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Iran Report: November 26, 2001

26 November 2001, Volume 4, Number 45

PEACE TALKS IN GERMANY VERSUS FACTS IN AFGHANISTAN. Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hassan Rohani welcomed on 21 November a forthcoming conference in Germany on Afghanistan's future government, but optimistic observers should bear three things in mind. The meeting's participants have different agendas and speak from different positions of strength. In Afghanistan, furthermore, power already is divided among different warlords who have little interest in distant conferences and their participants. And trying to settle the Afghans' differences could be an ultimately unrewarding experience.

The place and time of the German meeting has changed repeatedly, and as of 23 November it seemed that the talks would start in Bonn on 26 November. 30 delegates from four groups are to participate in these talks. There will be representatives of deposed monarch Mohammad Zahir Shah (the Rome Process), representatives from a recent meeting of Afghans in Pakistan (the Peshawar Convention), representatives of the Cyprus Process, and representatives of the Northern Alliance (United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan).

Zahir Shah's group appears to be the most enthusiastic about the upcoming gathering, possibly because its lack of a fighting role or control of any material assets in Afghanistan would make it irrelevant otherwise. Indeed, events left the Rome Process behind; the "Supreme Council for the National Unity of Afghanistan" announced by Zahir Shah and the Northern Alliance on 1 October never met to create a Loya Jirga.

Moreover, the monarch was as surprised as -- if not more than -- most other observers when the Northern Alliance took Kabul. His adviser, Sattar Sirat, explained on 13 November that the Alliance had broken its agreement with Zahir Shah. He said, "This is an event that is very new for us and unexpected because we consulted and there was a united front -- Kabul should be demilitarized and no one should enter Kabul, and the control of Kabul should come under the [control] of a high council representing the whole Afghan nation and under a political process." Sirat went on to say that Zahir Shah still is interested in creating a Supreme Council and holding a Loya Jirga.

The Western powers and the UN believe that Zahir Shah could play a role in Afghanistan as a unifying figure whose Pashtun origins would appeal to Afghanistan's largest ethnic group. The Northern Alliance has little time for Zahir Shah, as does Gulbudin Hekmatyar, who is linked with the Cypress Process. Hekmatyar, in a 24 November interview with Madrid's "El Mundo," referred to the aged monarch as "that walking corpse who not even the dogs support in Afghanistan." Regional powers are unenthusiastic, too. Iranian officials repeatedly have said that Zahir Shah does not have a future, and Pakistan has its preferred group of Pashtun.

Islamabad's predominantly-Pashtun Afghans have been referred to as the Peshawar Convention because of their late October meeting in that Pakistani city. The Peshawar meeting was organized by former mujaheddin commander Pir Seyyed Ahmad Gailani and attended by 700-1,500 Afghan elders, mujaheddin, and religious leaders. Gailani claimed to have Zahir Shah's support, but Zahir Shah's spokesman rejected this claim. Nobody from the Northern Alliance -- in which Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Hazara predominate -- attended this event, either. Ambassador Ravan Farhadi, the official Afghan representative to the UN, said in the 21 November "Los Angeles Times" that the Northern Alliance strongly objects to a governing role for the Peshawar Convention. The Pashtuns, however, are striving to carve out a significant role for themselves. Around 80 Pashtun leaders met in the Pakistani city of Quetta on 25 November to form a delegation to ask the Taliban to surrender Kandahar.

The Cyprus Process was initiated in 1999, mainly as an Iranian counter to the Rome Process. Its main player is Hekmatyar of the Hizb-i-Islami. Hekmatyar was a powerful commander during the war against the Soviets and also the main recipient of funding channeled through Pakistan. His part in the destruction of Kabul in the early 1990s and his generally brutal reputation undermine his claims to any serious part in Afghanistan's future. Nevertheless, two Cyprus Process representatives -- Homayun Jarir and Jalil Shams -- came to Washington in April 2000, representatives from the Rome and Cyprus processes met a year later, and a delegation linked with Pir Seyyed Ahmad Gailani went to Cyprus in summer 2001. Northern Alliance representatives attended this summer meeting, too.

