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Iran Report: March 29, 1999

29 March 1999, Volume 2, Number 13

NO RUZ IN MASHHAD, TEHRAN, AND WASHINGTON. In Mashhad, Khorasan Province, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei gave a speech on 21 March at the shrine of Imam Reza, the eighth Imam of Shia Islam, in honor of No Ruz (Iranian New Year) and the Muslim feasts of Eid-e Qurban and Ghadir Khom. His themes were the usual ones: care and vigilance "vis-a-vis plots of the enemies;" calls for unity; and solving Iran's economic problems. He also complained about U.S. calls for freedom of expression.

This subject of free expression came up in the new year's first Tehran Friday sermon by conservative judiciary chief Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi. He said: "There is no freedom for you to write and say anything you like. Our people do not want such freedom if it is against the tenets of Islam." He then threatened: "The ruling institutions are overseen and they will take action when necessary and will not listen to what others say. ... Don't come out tomorrow and ask why you were not warned in advance. Don't cry out when we arrest someone."

President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami's No Ruz message expressed pride in the Iranian nation and in Islam. He also expressed pleasure with "attracting $9 billion in investments on a buy-back basis without any commitment for the Iranian government and nation."

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, according to RFE/RL's Persian Service, also sent a No Ruz message. She said: "On the occasion of the Iranian New Year, I would like to extend warm greetings to the Iranian people." She also expressed the hope for continued improvements in U.S.-Iranian relations: "We look forward to building on this dialogue in the coming year, for it enriches both our societies and increases mutual understanding and respect."

This message from the U.S. was not mentioned by the official Iranian news agency. Messages of congratulations from Russia, Turkey, France, and exiled Afghan leader Burhannudin Rabbani, on the other hand, were. (Bill Samii)

BASIJ AND IRGC LEADERS DISCUSS OBJECTIVES AND LOYALTIES. Formed in 1980, Iran's Basij Resistance Force (Niru-yi Moqavimat-i Basij) became famous during the Iran-Iraq War for suicide attacks against Iraqi tanks or charging unarmed through minefields. Since the war's end, the Basij has shifted its attention to civil affairs projects, such as inoculating children and disaster relief. Despite this background, the Basij is finding it increasingly difficult to recruit new members.

The Basij is formally part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and it consists of about 200,000 peace-time volunteers; mainly the elderly, the young, and those who have done their military service already. During a time of war, according to London's International Institute of Strategic Studies, up to one million Basijis can be mobilized. There are "Special" Basijis consisting of full-time paid personnel who are uniformed and available to the IRGC. "Ordinary," Basijis are essentially reservists who are called up during national emergencies.

The Basij is fighting a new enemy: loose morals and decadence, such as improper veiling of women (bad hejabi) and mixed-sex parties. And that is where the recruitment problems can be traced. The organization now has a reputation for thug-like behavior, of which its members seem proud. Basiji Asghar Farahani told "U.S. News & World Report" last July that initially they try to intimidate miscreants, then they give them a verbal warning. But if that fails? "We beat them so that it will have an effect on the offenders, and we beat them in a way that there will be no physical traces on the body." There is also the problem of socio-economic differences. The young people attracted to the Basij are from more traditional and conservative families. The people who they act against come from more Westernized and more affluent families.

Training officer Commander Gholamhossein Gheybparvar told "Keyhan," one of Iran's more hard-line dailies which is affiliated with the Supreme Leader's office, on 8 February that the Basij is "the revolution's sturdiest support in maintaining readiness for defense and national security." He went on to say that each citizen's role in national security is manifested by the Basij. Not only that, "our national security depends on the divine forces of the Basij."

Despite this important role, some Iranians do not appreciate the Basij, says Gheybparvar. For one thing, the organization's budget allocation is inadequate. And surprisingly, the student Basij is not always welcome: "Our Basij lads are being treated with antipathy in all arenas, and the only person who has staunchly defended them is the Supreme Leader."

In an earlier interview with "Keyhan," Basij Commander Hejazi discussed some of the means by which his organization is trying to overcome its financial problems. The Basij is informed, Hejazi said, that it cannot be dependent on "limited government resources, and it must rely on and be connected with the resources of the people."

