Accessibility links

Breaking News

Iran Report: July 30, 2001

30 July 2001, Volume 4, Number 28

GUNBOAT DIPLOMACY ON THE CASPIAN. On 23 July an Iranian jet overflew for several hours two research vessels under contract with British Petroleum and then an Iranian gunboat ordered them to withdraw northward out of disputed Caspian Sea waters. That evening, Azerbaijani Prime Minister Artur Rasizade protested to Iranian Ambassador Ahmad Qazi, and he added that the Iranian actions were a "gross violation of international norms." Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi responded the next day, according to IRNA, saying that "[w]e are deeply astonished with [the] Azeri hue and cry against measures taken by the Islamic Republic to defend its legitimate rights."

The level of hostility in this recent incident may be surprising, since just a few days earlier Supreme National Security Council chief Hassan Rohani was in Baku and the two sides signed a Memorandum of Understanding that dealt with security issues (counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism).

Yet Tehran and Baku have had disputes about the division of the Caspian Sea's resources in the past (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 19 February 2001). Under the current legal regime, Iran's share of the Caspian is limited to 13 percent. Tehran advocates a new arrangement by which each state bordering the Caspian would have a 20 percent share of the seabed, surface, and waters, and Iranian state radio reported on 23 July that in a meeting with British Ambassador Nick Browne, Rohani stated, "We will not allow any foreign company to operate within Iran's share in the Caspian Sea without having Iran's consent." In other words, Tehran is indicating that its division of the Caspian is a fait accompli.

Iranian statements in the previous month and Azerbaijani allegations about Iranian military activities indicated heightened sensitivities. Washington's provision of a 16-meter cutter for Baku to patrol its borders met with an angry commentary from Iranian state radio's external English-language service on 17 June. In exchange for the cutter, according to the commentary, Baku would have to serve U.S. interests in the Caspian; this would enable Western countries to "further dominate the region," and it would contribute to militarization of the Caspian. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Euro-American Affairs Ali Ahani told the 25 June "Iran News" that Iran was against the militarization of the Caspian. And in late May, Baku's "Sharg" claimed that Iranian military units were massing near the border with Azerbaijan. (Bill Samii)

IRAN-U.A.E. DISPUTE MOVING TOWARD RESOLUTION? United Arab Emirates Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayid Al-Nuhayyan's unannounced visit to Iran on 23 July may signal progress in resolving the long-running dispute between Abu Dhabi and Tehran about three islands in the Persian Gulf, and it also reflects optimism about President Mohammad Khatami's foreign policy and the impact of trade on diplomacy.

On returning to Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Hamdan denied that the islands issue was broached with the Iranians, and this may be because the problem's historical roots, on which both sides stake their claims, make finding a solution difficult. The dispute over Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs can be traced to Iranian claims in 1877, Ayman Alouri of the Washington Center for International Studies said in early July at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. Great Britain rejected the claims at that time, but the issue resurfaced in 1968, when Britain announced its withdrawal from the Persian Gulf. In 1971, the ruler of Sharjah agreed to permit Iranian establishment of a military base on Abu Musa and shared Iran-U.A.E. control of the islands. In 1992, according to Alouri, Iran took full control of the islands, expelled all foreigners, and claimed full sovereignty. He went on to say that Iran bases its claims on the Persian citizenship of the islands' tribal inhabitants (the Qawasim) and the colors used on 19th-century British maps. Tehran also claims that because of the islands' strategic importance, Iran should control them.

The U.A.E., according to Alouri, argues that the Qawasims' citizenship is irrelevant, the maps were for navigational rather than political purposes, and the islands' strategic importance has decreased since the end of the Cold War. Abu Dhabi suggested either negotiating for full U.A.E. sovereignty in exchange for respecting Iranian interests, bringing the case before the International Court of Justice, or entering international mediation and arbitration. Tehran has ignored these suggestions.

