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Iran Report: December 21, 1998


21 December 1998, Volume 1, Number 4

IRANIAN HOSPITALITY NOT AS COLD AS NEWSPAPERS SUGGEST. Reports from some Iranian newspapers suggest that hostility towards Americans visiting Iran is on the increase. Among the Iranian media outlets making such charges are the following: �Iran� newspaper, which is allegedly associated with Expediency Council chairman Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, reported on 11 December a mob surrounded two American reporters who unwisely visited the Friday sermons in Isfahan and began chanting �Death to America�.

Meanwhile, the "Resalat� newspaper, which is linked to conservative bazaari elements, on 15 December cast aspersions on numerous American who have visited Iran recently. This paper claimed that these visitors are part of an American plot in which �the sworn enemies of our country�s people, under cover as tourists, reporters, and so on� are actually spies and saboteurs. The proof: reporters were taking pictures in the sensitive border provinces of Azerbaijan, Fars, Khuzestan, Khorasan, Isfahan, and Yazd.

Geoffrey Kemp of the Nixon Center, Jerrold Green of RAND, and Roscoe Suddarth of the Middle East Institute, all of whom visited Iran in February, were specifically criticized. And Anthony Cordesman and Judith Kipper of the Center for Strategic and International Studies were attacked for writing a monograph and for briefing a Congressional committee after their trip to Iran.

But �New York Times� reporter Douglas Jehl is the worst of the lot, according to �Resalat." He �easily comes and goes to occupied Palestine.� Also, Jehl has interviewed �many of the heads of the opposition and the centers of anti-Islam and members of the gang of Mehdi Hashemi ... and has been in direct communication with heads of the hypocrites organization.� Jehl was attacked as well for allegedly pursuing sensitive security information on Iran�s activities in Bosnia, Central Asia, Lebanon, and North Africa.

�Quds� newspaper also complained about Jehl. It reported on 16 December that Jehl and Alexandra Avakian of �National Geographic� are using journalistic cover to be in Iran, and they are photographing militarily strategic areas.

But these press attacks reflect conditions on the ground now, rather than in February, when some of the Americans visited Iran. Cordesman, for example, told Radio Free Europe that he was treated in a very friendly manner during his visit to Iran. And Suddarth, also said that he was very well treated, although he acknowledged that his interaction with locals was limited.

GOOD NEWS AND BAD FOR THE IRANIAN ECONOMY. In the last two weeks, Iran�s efforts to strengthen the economy paid off in some areas. Most hopeful was news about a natural gas pipeline to Turkey and Total�s thoughts about shipping oil through Iran, as well as loans from Japan and Germany. But reports of serious drops in oil prices caused continued concern in Tehran.

A 13 December report in the �Washington Post� stated that gas from Turkmenistan will be transported to Turkey via Iran. This has greatly irritated the Clinton Administration, because the pipeline also could be used to transport Iranian gas. A week earlier, Total�s representative in Azerbaijan said his firm was considering formation of a consortium to fund and build a pipeline through Iran, because that would be the cheapest route for Caspian oil.

Other European companies are transporting oil through Iran via �swap� transactions. US Ambassador Richard Morningstar says the prohibition on the participation of American firms in swaps is intended to encourage the building of Baku- Ceyhan, according to the 10 December �Journal of Commerce�. Executives from oil companies, particularly Conoco, and industry interest groups object to this approach. And in a 16 December speech to Iranian oil industry officials, President Mohammad Khatami complained about �America's oppressive policies and the Zionist pressure aimed at imposing the wrong policies on Iran.�

Iran also may get some new loans, because it has an excellent credit rating and meets its obligations promptly. A report in Tokyo�s �Nihon Keizai Shimbun� on 9 December, says �the Japanese Government and Japanese trade sector are considering accepting the Iranian government's request for refinancing $1 billion worth of loans.� Details should be worked out by the time Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi visits Japan on 20 December. Iran also is exploring a new $1 billion credit line with German banks, according to �Zan� newspaper.

At the same time, Tehran's efforts to expand its foreign trade continue. In the first week of December, an Iranian parliamentary delegation led by Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri visited Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines to discuss improved trade relations. Agriculture Minister Isa Kalantari discussed cooperative agreements with his Vietnamese counterpart. In the third week of December, a delegation led by Industries Minister Gholam Reza Shafei took part in a meeting of the Iran-Jordan Joint Commission for Economic, Industrial and Cultural Cooperation in Amman.

