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Iran Report: May 7, 2001

7 May 2001, Volume 4, Number 18

SISYPHUS STILL TRYING. Hojatoleslam Seyyed Mohammad Khatami-Ardakani, the 58-year-old Iranian president, registered on 4 May as a candidate for the 8 June presidential election. His victory is a near certainty, but it is almost as certain that his margin of victory this time will not match the 69 percent of the 1997 election. This is because pro-Khatami election officials are being removed and the ability of others to comment has been limited; voters' choices may be diluted and their access to information about candidates limited; and Khatami himself has been a disappointment to some voters. His mandate, therefore, will be a weakened one, and his ability to bring about the changes people once expected of him will be reduced even more than they already are.

Election officials who might have manipulated results in favor of Khatami, or at least prevented manipulation that would favor his opponents, are being prevented from fulfilling their duties. On 2 May, the Tehran Province appeals court upheld the 30-month suspension from public office of Deputy Interior Minister Mustafa Tajzadeh, the reformist official who headed the Election Headquarters. Tehran Governor Ayatollah Azarmi's 24-month suspension from public duties was also upheld. Mohammad Rezai, Election Headquarters chief of Luristan Province, was banned from public duties for five years on 23 April.

Moreover, reform-oriented officials who might campaign for the president in their constituencies continue to face legal difficulties. Kurdistan Province Governor-General Abdullah Ramezanzadeh appeared in court on 9 April to face accusations that he had libeled the Guardians Council, and Sanandaj representative Jalal Jalalizadeh was summoned in February. Tehran's Fatimeh Haqiqatju must come to court again, having originally appeared on 27 March.

Many other parliamentarians have been summoned recently, and in a 1 May speech, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei criticized the reformists by implying that they had Western orientations. He said that "[t]here is a difference between people acting in accordance with the propaganda of foreign radios for their own private aims and people acting for the sake of God."

The vote may be diluted if voters are confronted by many choices. Over 800 hopeful candidates registered from 2-6 May, the Guardians Council has 10 days to determine the eligibility of each one, and the results are to be announced on 18 May. Although about 240 people registered to be candidates in the 1997 election, the Guardians Council approved only 4 of them. It is possible that the roughly 42 million voters will have more choices this time in order to dilute support for Khatami. The introduction of candidates who will attract the support of ethnic minorities is one method of reducing Khatami's vote total. The registration of Ismail Tatari, a conservative Kurd from Kermanshah, is an example of this tendency. Two Azerbaijani candidates are Ebrahim Sarraf and Qasem Memari.

Khatami had a lot of female support in 1997, when there were no female candidates. Three women -- Farah Khosravi, Aqdas Mudariss, and Turan Jamili -- have registered for the upcoming election, and if the Guardians Council approves even one of them, she could attract votes that might have gone to Khatami. Indeed, the conservative Khosravi said that Khatami had been a disappointment to his female supporters: "He has failed to keep his promises to the people, to the young, and to the women. " She criticized his failure to control inflation and unemployment, according to AFP, and said he was not tough.

Moreover, voters' access to information about the candidates will be limited. Only a handful of pre-reform publications remain -- such as "Hambastegi," "Hayat-i No," and "Noruz" -- and self-preservation means that they must censor themselves. Hard-liners control the broadcast media and remaining newspapers. State radio and television, for example, was not seen providing any information about Khatami's registration on the day that it occurred.

And Khatami admits that his ability to implement reforms is limited. When he registered he said that most of the problems "imposed on the government�were beyond the limits of the power of the president," IRNA reported, and he predicted more "hardships and troubles." He added that the realization of "religious democracy" faces "great obstacles...both from within and from outside the system." Because of Iran's history of "despotism," Khatami went on to say, "serious cultural work" is necessary to make "officials who have their hands over the levers of power...learn to yield" to democratic requirements. It might also be the case that Khatami's willingness to change the system of which he is a major part is not very strong.