Recent statements by both countries' officials also made the issue seem intractable. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said during a May trip to Yemen that Iran had the documentation to back up its claim, and he speculated that U.A.E. officials refused to visit Tehran because they feared these irrefutable documents, according to "Al-Hayat." Sanaa then offered to mediate between the two sides. The "million-dollar question," according to Abu Dhabi's official WAM news agency on 2 May, is "why Iran is rejecting the repeated calls from the U.A.E. side for serious direct negotiations or international arbitration."

In early June, the Gulf Cooperation Council complained that Iranian military exercises in the Persian Gulf were provocative. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi retorted that the three islands are "the eternal part of the Iranian territory" and exercises on or near them were within its rights. Assefi encouraged U.A.E. to enter unconditional talks to eliminate any misunderstandings, IRNA reported on 3 June. Three days later, U.A.E. Public Works Ministry official Ali Hamad Al-Shamsi told the UN General Assembly that the international community should urge Iran to enter a dialogue on the issue or refer it to the ICJ. Tehran's response came later in the month, when state radio claimed on 26 June that President Sheikh Zayid bin Sultan Al-Nuhayyan paid $100 million in bribes during the recent meeting of Organization of the Islamic Conference foreign ministers to support the U.A.E.'s claims on the islands.

It is noteworthy that in spite of the heated rhetoric, Iran and the U.A.E. continue to have relations that are far from warlike. According to Foreign Minister Kharrazi, annual trade between the two countries stands at $1.8 billion. Tehran hosted its first U.A.E. Trade Exhibition in June, at which time Deputy Commerce Minister Khosro-Taj asked for U.A.E. help in penetrating new markets and he encouraged investment in Iran's tourism, agriculture, petrochemicals, housing, and other sectors. Iranian firms were urged to use the Jebel Ali Free Zone, where 132 Iranian firms are already active. Iran also has a diplomatic presence in the U.A.E., and in late June the Iranian cultural attache met with the head of Dubai's Information Dissemination, Radio, and Television Headquarters.

When he was re-elected, Khatami received congratulatory messages from Sheikh Rashid bin Ahmed al-Mualla, U.A.E. Supreme Council member and ruler of Umm al-Qaiwain, and Sheikh Saud bin Rashid al-Mualla, crown prince and deputy ruler of Umm al-Qaiwain. Indeed, the stated reason for the current visit to Tehran by Sheikh Hamdan, Information and Culture Minister Sheikh Abdallah bin Zayid Al-Nuhayyan, and Interior Ministry undersecretary Sheikh Seif bin Zayid Al-Nuhayyan, all of whom are sons of President Sheikh Zayid bin Sultan Al-Nuhayyan, was to congratulate Khatami on his re-election.

A 19 July statement by U.A.E. Deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Sultan bin Zayid Al-Nuhayyan suggested a softening in Abu Dhabi's stance or at least optimism about Khatami. He told "Al Sharq Al Awsat" that although Abu Dhabi's position on the islands would never hinge on the dynamics of Iranian internal politics, "We hope the new leadership will have a better chance to reach an acceptable settlement to the islands' dispute either through direct serious bilateral dialogue or by referring the case to the International Court of Justice." (Bill Samii)

FATE OF POWS IN IRAQ QUESTIONED. Iraqi Acting Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz recently rejected comments by his Iranian counterpart, Kamal Kharrazi, about Baghdad's continuing detention of Iranian prisoners of war. Aziz said, according to Baghdad radio on 19 July, "there is not one single Iranian prisoner in Iraq. on the contrary, thousands of Iraqi prisoners are still in Iran." Four days earlier, Iranian POW and MIA Commission chief Brigadier General Abdullah Najafi called on Baghdad to release the remaining Iranian prisoners, and he rejected as "absolute lies" Iraqi press reports that no prisoners remain there. Tehran radio went on to say that 97 percent of the POWs from both sides have been released, but the failure to deal with the remaining three percent means that UN Security Council Resolution 598, which ended the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, has not been fulfilled completely.