For the Northern Alliance the upcoming talks in Germany are largely symbolic, although it also supports the concept of a Loya Jirga and a broad-based government. President Burhanuddin Rabbani told a roundtable discussion that included correspondents from RFE/RL's Persian, Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek Services that he does not expect any breakthroughs at the talks, and that they would be a forum to discuss some broad issues. Rabbani hinted that the armed opposition to the Taliban should have the greatest say in the country's future: "Our program also says that more rights should be granted to those people who belong to the resistance and to those people who are living in refugee camps and who are going through great sufferings."

The Northern Alliance consists of at least 13 groups, and this is a frequent source of problems. On 24 November IRNA reported that the Alliance could not reach a decision on who to include in its delegation for the talks in Germany.

The Alliance has Kabul and it is keen to hold any future talks there. Should this occur it would be a de facto recognition of that organization's control of Afghanistan, something that the other actors would not want to concede. "Control," however, is a relative term, especially in the hinterlands. "The Corrupt and Brutal Reclaim Afghan Thrones, Evoking Chaos of Somalia," a "New York Times" headline said. "Anarchy in Warlord Territory," the 23 November "Guardian" announced. The British daily described ambushes and looting of cars and buses in eastern parts of Afghanistan.

In Jalalabad, UN offices have been "occupied, looted, and vandalized," according to "The Washington Post" on 19 November, and "most of their trucks and motorcycles have been commandeered by roving gunmen." In the words of one Afghan: "These militia people are illiterate donkeys. They come in from the mountains and Jalalabad looks like Paris or London to them. They have weapons, so they think they can take anything they want. The leaders may be dividing up the political power, but they cannot control their own men." In Herat, Sunni Tajik General Ismail Khan is in charge and he has handed out important leadership positions to his associates in the Jamiyat-i-Islami. Shia combatants from the Hizb-i-Wahdat have received nothing, the "Financial Times" reported on 22 November. Moreover, Ismail Khan's armed supporters broke up a pro-Zahir Shah rally, and Ismail Khan then gave a speech in which he denounced Afghans who rely on foreigners.

Against this seemingly chaotic and not very encouraging backdrop, the talks in Germany will strive for the selection of a transitional government for Afghanistan. In the short-term this body could run the country, administering its affairs, dealing with security, and meeting people's needs, while other matters, such as a Loya Jirga, could be dealt with in the longer term. By holding the talks in a relatively isolated location, furthermore, it is hoped that representatives from the U.S., Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and Afghanistan's other neighbors could meet informally with the Afghan participants. But the rewards of such meetings could be transitory and could eventually backfire. As U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz observed on 18 November, "I think one lesson of Afghanistan that we have seen and people have seen in the past is alliances shift from month-to-month and year-to-year, and the one thing that seems to unite Afghans over long periods of time is they don't much like foreigners." (Bill Samii)

STRAW SEEKS IRANIAN AND PAKISTANI SUPPORT. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw is visiting Tehran and Islamabad in the days before the Bonn conference. He will try to persuade their respective governments to get their Afghan allies to cooperate with the United Nations and also to rein in the militants they sponsor, the "Financial Times" reported on 22 November. Tehran is behind the Northern Alliance and the Cyprus Process. Pakistan backs the Pashtun-based Peshawar Conference, and probably many of the Pashtun groups who are fighting in the lower half of Afghanistan. Pakistan also was the Taliban's main sponsor.

But it appears that Islamabad and Tehran have resolved many of their differences over this issue bilaterally. After two days of talks in the Pakistani capital, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohsen Aminzadeh said on 20 November that in the past there had been "some differences of perceptions on how to bring about peace." He continued: "At the present time the views of the two countries are closer to each other." Aminzadeh's trip to Pakistan was preceded by that of Iranian Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari, while the Iranian and Pakistan foreign ministers, Kamal Kharrazi and Abdul Satar, respectively, met in New York around the same time (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 19 November 2001). (Bill Samii)

