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Iran Report: January 3, 2000

3 January 2000, Volume 3, Number 1

MIXED MESSAGES ON 'QODS DAY'. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave the 31 December Friday Prayers sermon in Tehran University campus as millions of Iranians commemorated "Qods Day" (Jerusalem Day). President Mohammad Khatami was also present at the prayers according to the Islamic Republic News Agency, but according to AP he sat outside with the crowd. Abu Muhammad Mustafa, the Tehran representative of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement responsible for many terrorist bombings in Israel, told Iranian state television that "Qods Day is a day of Islamic solidarity."

According to IRNA, Shiraz Jews will nonetheless participate wholeheartedly in "Qods Day" events. The Iranian news agency carried a statement it said the Shirazi Jews had released claiming that the Jews of Iran will, "along with their Muslim countrymen, chant the slogans 'Down with the U.S.' and 'Down with Israel' during the rally." The alleged statement went on to reject Western charges that the rights of minorities are being violated in Iran.

But independent reports concerning the case of 13 Jews from Shiraz now being held on espionage charges cast doubt on these official claims. And the failure of the Iranian authorities to provide information about their case is leading to contradictory reports and claims.

The 13 Iranian Jews are receiving family visits for the first time since their arrests, "The Jerusalem Post" reported on 27 December, citing Israeli radio. But according to an article in the 27 December "New York Times," family visits, in a manner of speaking, have been going on for a while. As one wife said about her husband: "I get to see him for five minutes every week, with a thick glass wall between us." These visits occur every Tuesday. At one point deliveries of kosher food were permitted, too, but they are now banned because there are no refrigerators in the prison.

There is also disagreement over how to secure the release of the 13. Some believe that the more Western leaders get involved, the more stubborn Iranian leaders will become. "We should let the issue solve itself quietly � that's the only way," a woman told the "New York Times." Others believe in a more active approach. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov expressed concern about the prisoners when he was in Tehran at the request of Vladimir Gusinsky, president of the Russian Jewish Congress, Interfax reported on 1 December. Others pray. Sabbath services in Shiraz's Rabeezadeh Synagogue now end with a prayer for the release of the 13 prisoners.

Reflecting resentment about Western interest in the case, Habibollah Asgaroladi-Mosalman, secretary-general of the hardline Islamic Coalition Association, said: "The government should not bow to the pressures being exerted by the European Union and the United States to release the 13 [alleged] Israeli spies." He continued, IRNA reported on 26 December: "Since they are Iranian nationals, the government must tell them [the West] to stop meddling in our affairs." (Bill Samii)

REFUGEES TO BE REPATRIATED TO EASE UNEMPLOYMENT. On the heels of a melee in Qom, where 200 Iraqi refugees left their camp and staged a demonstration, Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari promised that the Iraqis would not be forcibly repatriated. Moreover, he said, no Iraqi refugee had ever been sent back against his wishes. But like many other Iranian officials, Musavi-Lari was being economical with the truth.

The Iranian parliament recently adopted a law compelling the government to "expel all foreign workers with no work permits by the end of the next Iranian calendar year [20 March 2001] and transfer them to their home countries," IRNA reported on 16 November. Anybody who employs an illegal worker after that date will be fined up to 10 times the minimum daily wage of the worker for every day he or she was employed illegally.

The adoption of such a decision while parliamentarians consider the Third Five-Year Development Plan reflects their concern about Iran's high unemployment rate and the Plan's call for the creation of 700,000 to 850,000 jobs a year. The roughly two million refugees Iran hosts are a drain on scarce government revenues (see "RFE/RL Iran Report,"31 May 1999), but they also are seen as an additional factor in the unemployment problem. According to observers in Iran, however, the refugees are not the cause of unemployment and expelling them will not serve as a long-term solution.

Afghans, who make up about three-quarters of the refugee population, are seen as the greatest threat, because they work very cheaply and supposedly take jobs from Iranians. "There must be an end to the employment of foreign workers, and the fact that some 500,000 to 600,000 Afghan workers are currently working here has become a very complicated matter for our workers," Kuh-Dasht Parliamentarian Esmail Dusti said in the 25 September issue of Shiraz's "Nim-Negah." Dusti, who is second secretary of the Labor and Social Affairs Committee, expressed a widespread concern that an Iranian worker can be easily replaced by an Afghan who will work more cheaply. In Sistan va Baluchistan Province they form a third of the total population, "Guzarish-i Ruz" reported on 20 October, and they use forged documents and buy property.