State-media reports from the provinces indicate continued progress. Carpet cooperatives in Ilam are increasing their output, and through training the quality of the products is improving. Manufactured goods were exported from Semnan, Zanjan, Bushehr, and Khuzestan, to Armenia, Australia, Azerbaijan, Britain, Guinea, Macedonia, Canada, Central Asia, Russia, Turkey, Jordan, Germany, Italy, Ukraine, and Persian Gulf states.

Trade fairs also helped the economy. Valuable Iranian carpets from Esfahan, Naein and Qom were displayed at a fair in Lebanon in the first week of December. In Dhahran, an exclusive Iranian trade fair was held. An international trade fair, with exhibitors from Iran, China, Qatar, Norway, Finland, South Korea, Switzerland, Indonesia, Taiwan, Turkey, the UAE, Italy, the Czech Republic, Britain, France, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Canada, was held on Kish Island Free Trade Zone. At the opening of this event, Industry Minister Gholamreza Shafei said the FTZs should �serve as gates for exporting domestic products.�

For the first time, Iran will display domestically-produced weapons at the International Defense Exhibition and Conference (IDEX) in Abu Dhabi in March. Not only does this indicate Iran�s improved relations with its neighbors, it also shows the self- sufficiency of the Iranian arms industry.

But on the other hand, oil prices continue to drop. And while Brent crude is the world benchmark in quoting oil prices, Iran produces a different grade of oil that trades at a cheaper rate. This explains why provincial official Gholamreza Tajgardoun said on 12 December that a barrel of oil fetches $8. Since the draft budget submitted last month calls for a $10 per barrel price, this is not promising and may undermine all of Iran's other efforts.

WHAT DO THE FRIDAY PRAYERS MEAN? The sermon delivered at the Friday congregational prayers in Iran is more than a theological discourse or advice on how to go through life. The Friday sermon is a vehicle for expressing the political viewpoint of some of the regime�s top officials. The Friday Prayer Leader in Tehran is the Supreme Leader, and his substitutes coincidentally also serve as the Expediency Council chairman, Assembly of Experts Speaker, Guardians Council spokesman, Guardians Council secretary, and Judiciary chief. The views expressed thus are predominantly those of the conservative segment of the regime.

Most members of the Central Council of Friday Prayer Leaders, which meets annually, are appointed by the Office of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Their sermons, therefore, reflect themes and viewpoints advocated by Khamenei. It is noteworthy that President Mohammad Khatami, who is a Hojatoleslam, has not been selected as a substitute Friday Prayer Leader, whereas one of his ministers, who has equivalent religious ranking, has.

Some Friday Prayer Leaders were appointed by Khamenei�s predecessor, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and because of Khomeini�s status they remain in office even when not allied with Khamenei. One of these early appointees is Isfahan�s Ayatollah Jalaledin Taheri, who is friendly towards Khatami. In a February sermon, Taheri urged officials to counter corruption and profiteering and threatened to expose �corrupt individuals�. In May there were demonstrations in favor of Taheri, and in June he refused to give a sermon. In August, Taheri described the Khatami government as �the strongest one since the victory of the revolution� in terms of popular support. In December, he condemned the recent attack on American visitors to Iran as a violation of their �human rights�.

Sometimes, the Prayer Leader is preceded by a guest speaker. In September, ousted President Burhanudin Rabbani of Afghanistan spoke. Using Islamic references, he said the Taliban �are martyring thousands of defenseless Muslims�. Islamic Revolution Guards Corps commander Seyyed Yahya Rahim-Safavi spoke before the 20 November prayers in Karaj.

The content of the sermon is determined in Tehran by the ten-member executive board of the Central Secretariat of the Central Council of Friday Prayer Leaders. There is some latitude in adding local variations, but there are no broad departures from the central directives. The views contained in sermons given in Tehran by Khamenei, Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Ayatollah Abdol-Karim Mussavi-Ardebili, Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, and Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati are reflected in most other cities.

In the first ten years of the Islamic Revolution, the sermons used Shia themes and symbolism to justify regime consolidation and elimination of opposition. Khamenei said: �break the waves of sedition with the ship of salvation.� Sermons were used to mobilize people during the Iraq-imposed war, again with the use of Shia symbolism. For example, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was compared to Yazid, who killed Imam Hussein in 680.

In the Islamic Republic�s second decade, the sermons reflected the regime�s growing confidence in its survival, and the focus shifted from legitimation and consolidation to more topical issues. This year�s sermons concentrate on international affairs, domestic affairs, and politico-religious issues.

