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Iran Report: January 31, 2000

31 January 2000, Volume 3, Number 5

KARBASCHI RELEASE AND RAFSANJANI CANDIDACY. Former Tehran Mayor Gholamhussein Karbaschi was released from prison on 25 January. He received a pardon from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, IRNA reported, after the Judiciary recommended that Karbaschi's request for clemency be entertained and the fine be waived. Karbaschi had been sentenced in May 1999 to two years in prison and a fine after his conviction for financial improprieties. There are several possible explanations for Karbaschi's early release, and they are linked to Expediency Council chairman Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani's candidacy in the parliamentary election scheduled for February.

Karbaschi's real crime, it was widely believed at the time of his hearings, was his leadership role as secretary-general of the Executives of Construction Party (ECP) that backed Mohammad Khatami's successful presidential campaign. But during this period, there were frequent reports that Rafsanjani was lobbying for Karbaschi's release, while there was very little information about similar efforts by Khatami. Iranians came to see Karbaschi and the ECP as Rafsanjani allies, particularly in the period surrounding the October Assembly of Experts election, when Karbaschi urged people to vote although some moderate groups advocated a boycott and many Executives of Construction candidates were not allowed to run.

After his imprisonment, Karbaschi wrote to Rafsanjani and explained that everything he had done was at his president's behest, and Rafsanjani wrote back that Karbaschi should be patient "until the day when the groundwork has been laid for you to continue your service" (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 10 May 1999). In recent weeks, there were indications that the groundwork was being laid. First, there were repeated rumors of his pending release (although such rumors are not uncommon). The second indicator was the creation of a newspaper under Karbaschi's management, announced by Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Ataollah Mohajerani. To be called "Ham-Mihan," it seemed clear that this would serve as a substitute for "Hamshahri," the Tehran municipality's daily that Karbaschi once controlled.

Rafsanjani's decision to expend political capital to arrange Karbaschi's release raises some interesting questions. With the 24 January announcement by parliamentary speaker Ali-Akbar Nateq-Nuri that he will not stand in the February election, the road seems clear for Rafsanjani's victory. Already, the Executives of Construction and the more hardline Tehran Militant Clergy Association (Jameh-yi Ruhaniyat-i Mobarez-i Tehran) have endorsed his candidacy.

But Rafsanjani may need more help than one would think. Many 2nd of Khordad groups and the reformist Groups Following The Imam's Line have said that they will not carry his name on their voter lists, and the relatively moderate Militant Clerics Association (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mobarez) has remained uncommitted so far. Also, according to the 25 January "Iran News," the ECP leadership has said that if the Militant Clerics Association does not put Rafsanjani on its list, the ECP will not carry the Militant Clerics Association's top candidates on its own list. It is possible, therefore, that Karbaschi is now viewed as a unifier of sorts.

Parliamentarian Mohammad Baqer Zakeri told the 26 January "Arya" that Karbaschi's release will bring the 2nd of Khordad Front and the ECP closer together. As an editorial in the 26 January "Iran Vij" noted, Karbaschi is a kingmaker (shah-saz), although it asked who he would coronate this time.

In a 26 January interview with RFE/RL's Persian Service, Professor Sadeq Zibakalam presented another perspective on Karbaschi's release. He said there is debate over whether the former mayor requested a pardon, which would be a tacit admission of guilt (something he refused to do during his trial), or a "request for justice" (tazalom-khahi)--in other words, asking that a wrong be put right. Whatever the case, Zibakalam believes that Rafsanjani would like to get the credit for Karbaschi's release. For that matter, "Aftab-i Imruz" reported on 22 January that Rafsanjani actually wrote the letter for Karbaschi.

Furthermore, Zibakalam wrote in the 26 January "Asr-i Azadegan" that 2nd of Khordad critics of Rafsanjani's candidacy are making a mistake from two perspectives. First, they are harming the unity of the reformist movement in the long run. And second, they are wrong about Rafsanjani. Zibakalam writes that although he was and still is a critic of some of Rafsanjani's programs and policies during his presidency, but "compared with people of his own ilk," Rafsanjani is "head and shoulders above them." He understands the current era, "he has realized that religion cannot be forced on youngsters," he appreciates modern means of communication, and he knows that "one must advance."

