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Iran Report: March 26, 2001

26 March 2001, Volume 4, Number 12

U.S.-IRAN: WHO IS LEADING THIS DELICATE DANCE? The White House made several efforts in 1999 and 2000 to demonstrate its interest in opening a dialog with Tehran by sending New Year's greetings, making partial apologies for imagined wrongdoings, and by eliminating some trade sanctions. Some members of Congress, furthermore, actually met with their Iranian counterparts and voiced their support for renewed relations. Tehran sometimes did not respond to these American approaches and at other times it demanded more, while Iranian leaders continued criticizing the U.S. And Iran's policy of negative reinforcement worked.

But now it seems that the American member of this twosome is tired of being stepped on by an overly aggressive and therefore clumsy Iranian partner. Speaking at a No Ruz gala in Washington, DC, that was organized by the American Iranian Council, Representative Tom Lantos (Democrat, CA) said that Tehran has failed to reciprocate gestures made by the Clinton administration: lifting the trade ban against Iranian caviar, nuts, and carpets. Lantos said that "the United States reached out an open hand, only to be met with a clenched fist." Lantos, a leading member of the House International Relations Committee, said that he would support the renewal in August of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, which calls for sanctions against firms that invest more than $20 million a year in Iran's oil and gas sector. Speaking at the same event, Senator Arlen Specter (Republican, PA) predicted that ILSA would be renewed. Earlier in the week, Rep. Henry Hyde (Republican, IL) said he would push for renewal of ILSA.

On 13 March President George W. Bush signed an order renewing the ban on trade and investment with Iran pending an overall review of the policy, saying that the Islamic republic continued to pose a threat to U.S. interests. The measures were imposed by former President Bill Clinton in 1995.

The Iranian reaction to such events and Tehran's statements on U.S. - Iran relations have remained consistently demanding and seemingly unbending. Iran's representative to the UN, Hadi Nejad-Husseinian, spoke at a No Ruz event at the University of Montana that was organized by the Montana World Affairs Council. He started off by saying the Shah of Iran was a U.S. client, although scholarly works, such as Mark Gasiorowski's "U.S. Foreign Policy and the Shah" and James Bill's "The Eagle and the Lion" suggest that what started as a patron-client relationship had changed by the late 1960s - early 1970s to one in which the U.S. was, in many ways, dependent on Iran.

Nejad-Husseinian described the "historic victimization" of Iran by the U.S. He also said that U.S. policy has been designed to "undermine [Iran's] national security and limit its capability for progress and development through every conceivable means." As for former Secretary of State Madeline Albright's statement that incidents in the two countries' relations have scarred them both, Nejad-Husseinian said, "the disparity of the depth of the scar ... lies at the heart of the problem." But the past should not dictate the future, he said, and both sides should try to heal such wounds.

Nejad-Husseinian said that the Bush renewal of trade sanctions against Iran was "disappointing," but Tehran notes other statements and signals and regards them with "cautious optimism." Any change in the relationship, Nejad-Husseinian added, must be initiated by "a major overhaul of the U.S. perception of Iran and subsequently of the U.S. policy toward Iran." As for the U.S. call for direct negotiations about Iranian opposition to the Middle East peace process, support for terrorism, and weapons of mass destruction proliferation, "it is not realistic." Washington should be more concerned about Israel's weapons of mass destruction and "state terrorism," Nejad-Husseinian declared.

Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi also discussed Iran's expectations of the new U.S. administration in interviews that appeared in the 21 March issues of Beirut's "Al-Safir" and "Daily Star." He said that it is too early to judge the Bush administration because it is reviewing its policies, but "the previous administration's experience and failures might give a lesson to this administration." Not only did the U.S. fail to boycott or isolate Iran successfully, he said, "U.S. corporations panted after Iran." Kharrazi said that Tehran welcomes the policy review, but "[t]he problem is that the American side has so far continued to follow a hostile policy. If it changes its policy, we have no problem."

