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Iran Report: August 6, 2001

6 August 2001, Volume 4, Number 29

IRANIAN BIOTECHNOLOGY GETS FOREIGN ASSISTANCE. Iranian state television and two Iranian parliamentarians responded to recent U.S. allegations about Tehran's efforts to create biological weapons by resorting to the usual tactics: denials and accusations. Nevertheless, a survey of Iranian official websites, scientific publications, and television programs shows that Tehran is aggressively pursuing research and development in biotechnology, biochemistry, and genetics, and it is overcoming financial and personnel shortcomings by cooperating with other countries.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in July that 13 countries, including Iran, may be violating the Biological Weapons Convention. Iran is a signatory of the Convention, which bans development, stockpiling, and use of biological weapons, but there is no mechanism to ensure Iran's compliance.

Iranian parliamentarian Meisam Saidi told the 31 July "Tehran Times" that "the U.S. has no right to comment on the issue since the U.S. is a major producer of biological weapons and is responsible for the death of millions of innocent people." And one day earlier, Iranian state television said Rumsfeld's statements were "another propaganda campaign aimed at diverting the international public opinion from America's opposition to the Biological Weapons Convention and its draft supplementary protocol." In recent years, according to state television, U.S. activities were contrary to international laws and regulations. None of these sources discussed Iran's considerable activities in biotechnology.

Among the main centers of biotechnology in Iran are the Institute for Plant and Seed Modification, the National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology Research, the Pasteur Institute, and the Razi Vaccine and Serum Research Institute, according to articles in "Ettelaat-i Elmi" (21 April 2001, 17 May 2001) and "Nashriyeh-yi Komisiyun-i Bioteknolozhi" (Summer 2000). The universities that have programs in the field of biotechnology or related disciplines -- molecular genetics, medical biotechnology, and biological productions -- are: Isfahan University, Mashhad University, Shiraz University, Tarbiat Mudariss (Tehran Teachers Training College), and the Sharif University of Technology's Biochemical and Bioenvironmental Engineering Research Center. Research on molecular medicine and recombinant DNA technology receives the most attention, according to a paper available on the Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology website.

The Sharif University of Technology's Biochemical and Bioenvironmental Engineering Research Center focuses on producing organic acids, amino acids, industrial enzymes, and single-cell proteins, as well as conducting research and teaching in various areas of biotechnology. Recently introduced projects include: biological filtration of seawater and soil contaminated with petroleum; sewage treatment; treating drug addicts; and prevention of bitterness in citrus fruit juices.

The Institute for Plant and Seed Modification focuses mainly on agricultural problems; conducts research on improving seeds and other related products; and has facilities in Karaj and is active in 80 research facilities across Iran. The National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology Research does research on genetic engineering focusing on human hormones and plant phenotypes at its facility in Tehran, and it also has a production facility along the Tehran-Karaj highway.

The 17 research departments at the Pasteur Institute's Tehran facilities focus on biotechnology, biochemistry, infectious diseases, microbiology, and immunology. The Institute also teaches in these fields. At its production facility along the Tehran-Karaj highway, the Pasteur Institute prepares biological products, serums, and vaccines (BCJ, cholera, typhoid, tuberculosis, and livestock anti-rabies).

The Razi Institute has been conducting research on recombinant vaccines through genetic engineering, and it already produces vaccines for polio, measles, rubella, mumps, foot and mouth disease, tetanus, diphtheria, and whooping cough, as well as human and livestock serums. Work on developing a vaccine for the Aleppo Boil (cutaneous leishmaniasis) is underway.

Iran's biotechnology development is hampered by manpower and capital shortages, an unhelpful legal framework, and economic sanctions, according to a series that appeared on Iranian television from November 2000-February 2001. There are only 478 qualified biotechnology researchers but the country has a need for 11,000. The flood of educated Iranians leaving the country -- the "brain drain" -- and the inappropriate training of students who return from abroad contribute to this problem. Only 5 percent of the $123 million scientific research budget for 2000 was dedicated to biotechnology.

