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Iran Report: December 31, 2001

31 December 2001, Volume 4, Number 48

'THE LAST EASY DAY WAS YESTERDAY.' President Mohammad Khatami was reluctant to seek re-election, and six months after his June 2001 victory, that reluctance to take on such a thankless job seems justified. Some of his main supporters -- students -- are questioning his inaction more vociferously than ever and contemplating action, while others have grown apathetic; reformist parliamentarians are being tried; and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has warned the reformists that he might act to impose the all-elusive "unity" factor.

This year's Students Day (16 Azar) fell on 7 December, but it was not until 22 December that Khatami addressed a 3,000-person gathering at Tehran University. There were similarities between this year's event and last year's (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 11 December 2001). Khatami also ratcheted up his criticism of the hard-liners, saying that they were seeking revenge for losses in the February 2000 parliamentary election, and he warned them, "There are people who want to deny the right of the majority of the people to determine their destiny. If these demands are not met, the country could turn to radical options." Khatami reiterated that his power is limited, and some students urged him to "show authority or resign," AP reported.

Young people are unhappy with the man for whom they voted so optimistically in 1997 and 2001. Samaneh, a young woman who was beaten for participating in the October soccer protests, explained the situation. "All the university students voted for him because they thought they would have a bright future. Now they think he's just a puppet moved by the other one [i.e. Ayatollah Khamenei]," she said, according to "The New York Times" on 11 December.

In the parts of his speech that the hard-liner-controlled state media actually broadcast, Khatami called for restoration of students' rights, and he also condemned the impact of national politics on the universities. But the young people are resentful of the system as a whole, its restrictions on their daily lives, and its failure to deliver on its promises. Twenty-year-old Mohsen Sadrai said, "I must say that, if not all, at least 90 percent of young people are unhappy. We have no freedom, no opportunity for work." People have turned to drugs because there are no fun and healthy alternatives. And 20-year-old Maryam Baghami said, "The youth have no freedom, no political freedom. If they try to protest, they are arrested, tortured, and beaten. I think the regime proved that religion and politics are not compatible, that they don't work together, and it's time for them to be separated."

Khatami also called for moderation and toleration of opposition. But young people are getting fed up with demands for adherence to the strategy of "active calm" or "dynamic tranquility" (aramesh-i faal; see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 4 December 2000). Former student activist Abbas Abdi said that radicalism in the universities has grown since the violence of July 1999, "Hayat-i No" reported on 9 December. Abdi criticized President Khatami for failing to meet with students at that time, and he said that Khatami should have pursued the matter subsequently.

Some observers believe that the student movement has lost its way and the students themselves are apathetic. Mashhad representative Ali Tajernia, for example, said in the 6 December "Hambastegi" that after Khatami's re-election the students hoped that the government's ability to act would improve, and they grew passive and lethargic when this did not happen. Moreover, the students have been pressured by the hard-liners, but the government has not supported them. On the other hand, Office for Strengthening Unity member Siavash Afzali said in the 1 December "Toseh" that the reformists have offered no alternative to silence, and the students also think that the reformists used them. Reformist parliamentarian Mohammad Kianush-Rad said that any passivity on the students' part has been imposed on them by outside circumstances, "Mellat" reported on 27 November.

It is not just Khatami's young constituents who are facing problems. Parliamentarian Hussein Loqmanian was jailed on 25 December after being convicted of criticizing the judiciary, and an appeals court confirmed the verdicts on Fatimeh Haqiqatju and Mohammad Dadfar. An estimated 60 reformist members of the sixth parliament have been summoned before the courts.

It was expected that Khatami's government would have more success in securing legislation it favored with the new, predominantly reformist parliament, than it did with the more conservative fifth parliament. One possible effect of this current state of persecution is that the reformist deputies will be less willing to speak out. The imprisonments, furthermore, decrease the reformist majority in parliament and may intimidate any fence-straddlers into voting against reformist legislation.

Regardless of who is or is not in prison, Khatami is having trouble securing the legislation he wants due to obstructions from the Guardians Council, which must confirm that all bills meet constitutional and Islamic standards. On 26 December newspapers reported that the council overturned a law passed in November that would have streamlined and decentralized the judicial system and reinstated the office of public prosecutor. Provincial courts would have greater autonomy under the proposed legislation.

