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Iran Report: October 4, 2004

4 October 2004, Volume 7, Number 34

IRANIAN MUJAHEDIN FACE UNCERTAIN FUTURE. Demonstrations against perceived U.S. injustices are nothing new in Iran. The demonstration that took place on 9 September in front of the U.S. interests section of the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, however, was different. This time, relatives of Iranian oppositionists who are based in Iraq were demanding help from the United States and the International Committee of the Red Cross in getting information about their family members, Reuters reported. The oppositionists -- members of the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO or MEK) -- are located at Camp Ashraf, which is some 100 kilometers north of Baghdad.

The MKO was designated a "foreign terrorist organization" by the U.S. State Department in 1997, and it retains that status (see The MKO is known by a number of other names, including the National Liberation Army of Iran (the militant wing of the MKO), the People's Mujahedin of Iran, National Council of Resistance, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, and Muslim Iranian Student's Society (front organization used to garner financial support). The EU designated the MKO's military wing as a terrorist organization in May 2002.

The MKO was created in the 1960s and its ideology combines Islam and Marxism. It was involved with anti-U.S. terrorism in the 1970s, and it initially supported the 1978-79 revolution. In June 1981, it staged an unsuccessful uprising against the Islamic regime; many members were imprisoned while others fled the country.

The MKO transitioned from being a "mass movement" in 1981 to having "all the main attributes of a cult" by mid-1987, Ervand Abrahamian wrote in his "Radical Islam: The Iranian Mojahedin" (1989). It referred to its head, Masud Rajavi, as the rahbar (leader) and imam-i hal (present imam), had a rigid hierarchy, created a vocabulary, and had its own calendar.

After being run out of Iran, the MKO launched a number of attacks against the regime leadership: a 1981 bombing killed President Mohammad-Ali Rajai and Prime Minister Mohammad-Javad Bahonar, in 1992 it attacked 13 Iranian embassies, and it is behind other mortar attacks and assassination attempts in Iran.

Former President Saddam Hussein granted the MKO refuge in Iraq, and from there the organization fought Iranian forces in the Iran-Iraq War. Hundreds of MKO members reportedly died in the July 1988 Foruq-i Javidan military operation against Iran. The MKO helped suppress the 1991 uprisings of Shi'a in southern Iraq and Kurds in the north.

Operation Iraqi Freedom brought the MKO's idyll to an end. U.S. and British aircraft bombed MKO bases in late March 2003 and again in early April. On 10 May, the MKO agreed to turn over its weapons to U.S. forces. As these events were taking place, there was speculation that the Iranian military would strike at the MKO's bases. It did not do so, and Tehran offered an amnesty instead.

Ahmad Rahimi, spokesman for Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security, said in a 28 March 2003 telephone interview with Dubai-based Al-Arabiyah television that members of the MKO could come back to Iran if they voiced regret for their "crimes" against the Islamic Republic, Reuters reported. "The Islamic Republic of Iran, out of pity, gave them this new chance," Rahimi said. "We guarantee their life and will not arrest them, although there are some people who committed special crimes inside and outside Iran. If they voice regret for what they did and do not repeat these mistakes, then we will help them solve the problem and lead a respectable life in their country," he added.

Other Iranian officials repeated the amnesty offer throughout the year. Intelligence and Security Minister Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi said on 5 April that 100 MKO members had returned to Iran already, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported, and he urged others to return and live a normal life. Yunesi added during a 10 May press conference that many MKO members have returned to Iran and provided the government with information. Government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh said on 23 June 2003 that Iran would treat any returning MKO members with "Islamic compassion" and he stressed that they would not encounter any problems in Iran, IRNA reported. President Mohammad Khatami expressed similar sentiments in Geneva on 11 December 2003.

The offer did not apply to MKO leaders, however. "Monafeqin [hypocrites; MKO] ringleaders who have directly been involved in terrorist operations and crimes against the Iranian people" are not eligible for the amnesty, Ramezanzadeh added on 23 June.

The Iraqi Governing Council, furthermore, announced in December 2003 that all MKO members would have to leave Iraq by the end of the month (on Iraqi attitudes to the MKO, see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 15 December 2003.) The expulsions never occurred, and the occupation forces in Iraq were not clear on how to deal with the MKO (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 22 December 2003). In July 2004, MKO members in Iraq were granted "protected status" under the Geneva Conventions. It is not clear, furthermore, how many MKO members took advantage of the Iranian amnesty offer, nor is it clear how they are being treated.

