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Iran Report: March 5, 2001

5 March 2001, Volume 4, Number 9

TEHRAN REJECTS U.S. HUMAN RIGHTS REPORT� The State Department's repetition of the White House's claims about human rights violations in Iran proves that the Bush administration is no different than the preceding Clinton administration, Iranian state television announced on 2 March in its reaction to the U.S. Department of State's annual report on human rights practices in Iran, which was released on 26 February. By using human rights, and "because of the dominant role played by Zionist lobbies in the White House and the imperialistic character of the American regime," Washington is trying to "consolidate its hegemony over the world."

"America has meddled [in Iran's internal affairs] and, once again, accused Iran of violating human rights," Iranian state radio complained on 27 February, and the next day, Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi Shahrudi reacted to criticism of Iran's human rights situation by saying that Islam promotes justice, according to IRNA. "The Government denies the universality of human rights and has stated that human rights issues should be viewed in the context of a country's 'culture and beliefs,'" the State Department report had warned.

The report's first section, on respect for the integrity of the person, said that the government has been responsible for numerous extra-judicial killings, and citizens are tried and sentenced to death "in the absence of procedural safeguards." Many people are held incommunicado after their arrests and not given access to their families or legal representatives. There is no time limit on incommunicado detention, and arbitrary arrest and detention are common. Torture at the hands of security personnel and prison guards is credibly reported.

The report also notes that the courts are the "principle vehicle of the State to restrict freedom and reform in the society." It continues, saying that trials in the Revolutionary Courts are "notorious for their disregard of international standards of fairness." Secret trials, summary trials of five minutes duration, and show trials occur. The legitimacy of the Special Court for the Clergy is a subject of debate. Furthermore, individuals arrested and convicted on questionable criminal charges or narcotics trafficking charges are sometimes actually guilty of political "offenses."

The Iranian government's position on freedom of religion is not described favorably. Shia Islam is the official religion, and other schools of Islam, as well as Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism, are recognized in the constitution. The report notes that all the minorities suffer "officially-sanctioned discrimination" in securing jobs, education, and housing, and members of the unrecognized 350,000-member Bahai faith do not enjoy legal rights. In fact, the report warns, "[b]road restrictions on Bahais appear to be geared to destroying them as a community." The minorities also get lower legal awards in cases of injury or death. Christians and Jews who publish materials in Persian have been harassed, and proselytizing evangelical Christians are a particular concern.

Iran's Jewish community has shrunk from a pre-revolution level of 75,000-80,000 to approximately 25,000-30,000 now. The Government's stated hostility to Israel and the perception that Jews support Zionism and Israel have created a "threatening atmosphere" for the Jews. This situation worsened after 13 Jews from Shiraz were arrested in spring 1999. Jews' freedom to leave the country is restricted.

Shia Islam is the state religion, and the majority of the population is Shia. The report says that statements and views of senior Shia clerics are monitored to prevent signs of dissent within the clergy. Also, the movements and communications of several leading Shia clerics who disagree with the ruling orthodoxy are severely curtailed, according to the report. The clerics include: Ayatollah Seyyed Hassan Tabatabai-Qomi, who has been under house arrest in Mashhad for more than 15 years; Ayatollah Mohammad Shirazi, who is under house arrest in Qom; Ayatollah Yasub al-Din Rastgari, who has been under house arrest in Qom since 1996; and Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, who has been under intermittent house arrest since his dismissal as the Supreme Leader's designated successor in 1989. The authorities have detained followers of these and other dissident clerics.

Other Muslims also face official repression. Numerous Sunni clerics have been murdered in recent years, possibly by government agents. International Sufi organizations are concerned about repression of their co-religionists in Iran. Also, advocacy of rights or autonomy for ethnic minorities in the national press is generally prohibited, the State Department's human rights report notes.

Regime officials were not the only Iranians to react to this most recent report on Iran's human rights situation. The 28 February "Tehran Times" said different countries have different interpretation of human rights, depending on culture, customs, and religion, and in Iran, everything is based on Islam. The English-language daily suggested that "the U.S. should put its own house in order before criticizing others." And state television noted that the "State Department supported elements and factions which support American-style reforms in Iran." (Bill Samii)

�AND BRITISH CRITICISM AS WELL. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi complained on 1 March that visiting British Minister Mo Mowlam's comments about human rights in Iran were "irrelevant," according to IRNA. Mowlam had spent three days in Iran and had met with a number of officials, including President Mohammad Khatami, Interior Minister Abdulvahed Musavi-Lari and Vice-President Mohammad Hashemi. Mowlam later said she had discussed some of her concerns about Iran, saying that "there are huge violations of human rights, particularly relating to journalists." Mowlam, in a 27 February interview with Reuters, added that she also condemned the death penalty, and "some of the discussions weren't easy."