All the Iranian facilities attempt to overcome financial and intellectual shortcomings by cooperating with foreign institutions (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 28 August 2000). Sharif University's Biochemical and Bioenvironmental Engineering Research Center, for example, cooperates with Japan's Kobe University, France's Toulouse Biotechnology Research Institute, and Canada's University of Calgary. Through its ties with other Iranian and international institutions, the Razi Institute has increased its research from 21 projects in 1992-1993 to more than 90 in 1999-2000. Every year, a number of Russian researchers are invited to the Pasteur Institute, and cooperation with a Russian researcher led to Iran's first success in enhanced gene expression in plants. The Pasteur Institute also sends 2-5 researchers to France every year, and others go to Greece and the U.S.

Biotechnology cooperation with Cuba is particularly active. President Mohammad Khatami visited a Cuban biotechnology center in October 2000, and Hojatoleslam Hassan Khomeini, grandson of the late founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, inspected a Cuban biotechnology center in late July 2001. Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani told Cuban Ambassador Dario de Urra Torriente at a 2 July meeting that the two countries should exchange more information on biotechnology. When Cuba's President Fidel Castro visited Iran in May 2001, a joint biotechnology project was implemented. The main aim of this project is to produce anti-Hepatitis B vaccine, Interferon, Strepto-Kinase (a heart medicine), and Erythro Protein.

Long-term planning efforts in the civilian sector are hampered by the role of politics, parties, and favoritism in the management of biotechnology research institutions. Moreover, intellectual property receives inadequate legal protection, which hinders researchers' ability to reap the financial benefits of their work.

Military bodies, such as the Defense Industries Organization and the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, also are involved in biotechnology research. Open-source information on their activities is not available, but it is reasonable to assume that their activities are not benign. Moreover, the civilian sector's research and development can be adapted for military use. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN MAINTAINS PRESSURE ON BAKU. Iranian military incursions into Azerbaijani airspace are continuing at the same time as official Iranian statements welcoming Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev's forthcoming visit to Iran. This reflects Tehran's intention to settle the dispute over the Caspian Sea legal regime and underwater oil resources through a combination of coercion and diplomacy, and it also reflects regional states' mediation efforts.

The disputed oil field is called Alborz by Tehran and Alov by Baku. In July 1998, the Azerbaijani state oil company (SOCAR) signed a contract to explore the field with British Petroleum and Norway's Statoil, and later, ExxonMobil, TPAO, and Alberta Energy gained the remaining shares, according to "Azerbaijan International." In September 1999, the National Iranian Oil Company concluded a contract with Iran Petro Development to expand the oil field, according to an IRNA analysis.

Two Iranian combat aircraft entered Azerbaijani airspace on 2 August and stayed there for 50 minutes; three Iranian military aircraft spent two hours in Azerbaijani airspace on 1 August and another one was in Azerbaijani airspace earlier in the day; and Iranian military aircraft entered Azerbaijani airspace on 29 July, according to Baku's ANS television and the Turan news agency. Furthermore, "following military warnings issued by Iran against Azerbaijan for expanding Alborz oil field in the Caspian Sea, precautionary military measures have been adopted in the border city of Astara [Gilan Province]," IRNA reported on 1 August. Less than one week earlier, an Iranian jet overflew two Azerbaijani research vessels, and then an Iranian gunboat ordered them to withdraw northward out of the disputed Caspian Sea waters (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 30 July 2001).

Shortly after the initial Iranian incursions, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said, "Before a definite decision is made on the legal regime of the Caspian Sea, the Caspian Sea littoral states should avoid any measure which would contribute to any kind of misunderstanding." Iran and Azerbaijan should consider the Caspian an "area of friendship and peace," Kharrazi added according to a 27 July IRNA report, and Iran would "seriously protect" its interests there. Expediency Council Secretary and former Islamic Revolution Guards Corps chief Mohsen Rezai was less subtle, recalling that in the past "Azerbaijan was an Iranian province" and warning Baku to manage the country properly so that "the Iranian people do not call for the return of Azerbaijan to the motherland," "Qods" reported on 29 July.

