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Iran Report: April 17, 2000

17 April 2000, Volume 3, Number 15

JEWS' SPY TRIAL STARTS WITH 'CONFESSIONS.' The trial of 13 Jews accused of espionage on behalf of Israel and the U.S. opened on 13 April in Shiraz, Fars Province. Eight Muslims were arrested in the case, according to Iranian authorities, but they are not being tried and it is not known if they are imprisoned. The trial is being held in private because the case deals with national security issues, according to the Justice Department.

Four of the 13 confessed and asked for clemency, provincial judiciary chief Hussein Ali Amiri said after the first session. Defense attorney Esmail Nasseri, however, said that "We categorically deny that any confessions were made." Amiri did not say which four had confessed, but only four defendants appeared for the first session: Dani Teflin, Faramarz Kashi, Ramin Nematizadeh, and Shahrokh Paknahad.

The other defendants have been identified as Javid Ben Yaqub, Ramin Farzam, Farzad Kashi, Omid Teflin, Farhad Saleh, Nasser Lavihim, Asher Zadmehr, Navid Balazadeh, and Nejad Brokhimnejad. Defense attorneys complained that they had only a few days to prepare, but a 12 April statement from the Fars Justice Department said that several of the accused refused to select lawyers.

According to an unnamed judiciary source cited by London's "Al-Hayah" on 13 April, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, and Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi urged the court to hold a "fair" trial, an injunction that raises questions about the kinds of trials it normally conducts. Also, Iranian state radio's external English-language service reminded listeners on 13 April that the Jews' trial "has nothing to do with their religious beliefs."

"Sources acquainted with the case," claimed that "some of the defendants" had been to Israel and undergone "security and training courses on the use of advanced communications equipment for conveying military information," "Al-Hayah" reported. Both the U.S. and Israel have rejected such espionage charges and demanded the Jews be released.

Human rights organizations and Jewish community organizations are calling for them to be released, too, and they are urging governments and the international community to do the same. European governments that have promoted "critical engagement" with Iran, meanwhile, may feel added pressure, because executions or convictions would be another sign that their policy has failed to alter Iranian behavior. Great Britain said it was considering an "appropriate response," according to Reuters. Foreign Minister Robin Cook is expected to visit Iran soon.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told a Senate subcommittee on 13 April that Washington is monitoring the situation. She added that "I am on the phone daily now with foreign ministers, because there is a resolution that we are sponsoring in Geneva that makes clear that the treatment of the Bahai and the Iranian Jews is unacceptable. This morning we got news that the trial has been postponed until 1 May. That is one possible step in the right direction, though some of the things we are still hearing about how the trial may be carried out are not acceptable."

The next court session is scheduled for 1 May. Whether this is to allow the Jewish prisoners to celebrate Passover or to avoid conflicts with Ashura commemorations is not clear. Tehran's Central Jewish Committee had requested a Passover furlough for the prisoners, Reuters reported on 4 April. (Bill Samii)

GUARDIANS COUNCIL DEFENDS VOTE CANCELLATIONS. The Guardians Council's efforts to change the results of the February parliamentary election continue to cause unrest in Iran, but the 12-member body has issued statements defending its actions and complaining of factional politics. Meanwhile, there are unconfirmed reports of a plot to overturn the election results and to oust President Mohammad Khatami.

In early March there were demonstrations in Bandar Abbas and Minab (Hormozgan Province) and Gachsaran (Boir Ahmadi va Kohkiluyeh Province) after the Guardians Council annulled results there. On 6 April, results in the city of Damavand and Firuzkuh were declared null and void, and the result in Khalkhal (Ardabil Province) was overturned and a new (conservative) winner declared. Subsequently, two days of violent protests in Khalkhal ended after the intervention of the Law Enforcement Forces and the military, according to IRNA. State television reported that 40 people were arrested. There was a peaceful demonstration in Damavand. And "Bayan" reported on 16 April that the Guardians Council overturned the election of a reformist candidate, Karim Rahmani, in West Azerbaijan Province.

