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Iran Report: April 23, 2001

23 April 2001, Volume 4, Number 16

WASHINGTON NOTES TEHRAN'S REGIONAL ROLE. Washington has signaled its recognition of Tehran's potential importance in solving regional problems even though the Bush administration has made it clear that it does not plan to make any fundamental policy decisions until after the June presidential election in Iran.

One signal was seen in early April in Key West, when U.S. Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh said that Iran is an important country in the region and it would be kept informed about the progress of the Minsk Group talks. Consisting of the U.S., Russia, and France, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Minsk Group is trying to settle the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-occupied enclave in Azerbaijan. Armenia and Azerbaijan have been in conflict over Karabakh since 1988, and the resulting six-year war caused about 35,000 deaths and drove about 800,000 people from their homes.

The "Tehran Times" took note of Cavanaugh's statement on 10 April but did not comment on it. The next day, the press secretary of the Iranian Embassy in Baku said that Tehran may consult with Yerevan and Baku about this subject. Unidentified sources told Baku's "525 Gazet" that consultations with Iran should not be interpreted as Azerbaijani approval of Iran as a mediator. On the other hand, Armenian President Robert Kocharian later emphasized that "Iran's involvement in the Karabakh settlement process is the result of [his] own efforts and efforts by the Armenian side in general," Yerevan state television reported on 19 April. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi subsequently exchanged views about Karabakh with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, IRNA reported on 19 April.

Iran is also assuming a greater role in U.S. dealings with Iraq. Ayatollah Baqir al-Hakim, chairman of the Tehran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), indicated in an early April interview that he would be willing to have his organization engage in dialogue with the U.S. Until now, the predominantly Shia SCIRI has opposed a U.S. role in the Iraqi opposition due to previous bad experiences and because of the Iranian role in the organization. Also, Washington has been wary of the Iranian influence over the SCIRI.

Al-Hakim met with Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef Bin Abd al-Aziz during the latter's mid-April visit to Tehran. Although there is no information on the substance of their talks, it is not inconceivable that Prince Nayef was serving as an intermediary for the White House. Otherwise, Washington would almost certainly disapprove of Prince Nayef's signing a security agreement with Tehran, since Iranian officials are identified as suspects in the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in which 19 American military personnel were killed.

The need for Saudi participation in winning over the SCIRI can be explained by the anti-U.S. statements of officials other than al-Hakim. Abu Hassan al-Haytham, a prominent and influential member of the SCIRI's General Committee, said that neither the General Committee nor the Central Shura Council have decided to engage in a dialogue with Washington. He added, London's "Al-Hayah" reported on 16 April, that "the principle on which the SCIRI was established rejects a dialog with the United States, especially in connection with U.S. intervention in Iraq, or asking the U.S. administration to help end the repression of the Iraqi people." Abu Hassan went on to say that the Badr Corps, the SCIRI's military wing, "categorically" rejects dialogue with the U.S.

It also is possible that the Saudis are serving as a kind of diplomatic cut-out, so U.S. involvement in SCIRI activities can be denied. Saudi involvement in supplying the Afghan Mujahedin who fought the Soviet Union would be a model for this.

Meanwhile, Iranian intelligence officers, two Iranians with European citizenship, and an Iranian with U.S. citizenship met with U.S. officials in Vienna for two days, according to Paris' "Al-Watan al-Arabi" on 13 April. Several of these individuals were involved in the arms-for-hostages scandal of the mid-1980s. The newspaper speculated that these meetings addressed the Shia opposition to Saddam Husseyn and as part of a U.S. plan, the Badr Corps could serve as the nucleus for an "Iraq Liberation Army."

Another intermediary in Washington's contacts with the SCIRI is Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi. Chalabi's March visit to Tehran reportedly failed to yield the desired results -- permission to open an INC office in Tehran and establishment of a "safe pocket" for the opposition in southern Iraq. INC spokesman Sharif Ali Bin Al-Hussein told Radio Free Iraq recently that the discussions are continuing: "We are talking with Iran about opening an office, particularly the nature of an INC representation in Iran, and this depends on the way the INC would like to conduct its activities on Iranian soil."

