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Iran Report: November 12, 2001

12 November 2001, Volume 4, Number 43

6+2 MEETING COULD BE DECISIVE. Tehran's potential in resolving the Afghan crisis is evident in the steady stream of foreign visitors it has received, and Iranian officials are working hard to make sure that Tehran's interests are not forgotten. The 12-13 November meeting of the 6+2 group (Iran, Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, plus the U.S. and Russia) in New York could see some of those efforts reach fruition, but at the same time, some observers believe that Tehran's stance toward the current antiterrorism coalition will leave Iran on the sidelines when the prizes are distributed.

The most recent visitor to Tehran was Pakistan's president, Parviz Musharraf, who on 7 November made a brief stopover on his way to New York for a UN meeting. Musharraf met with First Vice-President Mohammad Reza Aref-Yazdi, who stressed the need for the two countries' cooperation so they could reach mutually acceptable decisions on Afghanistan. Aref also called for an immediate end to the war. Musharraf called on Islamic countries to be "reasonable," and he called for fighting "extremist views." (After meeting with President Mohammad Khatami in New York, Musharraf said: "Our interaction with President Khatami, the interaction certainly was there was a total agreement that we need to coordinate, we need to interact with each other to evolve a common strategy and a common perception of whatever is happening in Afghanistan. So to this extent, there is total understanding.")

Since 11 September, Tehran has received high-ranking delegations from Austria, Canada, England, France, Italy, Germany, and Greece. Iranian officials, furthermore, have traveled through Central Asia, the Middle East, and East Asia to generate support for their position on the Afghanistan crisis.

UN special envoy for Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi was in Tehran at the same time as Musharraf, having come from Islamabad on 3 November. Brahimi expressed optimism about the outcome of the forthcoming 6+2 meeting, yet Tehran and Islamabad have some fundamental differences. The Pakistanis told Brahimi that they want "moderate Taliban" in a future Afghan government. Brahimi, however, refused to meet with any Taliban during his trip to Pakistan, saying that would "give the wrong signals to all sides." The Iranians, meanwhile, have rejected the possibility of any sort of Taliban presence (although Tehran does not oppose a multi-ethnic Afghan government; in other words, one that would include Pashtuns). Moreover, Tehran opposes the return of Mohammad Zahir Shah, the ousted Afghan monarch, who is a Pashtun. On leaving Tehran, Brahimi headed for Rome to meet Zahir Shah. Brahimi reportedly favors a role for Zahir Shah in Afghanistan's transitional post-Taliban government.

NATO-member Turkey's role in the antiterrorism coalition is of particular concern to Iran, especially now that Ankara has dedicated special operations forces to working with the Northern Alliance. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi visited Ankara on 5 November to meet with his counterpart, Ismail Cem. In the subsequent press briefing, Kharrazi openly criticized Turkish policy. "Foreign troops entering Afghanistan's territory will only worsen the situation there," Kharrazi said, adding that "Afghanistan's issues must be left to the Afghans. This is why Iran has no forces whatsoever in Afghanistan."

Kharrazi was being disingenuous, in light of Tehran's long-standing military support (arms, advisers, and training) for one of the warring parties, the Northern Alliance. The leader of the Northern Alliance, President Burhanudin Rabbani, did his part when he said after meeting with Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer in Dushanbe: "To destroy terrorist training centers and the Taliban movement, we have our own forces that are perfectly capable of fulfilling this task. We do not demand soldiers from friendly countries. What we need is financial and logistical help, as well as political understanding." Rabbani did not say whether he wants the air support to stop.

Nor is Kharrazi being realistic if he really expects Turkey to stay out of the Afghanistan situation. Ankara has actively supported Afghan Uzbek combatants, namely commanders Abdul Rashid Dostum and Abdul Malik, with money and weapons. And Turkey is expected to host a meeting of the "Supreme Council for the National Unity of Afghanistan," through which Zahir Shah and the Northern Alliance hope to create a Loya Jirga.

Turkey's ambitions in Afghanistan may actually be served by the failure of Iranian diplomacy, according to Mohammad-Reza Djalili of Geneva's Graduate Institute for International Studies. He told RFE/RL: "Not only are the Iranians leaving [Afghanistan's] door open to other countries, they are also totally absent from a problem that concerns them totally and directly. They should blame only themselves for that; they made the wrong strategic choices. That the Iranians should be involved in the Middle East through the Lebanon-based Hizballah some 3,000 kilometers from Tehran, and that at the same time they should remain absent from the Afghan game, does not make sense to me. They're making a very serious mistake, and I think that all this diplomatic -- and somehow ambiguous -- gesticulating recently displayed by President Mohammad Khatami is an attempt to compensate for the appalling choices made by the Supreme Leader."