The most common topic in all sermons is the U.S. It is either discussed directly or a problem is traced to it. Rapprochment with America is intolerable. In January, Khamenei said the �revolutionary commitment� of those who suggest such things is weak, and they �are behaving in the same way as the enemies of the revolution and Iranian nation.� America �inflicted blows against the Iranian nation, stabbed it, insulted it, betrayed it, and made up lies about it. ... It is the same today.� In August, Jannati said: �What shame is greater than showing a green light to America? ... What is more shameful than compromising and welcoming a blood-sucking government, which continues sucking blood, perpetrating crimes and demonstrating brutality and wickedness?�

Other international issues which get frequent attention are Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan�s alleged interference there. Domestic issues discussed in sermons are the economy, political factionalism, and during elections, voter participation.

Religious issues from a political perspective also are a major sermon subject. Khamenei�s role as a source of emulation and Iran�s self-perceived role as the leader of the world�s Shia were discussed often. Not only did several sermons indicate concern for Afghan Shia, but sermons by Jannati in June and Yazdi in July concerned two murdered Iraqi ayatollahs. Another topic, not surprisingly, was the fatwa (religious judgment) decreeing death for Salman Rushdie, author of �The Satanic Verses.�

OFFICIALS IN SEVERAL COUNTRIES BENEFIT FROM OIL SMUGGLING One of the problems the Iranian economy is facing is reduced foreign revenues due to decreasing oil prices and worsening foreign exchange rates. It now appears that Iran is at the nexus of regional petrochemical smuggling operations. Iran allows Iraqi oil to pass through its coastal waters en route to the United Arab Emirates, where it is transshipped to further destinations. Also, Iranian refined products are smuggled into Pakistan and Afghanistan. And these smuggling operations, it has been suggested by some observers, have the approval of officials on all sides of the borders.

Iranian government spokesman Hassan Qadiri Abyaneh, for example, recently told IRNA that smugglers of oil and finished petrochemical products into Iran make a 1,000- 3,000% profit, due to demand generated by excessive domestic consumption. He went on to complain that Iran�s neighbors permitted smuggling into Iran, and they also permitted smuggling of Iranian products into their countries. Apparently, the problem has become so serious that, on 14 December, the governor-general of Tehran Province announced the pending formation of a committee of officials from the National Iranian Oil Company, and the Ministries of Oil, Industry, and Agriculture �to confront smuggling.�

But they may not be looking in the right direction. Iranian visitors to the West say officials in Iran�s semi-governmental organizations, such as the Oppressed and Disabled Foundation (Bonyad-i Mostazafan va Janbazan), are among the direct beneficiaries of smuggling. The foundations have preferred access to subsidized gasoline supplies, whereas fuel is rationed for the general population. Furthermore, they are not subject to governmental oversight or any form of public scrutiny. Finally, according to the most recent �Economist� country report on Iran, the foundations receive preferential exchange rates. Mohsen Rafiqdust, head of the Oppressed and Disabled Foundation, was summoned to the Tehran judiciary complex to answer questions about currency matters, reported �Quds� on 12 December.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps is accused of being a compliant partner in oil smuggling, too. Vice Adm. Thomas B. Fargo, commander of the U.S. 5th Fleet and head of the Multinational Interception Force, said last year that Iraq smuggles tens of thousands of tons of fuel oil through Iranian waters in �a rather sophisticated effort, centrally controlled within Iran.� He said smugglers pay a protection fee to Iran, and an IRGC station at the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab waterway seems to control the operation. It is estimated that 100,000 barrels a day are smuggled, earning Iraq about $600,000 daily.

Iran regularly denies involvement in oil smuggling. U.S. officials told the �Los Angeles Times� in March that since mid-February Iran had cut off more than half of Iraq's illicit oil trade. Some observers chose to interpret this as Iran�s signal to the international community that it is willing to observe the rules. Apparently the signal was well-received: in April President Clinton said Iran had taken �helpful� steps to curb the smuggling operation. But a few days later, Adm. Fargo said Iran�s enforcement was again lax and smuggling had resumed its earlier pace.

At the end of November IRNA announced that the Iranian navy had stopped several ships from Iran, India, and the United Arab Emirates and intercepted several attempts to smuggle goods into Iraq. �The vessels, overlooking international rules and (U.N.) Security Council resolutions, were trying to ship goods to Iraq which is under United Nations sanctions,� according to IRNA. While the Iranian government trumpeted this action, it seemed oblivious to the fact that violations of U.N. sanctions go both ways, and the oil exports are a greater concern than the import of goods.