So far, eight results have been overturned. Deputy Interior Minister Mustafa Tajzadeh said that the Guardians Council has not presented any documentary evidence for its actions, IRNA reported on 8 April. The same day, the Guardians Council released a statement alleging cases of voter intimidation, vote buying, and biased electoral officials in Khalkhal. It went on to describe complaints from throughout the district and violations of the electoral law, according to IRNA and state broadcasting.

A more complete Guardians Council statement was read on state television on 10 April. It described vote buying; voter intimidation; "voting on behalf of illiterate people and writing the names of one's favorite candidate;" using identification cards of dead people or using fake identification cards; and spreading lies about candidates. To verify such violations, all the available "documentary evidence" and "reports sent by the local supervisory and investigative committees were used." The Guardians Council said that "during these [elections] there were far more illegal violations and interventions [sic] than there were in the past."

The Guardians Council expressed the belief that complaints about the result cancellations were factionally-based. It said that people who wanted to send their candidates to parliament are still trying to achieve this objective. "They want to create the kind of parliament they want which is made up of those affiliated with a certain faction. One does not expect such individuals or factions to confess to their wrongdoing and infringement of the law."

Meanwhile, there still is no final result in Tehran, where the recount was stopped after half of the 1000 ballot boxes were re-evaluated (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 13 March 2000). Expediency Council chairman Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani urged a resumption of the recount in a letter to the Guardians Council, "Hamshahri" reported on 3 April, and the Tehran governor said his staff is ready to help. Deputy Interior Minister Tajzadeh said the Guardians Council's failure to make an official pronouncement on the issue is unjustified.

An "informed source" told the 13 April "Tehran Times" that the delay occurred because Guardians Council secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati had gone to Mecca for the Hajj. The final Tehran result will be announced on 17 April, the English-language daily reported.

An unidentified source close to the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Party claimed in an interview with the Saudi "Asharq al-Awsat" that there is a plot afoot to cancel the election results entirely and to overthrow President Khatami. The Islamic Revolution Guard Corps, the Basij, and conservative figures are trying to have the election results annulled, and Hashemi-Rafsanjani supposedly is trying to persuade Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to annul them, too. Also, the IRGC intelligence branch and the Qods Force are collaborating with Ayatollah Jannati, former judiciary chief Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, and Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, to oust the president.

This plan, according to "Asharq al-Awsat," would coincide with Ashura, when religious sentiments are at their height. IRGC units would quell any resulting unrest. Khatami would be replaced by Rafsanjani. (Bill Samii)

SOME SENIOR CLERICS STAND BY PRINCIPLES. In the beginning of March, journalist Reza Ansari-Rad was summoned by the Special Court for the Clergy for publicizing the views of dissident cleric Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri-Najafabadi and for trying to revive Montazeri politically. This is typical of the fate awaiting Iranians contacting Montazeri, who has been under intermittent house arrest since 1989. When Isfahan Friday Prayer leader Ayatollah Jalaledin Taheri tried to visit Montazeri at the end of March, however, all that happened was that guards would not let him in, "Fath" reported. Taheri was forced to speak to Montazeri via a walkie-talkie from Ahmad Montazeri's home next door.

Many outside observers like to classify politics in Iran as an issue of clericalism versus secularism, but Taheri exemplifies the kind of cleric who can uphold religious principles while simultaneously retaining popular support. Taheri is a popular religious figure, but he also has been physically attacked by hardliners and they have demonstrated for his dismissal (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 25 January 1999 and 9 August 1999) He also has spoken out against violence for any cause, in contrast to clerics who advocate violence against people with different opinions (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 30 August 1999).

