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Iran Report: June 21, 1999

21 June 1999, Volume 2, Number 25

ESPIONAGE, RELIGION, AND POLITICS. Not until he was faced with an international outcry over the March arrest of 13 Jews in an alleged espionage ring did President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami address the topic. In a 12 June speech at the joint headquarters of the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Khatami pointed to the freedom of all religious minorities in Iran, and he claimed responsibility for "every single member of every religious persuasion who lived in Iran and who had accepted the system of the Islamic Republic of Iran," according to state radio. Khatami repeated these sentiments in a meeting with Lebanese parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri on 15 June, saying: "We deem it our task to defend our Sunni (Muslim) brothers and sisters as well as Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian minorities. We defend the rights of all of them and this country belongs to them all," according to Reuters.

The personal touch in the IRGC speech is noteworthy, but it was not repeated, and Khatami was doing little more than reiterating aspects of the Iranian Constitution. Article 12 says "The official religion of Iran is Islam and the Twelver Jafari school," and Article 13 says "Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian Iranians are the only recognized religious minorities."

Iran's 27,000 member Jewish community and other recognized minorities face serious problems. The U.S. State Department's 1998 Human Rights report says Jewish businessman Ruhollah Kadkhoda-Zadeh was executed in May 1998 without benefit of public charge or legal proceedings, although it may have been in connection with his alleged role in helping Iranian Jews flee the country. Usually, entire Jewish families are not allowed to leave Iran together, nor are Jews issued with the multiple-exit visas other Iranians get. Although there is a Jewish member of parliament, they are effectively barred from most other public offices and face barriers in getting public sector jobs.

Around 20 Muslim converts to Christianity disappeared in 1997-1998 after the authorities learned of their baptisms. Zoroastrians face uneven application of laws and pressure to convert to Islam.

Muslims also experience varying degrees of repression. The murder last July of Sunni cleric Amman Naroui of Zabol, allegedly by government agents, was never investigated. Sufi organizations report increasing repression. Senior Shia clerics, such as Ayatollahs Hossein-Ali Montazeri-Najafabadi and Seyyed Hassan Tabatabai-Qomi, and their followers, are repressed for questioning the theocratic system and its leadership.

The situation faced by unrecognized religious minorities, especially Bahais, is even worse. According to the 1999 Amnesty International Report on human rights in Iran, 20 members of the Bahai faith are still imprisoned. A Bahai was executed in Mashhad last July for converting a Muslim woman. Harassment is frequent.

In this context, statements about the espionage case by Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi are chilling. During the 11 June Friday Prayer sermon in Tehran, he referred to the arrest of "a number of spies." Yazdi said there was no reason to worry about their human rights. They will be tried, the sentence will be legally executed, and they will be hanged if that is the sentence. Yazdi stressed: "We shall act in accordance with the law. The law has its procedure; and on occasion the verdict against spies is hanging. Whatever is the verdict of the court will be carried out, without any doubt. Whether the sentence is hanging, or more lenient, or more severe punishment, it will be carried out. You may ask, what sentence is more severe than hanging? I cannot discuss this matter now. An individual may receive several death sentences. Some are condemned to death twice or more and some only once. It all depends on the gravity of their crime. This is a legal procedure which explains several death sentences against one person." These sentiments were repeated in Guardian Council secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati's sermon of 18 June.

Those who are arrested also face "torture and ill-treatment" to extort confessions, according to the Amnesty International report. Judicial punishments, other than the death sentence, include flogging and stoning to death. Frequently, sentences are imposed on the basis of vague charges, such as "corruption on earth."

Calls for the release of the 13 Jews came from Argentina, Canada, Germany, Israel, Italy, Russia, the U.S., and the EU. Amnesty International and the Dalai Lama expressed their concern, and U.S. civil rights leader Jesse Jackson offered to serve as an intermediary. An internet petition ( for their release has 14,000 signatures.

Khatami's supporters interpret his statement about minorities as the most he can do during Iran's factional conflict. Sympathetic Western observers belief that the detainees are only pawns in a bigger struggle between hardliners and the relatively moderate Khatami. "Sobh-i Imruz" rejected such claims on 15 June, saying justice would take its course. "Tehran Times"--published by a body affiliated with the pro-Khatami Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry--editorialized on 15 June that such claims are "Western propaganda" that tries to portray Khatami as somebody willing to overlook espionage to establish ties with the West.