Faezeh Hashemi, Rafsanjani's daughter, assailed her father's critics, particularly the Islamic Iran Participation Party, in an 26 January interview with the pan-Arab daily "Al-Hayat." Faezeh said the IIPP position is not coordinated with Khatami, and she went on to say that the current and former presidents are close ideologically. She also rejected the view that Rafsanjani's economic priorities clash with Khatami's political ones.

Rafsanjani himself addressed his critics in the first and second sermons of the 21 January Friday prayers in Tehran. He said that the divisive comments are being spread by individuals "who are either aware of their action or oblivious of realities." He went on to accuse them of demoralizing people, and, by publishing criticism in their newspapers, he said they provide ammunition for Western analysts and radio stations. These "sanctimonious extremists," Rafsanjani said, are acting "just for the sake of gaining a few votes from the people or the uninformed young people." In the second sermon, Rafsanjani said that during the Islamic revolution, different groups--Communists, nationalists, and Islamists--rallied around Father of the Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini until they achieved their objectives. He urged continuing cooperation, because it "will bring about greater spaces and will open the path to progress."

Rafsanjani continued on this theme in a speech at Qom University on 26 January. He regretted that some "insiders" (khodi) are now at odds with the revolution. He suggested that such people are withdrawing from the nation and "will have to seek refuge in foreign powers and global arrogance."

That was when the gloves came off. He pointed out that his critics, these so-called reformists, are actually extremists. He continued, in an interview with the 26 January "Iran:" "You wouldn't imagine how much I suffered in trying to curb their excesses--hangings, trials, and confiscation of private property--in the early years of the revolution." He did not name names, but he was referring to individuals like Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali (the notorious "Hanging Judge" who toyed with the corpses of American soldiers killed in the 1979 hostage rescue mission) and hostage-takers like Abbas Abdi (now a member of the IIPP) and Ebrahim Asgharzadeh (now the leader of the Office for Strengthening Unity). (Bill Samii)

ELIGIBLE CANDIDATES ANNOUNCED, LISTS BEING FORMED. Ayatollah Reza Ostadi announced on 27 January that the Guardians Council had completed its investigation of appeals and confirmed the rejection of 600 candidates (out of an original 758), according to state radio. The list of names will be given to the Interior Ministry on 8 February, and once the formal announcement is made, rejected individuals will have three days to submit letters of complaint to the Guardians Council. (The 29 January statement of the Guardians Council said 669 candidates were rejected, with 192 people's candidacy being reinstated and 99 new candidates being disapproved.)

Ostadi added that "[candidates] were rejected because legally their files were imperfect. The reasons for the rejection of most of the candidates...were that they did not have the educational qualifications, were not old enough or had not resigned their posts--only in those professions which they were legally obliged to resign. Some of them did resign, but their employers did not accept their resignation within the deadline. ...The rejection of a candidate did not mean he [or she] was not worthy. We just observed the law." Ostadi rejected claims that war veterans were rejected, except in one case, when the applicant did not have a high school diploma. He added: "If a mistake has occurred, it was not deliberate."

Reacting to past complaints and predicting future ones, Ostadi said: "The council does not favor any particular faction or individuals. And when the final results are announced, the people will definitely make a fair judgement."

The earlier judgements were not very favorable. Hojatoleslam Hadi Khamenei, secretary-general of the reformist Groups Following The Imam's Line, said "some people, feeling a sense of religious duty, permit themselves to step beyond the bounds of the law when vetting candidates." He added that he had not heard of any hardline candidates being rejected, "Sobh-i Imruz" reported on 25 January. Zahra Rahnavard, president of Al-Zahra University, said the Guardians Council "is responsible for overseeing the election process, not for probing into people's personal lives." She warned, "Manateq-i Azad" reported on 22 January, that the Guardians Council "should not undermine people's vote."

Candidates are being made public now. Mohammad Reza Khatami, the president's brother, will head the Islamic Iran Participation Party's list. The IIPP will not support Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani will head the more hardline Tehran Militant Clergy Association (Jameh-yi Ruhaniyat-i Mobarez-i Tehran) list. Nationalist figure Habibollah Payman said his group has not formed a coalition with the 2nd of Khordad movement, because so many nationalists have had their candidacy rejected, but they still plan to participate in the elections, "Sobh-i Imruz" reported on 25 January.