CALLS FOR WITHDRAWAL OF FOREIGN TROOPS. While in Tehran British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw met with Northern Alliance Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah to discuss the deployment of British troops. Afterwards, IRNA reported on 23 November, Straw said that longer-term peacekeeping and stabilization requirements remain to be seen. Tehran Friday prayer leader Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani on 23 November denounced the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan and he accused Western powers of trying to establish colonial bases around the world. The Afghan reconciliation and unity council also called for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan, Mashhad radio reported on 21 November, and it called for the deployment of UN peacekeeping forces. The council did not define the difference between UN forces and foreign forces. (Bill Samii)

ACCUSATIONS FLY ON BIN LADEN WHEREABOUTS. Pakistani Foreign Office spokesman Aziz Ahmad Khan rejected a 16 November report by Tehran radio that Osama Bin Laden and some of his cohorts fled to Pakistan. Aziz said, according to Islamabad radio, that "the report is totally baseless and devoid of any truth," and he added that security on Pakistan's border has been tightened and nobody is being allowed to enter Pakistan without prior permission. Two days later, "Pakistan," a daily from Islamabad, reported that Bin Laden and a big convoy of his associates were spotted near the Afghanistan-Iran border. Refugees were the main source, and the daily conceded that the reports could not be confirmed independently. Also on 18 November, "Jang" from Rawalpindi reported the possibility that Bin Laden was on the way to Chechnya, in the company of a "big group of Chechen fighters." 400 Arabs are on their way to Zahedan disguised as Islamic missionaries, according to "Jang."

Islamabad's strict border security measures may reflect concern that the retreating fighters would try to establish bases in the mountainous border region or Al-Qaeda would try to operate from Pakistani cities. Moreover, the arriving Taliban could build on the radicalization of Pakistan's Islamic parties. Mohammad Fateh of the Tanzim-i-Islami told RFE/RL that until President Pervez Musharraf began to cooperate with the U.S., these parties were willing to work within the system. Ikram Ahmed, a newspaper editor from Quetta, takes a different view. He told RFE/RL that the Taliban's defeat would weaken the resolve of like-minded Pakistani groups. Ahmed went on to say that the Pakistani government's view towards these radical groups has changed, and "Without the support of the establishment, or without support from the outside, they cannot survive."

Nevertheless, Pakistani intelligence (Inter-Service Intelligence, ISI) officials claim that 3,000 or more Taliban and Al-Qaeda personnel have entered Pakistan since the fall of Kabul, according to reports in the 20 November "Chicago Tribune" and the 15 November "New York Times." Western diplomats warned "he New York Times" that this could be ISI disinformation about the potential destabilizing effect of a Northern Alliance takeover of Afghanistan.

The foreign fighters in Afghanistan -- Arabs, Chechens, Pakistanis, Filipinos, and Uighurs -- certainly have a reason to run, because they are unlikely to receive any mercy from the Northern Alliance. Some 520 mostly-Pakistani Taliban fighters in Mazar-i-Sharif were shot and crushed by Northern Alliance tanks when they refused to surrender. In other cases, the foreign Taliban have committed suicide rather than surrendering. Some of the foreigners who have been captured remain committed to fighting: Saleh Jan, a Pakistani, said in the 15 November "Independent" that, "If they release me, I will go and kill the Northern Alliance and Americans again."

Afghan Taliban are more likely either to surrender, defect, or just walk away from the fighting and go back to their villages. Asked on 19 November about reports that 100 Taliban were executed by their more extreme comrades or by Al-Qaeda because they had considered defecting, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said, "I have seen reports that people have been found with bullets in their heads and not in the fronts [of their heads]."

Washington is very reluctant to see the foreign fighters just walk out of Afghanistan. Rumsfeld said on 20 November: "It would be most unfortunate if the foreigners in Afghanistan, the Al-Qaeda and the Chechens and others who have been there working with the Taliban, if those folks were set free and in any way allowed to go to another country and cause the same kinds of terrorist acts; it would be most unfortunate."

The U.S. is searching hard for bin Laden and the Taliban leadership, who may be cowering in a cave or tunnel complex in the mountains near Jalalabad or near Kandahar. An anonymous U.S. Special Forces officer said that when there is sufficient intelligence a four to six-man team could assault such a facility successfully, while in more complex cases a Ranger battalion would be required, "The Washington Post" reported on 20 November. Unnamed Pentagon officials said that Washington might send up to 1,500 Marines to assist in the search, "The Wall Street Journal" reported on 21 November.

