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Iran Report: March 15, 1999

15 March 1999, Volume 2, Number 11

WHY WAS ITALY FIRST? The visit last week to Italy and the Vatican by President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami was the first trip to Europe by an Iranian leader since the Islamic Revolution 20 years ago. There are various explanations for Italy's invitation and for it being chosen first. It is not inconceivable that Italy wanted to legitimize its recent $1 billion oil deal with Iran (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 1 March 1999 and 8 March 1999). And having recently rescheduled $370 million in Iranian loans, the Italian export credit agency must ensure that its debtor appears creditworthy (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 22 February 1999).

The pro-Khatami daily "Khordad" editorialized on 9 March that being chosen first was a reward to Italy for being one of Iran's biggest trading partners and its least troublesome European counterpart. According to RFE/RL's Persian Service: "In 1997, Italy was Iran's top EU trading partner, having imported $1.8 billion in Iranian goods. Italy increased its oil purchases by 10 percent to 10.05 million tons in the first ten months of 1998." Also, Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini visited Iran last year, as did Prime Minister Romano Prodi.

A "New York Times" analysis said: "Iran's faltering economy badly needs foreign investment, and Khatami hopes to improve his government's credibility and thus attract trade and loans." Vienna's "Der Standard" explained the trip thusly: "Italy has long joined France with glee in entering the vacuum that has been left by the American and British firms who obediently adhered to the American Iran-Libyan sanctions."

Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini explained his country's invitation via an article in "La Republica." He wrote that by meeting with Khatami, Italy is strengthening him domestically, thereby increasing his efforts towards moderation and improvement of human rights. "If the pragmatic Italians could pull Iran a step further in this direction," Norway's "Aftenposten" editorialized, "they would have made a contribution to its stability, predictability and development as a member of the international community." Indeed, the trip may have helped Khatami already.

The official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) provided extensive and laudatory coverage, saying, for example, that Italian representatives gave Khatami a "tumultuous welcome," as well as the "red carpet treatment." Khatami met with Pope John Paul II, Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, Senate leader Nicola Mancino, Chamber of Deputies head Luciano Violante, and the Rome municipality awarded him a medal.

The English-language "Iran News" on 6 March said the trip was the direct result of Khatami's "Dialogue Among Civilizations" concept. From this symbolic perspective, the meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference chief with the head of the Roman Catholic Church was certainly important.

From a public relations perspective, the trip was slightly marred when Turin University awarded an honorary degree to Salman Rushdie, author of the "Satanic Verses." The Tehran press took this as an intentional insult. "Jomhuri Islami" blamed "pro-Zionist militants in the Italian Foreign Ministry." Commenting on this incident and the actions of Iranian oppositionists during the Italian trip, "Kar va Kargar" warned: "Iran remembers that Italy and Europe are safe havens for terrorists that continue to attack and insult our nation."

"One cannot but reach the conclusion that at least some officials of the Italian government fully intended to insult our president, our nation and our religious beliefs," "Iran News" wrote. Italy was allegedly quick to apologize. According to IRNA on 11 March, Italy's Dini sent a letter to his Iranian counterpart expressing regret that Khatami's visit coincided with that of "the apostate writer of 'Satanic Verses.'"

Khatami is expected to visit France in April. And other European states are also interested in the Khatami experience. Portuguese Foreign Minister Jaime Gama delivered an invitation from his president during a visit to Tehran. But "Jomhuri Islami" warned on 9 March that Westerners should not misread what is happening in Iran, and they should not think that they can resume "intervention ... in internal affairs of Iran and its political affairs."

Although Europe is strongly interested in working with Iran, the Islamic Republic is willing to have U.S. firms work there, too. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said on 8 March that "There is no obstacle to U.S. oil companies participating in [Iranian] oil development projects" if sanctions are lifted. And the same day, "Iran News" editorialized that it is "advisable that the U.S. reconsider its foreign policy before it is too late." (Bill Samii)

FINAL RESULTS OF COUNCIL ELECTIONS. On 7 March the final results of Iran's first council elections were announced. According to the IRNA a total of 22,201,772 votes were cast in Iran's 28 provinces, excluding Tehran. Depending on which figure for total eligible voters one accepts, this puts turnout at about 56.9 percent (39 million eligible, per the State Registration Office and IRNA) or about 63.4 percent (35 million, per the Plan and Budget Organization).