Although hard-line officials want to limit support for Khatami and limit his ability to act, they also would like a big turnout by voters in order to give the election a semblance of democracy and the system a semblance of public support. Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati said during the 4 May Friday Prayers that "It is the enemy's wish to see fewer votes. They are currently lower the number of the electorate...We must participate. There is no doubt about the importance of participation. Any individual, any Muslim, even any nationalist, must participate.... The higher the strength and pride of the country, and the national strength, the greater the honor for all. If not, then it will be a weakness and a defeat for all. We must participate."

Supreme Leader Khamenei said during a 1 May speech in Rasht: "what...I personally want from the people is for them to turnout in large numbers in the election and for every individual of this massive nation to see their a duty. " (Bill Samii)

CONTROVERSY ABOUT PARLIAMENTARY BY-ELECTION. "Members of the Guardians Council are not after financial benefits, and disqualifications are based on evidence on hand," Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati said on 1 May, according to IRNA. Jannati was defending the 12-member body's rejection of 145 out of 356 applicants for candidacy in the 8 June by-election for 17 parliamentary seats. The Council said that the rejections were based on drug and alcohol trafficking, connections with the Mujahedin Khalq Organization, or the pre-1979 monarchy, and graft of various sorts, and newspapers reported that 40 percent of the rejections related to un-Islamic behavior, though information about specific individuals was not released.

The Interior Ministry's inspectors had rejected only 34 candidates. As a result, state television complained on 28 April that some local investigations were not conducted, while in another case a candidate was approved after passage of the registration deadline. Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari decried the "unprincipled disqualification" of candidates during a meeting with provincial election officials, IRNA reported on 1 May. Moreover, the Interior Ministry's Election Headquarters called on the council to review the disqualifications, and it pointed out that the council had approved 58 of the now-disqualified candidates for the February 2000 parliamentary election, 16 of the rejected candidates had served in previous parliaments, and other rejected candidates were veterans of the Iran-Iraq war.

There were many other complaints about the rejections. Speaker of Parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, according to the 2 May "Iran," planned to meet with the council and present documents establishing individuals innocence. Deputy Speaker Behzad Nabavi criticized the rejections on 1 May, saying that they supported those who say Iranian elections lack credibility, according to IRNA. His comment that "we can't ask the people to select a kilo of pears out of a kilo of pears" received an angry reaction from conservative parliamentarians. An "overwhelming majority" of the parliamentarians, however, called on the council to reconsider the rejections.

The reformist 2nd of Khordad faction wrote a letter to the Guardians Council in which it complained about the rejections, Tehran's "Seda-yi Idalat" reported on 2 May. The Islamic Iran Participation Party condemned the disqualifications in a 29 April statement: "This measure is a bitter admission of the conservatives for losing the people's confidence and incompetence of their hopefuls to vie in free elections."

Even the hard-line "Jomhuri-yi Islami," in an article defending the council's role in vetting candidates, said that the "available information shows that among the candidates who have been disqualified by the Guardian Council's Supervisory Board there are some who are indeed qualified." (Bill Samii)

KHAMENEI TOPS CPJ PRESS ENEMIES LIST. The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) placed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at the top of the "Enemies of the Press" list that it issues annually in advance of the 3 May World Press Freedom Day. Last year he was the runner-up (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 8 May 2000).

CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper told RFE/RL why Khamenei won this dubious honor. "Ayatollah Khamenei is number one this year from Iran. He was also on the list last year. We believe he deserves the number-one slot because through his pronouncements essentially what had been a very vibrant reformist press has been shut down." She added that Khamenei "has shuttered the country's vibrant reformist press by closing dozens of newspapers and jailing outspoken journalists." Russian President Vladimir Putin also made the list of the world's 10 worst abusers of press freedom, and Cooper noted that there are always more candidates than places on the list.

