20 May 2002, Volume 5, Number 18
INTIFADA CONFERENCE PLANNED FOR JUNE. Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Mohtashami-Pur announced on 15 May that an international conference on the Palestinian uprising would be held in Tehran on 2-3 June, IRNA reported on 16 May. Mohtashami-Pur said that dozens of intellectuals, scholars, and academics would attend this event to exchange views on the best way to support the Intifada. Mohtashami-Pur organized the "Support for the Palestinian Intifada" conference that was held in April 2001 (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 23, 30 April 2001). That event was attended by representatives from Lebanese Hizballah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Peoples' Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. (Bill Samii)
WILL KAZAKH OIL OFFSET RUSSIAN ACCORD? Tehran is not happy about the 13 May accord between Moscow and Astana to divide the resources in three gas fields in the northern half of the Caspian Sea. According to IRNA on 15 May, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Assefi said, "The conclusion of agreements of this kind will delay the pace of five-side negotiations among the littoral states in order to reach a collective agreement on the legal regime of the Caspian Sea."
Although Tehran is unhappy with this Kazakh activity, it seems less disturbed by other Kazakh actions. Kazakhstan has started supplying oil products to Iran via a railway running from Almaty to Tehran, Kazakh commercial television reported on 13 May. This railway route was supposed to be for passengers only, but then Iran began substituting railway oil tankers for passenger cars. Mohammad Ali Hojjatinezhad, an official from Iran's State Railway Organization, said that consumer goods would be shipped to Kazakhstan, and only oil products would be exported from Kazakhstan.
The Moscow-Astana accord is likely to reverberate in the Iranian parliament. The official Iranian stance has been that each littoral state should have an equal 20 percent share of the seabed and its resources, and President Mohammad Khatami said a late-April conference in Ashgabat on this issue was successful (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 29 April 2002). In fact, that conference was inconclusive, and the disgruntlement of some legislators about Caspian policy is becoming more audible.
Parliamentarian Elaheh Kulyai, who accompanied Khatami on his trip to Ashgabat, told reporters on 28 April that Iran is the only one of the five Caspian states that has failed to identify its levers of power. The people responsible for such missed opportunities must answer for their negligence, Kulyai said, according to "Hayat-i No" on 29 April. She added that the other Caspian states have achieved bilateral agreements and violated previous agreements with Iran because of their shared interests and because the United States supports them.
National Security and Foreign Policy Committee member Kazem Jalali defended Khatami's stance at the conference. Nevertheless, he added that bilateral agreements threatened regional peace, ISNA reported on 13 May, and external agents are trying to complicate the situation.
Nor is Tehran's displeasure related only to energy issues. Iranian Supreme National Security Council secretary Hassan Ruhani told Russian Ambassador Aleksandr Maryasov on 14 May that any foreign interference or presence in the Caspian would endanger the Caspian states' stability, IRNA reported. And during a 16 May speech at the Imam Khomeini Maritime Sciences University in Noshahr, President Khatami said that foreign forces should not be present on the Caspian's waters nor should they interfere in its affairs, IRNA reported.
Those comments were aimed at the U.S. Iranian Minister of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Admiral Ali Shamkhani was quite tolerant about Russian exercises on the Caspian that included the participation of units of the North Caucasus Military District, Caspian Naval Flotilla, air force, and the Federal Border Guards. He said, according to Iranian television on 7 May, "Russian military exercises in the Caspian Sea are undertaken as a reaction to the presence of extra-regional forces in the Caspian." (Bill Samii)
KAZAKHS ESCALATE CASPIAN TENSIONS. According to Kazakh commercial television on 16 May, Iranian naval chief Rear Admiral Abbas Mohtaj said that Kazakhstan is a threat to his country. Mohtaj added that the presence of Kazakh naval cutters would be considered an attack against Iran. According to Kazakh television, furthermore, President Khatami also said that Kazakhstan's actions are provocative.