In light of the many reports about the Iraqi regime's murder of Iranian POWs and in light of Tariq Aziz's denials, perhaps Tehran should ask, "Where are the prisoners' bodies?"

Nonetheless, war-related issues are a major hindrance to the normalization of relations between Iran and Iraq. Iranian veterans and the families of martyrs are a powerful lobby that is hostile towards a normalization when the prisoners' fate remains unknown. A commentary in the 23 June "Kayhan International" was indicative of such sentiments, when it accused the government of apathy on the POW issue. It also complained that the government had not demanded war reparations, whereas Kuwait received reparations after Iraq invaded it. In contrast, President Mohammad Khatami sent a congratulatory cable to Iraq's President Saddam Hussein on Iraq's 25 July National Day, according to Baghdad radio. (Bill Samii)

OFFICIALS, MEDIA, ENCOURAGE ANTI-AFGHAN VIOLENCE. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported on 24 July that there had been at least two outbreaks of anti-Afghan violence in Iran recently. UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond speculated that the violence was prompted by anger among some Iranians who think the Afghans are taking their jobs. The official unemployment figure is 16 percent and unofficial estimates put it at 25 percent, but the Afghans also are blamed for the rise of urban crime, drug smuggling, and banditry in the east.

The Iranian government's policy of forcibly repatriating the Afghans to their war-torn, drought-stricken, and disease-ridden country may reflect popular resentment against the refugees. Police in Yazd Province arrested 100 illegal refugees on 21 July, according to IRNA, and have arrested 700 of them so far this year. The arrestees will be repatriated, Yazd director-general for aliens affairs Safar Eslami said, and the government will implement this policy notwithstanding the fact that "Afghanistan is hit by civil war, severe drought, and famine." Another 110 Afghan men were repatriated from Shiraz on 17 July, according to IRNA.

Xenophobic statements by Iranian officials will do little to discourage the violence. Isfahan Province Labor and Social Affairs Department chief Seifollah Baraati on 21 July complained that the presence of "aliens" in the economic sector was "the main cause of unemployment in Isfahan Province," according to IRNA. Baraati discouraged people from taking direct action against the aliens and said they should be reported to the authorities. And in Rasht on 24 June, police official Hojatoleslam Mohammad-Ali Rahmani warned that illegal foreigners -- mostly Afghans -- were causing unemployment, and he added that the Afghans are behind drug trafficking. (For more examples of such views, see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 23 July 2001.)

Similar sentiments have appeared in the press. Mohammad Reza Lotfi wrote in the 30 June "Kar va Kargar" ("Work and Worker"), "The Iranians are tired of these long-stay 20-year guests who suddenly arrived at their door." Many Iranian families are without a breadwinner, Lotfi wrote, while "we have Afghan families, all of whom -- young and old -- are somehow busy at a job, and we have employers who use the Afghans in order to get rid of problems such as insurance and things like that." A commentary by former parliamentarian Seyyed Hassan Husseini in the 27 June "Seda-yi Idalat" also linked unemployment and the presence of Afghan refugees. (Bill Samii)

PRESS REFLECTS POOR HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION. Looking back on her most recent trip to Qom and Tehran, Elahe Sharifpur-Hicks of Human Rights Watch told RFE/RL's Persian Service on 24 July that the human rights situation has deteriorated and is downright dangerous. Hicks referred specifically to the recent stonings of adulteresses and the continuing imprisonment of national-religious activists who were arrested earlier this year.

The press and those in journalism also face a very tough time. Reformist journalist Akbar Ganji's prison sentence was increased to six years on 16 July. His original sentence of 10 years imprisonment and five years internal exile had been reduced to six months by another appeals court. The Committee to Protect Journalists strongly condemned the six-year sentence and CPJ executive director Ann Cooper called for the immediate release of all journalists. According to CPJ, at least five journalists are in jail for their work and it is investigating other cases.