President Khatami left for the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York on 8 October. In a speech the next day he criticized the terrorists that attacked the U.S., condemned the attacks as "one of the most violent and heinous crimes," and also criticized those who feel "powerful" and are "thirsty for reprisal." Khatami reiterated his call for a UN-led antiterrorism coalition or, as he said on 8 November, a coalition for peace rather than one for war. He also discussed his dialogue of civilizations.

The real business probably will take place at the closed 6+2 meeting on 12 November. Tehran has sent some mixed messages recently about what it would like to see to its east. For example, Kharrazi advised in a 5 November interview with AP that the UN should exclude the U.S. and any of Afghanistan's neighbors from participation in a post-Taliban peacekeeping mission. How amenable the other 6+2 members would be to such advice is not immediately obvious, but it looks like such ideas might get Tehran left out when the final accounting is done. (Bill Samii)

CONTRADICTORY AFGHAN POLICY NOT UNPRECEDENTED FOR IRAN. Tehran makes no secret of its support for the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance (United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan), but since 11 September there have been occasional reports that Tehran intends to support the Taliban, too. This may seem like a wild conspiracy theory, especially in light of the sources, but it would not be the first time that the Iranian foreign affairs apparatus has worked at cross-purposes in its dealings with Afghanistan.

Gulbudin Hekmatyar of the Hizb-i Islami-yi Afghanistan, who is based in Iran, said in a 6 November interview with RFE/RL's Persian Service that "we" are in touch with everybody in Afghanistan, including the Taliban. And although there are differences between the Afghan groups, Hekmatyar said, Afghans should not let those differences interfere with defending their country against the U.S. Hekmatyar went on to say that he has no difficulties with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, and when asked if he is touch with Mullah Omar, Hekmatyar repeated that "we" are in touch with everybody.

An article that appeared one day earlier in the "Sunday Telegraph" cited "a Taliban government minister and a senior Taliban diplomat" -- neither of them were named -- who confirmed reports of meetings between the Taliban and the Iranian government. According to the news article, which also appeared in "The Washington Times," Tehran held secret negotiations with the Taliban in an effort to block the return of exiled Afghan monarch Mohammad Zahir Shah. In the past three weeks, according to this report, two Taliban delegations visited Iran and an Iranian delegation visited Kabul. A Taliban delegation led by defense official Mullah Mohammad Zain is in Mashhad right now, according to the report. The Iranians allegedly offered to arm Hekmatyar and fund his return to Afghanistan (Hekmatyar told RFE/RL that he wanted to return to fight Americans; see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 5 November 2001).

A 27 October article in Lahore's "The Friday Times" said that a "low-ranking Taliban delegation" led by Taliban foreign affairs official Wahid Mazhada visited Tehran shortly after the 11 September attacks in the U.S. This delegation supposedly met with Iranian officials and clerics in an attempt to gain their support. An anonymous "Pakistani analyst" said that it is no coincidence that Hekmatyar declared his support for the Taliban.

In a 7 November interview with RFE/RL's Persian Service, Hekmatyar was asked about reports that Tehran is going to use him as a spoiler if a group that it does not favor comes to power in Kabul. Hekmatyar stated unequivocally that Tehran recognizes ousted Afghan President Burhanudin Rabbani as that country's rightful leader. He went on to express his unhappiness that the Northern Alliance, which Tehran backs, is working with the U.S. to defeat the Taliban. Hekmatyar repeated that he will return to Afghanistan and his supporters are ready to defend the country.

At this point, it just seems that different sides are presenting contradictory arguments. Moreover, parties that want to discredit Iran may have planted disinformation about its intentions. But it is possible that some parties in Iran are more sympathetic to the anti-Western Taliban than they would be to a pro-Western Afghan government. So the support for different Afghan groups could be the result of different priorities in the Iranian establishment.

During the Afghan war against Soviet invaders and their proxies in the 1980s, Iran mostly supported the Shia Mujahedin groups. The main Shia group was the Shura-yi Inqilab-i Ittifaq-i Islami under Seyyed Ali Beheshti, which came to operate as the independent government in the Hazarajat. After the Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980, Iranian interest and financing tapered off a bit and the smaller groups formed alliances, with Beheshti's group coming out as the dominant one. Eventually, the Shura was competing with the Sazeman-i Nasr led by Abdul Karim Khalili, the Harakat-i Islami led by Assef Muhseni, the Pasdaran-i Jihad-i Islami (also referred to as the Sepah-i Pasdaran, possibly because of its links with the IRGC), and the Jebhe-yi Mutahid-i Inqilab-i Islami.