In spite of Kharrazi's veiled threats, Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev said that he would not allow the row over Caspian Sea assets to undermine relations with Iran, and he would go ahead with a planned August visit to Iran, Reuters reported on 1 August. Ilkham Aliev, the president's son and the vice president of the Azerbaijani state oil company (SOCAR), was less conciliatory, saying that Iran's claim to the waters was illogical and violated international law. He said that "if Iran tries again to apply force, then we will respond with corresponding measures."

President Aliev's statement's may reflect the efforts of regional states, particularly Russia, to defuse the situation. Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking at an informal summit of Commonwealth of Independent States leaders at Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi, said that "[t]he Caspian Sea must be a sea of peace and tranquility. Everything must be done to have all disputes resolved through peaceful means by direct dialogue," Interfax and Agence France Presse reported. He added that Russia is ready "to assist in any way possible" to negotiate disagreements, and "[i]t is impermissible to resort to military means." Moreover, Iranian Ambassador to Russia Mehdi Safari met with Russian deputy foreign ministers Viktor Kalyuzhny and Aleksandr Losyukov on 31 July, RIA and Interfax reported. The Russians called on both sides to show restraint, and they offered to mediate. (Bill Samii)

KHATAMI'S SECOND TERM ENDORSED... "Considering the suitability of that enlightened intellectual, Hojatoleslam Seyyed Mohammad Khatami, I confirm the people's vote and appoint him as president of the Islamic Republic of Iran," according to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's decree that was read out during a 2 August ceremony at Tehran's Imam Khomeini mosque. "Obviously, my endorsement and the people's vote are valid as long as he remains loyal to his pledges and stays on the right path which he has followed so far -- that is, the path of Islam and its shining tenets, the defense of the oppressed and the innocent, and standing against arrogant and tyrant enemies." The decree enjoined Iranians to concentrate on improving the economy and the public's living standards, and to strive to eliminate poverty, corruption, and favoritism.

According to Article 1 of the Presidential Election Law, the endorsement of the document of office is the last stage in the presidential election process, state radio reported on 1 August.

Prior to Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani's reading of the decree, Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari reported on the 8 June presidential election and read a letter from the Guardians Council that confirmed the election results. And after the reading of the decree, President Khatami spoke.

Khatami said that Khamenei's endorsement emphasizes the importance of the people's vote and "puts a seal of approval on the republicanism of the system." He added that he is responsible to the Supreme Leader and to the parliament, and this responsibility means that "democracy rules in this country, and all officials, senior officials in particular, ought to be under constant supervision." Khatami went on to say that these responsibilities do not negate his third responsibility: "The president, as the benefactor of the system and its officials, has a direct responsibility to the people."

"The people have a definite right to criticize, oversee, or protest," Khatami said. He added that people's rights could be realized through the propagation of virtue and prohibition of vice and through civil and legal foundation, mass media, and by securing individual and collective freedoms.

Supreme Leader Khamenei spoke after Khatami and praised Iran's form of government: "This democracy is the most liberal form of democracy which the world has witnessed today because it is a democracy based on divine precepts. It is a democracy that is based on a framework of divine guidance." Khamenei then compared Iran's "Islamic Democracy" with democracy in other parts of the world: "In the Western democracies the framework consists of the interests and desires of the owners of wealth and capitalists, [while in] the former socialist countries, ...this framework consisted of the political party which governed the country."

Khamenei then turned to the matters that he thinks deserve the new administration's attention: "the most urgent matter is that of economic issues and the cost of living, and above all unemployment." This is because, according to him, "you can see that one of the points on which our enemies are pinning their hopes to cripple the Islamic system is the very issue of the economy." Culture is second, because "One of the issues about which the enemy is seriously engaged in propaganda in the country is libertarianism; ideological libertarianism, practical libertarianism." He warned, "The cultural onslaught seeks to undermine the people's beliefs and convictions by propagating and disseminating immoral tendencies in our society, by encouraging corruption and by disseminating all types of vices."