The Iranians' 15 May comments were not so belligerent according to IRNA dispatches. Mohtaj said that Iranian naval forces would defend Iranian waters of the Caspian, and they would deploy all their assets to defend the country and its interests. And Khatami warned against foreign threats and urged the military to be "vigilant and quite ready" to defend the country's goals, values, honor, and interests. (Bill Samii)
IRGC PORTRAYS U.S. AS THREAT... Several top Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) officials have attempted to portray the U.S. as a threat to Iran. Deputy IRGC commander Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr told a gathering in Islamshahr that, "Some people have naively shut their eyes to the existing realities [of the U.S.] and would like to enter a dialog with Iran's arch-enemy who has consistently antagonized us," "Iran" reported on 16 May.
Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Movahedi-Kermani, the supreme leader's representative to the IRGC, warned revolution guards in Mashhad on 16 May that the United States wants to persuade Iranian society that Iran should not have a religious government. According to IRNA, He went on to say that the U.S. is trying to portray the clergy and religion as failures. Movahedi-Kermani told his audience that it must safeguard the revolution's achievements. "If you revolutionary guards fail to carry out this mission, then you will be guilty before God," he warned.
IRGC commander Yahya Rahim-Safavi told an audience of IRGC commanders and Basij volunteers in Chahbahar on 10 May, IRNA reported the next day, that the U.S. is using the 11 September terrorist attacks as a pretext for pursuing its objectives near Iran's borders. Rahim-Safavi encouraged the Basij to identify Iranians who play down the U.S. and Israeli threat. He continued, "We regard America as a serious threat and this attitude is based on the official stance of the Islamic system, which has been approved by the Supreme National Security Council as the official body to decide on the state security." (Bill Samii)
...AND HOSTILITY TO U.S. DIALOG VERBALIZED. Parliamentarian Mohsen Mirdamadi said during a 14 May visit to Bucharest that, because Washington raised the "axis of evil" issue, the time is not right for talks with the U.S., IRNA reported the next day. Three days earlier, Mirdamadi said that Iran should initiate a policy of detente with the U.S., according to ISNA. Mirdamadi criticized Iran for its failure to capitalize on former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's apology for American involvement in the 1953 overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mussadiq. He said: "The current state of relations between Iran and America is dark and gloomy. We should use opportunities to pursue a policy of detente."
Mirdamadi's equivocation may be reaction to political pressure, since he previously advocated a policy of detente within the context of a dialog with the U.S. (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 13 May 2002). Other officials' hostility to contacts with the U.S. is less unexpected. Former Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Qorbanali Dori-Najafabadi on 16 May said "America's threat against the Iranian nation is serious and must not ignore this enemy initiative." He called for unity and warned, "The enemies inside and outside the country are trying to sow discord between the people and the system, as a means of ruling over Iran."
Hojatoleslam Ruhollah Husseinian criticized on 10 May the advocates of talks with the U.S., ISNA reported, saying that, "those who have followed the path of Imam Hussein, peace be upon him, should scream, 'alas, this is humiliation.'" Husseinian continued, "only foreign agents or ignorant people want to hold talks with the Yazid of our era.... America believes that it is our master...[and] it wants us to surrender...[and] holding talks with America is meaningless." (Bill Samii)
KHATAMI'S THREAT TO QUIT EXAGGERATED, BUT REFORM'S FUTURE QUESTIONED. President Khatami claims that his threat to quit (on 5 May and 8 May) was just a big misunderstanding. According to the 14 May "Entekhab," Khatami told reporters five days earlier that it was not true that he intended to step aside and the press has exaggerated the issue. "I will not resign and I shall be at the service of the noble nation of Iran," Khatami said. Regardless of Khatami's subsequent denials, he said what everybody thinks he said (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 13 May 2002). Independent observers in Tehran said at the time that Khatami was bluffing, while the original threat to quit caused a lot of concern among the country's political elites. That concern continues to be felt.
