12 July 2004, Volume 7, Number 23
RENEWED UNITY AMONG IRANIAN STUDENTS. The fifth anniversary of 18 Tir (8 July) -- the day in 1999 when uniformed police and plainclothes vigilantes attacked a Tehran University dormitory with fatal results -- came and went with little fanfare. That 1999 incident in the capital led to fatalities and a week of civil unrest that wracked the country, and calm was restored only after massive arrests and a threat from Islamic Revolution Guards Corps commanders to President Mohammad Khatami that if he did not calm the situation they would take matters into their own hands. Every 18 Tir since then has seen a renewal of the unrest, although not on the same scale.
Two-thirds of the Iranian population is under 35. This cohort is chafing under clerical misrule. Ever since the events of 1999, therefore, there has been a degree of anticipation about the students' potential to overthrow the regime. Whether this hope has been based on the politically motivated hype of foreign observers or the optimism of Iranian political activists, reality has yet to fulfill expectations. There are many reasons for this, including the regime's coercive powers, public apathy, and an absence of organization and leadership among the students.
There has been no change in the government's ability to use force at will, and the relatively low level of participation in the most recent parliamentary election is an indication that the level of apathy remains high. It does appear, however, that student disunity has decreased.
The students' main representative body, the Office for Strengthening Unity (OSU), split into two wings in 2002. The majority Allameh wing wanted to withdraw from mainstream politics, while the smaller Shiraz wing preferred to maintain its support for the president (for more on this split, see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 14 October 2002).
These divisions, and the accompanying apathy, were remarked on by members of the sixth parliament's "student faction," all of whom were in the OSU, during a 9 May ceremony at Allameh Tabatabai University. Tehran parliamentarian Fatimeh Haqiqatju reminded the gathering that the student movement's most important duty is "criticizing power," "Sharq" reported on 10 May. She urged the students to be actively involved with the upcoming presidential election in 2005, and she commented that a "language of despair" can be heard within the student movement. She warned that the conservatives consider the student movement an irritant that must be controlled, and are trying to sow discord within it. Shiraz parliamentarian Reza Yusefian observed that, because issues are viewed from an individualistic perspective, there is no longer a student "movement."
In mid-May the OSU met at Khajeh Nasredin Tusi University in Tehran. In a speech to the students, Tehran representative Ali Akbar Musavi-Khoeni appealed to the OSU to behave as a cohesive entity, "Vaqa-yi Itifaqi-yi" reported on 15 May.
Apparently, the gathering took Musavi-Khoeni's words to heart. Members of the Shiraz and Allameh factions held lengthy discussions that were followed by voting for members to a new Central Council. According to "Vaqa-yi Itifaqi-yi" on 16 May, the new council reflects a reduction in differences between the two factions. Abdullah Momeni of the OSU commented, "These elections showed that the spell has been broken, and that obstructions and external threats have been neutralized and that there is consensus among Islamic student associations," "Hambastegi" reported on 17 May.
OSU Central Council member Hojatollah Sharifi described the meeting in an interview with Radio Farda. Sharifi said the new unity of purpose would result in greater political involvement on the part of the student movement (http://www.radiofarda.com/transcripts/iran/2004/05/20040515_1030_1109_1458_fa.asp).
The outcome of the OSU Central Council elections was unexpected, according to a report in the 6 June issue of "Sharq." The individuals elected to leadership positions were veterans of the student movement "who are well past their student years and student characteristics." The newspaper warned that the age gap between OSU leaders and the average university student will be an obstacle to easily creating a relationship. The OSU will begin to function more like a party, and to outside observers it will be the "flag-bearer of Iran's reform movement." The two wings, according to "Sharq," believe that it is time to bury the old OSU.
An article by Central Council member Majid Haji-Babai in the 28 June "Sharq" suggests that the outcome of that funeral could be dramatic. He said ideas for ending the student movement's disunity included a "student parliament" and a renewal of the Office for Fostering Democracy. The latter was an elitist version of the OSU, Haji-Babai writes, while the former would have been all-inclusive and nationwide. The student parliament, furthermore, would require direct voting by students and would require cooperation from universities and the regime.
