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Iran Report: August 13, 2001

13 August 2001, Volume 4, Number 30

KHATAMI INAUGURATION EXPOSES REFORMISTS' WEAKNESSES. President Mohammad Khatami's 8 August swearing-in should have been a time of celebration for him and Iran's reform movement, coming as the result of his winning almost 77 percent of the votes in the June election. Indeed, Khatami tried to emphasize the meaning of the mandate he had won, saying: "With a conscious vote, our intelligent and resolute nation gave a great credit to those who are in her service. Once again, our nation clearly confided in the same attitudes that she had voted for four years ago. This confidence has increased the people's rights and my responsibilities."

Events preceding the inauguration, however, demonstrated that in Iran power continues to rest in the hands of a small conservative elite, both in practical and in constitutional terms, rather than in the popularly elected legislature or with the president. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei formally endorsed Khatami's electoral victory on 2 August, as called for by the constitution, and just three days later Khamenei said that Khatami would not be allowed to take the oath of office, citing the constitution again.

And in this way, parliament's inability to act without the Supreme Leader's approval was demonstrated for the third time in one year. In this most recent case, reformist parliamentarians refused on 4 August to approve overly conservative candidates for the Guardians Council. Khamenei authorized the Expediency Council to resolve the dispute, and on 7 August the Guardians Council had two new members (Mohsen Ismaili and Abbas Ali Kadkhodai), individuals the parliament had rejected just three days earlier. And the Judiciary chief, who submits the list of potential candidates, did not even bother to alter the list that he had submitted previously and which the parliament had rejected accordingly.

This is because the Expediency Council rewrote the law to enable the election of the new Guardians Council members. First of all it ruled that only two-thirds of the Guardians Council had to be present for the presidential inauguration. Then the Expediency Council ruled that candidates for the Guardian Council only needed a relative majority of the votes, so although most of the deputies cast blank ballots (162 out of 243), two of the candidates who lost before won this time.

There were two earlier demonstrations of the leadership's power compared to that of the parliament. In June-July 2001, Khamenei gave parliament permission to examine the financial activities of the state broadcasting organization (IRIB) over the objections of conservative deputies, the speaker of parliament, and of the Expediency Council. And in August 2000, Khamenei blocked parliamentary debate about the press law.

In taking these actions, Khamenei demonstrated his ability to give or take power. The message some observers might take away from these events is that the people's vote is secondary in the current political set-up, regardless of the presidential elections in 1997 and 2001, the parliamentary elections in 2000, and the council elections in 1999.

The constitution reinforces the message. In a 1979 referendum, Iranians voted to have an Islamic Republic. The 1979 constitution concentrates power in the hands of a small elite, who can then claim that people voted for this system, they vote for the Assembly of Experts in regular elections, and the Assembly of Experts chooses the Supreme Leader and can dismiss him.

The constitution also states that the Expediency Council will adjudicate in any issues referred to it by the Supreme Leader, who actually appoints most of its 34 members. Predicting the way in which the Expediency Council rewrote the law to enable the election of the new Guardians Council members may have been difficult, but a look at the Expediency Council's membership would discourage one from thinking that its decision would favor the reformist parliamentarians.

It is chaired by Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who besides his own hard-line credentials may harbor resentment from the way he was treated by reformist factions in the last parliamentary election (when he suffered an embarrassing defeat). His secretary is former Islamic Revolution Guard Corps chief Mohsen Rezai. The membership includes the six clerical members of the Guardians Council (as ex officio members), two former ministers of intelligence and security, and the heads of state broadcasting and of the army. Other clerics on this body include Ayatollah Hassan Sanei, who heads the 15 Khordad Foundation that offered a multimillion-dollar bounty for British author Salman Rushdie, and Ayatollah Abbas Vaez-Tabasi, who heads the extremely wealthy Imam Reza Foundation in Mashhad.

The speaker of parliament is an ex officio member of the Expediency Council, but Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi is hardly a reformist. President Khatami is an ex officio member of the Council, too, but his powerlessness despite his popularity has been demonstrated amply, and he is a strong advocate of operating within a constitutional framework.