The reformist "Sobh-i Imruz" daily discussed the reasons for Taheri's popularity on 29 February. The daily said that "Throughout all the years after 1342 [1963], he had an active and effective role in forming the revolution, and after the victory of the revolution, he has never been absent from the political scenes of the country." It explained that "The secret of maintaining his popularity is nothing but the ability to be fundamentalist and populist at the same time...unlike those 'fundamentalists' who regard themselves as being the axiom of the world and human beings, and have an attitude of guardianship toward the people, he has never seen himself as [the] people's guardian, and has lived with his 'principles' among and with 'the people.'" The daily went on to describe Taheri's consistency and lack of equivocation.

Taheri is not alone in standing by his principles or in his support for Montazeri. Grand Ayatollah Yusef Sanei supported Montazeri's criticism of the promotion of violence, according to the 16 March "Sobh-i Imruz." Sanei said that when an Islamic government exists [as it currently does in Iran], "the murder of individuals is contrary to religious law." Sanei has supported Montazeri and his views before, and he is seen as a supporter of the reformist movement. For these reasons, Sanei has earned hardliners' animosity (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 7 June 1999). As a Source of Emulation and former member of the Guardians Council and the Assembly of Experts, however, he is effectively untouchable.

Grand Ayatollah Mirza Javad Gharavi-Aliari also criticized violence, and assassination specifically, according to the 8 April "Iran." Gharavi said that violence and punishment are acceptable only when required by a "competent court." He added that "threatening or intimidation of individuals is religiously forbidden, too."

Statements by Taheri, Sanei, and Gharavi call attention to the splits within the clerical community over its role in Iranian political life. And they also show that just because one is a an Iranian Shia cleric, one is not necessarily a supporter of violence or repression. (Bill Samii)

IRAQI OIL SEIZURES PART OF PLAN TO DOMINATE PERSIAN GULF. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Navy seized 12 ships carrying Iraqi oil between 5 and 11 April, IRNA reported. And on 12 April the Kish Island director for legal affairs, Mahmud Alam, said that tankers carrying smuggled oil have left behind oil slicks that threaten the environment. The Kish public court authorized interceptions of the offending tankers, and the Kish Free Trade Zone administration is seeking compensation.

Some observers believe that interception of the smugglers is a message to the U.S. that Tehran is willing to cooperate with it in enforcing the sanctions against Iraq. While not going so far, Petroleum Finance Corporation's Raad Alkadiri suggested that the seizures contain at least "some element of a gesture to the United States," Reuters reported 11 April. But the information from Kish Island puts the issue in a new light.

Tehran has consistently complained that foreign naval forces are the main cause of pollution and environmental damage in the Persian Gulf. The main pretext for the presence of the foreign naval forces has been enforcement of the UN sanctions against Iraq. If Tehran demonstrates a willingness and an ability to enforce the UN sanctions independently, it would obviate the need for the presence of foreign forces.

With foreign forces out of the Persian Gulf, Iran can dominate the region. And it could control the transit of oil shipments, both licit and illicit.

Tehran also is sending messages to Baghdad. After the Mujahedin Khalq Organization's February and March mortar attacks in Tehran, Iranian forces attacked MKO camps in Iraq. After the first attack, Tehran urged Baghdad to restrain the terrorists. The second attack made it clear that as long as Tehran restricted its activities to MKO targets, Baghdad would do nothing. So Iran decided to motivate the Iraqi regime by interrupting its main source of revenue.

It is not just Iraqi perceptions that are being shaped. Iran's allies and its apologists will be able to point at the naval interdictions and say that Iran is cooperating with the international community and the UN. As an unnamed "Iranian oil source" told Reuters, "Iran is just trying to show that it is acting responsibly with respect to international regulation." Vice Admiral Charles Moore, commander of the U.S. 5th Fleet and head of the Multinational Interception Force, said on 6 April that "The Iranians are making an attempt here at a minimum to develop a perception that they in fact are going to cooperate with the UN."