Other refugees, including the Iraqis, also face discrimination. "Few people know that Iraqis in Iran have been stripped of all their human rights," according to an open letter to President Mohammad Khatami published in London's Arabic-language "al-Hayat" newspaper in October. Harassment and forced repatriation of Iraqi refugees has increased recently, but they have faced legal problems for many years. The Saudi-owned pan-Arab "al-Wasat" weekly detailed some of the problems in a late-October issue. When the Iraqis arrive in Iran, they are usually given a "Green Card" valid for one year. Card-holders must stay in the town where the card was issued, and they may not buy property, open bank accounts, marry Iranians, or enter any legal contracts. They do not have any employment rights, according to "al-Wasat."

Faleeh Baghdadi, chairman of the board of Tehran's Islamic Union of Iraqi Engineers (IUIE), described other problems faced by his compatriots in an interview with the 20 November "Iran Daily." Baghdadi said regular identification documents are not issued to people of Iraqi origin, which makes pursuit of higher education "a virtual impossibility." Work permits are not renewed, nor are new ones issued to Iraqis. Also, the Labor Ministry has imposed a cap on salaries for Iraqis. Baghdadi claimed that the salary ceiling for an Iraqi supervisor is 500,000 rials a month (about $285 at the official rate), while the ceiling for a West European, North American, Brazilian, or Japanese is 4,270,000 rials a month (about $2440 at the official rate).

The harassment refugees encounter led "al-Badr" � a publication affiliated with the Iran-based Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq -- to say that President Mohammad Khatami's "dialogue of civilizations" should be preceded by a "dialogue of neighborhoods." Baghdadi of the IUIE rejected suggestions that foreign workers are to blame. He said: "The question of unemployment among Iranian youth is real enough, but the real culprit is unstable management and not the Iraqis or Afghans."

Other observers do not blame refugees for Iran's unemployment problems, either. Economist Farshad Momeni, Azad University head Abdullah Jasbi, and Parliamentarian Alireza Mahjoub, who is also Secretary-General of the state-affiliated Workers House and a founder of the Islamic Labor Party, described some of the most serious causal factors in interviews with the 19 October "Iran Daily." Among them are inappropriate monetary and commercial policies, insufficient capital investment, and unattractive interest rates. Deputy head of the Plan and Budget Organization Masud Nili is one of the main architects of the Third Five-Year Plan. He said: "If we want to have a more tolerable unemployment rate of 10.5 - 12 percent by the plan's end, we must boost investment." (Bill Samii)

OLD ARGUMENTS, SAME CANDIDATES. As the countdown to the February 2000 parliamentary election continues, several long-standing issues are sparking discord. Disagreements about the Guardians Council's role in "supervising" the election will almost certainly lead to hardliner versus reformist, as well as intra-governmental debates. Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani's candidacy is still causing inter- and intra-factional divisions. And although all the names of disqualified candidates have not been mentioned yet, that too is likely to cause some conflict.

By 18 December, about 6860 Iranians, including 504 women and 35 non-Muslims, registered as candidates for the February parliamentary elections. Five parliamentary seats are reserved for non-Muslims. The highest number of people, 1273, registered in Tehran. Ten days later, state television reported that 401 candidates had been rejected.

Candidates' eligibility, in terms of their personal, political, and ideological backgrounds, was investigated initially by commissions in each constituency. The work of these commissions is to be endorsed by supervisory councils which can field the grievances of disqualified candidates. The supervisory councils can endorse or reverse the decisions of the local commissions on the basis of evidence offered by the rejected candidate. And the supervisory councils have the option of explaining their decisions in cases where doing so will not have (unexplained) "unwelcome consequences," according to IRNA.