This most recent setback for Iran's reform movement shows that most of the individuals who hold positions of power are unlikely to take actions that would diminish their power. Moreover, the constitution is written in such a way that these individuals can impose their will on the nation for the foreseeable future, no matter how people vote. (Bill Samii)

INAUGURAL 'GIFTS' FROM THE JUDICIARY. Just hours after President Mohammad Khatami was sworn in on 8 August, "Hambastegi" daily was closed temporarily by court order. The complaint against the reformist daily stemmed from an interview in which a member of parliament said that because of his Iraqi origin, Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi was not concerned about Iran's future. The next day, Shahrudi told a Semnan Province rally that that a key element of the enemy�s strategy is to denote crisis and pessimism through the press, according to IRNA, but Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei detected the operations of the enemy in the "corrupt" media and put an end to the conspiracy.

The pro-Khatami Islamic Iran Participation Party had another take on the "Hambastegi" closure, saying in a 9 August statement that "[t]he suspicious and unacceptable suspension of the newspaper 'Hambastegi' immediately after President Mohammad Khatami was sworn into office suggests that some in the Judiciary are planning to stymie reforms." Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Ahmad Masjid-Jamei also expressed concern about the closure and said that the daily was dealt with inappropriately, IRNA reported on 8 August.

On 4 August, a Zanjan weekly called "Farda-yi Roshan," edited by Davud Bayat, was closed. The weekly was accused of publishing false and indecent reports on the basis of complaints from the Zanjan Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the Zanjan Basij commander, and others. The weekly had stopped publication two years ago due to financial difficulties. A Tehran administrative court sentenced "Hamshahri" journalist Ahmad Zeid-Abadi to an undetermined jail sentence and cash fine on 6 August. He was charged with insulting state officials and spreading lies. (Bill Samii)

PETROLEUM MINISTRY ADMITS THAT ILSA HURTS. One day after U.S. President George Bush signed an extension until 2006 of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA), Iranian Petroleum Minister Bijan Namdar-Zanganeh admitted that ILSA has restrained Iran's ability to attract foreign investment in or acquire modern technology for its oil and gas sector. Other officials reacted to ILSA's renewal with the usual outpouring of anti-U.S. sentiments, rather than a serious acknowledgement of Washington's concerns. But views about renewing relations with the U.S. are less uniform.

Zanganeh told IRNA on 4 August that Iranian oil facilities are at least 30 years old and their condition is deteriorating. Production, therefore, has dropped by 1.5 million barrels a day in the last five years. The lack of investment, furthermore, has meant that some 80 percent of an estimated 1 million square kilometers of fossil layers remain unexplored and, although the country has the world's second biggest gas reserves, exports are negligible.

The "ILSA Extension Act of 2001" (H.R. 1954), as signed by the President George W. Bush on 3 August, calls for penalization of any firm that invests more than $20 million in the Iranian energy sector. A statement from the White House said that the administration is concerned about Iranian support for terrorism, opposition to the Middle East peace process, and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. The president also said that sanctions should be reviewed "frequently" -- a provision of the bill mandates periodic reports on the sanctions' effectiveness, and after he assesses them, the president can recommend congressional termination or modification of ILSA.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi displayed his grasp of energy issues on the same day. He said that "the U.S. policy of imposing sanctions against Iran has proved futile and practically it is the American companies which have been hit by the sanctions as it makes it impossible for them to be present in Iranian markets." Assefi also criticized Bush's statements about Iran and said that the use of economic sanctions is illogical and violates international free trade practices, IRNA reported. In something of a contrast, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said on 9 August that a change in the White House's policy could have positive effects, "[o]therwise things will remain as they are." Neither of these individuals acknowledged Washington's real concerns.

Although Tehran claims that the sanctions are irrelevant and only harmful to the U.S., the Iranian government's infatuation with ILSA as it worked its way through various congressional committees suggests otherwise. Speaking at the opening session of an international conference on civilization and medicine on 28 July, Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani said that "the renewal of sanctions is nothing new or important, and its effect is no more significant that the weight of a tiny bird upon the branch of a huge and deep-rooted tree." He also said, "America's recent move to renew sanctions against Iran, coming in conjunction with a $3 billion aid package to Israel approved by the U.S. Congress, provided proof of such double standards in America's policies."

State radio commentary one day earlier ascribed House of Representatives support for the renewal of ILSA to "lobbying by the Zionists," and it went on to say that "the American people and experts have reached the conclusion that the U.S. interests are totally in the hands of the Zionists." State radio complained about the "influence of Zionist circles" in Congress on 21 July, too, and it added that U.S. companies are losing out because of sanctions. (See also "RFE/RL Iran Report," 11 June 2001, 25 June 2001, 29 June 2001, 16 July 2001.)

