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Iran Report: April 9, 2001

9 April 2001, Volume 4, Number 14

INDIAN PREMIER'S VISIT HAS BROAD IMPLICATIONS. Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is due to arrive in Tehran on 10 April for a four-day visit. This may be one of the more significant visits to Tehran by a foreign official in recent months, because its outcome will have an impact on global energy issues, regional security, and Iran's economic future.

India currently buys Iranian natural gas, which is transported via LNG-carrying ships. Tehran has proposed an overland pipeline which would pass through Pakistan. Pakistan would receive about $500 million in transit fees annually, and Pakistani officials have guaranteed the security of the pipeline. This extra income would help Pakistan solve its balance of payments problem, Karachi "Dawn" reported on 25 March. Some Indian officials have proposed a costlier undersea pipeline that would bypass Pakistan because they are not convinced by the Pakistani guarantees. Sri Lankan officials have expressed an interest in purchasing Iranian gas shipped to India (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 18 December 2000).

India's Reliance Industries Limited has a major interest in the Indian LNG industry, and it has developed an interest in the pipeline project, New Delhi's "Financial Express" reported on 6 April. Reliance is headed by the Ambani family; and when former U.S. President Bill Clinton visited India recently, he lunched with Reliance chief Dhirubhai Ambani. The Ambanis wanted Clinton to tell them if his successor will permit U.S. oil companies to do business in Iran, the "Financial Express" speculated, and they already have former Pakistani Foreign Secretary Niaz Naik on retainer.

In the security arena, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Taliban will be the main topic. Both Iran and India oppose the Taliban -- Iran because Taliban-led Afghanistan is a dangerous neighbor that supports Sunni dissidents and traffics in narcotics, and India because Taliban forces fight on Pakistan's behalf in Kashmir. Pakistan's military intelligence service is the main financial, political, and military backer of the Taliban, and it also is involved with Central Asian militants who get training in Afghanistan. Iran, meanwhile, supports armed groups -- the Northern Alliance -- who oppose the Taliban. Furthermore, India, Iran, and Russia intend to work out a single position on the Taliban, State Duma International Affairs Committee Chairman Dmitri Rogozin said in November 2000 (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 4 December 2000).

Moreover, Indian Deputy Defense Minister Yogendra Narain spent two days in Iran in late March to hold talks on military hardware and software. Narain met with Minister of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Ali Shamkhani and Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, and his host was Deputy MODAFL Minister Brigadier General Hussein Dehqan. (Dehqan met with arms export officials when he was in Russia in early March, so one can safely assume that he and his Indian guest discussed similar topics.) Tehran has been promoting itself as a provider of inexpensive defense products.

There are other trade-related issues coloring Iran and India's relationship. Now that Iran is not buying meat from Europe because of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, it has increased its imports of Indian meat, New Delhi's "Economic Times" reported on 2 April. In February, Iran imported 2,000 tons of buffalo meat, compared to a monthly average of 200 tons last year. India, furthermore, sees Iran as its gateway to Central Asian markets and natural resources, Chennai's "The Hindu" reported on 30 March. An Iranian delegation led by Customs Administration chief Mehdi Karbasian was in India in late December to make final changes regarding smuggling and trade laws in an agreement that is to be signed in Tehran during Vajpayee's visit.

The last Indian prime minister to visit Tehran was P.V. Narasimha Rao, who was there in 1993, and former Iranian President Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani visited India in 1996. Also, Minister of External Affairs Jaswant Singh traveled to Tehran in May 2000. Vajpayee probably will meet with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, and Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Calcutta's "The Telegraph" reported on 13 March, and there is a proposal that he address the parliament. (Bill Samii)

CLOSING THE DOOR ON KHOBAR TOWERS. Saudi Arabia's Interior Minister Prince Nayef Bin Abd al-Aziz said on 1 April that he will travel to Tehran on 15 April to sign a security accord that focuses on the fight against crime, terrorism and money laundering, and surveillance of borders and territorial waters. Signing of the accord has been delayed several times.