Hojatoleslam Mehdi Hashemi of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps' Liberation Movements unit ran the Inqilab-i Islami-yi Afghanistan, which oversaw the Mujahedin activities. Hashemi was executed in 1986, and the IRGC, Ministry of Intelligence and Security, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and even the Interior Ministry tried to gain control of the Mujahedin account. The internal dynamics of Iranian foreign policy-making continues to disrupt efforts to appear united and it also explains contradictory actions and statements by officials.

Further support for the belief in competing efforts to guide foreign policy is the recent dispute between the Judiciary and the parliament over the creation of an Afghan crisis committee (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 5 November 2001). This committee met with President Mohammad Khatami on 28 October, and afterwards Qolam Heidar Ebrahim Bay-Salami said that it had recommended that Iran conduct a dialogue with all parties to the conflict, including the U.S. He added, according to IRNA, that this did not mean the committee favored the return of Mohammad Zahir Shah, and in fact the committee suspected that London and Washington want to break Afghanistan up along ethnic and tribal lines. The Judiciary threatened to disband the committee and also to prosecute its members, prompting Ebrahim Bay-Salami to say on 6 November that no authority could disband it, according to IRNA. (Bill Samii)

MORE FOREIGNERS DIE IN AFGHANISTAN. Eighty-five Pakistanis fighting for the Taliban were killed in Allied bombing, "The Independent" reported on 9 November. The Pakistanis were affiliated with the Harakat-i Jihadi-i Islami (Alami), according to the movement's spokesman, Kamal Azfara. Arabs loyal to Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, have taken partial or complete control of Taliban units in frontline positions, the "Financial Times" reported on 6 November. The Arabs comprise 20-33 percent of the Taliban forces. After taking Mazar-i-Sharif on 9 November, Northern Alliance General Abdul Rashid Dostum told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service by satellite phone that in four days of fighting, "The Taliban lost about 500 men. Approximately 1,000 surrendered and about 500 were captured." (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN CALLS FOR RAMADAN CEASE-FIRE. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi urged the U.S. on 31 October to discontinue military operations in Afghanistan during the holy month of Ramadan (the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, mid-November to mid-December). Kharrazi warned, according to IRNA, "The continuation of military attacks will provoke Muslims. Not only will terrorists not be punished but [they] will receive the sympathy of the public opinion." Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a 30 October speech in Isfahan criticized the U.S. for not stopping its military operations during Ramadan.

Apparently, Kharrazi has not extended the same advice to the Northern Alliance, or if he has, the Alliance has chosen to ignore him. Ousted Afghan President Burhanudin Rabbani said in a 4 August interview with Kyodo News that the Alliance would launch a ground assault against the Taliban shortly before the start of Ramadan. Rabbani explained, ''The Taliban have never respected Ramadan. We prefer to continue fighting against the Taliban.'' The Northern Alliance has fought the Taliban over five Ramadans, according to research by Avi Jorisch of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and during the war against the Soviet Union, the Afghan Mujahedin once rejected the offer of a Ramadan cease-fire.

Nor has Iran suspended its military activities during previous Ramadans, according to Jorisch. The Iran-Iraq War, from 1980 to 1988, covered eight Ramadans. Tehran twice rejected Baghdad's offer of a Ramadan cease-fire, in 1981 and 1987. (Bill Samii)

REV GUARDS TAKE A STAND. Islamic Revolution Guards Corps commander General Yahya Rahim-Safavi said on 7 November that the Iranian armed forces are ready to defend Iran from any foreign threats, according to IRNA, but he does not think there are any outstanding threats to the country. The next day, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" quoted Western security sources as saying that more than 700 Iranian military advisers, including IRGC personnel, would be withdrawn from Sudan, Lebanon, Bosnia, and other countries. The Supreme National Security Council decided to do this in mid-October, in a move that is supported by all the country's political factions and which is meant to show solidarity with the U.S.-led campaign against Osama Bin Laden. (Bill Samii)

