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Iran Report: September 23, 2002

23 September 2002, Volume 5, Number 34

MULLAH KREKAR IS AN UNWELCOME GUEST. Tehran on 16 September took partial credit for the detention in Amsterdam of Mullah Krekar, leader of the Supporters of Islam in Kurdistan (Peshtiwanani Islam le Kurdistan, PIK, which has also used the names Ansar al-Islam and Jund al-Islam). Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said, according to IRNA, that Iran arrested Mullah Krekar (a.k.a. Najmuddin Faraj Ahmad) immediately upon his arrival in Iran and sent him back to Norway, where he had refugee status, via Amsterdam. Mullah Krekar apparently visited Iran earlier in the year (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 3 June 2002), and in early August, he visited the Iranian Embassy in Oslo and received a new visa, "Aftenposten" reported on 16 September. The PIK gets material support from Iran, according to Kurds cited in the 26 July "Wall Street Journal Europe." (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN URGES BAGHDAD TO COMPLY WITH UN DEMANDS. Iranian officials have welcomed Iraq's agreement to permit United Nations weapons inspectors to return. President Mohammad Khatami said on 18 September, "Iraq has accepted the return of UN inspectors and we hope that we move toward a direction where Iraq submits to the resolutions of the United Nations under the supervision of the Security Council," according to IRNA. Khatami urged Baghdad to comply with UN resolutions, and he spoke out against the possibility of a conflict in the region. Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said the previous day that "Iran welcomes the move [permission for inspections], and we hope that tension will be reduced in the region," IRNA reported.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had announced on 16 September that Iraq has unconditionally accepted the return of the UN weapons inspectors, saying, "I can confirm to you that I have received a letter from the Iraqi authorities conveying its decision to allow the return of inspectors without conditions to continue their work" (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 20 September 2002).

Furthermore, when asked at an 18 September press conference about Iran's stance on the possibility of a U.S. attack on Iraq, Iranian government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh said that Tehran opposes the use of force outside the UN framework. He added, according to ISNA, "We support any punitive action that the United Nations might decide for a country as long as there is no discrimination and it is applied to all the violators, including Israel." (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN-BAGHDAD WAR OF WORDS. Iran-Iraq relations in recent weeks have been rather inconsistent, with the two sides accusing each other of malfeasances one day and praising each other the next. Among Tehran's motives are the desire to avoid a U.S. military presence on its western border while simultaneously avoiding backing the inevitable loser of any conflict, to avoid new refugee flows that would further strain the state budget, and to reassure the domestic constituency of war veterans and their families. Baghdad, meanwhile, is desperate for allies or anybody else who might discourage military strikes against it.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein encouraged Iranian friendship during the 8 August Great Victory Day events that mark the end of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, according to Baghdad television. He said that Iraqis do not feel any resentment toward Iran. Saddam continued, "Instead we have a desire to cooperate with Iran. We wish that the Iranians concerned would understand that some of their thoughts have failed and that they will begin to deal in a practical way as neighbors with Iraq and try to develop common interests."

Iranian Expediency Council secretary and former Islamic Revolution Guards Corps commander Mohsen Rezai said in a 6 August interview with ISNA that the United States would probably succeed if it attacked Iraq. He therefore advocated neutrality, saying, "any support for the present Iraqi government would be a blunder because it would turn the future Iraqi government into an enemy of Iran."

Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, on the other hand, rejected the possibility of neutrality in a 24 August statement to IRNA. He said, "Interpreting Iran's stance over the current Iraqi crisis as neutral is unreal and contradicts the country's clear and official position on this," and he continued, "Iran has announced its opposition to the American unilateral action and considers any military action against that country as totally void." Minister of Intelligence and Security Ali Yunesi warned that: "One of the objectives of the American administration in its probable attack on Iraq will be to strengthen the position of the Zionist regime and restrain the intifada. However, we believe that the American attack on Iraq will be dangerous and harmful to the Islamic world," Iranian state television reported on 26 August.