Another problem, Haji-Babai writes, is that these two ideas only deal with the domestic situation. The "tens of thousands" of Iranians studying in the United States and Europe have created dynamic Iranian organizations at their individual institutions that it would be a mistake to ignore. What is required is a National Union of Iranian Students modeled on the old Confederation of Iranian Students that was active internationally from the 1950s onward. This entity could coordinate the activities of all student organizations and play a powerful political role.
Developments in the OSU are noteworthy, because it is one of the country's biggest student organizations and because it played a key role in Khatami's 1997 election victory. Nevertheless there are other organizations that have advocated more radical action against the regime. One of these is veteran activist Heshmatollah Tabarzadi's Democratic Front. It is unlikely that Tabarzadi will be part of any student union. It is similarly unlikely that the new trends within the OSU will have a lasting impact. (Bill Samii)
STUDENT 'UPRISING' FALLS FLAT. Little took place in Tehran on 8 July (18 Tir in the Iranian calendar), the anniversary of nationwide demonstrations five years earlier, Voice of America and other news agencies reported. Reza Delbari, a member of the Office for Strengthening Unity (OSU) student organization, said that in order to ensure a quiet anniversary and prevent any gathering or unrest, universities practically shut down in the 20-day period prior to 8 July, and in some cases denied students access to the campus after noon that day, Radio Farda reported. Delbari added that the Interior Ministry and Supreme National Security Council instructed local media to ignore all news relating to the anniversary. Security measures and the deployment of law-enforcement personnel in Tehran designed to preclude unrest created a "police-like and frightening atmosphere," Radio Farda quoted Delbari as saying. AFP quoted journalist Hamid Reza Jalaipur as saying on 6 July that the police deployment in Tehran is designed to improve traffic circulation.
Said Robati, who heads the OSU's Tehran University branch, said that in a 1 July letter to the Tehran Governorate-General his group formally requested permission to hold a rally outside the university's main gate, according to the Islamic Association of Isfahan University of Technology website (http://www.iutnews.com). Robati said two days later that, upon returning to the governorate-general, he and his colleagues were informed verbally that a permit would not be forthcoming and any kind of off-campus rally would be illegal, according to the website.
Refusal to issue a permit for a rally has not stopped the students in the past. Students demonstrated in July 2003 despite a ban on rallies (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 9 and 30 June, and 7, 14, and 21 July 2003). In June 2003, furthermore, demonstrations occurred in major cities in reaction to rumors that university students would have to pay tuition (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 16 June 2003). Egged on by exile television stations, the protests continued for four days until intervention by vigilantes and arrests by police. (Vahid Sepehri, Bill Samii)
HUMAN RIGHTS MONITORS SPEAK UP FOR IRANIAN STUDENTS. On 7 July, Amnesty International called on the Iranian judiciary to review the cases of individuals tried in connection with the July 1999 student unrest (known as 18 Tir). Amnesty International also called for an inquiry into prisoners' allegations of torture, citing letters from the imprisoned Akbar Mohammadi and Ahmad Batebi.
On 8 July, Human Rights Watch (HRW) took a stronger tack, calling on the Iranian government to "immediately release all student detainees still imprisoned for peaceful dissent." HRW said that an unknown number of the students are still imprisoned, referring to an earlier report on the physical and psychological abuse of political detainees (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 21 June 2004). In addition to Batebi and Mohammadi, HRW also referred by name to Abbas Fakhravar, Manuchehr Mohammadi (Akbar's brother), and Mehrdad Lahrasbi. (Bill Samii)
KHATAMI NAMES SOCIAL-SECURITY MINISTER. President Khatami sent a letter to parliament on 7 July, in which he named Mohammad Hussein Sharifzadegan as Iran's first welfare and social-security minister, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 8 July. Parliament must still approve Sharifzadegan's appointment. The nomination follows adoption of a law regulating the social-security system, approved on 11 May 2003, which called for the formation of a welfare and social-security ministry, "Aftab-i Yazd" noted. Sharifzadegan is an official of the Social Security Organization, a state welfare body that the new ministry is to replace. The daily quoted parliamentary speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel as saying in Tehran on 7 July that Khatami has not consulted with parliament over the nominee, but that Sharifzadegan's possible rejection by parliament "does not mean a refusal to cooperate with the government." (Vahid Sepehri)
AZERI-IRANIAN CELEBRATION BRINGS ARRESTS. Thousands of people gathered at Babak Castle near the East Azerbaijan Province town of Kelidar in late June and early July for the annual commemoration of Babak Khorramdin, one of the first popular Persian leaders to oppose the imposition of Islam and Arab rule.