Citing "informed Gulf diplomatic sources," London's "Al-Arab al-Alamiyah" reported on 2 April that the signing of this accord will effectively close the file on the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in which 19 American military personnel were killed and hundreds of other people were wounded. The Saudis believe that this will do more for regional stability than hunting down the perpetrators of this atrocity, according to "Al-Arab al-Alamiyah." The U.S. government has hard evidence of an official Iranian hand in the bombing and has even identified specific suspects, but Tehran has not responded to Washington's requests for assistance and Riyadh has stonewalled the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In the past year, FBI Director Louis Freeh had slowly managed to win over Saudi officials to cooperate with his agency, and he recently asked Secretary of State Colin Powell to help obtain further cooperation, unidentified sources told "U.S. News and World Report." During his recent Middle East tour, Powell conveyed a message to Saudi officials that the Bush administration was keenly interested in solving the Khobar Towers case, administration sources told "U.S. News."

If the report in "Al-Arab al-Alamiyah" is correct, it would seem that Powell failed to secure cooperation on this issue from the Arab monarchy he was instrumental in protecting ten years ago. Nor were Freeh's powers of persuasion sufficient to teach the Saudis loyalty. Indeed, Interior Minister Prince Nayaf Bin Abd al-Aziz said on 3 April that "[t]he kingdom is a great country and no one can dictate to it what it should do or say." Prince Nayaf added that "our relations with Iran are distinguished and governed by factors of neighborhood, interests, and Islamic brotherhood. Others cannot be allowed to identify our interests because we know them better." Prince Nayaf went on to say that "security coordination with the U.S. emanated from the interests of the kingdom," SPA reported.

Back in Washington, Freeh has reassigned prosecution of the case because he has grown frustrated by missteps in the investigation, according to "U.S. News." Freeh reportedly was angered by the failure to persuade a key Saudi suspect, who had been extradited from Canada, to testify. Other sources told "Time" magazine that there were disagreements over when to go for indictments and whether or not there was sufficient evidence to support them. (Bill Samii)

IRAQ INTRANSIGENT ON IRANIAN POWS. Brigadier General Abdullah Najafi, who heads Iran's POW and MIA Commission, says that Iraq has yet to respond to a December Iranian proposal on resolution of the prisoner of war question, although the deadline for a response was 20 March. Najafi went on to say, state radio reported on 6 April, that 97 percent of POW-related questions have been resolved: "59,830 Iraqi and 39,417 Iranian POWs of the imposed war have been released. There are still around 3,000 Iranian and Iraqi POWs whose fate must be determined." (Bill Samii)

AL-HAKIM REVERSING COURSE ON DIALOG WITH WASHINGTON. "We have no objection to a direct dialogue with the U.S. administration" if it is based on protecting people from the Iraqi regime's repression, Ayatollah Baqir al-Hakim, chairman of the Tehran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), said in the 3 April issue of London's Saudi-owned "Al-Hayat." Al-Hakim said that other entities, including Iran and Hizballah, are talking to the U.S. directly and through mediators, so he did not see a reason why the SCIRI should not do the same thing. Al-Hakim denied reports that there are attempts to have him meet with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 2 April 2001), but he admitted that there are communications with the U.S., both through general statements and through other opposition groups with which the SCIRI cooperates. Moreover, SCIRI officials have met with the U.S. representative at the UN Security Council.

Al-Hakim's office had announced on 5 March that the ayatollah "emphasized" that the SCIRI "had nothing to say to the American Government" (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 9 March 2001).

Improved Iran-Iraq relations would have no impact on the SCIRI, al-Hakim went on to tell "Al-Hayat." The SCIRI has a bigger presence in Europe, North America, Syria, and other places than it does in Iran. Its military arm -- the Al-Badr Corps -- is present in the southern and northern zones, and its decision-making is Iraqi, not Iranian. Iran already blocks cross-border operations from its territory, so a change in the two countries' relationship would have no effect on the political status of the Iraqi opposition. Al-Hakim refused to make any linkages between his organization's presence in Iran and the Mujahedin Khalq Organization's presence in Iraq. (Bill Samii)

IRAN-U.A.E. DISPUTE HIGHLIGHTED. The continuing dispute between Iran and the United Arab Emirates was raised in late March and early April at international fora and resulted in some angry reactions from Tehran. Iran's official stance on the islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs is that it is willing to hold direct and unconditional talks on this subject to remove any misunderstandings, but only if the U.A.E. accepts Iranian sovereignty over the islands beforehand. Iranian forces have been on the islands since the withdrawal of British forces from "east of Suez" in 1971, and Tehran also refers to historical claims.