These statements apparently were not tough enough for Baghdad. In a 31 August interview with Qatar's Al-Jazeera television, Iraqi Vice President Taha Yasin Ramadan accused Persians throughout history of siding with Jews or Zionists against Arabs. The Iraqi vice president accused Iran of siding with the United States in Afghanistan, he complained about Iran's continuing possession of Iraqi aircraft that were flown there in 1991, and he accused Iran of invading Iraqi cities after the 1991 Gulf War.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Sadr rejected Taha Yasin Ramadan's accusations in an interview with Al-Jazeera that same day, reiterating Iran's hostility toward Israel and its "stands supporting the Palestinian cause." When asked about Tehran's stance if Iraq actually is attacked, Sadr said, "we strongly oppose any U.S. aggression or military attack on Iraq. ...this strike will harm the entire Arab and Muslim world."

A still-unhappy Ramadan was back on Al-Jazeera on 1 September. He said that Iran's neutrality is inappropriate when the United States or Israel attacks a Muslim country. He also took exception to Iran's offer to aid refugees because it reflected a belief that Iraq would be destroyed. Ramadan said, "If its rhetoric regarding fighting colonialism and U.S. tyranny is to be believed, and if it believes that liberating Palestine and aiding the Palestinian people is both a religious and humanitarian duty, then Iran is required to behave differently."

The next day, the Iraqi charge d'affaires in Tehran was summoned to the Foreign Ministry. And Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said, according to state television, that Iraq's attack on Iran after the revolution caused disunity in the Islamic world, thereby harming the Palestinians and benefiting Israel. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait had the same effect, Assefi said. Assefi added, "Iraqi officials have demonstrated that they constantly commit the biggest mistakes at highly sensitive junctures."

The Iraqis are not really in a position to alienate anybody and they are keen to have regional support, especially after Riyadh indicated on 15 September that it might let U.S. forces launch attacks from Saudi territory. That could be why Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri said on 17 September that Baghdad has no problems with Tehran. Sabri said on Abu Dhabi television's satellite channel: "a statement here and a statement there do not mean that there is tension. We are endeavoring to strengthen good-neighborly relations by solving the remaining problems that resulted from the regrettable war that raged between the two countries." On the same day, Sabri met with Iranian counterpart Kamal Kharrazi on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, according to the Iraqi News Agency.

Tehran is concerned about refugee flows that could be caused by a war in Iraq. Iranian officials called earlier for the preparation of housing facilities for them on Iraqi territory (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 19 August 2002). The Interior Ministry official in charge of dealing with refugees, Ahmad Husseini, said on 10 September that no Iraqi refugees would be allowed to enter Iran, according to IRNA. Husseini described the establishment of facilities for sheltering 50,000 refugees in the southern and western border regions, and he added that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has announced that it is ready to serve 150,000 people. Husseini said that a Central Crisis Headquarters has been set up and it has contingency plans for up to 900,000 people.

The 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War affected most Iranians: "During the eight years of sacred defense, the Iranian people suffered 200,000 martyrs, 300,000 war disabled, and 40,000 POWs [prisoners of war] to defend their faith and beliefs," Islamic Revolution Guards Corps commander Yahya Rahim Safavi said during a 2 September speech, IRNA reported.

As a result, the regime glorifies the events of that era in an attempt to motivate its supporters within this important constituency. In a 19 September speech, Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani paid tribute to the 300 members of the Ansar al-Mahdi unit who gave their lives in the war. Rafsanjani said, according to state television, "For as long as the people maintain the moral of seeking martyrdom in the Islamic Iran, no Satan or devil will be able to dominate this country."

For reasons such as these, veterans of the war and the families of its casualties oppose a normalization of ties with Iraq until the resolution of outstanding issues. For example, the two sides continue to exchange the remains of soldiers still missing in action (MIAs): On 17 September, 89 Iranians and 30 Iraqis were transferred, according to the Iraqi News Agency and Tehran television. There are also demands for Iraqi compensation. Iranian Foreign Minister Kharrazi reassured the families of POWs and MIAs in a 4 September meeting, "Any kind of normalization of the Islamic Republic of Iran's relations with Iraq depends on the resolution of the problems remaining from the time of the war." Kharrazi said that the Foreign Ministry's activities intend to resolve outstanding problems.