Iranian state radio described the messages on 12 April. "Iran's intensified operations in disallowing the Iraqi smuggled oil to be shipped via the Persian Gulf contains two clear messages: Iran stresses the policy of obeying the UN regulations and resolutions. And the second message concerns the Iraqi regime, which holds a negative record in violating international laws and regulations. It is a regime which does not heed the principles pertaining to good-neighborly relations with Iran."

Iran is in a strong position to intercept the oil shipments, since it normally benefits from such smuggling operations. Since the imposition of sanctions against Iraq, the IRGC has charged protection fees for the oil shipments, and an IRGC station at the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab waterway controls the operation (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 21 December 1998). Admiral Moore said that this operation is coordinated at high levels of the Iranian government. The IRGC charges smugglers $50 per metric ton of oil, and this could earn the Iranians $500 million annually.

Moore went on to say that smuggling has increased with the rise in oil prices, and despite the MIF's efforts, about 4.8 million metric tons of oil gets through annually. The MIF has changed its tactics to stem this flood, Moore said, "But at the end of the day, we're not going to be able to do much with more forces as long as the Iranians provide a sanctuary for these smugglers." (Bill Samii)

CZECH PARLIAMENT BANS BUSHEHR DEAL. The Czech Chamber of Deputies (lower house) passed a law banning the export of goods or know-how for use in construction of Iran's Bushehr nuclear project on 4 April. Violation of the law is punishable with a fine of up to 20 million crowns [about $560,000] and confiscation of the equipment. ZVVZ Milevsko, the firm that was due to provide air-conditioning equipment for the Bushehr project, will not receive any compensation. President Vaclav Havel had not signed the law as of 16 April. (Bill Samii)

JAPANESE ARMS SUPPLIERS SENTENCED. Ichiro Takahashi and Tsuneo Ishida, executives with the Japanese Sun Beam trading firm, were sentenced to two years in prison and fined 1.5 million yen each for shipping parts for anti-tank rocket launcher sights to Iran without proper export permits, Kyodo news service reported on 12 April. Judge Saturo Hattori said that "The crime was of a nature that could have caused further international strife. It was not just a crime by individuals as it could have undermined Japan's international credibility." Iran's former ambassador to Japan, Hussein Kazempur-Ardabili, and another Iranian diplomat were implicated in the case. An international arrest warrant is outstanding for businessman Massoud Momtahan. (Bill Samii)

NORWAY EYES IRANIAN MARKET. Norsk Hydro's international exploration and production unit and the National Iranian Oil Company's exploration department signed a one-of-a-kind contract on 12 April, IRNA reported. Under this deal, all operational costs will be covered by Hydro, which is committed to a minimum $47 million investment over 4.5 years. If any oil or gas is discovered, the costs will be covered by revenues from the field's production. Otherwise, NIOC will not incur any costs, according to IRNA. When contacted by RFE/RL, Hydro refused to comment or provide any details on the contract.

Nine Norwegian firms, including Statoil and Hydro, will participate in an Iranian oil and gas fair over Easter, Oslo's "Aftenposten" reported on 9 April. Their main objective, according to the daily, is to secure contracts in the Iranian oil industry, which they believe is about to undertake major modernization and expansion projects.

Hans Asanuma Frisk of Statoil told "Aftenposten" that his firm thinks Iran is "interesting," but no investment decisions have been made. "Statoil has a project underway where we look at the possibilities of going into Iran. We undertake an overall assessment of conditions and opportunities in the country, but we do not, for the time being, look at concrete projects," Frisk said. Norwegian firms that are already active in Iran's energy sector include Saga and Noreen.

It is not just the energy sector that appeals to the Norwegians. A trade delegation visited Tehran last November. And recently, Bjorn Bjornsen, travelling envoy of the Norwegian Export Council, told "Aftenposten" that other potential investment areas are infrastructure, telecommunications, construction, horticulture, and the maritime sector. He warned against expecting "quick returns." (Bill Samii)

SOME HOPE FOR GAS SECTOR. Iranian Energy Ministry official Mehdi Husseini warned that Iran does not now have a place in the international gas market and that if it does not get one soon, the opportunity will be lost, "Akhbar-i Eqtesad" reported on 1 March. This year's overall lack of developments in this sector would not prompt Iranian optimism, but in the final week of March there were reports that an Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline would go ahead, and in early April Tehran reported the discovery of a new gas field.