Another (presumably) anonymous Pentagon official, on the other hand, said that there is no reason to risk American lives in a deadly confrontation, "The Los Angeles Times" reported on 20 November, when Northern Alliance personnel are keen to do the job. There are other options, such as bunker-buster bombs, cruise missiles, or explosives that take the oxygen out of the atmosphere. Cave activity can be tracked with thermal-imaging cameras or devices that can identify a human's carbon dioxide emissions.

Bounty hunters may play a part, too, because Washington has offered a $25 million reward for the capture of bin Laden and other Al-Qaeda leaders. Commando Solo, an EC-130 from the 193rd Special Operations Wing of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard that has been flying the Afghan skies, began broadcasting messages about this reward on 18 November. Leaflets dropped from planes carry the same message.

Iran's "Siyasat-i Ruz" newspaper on 20 November conceded that locating bin Laden would not be easy, but "finding this self-made monster -- whose escape from the CIA's laboratories is rather like a scene out of a science fiction movie -- has become vitally important to the American ruling establishment." The daily urged Iranian authorities to keep Al-Qaeda personnel out of the country. If bin Laden comes to Iran, Tehran would have to turn him over to international authorities, which would "undermine the credibility of the Islamic Republic in the eyes of Muslim nations." Refusal to do so would cause difficulties for Iran in the international arena. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN DIPLOMATIC PRESENCE IN AFGHANISTAN RISING. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi announced on 20 November that the Iranian Embassy in Kabul has resumed its activities "in recent days." Two days earlier, the Foreign Ministry denied that it was rushing to be the first embassy to reopen, according to the "Tehran Times." "Diplomatic sources both in Iran and Afghanistan" have rejected reports about the reopening of the Iranian Consulate in Herat, also, IRNA reported on 19 November. Nevertheless, Alavizadeh, the head consul of Iran, went to Herat two days ago to examine the consulate and determine the extent to which it is damaged. An Iranian Foreign Ministry expert on Afghan affairs, Morteza Mirhusseini, added that the consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif is being looked at, too, and it will reopen in the "very near future."

Other countries are trying to catch up. Russia's RTR television claimed on 19 November that a 12-member delegation of officials from Moscow's foreign, defense, and emergency situations ministries is the "first and, so far, only foreign mission of that rank and size here in Afghanistan." The delegation will look into opening an embassy in Kabul, according to "RFE/RL Newsline." Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov explained the delay on 21 November: "We are considering the possibility of opening an embassy on a temporary scheme.... However all this requires certain conditions. It's a very thorough procedure. You understand that there is no light and water and no communication facilities [in Kabul]." (Bill Samii)

U.S. ACCUSES IRAN OF BIOLOGICAL WARFARE ACTIVITIES. "We are quite concerned about Iran, which the United States believes probably has produced and weaponized BW [biological warfare] agents in violation of the [1972 Biological Weapons] Convention," U.S. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John R. Bolton said on 19 November. Speaking at the Fifth Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention, which was being held in Geneva, Bolton said that Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda's threat to use biological weapons against the U.S. is a big concern, but beyond that lies concern about the activities of Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Sudan.

"Leveling baseless accusations against independent countries of the world continues to be on the American foreign policy agenda," Iranian state radio retorted on 20 November, adding that the U.S. has not offered "acceptable evidence" to support these accusations. The radio report went on to say that America's biological weapons threaten world security, American officials are incapable of safe-guarding these weapons, and "considering the American profit-making spirit, those weapons can be put at the disposal of terrorists."