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said that the Clinton administration's policies towards Iran "failed because they were not based on realities." He went on to say that the Bush administration should base its policy on past experiences with Iran, "Dowran-i Imruz" reported on 28 February, and "we just have to wait and see." Assefi said the priorities of the Bush and Clinton administrations differ, but the Bush White House should have the courage to act on its judgments. Reacting later to the renewal of sanctions, Assefi suggested that "the American government should learn from its failed policies and give up behavior contrary to international regulations." According to Assefi, IRNA reported in mid-March, "American companies are the ones losing the most from such sanctions."

Assefi also told "Dowran-i Imruz" that Secretary of State Colin Powell has misunderstood internal political forces in Iran. Powell came in for renewed criticism from Tehran after he told a meeting of the American-Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC) that Washington is watching efforts in Iran to change the political system, and he also expressed concern about Iran's support for terrorism and weapons proliferation. Iranian state television said on 21 March that such statements, when coupled with the No Ruz greetings from Powell, stem from "the Zionists' influence over the American foreign policy apparatus."

All these statements are clearly intended for public consumption. The Iranian and American sides have shared interests in containing the Taliban in Afghanistan and their support for terrorism and drug trafficking, as well as dealing with the Iraqi regime, and it is possible that there has been a meeting of minds about these subjects. But continuing deep differences over Iranian support for terrorism, pursuit of WMD, and opposition to the Middle East peace process make any reconciliation anytime soon unlikely. (Bill Samii)

U.S. NAVAL OFFICER PRAISES TEHRAN. Vice Admiral Charles Moore, commander of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, which deals with the U.S. Central Command's area of responsibility, told a breakfast meeting on the opening day of the IDEX-2001 arms fair in Abu Dhabi that Iran used to provide sanctuary for the smugglers of Iraqi oil, but now it is cooperating with the UN sanctions regime. Moore went on to say that there has been a significant change in the Iranian stance towards the U.S. presence in the region, the Emirates News Agency reported on 18 March, and "I see the strategy of cooperation coming from Iran." (Bill Samii)

STATE DEPARTMENT LAUDS IRAN'S WAR ON DRUGS. The Iranian government has demonstrated a "sustained political commitment to combat narcotics," the U.S. State Department's Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs asserts in its 1 March report on Iran, and "no other country has taken the fight to the Afghan drug trade to this extent." Iran is no longer a "major drug-producing country," the report added, but the U.S. government continues to watch for renewed poppy cultivation or signs that drugs transiting Iran are reaching the U.S.

The State Department report notes that opium, heroin, and morphine originating in Afghanistan and Pakistan are smuggled into Iran and go on to its western neighbors and through the Persian Gulf to the Arabian peninsula. Also, drug abuse in Iran is increasing, although the report does not say why this is the case. At a meeting of the Khuzestan Anti-Drug Council, Governor Moqtadai said that drug addiction is high where the income level is high, Ahvaz's "Nur-i Khuzestan" reported in January. He went on to say that reducing the drug supply is a key factor in reducing drug abuse, and he said that recently two narcotics-distribution groups in Abadan and Ahvaz had been broken up. Another official commented that unemployment contributes to drug abuse, something which has been noted by many other observers.

At this point, according to the State Department's report, Iranian legislation in the areas of money laundering and controlled deliveries do not conform with the 1988 UN Drug Convention, to which Iran is a party. Iran is working with the UN Drug Control Program to modify its laws. Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi said that his organization is "compiling a comprehensive anti-drug plan in a bid to uproot the viral [sic] social malady," IRNA reported on 13 March. Antinarcotics Headquarters secretary Mohammad Fallah, on the other hand, argued that "coercive methods" will not solve the drug problem. He called for greater involvement of the universities in developing an "innovative educational approach," IRNA reported on 10 March. What these statements really reflect is a long-running bureaucratic conflict over who should be in charge of Iran's war on drugs.