Iran's Jewish community seems to fear questions about its loyalty. In a document released on 13 June, leaders of Iran's Jewish community, including Rabbi Yusef Kohan-Hamedani and parliamentarian Manuchehr Elyasi, said "the Jews of Iran were confident that justice would be done with due respect to the rights of the accused." They also believe "that sympathetic feelings shown towards them by certain foreign circles is simply hostile propaganda irrelevant to the true interests and concerns of the Jewish Iranians," according to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA)--affiliated with the Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry, which is close to Khatami. A similar statement from the Jewish community was published in the 15 June "Neshat" and the 16 June "Tehran Times."

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi dismissed attribution of the arrests to religion as "unawareness, prejudgement, and interference in Iran's internal affairs." A statement by Iran's embassy in Moscow said the accused "admitted participation in espionage activities," but this had nothing to do with their religion. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN OFFICIALS TOUR MIDDLE EAST. President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami's cabinet ministers are following up on discussions initiated during his May tour of the Middle East. Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi traveled to Lebanon and then Jordan, while Energy Minister Habibollah Bitaraf went to Syria.

In Beirut, Kharrazi delivered a message from Khatami to his Lebanese counterpart, Emile Lahoud, met with Prime Minister Selim Hoss, gave a lecture, and inaugurated a Persian-language studies center. An indication that Kharrazi would meet with Hizballah officials was his statement in a 16 June meeting with Lebanon's parliamentary speaker, Nabih Berri, that Hizballah is "the pride of the Muslims," and Iranian policy supports the Islamic resistance and the unity and independence of Lebanon, according to IRNA. On arriving in Beirut, Kharrazi said Iran wants the guerrillas to fight on until Israeli and allied militiamen completely withdraw from Lebanon.

From the Saint Andrew's University Center on Terrorism and Political Violence, Magnus Ranstorp described the likely subject of the talks in a conversation with RFE/RL. Ranstorp said: "Right now the Iranians are stressing to the Hizballah that it has to readjust itself to a post-[Israeli]-withdrawal period...Hizballah may have to face the fact that it will only have social and political arms to its activities, and not rely solely on the military activities as a main component and this is what the Iranians are stressing to the Hizballah. They are stressing that you need to rear intellectuals, that you need to concentrate on the social sphere and the political sphere as much as you concentrate on rearing good fighters who are combating the Israelis in the occupied area of south Lebanon."

This does not mean that Kharrazi will downplay Hizballah's military achievements, because it is regarded as a successful example of exporting the revolution. This is because, according to Ranstorp: "Hizballah has achieved what no other Arab state has ever achieved and that is defeating Israel. They did so, first--the Iranians and Hizballah proudly claim--in 1985 when Hizballah activities against the Israelis forced the Israelis to withdraw down to the current security zone. They are now standing on the brink of a second victory."

After his 15 June arrival in Syria, Bitaraf met Vice President Abd al-Halim Khaddam and Electricity Minister Munib Assad al-Dahar. They discussed privatization of power distribution management and signed agreements on sales of Iranian circuits, switches, and pylons, IRNA reported. Connection of the two countries' electrical grids and a plan to link the electricity networks of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, and Iraq with Iran's were discussed, too. On 17 June, Bitaraf visited a dam project on the Euphrates River and then told reporters that "such projects would help [Syria's economy] resist the conspiracies and plots of the Zionist regime."

In Amman, Kharrazi, the highest ranking Iranian to visit the Hashemite kingdom since 1980, held talks with King Abdullah. He handed the King a message from Khatami reaffirming Tehran's interest in improving bilateral relations and extending an invitation to King Abdullah to visit Iran. The monarch offered to mediate between Iran and the United Arab Emirates in the conflict over three Persian Gulf islands.

The visit is of such importance to Jordan that it declined an Israeli request to press Iran for the release of 13 Jews arrested on espionage charges, London's Arabic-language "Al-Hayah" reported on 17 June. But Kharrazi said the governments of the two countries still have different views about the Middle East peace process. He said the current peace process does not guarantee the rights of Palestinians. The two countries have a tourist trade, with tombs of some of the prophet Mohammad's descendants and the tomb of Jafar Bin-Abu-Talib, brother of Imam Ali, being in Jordan and attracting Shia pilgrims. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN SATELLITE BROADCASTS COMMENCE. Iranian state broadcasting announced on 14 June that the Sahar Television Channel, its satellite service, has begun test transmissions in English, French, Arabic, Serbo-Croatian, Kurdish, and Azerbaijani via Eutelsat. An official from Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, Mohammad Serafraz, said the broadcasts' objective "is to promote the many dimensions of Iran and to explain the political ideology of the Islamic Republic of Iran," Ankara's "Turkish Daily News" reported on 15 June. Broadcasting into Iran is a different matter. In mid-May, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned against easing restrictions on the use of satellite dishes. He favored developing "ways of blocking infiltration of satellites as satellite technology advances." Khamenei went on to say that "this prevention is a necessary screening practice." (Bill Samii)