The INC also tried to persuade the SCIRI and Tehran that Washington is serious about regime change in Baghdad. Sharif Ali said, "So the INC tried in the Iran meetings to tell the SCIRI about the new U.S. administration's approach to Iraq and say that it is serious and we also relayed to the Iranian government our optimism over this."

But a lot more persuasion is likely to be needed. Al-Hakim refuted the early April report in a London-based Arabic daily that described the possibility of SCIRI talks with the U.S., and he added that the SCIRI "has nothing in common with the U.S. government." But then he hedged in his interview with Iranian state radio's external service on 8 April, saying that "Even if such talks are to be held, it would only be to draw international attention towards the plight of Iraq and the Iraqi people." (Bill Samii)

CENTCOM VIEWS IRANIAN INTENTIONS. General Tommy Franks, the commander of Central Command (CENTCOM), which is responsible for security in the Area of Responsibility that includes Iran and the Persian Gulf, testified to the House Armed Services Committee on 28 March 2001 about some of the threats to U.S. interests in the region. Iraq remains the focus of "day-to-day operations," but in the long-term, "Iran's moves towards regional hegemony could be of greater concern." Iran's ability to interdict the Straits of Hormuz also "remains a concern." He said that Iran has placed a high priority on improving its conventional and unconventional capabilities, specifically chemical weapons and possibly biological weapons, as well as ballistic missiles. Franks also remarked that Tehran continues to support terrorism aimed against the Middle East Peace Process, and regional stability is somewhat undermined by the Iran-United Arab Emirates dispute over the Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Abu Musa. Franks noted that internal political volatility in Iran could lead to "diplomatic, military, or asymmetric attacks" on Iran's neighbors, American citizens, or U.S. interests. (Bill Samii)

NAVAL MANEUVERS IN SEA OF OMAN. The Iranian armed forces staged the Unity-80 naval exercises from 13 to 17 April as part of an effort to make the third zone of Chahbahar naval base operational, IRNA reported. In phase one, submarines, ships, and aircraft left Bandar Abbas, organized themselves into a battle formation, and headed for the Straits of Hormuz and Sea of Oman. The submarines also practiced defensive tactics, spokesman Admiral Abdullah Manavi said, and ships used radar to detect aircraft and then repel them using electronic countermeasures. On the third day of the exercises, Manavi described the actions of naval commandos in capturing an enemy position and in creating a "mobile defense rampart."

The second phase of Unity-80 started on 16 April. During this phase, according to Manavi, naval units practiced defensive tactics against enemy frogmen's attacks on submarines. The Iranian ships also defended against attacks on the ports and harbors. On the last day of the exercises, deputy navy commander Qolam-Abbas Vahmani announced that one of Iran's three Kilo-class diesel submarines was repaired completely by Iranian personnel over a four-month period. The submarine was able to participate in Unity-80.

Acting navy commander Rear Admiral Mohammad Hassan Shafiei said the motto of Unity-80 was sustainable security in light of regional unity. He added that sustainable security could be achieved through the cooperation of regional countries and in the absence of the "illegitimate presence of extraterritorial forces." Shafiei mentioned joint naval operations with India, Pakistan, and Italy. (Bill Samii)

IRAN MARKS ARMY DAY. Iran commemorated Army Day on 18 April with a parade in front of the Tehran shrine of Father of the Revolution Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. This was deemed an appropriate site because this year's ceremony coincided with the mourning period for Imam Hussein and the holy month of Moharram, state radio reported on 16 April.

In a pre-parade speech broadcast by state television, President Mohammad Khatami said that Iran's enemies always coveted it because of its strategic location, and this situation only increased after the Islamic revolution. Iran's enemies imposed the war with Iraq, and the continuing activities of the Iraqi-supported Mujahedin Khalq Organization show that such enmity persists.

Khatami emphasized that Iran's armed forces are not for attacking others, taking their land, and imposing their will on others through force of arms. "Our policy, from the start until now, has been the policy of detente, avoidance of tension, and ties on the basis of mutual respect with all countries, especially the countries of the region.... [I]n order to ensure that this policy succeeds, we need a strong and powerful force." He went on to say that a strong military will give national strength the required backing, and he said that "[o]ur armed force is a deterrent force."