Security forces reportedly arrested 80 ethnic Azeris for "spreading secessionist propaganda" during the celebration, according to the Baztab website, as cited by Radio Farda on 4 July (http://www.radiofarda.com/en_article/2004/7/c270106f-38e8-4ad3-8768-12b8b02908ca.html)
"More than [one] hundred were arrested, but some have been released. Many more did not return home from the campout ceremonies and there is no official information on their arrest," Mohammad Misaq, an Ankara-based leader of an ethnic Azeri activist group, told Radio Farda broadcaster Mahmonir Rahimi. "We have a list of all names, but cannot release it, fearing that the announcement would endanger the arrested people and their families," he added.
The Iranian government has reacted uneasily in previous years to gatherings at Babak Castle, probably because of what Babak Khorramdin symbolizes. Babak Khorramdin originally was known as Abdullah Babak. He and his followers promoted a purely Persian religion as an alternative to Islam. During a 20-year rebellion (816-837 AD) they killed many of the Abbasid Caliphate's (750-1258 AD) troops. In the early 1990s, an armed opposition organization called the Babak Khorramdin Organization assassinated some Iranian officials.
On the days before Babak's birthday on 29 June, thousands gather every year at Babak Castle, which can be reached only on foot through mountain trails. According to Radio Farda, witnesses say radical Azeri nationalist groups actively participate, under the watchful eyes of the Islamic government's security forces. The security forces say that radical activists in Azerbaijan try to exploit the annual ceremonies for promotion of Azeri nationalism.
"There were at least 40,000 to 60,000 police, plainclothes security agents, and Basiji forces in the area," Misaq told Radio Farda. "They confiscated driving licenses and ID cards of anyone who was driving towards Kalibar and Babak Castle, to be returned to them on their way back. They took down complete information on those who traveled to the area for future reference or possible arrests," he added.
Misaq also told Radio Farda that "12 centuries ago, Babak Khorramdin fought against the Arab occupiers of the homeland, and for the past five or six years, people have started gathering on his birthday in order to protest against the present-day rulers." "In the Kalibar mountains and around the Qaleh Babak fortress, many lectures are held, people dance and recite poetry, and try to tell the world how they feel," he added. (Bill Samii)
IRANIAN TROOPS, KURDISH MILITIA CLASH NEAR TURKISH FRONTIER. After first denying reports, Iran confirmed on 7 July that its forces clashed with members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in northwestern Iran near the Turkish border, Radio Farda reported on 7 July.
Radio Farda and Reuters on 6 July quoted unnamed Turkish military sources who said 10 Iranian troops and six PKK fighters had died in clashes that began on 2 July in Iran's northeastern districts bordering Turkey. Iranian troops began combined land and air operations against Kurdish guerrillas on 2 July, using 1,000 troops with air support, Reuters reported. The clashes continue, Radio Farda reported.
Reuters cited the Mezopotamya News Agency, which is considered close to the PKK, as reporting on 6 July that the clashes have killed 16 Iranian troops and four rebels. The next day, AFP cited Mezopotamya as reporting that Iranian security forces had also raided alleged PKK targets in the northwestern Iranian towns of Salmas and Khoi.
Meanwhile, Iran's deputy interior minister for security affairs, Ali Asghar Ahmadi, rejected the initial report on 6 July as "totally false," farsnews.com reported. "There have been no clashes inside Iran's territory, and the reports in this regard are rejected," the agency quoted him as saying.