The case of two MKO members who were forcibly returned to Iran from Syria could be instructive. Damascus sent Ebrahim Khodabandeh and Jamil Bassam to Iran on 12 June 2003. During a February 2004 trip to Iran, Baroness Emma Nicholson, deputy chairwoman of the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, saw the two men. She reported that they were in good health and had no complaints about their treatment, but were still awaiting trial. Nicholson met with Khodabandeh again in Tehran in March 2004. The MKO dismissed her comments as lies and said the men were being tortured and faced execution (see and one_year_in_an_iranian_prison_cell.php).

Ann Singleton, author of a book on the MKO entitled "Saddam's Private Army," wrote in June 2004 that she and British Members of Parliament Sir Teddy Taylor and Win Griffiths, an independent British reporter, and two Iranian lawyers met with Khodabandeh and Bassam in Tehran's Evin prison ( Khodabandeh told the visitors that he would not return to the MKO. Bassam said he still regards himself as an MKO member.

An imprisoned former MKO member, Arash Sametipur, was quoted in "The Christian Science Monitor" on 31 December 2003 that the organization is "a mixture of Mao and Marxism, and leader [Masud] Rajavi acts like Stalin" ( Another former MKO member, Hora Shalchi, told the newspaper that the organization's leadership promised that the Iranian people would welcome her actions, but a mob chased her down when her mortar attack on a military base went awry. "We weren't accepted by anybody," Shalchi added. "There was no support." Both said that the Iranian government does not consider the MKO a serious threat, and the executions that the MKO told them to expect never took place. According to the many people interviewed by "The Christian Science Monitor," imprisoned MKO members are treated like people who need help.

Yet this was not always the case, and MKO warnings were based on fact. Many MKO members who were imprisoned in the early 1980s were tortured into recanting, Ervand Abrahamian wrote in his "Tortured Confessions" (1999). Furthermore, in early or mid-1988 Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued an order establishing special commissions tasked with executing imprisoned mujahedin as muharib (at war with God) and leftists as mortad (apostates from Islam). In July 1988, the commissions began isolating and questioning the imprisoned MKO members and executing the unrepentant ones. The total number of executed mujahedin is estimated to be in the thousands. The mass executions stopped in less than a year and the logic behind them is not known, but Abrahamian wrote that this was Khomeini's way of testing the dedication of regime supporters. Others linked the executions with the MKO's unsuccessful July 1988 attack on Iran. And if executions became less commonplace, the use of torture did not.

In 1989 the regime amnestied many political prisoners. It produced one high-ranking MKO member, Said Shahsavandi, who in television interviews, lectures, and open letters denounced the MKO and accused its leadership of imprisoning, torturing, and executing dissidents. Shahsavandi traveled to Europe to deliver the same message. The MKO has denounced Shahsavandi for alleged involvement in the torture and execution of MKO members.

This policy of granting amnesties reflected a new regime tactic rather than a sense of mercy. The regime sought to portray the MKO as "the principal violators of human rights in Iran," Reza Afshari wrote in "Human Rights in Iran" (2001). Moreover, it tried to portray itself as a defender of human rights. The regime subsequently trotted out allegedly repentant MKO members, as well as relatives of individuals who allegedly died at the MKO's hands, when UN human rights investigators visited Iran.

As of late September, the future of the MKO is unclear. Iraqis continue to have suspicions about the organization. Baghdad's "Al-Mutamar" reported on 31 July that people in Diyala Governorate suspect the MKO is "fomenting the ongoing struggle between the new Iraqi government and the armed terrorist groups," and others suspect that Ba'athist officials are hiding in Camp Ashraf. The newspaper added that the MKO is not confined to Camp Ashraf and also runs Camp Habib, 35 kilometers north of Al-Basrah; Camp Homayun and Camp Muzarmi, near the city of Al-Amarah; Camp Fayzah, near Al-Kut; Camp Ulwi, near Al-Miqdadiyah; Camp Anzali, near Jalul; and "scores" of offices and safehouses in Baghdad, Al-Basrah, and Diyala.