Candidates were rejected, for the most part, on the basis of article 28 of the election law, which calls for "belief in and practical commitment to the Islam and the Islamic Republic system" and loyalty to the constitution and the Vilayat-i Faqih (Guardianship of the Supreme Jurisconsult). Other were rejected, per article 30, because they allegedly had worked to strengthen the monarchy in the past or had acted against the theocracy more recently, IRNA reported on 29 December.

In past elections, and even in the months before this one, there have been open disagreements between the Interior Ministry and the Guardians Council over the disqualification of candidates. Responding to questions about arbitrating such disagreements, Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari said the two bodies have had numerous meetings already to resolve their differences. Musavi-Lari added that the transparency of the regulations obviates the need for an arbitrator.

One recent point of contention is how to indicate that a person has voted. By law, anybody with a valid identification card can vote anywhere in the country. It was proposed that the ID card be punched to indicate that the cardholder has voted, but this was deemed impractical, Musavi-Lari said on 14 December. Voting age is another point of contention. Normally, 15-year olds can vote, but the law now stipulates that only 16-year-olds can vote in the parliamentary election. This seems like a clear attempt to block younger voters who probably will support reformist candidates.

Also, the Guardians Council now is authorized to have two representatives in each polling station, and one of these individuals must stamp each ballot paper. Each ballot will have a number, and in theory all the ballot numbers must match when counting takes place. Of course, this also eliminates the principle of a secret ballot, since it enables the authorities to copy voters' names or ID numbers when the ballots are issued and determine who people voted for. The Interior Ministry objects to both these regulations, too.

The candidacy of Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani is another issue about which there is little agreement. Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance Ataollah Mohajerani thinks that anybody who says Hashemi-Rafsanjani should not be in the parliament is mistaken, IRNA reported on 27 December. Mohajerani did say, however, that not all the 2nd of Khordad groups would carry Hashemi-Rafsanjani on their candidate lists. He is already on the list of candidates endorsed by the Forces Following the Imam's Line, "Sobh-i Imruz" reported on 29 December.

Hashemi-Rafsanjani's "shift to the right" during 1998 and most of 1999 alienated many of his supporters, even some in the Executives of Construction Party. Tehran Council member Mohammad Atrianfar is an example of an ECP member who has distanced himself from Hashemi-Rafsanjani, according to the 18 December "Asr-i Azadegan." As if in recognition of this tendency and in a display of blatant electioneering, Hashemi-Rafsanjani is now advocating some of the causes raised by Abdullah Nuri during his trial.

At a 21 December news conference, Hashemi-Rafsanjani claimed that the restrictions on dissident cleric Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri would be lifted. (Montazeri's son, Ahmad, said that the restrictions have not changed, "Asr-i Azadegan" reported on 28 December). Rafsanjani also claimed that he tried to block the five-year prison sentence given to Nuri, and he promised to back the reformist agenda. Regarding ties with the U.S., he said: "severance of ties will not continue. I believe that this issue must be resolved some day." (He added: "the solution is very clear. The solution is that America demonstrates goodwill.")

Hashemi-Rafsanjani is aware that not everybody welcomes his candidacy. Answering a question about the students who chanted against him at a 13 December rally, he said: "Undoubtedly, I am not without opponents in society. Of course, I do not know the extent of this opposition, but they no doubt exist as we can see. � I cannot say that the people should either accept me or remain silent."

To spice things up a little more, Faezeh Hashemi, daughter of Hashemi-Rafsanjani, claimed that "Sobh-i Imruz" director Said Hajjarian, who is a leader of the Islamic Iran Participation Party, bugged a meeting of the Executives of Construction Party. Hajjarian was in the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN EXAMINES CHECHEN CONFLICT. Russia is now using fuel-air explosives to eliminate its opponents in southern Chechnya, the "Moscow Times" reported on 29 December, and on 1 January it used Scud missiles. In Grozny, the Chechen capital, Russian forces are trying to minimize their own casualties by using Chechen Interior Ministry troops and Russian Spetsnaz special forces.

Faced with these developments, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Assefi on 28 December "expressed deep concern about escalation of fighting and bloodshed in Grozny," IRNA reported. Some Iranian concern also was expressed when Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Vasily Sredin and Iran's Ambassador to Moscow Mehdi Safari met on 27 December, according to ITAR-TASS.