On the one hand, parliamentarian Mirdamadi said that if Khatami quits, the reformist deputies would do so as well. According to the 12 May "Aftab-i Yazd," Mirdamadi said that, "Since no one else can lead the reform movement, it will be meaningless for the reformists to stay in the government or to participate in the next elections." Therefore, said Mirdamadi, the reformist deputies would resign because their objective in the legislature has been to realize the president's program. Reformist deputy Khalili-Ardakani from Karaj, on the other hand, said that the reformists are not discussing a mass resignation, "Resalat" reported on 15 May. "The most important issue is that the president's ideas should be realized."
Reformist ideologue Said Hajjarian opined that Khatami was serious when he threatened to quit, IRNA reported on 16 May. Hajjarian explained that the president is unhappy and concerned, and "the future of reforms in the short term is as insecure as the chain killings [serial murders]." In contrast, parliamentarian Ali Shakuri-Rad, who is affiliated with the Pro-Khatami Islamic Iran Participation Party faction in the legislature, said that stepping aside does not necessarily mean resignation from the presidency. He did not, however, provide an alternate meaning.
The Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization's Behzad Nabavi, who represents Tehran in the legislature, said that Khatami's earlier comments were significant. During those early May speeches, the president had said that efforts to bring about change were blocked by elements within the government. Nabavi added, according to the 15 May "Noruz," that the opponents of reform have used all the legal, extralegal, and coercive means available to them. The reformists, including Khatami, could be criticized for not even using all the legal means, Nabavi said.
Abbas Abdi, a member of "Noruz" daily's editorial board, discussed Khatami and the future of the reform movement during a recent conference in Rasht. Abdi said that the reformists are facing greater obstacles now than they did when Khatami was considering entering the 1997 presidential race. "The obstacles that are being put on the path of the reforms today didn't exist when the reforms began, otherwise the reformists would not have agreed to enter the scene," he said, according to the 19 May "Noruz." And Mashhad parliamentarian Gholamhussein Takaffoli warned of greater changes if the reform process continues to be blocked. He said, IRNA reported on 19 May, that, "If the rulers fail to appreciate the value of reforms, which are a golden chance set by the Iranian people before the state officials to streamline the government, there will remain no alternative for the nation except for making a new decision."
Another member of parliament, Naser Qavami from the city of Qazvin, said that some of Khatami's cabinet ministers stood in the way of reforms, IRNA reported on 19 May, and he advocated their replacement. "Some of the ministers cannot serve as representatives of Khatami's reforms since they either lack management qualifications or oppose the course of reforms."
Young people's support for Khatami was a significant factor in his election victories, and they do not want him to quit. A random poll of 224 students at Shahid Beheshti Medical School and Shahid Beheshti University found that 73.5 percent of them think that Khatami's performance as president has been mediocre, weak, or very weak, "Siyasat-i Ruz" reported on 9 May. Nevertheless, 63.8 percent of them did not agree with Khatami's resignation, and 66.5 percent of those polled were optimistic that the reform movement would achieve some or all of its goals. (Bill Samii)
STUDENT UNREST IN ARAK. The Iranian Students News Agency reported on 17 May that security forces had barricaded the streets leading to Arak University and a special security unit had been posted there to prevent clashes in response to a request from the Office for Strengthening Unity. Regardless of the security forces, about 250 protesters gathered at the university's front gate, and as prominent reformist journalist Hamid Reza Jalaipur left a meeting in the university president's car, its windows were broken.
Student leader Mehdi Momeni told ISNA that the security forces have not done anything about the protesters, and the students are afraid to leave the campus. Moreover, Momeni said, the students are being filmed (a tactic allegedly employed by the security forces so they can later identify and detain participants in rallies). (Bill Samii)
THE BITTER TASTE OF SUGAR. The Iranian judiciary recently imposed 130 billion rials ($1.625 million) in tax penalties on eight firms for importing sugar. These companies, all of which are connected with religious charities and parastatal foundations, were supposed to export Iranian sugar. Instead, according to RFE/RL's Persian Service, they imported raw sugar from abroad and then sold it on the domestic market at a huge profit. The tax penalties imposed on these firms cover transactions from March 1995-March 1999. This is not the first warning of problems with the so-called "sugar mafia" (see "Sweet and Lowdown" in "RFE/RL Iran Report," 25 June 2001).