Some U.S. commentators have recommended using the MKO against Iran, citing concerns about Iranian activities in Iraq. A recent example is the commentary by Fox News military analysts Thomas McInerney and Paul Vallely in "The Wall Street Journal" on 8 September. Citing former MKO spokesman Alireza Jafarzadeh as an "Iranian expert," they wrote that it is time to create an "armed resistance movement" by removing the MKO from the terrorist list. "It's time to rearm [the MKO's] 4,000 trained fighters."

Regardless of Iranians' disgust for this organization, such calls have some resonance in Iran. "Jomhuri-yi Islami" claimed in a 5 August commentary that an arms shipment seized at the Iranian border was somehow connected with MKO activities, U.S. hostility, and Iraqi claims about Iranian interference.

The MKO, meanwhile, continues its activities against the Iranian government. Approximately 5,000 of its supporters demonstrated in Brussels on 13 September as EU foreign ministers discussed Iran, AFP reported. The so-called International Committee for the Support of Victims of the MKO condemned the Belgian decision to permit this rally, IRNA reported on 12 September. The committee said in a letter to Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel that the MKO recruited Afghans and other refugees to participate in the rally by paying for their food and accommodations. (Bill Samii)

SELF-STYLED PROPHET FORESEES REGIME'S END. The streets around Tehran University were closed and antiriot police and other security personnel turned out as a mysterious demonstration began in the early afternoon of 26 September, Radio Farda reported ( af1f295d-72bf-4ab8-a5d5-65baa9f621a9.html). From Tehran, Radio Farda's Arsh Qavidel reported that he did not hear slogans being chanted, but that Vali Asr Avenue was full of people. He also said he did not witness any violence between demonstrators and security forces. The reason for the demonstration was unclear, Qavidel said, but it took place on the anniversary of the liberation of Khorramshahr in the Iran-Iraq War, and certain foreign satellite television stations had been broadcasting calls to demonstrate. Qavidel added that he saw people congratulating each other during the demonstration. ISNA reported on 26 September that demonstrators in front of Tehran University were chanting slogans, dancing, and distributing flowers.

It later emerged that the public was reacting to a call for action by Ahura Piruz Khalegi Yazdi, a self-styled prophet who appears on Persian-language satellite television broadcasts. Yazdi announced in a 27 September press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., that hundreds of thousands of Iranians demonstrated against the regime on 26 September, but U.S. and European media did not give this event "the coverage that it deserved," according to the Rang-A-Rang television website ( Seconds later, he said that millions actually protested, but the international media minimized the significance of this event. When the Iranian revolution comes, Yazdi said, the people of Iran will hold the media responsible if it does not report "honestly and objectively." Reporters at Yazdi's press conference showed no interest in asking any questions, so he asked the reporters for their reaction to his comments.

According to Yazdi's website, furthermore, he intends to return to Tehran on 1 October. His declaration of intentions can be read at As of 3 October, however, there was no news of his appearance in Iran.

Intelligence and Security Ministry official Mohammad Shafii said on 30 September that Yazdi "has delusions," IRNA reported. He said "limited gatherings in this regard" held in four localities in Iran have been "dispersed with the necessary measures." (Bill Samii)

SECURITY OFFICIAL DISMISSIVE OF REGIME OPPONENTS. Intelligence and Security Ministry official Mohammad Shafii said in Kerman, in southeastern Iran, on 30 September that Iranian security forces have "curbed all organized counterrevolutionary groups" in the past 20 years and turned "their efforts into despair," IRNA reported. He said there is no longer "a counterrevolutionary current" the ministry does not know about "from inside," and which it "does not dominate." IRNA quoted Shafii as saying that the United States has spent "an enormous sum" on media hostile to the Tehran government, but to no "key effect" because Iranians know about "these media, their hostilities, and intrigues." (Vahid Sepehri)

INCIDENTS OF PUBLIC UNREST AROUND IRAN... One person was killed and 18 people injured in clashes on 28 September with security forces in the city of Nurabad, Fars Province, Islamic Republic of Iran News Network reported. A local official said two banks and a number of office buildings were damaged, and "a number of people" were arrested.