The Paris-based, Saudi-funded newspaper �Al-Watan al-Arabi� reported in June that the oil sales were needed so Iraqi officials could rake off some of the proceeds. According to an Iraqi defector, the corrupt officials would be less interested in acting against their president.

On 15 December, Islamabad�s independent daily �The Nation�, wrote about the smuggling of Iranian gasoline into Pakistan. In Pakistani Baluchistan, a police raiding party was held hostage and had its weapons confiscated by a gang of smugglers with connections to �an influential political family.� The paper reported that smuggled Iranian petrol is sold in and around Quetta. �The porous border between Iran and Pakistan is the route for many other smuggled items as well, but selling the petrol through routine petrol pumps means that the matter is in the knowledge of the administration and law enforcing agencies� who work with local politicians.

This illicit trade also extends into Afghanistan during the colder months, a resident of Zabol told �Iran Daily�. During that time, Iranian farmers sell their subsidized fuel allotments to smugglers to earn cash.

PROFILE OF AN IRANIAN JOURNALIST So far this year, two Iranian government ministers have been attacked by thugs, and three intellectuals and two dissident politicians have been murdered. But intimidation and goon squads are far from the only weapons Iran�s conservatives use.

The judiciary, which is firmly in the hands of the conservatives, has been able to silence journalists and publications using a nominally "legal" framework. The case of Iranian journalist Ezzatollah Sahabi shows what can get a journalist silenced in Iran: too enthusiastic support for Khatami; too open criticism of the conservative clerics and their supporters; and too frequent charges of corruption by favored groups.

On 6 December, Sahabi was found guilty of slandering the armed forces and banned from writing for one year. He also must pay a $1000 fine. Given Sahabi�s background as an Iranian nationalist and opponent of the monarchy, as a former parliamentarian, and as director of the Plan and Budget Organization following the Islamic Revolution, this may be surprising. But Sahabi�s recent statements and articles in his monthly publication, �Iran-i Farda� (Tomorrow's Iran), show why the conservatives feel threatened by him.

Sahabi has been a vocal supporter of President Seyyed Mohammad Khatami. In February 1998, he told the �New York Times�: �More than at any time in our revolution we need a person like Mr. Khatami.� He worried about the conservatives� power versus Khatami: �The other side has all the power. He is under tremendous pressure.� Five months later, �Iran-i Farda� praised Khatami as �a voice speaking of peace, freedom, removing tension, tolerance, dialogue, not dealing harshly with the young people ...�

Sahabi blamed some members of the clergy, but not Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei whom he has known for over thirty years, for the country�s conservative tendency. �He used to be very reasonable, very open-minded,� Sahabi told the �New York Times� in February 1998. �He played the sitar. But the clerics around him became more defensive. They monopolized power. Little by little he became distant from us.� But �Iran-i Farda�, in August 1998, criticized the detention of and attacks against Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a critic of Khamenei�s authority and the general level of repression.

The publication criticized �undefined organizations which act in an illegal and obscure fashion� to support conservative causes. One of these organizations is the Ansar-i Hizballah, which allegedly attacked the offices and employees of �Iran-i Farda� several times. The monthly said the semi-official Oppressed and Disabled Foundation sponsored the Ansar-i Hizballah, and its leader, Hossein Allah-Karam, received payoffs from a Tehran travel agency, while another suggested the foundations be placed under governmental supervision. The groups accused have responded vigorously: �Shalamcheh�, the Ansar-i Hizballah biweekly, said Sahabi�s throat can be cut with a razor�s stroke, and it dismissed the �improperly formed� beliefs of Islamic intellectuals.

One of the Islamic intellectuals featured in �Iran-i Farda� was Ayatollah Seyyed Mahmud Taleqani (d. 1979), who advocated a socialist-oriented and readily accessible interpretation of Islam. Among his statements that �Iran-i Farda� cited: �The people are not after a seminary, they are after freedom.�

Until recently, Sahabi was both hopeful and defiant, despite the threats and the attacks against his journal. In October 1998, when secular candidates were banned from running in the Assembly of Experts election, he told the �New York Times�: �There is no way back anymore. ... �Even if they shut down all of the papers and magazines, and put all of us in jail, the talk will continue. The ice is beginning to thaw.�

After his conviction, though, Sahabi sounded a less hopeful note: He told a group of students on 8 December that �Lebanonization, it is an option that might come about in our nation�s future.�

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