Iran imports some $1.5 billion worth of sugar annually from Brazil, Cuba, and some other countries, and it is less expensive to refine imported sugar than it is to process domestically grown sugar beets. Due to ambiguous laws, overlapping regulations, competing government organs, and the influence of powerful officials, the Commerce Ministry grants import licenses to just a few individuals and companies, not only for sugar, but for other commodities and products such as tea, steel, consumer audio and video equipment, computers, and textiles. Tehran-based economist Alireza Ahmadi told RFE/RL's Persian Service that Iran's biggest sugar refiners, such as Isfahan Sugar, Naqsh-i Jahan Sugar, and Nishabur Sugar, all belong to parastatal foundations and are controlled by the relatives of powerful clerics. As a result, they have managed to avoid any oversight or scrutiny.
The government tries to help domestic sugar-beet farmers and refiners by buying their products. On 5 March, "Tehran Times" reported that the government would buy 100,000 more tons of sugar than it originally had planned to, and Commerce Minister Mohammad Shariatmadari said that the Organization for Expanding Commerce Services would purchase 45 percent of the domestic output. And according to an 8 May report from Atieh Bahar Consulting's "Iran Financial News," the government has lifted its monopoly on sugar by approving laws under which the private sector can produce, buy, sell, and distribute sugar.
Clearly, purchasing of the domestic output was not the solution to the sugar sector's problem. Parliamentary Agriculture Committee spokesman Morteza Shayesteh said that domestic sugar is stored in warehouses, whereas unknown individuals import huge amounts of foreign sugar. Iranian practices contradict normal practices in the rest of the world. In Shayesteh's words, IRNA reported on 27 April, "Most countries levy high tariffs on imports and provide subsidies for exports to increase the final price of imported goods while supporting domestic production. In fact, we pay subsidies to foreign producers." (Bill Samii)
RADIO FREE AFGHANISTAN INCREASES AIRTIME. Radio Free Afghanistan has increased from 6.5 to 10.5 hours its total daily airtime in the Dari and Pashto languages. The expanded broadcasts will be available initially on FM in the Kabul area and through the Afghan service's website (http://www.rferl.org/bd/af/), and expanded short-wave, satellite, and AM broadcasts will follow in the near future. RFE/RL President Thomas A. Dine noted that, "By adding these four new hours of broadcasts per day, we will be able to better serve U.S. national interests, as well as the needs of our listeners by providing them with the objective news and analysis they need to rebuild their war-torn country." The additional airtime will be used for expanded news coverage, more original programming, and special coverage of the Loya Jirga. (Bill Samii)
AFGHAN COUNTERNARCOTICS DRIVE FALTERS... Afghan Interior Minister Yunus Qanuni said at a 15 May press conference in Kabul that 25 percent of his country's opium harvest had been destroyed, according to Tehran radio. According to "provisional" U.S. and U.K. intelligence estimates cited in the 6 May "Financial Times," however, less than 15 percent of Afghanistan's opium crop has been destroyed in the first month of a crop-eradication program.
Partially to blame for this could be the "mess of corruption and ineptitude" described in a 25 April report in London's "The Times." According to the British daily, there is no auditing of the scheme to compensate farmers who destroy their crops: Some get compensation even when their crops are hardly touched, while others get nothing when their crops are destroyed and officials pocket the money. Thousands of kilos of opium seized in a raid on the opium bazaar in Qani Khel, Jalalabad Province, have gone missing.
Bad management is not the only problem with the crop-eradication program. There has been armed resistance from Afghan farmers, Western officials said in "The Times," and some officials from the Afghan Welfare and Relief Committee who went to conduct crop surveys have been wounded or killed. Farmers have also been wounded or killed in clashes with the authorities. In Shinwari and Hogani, mines have been laid around the poppy fields.