The police chief of Miyandoab, West Azerbaijan Province, and another policeman were killed on 22 September, ISNA reported the next day. The incident occurred when police clashed with villagers in the village of Seh-Tapeh. Miyandoab Governor Hamid Shokri dismissed claims that a Kurdish religious sect was involved in the incident.

A policeman and three members of an apparent religious sect died in a shootout on 29 September in Seh-Tapeh, Radio Farda and news agencies reported the same day. Miyandoab Governor Shokri told ISNA on 29 September that the group has "particular religious beliefs" and is led by Seyyed Nizam Mashmashi. Mashmashi has written twice to the governor to say that his followers were not involved in the violence, Radio Farda reported. It also reported that police arrested six people in connection to the shootout and confiscated weapons.

On 23 September unidentified attackers killed a Turkish soldier near the border with Iran, Anatolia news agency reported. (Bill Samii, Vahid Sepehri)

...AS JOURNALIST ARRESTED, STUDENTS JAILED. Security agents arrested journalist Ruzbeh Mir-Ebrahimi in Tehran on 28 September and took him to an unknown location, possibly a police station in central Tehran, Radio Farda reported on 29 September. Ruydad, the website of the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front, reported that Mir-Ebrahimi was arrested for working on websites and talking to foreign radio stations, Radio Farda added. But Mir-Ebrahimi's wife, Sulmaz Sharif, told ILNA on 28 September that her husband was not formally charged, and that "the agents" entered the house carrying a piece of paper "without a heading or even the defendant's name," Radio Farda reported.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on 29 September condemned the arrest of Mir-Ebrahimi as "a violation of Iranian and international law." RSF also reported that the editors of two monthlies, Keyvan Samimi-Bihbahani and Lutfullah Meysami, have been summoned to appear before a Tehran court on 25 September, in what called a move "designed to intimidate not just them but the entire reformist press." It further noted the continued detention of two of three Iranian journalists arrested earlier in September. Hanif Mazrui, Shahram Rafizadeh, and Babak Ghafuri-Azar were arrested for ties to reformist websites the Tehran public prosecutor has ordered blocked (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 20 September 2004). Ghafuri-Azar was freed on 21 September, reported.

Separately, Iran's Writers Association has urged authorities to free not just Rafizadeh, but also Nusrat Mehregan, a translator from Karaj, near Tehran, now "detained for more than three months in unknown conditions," Radio Farda reported on 30 September. It also deplored the prosecution of Muhsin Hakimi, a writer currently awaiting trial for unspecified charges, Radio Farda reported.

The Islamic Iran Participation Front has written to judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, asking him to investigate the recent arrests of web journalists "about whose fate, charges, and place of detention there is no information," reported on 29 September.

Also, the Office for Fostering Unity, a student group, accused the judiciary in Tehran on 29 September of turning universities into "a prison," after two former students from Kermanshah, in western Iran, were sentenced to three years in prison for "acting against the state and insulting officials," Radio Farda reported. (Vahid Sepehri)

HAMAS ACTIVIST ASSASSINATED IN DAMASCUS. A car-bomb explosion on 26 September killed Hamas official Izz al-Din al-Sheikh Khalil, international news agencies reported. Unnamed security sources reportedly claimed that Israel was involved in the killing, "Ha'aretz" reported on 27 September, but a spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon denied any knowledge of the bombing, which occurred just after Khalil entered his parked sports utility vehicle. According to Arab affairs commentator Oded Granot, Khalil was a relatively low-ranking member of Hamas in charge of smuggling weapons into the occupied territories of Israel, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on 27 September.

Avi Dichter, director of Israel's Shin Bet domestic security agency, told the Israeli cabinet on 19 September that Iran has been managing Hamas activities in Gaza directly, the Voice of Israel reported on 20 September. The U.S. State Department, furthermore, said in its annual "Patterns of Global Terrorism" report that Hamas "receives some funding from Iran but primarily relies on donations from Palestinian expatriates around the world and private benefactors." (Bill Samii)

REVOLUTIONARY GUARDS CHIEF WARNS UNITED STATES. Yahya Rahim-Safavi, the commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, denounced on 30 September in Tehran the presence of U.S. forces in the Middle East as "tension-provoking, crisis-provoking, and illegal," and warned that any U.S. action against Iran will lead to unspecified "threats" to "their military centers in Afghanistan, the Oman Sea, Persian Gulf, and Iraq," reported the same day, citing an interview on Al-Alam, Iran's Arabic-language satellite television channel. The United States may threaten Iran, he said, but "Iran can also be a them."