Several predictions already have been made about the election's outcome. Abolfazl Bazargan of the Freedom Movement said that in the provinces, right-wing candidates are introducing themselves as independents. Therefore, he said in an interview with the 25 January "Sobh-i Imruz," "it is possible that independent candidates may win a majority in the parliament." Parliamentarian Faezeh Hashemi of the Executives of Construction party said in a 26 January interview with the pan-Arab daily "Al-Hayat" that "independent candidates will make important gains in the provinces. The Right will become a minority." But she said this depends on a large turnout and reformist unity.

One interesting view was presented in the 12 January issue of "Sobh" monthly. It said predictions of a reformist majority were based on wishful thinking, rather than facts. Sobh suggested that both rightists and reformists will see their numbers in the Majlis fall. This was because people outside Tehran and other major cities would vote on the basis of local interests rather than in factional terms. Examining voter attitudes further, "Sobh" said "no liberal trend which might be in conflict with the roots, original principles, and the values of the Islamic revolution will have a chance of survival," and furthermore, "the 2nd of Khordad programs have led to widespread malcontent in all fields such as politics, culture, and arts, and especially, economics."

But whatever happens, and despite the Guardians Council's efforts, Hojatoleslam Hassan Yusefi-Eshkevari thinks that "the reformist trend created as a result of 2nd of Khordad is irreversible," "Sobh-i Imruz" reported on 12 January. Academic Fariborz Raisdana agreed, saying that "given the prevailing conditions in our society, the reforms which have been introduced are irreversible." (Bill Samii)

ASSEMBLY OF EXPERTS CRITICIZED FOR LACK OF TRANSPARENCY. The Assembly of Experts met in Qom for its second session, which lasted from 10 to 13 January. The 86-member body is tasked with selecting and supervising the Supreme Leader, and it can also dismiss him. Judging from official statements after the meetings, which were similar to the assembly's official statements after an extraordinary meeting in September 1999, a dismissal is unlikely to happen any time soon. But statements by observers as well as by one of the participants show that the assembly's obscure way of operating is becoming increasingly unacceptable.

The assembly's speaker, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Meshkini-Qomi, reminded everybody that in the absence of the Mahdi, God has assigned governance to "outstanding, pure, and qualified clergymen." Then, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addressed the presidium and the membership. He told everyone to "be alert in the face of enemy plots" and he warned that "the enemies and their mercenaries are remaining silent about truths and realities." Khamenei warned that the enemies are trying to instill doubt among the youth, state television reported on 13 January. That day, the membership gathered at Father of the Revolution Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi-Khomeini's mausoleum, at which point they pledged to "maintain their obedience to the guidelines of the Great Leader and the founder of the Islamic Republic" and to "continue following the Imam's path in all political and social arenas."

At the end of the meetings, a statement was issued that said "every guideline of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution...should be regarded as the final solution to any dispute emerging in the society." The statement also criticized "emerging cultural problems" and urged the government to stop such developments. People were urged to participate in the February election and to vote for the "most committed and competent candidates," while officials were told to ensure a "fair and healthy election." In closing, President Mohammad Khatami and the government were urged to solve Iran's economic problems, particularly inflation and unemployment.

This summarizes the news that emerged from three days of meetings of one of Iran's most powerful bodies. A significant point was the reference to the economy, which can be seen as a dig at Khatami, because this is the very subject that hardliners are using against him right now. Overall, the final statement was standard issue, preserving the senior clergy's image of unity.

Ayatollah Seyyed Mohsen Musavi-Tabrizi then undercut that unified image by describing some of the assembly's deliberations in an interview with the 15 January "Sobh-i Imruz." Musavi-Tabrizi wanted to amend the regulations, because "the ruler must deem himself accountable and responsible in whatever rank he occupies." The other members rejected this idea because they saw it as "tantamount to weakening the leader." An increase in the membership of the committee charged with assessing the leadership's performance was approved, but a proposal to make the committee more active was rejected.