RICE IMPORTS FAIL TO MEET REQUIREMENTS. In the first week of June, Thai Deputy Commerce Minister Paitoon Maewthong was in Tehran negotiating a counter-trade agreement on rice in exchange for Iranian oil, the "Bangkok Post" reported on 4 June. Iran agreed to buy 300,000 tons of rice at $285 a ton for shipment from July through December 1999, the Thai daily reported a week later. While buying rice from Thailand may alleviate some of Iran's short-term needs, changes have appeared in consumption patterns. Also, the food requirements of many Iranians remain unmet despite the foreign purchases.

In the northern parts of Iran, rice sales have dropped and people are consuming more bread. In an effort to explain this development, Bandar-i Anzali parliamentary deputy Abdol Qafar Shoja, who is chairman of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, described some of the problems with the rice sector in an interview with Mashhad's "Khorasan" daily on 11 March. Shoja said rice prices increased by about 300 percent because the government set its purchase price below the market rate. Farmers, therefore, sold their product to dealers for a higher price, with the result that the government purchased only 2,000-3,000 tons rather than the previously envisioned 250,000 tons. Rice purchased by the government is sold to the public at the subsidized price of 1,300 rials ($0.15 according to the unofficial exchange rate and $0.43 according to the official exchange rate) per kilogram, while on the open market rice costs 5000-10,000 rials depending on the quality.

Another problem Shoja described is the varying emphasis different branches of the government place on resolving this issue. The Commerce Ministry and relevant committees want to import rice while the Agriculture Ministry and relevant committees want to protect domestic production. "There is profit in importing," Shoja told "Khorasan," "but it is treachery to import $4.5 billion worth of agricultural products." He went on to say: "By importing, we make employment vanish, ruin production, and waste foreign exchange."

Shoja described some of the solutions proposed in the third development plan. These include changing to a type of higher-yield rice and increasing the amount of land under rice cultivation. Yet the proposal to change land utilization is also problematic. The Commerce Ministry has proposed changing rice paddies into tea fields, according to "Jahan-i Islam" on 1 June. In Mazandaran, Sari's "Bashir" reported on 4 February, ricefields "are being used for urban development...[and] villa-building." This led the publication to ask, "at what point in the future will Mazandaran be transformed into a dormitory province?"

Nor has parliament been helpful so far. Responding to parliamentary speaker Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri's complaint about Iran's lack of agricultural self-sufficiency, "Bashir" asked: "What practical measures have been taken by Mr. Nateq-Nuri, himself a Mazandarani, to prevent encroachment on agricultural land and natural resources in Mazandaran?"

Yet discussions about land use, government subsidies, and pricing policies are secondary. The main point is that people get enough to eat. Even on this point the Iranian government is failing its citizens. The parliamentary deputy from Sonqor-i Kolyai, Qodrat Ali Heshmatian, said in his constituency "a family comes to me, and informs me it has been six months since they last could buy rice, and another family informs me it has been three months since he and his children have had meat," "Resalat" reported on 12 November. (Bill Samii)

IRAN BUILDING SILOS. Iran's agricultural sector is incapable of meeting the country's grain requirements due to government mismanagement, underinvestment, corruption, and now a drought. But despite this set of problems, Iranian industries are good at building grain-storage facilities. During President Mohammad Khatami's trip to Syria, a deal was signed to build grain silos with a storage capacity of 1 million tons, Damascus' government-owned "Tishrin" reported on 17 May. Iran's Construction Jihad Minister, Mohammad Saidi-Kia, however, said the deal for ten 100,000 ton silos was tendered but had not been signed yet, according to the 9 June "Iran Daily." He also said three silos are being built in Turkmenistan. Jakhat, an Iranian firm, will build six 30,000 ton-capacity silos in Turkmenistan, according to the Interfax "Food and Agriculture Report" of 5-11 June. The project will cost $16.2 million and will be completed in the autumn. (Bill Samii)