Rahim-Safavi rejected threats by Israel as "psychological and publicity operations." The Israelis cannot assure security at home, he added, and "lack the ability to begin a war...with Iran," reported. "We are observing [Israeli] military movements against Iran, and consider them idiotic movements," he said. Israel has vowed to stop Iran from gaining access to nuclear weapons. Safavi said Iran is ready to defend itself, and has reached "total self-sufficiency" in making weaponry, including surface-to-surface and ground-to-air missiles as well as tank and airplane technology.

Rahim-Safavi also rejected past charges by U.S. and Iraqi officials that Iran lets terrorists enter Iraq through its border, adding that the United States is reacting to its own failures in Iraq, reported. "America has failed both militarily and politically in Iraq in the past 18 months," he said. U.S. officials, he added, are thus "blaming others and accusing...Syria, Iran, or certain Arab countries of leaving their frontiers open for terrorists." He added, "I completely deny any form of...military or political interference by Iran in Iraq's internal affairs." It "may be impossible" to monitor all of Iran's borders with Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, but "we shall fully control our borders" if there is a "strong government" in Afghanistan and an "elected, popular government" in Iraq. (Vahid Sepehri)

KIDNAPPED DIPLOMAT FREED IN IRAQ. Consular official Fereidun Jahani -- who disappeared in Iraq on 8 August -- was freed on 27 September, IRNA reported, citing the Al-Alam satellite news channel. Jahani disappeared on the highway from Baghdad to Karbala on 8 August and, soon after, the Islamic Army in Iraq claimed to be holding him (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 17 August 2004).

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on 26 September that Tehran's diplomatic efforts to secure Jahani’s release had not borne fruit, IRNA reported. In late August, a delegation that included personnel from the Foreign Ministry, the Interior Ministry, and the Intelligence and Security Ministry went to Baghdad to pursue the case (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 31 August 2004). Assefi said on 26 September, "We have taken many measures for the release of Mr. Jahani and used all our diplomatic capacities." He added that Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi discussed Jahani's case with his Iraqi counterpart, Hoshyar al-Zebari, when they met at the 21-24 September UN General Assembly meeting in New York. (Bill Samii)

IRAQI KURDISH LEADER VISITS TEHRAN. Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Mas'ud Barzani traveled to Tehran on 25 September, according to Kurdistan Satellite TV, and met the following day with President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami and Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani, news agencies reported. Both Khatami and Rohani told Barzani that they hope foreign troops will leave Iraq soon, and stressed the importance of unity between the country's different ethnic groups, IRNA reported. Khatami and Rohani also said that democratic elections and a constitution are essential to the establishment of an Iraqi government. Khatami said that Iran respects the views and activities of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. With regard to bilateral relations, Khatami said that "insecurity in Iraq will have negative impacts [sic] on Iran-Iraq relations," IRNA reported. Barzani told his hosts that the majority of Iraqi people have good feelings towards Iran and want friendly ties.

Parliament speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel met with Barzani on 27 September, IRNA reported. Haddad-Adel said the end of the occupation and free elections would serve to guarantee Iraqi freedom and cohesion. Haddad-Adel said the Iranian legislature can help achieve the goal of improving bilateral ties. (Bill Samii)

IRAQI SHI'A LEADER MEETS SENIOR CLERICS IN QOM. Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) chief Hojatoleslam Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim met with Grand Ayatollahs Nasser Makarem-Shirazi, Vahid-Khorasani, and Javad-Tabrizi in Qom on 27 September, ISNA reported. The clerics told the visitor that sources of emulation can be influential in solving Iraq's problems. (Bill Samii)

RUSSIA DOESN'T WANT IRAN REFERRED TO SECURITY COUNCIL. Russian Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov said on 29 September that his country disapproves of Western states referring Iran to the UN Security Council for alleged breaches of nuclear nonproliferation rules, international media reported. He said such a referral will not "do us any favors," Reuters reported, citing an Interfax interview. Ivanov, a former Russian foreign minister, said the matter should be handled by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN agency that has asked Iran to freeze all activities relating to uranium enrichment -- one of the steps necessary to build a nuclear bomb.