The Antinarcotics Headquarters coordinates the counter-narcotics activities of the Law Enforcement Forces, the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps, and the Ministries of Intelligence and Security, Education and Training, Islamic Culture and Guidance, and Health. Replacement of the Antinarcotics Headquarters is part of a Judiciary reform plan being considered by the Expediency Council, according to the 31 January "Dowran-i Imruz." Hojatoleslam Alizadeh of the Tehran Courts believes this is the best plan because fighting drugs is "in the hands" of the LEF and the Revolutionary Courts. Mahmud Alizadeh-Tabatabai, who was the president's representative at the Antinarcotics Headquarters until recently, also advocates a merger with the Judiciary, because the president's office does not have enough power to run it. Opponents of a merger say that the Judiciary has too many other duties already and would not be able to deal with added responsibilities, and a merger could lead to conflict with other branches of the government. There are still others who want the Antinarcotics Headquarters to be an independent organization.

The State Department report, citing an Iranian official's statements to the UNDCP, notes the extensive static defenses created along Iran's eastern border. Iranian officials, according to the UNDCP, seized 253,275 kilograms of drugs in 1999 and 116,475 kilograms in the first six months of 2000. Between March 2000 and March 2001, 28.7 tons of drugs were seized in Sistan va Baluchistan Province, and 1,337 kilograms of drugs were seized in the same period in Mazandaran Province, IRNA reported on 18 and 12 March. And the smugglers are becoming more ingenious: 14 kilograms of opium that was hidden in mobile telephones was seized in Khorasan Province on 15 March, IRNA reported. The Revolutionary Courts handle drug offenses, according to the State Department, and punishments are severe. In the last ten years, more than 10,000 narcotics traffickers have been executed, and "some human rights groups allege that the government has been known to charge its political opponents with drug offenses falsely as a means of neutralizing their political activities." On 19 March, five people in Tehran were hanged by the neck from cranes in front of a large crowd. They were apprehended in the capital's Khak-i Sefid district in late February in a massive operation that resulted in the arrest of 1,000 drug traffickers (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 12 March 2001). Earlier this year it was reported that 800 people are on death row for narcotics offenses.

Iranian efforts to involve other countries in its counter-narcotics activities -- through Memoranda of Understanding and participation and hosting of international fora -- also are noted by the State Department. A 20 February article in "Resalat" suggested that Western states sign such MOUs and make financial contributions only to make sure that drugs do not reach their own countries. These countries do not care what happens to Iranians, and "the few pennies they pay in aid amount to nothing more than a mere pose to conceal their indifference." What the Western states should really do is implement crop-substitution programs in Afghanistan, and the Iranian government should "act in such a way as to involve the Western countries in an actual war [with drugs]."

The State Department report notes that Iran and the U.S. have worked together productively on counter-narcotics issues within the context of international fora, such as the Six Plus Two group: "Iran nominated the U.S. to be coordinator of the Six Plus Two counter-narcotics initiative." Discussing the "Road Ahead," the report describes Iran's "sustained national political will" and "cooperation with the international community" in counter-narcotics, and it says that its actions support "the global effort against international drug trafficking." It should be noted that less than one year ago, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Intelligence Division warned in its "Iran Drug Situation Report" that information about narcotics in Iran "come primarily from Iranian officials and it is difficult to independently corroborate Iranian reports." (Bill Samii)

PERSIAN GULF STATES WORRIED ABOUT MISSILES, ISLANDS. Iran's Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf have voiced their concerns about Iranian missile proliferation and its pursuit of advanced conventional weapons, and also about Iran's stance on three disputed Gulf islands. Speaking on the sideline's of Abu Dhabi's IDEX-2001 arms fair, United Arab Emirates Air Force Commander Staff Brigadier General Khalid Abdullah Buaynayn said that "Iran is building offensive capabilities and this requires the Gulf Cooperation Council countries to build defense capabilities." Al-Buaynayn also said that the deployment of the Iranian missiles near the mouth of the Persian Gulf will have an impact on U.A.E. airspace and freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf, London's "Al-Hayah" reported on 22 March.