Official Russian statements shed no light on how long the conflict will last. Pro-Moscow Chechen politician Malik Saydullayev said the battle could take months rather than days, while Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said the Chechens are running out of ammunition and the campaign is proceeding as planned. Meanwhile, Ingushetian President Ruslan Aushev estimates that there are 25,000-30,000 civilians in Grozny, according to RFE/RL Newsline.

Tehran's criticism of Moscow is still mild, and it continues to provide humanitarian aid. A shipment of 40 tons of food was sent to Makhachkala, according to a 20 December IRNA report. It was the third such shipment to the region. In general, it seem that there is little criticism or demonstrable disapproval of Moscow's actions. According to an editorial in the 29 December "Moscow Times," the World Bank just approved a $100 million low-interest loan for Russia.

Some Tehran newspapers are now blaming the U.S. for the Chechen conflict. The 27 December "Tehran Times" -- affiliated with the conservative Islamic Propagation Office -- cited an anonymous "foreign diplomat" who said that the Taliban and Qatar have been aiding the Chechens for "a long time" and "now NATO is also there, but through a secret mission." No further details were provided.

"Iran Daily" � IRNA's English-language newspaper � said on 20 December that Russia's behavior is to be expected from a weakened superpower. It is, therefore, natural for Russia to resent American criticism of its behavior. For Russia, "Iran Daily" suggested, fighting in Chechnya is a proxy conflict for fighting "so-called American and international pressures." (Bill Samii)

IRAN HOPES TO RESOLVE AFGHAN CONFLICT. Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said on 29 December that Iran wants to help resolve the war in Afghanistan. Iran has been backing the Northern Alliance and the Shia Hizb-i Wahdat in their conflict with the ruling Taliban. A little over a year ago it had appeared that there would be open fighting between Tehran and Kabul, after "rogue" Taliban forces killed ten Iranian diplomats and one journalist. Throughout this year there have been occasional border skirmishes.

But Iran also is a member of the 6+2 Group (Afghanistan's immediate neighbors, Russia, and the U.S.) which is trying to resolve the civil war. And recently the Iranian government has moved to improve its relations with Kabul. The Afghan embassy in Tehran requested help in dealing with internal refugees, according to Iranian state radio's Dari service on 15 December, and then Iran opened the border and dispatched trucks loaded with cooking oil, grain and other essential supplies. This step had the desired effect, and Taliban Foreign Minister Mowlawi Wakil Ahmad Motawakkil sent a letter proposing direct negotiations, AFP reported on 26 December.

According to state television, Kharrazi said that Iran's actions are based on proposals from Afghan President Burhanudin Rabbani, who visited Iran at the end of October. In an interview with Iranian state radio's Dari service, Rabbani said Iran should work with Pakistan, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, as well as the UN and the 6+2 Group to come up with a plan to resolve the conflict. But among these calls for peace, there also were reports that Iran had just resupplied the Afghan opposition forces with arms and a new armed front was being formed, Peshawar's "Sahaar" reported on 19 December.

Attention to Rabbani may play well among the Afghan refugees in Iran and the anti-Taliban forces, but Pakistan appears to be the key to resolving the Afghan crisis. And Tehran is acting on that assumption as well. Hints of some sort of Pakistani impetus along these lines came when Pakistani leader Parviz Musharraf visited Iran in early-December. After meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Mohammad Khatami, and Kharrazi, Musharraf announced that Pakistan will coordinate its policies with Iran's in resolving the Afghan conflict. Iran and Pakistan's reasons for seeing the conflict resolved go beyond humanitarianism.

Iran wants to build a natural gas pipeline to India, and it must pass through Pakistan. Iran is already offering substantial transit fees to Pakistan (reports vary from $500 million to $1 billion annually). A preliminary agreement for construction of a $3-billion, 870-mile pipeline from South Pars to Karachi was signed in 1995. Also, Pakistan recently revived a $1.1 billion refinery project with Iran that had been postponed since 1991. The 6 million ton per year plant will be built in Hub, Baluchistan, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Pakistan may be demanding that Iran help resolve the Afghan conflict as part of these deals.