Khamenei issued stern warnings against moral and financial corruption, but he discouraged people from taking the law into their own hands. "When it comes to practical action," he said, "everybody must obey the law. There is no justification for anybody to say that, since the police authorities did not act or since the judicial authorities did not act, he acted on his own." "When there is a need for the people to get involved in a certain situation, the leadership will directly tell the people to do so," Khamenei said. The crowd responded with enthusiastic chants of: "God is great, Khamenei is the leader, down with America, down with Israel" and so on. (Bill Samii)

...BUT HE IS NOT SWORN IN. Although Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei endorsed President Mohammad Khatami's mandate, he cancelled Khatami's swearing-in ceremony, which was scheduled for 5 August, after reformist parliamentarians refused to elect conservative jurists to the Guardians Council.

The Council consists of six clerics and six jurists, three of whom are to be replaced this year. The clerical members of the Council are selected by the Supreme Leader, and the potential jurist members are nominated by the head of the Judiciary and voted on by the parliament. But parliamentarians complained that the five out of six nominees that they met in mid-July were too inexperienced and too conservative, so they would postpone their decision (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 23 July 2001). In the 4 August session, 150 out of the 238 parliamentarians present voted in favor of one of the nominees, Ebrahim Azizi, but none of the other ones won approval. Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi then nominated four more candidates (Fazlollah Musavi, Mohsen Ismaili, Abbas Ali Kadkhodai, and Abolfazl Alamutian), but they too failed to get enough votes, state television reported on 4 August.

Article 121 of the constitution states that the president must take the oath of office in the presence of the Judiciary chief, the Guardians Council, and the parliament. Speaker of Parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi said that 10 out of 12 Council members was enough, IRNA reported on 4 August, but the Supreme Leader thought otherwise. In a short letter to the legislature he said, according to IRNA, "Given the fact that the parliament has not reached a quorum over the election of the lawyers to the Guardians Council and due to the constitutional ambiguity (thereof), it is required the swearing-in ceremonies are postponed until the legal ground is reinstated."

There were warnings that that something like this could occur. In a 2 August interview with RFE/RL's Persian Service, conservative member of parliament Mohammad Shahi-Arablu said that the swearing-in ceremony would be improper in the absence of the three jurists. Nevertheless, according to Shahi-Arablu, the parliamentarians themselves had to be present at the ceremony because they represented the people. Guardians Council members also warned that parliamentary sessions in the absence of a full Council are improper. Council jurist Seyyed Reza Zavarei said that "[t]he Guardians Council is an institution independent of the government and is placed higher than the parliament. The Guardian Council will not be influenced," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 25 July. On the other hand, Mashhad deputy Ali Tajernia said that the absence of the jurists during the swearing-in ceremony would not matter because their presence was only symbolic, IRNA reported on 25 July.

Karrubi said optimistically on 4 August, "We hope that we can settle the issue in a way that the swearing-in ceremony will take place on Tuesday," and the next day he called for a special body, consisting of representatives of the Judiciary, parliament, and the leadership, to arbitrate between the Judiciary and the legislature.

Parliament met in a closed-door session on 5 August. After leaving this session, reformist deputy Mohsen Armin complained to reporters that he suspected the Expediency Council was behind the whole affair and it was attempting to increase its involvement in legislative affairs. Two hours later, the Supreme Leader sent a letter ordering Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who chairs the Expediency Council, to arbitrate. The Supreme Leader said in his letter, " According to Article 110 of the constitution, the Expediency Council is expected to hold a meeting at the earliest to take decision on the matter and offer a report to this effect to the (Leader's) office." The Expediency Council is to debate the matter on 6 August. (Bill Samii)

A CAPTAIN WITHOUT A CREW. "Any interruption in the few months between the election and the formation of the new cabinet would be extremely harmful. That period should be shortened as much as possible," Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei advised in a 2 August speech. President Mohammad Khatami was expected to introduce his new cabinet within two weeks of his swearing in, and then parliament must give each minister a vote of confidence before he or she can start work. Mohsen Yahyavi, deputy secretary-general of the Islamic Engineers Society of Iran, told IRNA on 4 August that he thought Khatami might present his new cabinet when he took the oath of office. This process has ground to a halt, however, since Khatami has not been sworn in yet and it is not certain when he will be.