Afghan farmers told RFE/RL in late April that they are faced with a difficult choice: poverty or poppies. Arif Khan, a farmer in Wardak Province, said that because of the long-running drought, there is not enough water for the apples, wheat, and potatoes that they used to grow. He said that, "All the orchards have withered and the people are very poor, and the money they had they have spent drilling wells, and now people have no money to run the generators for the water pumps. There's no work for the people here..." Khan said he has to grow opium because he borrowed money from the narcotics traders and they want to be reimbursed with opium.
An official in Laghman Province corroborated this explanation. Abdullah said that, "People have already taken an advanced amount [borrowed funds] against the opium [crop], so now farmers are bound to [grow the crop] or refund the amount, and $350 is insufficient for the deal," Afghan Islamic Press reported on 17 April. The amount of $350 is the compensation for destroying one jerib (2,000 square meters) of opium.
John Walters, who heads the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, acknowledges that making sure Afghanistan does not return to depending on opium as a revenue source will not be easy. He said in the 16 April "Washington Times" that this could take two to three years. The Taliban collected taxes on the narcotics trade. (Bill Samii)
...BUT INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY DOESN'T GIVE UP. Regardless of the difficulties encountered so far, Iran and other countries are intent on eliminating the cultivation of narcotics in Afghanistan. According to a 15 May Tehran radio commentary, the most important step in reducing Afghan opium cultivation is crop substitution. The second-most-important step is regional cooperation and the establishment of a security belt through Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan. Six days earlier, officials from Iran, Afghanistan, the U.K., and the United Nations met in Tehran to discuss demand-reduction strategies and Iranian assistance to Afghanistan's antinarcotics commission, Tehran radio reported.
British charge Neil Compton said at the inauguration ceremony of the 5-6 May Iran-Britain Seminar on Reducing Narcotics Use that his country is cooperating with Iran and Pakistan in their efforts to control the production and supply of narcotics in Afghanistan, "Iran News" reported on 7 May. And Iranian Antinarcotics Headquarters chief Mohammad Fallah said on 7 May, according to Mashhad radio, that Tehran is ready to implement an Afghan crop-substitution program.
An international conference that touched on countering Afghan opium and heroin production was held in Tokyo in late April. And on 15 April, Afghan Antidrug Commission head Abdul Hai Elahi reiterated the call for a security belt to counter drug trafficking on the Iran-Afghanistan border, Mashhad radio reported the next day. (Bill Samii)
IRAN CONTENDS WITH ITS DRUG-ABUSE PROBLEM. As an immediate neighbor of the world's leading opium producer, Iran has been hit especially hard by narcotics trafficking. According to government figures, about 3,100 security officers have been killed fighting smugglers. Antinarcotics Headquarters chief Fallah said on 15 May that there are more than 90,000 drug addicts in Iranian prisons, according to IRNA, and there are just as many people under investigation for drug-related activities. Due to the country's population explosion, he added, the average age of addicts has fallen sharply, to about 30 or 31. On 5 May, Fallah said that alternatives to imprisonment are being explored, IRNA reported.
At a meeting in Bandar Torkman, Gulistan Province, Education Ministry official Taqi Dust-Qarin said that there are about 1.2 million addicts and 800,000 occasional drug users in Iran. He said that opium is most commonly used, IRNA reported on 8 May, but heroin use is on the rise. He said that imprisonment of addicts is not very effective and he urged physicians and scientists to develop alternative solutions. He also said that greater public awareness about the dangers of drugs would be effective.
Even outside their country, Iranians are affected by drugs. According to a report from the Smuggling and Organized-Crime Unit of Turkey's General Police Department, people of Iranian origin are involved with every stage of the smuggling process, Istanbul's "Cumhuriyet" reported on 6 May. Iranians make up 44 percent of the foreigners involved with drug-related crimes in Turkey. Drug-related crimes involving Turks occur mainly in other European countries, and Africans control the cocaine trade in Turkey. (Bill Samii)