Resentment about the sanctions is shared by most Iranians, but public opinion about relations with the U.S. is less uniform. A "strong majority of Iranians" favor "improved ties" with the United States, Puneet Talwar of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asserts in the July-August 2001 "Foreign Affairs." Orumieh parliamentary representative Shahrbanu Amani said that "America is like any other government, we can negotiate with the American government in the same way as we enter negotiations with other governments, with determination and keeping our fundamental values," "Hayat-i No" reported on 28 July. Ayatollah Nurmofidi, the Friday prayer leader in Gorgan, had a similar view, saying that "there is nothing wrong with it [having relations with the U.S.] if those relations are based on reason and logic and they are in line with the protection of [Iran's] national interests," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 21 July. And Bushehr's parliamentary representative, Abdullah Hajiani, said Iran should seek foreign investment, even by "the Great Satan," IRNA reported on 1 July.

In contrast, national leaders speaking at official fora demonstrate continuing hostility towards the U.S. Supreme leader Khamenei's foreign affairs adviser, former Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Velayati, questioned how valuable relations with the U.S. had been for other countries, asking on 9 August, "Are the heaven's gates open towards the people of those countries already?" Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani asked at the 27 July Qom Friday prayers: "Where can we complain about the pain of world Zionist dictators sitting in America and dictating things for our part of the world? They impose economic sanctions on Iran and the Islamic Republic. So much coercion, so much bullying. They call this freedom. They call this civilization. Death to such civilization and such similar terms."

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told artists and cultural figures, in a speech broadcast on 23 July, that American concerns about Iranian behavior are misplaced. He said: "When it is said that the Islamic Republic is belligerent and so forth, it is not so. There is no state of war between us and America. We are just different types. We have never intended to go to war with America. We have never said so. We have no intention of yielding. We say: We will not yield to you at any price. That is the crime of the Islamic Republic." (Bill Samii)

'ANTI-ZIONIST' RALLIES ACROSS IRAN. "The brave people of Iran are fully aware of the domineering nature of the White House and continue to regard America as the Great Satan. The people of Iran strongly condemn the Great Satan's support for the occupying Zionists," according to a five-point resolution issued in Tehran on 10 August. The resolution came after "millions of demonstrators" across the country participated in "Anti-Zionist" rallies organized by the Islamic Propagation Organization (IPO), IRNA reported. Among the participants in the Tehran rally were Speaker of Parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi and prominent hard-line cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, as well as adults and children from every walk of life. Another point of the resolution said that Iranians would support the Palestinian Intifada "wholeheartedly," and yet another said that Islamic bodies are "duty-bound" to mobilize all their resources to establish the "Islamic world's liberation army." (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN UNHAPPY WITH U.S. COUNTER-NARCOTICS AID. Washington pledged $1.5 million to the UN Drug Control Program's Short Term Assistance Project, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Christina Rocca announced on 2 August, to sustain the ban on opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan's Nangarhar Province. She explained that this aid would "focus on short-term assistance to enhance household food security and to mitigate the hardship of the most vulnerable groups of small landholders and the landless in Nangarhar." Many Afghan farmers find that alternate crops do not grow well in the current drought conditions (wheat requires more water than opium), and they also find that other crops earn them less money than opium did (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 28 May 2001). The crop aid is part of an overall $7.7 million assistance package.

Tehran did not react favorably to this allocation of U.S. aid. Iranian state radio said on 5 August that "[unnamed] political analysts believe that the money is a reward from the U.S.A. to the Taliban for implementing the U.S. regional policy, namely the U.S. struggle to gain a foothold in Central Asia.... The U.S.A. wanted to show the Taliban by this move that they can expect financial assistance from the U.S.A. if Washington's instructions are carried out."

Iran has been waging a "single-handed campaign" against drug smuggling, a commentary in the 17 July "Seda-yi Idalat" noted, and this has cost the lives of more than 3,000 security personnel. Statistics, however, "indicate the utter failure of this campaign." The commentary noted the effects of 20 years of war on Afghanistan, and it suggested that through the UN the international community should help Afghans change cultivation habits and livestock-rearing practices. The daily suggested that the next step would be for the U.S., Russia, and Europe to assist Afghanistan's neighbors by providing financial aid. (Bill Samii)

IRAN PART OF AFGHAN SANCTIONS PLAN. A new UN Security Council resolution passed at the end of July calls on Afghanistan's neighbors, including Iran and Pakistan, to exert greater control over areas bordering Taliban-controlled regions. To facilitate this process, which is mainly oriented against arms trafficking, "sanctions enforcement support teams" would provide training in customs, border security, and counter-terrorism.