Reuters cited unnamed diplomats in Vienna as saying on 29 September that Ivanov's comments do not mean that Russia plans to block a referral to the Security Council, which could punish Iran with economic sanctions.

U.S. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton said in Washington on 28 September that his country favors referring Iran to the Security Council to "increase the pressure on Iran to give up" what might be a nuclear-weapons program, AFP reported the same day. "It raises the stakes for Iran. In the Security Council their options narrow," Bolton said.

Separately, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said that Israel will consider "all options" to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear bombs, AP reported on 29 September, citing an interview published in "Yediot Aharonot" the same day. Mofaz said a regime change in Tehran might remove the "threat" of an Islamic republic armed with nuclear bombs, but that Israel must be ready to prevent that eventuality if there is no change. The question, he said, is "what comes first: nuclear ability or regime change," AP reported. (Vahid Sepehri)

LEGISLATURE CONSIDERS LEAVING NONPROLIFERATION TREATY. Hassan Kamran, a member of the parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said in Tehran on 28 September that he has drafted a bill for urgent consideration that could lead to the government's departure from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Radio Farda and IRNA reported on 29 September. If ratified, the bill -- which has yet to be placed on parliament's debate agenda but continues to gather signatures of support from legislators -- would oblige the government to leave the NPT if the IAEA rejects a deadline for ending its special scrutiny of Iranian nuclear activities, Radio Farda cited Kamran as saying. The bill would also bar Iran from implementing "voluntary commitments" over its nuclear program, the lawmaker added.

Separately, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Yahya Rahim-Safavi told "Al-Hayat" that if "our nuclear dossier [goes] to the...Security Council, we shall leave the [IAEA]," Radio Farda reported on 29 September. The United States, he warned, "will intensify its political pressures on Iran in the next two months, but we are ready for any action, including military action," Radio Farda reported. (Vahid Sepehri)

COURT PARTIALLY OVERTURNS CORRUPTION CONVICTION. Attorney Mohammad Sadeq Al-Mohammad was quoted by Iranian newspapers on 26 September as saying that the country's Supreme Court has partially overturned the conviction and 27-year jail sentence of his client, Shahram Jazayeri-Arab, AFP reported (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 25 November 2002). Jazayeri was the central defendant in a recent corruption case involving 50 defendants, many of them sons of prominent clerics known colloquially as "aqazadeh." Al-Mohammad said the case has been sent back to the lower court and that he will file another appeal with the Supreme Court on the remaining charges.

In another corruption-related matter, Tehran Public Prosecutor Hojatoleslam Said Mortazavi was quoted by "Jomhuri-yi Islami" on 26 September as saying that an assassination attempt had been made on an official who was investigating corruption in Karaj. Mortazavi said efforts are under way to identify the gunmen who opened fire on the official's car while it was traveling on the Tehran-Karaj highway. Seven bullets hit the vehicle but the official was not killed. (Bill Samii)

TRADE LEGISLATION AFFECTS FOREIGN RELATIONS. Iran's parliament ratified a bill on 26 September obliging the government of President Khatami to seek parliamentary approval before the implementation of two major foreign contracts, both with Turkish firms: to expand and run a new international airport in Tehran and to run a national mobile-phone network.

Parliament says it must check the deals to ensure they do not threaten national security. The bill is a watered-down version of an initial proposal that demanded legislative ratification of all contracts with foreign firms or firms with majority foreign ownership in the security-sensitive telecommunication and aviation sectors (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 27 September 2004). The bill swiftly became law after winning approval from the Guardians Council, the conservative-dominated body of jurists that verifies bills to assure conformity with the constitution and religious laws.

The bill may reflect the distaste of conservative legislators for the large-scale intrusion of foreign business into the country, especially into Iran's mostly state-owned economy. Conservatives especially distrust alleged ties between the Turkish firms involved and Israel, Iran's enemy but an ally of Turkey.