In December the council repeatedly rejected a bill intended to encourage foreign investment, although Khatami said that such investment was necessary if the unemployment problem was to be solved, according to IRNA on 23 December. Abadan representative Mohammad Rashidian ridiculed the council's logic for rejecting the bill -- fear of espionage. Rashidian said, "If...with the presence of foreign companies some will spy against the country's national interests, then...we should cut our country's relations with the outside world," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 23 December. Rashidian also suggested blocking the entry of tourists as protection against espionage.

Previously, the Guardians Council rejected the foreign investment bill because it did not rule out foreign ownership of Iranian real estate, was ambiguous on obtaining foreign loans, promoted interest-based loans, and increased public spending, Council Secretary Ahmad Jannati said, according to state radio on 3 December. Other legislation the council blocked dealt with the budget, transferring state radio and television's revenues to sports federations, and the bill on political offenses.

In light of the council's frequent blocking of proposed legislation, there are calls for a referendum on the Guardians Council's powers relative to those of the parliament and the Expediency Council. The frequency with which legislation goes from the parliament and the Guardians Council to the Expediency Council has increased to such an extent, according to a commentary in the 29 November "Hayat-i No," that the Expediency Council is taking over the Guardians Council's role, and it is getting involved in the legislative process.

Not only is Khatami facing reduced confidence from his young supporters and a weakened legislature, he also is facing indirect pressure from his boss, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khamenei complained in a 12 December speech about "baseless disagreements" between insiders when what the country needs is "unity." Khamenei said that the remedy to these disagreements must be found within the government, the legislature, and the judiciary. If that fails, he will provide the "remedy." In his words, "If we see that everyone is seeking a remedy but a couple of people are preventing this -- half a dozen here, half a dozen there -- then we are forced to find a remedy to those people who are preventing unity. It cannot be allowed."

2002 promises to be a hard year for Khatami. It will be even harder on the Iranian people. (Bill Samii)

OFFICIAL SAYS PRESS LAW SUPPORTS FREEDOM. "Iran's press law supports freedom of expression," said Deputy Minister for Islamic Culture and Guidance Shaban Shahidi-Moadab, according to IRNA on 17 November. Statements by press people contradict the claims about freedom of expression, as does the overall trend, with almost 60 publications being closed down since April 2000 (more if the student publications are included). In fact, circulation figures are down because fewer people bother buying newspapers.

Iran's Society for Defending Freedom of the Press called on 2 December for lifting the ban on publications and realizing the legal rights of the Iranian press. A commentary in the 28 October "Seda-yi Idalat" also called for eliminating the press bans. It said that young people's interest has turned to foreign media because there are no longer any publications that criticize the government. In fact, according to the commentary, circulation has fallen sharply, and the domestic media is practicing self-censorship.

On 27 November "Aftab-i Yazd" remarked on falling circulation figures. It said that the apolitical publications, such as "Hamshahri," are affected least because they have income from advertising, whereas the party-linked newspapers suffer financially. Moreover, according to Karim Arghandpur of the Journalists' Trade Association, people used to study more than one newspaper before the press bans began.

The license of "Asr-i Ma," the mouthpiece of the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization (MIRO), was revoked on 15 December, and Editor Mohammad Salamati received a 26-month jail sentence. Lawyer Saleh Nibakht said in an interview published in the 15 December "Noruz" that the sentence was the harshest meted out to the editor of a non-daily publication, and the court had ignored the jury's request for commutation of the sentence.

The "Asr-i Ma" closure and Salamati's sentencing evoked some sharp commentary. "Noruz" noted on 15 December that closing "Asr-i Ma" -- and other publications -- seals off the line of communication from the public to those in power. MIRO member Faizollah Arab-Sorkhi said his organization "has no option but to print another publication." Tehran parliamentarian Mohammad Naimpur, who is with the Islamic Iran Participation Party, predicted that "the forces which produced 'Asr-i Ma' will now be expressing their ideas through other newspapers and publications."

The provincial courts have been very busy lately. Ali-Hamed Iman, managing director of "Shams-i Tabrizi" weekly, was jailed on charges that included "instigating public opinion, publishing lies, and insulting Islamic sanctities," "Iran" reported on 18 December. A few days before that, Qolam-Hussein Ataei, the managing editor of "Neda-yi Hormuzgan," said he had received an 18-month jail term and a 15 million rial fine (about $8,750 at the official rate). Abbas Rashad, editorial board head for the weekly "Amin-i Zanjan," was sentenced on 9 December to a flogging, a fine, and a three-year ban from press activities. A fine could be paid in lieu of the flogging.