The next day, Hojatoleslam Majid Ansari, a reformist parliamentarian, said the assembly's deliberations should be made public, "Iran" reported. Articles in "Bayan" (18 January), "Payam-i Azadi" (19 January), and "Arya" (19 January) argued for greater openness in the Assembly's activities, too. This is yet another sign that Iranians want greater transparency in governmental affairs and control over their political future. (Bill Samii)

TALK AIN'T CHEAP. Recent public statements by Iranian officials at first indicated that Iran might reciprocate the privilege of having an official presence in the U.S. by permitting the establishment of a U.S. consulate in Iran. On one hand, subsequent reports from Iran and the U.S. put paid to such ideas. On the other hand, comments by a Swiss diplomat suggested that behind-the-scene negotiations are under way, and these might result in the eventual establishment of a U.S. consulate in Iran.

Mohammad Reza Yazdanpanah, director of the Kish Free Trade Zone (FTZ) in the Persian Gulf, said a U.S. application to open a consulate in the FTZ will be viewed positively, although the final decision would rest with the Foreign Ministry, "Akhbar-i Eqtesad" reported on 23 January. The next day, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said a U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf region would be welcome: "we will welcome the presence of U.S. companies in order to contribute to economic development of the region."

That was as good as it got. Regarding a U.S. consulate in Kish, Kharrazi said, according to IRNA: "we have a clear position towards the U.S., we have no relations with the U.S. to talk about the opening of a U.S. consulate in any part of the country." He continued: "We will hold talks with all countries and we are advocates of dialogue and holding talks based on mutual respect and the principle of equality, but noticing that conditions between Iran and the U.S. are not the same, the issue of holding bilateral talks could not be considered."

And Yazdanpanah reiterated that it is the Foreign Ministry that will decide on an American consular presence, "Manateq-i Azad" and state broadcasting reported on 24 January. A Foreign Ministry official told the 25 January "Jomhuri-yi Islami" that Yazdanpanah was reproved and ordered to issue a denial.

Kharrazi described the "necessary preliminaries" for negotiations with the U.S., according to state television. "Iran suggests that America, as a first step to remove tension, should withdraw its military forces from the Persian Gulf, should stop the propaganda onslaught against the Islamic Republic, and should return the Iranian nation's rights, including its frozen assets in the American banks."

Hassan Rohani, deputy speaker of parliament and secretary of the Supreme National Security Council said talks with the U.S. would be acceptable only if it respects "Iran's national interests and stops threatening our interests, according to state television." He also had some preconditions: "respect the rights of Muslims, notably the Palestinian people, end its activities in the Middle East in support of the Zionist regime, and the return the sums it owes to Iran."

An unnamed U.S. official played down the immediate possibilities of any change. He told Dow Jones Energy Service on 24 January that Kharrazi's proposal regarding the presence of U.S. firms "won't fly in the face of U.S. law and U.S. policy."

A somewhat different note was sounded by Swiss Foreign Ministry official Franz von Daniken. He said, AFP reported on 23 January, that "There is a critical but encouraging dialogue" regarding Iran-U.S. and Swiss-U.S. relations. Currently, U.S. interests in Iran are represented by Switzerland. These comments led to speculation that there might be Iran-U.S. discussions during the economic forum in Davos, Switzerland. But Tim Guldimann, Switzerland's ambassador to Tehran, noted that "the U.S. was not the center of discussions by the two officials of Iran and Switzerland," "Tehran Times" reported on 25 January. And Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi denied rumors of possible talks at Davos, IRNA reported on 27 January. (Bill Samii)

TURKS ACCUSE IRAN OF TIES TO TURKISH HIZBULLAH. Ankara's recent crackdown on Turkey's Hizbullah, marked by a gun battle in Istanbul, the exhumation of Hizbullah's victims, and mass arrests of suspected Hizbullah members, has led to accusations and counteraccusations on the origins of the organization. One school of thought blames the Turkish military for supporting Hizbullah in its early days, while another blames Iran for Hizbullah's activities.

Developing from student groups founded by ethnic Kurds in the 1970s, and motivated by the example of Iran's Islamic revolution, Hizbullah emerged in the 1980s as a promoter of a Sharia state. This contrasted with the other militant Kurdish organization, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which promoted Marxism and atheism. The Turkish military, which was then waging a campaign against the PKK, encouraged Hizbullah actions against the PKK, according to some Western and Turkish sources. Mohammad Noureddin, an Arab expert on Turkish affairs, writes in the 25 January "Al-Mustaqbal" that Hizbullah activities were coordinated by Turkish intelligence officer Mahmut Yildrim (a.k.a. Yeshil), and a journalist who documented training of Hizbullah personnel at a Turkish Special Forces base in Diyarbakir was murdered.