MILITARY EXERCISES IN ISFAHAN AND SHIRAZ. Some 110,000 male and female members of the Isfahan Province Basij began the three-day Alaviyun military and cultural exercises on 10 November. The previous day, Basij commander Hejazi told Iranian state television that the objectives of the camp are "renewing our allegiance to the ideals of the exalted Imam [Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini] and following the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei]," as well as enhancing the "spirituality" of the participants. Hejazi continued: "One of the special characteristics of this camp is the holding of ideological and political classes in the camp. Moreover, spiritual programs will be performed in the camp as well." Islamic Revolution Guards Corp aircraft and armor also participated in the exercises. Roughly 15,000 male and female members of the Basij Resistance Forces, organized into 40 Ashura and Zahra battalions, participated in the Sahib-ul-Amr 80 military exercises near Shiraz, Fars Province. The exercises began on 2 November and lasted three days, and they were intended to increase readiness to respond to any foreign attacks, state radio reported on 3 November. (Bill Samii)

CONTROVERSY OVER GULISTAN BY-ELECTION. The parliament held a closed-door session on 7 November to discuss the rejection by local screening bodies of almost 40 percent of the applicants for 30 November parliamentary by-elections in Gulistan Province. The by-election is needed to replace seven parliamentarians who died in a May airplane accident. The Guardians Council was to announce the final list of candidates by 9 November, but on 11 November it approved nine of the rejected candidates and rejected three of the approved ones.

Local supervisory boards that are affiliated with the Guardians Council disqualified 63 out of 169 applicants, according to the 7 November "Hayat-i No," and executive boards affiliated with the Interior Ministry disqualified another five people. Reformist parliamentarians argue that having the local boards disqualify applicants is an illegal move that contravenes the election law. Parliamentarian Meisam Saidi explained that with local boards there is a high possibility that personal politics would be involved in the disqualifications.

The Gulistan Province by-election has brought about calls for reform of the vetting process. A commentary in the 24 October "Noruz" urged President Mohammad Khatami to look into the disqualifications. Specifically, he should investigate the supervisory boards' documents and arguments for disqualifying the candidates, and he should find out if the relevant documents have been provided to the proper legal authorities. A 22 October editorial in the same newspaper complained about the "large-scale disqualifications of popular candidates." Any candidate who may favor reform of the country's affairs has been disqualified, according to the editorial. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN MAYOR NARROWLY AVOIDS IMPEACHMENT. Tehran Mayor Morteza Alviri had the unanimous support of the capital's municipal council when he was selected in June 1999, possibly because he was close to his successor, Gholamhussein Karbaschi, and the Executives of Construction Party (ECP). Karbaschi, in turn, was identified with President Mohammad Khatami's successful 1997 campaign. Karbaschi has faded from the political radar, and the Executives of Construction have had something of a parting with the other reformist groups. This may explain the early-November impeachment hearings against Alviri. And it also may explain why former Deputy Interior Minister Mustafa Tajzadeh, a close ally of Khatami, has been mentioned as a possible successor to Alviri.

During the 6 November council session, however, Alviri narrowly avoided losing his job. At least 10 out of the 15 councilors would have had to vote against him. Only 12 councilors were present that day, five backed Alviri, five voted against him, and two abstained.

Reports about Alviri's pending impeachment appeared as early as June 2000, just a year after he got the job. At that time, "Jam-i Jam" reported a four-hour, closed-door council meeting at which Alviri's ouster was discussed. The daily speculated that municipal backers of the ECP had made a deal with the pro-Khatami Islamic Iran Participation Party (IIPP). Other outstanding disagreements concerned personnel practices and the mayor's implementation of the council's decisions. Alviri weathered this storm, but reports about his dismissal reappeared in August 2000, January 2001, June 2001, and July 2001.

Some of the major issues confronting the Tehran mayor are air pollution; traffic jams; mass transit; inefficient and mismanaged water use; inadequate housing; and urban development. Municipal council members have complained that Alviri has not dealt with these issues very well. The possible reasons for his impeachment, however, are failure to implement the council's policies; failure to keep the council informed; non-transparent financial dealings; and poor management of major projects, state radio reported on 5 November. According to a 28 October IRNA report, the council has complained repeatedly to Alviri about discrepancies in the city's annual budget and fiscal balances, as well as unaccounted sums.

In August 2000, Alviri was accused of securing for his personal use a 410-million-toman house from the Martyrs Foundation, as well as 33 million tomans' worth of household goods. The municipality, however, told investigators from the council that this was an official guesthouse. Given the existence of hotels, the investigators thought such a purchase was unnecessary, "Resalat" reported in January 2001. Most of the household goods, furthermore, were kept in storage, possibly for resale.