The U.A.E. claims that it has sovereignty over the islands and refers to historical claims as well. Moreover, it has called for a dialog with Iran and has stated that the case should be heard by the International Court of Justice. Crown Prince and Deputy Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah Sheikh Khalid Bin Saqr Al-Qassimi reiterated this call in a 31 March press conference, Dubai's "The Gulf Today" reported two days later.

Ali Nazari, the Iranian representative at the international law committee of the Inter-Parliamentary Union meeting in Havana, said that the U.A.E.'s claims were "unfounded," IRNA reported on 4 April. Nazari added that negotiations were the best way to solve the dispute, and he complained that the U.A.E.'s "lack of goodwill" negates the possibility of removing any differences but actually flouts principles of international law. At the IPU general meeting, meanwhile, the U.A.E. representative dedicated his speech to "vain claims on the ownership of three Iranian islands in the Persian Gulf," IRNA added, while the U.A.E. delegation distributed pamphlets that "repeated the U.A.E.'s false claims on ownership of the Iranian islands."

Tehran summoned the U.A.E.'s ambassador to protest against its continued claims on the three islands, IRNA reported on 31 March, and also to indicate the Foreign Ministry's unhappiness over U.A.E. objections to a visit by Iranian parliamentarians to the islands (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 26 March 2001). "Any claim by the U.A.E. on the islands is rejected," a Foreign Ministry official declared, before repeating that Tehran is ready for "unconditional talks."

The issue of the three islands also arose during the Arab Summit in Amman. The Final Statement of the summit reaffirmed U.A.E. sovereignty over the islands, and called on Iran "to end its occupation of the three Arab islands and stop the policy of imposing a status quo by force on these islands, including the establishment of facilities to settle Iranians on these islands," Amman's "Al-Ray" reported on 29 March. The head of the Jordanian delegation, Prime Minister Ali Abu Al-Ragheb, said during his 27 March speech that Amman supports U.A.E. sovereignty over the islands and its efforts to have the case arbitrated by the ICJ. Ragheb added that Iran's entering such negotiations would "consolidate" its relations with Arab countries and maintain regional stability.

Tehran did not care for these comments on the island issue either. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said during a 30 March press conference that the Arab Summit statement represented a "repeated, one-sided, and totally biased" stance, according to IRNA. Assefi added that the islands always have been and always will be Iranian.

Regional publications also have commented on this issue. Karachi's "Dawn" editorialized on 4 April that since Tehran and Riyadh are about to sign a security pact, the next logical step would be for Tehran to resolve its dispute with the U.A.E., and Saudi Arabia could serve as a mediator. Dubai's independent pro-government "Gulf News" commented that Iranian intransigence and refusal to submit to international mediation stemmed from its fear of the documentary evidence possessed by the U.A.E. And Baghdad's "Al-Thawrah," which is the Baath party's newspaper, condemned the Arab Summit for its weakness. If it had been more serious, it would liberate the "Arab islands in the Gulf [that are] under Iranian captivity." "Al-Thawrah" added that it is wrong to have "normal relations with countries that occupy our lands, as is the case in...the islands of Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb, and Abu Musa in the Arabian [sic] Gulf."

The U.A.E. demonstrated its seriousness about the islands on 5 April. That was when "Certainty of Truth," a play about the islands, was staged on a water-borne, boat-shaped stage off Ras Al-Khaimah's coast. Featuring a cast of thousands, the play was written by Sheikh Khalid's wife, Shiekha Fawaqi Bin Saqr Bin Sultan Al-Qassimi. Sheikh Khalid told reporters, "The Emirates will never forget their occupied islands and will continue their efforts to get them back, Iran having nothing to prove that these islands belong to it," AFP reported on 5 April. (Bill Samii)

HOW LONG WILL NEW REFORMIST PAPER SURVIVE? "Noruz," a daily headed by reformist parliamentarian Mohsen Mirdamadi-Najafabadi, is due to hit the newsstands on 9 April according to IRNA. There is speculation that this daily will replace "Mosharekat," the Islamic Iran Participation Party's mouthpiece, because Mirdamadi heads the central council of the pro-Khatami IIPP. Mirdamadi denied that "Noruz" is a replacement for Mosharekat, IRNA reported on 6 April, and he said it would not be a IIPP mouthpiece. He did regret the fact that there has been no hearing in the "Mosharekat" case although it was closed almost one year ago (on 27 April).