Iran's rush to acquire arms from all sources is prompting its neighbors to do the same, according to a 14 March commentary in "Al-Sharq al-Awsat," a Saudi-owned London daily that reflects official Saudi views on foreign policy. And Iran's goal to become a major power in the Persian Gulf region and in Central Asia is not a secret, notes the 15 March "Al-Riyad," a pro-government independent daily from Riyadh. But, the daily claims, arming Iran plays into U.S. hands, because it serves as a pretext for added arms sales to the region.

Tehran, however, is proud of its missiles. Iran's Aerospace Industries Organization exhibited a number of its products at IDEX-2001. Among these were the Sayyad 1 and Shahid Thaqeb air defense missiles, the Falaq 2 surface to surface missile, the Tufan missile, and the Rad missile. Also on display were the Nazeat and Zelzal 125 kilometer-range missiles, the Fajr 3 missile, and 122 mm missiles.

Iran's stance on the islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs also is causing disquiet among its southern neighbors. Iranian forces have been on the islands since 1971, and Tehran also refers to historical claims. The official Iranian position is that it is willing to hold "direct and unconditional" talks on this subject to remove any "misunderstandings," Iranian state radio reported on 19 March, but only if the U.A.E. accepts Iranian sovereignty over the islands. The U.A.E. claims that it has sovereignty over the islands, and has suggested that the dispute should be resolved by the International Court of Justice.

A 21 March commentary in London's influential Saudi-owned "Al-Hayah" said that Iran is an occupier and compared the Islamic Republic to Israel. "These three U.A.E. islands are an Arab land occupied by force. There is no difference between the occupation of U.A.E. and Palestinian territories, and Iran is no different from Israel in this respect." Iran's ambassador to Abu Dhabi, Ali Reza Salari, received a letter protesting an Iranian parliamentary delegation's visit to the islands, the Emirates' news agency reported on 20 March. According to the letter, the parliamentarians' visit was an attempt to "impose an illegitimate fait accompli reinforcing the occupation of the islands."

The Persian Gulf region will continue to be a "political hotspot" until the islands issue is settled, Kuwaiti Armed Forces deputy Chief of Staff Major General Fahd Alamir warned at IDEX-2001, the official KUNA news agency reported on 19 March. Alamir said that Iran's possession of the islands and Iraq's persistent threats demonstrate the need for a joint Gulf Cooperation Council security policy. Islamic Revolution Guards Corps commander Brigadier General Yahya Rahim Safavi also had a warning: "If some people, in their statements or official communiques, try to infringe on an acre of Iranian islands or its coasts, under the provocations of aliens, they should face up to the consequence of having their hands cut by the country's children," he said in a 1 March speech in Bushehr. (Bill Samii)

TENSION RISES AS ELECTION NEARS. "Be wary of those who are not in good terms at all with this revolution, with this state, with this Islam and with the people's interests. Make sure that they will not infiltrate into the decision-making structure of the country," Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said during a 21 March speech in Mashhad. Khamenei had just told his audience about the importance of the June presidential election and had called for high voter turnout. Such statements, as well as continuing press closures, political trials, and indecision about whether or not president Mohammad Khatami will stand as a candidate, promise that Iranian domestic politics will be tense for at least the next three months.

Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, during a 23 March pre-sermon speech, called on the government to control the press more vigorously, IRNA reported. "[The] government should prevent publication of harmful articles just as it checks the distribution of adulterated or contaminated foodstuff and medicine," he said. Just a few days earlier (on 18 March), the daily "Dowran-i Imruz," the weeklies "Mobin" and Jameh-yi Madani," and the monthly "Payam-i Imruz" were ordered to stop publication by the Judiciary, and proceedings were initiated against their managers.

The Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance criticized these closures and said they "add to the tension in the cultural atmosphere of the country," IRNA reported on 18 March. Chahar Mahal va Bakhtiari Province Governor General Abdol Mohammad Zahedi also decried the numerous press closures, and he said that in such an atmosphere press efforts will be forced to go underground, "Afarinesh" reported on 7 March. Zahedi also complained that provincial publications suffer from financial problems and they need help. And Mashhad parliamentary representative Mohammad Abai-Khorasani complained that publications like Tehran's "Kayhan" and Qom's "Fayzieh" can publish any calumnies they please without fear of prosecution, while reformist publications are closed on vague grounds, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 22 February.