Yet Afghanistan's neighbors are not noted for their cooperation on border control issues, and the borders themselves are hard to control. John Schoeberlein, director of the Central Asia Project at the U.S.-based International Crisis Group, told RFE/RL that the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border is a prime example. "There's a very substantial Russian army presence on the border and yet they themselves do not claim that they can control that border, with tens of thousands of troops. So it's open to doubt how much any UN group of experts could actually influence a change in that."

Iran's border with Afghanistan is 936 kilometers long, and it too is heavily guarded -- in this case by personnel from the Law Enforcement Forces, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, the army ground forces, and the Army Aviation Corps (Havaniruz). Moreover, thousands of villagers have been armed and formed into Basij units that conduct military operations against what have been termed Afghan "bandits."

In spite of this considerable security presence and the Taliban's ban on opium poppy cultivation, narcotics still reach Iran because sizable stockpiles exist in Afghanistan and because cultivation continues in isolated pockets. The result of this is threefold, if information from Tehran's Islamic Republic News Agency is accurate: the government always is winning the conflict; there are frequent battles against traffickers with casualties on both sides and impressively high seizure rates; and drug-related crime continues to be a serious problem. Brigadier General Mehdi Aboui of the Law Enforcement Forces, who previously had said that a massive counter-narcotics operation in Tehran's Khak-i Sefid district was unsuccessful (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 25 June 2001), backtracked somewhat in a 2 July interview with "Hayat-i No," saying that the operation reduced drug distribution in the capital by 20-30 percent. He also rejected reports that the drug dealers had been scattered across the city: "That is not right. Presently, 500 of these smugglers are detained in prison."

Aboui's statements the next day (3 July) called into question these earlier comments. Aboui described a one-week national counter-narcotics operation in which security forces "cleaned up" 1,000 "drug-infested regions," killed 11 traffickers and arrested another 2,500, and arrested some 9,300 drug addicts. Moreover, Colonel Ali Mohammadi, anti-narcotics chief for the Shemiranat neighborhood of Tehran, said that security forces had cleaned up the city's Niavaran, Jamshidieh, and Qeitarieh districts.

Much of the drug-related crime is seen along Iran's eastern borders. Twenty-four Iranian police officers and 96 "armed Afghan bandits" have been killed in Khorasan Province since 21 March, and 2,592 traffickers and 7,473 addicts have been arrested, a provincial security official said in mid-July. These statistics seem to contradict Deputy Law Enforcement Forces chief Brigadier General Amir-Ali Amiri's late-July statement that "the security situation in the eastern parts of Iran had been improved considerably over the last six months," and Interior Minister Abdol-Vahed Musavi-Lari's 28 June statement that "Police, with the help of volunteer Basij and Islamic Revolution Guards Corps forces, have an upper hand in the [eastern border] region and banditry has been reined in."

Indeed, in the days and weeks following Musavi-Lari's claim, drug traffickers were arrested and narcotics were seized in the east and across the country. Bandar Abbas: 40 traffickers arrested, 500 kilos of narcotics seized. Mashhad: 16 killed, 167 arrested, 536 kilos confiscated. In Zahedan on 3 July, three drug traffickers -- a Pakistani and two Baluchis -- were hanged. Kerman: six killed, 119 arrested, 500 kilos seized. Mazandaran Province: 115 arrests, 16.5 kilos seized. Kerman: 10 killed. Chaharmahal va Bakhtiari Province: 50 traffickers arrested. Shiraz: a gang busted and 570 kilos of opium seized. Kerman: 7 traffickers killed. Bandar Abbas: 2 tons of opium seized. Kerman: 2 bandits (including one Baluchi) killed, 25 arrested, and one ton of hashish seized. Bandar Abbas: five killed, one arrested, 850 kilos of opium seized. Yazd Province: 80 arrests. Traffickers resorted more frequently to ingesting drug-filled balloons, the Imam Ali Hospital in Bojnurd noted in a 16 July report. Khorasan Province: 15 Afghans killed and 24 wounded in two days of shoot-outs, and 300 kilos of narcotics seized.