Members of the Islamist Virtue Party also claim there is a government-Hizbullah linkage, and they are demanding an official investigation, "Hurriyet" reported on 24 January. Also, Eyup Karageci, deputy leader of the Hadep (People's Democracy Party), requested establishment of an investigative commission, the Germany-based Kurdish newspaper "Ozgur Politika" reported on 24 January.

But there also are reports that Hizbullah actually cooperates with the PKK against the Turkish state. Furthermore, some sources in Turkey have accused Iran of supporting Hizbullah (see, for example, "RFE/RL Iran Report," 26 July 1999). When asked about Iran-Hizbullah links at a 20 January press conference, Turkish President Suleyman Demirel said: "Unless there is solid evidence of a link, we shouldn't allow such statements to hurt our relations with Iran." He continued, Ankara's semi-official Anatolia news agency reported on 20 January: "Right now we have no solid evidence to ask for an explanation from Iran."

Evidence might be the statement of Edip Gurmus, a Hizbullah militant who was captured recently. He said Hizbullah has never been short of funds, and arms from Russia were shipped to Hizbullah at its camps in Iran. Gurmus added that he trained near Qom, Istanbul's "Milliyet" reported on 21 January. Gurmus said he met officials from Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security and they provided Hizbullah with funds, forged passports, and identity cards. Diyarbakir's state of emergency regional governor, Gokhan Aydiner, also said Hizbullah personnel are trained in Iran, Anatolia reported on 20 January. He went on to say that "some members of the Hizbullah organization have been engaged in espionage on behalf of Iran."

And if the reports of recent Hizbullah-PKK cooperation are true, then the 26 January capture of six PKK members adds to the accusations of an Iranian link. The Adana Governor's Office said the PKK terrorists had come to Adana after receiving training in Iran, according to Anatolia. During their interrogation they said they planned to bomb tourist areas but then changed their minds.

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, who was visiting Turkey during the crackdown on Hizbullah, rejected accusations of Iranian support for the organization. "Hurriyet" columnist Oktay Eksi suggested on 20 January that Kharrazi visit the MOIS headquarters when he gets to Tehran, "and if he finds a truthful official he would definitely learn the truth."

Writing in "Al-Mustaqbal," Mohammad Noureddin suggested the real problem is the Turkish state's fear of political Islam and its possible intention of eliminating the Islamist Virtue Party in order to facilitate entry in Europe. This was partially corroborated by Ecevit's 27 January statement: "The Hizbullah incident has shown what ugly and painful developments using religion as a tool of politics and the abuse of faith can lead to." (Bill Samii)

CZECH WORK ON BUSHEHR REACTOR IN DOUBT. Protests from England and other NATO countries are forcing the Czech government to reconsider whether or not it will permit ZVVZ Milevsko to supply equipment for the Bushehr nuclear reactor project, Prague's "Lidove Noviny" reported on 13 January. The sale would be worth 1.25 billion crowns ($34.2 million), but if it goes ahead, the Czech Republic could face international sanctions. Foreign Ministry spokesman Alex Pospisil told "Pravo" on 14 January: "In view of the sensitive issues of the development of weapons of mass destruction and their proliferation, which have a correlation to the project, the ministry views this case as a risk. The fact is that, with one exception [Russia], other countries have refused to take part in this project. Thus, the possible Czech participation could have an unfavorable impact on the Czech Republic's position in the world, especially within the context of its Euro-Atlantic priorities." One of the Czech government's solutions to the problem is to buy ZVVZ Milevsko, "Lidove Noviny" reported on 14 January, but a decision has not yet been reached.

If anything, Iranian-Czech business relations are on the upswing. In the first 11 months of 1999, Czech firms exported $30.1 million worth of goods to Iran, $600,000 more than for all of 1998. Also, the Czech Republic's imports from Iran increased by 16 percent to $6.5 million, "Lidove Noviny" reported on 18 January. These developments contrast sharply with Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mahmoud Mohammadi's statement, when RFE/RL's Persian Service began broadcasting in October 1998, that "In a reaction to such interference in the domestic affairs of Iran, Tehran has decided to reduce the level of its economic and political cooperation with Prague." (Bill Samii)