The Iranians may not have liked it, but Mowlam earned the right to speak her mind. She had just indicated her country's willingness to contribute over $100,000 to UN counter-narcotics programs in the Islamic Republic and had signed a counter-narcotics Memorandum of Understanding with Iran. The U.K. has given Iran almost $4 million in cash and in equipment to stem the flow of drugs.

The British development agency, furthermore, agreed to contribute about $235,000 to support health posts that aid refugees in Iran, IRNA reported on 21 February. British contributions to refugee and drought projects total about $4 million, according to IRNA.

Mowlam is the highest-ranking British official to visit Iran since the Islamic revolution. She relayed a letter from Prime Minister Tony Blair to Khatami in which he expressed an interest in their meeting. British Foreign Minister Robin Cook has postponed plans to visit Iran. (Bill Samii)

NOOSE TIGHTENS ON TERRORISTS. Tehran frequently complains that Western states accuse it of terrorism, but at the same time they allegedly shelter the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO or MEK) and even encourage its activities, which include mortar attacks and bombings in Iranian cities and assassinations of Iranian officials. Recent moves by the U.S., U.K., and Germany against the MKO may be a signal to Tehran of sensitivity to its complaints. In the U.S. case, the actual arrest of MKO fund-raisers may be a call for reciprocity in the investigation of the 1996 bombing in Saudi Arabia.

Seven people were arrested at Los Angeles' international airport on 27 February on charges of raising over $1 million for the MKO. In a tactic common to MKO operatives, they posed as charity workers and solicited funds for orphans while displaying photos of alleged Iranian atrocities. Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent James DeSarno explained at a 28 February press conference that "[t]his cell of the MEK raised funds on behalf of a charity front known as the Committee for Human Rights or the CHR in Iran. The CHR purported to use the money for humanitarian aid. This investigation has revealed that the money was really used to support terrorist actions."

DeSarno explained that the funds were transferred to bank accounts in Turkey. From there, in at least one case, the money was transferred to a used auto parts store in Dubai. Eventually, DeSarno said, "It is believed that the money was used to buy arms such as mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs."

The operation was initiated by the German Bundeskriminalamt (BKA), which informed the FBI that MKO members in Los Angeles were involved in money laundering.

In the U.K., meanwhile, the MKO was identified in a list of 21 terrorist groups under a new anti-terrorism law that aims to curtail their funding and support in Great Britain. The list, lumps the MKO with Osama Bin Laden's Al-Qaeda, Lebanese Hizballah, HAMAS, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Abu Nidal, and the Kurdistan Workers' Party, as well as Algerian, Basque, Egyptian, Kashmiri, Sikh, and Sri Lankan groups.

The MKO, which operates under a variety of cover names (National Liberation Army of Iran, the People's Mujahedin of Iran, Organization of the People's Holy Warriors of Iran, National Council of Resistance, Muslim Iranian Student's Society), is designated as a terrorist organization in the State Department's annual "Patterns of Global Terrorism" report. In May 2000 the U.S. Supreme Court refused to change the MKO's terrorist designation. MKO operatives disrupted an April 2000 conference in Berlin, and two of them attempted to disrupt the November 2000 conference of the Middle East Studies Association in Orlando. Many Iranians view the MKO, under all its guises, with revulsion because it fought on the side of Iraq during the 1980-1988 war. During the 1970s, the group assassinated American officials and it conducted terrorist activities against the shah's regime. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN REJECTS ALLEGATIONS ABOUT KHOBAR TOWERS. Unnamed U.S. government officials have identified Islamic Revolution Guards Corps official Ahmad Sharif as one of two dozen suspects responsible for the June 1996 bombing in al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia, that killed 19 American military personnel and wounded hundreds of other people. CBS reported on 23 February that several of the suspects are believed to be in Iran. The break in the case came about 11 months ago, and the investigators are waiting for the Saudis before calling for an indictment. U.S. government officials claimed to have hard evidence of Iranian involvement in the case in November 1999, also, according to "Newsweek" magazine (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 15 November 1999). A short time earlier, in September, a letter requesting Iranian assistance in the case from then President Bill Clinton was relayed to President Mohamad Khatami. Tehran reacted negatively, even threateningly, when news of this letter was made public.