In Tehran itself, IRNA reported, 1,408,275 votes were cast, and out of that 1,403,389 ballots were considered valid. Thirteen of the top 15 vote-getters in Tehran are identified with and were endorsed by the pro-Khatami "Second of Khordad Front." Only two of the top 15, Gholamreza Foruzesh and Seyyed Mohammad Gharazi, were endorsed by the conservative Tehran Militant Clergy Association (Jameh-yi Ruhaniyat-i Mobarez-i Tehran), according to the pro-Khatami "Zan" daily. Unconfirmed reports from observers in Iran indicate that in some cities � Shiraz, Qazvin, and Mashad � candidates not identified with a particular faction won council seats.

London's "The Economist" of 6-12 March reported that "the election was judged to be the fairest of the 20 or so polls held since the revolution," although it did not say who made this judgment or how it was made. One of the problems in determining free and fair elections in Iran is that a citizen can vote anywhere in the country as long as he or she presents an identification card. The card is then stamped to show that the individual has voted. So even if people vote only once, they can be bussed in from insignificant villages and towns to major cities.

Be that as it may, there was a relatively limited number of complaints by losing candidates. But parliamentarian Ahmad Rasulinejad said there were thousands of complaints and argued that the government should investigate them before announcing the final results. Rasulinejad also said that Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari and his deputy, Mustafa Tajzadeh, should be impeached for their handling of the election, according to the daily "Iran News" of 11 March.

Central Election Supervisory Board chief Hojatoleslam Ali Mohammad Savoji sent a letter to the Interior Ministry saying that three elected candidates � Saeed Hajjarian, Mohammad Atrianfar, and Ahmad Hakimipur � should be disqualified for not having left their government posts within the required time, "Zan" reported on 11 March. But Dr. Rahchamani of the same body said a person cannot be disqualified after the election, "Iran" reported on 11 March.

Iranian analysts and columnists waited until most of the results were in before commenting on the meaning of the elections, and they generally adopted a positive tone. The conservative "Qods" daily editorialized on 6 March that the election was another important milestone in the country's legal history, and combined with the participation in the recent Assembly of Experts election, it showed people's trust in the system. The pro-Khatami "Salam" daily editorialized on 9 March that this is a big success for the associates of Khatami, but it is also a success due to the participation of so many political groupings. This is an advance in Iran's political development, and the people have taken another step towards unity, the pro-Khatami "Sobh-i Imruz" wrote on 9 March.

A less conciliatory view on the elections came from the Supreme Leader's office, which dictates the Friday sermons. During the 5 March sermon in Tehran, Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi said: "... the elected ladies or gentlemen should not think of themselves as being very important. ... You should not interfere in the affairs which concern the entire state."

Commenting on the responsibilities of the councils, Interior Minister Musavi-Lari said "they will not be involved in political affairs but will have much power in the fields of culture, development, and public services," IRNA reported on 8 March. But he also said that among their first duties will be the selection of Tehran's new mayor, and, judging by the make-up of the council and the symbolic importance of the Tehran mayor, the issue will be highly politicized. (Bill Samii)

COUNCIL WILL PICK TEHRAN'S NEW MAYOR. Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari told IRNA on 8 March that among the first duties of the Tehran City Council, which probably will start work in early April, is the appointment of a successor to convicted Tehran Mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi. There are at least six candidates for this position, "Arya" reported on 2 March. The conservative Tehran Militant Clergy Association's candidates are Sayyid Mohammad Jahromi, former governor-general of Fars Province, and parliamentarian Davud Danesh Jafari. The Executives of Construction Party has two candidates. One of them is Mohammad Hashemi, who served as head of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting and then as vice president in charge of executive affairs during the presidency of his older brother, Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and who now serves in the same position under President Khatami. The party's other candidate is Mohammad Qarazi, who was minister of Post, Telegraph, and Telephone during the Rafsanjani administration. The Islamic Iran Participation Party supports Mohsen Mirdamadi, former governor-general of Khorasan Province, and Mohsen Safai Farahani, head of the country's soccer federation and formerly head of the state power company (Tavanir). Meanwhile, Massoud Dehnamki, publisher of the banned, hard-line biweekly "Shalamcheh," was quoted by "Arya" as saying that Karbaschi is just a pawn in a political chess match. (Bill Samii)