Ahmadi later said, on 7 July, that the clashes took place "nine days ago, during which two Iranian soldiers and eight Kurdish rebels were killed," Radio Farda reported. (Vahid Sepehri)
IRANIANS ARRESTED IN IRAQ. Iran's representative in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq was arrested with two colleagues by Iraqi security agents and taken to an unspecified location, Radio Farda reported on 6 July, quoting the governor of Kalar district, northeast of Al-Sulaymaniyah. Radio Farda did not name the arrested individuals. The district governor said that 30 minutes after the arrest, trucks arrived and took away the contents of the Iranian mission's offices in Kalar. He added that the arrest took place without the knowledge of the locally based Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Radio Farda reported. The PUK, headed by Jalal Talabani, has generally good relations with Tehran.
Major General Hikmat Musa Suleiman, an official in the Iraqi Interior Ministry, said in the 6 July issue of Baghdad's "Al-Sabah al-Jadid" that police in Baghdad's Al-Rasafah district arrested two Iranian intelligence officers who were trying to plant explosives. Police in Mosul, he added, arrested a group of Iranian and Iraqi terrorists. (Vahid Sepehri, Bill Samii)
IRAQI BORDERS STILL POROUS. The "Kurdistani Nuwe" newspaper reported on 8 July that 60,000 people crossed the Iranian border into Iraq over the last seven months. Diyala Governorate border-guards commander Nazim Haji Sharif said, "Most of those who infiltrated and who were arrested by our force are Iranians, Pakistanis, and Afghans, who will be sent to a special court." There have been frequent allegations that foreign fighters are entering Iraq from Iran and Syria (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 5 July 2004). (Bill Samii)
IRANIAN BROADCASTS CONTINUE TO REACH BAGHDAD. Radio transmissions from Iran in Arabic, as well as Persian, can still be heard in Baghdad, according to a 28 June survey by the U.S. government's Foreign Broadcast Information Service. The audibility of the 22 channels originating in Iran varies from poor to good, but Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting's Arabic-language services are consistently good, as is the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq's Voice of the Mujahedin, which transmits from Iran in Arabic. (Bill Samii)
LEGISLATURE BEGINS DISCUSSIONS ON URANIUM ENRICHMENT. The Foreign Policy Subcommittee of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Affairs Committee met with Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi and Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani on 6 July to discuss the nuclear issue, "Sharq" reported on 7 July. Afterwards, the subcommittee approved plans to resume the enrichment of uranium.
Kharrazi subsequently told reporters that Tehran, London, Paris, and Berlin would resume talks on the nuclear issue around 21 July, "Sharq" reported. Kharrazi emphasized that Iran will not forsake the right to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, adding, "What has been done so far has been done purely in order to win their [the Europeans] trust." Kharrazi explained: "First of all, the government has not given up the enrichment of uranium. If during this period the government has suspended [enrichment] it has been in order to win their trust. Otherwise, from the start we have been intent on making use of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes." (Bill Samii)
IRAN SAYS U.S. TOES ISRAELI LINE ON NUCLEAR PROGRAM. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said in Tehran on 7 July that claims on 6 July by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell that Iran may develop nuclear weapons are provoking "America's ever-greater embarrassment before world opinion and especially Islamic countries," ISNA reported on 7 July.
Powell and Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom expressed concern over Iran's nuclear ambitions in Washington on 6 July. Powell appealed for international support for efforts "to stop Iran from pursuing nuclear-weapons development, or worse, acquiring a nuclear bomb," AFP reported the same day.