The Iranian reaction to this more recent report of its involvement in the Khobar Towers bombing was similarly defiant. Iranian state radio announced on 25 February that repeating the allegations about al-Khobar shows the dissatisfaction of American news circles with the improved relations between Tehran and Riyadh, it was an attempt to divert attention from the American role in a November explosion in Saudi Arabia, and it demonstrated the failure of U.S. sanctions policies. "Tehran Times" opined on 25 February that the U.S. is trying to shift attention away from Israel to Iran "in order to give a blank check to Israel to massacre the Palestinians."

Iranian political analyst Mohammad Sadeq Husseini told Doha's Al-Jazirah television on 24 February that the statements about al-Khobar are trying to draw attention away from the Intifada, "break the isolation of butcher Sharon," force Iran to abandon its position on the Palestinian issue, and "influence the cohesion of the tripartite bloc comprising Iran, Syria, and Lebanon." Husseini added that there are efforts to undermine an upcoming Iran-Saudi Arabia security agreement, and he concluded that the U.S. administration is sending a message that it is on the Israeli side.

A commentary in the 25 February edition of London's Saudi-owned "Al-Hayah" speculated that the timing of the American allegation may be intended to disrupt improving relations between Iran and the Arab states, divert attention from the Arab-Israeli conflict, and renew the dual-containment policy. But in a jibe at Iran, the commentary suggested that before deciding, "we should ask ourselves what made us utter the saying that anyone is to blame for his own action and who turned terrorism into 'revolutionary means?'"

It appears increasingly unlikely that Saudi Arabian cooperation will be forthcoming in the case. Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayif bin-Abdelaziz said that he plans to visit Iran soon to sign a security agreement. He went on to say that certain information about the case can be secured after interrogations take place overseas, and the results would be announced subsequently. Prince Nayif said that "we still cannot say that a certain quarter which we can name stands behind this incident," the official SPA news agency reported on 25 February. In early January, Prince Nayif explained that a handful of Saudis are being held in relation to this case. Prince Nayif had said in November 1998 that there might be an international connection in the case, too.

There have been allegations that Saudi Arabian Shia dissidents with links to Iran were behind the bombing. Saudi Hizballah member Hani al-Sayegh was arrested in Canada and eventually deported to Saudi Arabia. Seyyed Hadi Khosroshahi, head of the Iranian Interests Section in Cairo, has been linked with Saudi Hizballah and the al-Khobar bombing, too. Less believably, an Iranian asylum-seeker in Turkey, who identified himself as an intelligence officer named Ahmad Behbahani and who was discredited later, also alleged that Iran was behind the Khobar bombing (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 12 June 2000), as did the son of former IRGC commander Mohsen Rezai when he defected to the U.S. (Bill Samii)

IRANIANS ACTIVE IN HAJJ. Chants of "Death to America" and "Death to Israel" were heard as pilgrims to Mecca circled the Kaaba, and they also described America as the "Great Satan and the main cause of Muslims' problems," Iranian state television reported on 2 March. But this may be a prelude to bigger things.

When Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mohammadi Reyshahri, the Supreme Leader's Representative for Hajj Affairs, left for Medina on 11 February, he promised that this year's "disavowal of infidels" ceremony will be held in Saudi Arabia to the accompaniment of shouts of "Death to the U.S." and "Death to Israel." He was seen off by individuals representing Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, Speaker of Parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, and Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi.

Reyshahri has been the Supreme Leader's representative at the Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization since 1991, and in June 1993, the Saudi authorities prevented Reyshahri from returning to Medina from Mecca after Iranian pilgrims held illegal demonstrations. In May 1995, Reyshahri led another illegal demonstration at the end of the pilgrimage. Iran boycotted the pilgrimage from 1988-1991 because a 1987 Iranian rally resulted in clashes with Saudi security forces and several hundred deaths. Since 1999, however, the rallies have been relatively subdued.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told a gathering of Hajj pilgrims on 29 January that they "are going to perform an important governmental task." He warned them that some people are trying to deny the political aspect of the Hajj and separate religion and politics. These people are trying to prevent Iran from being an example for Islamic nations and the global arrogance is trying to take the banner of Islam from the Iranian nation, Khamenei said. He advised that "In the private talks you hold, as well as in the public gatherings you attend and everywhere else, you must show that the Iranian nation has endeared itself [to everyone] thanks to the blessings bestowed upon it by Islam."