Yet another sign of the difficulty faced by those interested in improving Iran-Iraq relations is Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani's description during the 13 August Friday prayers in Tehran of another unacceptable Iraqi action: its support for the Mujahedin Khalq Organization and that group's terrorist acts against Iran, according to Iranian state radio. (Bill Samii)

CHANGING OF THE GUARD IN ISFAHAN. Isfahan, which was rocked by the July resignation of its Friday prayer leader, got a new prayer leader on 16 September, and one day earlier, it got a new governor-general. The timing of the appointments may be more than a coincidence and it could reflect a high-level struggle for political control of the important city.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on 16 September appointed the conservative Ayatollah Yusef Tabatabai-Nejad as the successor to Ayatollah Jalaledin Taheri, IRNA reported. Taheri was an outspoken critic of the country's hard-liners and the excesses they committed in the name of Islam, and his sermons did not correspond very closely with those dictated by the Central Council of Friday Prayer Leaders (Jamiyat-i Imam Jomeh), most members of which are appointed by the Office of the Supreme Leader. Nevertheless, it would have been very difficult to replace him due to his popularity and because he had been appointed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the revolution. It is very likely that Tabatabai's sermons will not diverge from the main ones delivered in Tehran.

Indeed, Tabatabai appears to have strong conservative credentials and the leadership's trust. As the supreme leader's representative to Syria, he was in a position to distribute money to Hizballah and to Palestinian organizations, London journalist Alireza Nurizadeh told RFE/RL's Persian Service, and he also served as an intermediary between Tehran and these groups. Fazlollah Salavati, a reformist cleric in Isfahan, told RFE/RL's Persian Service that the new Friday prayer leader is basically a moderate person. And former Isfahan parliamentary representative Ahmad Salamatian told RFE/RL's Persian Service that Tabatabai is not very well-known in Isfahan.

In what could be a related matter, a new governor-general was appointed for Isfahan Province during the 15 September session of President Khatami's cabinet. Seyyed Mahmud Husseini was appointed as the new governor-general, ISNA reported. The governor-general answers to the Interior Ministry, which is headed by Hojatoleslam Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari and is currently identified as a pro-reform institution. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN OFFICIALS DISPUTE EXTENT OF FOREIGN DEBT... Former Vice President for Executive Affairs and current Expediency Council member Mohammad Hashemi said, "According to a calculation made once at the Expediency Council, some $80 billion of debts have been created for the country during Mr. Khatami's presidency within the frameworks of some contracts," "Kayhan" reported on 17 September. Central Bank of Iran Governor Mohsen Nurbakhsh said the next day that the bank's liabilities are not in excess of $21 billion, IRNA reported. Nurbakhsh said that the total liabilities to which Hashemi was referring related to the Oil Ministry, not the central bank. (Bill Samii)

...BUT AGREE ON JOBLESSNESS PROBLEM. Hashemi also told "Kayhan" on 17 September that reductions in the state budget, starting in 1998, had led to the suspension or closure of 9,000 national projects and 45,000 development plans. The end or suspension of these projects, in turn, led to a rise in unemployment. Hashemi is not the only official who is worried about unemployment, although members of the current government are not attributing blame.

The International Monetary Fund stated in an 11 July 2002 report ( that unemployment in Iran rose to 16 percent last year due to "demographic dynamics and the relatively weak employment content of growth compared to other countries." The labor force has grown by about 3.5 percent per year for the last three years. About 600,000 people enter the job market every year, but only about 450,000 jobs are created annually, according to the IMF report. It projected unemployment rates of 16.3 percent for 2002-2003 and 16.8 percent for 2003-2004.

Deputy Labor Minister for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Ali Yaqubi said during a 27 August visit to Orumieh that there are 3.2 million unemployed people in Iran and the current economic growth of 6 percent will not generate the new 750,000 jobs per year that are required. Yaqubi said, according to IRNA, that a 12 percent annual growth rate is necessary. And on 4 September, Deputy Minister of Economy and Finance Mehdi Karbassian said the country is two years behind in the job-creation schedule, according to IRNA.

Unemployment, of course, contributes to low income levels. Deputy Cooperatives Minister for Research, Training, and Development Abolqasem Mahdavi told a 21 August seminar in Khorasan Province that per capita income in Iran is $1,640, IRNA reported. And deputy Welfare Organization chief Mohammad Ali Talebi told an 18 August seminar in Shahrud, Semnan Province, that about 7 million Iranians live below the poverty line, which is defined as earning less than $1 a day, according to IRNA. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN WHEAT IMPORTS TO END BY 2005. Iran currently imports almost 6 million tons of the 11 million tons of wheat it consumes annually. In the first five months of this Iranian year (21 March-21 August), wheat accounted for a major portion of the $8.5 billion worth of goods Iran imported, according to IRNA on 7 September, and in the April-May period, Iran imported $130.2 million worth of wheat, according to a Customs Administration announcement as reported by IRNA on 8 June.

Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade announced in a 12 September media release that it had just concluded a deal in which the Australian Wheat Board will provide a further 530,000 tons of wheat to Iran this year. Trade Minister Mark Vaile and a delegation of 54 Australian business luminaries had just spent three days in Iran.

Iran has been Canada's biggest customer for wheat since 1996, with annual sales in excess of 400 million Canadian dollars ($254 million). Canadian Commercial Counselor Gilles Poirier said that Iran was his country's biggest regional export market between 1999 and 2001, IRNA reported on 21 July. Exports to Iran reached 539 million Canadian dollars in 1999, 665 million Canadian dollars in 2000, and 488 million Canadian dollars in 2001, Poirier said, and wheat and other agricultural products accounted for 80 percent of those exports. He attributed the 2001 decline to a small Canadian wheat crop and to high prices.

Iran hopes to end its demand for foreign wheat soon. Mohammad Reza Eskandari, the Agricultural Jihad Ministry official who is administering a project to raise wheat output, told IRNA on 7 May that if his project is successful Iran would produce about 16.97 million tons of wheat by 2005. Eskandari said that the project would get under way if the bill for its implementation is passed (presumably by the legislature). (Bill Samii)

COMMONWEALTH LIVESTOCK IN IRAN. Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade announced in a 12 September media release that the 20-year break in Tehran's acquisition of Canberra's livestock is likely to end. The Australian cattle may run into fellow members of the Commonwealth from Canada. Canadian Commercial Counselor Gilles Poirier said in a 21 July interview with IRNA that bovine semen is an important export to Iran and 50 percent of Iranian cattle have Canadian genetic origins. According to Poirier, this aspect of the trade relationship is worth about 1 million Canadian dollars, but it has "brought Canada a positive reputation which far exceeds this monetary value." (Bill Samii)

PAKISTAN, AFGHANISTAN TO GET ELECTRICITY FROM IRAN. Lieutenant General Zulfiqar Ali Khan, chairman of Pakistan's Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA), announced on 18 September an agreement that Iran would supply electricity to the border areas of Baluchistan (such as Taftan, Mashkel, and Makran), Islamabad's "The News" reported on 19 September. Pakistani preparations are complete and they are awaiting the Iranian provision of 16 transformers. The WAPDA chief discussed electricity and diesel supply when he visited Iran from 8-14 July, Lahore's "Daily Times" reported on 21 July. He said that electricity from Iran is less costly than Pakistani power. Moreover, Iranian diesel fuel would be less expensive than the diesel that WAPDA buys from Pakistan State Oil for running its diesel generators. The WAPDA chief said that his organization does not have a power-transmission network in those border areas of Baluchistan, whereas Iran already has one nearby. Kabul's Radio Afghanistan announced on 9 September that Iran has committed itself to supplying the country's western Herat Province with electricity, and the project will cost $1.25 billion. (Bill Samii)

IRANIANS CONCERNED ABOUT AFGHAN RIVER. Iran and Afghanistan have had ongoing arguments over the use of the Hirmand River (a.k.a. Helmand River), despite the signing by Prime Ministers Amir Abbas Hoveida and Mohammad Musa Shafiq in 1973 of an agreement regulating the use of those waters. In light of the currently warm relations between Tehran and Kabul and the early-September signing of a new agreement on using the river's waters, the disputes may be a thing of the past.

Iranian parliamentarian Alaedin Borujerdi said on 1 September that resolution of the dispute is important to Iran, IRNA reported, and it is particularly important to the people of Sistan va Baluchistan Province. "The least we expect is implementation of the accord signed between Iran and Afghanistan before the Islamic revolution in Iran," Borujerdi said.

And parliamentarian Gholamhussein Aghai, who represents the Sistan va Baluchistan Province city of Zabol, also decried the Afghans' failure to provide water held behind the Kajaki Dam despite a new agreement reached during President Khatami's 13 August visit to Afghanistan, "Entekhab" reported on 1 September. Aghai cited Iranian experts as saying that there is about 1 billion cubic meters of water held behind the dam, but the Afghans are not releasing any of that water. Aghai said that the people of Zabol are "counting the seconds until the flow of the Hirmand water."