There also are difficulties in recruitment and retention of personnel. This is particularly problematic for the Basij, because it has personnel of many different ages. "Athletic activities, defense readiness training, cultural programs, scientific programs, technical and professional training," therefore, are geared to specific age groups as "attractions."

Hejazi stated in the interview that the Basij has a major function of defending against the West's cultural onslaught. To do this, the Basij "[creates] among its own personnel insight and awareness ... through training, through meetings and political justification programs, and by obtaining political insight." The West's "cultural invasion ultimately has political dimensions," as there are attempts to make the youth question the past and "the great gains of the Islamic revolution" and to make events in other countries seem desirable.

Apparently, defending against the cultural onslaught has been difficult for the Basij. Hejazi said, "we cannot claim that we have been able to support the Basijs intellectually." To do so, the organization must "provide Basiji daily needs in the area of thought and theory." This will be done via "publications, ideological classes, and gatherings in which subject matter of interest is presented."

Asked about the Basij's political involvement, Hejazi said this was a misinterpretation of Islamic Republic founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's call for the military to avoid political factions. Hejazi said the Basij is duty-bound to be well-informed about political affairs. A misunderstanding of Khomeini's statements is also behind resistance to formation of Basij groups in the universities, Hejazi says. The Basij "must be the guardians of the policy of neither East nor West at the university."

The IRGC is the parent organization of the Basij, and "Asr" daily of Shiraz recently published an interview with the IRGC commander, Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi. What came out most clearly was Safavi's, and by implication, the IRGC and Basij's, declared loyalty to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Safavi praised Khamenei's leadership as president (1985-1989), saying that laid the basis for successful "management of the country and the prosecution of the war [with Iraq]."

The situation has improved since Khamenei become Supreme Leader. "[With] the guidance provided by his eminence the leader, ... our country has settled down and enjoys political stability." As far as Safavi is concerned "there are those who say the revolution is over. No sir, it has only recently become strong and firm." (Bill Samii)

IRANIANS WITHOUT FRONTIERS (II). Beirut's moderate Christian daily "Al Nahar" reported on 18 March that an Iranian named Ali Niazi Dandash, who reportedly "has close links to Tehran," tried to buy six kilograms of uranium from a Lebanese-Syrian network. Dandash first gave his counterparts a check for $5 million drawn on the Iran Exports Bank in Beirut, then he gave them a check worth 400 billion rials (from $53 million to $228 million, depending on the exchange rate used). The uranium salesmen were arrested before the deal was completed, but the uranium sample given to Dandash disappeared. On 17 March ITAR-TASS reported the arrest of an Iranian who was trying to stowaway on a ship in the Russian port of Nakhodka bound for Japan. In Kuwait City, two Iranians and a Kuwaiti were sentenced to life imprisonment for trying to assassinate a Kuwaiti parliamentarian, Agence France Presse reported on 22 March. And on 23 March Noyan Tapan news agency reported that seven Iranian citizens applied for citizenship of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. (Bill Samii)

RELATIONS WITH AZERBAIJAN SCHIZOPHRENIC. Relations between Iran and Azerbaijan continue to take a path which seems at times to be smoothly paved, and which at other times seems rocky and treacherous. The bedrock in the relationship is oil and the continuing debate over the Caspian Sea legal regime. But issues of trade, religion, and Nagorno-Karabakh also play a part. And occasionally, demands for Azeri unification come from Baku or statements from Azerbaijani dissidents come from Tehran.

On 26 February, the Baku newspaper "Bu Gun" published an interview with former Azerbaijan ambassador to Tehran Aliyar Safarli, who is linked with the United Azerbaijan Movement. He called for unification of Iranian Azerbaijan with the Republic of Azerbaijan in order to protect the Turkic people there. He said: "35 million [estimates vary from 16-20 million] of our compatriots live there. They have neither secondary nor higher schools. Under the yoke of Persian chauvinism 35 million people are melting like a candle. ... Our mangurt [people without roots] intelligentsia and non-intelligentsia are becoming their menials."