Jailed journalist Emadedin Baqi's wife told the Iranian Students News Agency on 16 July that her husband was being denied medical treatment. The trial of "Omid-i Zanjan" editor Ahmad Hakimipur, which was due to be held on 14 July, was postponed because the judge had taken a leave of absence. Hakimipur faces complaints from the state broadcasting organization. Two people from "Payam-i Imruz" monthly -- managing editor Amid Naini and publisher Mohammad Reza Zahedi-Asl -- appeared in court on 8 July, according to "Entekhab." The same day, Farideh Saber, the wife of jailed "Iran-i Farda" columnist Hoda Saber, was summoned by the Revolutionary Court. Mrs. Saber had complained on 29 June that her husband was suffering from heart problems and he is being held in solitary confinement. Said Haqi, publisher of "Mellat" daily, was summoned by the Tehran press court on 27 June.

Those affiliated with hard-line publications have been in court lately, also. "Resalat" managing editor Morteza Nabavi's second hearing was held on 23 July. He faced libel, slander, and publishing-lies charges filed by the Interior Ministry; as well as slander and publishing-lies charges filed by the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization. "Iran-i Farda" editor Reza Alijani and "Asr-i Azadegan" editor Mashallah Shamsolvaezin were released from prison so they could follow up on their complaints against Nabavi. "Kayhan" editor Hussein Shariatmadari was temporarily held and interrogated following complaints from the Science, Research, and Technology Ministry and others, "Iran News" reported on 14 July.

Student publications and journalists also face continuing difficulties. "Daf," a Shiraz University campus magazine, received a six-month suspension, IRNA reported on 15 July, after an essay in it criticized a professor by using inappropriate words. "Faryad" campus magazine director Morteza Taqi-Pur and two of his columnists -- Ruzbeh Shafii and Mohammad Reza Shirvand -- were detained on the orders of the Tehran Revolutionary Court. They are accused of writing an offensive article about the Twelfth Imam, IRNA reported on 1 July.

There also were positive developments. "Aban" appeared on newsstands on 22 July, having been suspended 14 months earlier, and the court suspended "Aban" editor Mohammad-Hassan Alipur's five-year ban from journalistic activities. "Neshat" managing editor Latif Safari said, following his 21 July release from prison, that he would try to get the ban on his publication lifted. Former "Iran News" editor Morteza Firuzi was released on parole, having received in January 1998 a five-year sentence on espionage charges. Firuzi was jailed in June 1997 and an anonymous source said that he had been in solitary confinement, IRNA reported on 9 July.

Meanwhile, UN director of the news and media division Salim Lone spoke highly of the development of freedom of the press in Iran, saying Iranian print media "lie at the center of the society's move towards democracy," IRNA and the Freedom Forum reported on 16 and 17 July. Lone said developments in Iranian press freedom had not gone unnoticed and in the future he planned to film Iran's "great achievements." Neither Lone nor IRNA mentioned that over 50 Iranian publications have been closed down since April 2000. Nor did they mention that the press closures contradict Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." (Bill Samii)

SPECULATION ON CABINET AS INAUGURATION APPROACHES. President Mohammad Khatami is expected to introduce his new cabinet to the parliament after his 4 August inauguration, and the parliament will then decide whether or not to give each nominee a vote of confidence. Speculation is rife on the new cabinet's political and personal composition, and different organizations and interest groups are demanding cabinet positions in exchange for backing Khatami's re-election bid. (For an earlier discussion on the new cabinet, see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 29 June 2001.)

Khatami's nominees are likely to face less opposition this time than they did in 1997, because the parliament is now dominated by reformists. The predominantly conservative parliament of four years ago gave two nominees -- Ataollah Mohajerani for the Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry and Abdullah Nuri for the Interior Ministry -- an especially hard time before approving them. One deputy accused Mohajerani of being excessively "culturally tolerant and politically weak vis-a-vis the West," while another asked Mohajerani if he would kill Salman Rushdie if he met him. The allegiance of Nuri, who had served as interior minister from 1989-1993, towards the parliament and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was questioned.