IN ALBANIA AND BOSNIA. Iranian involvement with the Balkans, economic and otherwise, may soon increase. On 9 March, Albanian Minister of Economic Cooperation Ermelinda Meksi met with Iranian Ambassador Mohammad Kazem Bigdeli to discuss an expansion of relations. Meksi called for a greater presence of Iranian traders and goods in the Albanian market, IRNA reported on 9 March. More importantly, Meksi said her country is ready to purchase Iranian oil. And on 6 March, IRNA reported that Iran's Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs signed a memorandum of understanding with Sarajevo's governorate for the joint development of a garment factory and a plant nursery. In addition, a chain store will be opened and vocational training courses will be offered.

Last month the Albanian newspaper "Koha Jone" reported that an Iranian and a Syrian were placed on indefinite detention for carrying falsified documents and possessing illegal arms. They had come to Albania four months earlier and opened an Islamic youth center in Tirana. Allegedly, they were preparing to attack the U.S. embassy there. A Saudi citizen was arrested in connection with the case a month earlier. These incidents may be connected to reports that Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden's efforts to attack several Western facilities, including the U.S. Embassy in Albania, were foiled. But the Iranian Embassy in Tirana stated, according to the 23 February issue of "Gazeta Shqiptare": "The two persons accused of terrorism are not Iranians, and newspaper reports about their alleged Iranian origin are simply false. The activity of the Islamic Republic of Iran is wholly transparent, and the Albanian authorities are fully informed about it."

In a February interview with the Croatian daily "Jutarnji List," Iranian Ambassador to Bosnia-Herzegovina Seyyed Homayoun Amir Khalili discussed developments in Tehran's stance towards the country. After helping to end the "unequal war" by aiding the Muslims and trying to "protect a nation from being eradicated," Iran still wants to help. It will do so through the growth of "economic and cultural relations," he said. One of the means by which this is being done is the presence of six radio stations which broadcast two hours daily, and one hour of satellite television daily, according to the article's author. Also, there was a curious incident involving Iranians in Bosnia. In mid-February, the body of Iranian Ali Baladi was discovered on the road from Sarajevo to the Bosnian Serb-held town of Pale, AP reported. In connection with this incident, three Iranian males and a Bosnian female were arrested on the boundary between Serb-held territory and the Muslim-Croat Federation. RFE/RL Balkan analysts believe this was simply a criminal affair. (Bill Samii)

BAN ON QUOTING RFE/RL, UNLESS IT CORROBORATES OFFICIAL VIEWS. "Keyhan" daily, which is published by the Supreme Leader's office, reported on 6 March that a government circular was distributed forbidding quotation of RFE/RL broadcasts without cautionary commentary. So why, complained "Keyhan," did IRNA quote from an RFE/RL broadcast about the arrest of Islamic intellectual Hojatoleslam Mohsen Kadivar? IRNA then complained that on 8 March "Radio Azadi" (Radio Liberty) and the U.S. government's Voice of America did not give any coverage to President Hojatoleslam Seyyed Mohammad Khatami's trip to Italy. This demonstrated that there is no difference between RFE/RL and VOA, IRNA said, and it also showed America's displeasure about the relationship between the Islamic Republic's government and Europe. The next day, in a very strange flip-flop, IRNA quoted an RFE/RL Persian Service broadcast about the Italian trip, even attributing it to "freedom-radio." Incidentally, many Iranian newspapers quoted RFE/RL's Persian Service interviews in the weeks surrounding the council elections. (Bill Samii)

TRIAL OF SECURITY OFFICIAL. The trial of Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naqdi, head of the National Police counterintelligence, and ten other officials, on charges that they tortured Tehran district mayors, is scheduled for 3 May. They will be tried in a military court, although the National Police is part of the Interior Ministry. During the court case of "Zan" daily's chief, Faezeh Hashemi, last autumn, there were repeated allegations that Naqdi was involved in the assault on Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance Ataollah Mohajerani and former Interior Minister Abdullah Nouri, "Hamshahri" reported on 14 November. (Bill Samii)

