part in the recent murders of three dissident writers, an opposition figure, and his wife. U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin said: "The arrests are a positive step toward maintaining the rule of law in Iran and providing for the security of Iranians to express their beliefs." While some see this as a positive gain for the moderate supporters of President Mohammad Khatami, this effort at political damage control may in fact strengthen the position of the hardliners.

The arrests appear intended to protect Iran's international standing. The public relations department of the Intelligence Ministry immediately blamed foreigners, identifying the murderers as "irresponsible colleagues ... with deviatory thoughts acting ... as surreptitious agents and in the interests of aliens." It expressed concern for Iran's reputation: "such a horrendous act ... to a very great extent tarnished the creditability of the sovereign state of the Islamic Republic of Iran." The next day, parliament speaker Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri also alluded to foreign plots and said: "We must not allow the foreigners to interfere in our internal affairs." And at the Friday Prayers on 8 January, Supreme Leader Seyyed Ali Khamenei said: "I cannot accept that these murders took place without a foreign scenario behind them; this is impossible."

Furthermore, action was taken only after the pro-Khatami "Salam" newspaper said it had information linking the Intelligence Ministry and the murders, RFE/RL's Persian Service reported. President Mohammad Khatami on 6 January praised the Intelligence Ministry for protecting Iran. He said: "the developments of the past few days have demonstrated that the Intelligence Ministry is alive and alert, and that its mighty structure is capable of removing any sick and alien member promptly and vigorously."

Paris' "Le Figaro" and "Liberation," London's "Daily Telegraph," and "The New York Times" have all suggested that this could be a significant victory for Khatami's purportedly moderate faction. For example, Iranian political analyst and Khatami supporter Saeed Leilaz told the "Daily Telegraph" that this was "a great step forward" for Iran and its president.

Those taking this position point out that this is the first time the Intelligence Ministry, an agency controlled by conservatives allied with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been forced to answer to any outside authority. According to the "Zan" newspaper on 7 January, Rutgers Professor Houshang Amirahmadi believes that this represents a significant move in favor of the rule of law.

Such assertions may be overly optimistic. If the people arrested are tried by a military court, where the proceedings are normally held in camera, the public will learn little about the actual hearing. If open, the hearings could even serve as a show trial in which either foreigners are blamed or the perpetrators are shown as isolated extremists. In fact, the state-run "Tehran Times" ran an editorial on 7 January which suggested that the trial should be open precisely to prove that the murders were instigated by foreigners. But whether the trial is open or closed, both the judiciary and the military are controlled by the conservative Iranian faction.

The Intelligence Ministry continues to be above the law. For example, members of the Intelligence Ministry are allowed to stand in the pending municipal elections, according to the pro-Khatami "Khordad" newspaper, while any other civil servant must resign from the government before running in the election. "Khordad" later called for a purge of the ministry.

IRAN CONDEMNS SHIA MURDERS IN PAKISTAN. Iran's Foreign Ministry immediately condemned the murder of at least 16 worshippers on 4 January saying their morning prayers at a Shia mosque in the Pakistani town of Shah Jamal. But for Iran this event goes beyond concern for the suffering of fellow humans because of its impact in three areas: Iranian-Pakistani relations; Iran's role as chair of the Organization of Islamic Conference; and Iran's role as leader of the Shia community.

Iranian leaders and newspapers are already angry about Pakistan's support for Afghanistan's Taliban, and they believe that Pakistani forces actually serve with them. Last September, Iranian ambassador to Islamabad, Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh-Basti, was recalled for consultations and to pressure Islamabad. "Towseh," "Kar va Kargar," and "Quds" all expressed anger over Pakistani support for the Taliban on 5 January. "Jomhouri Eslami," on 6 January, expressed concern about rumors that Pakistan will soon recognize Israel. And "Khordad" reported on 2 January that Pakistan wants to renege on previous trade agreements with Iran.

Pakistan is well aware of the importance to Iran of its role as leader of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Last July Pakistan's religious affairs minister, Raja Zafarul Haq, visited Khatami and asked for assistance from the OIC to relieve some of Pakistan's financial burdens. This pan-Islamic concept was emphasized on 4 January, when Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said the killers' objective "is to destroy the faultless face of Islam and weaken unity between the Shias and our Sunni brothers."

This killing of Pakistani Shia was not the first. Last October there was a wave of tit-for-tat killings in Pakistan, with members of the Shia Tahrik-i Jaafariya Pakistan (TJP) and the Sunni Sipah-i Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), as well as innocent bystanders, being the victims. The Iranian Cultural Center in Multan was shot at that month, and the previous year its director, an Iranian diplomat, was murdered (as another was in 1990). About160 staff members of Iranian missions there were withdrawn.