Mir-Sohbat Husseini, supervisor of the daily "Jomhuri-yi Islami" in Ardabil Province, was summoned to court on 13 December. A complaint was filed against the publication because of its 9 November report criticizing methods of land distribution among official institutions, such as the Ardabil Judiciary. Coincidentally, an editorial in the 8 December "Aftab-i Yazd" said that a "bold and independent press" is essential if public supervision is to eliminate corruption, and this is more important than official institutions, "for the money-grubbing 'puritans' know exactly how to get around them."

"Iran-i Farda" Managing Director Reza Alijani was released from prison after serving nine months by posting 500 million rials in bail (about $286,000 at the official rate). Alijani served six months in solitary confinement, his lawyer said in the 16 December "Noruz."

Ferdosi University authorities ordered the closure of a student review called "Nazar" on 22 December, according to Reporters Without Frontiers. The reformist-oriented publication is edited by Javad Seifi Abdolabad, but the reason for the closure is unclear. Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance Ahmad Masjid-Jamei said 10 days earlier that his ministry is ready to support the printing of student publications, according to IRNA.

Some new publications also came out it in November and December. The first issue of the reformist "Mardomsalari" hit the newsstands on 22 December. Managing Editor Mustafa Kavakebian described the daily's objectives as: "defending the people's sovereignty, strengthening civil institutions, stressing on supervision over officials, a high degree of elite turnover in the state apparatus, and serious following up of the reforms," according to IRNA. The new daily "Toseh-yi Eqtesadi" appeared on newsstands on 18 November, with Iraj Jamshidi Larijani (formerly of "Akhbar-i Eqtesadi") as its editor in chief. Another daily, "Azad," appeared on 15 December, with Hussein Mokhtarian as its managing editor. (Bill Samii)

BODY SNATCHERS IN QOM. Security forces in mid-December disrupted the funeral of Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Shirazi and actually stole his corpse. In a telephone interview with RFE/RL's Persian Service, a member of Shirazi's household said that the body was being transported back to his home for reburial after a memorial service at the Hazrat-i Masumeh mosque in Qom. Security forces attacked the cortege, and in the ensuing tumult, the corpse actually fell to the ground. The security personnel seized the body and took it away. Ayatollah Shirazi's body subsequently was interred at the Hazrat-i Masumeh mosque.

This act is repugnant in many ways, not least because it is a violation of the cleric's wishes. It also reflects the state's desire to strengthen its legitimacy by burying a highly respected cleric at an official institution, thereby indicating that he was part of the official system of politicized Islam. The reality is otherwise.

Ayatollah Shirazi was among a group of top dissident clerics who are critical of Iran's ruling system and of the clerics in the political elite. Theoretically, the Islamic republic system (vilayat-i faqih, leadership of the supreme jurisprudent) is legitimate when a grand ayatollah who is recognized as a source of emulation (marja-yi taqlid) serves as the faqih (jurisprudent). Shirazi, like many others, did not accept Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as a source of emulation. According to "Human Rights in Iran" (2001) by Pace University's Reza Afshari, Shirazi was "indignant" over Khamenei's efforts to be recognized as the supreme leader and as a source of emulation. Shirazi apparently favored a committee of grand ayatollahs to lead the country.

The authorities reacted to this situation by harassing "hundreds, if not thousands," of Shirazi's supporters and family members, Amnesty International said in its June 1997 report on "Shia religious leaders as victims of human rights violations." Many of these people were detained and tortured, with beatings, sleep deprivation, mock executions, and electric shocks.

Shirazi is not the only senior cleric to suffer for questioning the legitimacy of Iran's current political set-up and its leading figure. One of the best-known dissident clerics is Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri-Najafabadi. Others are Grand Ayatollah Hassan Tabatabai-Qomi and Grand Ayatollah Yasubedin Rastegari. Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq Ruhani complained in a letter to then-President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani that life in Iran had become "unbearable for those who abide by the true principles of our Islamic faith" -- the regime subsequently arrested Ruhani's sons and many of his followers. The U.S. Department of State has designated Iran as a "country of particular concern" under the International Religious Freedom Act for particularly severe violations of religious freedom, according to its October 2001 "International Religious Freedom Report."