Makhir Javadov, whose extradition from Tehran the Azerbaijani authorities are seeking on charges of plotting a coup (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 1 February 1999), was interviewed by the conservative "Resalat" daily on 1 March. Javadov told "Resalat" that his sole concerns are Azerbaijan's territorial integrity and Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev's mismanagement. Javadov's statement that "the two nations of Iran and Azerbaijan are actually one nation," however was not a call for unification, but one for Azerbaijani integrity (to include Nagorno-Karabakh) and the respect of national borders with eased transit rights. Javadov accused Aliyev of citing "unity" when complaining about Nagorno-Karabakh, but using the same call to try to merge southern and northern Azerbaijan. Seyyed Arran of Aliev's Yeni Azerbaijan party expressed his concern about Javadov's presence in Iran, AzadInform later reported.

At a 3 March press conference, Samir Adygozalli of Azerbaijan's Great Nation Party claimed that Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security gave information to Armenia which permitted occupation (in May 1992) of the strategically-important towns of Shusha and Lachin. Furthermore, said Adygozalli, Iran has a $50 million budget for subversive operations in Azerbaijan intended to "put an end to the independent Azerbaijani state," Turan news agency reported. The Iranian embassy in Baku said that, Sharg reported on 9 March, such allegations stemmed from the desire to harm relations between the two countries. Such charges are intended to "divert the attention of the Azerbaijani public from the main culprits of those events."

Iranian irritation with Azerbaijan also can be traced to reports that Russians in the Kabala radar station may be replaced by Western or Israeli personnel (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 1 February 1999). Not that it needs much encouragement, but the Tehran press was apparently egged on by Russian reports. For example, "Izvestiya" daily said in a 27 February headline "Israeli Plans for Anti-Iran Radar in Azerbaijan Viewed." More subtle was "Vremya MN," which reported on 11 March that Tel Aviv and Baku are negotiating to "replace the Russian servicemen working at the Kabala radar station with Israeli specialists." Azerbaijani and Israeli authorities dismissed the reports.

But the timing of this last report was more than a coincidence, coming on the eve of Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Tofig Zulfagarov's visit to Iran. "Kayhan International" warned "It is not in Baku's interests to annoy its giant southern neighbor. ... Azerbaijan's security and progress cannot be guaranteed only through flirting with the West." "Iran News" took exception to all Azerbaijani activities, terming the country "irresponsible regarding regional interests."

Zulfagarov spent a day in East Azerbaijan Province where he met with Assembly of Experts member and Friday Prayer Leader Ayatollah Mohsen Mojtahed Shabestari (brother of Islamic intellectual Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari) and Governor-General Yahya Mohammadzadeh. Among the issues they discussed were the long-promised opening of a consulate in Tabriz, the supply of natural gas to Azerbaijan through the Khoy-Nakhichevan pipeline, and trade promotion at the Jolfa Special Trade Zone.

In Tehran, Zulfagarov met with Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, at which time thanks were expressed for Iran's role in trying to settle the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. Kharrazi regretted that the issue "has only offered the United States an excuse for justifying the presence of their [sic] forces in the region." Zulfagarov met with other officials too, and trade and the Caspian were discussed, although there was no substantive outcome.

Overall, the meetings seem to have gone well. Zulfagarov announced that Azerbaijani President Aliyev would visit Iran sometime in 1999, and Iranian President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami was invited to Baku. And on the Iranian New Year (21 March), Azerbaijan sent a congratulatory message to its southern neighbor. (Bill Samii)

KHATAMI'S SAUDI VISIT REVIVED. Planned for the fourth week of March, President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami's trip to Saudi Arabia was canceled due to Saudi Arabia's stand on rival claims by Iran and the United Arab Emirates over three disputed islands in the Persian Gulf, the English-language "Tehran Times" reported (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 22 March 1999). But on 23 March, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), Khatami sent a letter to King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah in which he expressed an interest in visiting Saudi Arabia after the pilgrimage season ends. According to IRNA, this interest was motivated by Saudi and Iranian cooperation on the cuts in oil production. Statements by Saudi Arabia's second deputy prime minister, Prince Sultan Bin Abd al-Aziz, provided further clarification. According to him, Saudi Arabia has washed its hands of the Tunbs and Abu Musa islands. He said in an interview with Lebanon's "Al-Sharq" newspaper which was rebroadcast by Saudi state radio on 19 March that "Others may have problems and demands [referring to the United Arab Emirates' dispute with Iran over the three Gulf Islands] and that is their concern." Prince Sultan also expressed satisfaction with resolution of the oil issue, saying: "Of course improvements in economic relations reflect positively on political relations." (Bill Samii)