Reporters Without Frontiers (RSF), meanwhile, identified Khamenei as a "Predator of Press Freedom." RSF's annual report said that "in 2000, Iran became the Middle East country holding the most journalists in jail," and it added that "the year 2000 sounded the knell for the reformist press which, since the election of Mohammad Khatami in 1997, has appealed to a large portion of the Iranian population." RSF chief Robert Menard said, according to France Info radio: "today we are very concerned over the situation in Iran and, above all, we are very concerned over the lack of determination of the West, of our democratic countries, to try to put pressure on Tehran, on Iran to secure a real freedom of expression in this country."

Two days earlier, IRNA reported that "Asr-i Ma" Director Mohammad Salamati was found guilty of publishing "false and defamatory" articles. He also faced charges of spreading rumors when he claimed that there was a plot to either overthrow or at least censure President Mohammad Khatami. Ali Mohammad Mohammadi, managing editor of the weekly "Neda-yi Ilam," was summoned by the Ilam Province court to face a complaint filed by the head of the local medical university. Mohammadi explained that the weekly, which has a circulation of 2,000, had published reports about hospital worker strikes, IRNA reported on 28 April.

"Nosazi" daily, which is headed by Hamid-Reza Jalaipour, appeared on 5 May. "Mellat" newspaper resumed publication on 1 May, hitting the newsstands one year after it was closed. Also, Hojatoleslam Ali Afsahi, publisher of the weekly "Cinema va Varzish," was released from Evin Prison after serving a four-month sentence. The Special Court for the Clergy convicted him of insulting religious figures during a speech in Bushehr.

Press repression in Iran has resulted in people seeking news elsewhere. As "Hambastegi" warned on 10 April, "Until yesterday, the closure of each newspaper only increased the people's inclination toward foreign radios. But today, this inclination is flowing toward Internet sites, too. And tomorrow, technology will open another way of acquiring news." (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN REJECTS TERRORISM LABEL. "The U.S. government, which itself is one of the supporters of Israeli state terrorism, is not in any position to judge others and should abandon its unconditional support for the Zionist regime," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on 1 May, in reaction to the release one day earlier of the U.S. Department of State's "Patterns of Global Terrorism: 2000" report. As in the preceding year, Iran was designated "the most active state sponsor of terrorism." Other state sponsors of terrorism were Cuba, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria.

Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Sadr, who was in Beirut to meet with Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and other officials, also rejected the U.S. report. He said that Iran does not consider people fighting against occupation to be terrorists and added that not only does America not condemn Israel, it supports it, the Lebanese national news agency reported on 2 May.

Assefi and Sadr both said that the U.S. definition of terrorism is not accepted in the rest of the world. According to U.S. law [Title 22 of the United States Code, Section 2656f(d)], terrorism is "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience." States are designated as sponsors of terrorism and subsequently have sanctions imposed against them, according to the State Department report, in order to isolate them and pressure them to "renounce the use of terrorism, end support to terrorists, and bring terrorists to justice."

Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security and Islamic Revolution Guard Corps were involved in the planning and execution of terrorist acts and supported groups that use terrorism to achieve their ends, according to the State Department report. Iran's support to groups that are using terrorism to undermine the Middle East Peace Process -- Lebanese Hizballah (also known as the Islamic Jihad, Revolutionary Justice Organization, Organization of the Oppressed on Earth, and Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine), Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement), Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine -- General Command (PFLP-GC) -- is increasing. These groups receive funding, training, weapons, and safe-haven from Iran, and Tehran urges them to coordinate and escalate their actions against Israel.

Edmund Hull, the State Department's acting coordinator for counterterrorism, told a 1 May news conference that Iranian involvement in the promotion of terrorism is long-standing. He said that this is a "significant threat" and there has been an upswing in Middle East terrorism, especially in Israel and the Occupied Territories.

Indeed, Jibril met with Iranian Speaker of Parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi and Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani on 3 May, according to IRNA. Karrubi "lauded" the Palestinian struggle and said that "the issue of Palestine is on agenda [sic] of the Islamic Revolution." Rafsanjani told Jibril that "negotiations would not be sufficient to liberate...Palestine from the Zionists' control."