AYATOLLAH EMAMI-KASHANI HOSPITALIZED. On 9 March, IRNA announced that Council of Guardians spokesman Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani had been hospitalized for "heart failure." He was visited by a representative of President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, and Vice President for Executive Affairs Mohammad Hashemi visited him on behalf of his brother, Expediency Council Chairman Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

This contrasts sharply with the hospitalization and subsequent death of Ayatollah Ahmad Azari-Qomi last month, which received almost no official recognition. An examination of Emami-Kashani's activities in the last 20 years shows that there are three reasons why he gets such attention while other senior clerics are ignored, isolated, and confined.

One reason is his background and relationship with the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, who appointed him as a Friday prayer leader. In April 1989, Emami-Kashani served on the council which revised Iran's Constitution in areas such as the succession to the Supreme Leader, the presidency, the judiciary, and the Expediency Council's role vis-a-vis the government.

A second reason for such attention is that Emami-Kashani consistently supports the legitimacy of the Vilayat-i Faqih (rule of the jurisprudent), as well as that of Iran's Supreme Leader. As Guardians' Council spokesman he said in 1990 that any Assembly of Experts candidates approved by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei automatically qualified to stand for office, but all others had to pass an exam. He repeated this theme before the 1996 parliamentary elections.

In April 1997 he told people that they were not only duty-bound to vote in the presidential election, but that "voting for the most pious candidate is an obligation." Before the October 1998 Assembly of Experts election, Emami-Kashani said that people should be satisfied with the choice of candidates, because the Guardians Council is better qualified to select them.

Emami-Kashani has been quite concerned about factionalism. In April 1998 he warned that unrest over Tehran Mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi's arrest only harmed Iran and helped its enemies. In a July 1998 sermon, he said: "The enemy will take advantage [of your discord] to spread the rumor that there is no security [in Iran]. ... He is lying. He is spreading this rumor via his propaganda mouthpieces."

A third factor behind Emami-Kashani's status is his stand on foreign affairs, which corresponds closely with that of Khamenei and Iran's most hard-line elements. For example, in May 1990 he accused Saudi Arabia of refusing Iranian hajj pilgrims, although it was they who had caused lethal riots in previous years and who then refused to comply with a Saudi ban on demonstrations.

He has been consistent in his dislike of the U.S. and of Israel. After Iraq's humiliating defeat in 1991, Emami-Kashani said "Humanity is really being covered in dirt by the immorality they [U.S.] are propagating." By August 1995 he was accusing the U.S. of fabricating the Iraqi threat so it could "indulge in adventurism and make the region more unstable." Emami-Kashani said in August 1996 that "it is really unfortunate that the White House and the American government are following Israel like a slave. Because we cannot compromise with Israel, they [U.S.] organize all kinds of plots against us. ... America is a servant of Israel."

In August 1997, he said "The Zionist regime [Israel] has not only occupied Palestine but also occupied the White House. America wants to set conditions before talking to us ... Mr. America, this is a dream. We will never negotiate with you." Emami-Kashani stuck to this theme after President Khatami's January 1998 CNN interview in which a willingness to engage in dialogue was expressed. "The hands of the United States are involved in every dispute and the Muslim world ought to be awake and show solidarity to confront the plans against the Muslims," Emami-Kashani said.

Another source of Emami-Kashani's influence has been his ability to choose political allies. In February 1990 he supported then-President Rafsanjani's economic program and his anti-profiteering drive. A year later he hailed the Iraqi surrender after Operation Desert Storm as the "fruition" of the Rafsanjani peace plan. Such consistent support was rewarded in the 1998 Assembly of Experts election via his inclusion on the Executives of Construction Party's candidates list.

Emami-Kashani's profile demonstrates several things a senior Iranian cleric needs for political success. He must have good revolutionary credentials, either through pre-revolutionary opposition to the monarchy or post-revolution closeness to Khomeini. He must display loyalty to the system of Islamic government. And he must share the foreign policy views of the regime's most hard-line elements. And it also helps if one makes good political alliances. (Bill Samii)