Overall statistics on drug-related crime underline the seriousness of the problem and they also undermine officials' claims that all is secure. Anti-Narcotics Headquarters chief Mohammad Fallah said on 29 July that half the crimes in Iran are related to narcotics, and in the March 2000-March 2001 period, 350,000 people were arrested in connection with drug trafficking and consumption. And on 2 July, Prisons, Security, and Correction Organization head Seyyed Mahmud Bakhtiari said that out of the 170,000 prisoners under his purview, some 68,000 are incarcerated for drug trafficking and another 32,000 are imprisoned for drug addiction. (Bill Samii)

CASPIAN DISCUSSIONS IN MOSCOW AND ASHGABAT. Tehran is making serious efforts to have an October summit about the Caspian Sea go in its favor, particularly after the late-July dispute with Azerbaijan over exploration rights in a portion of the Caspian. Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Ahani met in Ashgabat with Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov on 10 August to discuss the status of the sea's legal regime. They emphasized, according to Turkmenistan state television, that until the Caspian's new legal status is determined, no exploration or development work could be carried out for oil and gas resources in the sea's bordering areas.

Before going to Turkmenistan, Ahani met in Moscow with Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Viktor Kalyuzhny on 8 August and First Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Avdeyev on 9 August to discuss the current crisis in the Caspian Sea and the forthcoming summit of Caspian states' leaders. Beforehand, Foreign Ministers Kamal Kharrazi and Igor Ivanov held a telephone conversation in which they determined that it is essential "to reach an agreement as soon as possible on the new status of the Caspian, which will permit the formation of a solid legal foundation for the mutually beneficial cooperation of all littoral countries," according to a 7 August Russian Foreign Ministry statement.

Iranian military aircraft, meanwhile, continue their flights into Azerbaijani airspace. An Iranian jet flew over Azerbaijan's sector of the Caspian and then got to within 100 kilometers of Baku, ANS television reported on 7 August, and a similar incident occurred on 6 August. Iranian military actions in the Caspian in late July led to the current state of disquiet.

Tehran radio's English-language external broadcast explained on 5 August that the original Iranian action was meant to "prevent misunderstandings...accelerate negotiations for winning a final agreement." Azerbaijani and Western media, however, collaborate to portray Iran as "a threat to the security of the region. This is under conditions when during the past few years Iran has played the most effective role in the salvation of security in the region." Tehran radio also said that foreign companies are exploiting the rivalry between the littoral states, and the littoral states' unilateral measures to utilize the Caspian's oil and gas reserves have created misunderstandings. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN DELEGATION VISITS U.A.E. "The present atmosphere between [Iran and the U.A.E.] is very positive and constructive. We hope it will lead to the establishment of cooperation at the bilateral and regional levels," Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi told London's "Al-Hayah" on 9 August.

President Mohammad Khatami's envoy, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, and a delegation of Iranian officials had just visited Abu Dhabi on 5-6 August, about two weeks after a high-ranking U.A.E. delegation came to Tehran. They submitted a message from Khatami to President Sheikh Zayid bin Sultan Al-Nuhayyan and discussed ways to expand bilateral ties. The message said that strengthened ties between Iran and the U.A.E. would benefit the Islamic community and would contribute to resolution of the Muslim world's problems, "particularly the oppressed Palestinian nation," IRNA reported on 6 August. The most prominent unresolved issue between Abu Dhabi and Tehran concerns the sovereignty of three disputed islands in the Persian Gulf (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 30 July 2001).

Another dispute concerns the ownership of four IL-76 aircraft that have been parked at an airport in Taraz, Kazakhstan, since 19 June. All four aircraft are registered with Iran's Atlas Aviation group and belong to the U.A.E.'s Gulf Sands company. Atlas is demanding the release of the planes, claiming that they were hijacked by some Kazakhs, but a U.A.E. citizen who claims to be a one-third stakeholder in the aircraft has written to the airport and urged it to not to allow them to depart. In addition to the dispute over the ownership of the aircraft, there is the problem of fees, about $300 per day per plane. (Bill Samii)

IRGC STAGES NAVAL EXERCISES IN PERSIAN GULF. The three-day, five-phase Shahamat-80 naval exercises were staged in the Persian Gulf from 5-8 August. Boarding of ships, parachute operations, amphibious assaults, and testing of missile systems and mine-laying and minesweeping operations were parts of the exercises, spokesman Admiral Ali Razmju said in Bushehr on 8 August. Three days earlier, Razmju said that personnel from the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps and the Basij Resistance Forces, including "hundreds of commandos, gunmen, frogmen, and parachutists," would participate in the exercises. He added that "the games promise friendship and peace to the neighboring states," IRNA reported. (Bill Samii)