The report cites assertions by "Turkish officials and media" that Iran provides Turkish Hizballah with some support. Assertions by "Turkish officials and [the] media" that Iran directed, trained, and supported that country's Jerusalem Warriors were noted, too, as were allegations that Iran continues to provide a safe-haven to armed militants from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Iranian state radio broadcasts of statements by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) leadership suggest its involvement with Central Asian terrorism.

North African governments also complain of Iranian-sponsored terrorism, according to the report. Algiers accuses Tehran and Khartoum of supporting the Armed Islamic Group and other extremists. Cairo believes that Iran, Sudan, and Afghan militant groups support Al-Gamaat al-Islamiyya (Islamic Group) and al-Jihad (a.k.a. Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Jihad Group, Islamic Jihad, Vanguards of Conquest, Talaa' al-Fateh).

In contrast with the preceding report, which did not mention the issue at all, the 2000 report notes that Tehran has not tried to kill Salman Rushdie in response to a fatwa from Father of the Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Be that as it may, the decree has not been withdrawn, the $2.8 million bounty still is available, and some officials say that the decree is irrevocable.

The State Department report also had a warning that could be intended for official Iranian ears. It said that the U.S. is committed to holding terrorists and those who harbor them responsible for their actions, irrespective of how much time has passed since their actions occurred. States that harbor such people are like accomplices to a crime, and "they will be held accountable for their 'guests' actions." U.S. government officials have repeatedly stated that Iranian officials are connected with the 1996 bombing of U.S. military housing in Saudi Arabia that resulted in 19 deaths. Moreover, it is a matter of record that Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Mohtashemi-Pur, formerly the ambassador to Damascus and now a reformist parliamentarian and adviser to President Mohammad Khatami, is connected with the 1983 bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut that resulted in 241 deaths. (Bill Samii)

HIZBALLAH, PROUD OF TERRORIST LABEL, ENDORSES KHATAMI. Lebanon's Hizballah was identified as a terrorist organization that receives "substantial amounts of financial, training, weapons, explosives, political, diplomatic, and organizational aid from Iran and Syria" in the "Patterns of Global Terrorism: 2000" report. An official statement from Hizballah retorted that "this extreme hostility and attempt to smear us is a badge of honor, which shows that we are following the right path and serving our nation," Reuters reported on 1 May. The State Department report noted that Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other Palestinian rejectionist officials lauded Hizballah's actions and called for emulation of Hizballah. Moreover, Israeli officials stated that Hizballah increasingly influenced the rejectionists.

In what may be a related matter, during his late April trip to Tehran, Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah reportedly told Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that he strongly favors the re-election of President Mohammad Khatami, according to the 3 May "Al-Sharq al-Awsat. " Citing a source close to Khamenei, London journalist Ali Reza Nurizadeh quoted Nasrallah as saying, "Khatami restored Iran's standing in Lebanon and the Islamic world, and he also succeeded in repairing the [Iranian Islamic] regime's image in the world. Hence, we are all waiting for his re-election." Nurizadeh wrote that other participants in the meeting, such as former Foreign Minister and possible presidential candidate Ali Akbar Velayati, were dumbfounded.

Nasrallah's endorsement of Khatami, if such a thing actually occurred, may be a byproduct of his long-standing relationship with Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Mohtashemi-Pur, who now heads a reformist bloc in the parliament, is close to Khatami, and who also served as the organizer of the recent "Support for the Palestinian Intifada" conference. Formerly Iranian ambassador to Damascus, Mohtashemi-Pur was instrumental in the creation of Hizballah, and he has traveled to Beirut several times in recent months. Such personal ties may have been more effective than the influence wielded by Velayati, who visited Beirut recently as Khamenei's representative. Family connections might explain Nasrallah's endorsement of Khatami, too, since many Iranian clerical families can trace their roots to Lebanon directly or through marriage.