Some 85,000-88,000 Iranian pilgrims are scheduled to arrive in Mecca for the hajj by 27 February, according to IRNA. The first ones headed for Jeddah from 16 different Iranian airports on 8 February, and for the first time, some of the pilgrims will travel aboard Saudi aircraft. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) office in Tehran reported that Kurdish pilgrims making the hajj passed safely through the Iranian capital, Arbil's Sorani Kurdish-language "Brayati" reported on 1 March.

Both Shia and Sunni Iranians participate in the pilgrimage. For the Shia, an important additional part of the pilgrimage is the Komeyl supplication held in Medina next to the Baqi cemetery, burial site of the Prophet Mohammad and his daughter Fatima, and of the second, fourth, fifth, and sixth Shia Imams. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN WMD AND ACM DEVELOPMENTS CONTINUE. Russian Federation Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said in a message to a 27 February Tehran seminar on Iran-Russia relations that "Russia attaches great importance to common points enjoyed by the two countries and is trying to make use of past experiences to further common geopolitical interests." Ivanov predicted that trade cooperation would grow in the coming years, IRNA reported. The trade in defense products is a key element in the relationship.

Indeed, Mikhail Fradkov, the first deputy secretary of the Russian Security Council, said on 23 February that "Russia is interested in continuing the military-and-technical cooperation with Iran in the area of conventional weapons." And one day earlier, Iranian Ambassador to Moscow Mehdi Safari had said that the resumption of military cooperation with Iran could earn Russia up to $7 billion in the next few years, according to Interfax.

A recently released "Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction [WMD] and Advanced Conventional Munitions [ACM]" by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency notes that Iran "remains one of the most active countries" in the pursuit of WMD and ACW technology, and Iranian acquisition efforts focus on Russia, as well as China, North Korea, and Western Europe. Russian entities interact with Iranian research centers in projects that could augment and support Tehran's nuclear weapons research and technology.

Russia's Fradkov claimed that "[w]e do not violate any international obligations related to proliferation of mass destruction weapons, missiles and missile technologies, including those falling under the export control." Although the Duma has passed export control laws, according to the C.I.A.'s report, the Russian government has sometimes failed to enforce these laws in the Iranian case. Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted Russian export controls need to be reinforced and some research institutes, ministries, and agencies bear watching, RIA-Novosti reported on 22 February.

Furthermore, according to the C.I.A.'s report, Russian entities are among Iran's largest suppliers of ballistic missile-related goods, technology, and expertise. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made a similar charge during a mid-February television interview, prompting sharp reactions and complaints about "Cold War rhetoric" from Russian officials. Chinese and North Korean organizations are mentioned in the report as suppliers of missile technology, also.

An Iranian military delegation that included Deputy Defense Minister Brigadier General Hussein Dehqan and Deputy Chief of Staff Golali Rashid visited Russia in early March. The Iranians met with representatives of the state-owned Rossoboronexport arms trading company and Russian Defense Ministry officials, Moscow's Agentstvo Voyennykh Novosti reported. They were scheduled to visit Izhevsk, Udmurtian Autonomous Republic, on 2 March to negotiate the purchase of Tor-M1 air-defense missile system supplies, according to AVN. Tor-M1 can process data on 48 targets, automatically define the shooting order, and fire at two targets simultaneously. It can eliminate ballistic missile warheads at the final stage of their trajectory.

Also, Iran's minister of defense and armed forces logistics, Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, will visit Moscow in the early spring, Russian Defense Ministry main directorate for international military cooperation chief Colonel General Leonid Ivashov announced on 19 February. The two sides will finalize the agreements they reached in late December (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 8 January 2001), Ivashov said, and he added that "Russia, in strict accordance with its international commitments, is prepared to and will broaden military-technical cooperation with Iran." (Bill Samii)

...ALLEGEDLY CAUSING ISRAELI REACTION. As a reaction to Iranian testing of the Shihab 3 ballistic missile, Israel is establishing a naval base on the Red Sea from which it can deploy its submarines, Jerusalem's "Al Qods" reported on 26 February and Cairo's "Al-Wafd" reported 3 days earlier. Citing the Arab League's Central Boycott Office, the reports claim that Israel's Dolphin class submarines are capable of launching nuclear-tipped cruise missiles and successfully tested such missiles near Sri Lanka. Originally, London's "Sunday Times" reported on 18 June 2000 about the supposed launches, and the Israeli navy rejected the report the next day, calling it "baseless." Soon thereafter, "Jane's Sentinel" reported that reports of an Israeli "sea-based deterrent seem unfounded given shortcomings of launch platforms and questions over the existence of long-range cruise missiles." (Bill Samii)