Political arrests and trials also promise to have an impact on the election. Parsabad and Bilesavar representative Hassan Almasi was summoned for criticizing the Law Enforcement Forces and demanding an investigation into LEF economic activities, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 15 March. Almasi said he would submit his resignation.

Twenty people were arrested at a gathering of the Freedom Movement and nationalist religious figures on 12 March. The Revolutionary Court released a statement on 18 March that all activities of these groups were banned, and it accused them of trying to create rifts between state officials, spreading lies through the media, and attempting to overthrow the state. Until now, the Freedom Movement has been banned but tolerated. There are no numbers on how many people it and the nationalist-religious groups represent, but they claim to have a large following among intellectuals, students, and the middle class.

Most of the arrestees were released after the intervention of Speaker of Parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi. 40 parliamentarians questioned the Ministry of Intelligence and Security about the arrests. Also, 152 parliamentarians submitted a letter objecting to the arrests, but the parliamentary presidium refused to read it into the record because it feared intimidation "by some extremist elements who oppose the reform process," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 15 March.

Deputy Interior Minister Mustafa Tajzadeh, who heads the election headquarters, was found guilty on 4 March of rigging last year's parliamentary election. He was sentenced to a year in prison, barred from overseeing elections for six years, barred from holding governmental posts for 39 months, and fined 400,000 rials (about $228 at the official rate). Tehran Governor Ayatollah Azarmi received an 18-month sentence for blocking the Guardians Council's investigation of irregularities in the Tehran election. For vote-rigging, he received an additional 39 month ban from holding governmental posts and a five year ban from administering elections. Interior Minister Abdol-Vahed Musavi-Lari also has been accused of electoral fraud and the Special Court for the Clergy is expected to summon him soon, IRNA reported on 4 March.

A hearing related to Tajzadeh's role in last summer's unrest in Khorramabad is scheduled for 10 April. Six people received five-year prison terms for their roles in these events on 15 March. 110 people have received punishments ranging from fines to jail terms, according to "Kayhan."

Finally, it is still not known if President Mohammad Khatami will run for office again, and the registration date is 2-6 May. He described his administration's accomplishments in an 11 March speech, leading his brother, Mohammad Reza, to say that the speech "hinted he would seek a second term in office," according to IRNA. Iran's representative to the UN, Hadi Nejad-Husseinian, said in Montana on 20 March that Khatami would run again and "will surely receive an [sic] overwhelming support of the majority of voters."

And in a 20 March No Ruz address, Khatami suggested that opponents of reform are threatening the country's future. "Those who do not understand the nation's genuine and historical demands for freedom, independence, and progress, those who sow the seeds of hatred and violence have chosen an ill-fated journey. ...The Iranian nation will say no to them all." But he also cast doubt on his political future, saying that "[t]his era is coming to an end but the story will go on." (Bill Samii)

IRIB INCREASES PRESENCE. Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) launched 75 new projects in the provinces on 14 March. The Khabar news network started its activities in Kermanshah Province. Forty television and FM transmitters were commissioned in Chahar Mahal va Bakhtiari Province; 28 TV and two FM transmitters were commissioned in Khorasan Province; and two transmitters began their activities in Sistan va Baluchistan Province. IRIB reports did not indicate how much, if any, of the programs would be in regional languages or would be dedicated to local programming.

Speaking at a 14 March ceremony in Kerman Province, IRIB chief Ali Larijani said that he hopes to commission five to six provincial networks annually in the next five years. Other plans include conversion from analogue to digital technology. This process has started in the production area, but conversion in the signal transmission and broadcasting areas has not started yet. Larijani added that discussions are underway with several satellite companies to increase the reach of IRIB's international news network.

Larijani also discussed programming. He said that several long serials -- on the history of Islam, different historical periods in Iran, and social behavior -- are being produced. Larijani said that he wants to accomplish more in animated children's programs, but 30,000 minutes of animation were produced in the last year. (Bill Samii)