Iran denies it wants nuclear weapons. Assefi said the United States has "no independent policy" over Iran's nuclear program, and "obeys" Israel, ISNA reported. He rejected similar charges by Shalom as an attempt to "hide [Israel's] atomic-armaments program, and distract public opinion from that regime's dangerous nuclear program," ISNA reported. Shalom said that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), whose Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei met with Israeli officials on 6 July, should take a closer look at Iran's program. (Vahid Sepehri)
DEFENSE MINISTER WARNS AGAINST STRIKES ON NUCLEAR SITES. Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani said in Tehran on 6 July that "if there is military action against Iran, that means that the [IAEA] is responsible for gathering information for the aggressor, and...after such an incident, all nuclear commitments must be put aside," ISNA and mehrnews.com reported the same day. The United States and Israel, a state that Iran does not recognize, have accused Iran of pursuing a hidden nuclear-weapons program; but Shamkhani said the United States has "intelligence weaknesses" and "has no documents or evidence for its accusations," mehrnews.com reported. Shamkhani said that "certain countries," presumably Israel and the United States, have "threatened Iran" over its nuclear program. "They say that if Iran does not stop its nuclear activities, it will face...sanctions or military strikes," he said. But if "any country...tries at any time to [attack Iran], we will take this...as directed at our existence, and respond with all our might." Shamkhani said it is "impossible for the United States...to treat Iran like Iraq," and the "Americans discovered in Iraq that it is impossible to attack a country like Iran," ISNA reported. (Vahid Sepehri)
EU HUMAN RIGHTS DIALOGUE IN IRAN BRINGS LITTLE PROGRESS. The French media rights group Reporters Without Borders, in an open letter to the European Union on 28 June, challenged the EU over its human rights dialogue with Iran. The letter pointed out that since 2001, some 120 newspapers in Iran have been banned, more than 50 journalists have been detained and 11 remain in detention. Earlier in June, the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch similarly criticized the EU's policy of dialogue, saying it had not had any tangible result.
The EU initiated its policy of dialogue at the end of 2002 with the hope of engaging Iran's rulers. Four rounds of talks have been held so far -- the latest held earlier this month in Tehran. No date has been set for a next round.
Human Rights Watch says that instead of easing repression, Iran has intensified its crackdown against critics and that numerous journalists and intellectuals have been prosecuted.
Jean Paul Martoz, a Human Rights Watch spokesman in Brussels, told RFE/RL that the EU should take a tougher stance on Iran. "We believe the EU should really establish clear benchmarks: ask for the release of political prisoners, ask for the reopening of reform-minded media, ask for an end of torture, clearly -- and should take that as benchmarks. [That means] that if the measures are not taken by the Iranian government, certainly the human rights dialogue should be stopped," he said. "If not, it would be just a sham, helping the conservatives in Iran to pretend that things are going well."
The EU -- while continuing to be critical of the human rights situation in Iran -- has defended its policy, saying it has led to minor yet positive steps. Michael Gahler is the European Parliament rapporteur for relations with Iran. He cited, as an example, a reduction in the number of Iranians held in prisons. "There are some positive moves apparently in Iran. They said that they earlier had 180,000 prisoners, [and now they have] only 130,000 -- so [this shows] they can reduce the figures of prisons. These are minor, positive steps," Gahler said.
The EU policy is credited with leading to a moratorium on stoning women accused of adultery and more frequent visits to Iran by UN rapporteurs on freedom of expression and arbitrary detention.
Gahler said dialogue is a way of supporting and encouraging those in Iranian society who are in favor of more democracy and more freedom. He recommends the EU broaden its contacts with Iranian civil society and pro-democracy groups. He said the next EU presidency is planning to assess dialogue with Iran and its effects.
"The incoming Dutch presidency of the European Union said we will have an assessment of these two human rights dialogues," Gahler said. "We have another one with China. We have to assess what effects it has had -- whether it is useful to continue. We cannot just continue saying we have a human rights dialogue forever and nothing changes. So we are waiting for this assessment. It is obvious [from] the Iranian side [that] their motivation primarily is to keep this dialogue and in the back [of their minds] they are [hoping for] a trade and cooperation agreement with the European Union. That is their prime interest. Therefore, they engage from their side, although at the moment in not a very forthcoming way. It remains to be seen how this will continue for the time being. I would say we should continue."
Progress on human rights and Iran's cooperation in three other sensitive issues -- nuclear proliferation, Middle East peace, and the fight against terrorism -- are viewed as preconditions that Iran must fulfill before the EU signs an agreement on enhanced trade and cooperation. (Golnaz Esfandiari)