The repression of dissident clerics further undermines public trust in the government. "The clerics don't have mercy on each other," a young Iranian said in the 11 December edition of "The New York Times," "Why would they have mercy on us?" (Bill Samii)

IRAN NOT COMMITTED TO 'BAY OF GOATS.' Reports in the 24 and 31 December "The New Yorker" indicate that there is strong sentiment in parts of the U.S. government for a military campaign against Iraq; the leadership of the Iraqi National Congress (INC) is promoting a plan that includes Iranian participation; and Tehran has agreed to permit INC forces to cross its border into southern Iraq. Voices from Tehran sound much less committed.

At one time, Tehran was skeptical about Washington's commitment to getting rid of Saddam Hussein. An INC official told "The New Yorker" that the Iranian government became convinced when the INC opened an office in Tehran with U.S. government money. As part of the INC plan, Iraqi Shia, who make up the majority of the population, would join the campaign. Tehran currently hosts the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and is believed to be assisting al-Dawa, Iraqi Shia opposition groups.

Yet there are questions about the INC plan. Former CENTCOM commander General Anthony Zinni wrote that it could turn into a "Bay of Goats," a reference to the Bay of Pigs fiasco of 1961. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage is not very enthusiastic, either. He said, in what "The New Yorker" calls a reference to "religious fundamentalists" and which appears to be a reference to the Shia and their Iranian connection, "We have no idea what could go wrong in Iraq if the crazies took over that country." Iranian academic Sadeq Zibakalam predicted in the 2 December "Hambastegi" that if Iraq were attacked and Saddam Hussein fell, southern Iraq would come under Shia and Iranian control, which would be unacceptable to the U.S.

Superficially, Tehran is not confident about U.S. intentions toward Iraq. Iranian Speaker of Parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi said that Tehran opposes inclusion of Iraq in the war on terror, "The Gulf Today" reported on 26 December. "We are against any [eventual] American campaign against the Iraqi people. Muslim countries must use all their capabilities to prevent such a campaign from targeting Iraq," Karrubi said during a visit to Saudi Arabia. A 17 December radio commentary accused Washington of wanting to consolidate its military presence in the region, pursuing "sinister political aims," and trying to control oil resources. And Sadeq Zibakalam said that Tehran would oppose a U.S. attack on Iraq because an independent Kurdish state might be created, and this would create problems with Iranian Kurds.

Nevertheless, INC sources told "The New Yorker" that their opening an office in Tehran had won over the Iranians to their plan. Moreover, an INC adviser told the "RFE/RL Iran Report" that the office was in fact "a complex in North Tehran leased with [government of] Iran approval.... The INC has conducted extensive training and related activities in the complex." Other Iraqi sources told "RFE/RL Iran Report" that this INC facility is just an apartment that one guy rented.

Asked directly if he knows of any deals between the INC and Tehran, SCIRI Chairman Ayatollah Baqir al-Hakim said, "There seems to be no agreement." Al-Hakim went on to explain Chalabi's claims in an interview with "Newsweek": "You're a journalist. You know that sometimes people tell the press certain things in order to find out how others react to a certain hypothesis. But you have to ask where are those men who would carry out the operation. We would have known of them if they existed. Where have they hidden them so far? You need a real organization to lead an army prepared for such military operation." Al-Hakim added that all the Iraqi opposition groups have good relations.

SCIRI confidence in American intentions is hard to gauge. Chairman al-Hakim said the Iraqi people would welcome an attack against the Baghdad regime, Kuwait's "Al-Ray al-Amm" reported on 19 November. He explained: "We do not expect an American attack against Iraq at this time. If the target of the attack is the Iraqi people, we will oppose it. However, I think that the Iraqi people will welcome an attack if the target is the terrorist regime in Iraq. They will welcome it if it takes place within the framework of the UN resolutions that called for protecting the Iraqi people and the neighboring countries against the terrorism being practiced by the regime against them." Al-Hakim does not expect an attack soon, he said, because "it seems that the U.S. administration is still hesitant about targeting the Iraqi regime, and will not do so at this time." (Bill Samii)