DEMONSTRATIONS AND CALLS FOR UNITY AT PILGRIMAGE. Two million people are expected to attend the Muslim pilgrimage in Mecca this year. Some 82,000 of them are Iranians, the IRNA reported. While the majority of the Iranian pilgrims are Shia, 3,000 of them are Sunni.

For Iran's political leadership the pilgrimage is more than an opportunity for the expression of piety and faith. In the past, it also has been the occasion for Iran to stage rallies with heavily political overtones. This year promised more of the same, when Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in mid-February that delivering a political message is an essential part of the pilgrimage. And the three messages this year, he said, are "Muslim unity, resistance against the enemies of Islam, and disavowal of pagans headed by the U.S. and Zionism."

Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mohammadi Reyshahri, who has been the Supreme Leader's representative at the Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization since 1991, told IRNA that the 1999 disavowal of pagans ceremony will resemble previous ones. This might have caused some concern, because in June 1993 Reyshahri was prevented from returning to Medina from Mecca by the Saudi authorities after Iranian pilgrims held illegal demonstrations, and in May 1995, Reyshahri led another illegal demonstration at the end of the pilgrimage. Iran boycotted the pilgrimage from 1988-1991 because a 1987 Iranian rally resulted in clashes with Saudi security forces and several hundred deaths.

But last year the pilgrimage took place without any disruptive Iranian actions, according to Western news agencies. As Reyshahri left for the pilgrimage last March, he said "Thank God, the political atmosphere between the two countries is ideal. Not since the victory of the (1979) Islamic revolution have relations been so friendly with Saudi Arabia."

Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayaf Bin Abd al-Aziz said he did not think the Iranian pilgrims "will do anything that could endanger the pilgrimage [this year]," Agence France Presse reported. He hinted that smaller demonstrations in the pilgrims' housing areas would be ignored.

On 22 March the first demonstration occurred, when pilgrims chanted "expressions of hatred" against the U.S. and Israel for five continuous minutes. And on 23 March, several pilgrims chanted "down with the U.S.," "death to Israel," and "Muslims get united" while circling the Kaaba, until Saudi security personnel intervened and terminated the demonstration.

Then a "disavowal of pagans" ceremony was held at the Arafat Desert, the last stage of the pilgrimage, on 26 March. According to IRNA, tens of thousands attended and did more chanting of "death to the U.S." and "death to Israel." Reyshahri had said that participation was a "religious duty." Iran's presidential adviser for Sunni affairs, Molavi Eshaq Madani, also urged pilgrims to attend the event.

The outcome of the ceremony was a seven-point statement. The points were: (1) condemnation of "the new whispered conspiracies of separation" of church and state; (2) Islamic unity; (3) "deep dislike and aversion of the global arrogant powers and specifically the Great Satan the criminal America;" and (4) support for the Palestinian people. Also, there was (5) praise for the Muslim resistance in Lebanon versus "savage aggression of the Zionist bloodsuckers;" (6) sympathy for Muslims in Afghanistan, Kosova, Kashmir, and Iraq; and (7) renewal of "our covenant with the ideology of the late Imam Khomeini."

Among the other events that occurred was a Komeyl supplication held in Medina next to the Baqi cemetery, where the Prophet Mohammad, his sister, and several Shia Imams are buried. Komeyl was a close disciple of Imam Ali who transcribed some of his prayers. They are now repeated in a particularly mournful way, usually on Thursday nights.

It is not just religious and political issues which interest Iranian officials during the pilgrimage. Iran's economic situation is relevant too. Reyshahri urged directors of pilgrimage caravans to aim for lower costs. And the conservative daily "Resalat" said that this year Iranian pilgrims will have limits on the amount of cash they can take with them, they cannot take carpets or pistachios for resale, and they cannot bring back any electric home appliances. (Bill Samii)