When they are not in Iran or other parts of the Middle East, members of Hizballah, Hamas, the PFLP-GC, and similar organizations go to the tri-border region of Ciudad del Este (Paraguay), Foz de Yguazu (Brazil), and Puerto Yguazu (Argentina). Paraguayan Vice Interior Minister Mario Agustin Sapriza said that these groups use this region to rest, obtain supplies, and then travel to places where they launch their attacks, Asuncion's ABC Color reported on 4 May. (Bill Samii)

CASTRO TO VISIT IRAN. Cuban President Fidel Castro will arrive in Tehran on 7 May for a three-day visit, an anonymous official from the Iranian Presidential Office told AP. President Mohammad Khatami visited Cuba in autumn 2000, Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque visited Iran in January 2001, and an Iranian parliamentary delegation visited Havana in March-April 2001. Increased bilateral consultations, according to Cuban National Assembly head Ricardo Alarcon De Quesada, are prompted by the coming to power of President George W. Bush, IRNA reported on 4 April. Another thing that Cuba and Iran have in common is that they both are described as state sponsors of terrorism in the U.S. State Department's "Patterns of Global Terrorism: 2000" report. (Bill Samii)

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN IRAN 'VERY POOR.' "The conditions of religious freedom are very poor in Iran, particularly with respect to minority religious groups that are not officially recognized by the state and those perceived to be attempting to convert Muslims," according to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom's second annual report, which was released on 30 April. Iran's approximately 300,000 Bahais, whose faith is not recognized by the state, "suffer the worst forms of religious persecution at the hands of the state." Such persecution includes executions, imprisonment, bans on education, bans on practicing their religion, property confiscation, and bans on government employment.

The officially-recognized minorities -- 250,000 Christians, 30,000 Jews, and 30,000 Zoroastrians -- also suffer from various forms of official discrimination, according to the report, and the July 2000 trial of 13 Jews on espionage charges illustrates this point. Evangelical Christians who proselytize are treated more harshly -- they are subject to harassment and surveillance, they must inform the government about new converts, and some allegedly have been murdered.

Senior Shia figures who disagree with the ruling theocrats allegedly have been subject to house arrest, detention without charges, unfair trials, and torture. Institutions associated with such individuals have been closed and/or confiscated.

The Sunni Muslim minority also has problems, the report notes. They claim that the government has not allowed them to build a Sunni mosque in Tehran, and they also cite the destruction of the Sunni mosque in Mashhad. Sunni clerics allegedly have been tortured and detained. Moreover, the teaching of Sunnism and use of Sunni religious literature, even in predominantly Sunni areas, is restricted. (Bill Samii)

PARLIAMENTARIANS NOTE SUNNIS' DIFFICULTIES. About 10 percent of the Iranian population practices Sunni Islam, while Shia Islam, the country's official religion, is practiced by about 89 percent of the population. In mid-April, some 30 Iranian parliamentarians noted their dissatisfaction that the Ministries of Education and of Foreign Affairs are failing to provide employment opportunities for the country's Sunnis, "Hayat-i No" reported.

Other officials make frequent statements about unity in order to hide the friction between Iranian Sunnis and Shia and to avoid the impression that the Sunnis face discrimination. As if to emphasize the extent of this unity, the Sunni prayer leader of Zahedan, Molavi Abdulhamid Ismail Zehi, told his congregation on 6 April that Imam Hussein is a good model for everybody and "people should follow his path," according to IRNA. Moreover, the head of the Iranian delegation to the Hajj, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mohammadi-Reyshahri, met with Iranian Sunni clerics and reminded them that "Sunni and Shia Muslims are currently living in peace and unity in Iran," IRNA reported on 10 March.

At a February gathering of Friday Prayer leaders in Gulistan Province, Ayatollah Nur-Mofidi said that "at the beginning of the revolution, much seditious activity took place aimed at upsetting relations between Shia and Sunni. Through the activity of the committed and revolutionary Sunni and Shia clergy, this activity was put down." Nur-Mofidi asked provincial officials to prevent public speeches that might harm Sunni-Shia unity, according to Gulistan Province's "Gulshan-i Mehr." Gonbad's Sunni prayer leader, Hajj Akhund-Nuri, added, "I ask officials not to raise issues in a manner that might result in divisiveness between Shia and Sunni." (Bill Samii)