It is not certain who Khatami's nominees will be, either. Different political factions have endorsed different individuals for the cabinet, as have women and minorities (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 29 June 2001 and 30 July 2001). Some say that selections should be on the basis of merit, while others, such as Shiraz parliamentarian Ahmad Azimi, said that the individuals' compatibility with the president is what counts. Azimi predicted that Khatami would change just five-six ministers, IRNA reported on 1 August. Vice President for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Mohammad Ali Saduqi confirmed that there would be changes in the cabinet, "Iran" reported on 25 July. He added that discussions with parliamentarians focused more on cabinet ministers' future responsibilities than on specific names. (Bill Samii)

OFFICIAL INVOLVEMENT IN SMUGGLING ALLEGED. The 29 July shooting of a smuggler in Oshnaviyeh, Kurdistan Province, the18 July seizure in Ardabil Province of a truck hauling 5,000 liters of petrol destined for Azerbaijan, the shooting a few days earlier of an Iranian trying to smuggle diesel into Turkey, the early July arrest of Azerbaijani citizens who were selling beef in Baku that was actually horse and donkey meat smuggled from Iran, and the late June seizure by Armenian customs officers of 600 boxes of smuggled cigarettes -- these incidents underline the prevalence of smuggling, a highly profitable activity in which high-ranking individuals are involved. Managing Director of Iran's Tobacco Company Abbas Khajeh-Piri said that cigarette smuggling costs the country $500-600 million a year, IRNA reported on 11 June. Overall, according to Shahrud parliamentarian Kazem Jalali, Iran loses about $2 billion annually because of smuggling, IRNA reported on 5 July.

Jalali went on to say that for the most part such goods are imported by "influential groups or individuals inside state organizations." In a similar vein, economist Mohammad Taqi Gilaki told the "Jam-i Jam" newspaper on 14 July that "well known political, economic, and religious groups of the country" were involved in illegal trade to help their political affiliates. Gilaki added that such groups are exempt from taxes and have other legal privileges.

The Tobacco Company's Khajeh-Piri said high tariffs on domestic cigarettes led to smuggling, and barely half of the 30 billion cigarettes produced in Iran were consumed domestically (Iranians smoke 45-50 billion cigarettes a year). Managing Director of Fars Province Customs Office Mohammad Sadeq Fallah said that stationing more anti-smuggling personnel on the borders would yield better results than having them in the cities and on the roads, "Tehran Times" reported on 17 July. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN FOCUSES ON ARMORED WARFARE. An antitank missile that the Iranian Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL) says can destroy sophisticated armored equipment is just an upgraded Russian or Chinese model, according to unnamed Israeli "experts" cited by Tel Aviv's "Yediot Aharanot" on 1 August. The MODAFL had described the successful test of the Saeqeh-1 anti-armor missile on 31 July, saying that it would be mass-produced locally. The Saeqeh-1 is similar in appearance to the U.S. Dragon missile, while all its systems are copies of Russian ones, Ali-Reza Nurizadeh wrote in London's "Al-Sharq Al-Awsat" on 1 August. The Iranian test reflects a change in Iranian emphasis away from longer-range missiles to shorter-range ones, Nurizadeh's sources said.

In late June, Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani said that Tehran has created a fire-control system for the Soviet T-72 main battle tank. Shamkhani said the system would facilitate nocturnal operations, and being domestically developed and produced, it would save the country millions of dollars. Seyyed Razi Shabiri, head of the MODAFL ammunition-producing department, described domestic production of 125 mm ammunition for T-72 tanks in early May. He said that the ammunition could reach targets as far as 2.4 kilometers away.

Mechanized infantry is not being ignored. Brigadier General Hussein Hassani Sadi, deputy commander for coordination affairs of the Armed Forces Joint Staff, said that the BTR 60 armored personnel carrier used to be unreliable due to a lack of engine power and parts. But the "modernized" version that was displayed at a late July arms exhibition in Tehran (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 30 July 2001) is "useable" and a "factor" in the country's arsenal due to Iranian improvements. (Bill Samii)