The Afghan conflict has also created a tremendous refugee crisis. Iran hosts about 1.5 million Afghan refugees, and Pakistan hosts about 2.5 million Afghan refugees. Both countries are keen to have the Afghans go home. They are linked with the smuggling of guns, drugs, and other items. In Iran, the Afghans work for less money than Iranians will, allegedly contributing to the unemployment rate. The Afghan refugees, despite the harassment and discrimination they face, will be reluctant to return home until their security is guaranteed. (Bill Samii)

IRAN WANTS TO EXPORT GAS IT CANNOT SUPPLY. Iran's Deputy Energy Minister Akbar Nematollahi said that Iran's power stations have been threatened for the last two weeks by a natural gas shortage, IRNA reported on 27 December. He said: "For two weeks, we have had a shortage of three million cubic meters of gas per day." Nematollahi added that demand is high due to the cold winter, and "if the power stations were not resupplied, the country would experience serious problems."

But if Iran is incapable of meeting its domestic requirements, it nonetheless has been making impressive promises about its plans for exporting gas. Indeed, there is very little correlation between these promises and real possibilities.

For example, the National Iranian Oil Company announced that "Iran is now putting the finishing touches to its natural gas pipeline link-up with Turkey, thus enabling it to embark on transmitting its natural gas to its neighbor for the first time," according to a 15 December Reuters report. But Turkish Energy Minister Cumhur Ersumer said construction of the Turkish part of the pipeline is not complete and he did not think the Iranians have completed construction either. Ersumer added another cautionary note: "We know that Iran does not have the amounts of gas that it has pledged to us."

Comments by Hamadollah Mohammad-Nejad, Managing Director of the National Iranian Gas Company, were a bit more restrained, although he did say that the NIGC will be ready to export gas to Turkey by January 2000 per its contract. He added, according to IRNA on 22 December, NIGC has completed the "executive operations of the project for the transfer of gas in order to fulfill its undertakings .. and to prepare the ground for export of gas."

Now it seems that Turkish officials will be in Iran in February to discuss the delay in construction of the pipeline, according to IRNA on 25 December. Gokhan Yardim, director general of Turkey's state-run oil company, Botas, will head the delegation.

A planned gas pipeline from Iran to the United Arab Emirates also is facing difficulties. The pipeline is to take gas produced by Total from Iran's Sirri E field to Dubai. Mirza al-Sayegh, vice-president of Dubai's state-owned Emirates Oil Company (ENOC), said talks with Iran have been prolonged because of disputes over "technical points," AFP reported on 7 December. While al-Sayegh would not identify the specific problems, industry observers said negotiations are continuing over prices and volume. Negotiations began in 1995.

Construction of a gas pipeline from Iran to Armenia also has been delayed, Dow Jones Energy Service reported on 26 November. 100 kilometers of the 140-kilometer pipeline will be in Iran, while the rest will be in Armenia. The Iranian charge d'affaires in Yerevan said the main obstacle is a lack of Armenian funding. But the managing director of the Russian-Armenian Amrosgazprom firm, Roland Adonts, said that the Russian gas company Gazprom has offered to provide $120 million for the pipeline, according to a 15 November Interfax report. Various details of the project, such as the price of Iranian gas, have not been settled yet.

And a gas pipeline from Iran through Pakistan to India was discussed during Pakistani leader Parviz Musharraf's recent visit to Tehran, although this too has been delayed. Pakistan could earn transit fees of $500-600 million. The pipeline from Iran's South Pars field to Pakistan would be built by the Oppressed and Disabled Foundation (Bonyad-i Mostazafan va Janbazan). The para-statal foundation's partners will be Royal Dutch Shell, British Gas, and Petronas, Islamabad's "Pakistan Observer" reported on 15 December.

Iran's natural gas reserves rank second in the world. Speaking at a Paris conference on world energy markets, Russia's Academician Anatoliy Dmitriyevskiy suggested that gas-exporting countries, such as Iran, form a cartel similar to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Dmitriyevskiy said that Russia, Algeria, and possibly Norway could be the other members of this "gas OPEC," "Rossiyskaya Gazeta" reported on 9 December. Iran is not averse to such an organization, having made similar proposals in November (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 15 November 1999). (Bill Samii)