Afghanistan's ambassador to Iran, who was not named in the report, said in an interview with "Etemad" on 3 September that Khatami and Afghan President Hamid Karzai had reached an understanding on the water issue. The ambassador continued, "we are ready to allocate part of the water rights of the people of Afghanistan to our Iranian brothers...a project has been drawn up to study the water level from the source of the river to see how the water flows." He said that problems with the water flow should be blamed on nature.

Mashhad radio announced on 6 September that Iran and Afghanistan have signed a technical agreement on releasing the waters. Sistan va Baluchistan Province water corporation official Siamak Shirzad announced that this agreement was signed after an Iranian technical delegation visited different parts of the Hirmand River. Shirzad said that Afghan officials pledged to release water for residents in the Sistan Desert in Iran, according to Mashhad radio. (Bill Samii)

KARZAI DISCUSSES MAIN NEIGHBORS WITH RADIO FREE AFGHANISTAN. Afghan President Karzai gave his opinion of his neighbors to the west in a 15 September interview with RFE/RL Afghan Service correspondent Nazira Karimi. Karzai said: "Mr. Khatami is a good friend of Afghanistan, and I personally have a fraternal relationship with him -- so far, Iran has maintained an amicable attitude toward our country. We have very good relationships with other countries in the region too. In my meeting with Presidents [George W. Bush] and [Pervez] Musharraf, I clearly stated that we will not allow Afghanistan to become a means of exploitation or harm to our neighbors. On the contrary, we aim to be an instrument of friendship [and] political and economic relationships for our neighbors. And we hope that our neighbors possess a mutual outlook toward Afghanistan." (Bill Samii)

FOREIGN MINISTER ABDULLAH SPEAKS AT RFE/RL. Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah addressed a gathering at RFE/RL's Washington office on 18 September and discussed a range of topics, from domestic Afghan politics to the possibility of war in Iraq.

Asked if the Loya Jirga in June that elected his transitional government had merely produced an alliance among warlords and the new leaders in Kabul, Abdullah acknowledged that the process was imperfect. Nevertheless, he said, the Loya Jirga was an amazing feat for a country plagued by 23 years of war: "[The Loya Jirga] was the start of a situation where somebody, which you call a warlord, a leader of a [political] party, is sitting beside a carpenter, an ordinary man, a schoolmaster, and going out with a feeling that the rules of the game in Afghanistan have changed and have changed forever. That's what happened in the Loya Jirga."

The challenge now, Abdullah said, is to keep the warlords loyal to Kabul while bringing improvements to living conditions in their poverty-stricken regions. Only that way, he said, will Afghanistan consolidate its recent progress and definitively eradicate terrorism and reduce instability.

Abdullah also urged the international community not to waver in its support of reconstruction, and he reiterated a call for faster disbursement of the aid pledged by the international community. Abdullah said that of the $4.5 billion pledged to Afghanistan, the country has received only about $500 million. Of that, he said, $200 million has gone to humanitarian needs and $100 million to government expenses, leaving only $200 million to pay for reconstruction.

The transitional Afghan government of President Karzai has long urged an expansion of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) into provincial areas plagued by crime and civil unrest. Abdullah, who discussed the matter on 16 September with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, said he believes the world community is starting to see the need to expand ISAF, although any expansion is unlikely to happen soon, since a final decision would depend on political decisions in several capitals, as well as the allocation of resources. "While there is a need for expansion of ISAF for stability and security in the country, and that need is better understood now, we are far away from getting there, I think," Abdullah said.

Abdullah told the international community's skeptics that Afghanistan is a shining example of the success of the U.S.-led war on terrorism. Abdullah said that the vanquishing of the Taliban and the routing of Al-Qaeda not only saved Afghan society from destruction and tyranny but also helped prevent the spread of Osama bin Laden's brand of fundamentalist terrorism throughout the region and the world. "When it is judged that this campaign against terror is not successful, I think it is once again underestimating the big job which has been done by the people of Afghanistan, as well as by the coalition forces," Abdullah said. Nevertheless, Abdullah said terrorism has not been eradicated in Afghanistan.

Abdullah appeared to dismiss concerns that a possible U.S.-led military campaign in Iraq would deflect international attention from Afghanistan. He said U.S. officials have assured him that the antiterrorism campaign in his country will continue at roughly the same level, even if Washington launches a military attack against Iraq. (Jeffrey Donovan)