Alviri has not taken the complaints against him lying down. He lodged a court complaint that council member Ebrahim Asqarzadeh slandered him, IRNA reported on 3 September. In a February interview with "Hambastegi," Alviri said that the Investment and Management of Participatory Projects Organization did not release enough funds for the completion of municipal projects, but the council is trying to gain control of it, which would only worsen the situation. The council also complained about the performance of the Shahrvand store, to which Alviri responded that the store was created to establish the culture of chain stores, rather than deal with the distribution of fruits and vegetables. He concluded by saying, "The mayor is not the executive deputy of the city council." He said the council makes policy and supervises, and the municipality executes the policies.

The councils are a recent innovation, although the Iranian Constitution (Articles 7 and 100-106) refers specifically to the need for councils at the city, regional, district, and village levels. Elections for municipal council's were not held until 1999 for two reasons. First, Article 68 permits the suspension of elections during wartime, which accounted for the years up to 1989 (Iran-Iraq War). And second, hard-liners in the government feared a loss of control should there be any decentralization.

The presence of the council has added a new bureaucratic layer. There is the Tehran governor (ostandar) who is responsible for Tehran Province, the Tehran governor-general (farmandar) who is responsible for greater Tehran, and the mayor (shahrdar), who like the governor is appointed by the Interior Ministry. Karbaschi, therefore, did not have to face the same rivalries that now confront Alviri. Issues in the capital always had a national character, because it is the largest population center (about 7 million according to a 1996 census, but much higher now) and also because it has so many parliamentary representatives (30). But the addition of this bureaucratic layer made municipal issues more controversial and dragged in more people.

An April 2001 disagreement between the council and governor's office over the budget allocation demonstrates this point. The dispute had to be resolved by the Supreme Arbitration Board, which consists of a deputy Judiciary head, a deputy prosecutor-general, three parliamentarians, an Interior Ministry deputy, and one the president's deputies. This was preceded by meetings involving the speaker of parliament, Tehran's mayor, governor-general, and governor, the Interior Ministry deputy for municipal council affairs, and all the Tehran parliamentarians, "Entekhab" reported. And in November 2000 the council and the Tehran governor clashed in a dispute over their respective jurisdictions. In this case, council member Ebrahim Asqarzadeh called on President Khatami to intervene, "Jam-i Jam" reported, while then-governor Ayatollah Azarmi said the parliament should resolve the dispute.

Council member Mohammad Atrianfar seemed to acknowledge some of these issues in an interview with the 12 February "Iran." He said that a highly centralized system gave way to consultative management without going through an intermediate stage. The council members, furthermore, are not urban management specialists, nor do they agree on their own roles.

The councils' actual duties and responsibilities, furthermore, are not clearly defined. The councils will select mayors, for example, but the Interior Ministry selects provincial and city governors. On the other hand, Article 105 states that council decisions must not contradict "the criteria of Islam." It is not specified who will determine these criteria. And it remains to be seen how much longer Alviri will be the mayor of Tehran. (Bill Samii)

STATE GETS INTERNET CONNECTION MONOPOLY. The Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution ratified regulations that say the state has the monopoly on providing international connections for Internet service providers (ISPs). Within six months, private companies that are operating as ISPs must dismantle or transfer their service to the state sector. Internet cafes must apply for relevant operating permits within two months. Meanwhile, hundreds of Iranians have been sending e-mails to the White House and Capitol Hill from two terminals at the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The e-mail addresses of President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and members of the U.S. Congress are on display. Some of the messages complained about U.S. action in Afghanistan, others complained about the 1988 destruction of an Iranian airliner by a U.S. Navy ship, and some were obscene. (Bill Samii)

FARMERS' CONTRIBUTION NOTED. In a 5 November speech to Isfahan Province farmers and workers, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said, "Iran is indebted, in the strictest sense of the word, to the labor and farmer class." One day earlier, Issa Kalantari, formerly the agriculture minister and now a presidential adviser and head of the Farmer's House, said that the agriculture sector makes up only 0.26 percent (less than one one-hundredth) of gross domestic product. This sector lacks the institutions that could help the farmers, the farmers are not effectively organized, and they are not adequately involved in their own affairs, Kalantari said. Drought has made the situation worse. In Kermanshah Province, drought has destroyed 1,500 hectares of farmland, according to Agricultural Jihad official Mohammad Hadi Khazai on 5 November. The government has allocated over $28.1 billion as grants and loans to help the farmers, Khazai said. (Bill Samii)