Guardians Council secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati described the desired qualifications of new cabinet members during the 13 July Friday Prayers sermon. He said that they should believe in "the religion, the revolution, the Vilayat-i Faqih, and the principles of Islam." Cabinet ministers should be chosen on the basis of merit and not factional pressure: "the criteria should be based on capability, aptitude, initiative, and creativity, and nothing else." They must be "efficient and capable of performing the task," furthermore, and compatible with the president. If he chooses the favorites of different factions, Jannati warned: "It will be like a poem, in which each verse has been composed by a different person. There will not be a harmonious melody but a disjointed one."

The expectations of Iran's political factions this time are not entirely clear. Hamid Reza Taraqi of the hard-line Islamic Coalition Association said his group would not present a list for the next cabinet, IRNA reported on 18 July. Hussein Marashi, who is acting secretary-general of the Executives of Construction Party and a Kerman parliamentarian, said that the ECP would not propose a specific list, IRNA reported on 9 July.

At a meeting of the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Party's parliamentary faction, 70 percent of the 120 deputies voted to change the ministers of telecommunications and technology; health, treatment, and medical education; education and training; and economic affairs and finance. Tehran parliamentarian Seyyed Ali Akbar Musavi-Khoiniha added that most people wanted to replace the ministers of foreign affairs and of intelligence and security, IRNA reported on 18 July.

Minister of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Ali Shamkhani and Minister of Science, Research, and Technology Mustafa Moin-Najafabadi received passing marks at the IIPP meeting, while former Post, Telegraph, and Telephone Minister Mohammad Qarazi was proposed as the future Telecommunications Minister. A "Reformist Front" proposed 75 possible ministers for Khatami's next cabinet, IRNA reported on 17 July. Among them are Mir-Hussein Musavi as first vice president; Ataollah Mohajerani as vice president for executive affairs; Ebrahim Asqarzadeh as housing and urban development minister; and Mohammad Musavi-Khoiniha as minister of intelligence and security.

In a controversial development, women expect cabinet seats. The Reformist Front proposed Zahra Rahnavard, Mir-Hussein Musavi's wife, as the new minister of Islamic culture and guidance. Female parliamentarians also informed Minister of Intelligence and Security Ali Yunesi on 22 July that women would like top posts in the MOIS.

The center-left "Entekhab" daily on 28 June supported the idea of women in the cabinet, if the choices were made on the basis of ability and merit, as did an article in the 25 June "Kar va Kargar." A commentary in the 26 June "Aftab-i Yazd" advocated a similar approach, but it wondered if "the extensive problems of Iranian women in different legal, social, and cultural aspects [would] be solved after gaining ministerial posts?" The unidentified former head of the electoral headquarters for women in Ilam Province seemed to resent the dearth of official posts for women. "My only complaint about the responsible officials is that they expect women to be active and present in society only during the elections. This means the only thing that is important for these officials is the women's vote," she said in the 7 June "Peyk-i Ilam."

Ethnic minorities, such as Kurds (see below), are among those who may expect cabinet appointments in exchange for their support. Moreover, Turkmen from Gulistan Province pledged to support Khatami and the reform movement, according to Gorgan's "Gulistan-i Mehr" on 2 June. Arabs from Khuzestan, according to the 29 May "Noruz," voted overwhelmingly for Khatami in the earlier presidential election and for reformists in the 2000 parliamentary election. 12,000 Khuzestan Arabs, furthermore, were martyred in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. Armenians, Jews, and Zoroastrians may have similar expectations, in light of a 3 June IRNA report in which some of their leaders described their martyrs in the Iran-Iraq War and pledged their participation in the presidential election. (Bill Samii)

SUNNIS WANT THEIR RIGHTS, AS WELL AS CABINET SEATS. Parliamentarians have renewed demands for recognition of the rights of Sunni Muslims, who make up 10 percent of the population and are mostly from the Baluchi, Kurdish, or Turkmen minorities. Eighty-nine percent of the Iranian population is Shia and Shia Islam is recognized as the state religion.