The bill affects two firms. One, the Turkish-Austrian consortium Tepe-Akfen-Vie, built the first terminal of the Imam Khomeini International Airport, and was to staff and operate it and build a second terminal after signing a deal with the Iranian Transport Ministry. But the airport was closed on 8 May, its first working day, by the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, which said the presence of foreign staff at the airport was a security risk (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 17 May 2004).

The other firm, TurkCell, was to invest $3 billion and set up Iran's first private mobile-phone network. TurkCell was awarded the contract in February to operate the network under the name IranCell. Its operating license would take effect upon payment of 300 million euros ($369 million) to Iran's government, AFP reported on 24 September. The company now says it will make the payment if parliament approves the deal, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 30 September, citing the company website.

Reformers say the bill will frighten away foreign investors. President Khatami called it a legislative "innovation" and parliamentary interference in executive branch prerogatives. It would "paralyze government," he said, especially when negotiating with foreign partners, IRNA reported on 26 September. But parliamentary speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel said it is natural for parliament to be sensitive about foreign contracts, and the exercise of its supervisory prerogatives is not interference, IRNA added.

Gholamreza Tajgardun, a deputy head of the Management and Planning Organization, the state planning and budget-allocation agency, said on 26 September that the new law will cause "many discrepancies" in the TurkCell deal, which was beginning to be implemented, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 27 September. Parliament, he said, "intends to make fundamental changes" to both deals, and Iran will have to pay compensation if the mobile-phone deal falls through. "Every contract has two parties, and...cannot be changed by one party or government," he said.

Mohammad Mehdi Purfatemi, parliamentary representative for Dashti and Tanguestan, said in Tehran on 26 September that, during a recent trip to France on behalf of parliament's Industries and Mining Committee, "most investors and important French companies expressed concern" about the bill, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 27 September.

Parliamentary speaker Haddad-Adel said in Tehran on 26 September that the bill does not automatically end the contracts, but "parliament must approve them," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported the next day. He said he believes it will not deter investors. He may be right. A South African mobile-phone operator, MTN, which also bid in the February tender won by TurkCell, has already expressed readiness to step in if the TurkCell deal falls through, AFP reported on 29 September. "If the rest of the conditions make sense, we are ready to work under the new regulation," AFP quoted MTN local representative Christopher Kilowan as saying.

Haddad-Adel believes, in any case, that it is "less financial corruption" and a strict "financial supervision system" that attracts investors to Iran, IRNA reported on 26 September.

The bill has affected Iran-Turkey ties. Khatami has postponed a planned 28-29 September visit to Turkey, reportedly accepting a parliamentary suggestion to wait until the fate of the contracts is clarified, Turkey's NTV reported. Reformist parliamentarians have welcomed the move as a fitting response to parliament's move, and consider a trip pointless when Khatami could not have struck a deal. "When Khatami has no power at the negotiating table, a trip to Turkey will have no results," "Aftab-i Yazd" quoted Qodratollah Alikhani, parliamentary representative for Buyin-Zahra and Avoj, as saying in Tehran on 26 September.

Parliament has given the government three months to win approval for the two contracts. On 29 September, Haddad-Adel wrote to Khatami to say parliament is ready to begin a "technical examination" of the two deals, Mehr news agency reported.

The head of parliament's research center, Ahmad Tavakkoli, a Tehran legislator and leading proponent of the bill, has also asked the Telecommunications Ministry and Management and Planning Organization for documents on the TurkCell deal, including contract details as well as "any documents clarifying" that the deal will use the maximum amount of Iranian-made equipment, transfer technology into Iran, and respect "security issues," reported on 29 September.

Iranian conservatives regularly assert that the economy and job creation are their priority. This bill shows that, beyond security concerns, they do not all favor free-market methods for economic growth and may be uncomfortable with initiatives that threaten the state-controlled economy and the state's preponderant role in public life. In contrast to government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh, who recently said Iran needs foreign investment, they may believe that high oil prices can successfully finance the Islamic republic's other intermittent temptation -- self-sufficiency.

Asked by "Aftab-i Yazd" if it is better to sign deals with Iranian firms than with Tepe-Akfen-Vie or TurkCell, Haddad-Adel said on 26 September, "It depends on the work, but the priority is with Iranian reality the priority is that we should build Iran at the hands of Iranians." (Vahid Sepehri)