"Nakhl," "Ava-yi Varzish," "Mardom va Zindigi" and "Bazar-i Ruz Tehran" received written notices for having ignored previous warnings, the Domestic Press Department said on 7 April, according to IRNA.

There have been at least 44 press closures since April 2000. The beleaguered state of the Iranian press led Ali Mohammad Qaribani, an Ardabil parliamentarian and editor of the banned weekly "Mobin," to predict that foreign media would be able to influence Iranian public opinion if closures continue, "Hambastegi" reported on 29 March. "Asr-i Ma" predicted on 10 March that it would be closed soon.

The prosecutor-general has prepared a "voluminous dossier" and there are more than 180 complaints against the weekly. Most of the complaints are from the prosecutor-general and only ten percent are from private plaintiffs. And the private plaintiffs are the usual "chain (or serial)" complainants -- the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps, the Intelligence Unit of the Law Enforcement Forces, and state radio and television. Such actions benefit nobody in the long run, and "Asr-i Ma" predicted that "like termites they will also gradually destroy the foundations of their power."

And an untold number of Iranian journalists have been summoned before the courts on various pretexts. Hassan Abdi, a correspondent with "Hambastegi," is just the most recent case, IRNA reported on 27 March, and four people pretending to be with the Law Enforcement Forces searched his home.

There are some optimists out there. Shiraz parliamentarian Reza Yussefian stated that "[i]n case of the continued closure of newspapers, we have to open new ones and will not let the free course of communication and exchange of information stop," Qods" reported on 5 March 2001

ASSEMBLY OF EXPERTS ON ELECTION AND SECRET TOPICS. The 12-14 February meeting of the third Assembly of Experts saw the re-emergence of controversy about the clerical body's often obscure activities. The popularly elected 86-member body is tasked with selecting and supervising the Supreme Leader, but in the 16 February Friday prayers sermon, Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani said that because some of the discussions touched on national security issues, it was not expedient to describe them publicly. The Assembly reportedly also discussed the June presidential election and cultural issues.

"Asr-i Ma" on 24 February asked how people are supposed to elect officials whose activities are a mystery. How are they to judge the Assembly's members and judge them as candidates for election? For that matter, why is the Assembly discussing national security issues, anyway, since that is not in the Experts' constitutional mandate? "Dowran-i Imruz" posed similar questions on 19 February.

Indeed, the Assembly's official post-meeting statement, which appeared in the 17 February "Resalat," discussed many subjects other than the Leadership. It said that the main objective of the "Great Satan" (the U.S.) is to harm Iran by "creating divisions within the nation, crisis mongering, bringing about discord between the revolutionary forces, and disheartening and weakening the people." It went on to say that various factions are expending their energy on factional arguments and even ethnic and racial disputes. The Assembly urged unity and warned against underestimating "the danger of the enemies of Islam, who are led by America." The Assembly's statement also condemned criticism of the Judiciary, efforts to disrupt the relationship between the parliament and the Guardians Council, and questioning of the constitution. It went on to call for "a free, calm, and tension-free election." The statement concluded by urging all Muslims to concentrate on the struggle "against the Zionist regime," and it complained about America some more.

Assembly of Experts spokesman Ayatollah Ali Meshkini described some of the body's deliberations during his 16 February sermon in Qom, after he said that its main duty is supervising the leader and the umma (Islamic community) but this duty is "always kept secret." Meshkini said some of the other topics were: "are Western ideas influencing our young people;" are the young involved in "lewd acts;" "why are drugs so widespread;" "why is there unemployment;" why is there insecurity in the east and west of the country; and "why is there inflation?"