An opinion piece in the 21 November "Tehran Times" said that Bolton's accusations are apparently intended to divert international attention from "U.S. involvement in the production and distribution of biological weapons." Moreover, the daily said, by accusing other countries Bolton was trying to portray the U.S. as the "opponent" and not the "promoter of germ warfare." (Bill Samii)

AFGHAN TV ON AIR WITH IRANIAN HELP. "Let me also tell you, dear listeners, that Kabul television began work on Saturday evening [17 November] with the cooperation of the engineers sent to Kabul by the Voice and Vision of the Islamic Republic of Iran," Iranian state radio announced on 17 November. Kabul television went on the air with female newsreaders who were wearing headscarves. Afghans are buying satellite dishes openly, too. "We want to see the world's television," Shahgholam Hairat said in the 23 November "Christian Science Monitor." (Bill Samii)

GULISTAN GRUMBLING GROWS. The controversy over the Gulistan Province parliamentary by-election to replace seven deputies who were killed in an airplane crash has gone up several notches. On 21 November parliament called for the postponement of the by-election -- originally scheduled for 30 November -- because of candidate rejections and because of its conflicts with the Guardians Council over this issue.

This demand was ignored, and the candidates began campaigning on 22 November. There will be 21 polling places, with 552 stationary ballot boxes and 386 mobile ones, according to state television on 24 November. There are 26 candidates in Gorgan and Abqalla, 12 candidates in Gonbad, 11 candidates in Minudasht, 14 candidates in the town of Aliabad-i-Katul, 12 candidates in Kordkui, Bandargaz, and Bandar-i-Torkaman, and 34 candidates in the provincial towns of Ramian and Azadshahr.

On 20 November the Guardians Council had rejected a triple-urgency parliamentary bill, which declared that if the council rejects candidates on the basis of regulations that do not correspond with the existing election law, the Interior Ministry is not obliged to respect the rejections. Guardians Council spokesman Azizi said, according to state radio, that the bill was "contrary to the constitution." Local supervisory boards that are affiliated with the Guardians Council had rejected almost 40 percent of the roughly 170 potential candidates (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 12 November 2001). Five parliamentarians -- Majid Ansari, Mohammad Baqer Nobakht, Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, Mohammad Hassan Abu-Torabi, and Mohammad Shahi-Arablu -- were delegated to discuss the issue with the Guardians Council.

Speaker of Parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi criticized the Guardians Council's actions, saying that it was acting outside the law, IRNA reported on 21 November. There have been other warnings from the deputies. Reformist parliamentarian Behzad Nabavi said that if the council did not change its stance, "the legitimacy of the regime and national interest will be seriously threatened," AFP reported on 18 November. Ali-Akbar Mohtashemi-Pur, who heads the reformist Second of Khordad faction, said that the council's actions contradict the presumption of innocence described in the constitution and the Sharia. To just disqualify somebody by saying that he has not established his qualifications is unacceptable, Mohtashemi-Pur said.

President Mohammad Khatami's allies also are critical of the council's actions. Vice President for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Mohammad Ali Abtahi on 18 November called on the Guardians Council to reconsider the rejections, IRNA reported, and he said that the government had commissioned a committee to discuss the issue with the council. Former Deputy Interior Minister Mustafa Tajzadeh criticized the council's actions in previous elections, "Hayat-i No" reported on 18 November. He said that the results were overturned in constituencies where reformist candidates had won. Tajzadeh said other council actions were irregular, too. In the Arak constituency, for example, the council recounted the results in 25 ballot boxes, but it canceled the results in 31 boxes.

Gulistan citizens are not too happy, either, according to a report in the 18 November "Aftab-i Yazd." About 200 locals staged a protest in front of the home of Friday Prayer leader Ayatollah Nuri-Mofidi, after his Tehran counterpart claimed that local officials had unnecessarily politicized the issue of candidate rejections. Moreover, the locals protested the rejection of so many candidates.

Prior to submission of the triple-urgency bill, a delegation of deputies was created to discuss the issue with the Guardians Council. This delegation consisted of two reformists -- Ali Shakuri-Rad and Majid Ansari -- and three conservatives: Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, Alaedin Borujerdi, and Mohammad Shahi-Arablu, according to the 8 November "Entekhab." Another deputy, Omidvar Rezai, was optimistic about this delegation. He questioned how the council could reject candidates, saying, "How can one accept that a combatant who has participated in the sacred defense fronts for seven years, and people who are pious and Muslim, do not have competence to become [parliamentary] deputies?" (Bill Samii)