At a 3 January meeting with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shamshad Ahmad Khan, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi urged them to bring to justice the "terrorists" responsible for killing Iranian citizens there, the "Iran Daily" reported. This was the step necessary for the Pakistani government to "mend relations" between the two countries. "Tehran Times" also urged Pakistan to bring the killers to justice and to resolve the Afghan issue if it wanted to "forge better ties with Iran."

Such attacks are more than just an assault on Iran. They are an assault on its leadership position within the international Shia community. In December 1994, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was recognized as a grand ayatollah and the source of emulation by Pakistan's Federation of Shia Clerics (Vifaq-i-Ulama-i-Shia), by the TJP, by Lahore's Jamiat Ul-Muntazir, and by Allama Sayyid Ghulam Riza Naqvi, leader of a TJP splinter group called the Sipah-i Mohammed.

Currently, cultural centers such as the one that was attacked distribute pro-Iranian and Shia literature. Naqvi of the Sipah-i Mohammed claimed that thousands of Pakistani Shia study in Qum. European scholars working in Pakistan's Northern Areas have noted Iranian financial aid for local Shia and scholarships for Shia students to study in Iran. In Peshawar there are female preachers educated in Qom.

"Quds," on 7 January, said the Sunni militants plan to eliminate the Shia. The previous day's issue of "Jomhouri Eslami" said the Shia have no official protection in Pakistan, and if the government does not act against the killers, the Shia will take matters into their own hands. It is not impossible that Iran will feel obliged to aid the Shia.

CHANGES IN THE JUDICIARY? Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, a prominent hardliner, is to be replaced as judiciary chief, "Khordad" reported on 31 December. If the report is correct, Yazdi will be replaced by Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mohammadi Nik, commonly known as Reyshahri. While this may be a change in personnel, it probably will not be a change in the Judiciary's tone or approach.

Reyshahri's experience as a judge can be traced to the immediate post-revolution period, when he served as chief judge of the Military Revolutionary Tribunal. In 1980-81 he announced the discovery of two counter-revolutionary plots, and after the secret trial in this case between 100 and 140 people were executed, according to George Mason University Professor Shaul Bakhash's "Reign of the Ayatollahs."

In 1984 Reyshahri became chief of the newly-formed Ministry of Intelligence and Security. He was succeeded by Hojatoleslam Ali Fallahian-Khuzestani in 1989.

Reyshahri later served as prosecutor of the Special Court for the Clergy, as Fallahian had. Established in 1987, this court investigates and tries clerics accused of crimes such as "counter-revolution, corruption, immorality, unlawful acts, anything which might damage the prestige of the clergy and acts committed by pseudo-clergy," wrote Amnesty International in June 1997.

In 1991 Reyshahri replaced Ahmad Khomeini as leader of the Iranian delegation to the hajj pilgrimage, and he continues to serve in this position. In June 1993 the Iranian pilgrims held illegal demonstrations, and Reyshahri was prevented from returning to Medina from Mecca by the Saudi authorities. In May 1995 Reyshahri led another illegal demonstration at the end of the hajj.

Reyshahri founded the Society for the Defense of Values of the Islamic Revolution in 1996 and stood as its candidate in the 1997 presidential election. He did not fare well. The SDVIR itself folded in November 1997 due to insufficient funds.

In April 1997, Reyshahri was appointed to the Council for the Discernment of Expediency by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, and he is now a member of the Assembly of Experts.

IRANIAN PAPERS CITE RFE/RL -- BUT NOT ALWAYS ACCURATELY. The Iranian press continues to cite RFE/RL's Persian Service but sometimes in an inaccurate and distorted way. The English-language "Iran Daily" on 4 January reported on an interview by "Radio Azadi" (Radio Liberty) with Paris-based Professor Saeed Peyvandi in which he assessed university education and student groups in Iran. The Iranian newspaper condensed the wide-ranging interview into the following sentences: "The radio alleged that following the victory of the Islamic Revolution the Islamic groups played a domineering role over the university student movements. They segregated girls and boys and eliminated the non-conforming students and professors." On 7 January "Khordad" printed a paragraph about the Persian Service's interview with Iranian reporter Mohammad Arefi in which he described the favorable opinion of expatriate Iranians of President Mohammad Khatami's election. On the same day, "Akhbar" also had a paragraph about the interview, but RFE/RL was not cited as the original source.