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's speech to the Assembly was broadcast by state radio on 15 February. He warned that foreign propaganda against Iran is nothing new, but new methods, such as the Internet, are being used to convey it. Khamenei went on to say that his concern about cultural issues has increased recently, and in the run-up to the election, the enemy is trying to create tension by making the factions fight against each other. He also explained that "when we say the enemy, it does not always mean America's espionage machinery. Occasionally, they are the masterminds, but the actual players are people who sometimes do not realize that they have been manipulated."

Other topics in the Assembly's deliberations, according to IRNA, were the importance of religion and Islam, the need for "unity," and warnings against "conspiracies of the enemies of the revolution." On 14 February, Rafsanjani criticized non-transparency and "factional and political bickering." Meshkini was re-elected as speaker, Rafsanjani was re-elected as first deputy speaker, and Ayatollah Ebrahim Amini-Najafabadi was re-elected as second deputy speaker. The secretaries, Ayatollah Qorbanali Dori-Najafabadi and Hojatoleslam Hassan Taheri-Khorramabadi, were re-elected, too. (Bill Samii)

MEDICINE EXPORTED AS IMPORTS CLIMB. Allahverdi Jurabchi, managing director of Tabriz's Zakaria Razi pharmaceutical plant, said on 29 March that the first consignment of raw materials for making ampicilin has been shipped to Germany, IRNA reported. Jourabchi went on to say that Iran is self-sufficient in the production of materials for making antibiotics known as "betalactams," and future consignments will be shipped to Egypt and Pakistan. The Zakaria Razi plant is Iran's sole manufacturer of vancomycin, which is used for the treatment of infectious diseases and cancer. But overall, Iran's import of medicines has risen by 11 percent in the last 11 months. Deputy Health Minister Morteza Azarnush said that joint ventures with foreign companies should increase the production of medicines in Iran, IRNA reported on 17 March. Azarnush added that 750 kinds of medicine are produced domestically, but as long as new drugs keep entering the market, Iran never will be completely self-sufficient. (Bill Samii)

IRANIANS IN CUBA DISCUSS BIOTECH, PALESTINE. A group of Iranian parliamentarians visiting Cuba learned on 31 March that President Fidel Castro has underlined the importance of biotechnology cooperation with Iran, IRNA reported. Relations in this field started six years ago, with manufacturing medicines, technology transfers, and establishment of vaccine production units.

The Iranian delegation's other reason for being in Cuba is to attend the 105th summit of Cuba's Inter-Parliamentary Union. Iranian Ambassador to Havana Davud Salehi said that the Iranians' consultation with other delegates had yielded important results, and the Iranian proposal on fighting terrorism, drug abuse, and organized crime resembled that of Cuba. The Iranians also met with Arab delegates, Salehi said, and Islamic and Arab states are upset that an Israeli delegation is participating in the summit. The Iranian delegation is trying to hold talks about the "dialogue among civilizations," IRNA reported on 1 April. (Bill Samii)

THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET. Ali Khorram, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Iran to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said on 2 April that the UN should recognize Tehran's improved record on human rights and drop the Islamic Republic from the agenda of the current annual meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission. Khorram pleadingly added that keeping the issue of human rights in Iran on the agenda would give a wrong signal to the Iranian government.

At the 29 March session of the Commission on Human Rights, UN human rights investigator Maurice Copithorne introduced his report on Iran (E/CN.4/2001/39) and said that the state of freedom of expression and of the press in Iran has not improved in the last three months. The Revolutionary Courts and the Special Court for the Clergy appeared to make frequent use of pre-trial detention, particularly of journalists, students, intellectuals, and political dissidents. He added that such individuals apparently are frequently held incommunicado and even their whereabouts are kept secret. Copithorne concluded that "in certain key areas, it seemed that there had not been any substantive, quantifiable improvement since President Khatami took office."

Khorram, on the other hand, said that the recorded improvements warranted Iran's removal from the agenda. Tehran has not allowed Copithorne to visit Iran since 1996, so his failure to witness these alleged improvements is understandable. (Bill Samii)