About 78 members of parliament called on President Mohammad Khatami to select some Sunnis as members of the new cabinet that he is expected to name after his inauguration, "Iran" reported on 16 July. Six days earlier, Mahabad representative Rahman Behmanesh said that Khatami should select more Kurds for positions in his government.

Behmanesh also said: "We call on our Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] to authorize the construction of a mosque in Tehran for the Sunni Kurds." Two days earlier, Hassel Danesh, the Kurdish representative of Piranshahr and Sardasht, also called on the Supreme Leader to permit construction of a Sunni mosque in Tehran. Not only does Tehran remain without a Sunni mosque, but after the 1978-1979 revolution Sunni mosques in Mashhad, Salmas, and Shahinzadeh were destroyed, and those in Shiraz, Orumieh, Sanadaj, Saqqez, and Miyandoab were closed.

Several articles of the Iranian Constitution discuss minority rights specifically. Article 19 states that "all people of Iran, whatever the ethnic group or tribe to which they belong, enjoy equal rights." Article 15 permits the use of regional and tribal languages in the press and mass media, although the official language is Persian. Article 12 of the constitution recognises Shia Islam as Iran's official religion, but "other Islamic schools are to be accorded full respect."

Yet discrimination against minorities, including the Sunnis, persists. During the 27 June parliamentary session, Marivan representative Abdullah Sohrabi was outspoken about the difficulties faced by Sunnis and their expectations of the government. Criticizing the discrimination Kurds encounter, Sohrabi reminded the reformist legislature about the Kurds' extensive participation in the recent presidential election and also their participation in the war against Iraq. Sohrabi said a television series called "Nest of Satan" was particularly insulting, and he demanded implementation of the constitutional articles that recognize minority rights.

Sohrabi described other problems of the Kurds and Sunnis, such as "their lack of participation in the key positions of the country, the increasing growth of unemployment, and the emigration of the educated young people." He went on to say that "these people with very brilliant records and report cards want the fulfillment of their legal and legitimate demands and compensation for the shortcomings and lack of improvement." Sohrabi also complained about the end of operations to remove mines left over from the Iran-Iraq War, since explosions still occur: "Why have the mine-sweeping operations in these regions which were making slow progress in the previous years now stopped?"

In the midst of these outspoken calls for recognition of Sunnis' rights, other measures that would increase state control over the Sunnis are underway. In late June parliament began consideration of a proposal to exempt Sunni clerics from military service, while in mid-June it had considered a proposal to restrict Sunni clerics to military service in Sunni regions. But under these proposals, determination of a Sunni cleric's educational qualifications would be in the hands of the Endowments and Charitable Affairs Organization, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance. (Bill Samii)

MILITARY EXPO IN TEHRAN. An exhibition of the Iranian Army ground forces' latest research and products opened in Tehran on 23 July. Among the goods on exhibit were a modernized version of the British Chieftain tank, an improved version of the Soviet BTR-60 armored personnel carrier, and a updated version of the American AH-1 Cobra helicopter. Also on display were heavy gun carriers and tank transporters, as well as range finders, laser-operated guidance and control systems, and command-and-control computer systems. Army Commander Major General Mohammad Salimi said, according to state television, "We would resolve some of our concerns, were we able to mass produce this equipment. Our efforts are aimed at self-sufficiency." Earlier in the month, state television reported the unexpected death of Colonel Ali Mahmudi-Meimand, who had designed nine Iranian weapons systems, including missiles and helicopter-mounted rockets. (Bill Samii)