NUCLEAR TIES EXPAND. Iran and Russia may expand their cooperation in the nuclear field, the head of the Iranian Foreign Ministry's Department for the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Caucasus, F. Dolatabadi, told the "Tehran Times" on 6 June. Russian Deputy Minister for Atomic Energy Bulat Nigmatulin explained further on 8 June, saying that five or six agreements could be signed with Iran, China, and India for the construction of VVER-1000 light- water nuclear reactors, Interfax reported. The cabinet of Czech Premier Milos Zeman considered whether or not to "allow Czech firms to complete the nuclear plant in the Iranian city of Bushehr," CTK news agency reported on 7 June. Trade and Industry Minister Miroslav Gregr's spokeswoman, Dagmar Placha, explained why the deal is being considered: "We've got the information that if we don't do it, [the] British will immediately appear there." Furthermore, "if the Czech Republic loses Iran, it may lose markets in China, too. Besides, if the ministry blocked the deal, the affected companies might sue for billions of crowns." The final outcome of the Czech cabinet meeting was not revealed. (Bill Samii)

FOUNDATION'S LEADERSHIP MAY CHANGE, ACTIVITIES WON'T. Recent reports about the involvement of an Iranian charitable foundation in a joint-venture with a Norwegian oil exploration company reveal the political, economic, and financial power of these para-statal bodies. These, in turn, indicate that although the foundation's leadership may change soon, its activities will not.

Mohammad Sahfi, director-general of public relations for the Petroleum Ministry, dismissed reports in April that the Oppressed and Disabled Foundation will enter into a joint venture with a European firm for oil exploration, extraction, and sales. Sahfi said all upstream activities are under the Oil Ministry's monopoly, IRNA reported. Sahfi's distinction was hardly accurate.

In fact, the Oppressed and Disabled Foundation is the Iranian partner of Norwegian firm Norex in a long-term agreement to collect and process seismic data on the entire Iranian offshore sector. In a project authorized by the National Iranian Oil Company, Norex will shoot seismic readings over a two by two kilometer grid covering Iranian sectors of the Persian Gulf in a project called "Persian Carpet 2000." Norex is encouraging the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait to allow work across their maritime borders, the "Middle East Economic Survey" reported on 31 May.

It is estimated that the project will cost $100 million. Companies can participate in the project by underwriting the exploration with up-front cash payments of several million dollars. American companies can participate without making the initial payments.

Some 19 companies are supervised by the Oppressed and Disabled Foundation's Mines and Oil Branch. The Brookings Institute's Suzanne Maloney, who has studied Iran's foundations, adds: "[Oppressed and Disabled Foundation] subsidiaries trade crude oil on the world market through a U.K. subsidiary."

When it was created in 1979, the foundation's assets originated with those confiscated from the Pahlavi Foundation and then from nationalized assets of Iran's 51 largest industrialists. It operated with government support until the end of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988).

The elimination of government subsidies coincided with the appointment of a new director, Mohsen Rafiqdust. A decade after his appointment, Rafiqdust claimed to have turned an organization losing billions of rials into a profit-maker, "Hamshahri" reported in November 1998.

Now, according to its website, the hundreds of companies owned by the foundation 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. Parliament's efforts to get firm figures, through the Article 90 Committee, have been fruitless. Rafiqdust meets complaints about the lack of transparency by describing the social benefits of the foundation's assistance.

In fact, charitable work has earned the support of a large constituency, which also dampens parliamentary criticism. The foundation provides housing and financial support for those who are 70 percent or more disabled in the war. It also provides academic and vocational training, as well as employment. When the unemployment rate is 14-20 percent, this is valuable. Grants are given to poor students, schools are built, and recreational facilities are offered.

Its beneficiaries are not the foundation's only base of support. Its director is appointed by the Supreme Leader. Its leadership, including Rafiqdust himself, is closely connected with Iran's powerful bazaar. Also, Rafiqdust was minister of the Revolutionary Guard Corps when it was still a ministry, and foundation companies serve as fronts for the IRGC's purchase of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons components, according to Germany's dpa news agency.

When Rafiqdust was absolved of involvement in an embezzlement case, complaints were made about the conservative-run judiciary's performance, according to the 15 May "Aban." The foundation's tourism business supports the conservative Ansar-e Hezbollah, alleges "Iran-i Farda." Rafiqdust's personal stature also is connected with his serving as personal bodyguard to the Father of the Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi-Khomeini.

Recent reports indicate that Rafiqdust will soon step down as the foundation's director when his term ends in July, but there probably will not be much change in the way it operates. A likely replacement, according to the 7 June "Jomhuri-yi Islami," is former Commerce Minister Yahya Al-e Eshaq, who is a current member of the foundation's Board of Directors. Clearly, the foundation is too deeply embedded in Iran domestic and foreign affairs to be changed very soon. (Bill Samii)