What the military lacks in equipment and resources, Khatami said, it makes up for in faith. Overall, however, "we find ourselves in a satisfactory position."

After Khatami's speech, infantry units, including the "Model Unit of Koran Reciters" and disabled veterans, marched past the podium. At the same time, a helicopter dropped flowers on the marchers. This was followed by a parade of army college cadets, Brigades 65 and 55, a logistics unit, and naval units. Occasionally paratroopers descended from the skies. Air Force fighter-bombers and helicopters passed overhead. Law Enforcement Forces units also participated in the parade, as did cadets from the LEF academy.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addressed a gathering of military commanders and personnel on the eve of Army Day. He reminded his audience that the younger generation of army officers owes a debt of gratitude to the older generation that "rescued the army from the hands of the foreigners and their agents and gave it back to the Iranian nation." Khamenei went on to say that the Army, LEF, and Islamic Revolution Guards Corps should each fulfill their specific tasks, while simultaneously respecting each other and practicing unity.

Khamenei concluded his speech with some warnings. In a reference to Palestine, he said: "Today you can see the very people who speak of peace, the very people who speak of human rights, are inflicting the heaviest blows against peace and human rights." He warned about a global conspiracy that failed in the case of Iran: "overt and covert power establishments are hard at work in economic, military, and security fields in order to bring billions of people under their control." And he also referred to the U.S.: "The world arrogance and power-seeking international hands will undoubtedly fail in the case of Iran and in the case of the Iranian nation."

Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani discussed Army Day during the 13 April Friday prayers sermon at Tehran University. According to him, the armed forces were in disarray after the revolution because some the senior commanders had fled the country (he forgot to mention the execution of many other military officers and civilians). When Rafsanjani visited military units he noted the lack of discipline, the breakdown of the chain of command, and disobedience towards commanders. The Mujahedin Khalq Organization, furthermore, wanted to dissolve the regular armed forces and create a "people's army," and Iraq was planning to take action against Iran.

Ayatollah Khomeini, however, disregarded the recommendations to dissolve the army, Rafsanjani said, noting that he had instead revived the military and stressed how important the army remained to Iran. Today the military is more prepared than it was "25 years ago," Rafsanjani continued, thanks to its "enhanced training efforts [and] maintenance of resources which they know are hard to obtain." (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN HOSTING INTIFADAH CONFERENCE. The Iranian parliament will host its second "Support for the Palestinian Intifadah" Conference from 24-25 April, having sponsored the first such meeting in 1990. Hizballah Secretary-General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and other officials of the Lebanese organization arrived in Tehran on 18 April to hold preliminary discussions. 50 nongovernmental organizations from Muslim countries are scheduled to participate in this event, and 35 countries have announced their intention to participate.

Conference secretary Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Mohtashami-Pur, who heads the reformist Second of Khordad faction in the parliament, said participants in the conference will devise a strategy for the uprising and decide on "practical steps to help the Palestinian Intifadah succeed," IRNA reported on 14 April. He added that the "Iranian government and parliament are supporting the uprising because Iran is constitutionally obliged to support the Islamic liberation movements in every part of the world including in Palestine."

In a Tasua and Ashura speech at the Qandi Mosque, "Hayat-i No" reported on 8 April, Mohtashami-Pur said that Palestinians are leaning towards the Hizballah model. He said, moreover, that the U.S. has tried to prevent representatives of Islamic countries' parliaments from participating in the conference, and Washington is trying to make sure the conference does not take place.

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said that the aim of the conference is to make sure that the world hears "the oppressed Palestinians," "politically support the Intifadah," and facilitate discussions between interested groups. Kharrazi added, state radio reported on 16 April, that it is Iran's "religious and ideological duty" to struggle against oppression, noting that the "Zionist regime has always been an economic, security, political, and cultural threat to the region."

Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani discussed Israel and the Intifadah during the 13 April Friday prayers sermon at Tehran University, although he did not discuss the conference specifically. Rafsanjani condemned the Palestinian Authority for participating in the Camp David talks, and he also condemned Arab countries for not supporting the Palestinians adequately. He rhetorically asked who stops the Israelis when their tanks destroy people's houses, who shoots at Israeli helicopters, and who stops Israeli gunboats.

The Intifadah conference may be the answer to these rhetorical questions. With such an event, Iran may be trying to portray itself as the biggest defender of the Palestinians, while also having a platform that is almost on par with its chairmanship of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. (Bill Samii)

VAJPAYEE VISIT YIELDS LOAN OFFER. Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's four-day visit to Tehran in mid-April resulted in the signing of six agreements regarding cooperation in the trade, technology, and energy sectors. India also offered a $200 million loan for funding infrastructure projects. Little substantive progress, however, was made on a proposed overland natural gas pipeline that would pass through Pakistan from Iran to India. President Mohammad Khatami accepted Vajpayee's invitation to visit India. (Bill Samii)

UN HUMAN RIGHT COMMISSION CENSURES IRAN. The UN Human Rights Commission voted in favor on 20 April of a European Union resolution condemning Iran for restricting free press and for "cruel executions." The resolution denounced the lack of freedom of expression -- attacks against freedom of the press, imprisonment of journalists, and repression of student demonstrations -- and unsatisfactory compliance with international standards of justice.

Ali Khorram, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Iran to the United Nations Office at Geneva, denounced the resolution as another means of dominating developing countries. He dismissed the move by saying that Iran has faced such resolutions for eighteen years and they always were fruitless and ineffective.

Earlier in the month, Khorram said that the UN should recognize Tehran's improved record on human rights and drop the Islamic Republic from the agenda of the UN Human Rights Commission meeting (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 9 April 2001). (Bill Samii)

ELECTION CLOCK TICKING. There now are three elections planned for 8 June 2001: the presidential election, the parliamentary by-elections in seventeen constituencies, and the Assembly of Experts by-election in two constituencies. Registration for presidential candidates will last from 2 through 6 May. Per Article 35 of the Presidential Election Law, a candidate must be a religious and political figure, Iranian in origin and nationality, competent and efficient with a "brilliant track record," honest, and pious. The candidate also must be "faithful and loyal to the fundamentals of the Islamic republic system and the official religion of the country," IRNA reported on 10 April.

The deadline for registering for the parliamentary election was 6 April, disqualified candidates had until 18 April to appeal, and final candidate lists are to be announced on 29 May, state television reported. The campaigning period lasts from 31 May to 6 June. 356 people, including 25 females, registered for the parliamentary by-elections, with over 100 people contesting the one seat in Tehran constituency. This seat was left unoccupied because Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani turned it down after finishing in last place (thirtieth out of the top thirty) in the February 2000 parliamentary contest. "Abrar" reported that former Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Ataollah Mohajerani is one of the people vying for the Tehran seat, according to a 17 April IRNA dispatch, but the next day IRNA cited a statement from Mohajerani's office that he would not stand in the election.

Ahmad Purnejati, spokesman for the election supervisory board in Tehran, Rey, Islamshahr, and Shemiranat, said that only five people were found to be unqualified to stand in the elections, "Iran" reported on 16 April.

The former deputies from Bandar Abbas did not register at all, according to the 8 April "Jam-i Jam." There were demonstrations in the Hormozgan Province city in March 2000 after the Guardians Council cancelled the election results there. "Jam-i Jam" also reports that there will not be a by-election in Khalkhal, Ardabil Province. The Guardians Council overturned election results there in April 2000 and declared a conservative winner instead, and the resulting two days of violent protests ended only after police and military intervention. According to the Guardians Council, there is no need for a by-election because the earlier elections were fair, and security could not be guaranteed anyway.

The Assembly of Experts by-election will be held in East Azerbaijan and Qom Provinces. In a first, a woman has registered for the Qom Province contest. The unnamed female has teaching experience in the seminaries and is a theology specialist, IRNA reported on 17 April. So far, 21 candidates have registered for this Assembly of Experts competition. (Bill Samii)