In mid-March Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar-Zanganeh asked Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov to cut his natural gas export price from the current $40 per 1,000 cubic meters to $28, in exchange for which Iran would increase its imports. Two days later, Turkmen Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov announced that Iran will increase its imports of Turkmen gas to 13 trillion cubic meters annually. This could be a substantial increase, because last year Iran imported only 2 trillion cubic meters of Turkmen gas. And in February, Niyazov announced that Turkmenistan is negotiating a 50 trillion cubic meter deal with Russia's Gazprom.

In an analysis for RFE/RL, Michael Lelyveld, however, points out that none of these deals have been finalized yet, and while the deals could total over 90 trillion cubic meters annually, "Turkmenistan is believed to have exported only about 5 trillion cubic meters so far this year." Lelyveld suggests that the Turkmen statements seem to be "an obvious attempt to play the Iranian option against Russia, and to play both countries against the United States." This appears to have worked. PSG International, a U.S. led consortium, presented Turkmenistan with improved financial terms for the Trans-Caspian Pipeline, which will transport gas to Azerbaijan.

Natik Aliev, president of the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR), announced that Azerbaijan will only consider the export of gas through Iran if the amount of extracted gas justifies new routes. Currently, Azerbaijan is committed to pipelines going through Georgia to Turkey, Interfax reported on 9 April. Ali Kazem, spokesman for the Iranian embassy in Yerevan, announced that construction of a gas pipeline from Iran to Armenia has stopped because the Armenian government is short of funds, AP reported on 24 March. Kazem promised that the project will resume soon. Identical problems were reported in November, and at that time it was reported that Russia's Gazprom would make up the financial shortfall (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 3 January 2000).

Indeed, Gazprom, despite its promises, has not been a significant contributor to Iranian energy developments recently. One reason is that Gazprom is suffering its own financial problems. A company official said in January that its domestic customers pay only 18-20 percent of their bills in cash, and there have been complaints of gas shortages at Russian power plants. Gazprom is, furthermore, competing for the Turkish gas market. Including it in Iranian gas projects (development of the South Pars fields, for example), therefore, was not a wise move. In the words of Julia Nanay, director of the Petroleum Finance Company: "They don't want Iran to succeed, certainly not with exports to Turkey."

A glimmer of hope for Iranian gas came from Islamabad. Pakistan will permit construction of a pipeline for Iranian gas to India, Karachi's "Business Recorder" reported on 21 March. Completion of this project has been delayed for several years due to poor Pakistani-Indian relations, but Federal Minister Usman Aminuddin justified the project by saying that it could earn about $500 million in transit fees. Pakistan also agreed to import around 35,000 barrels per day of Iranian oil, and Iran may import surplus Pakistani motor spirits and kerosene.

There is not wholehearted enthusiasm for this project in Pakistan. Although Rawalpindi's "Jang" praised the project on 22 March because it will earn much-needed foreign currency for Pakistan, the same city's "Nawa-i Waqt" argued that Pakistan should not allow the pipeline's completion and Iran should not supply gas to India, as a show of Islamic solidarity, until the Kashmir conflict is resolved.

Meanwhile, Iranian Oil Minister Namdar-Zanganeh announced on 12 April that a gas field near Bushehr has been discovered. He said the Tabnak field is one of the biggest in the world, with an estimated reserve of 445 billion cubic meters of gas, over 240 million barrels of gaseous liquids, the potential to produce 2 billion cubic feet, and an estimated value of $16.5 billion.

And construction of a Turkish gas pipeline to Iran, which was scheduled for completion last January, is continuing. Turkish state television reported on 29 March that the Turkish portion of the pipeline is 60 percent complete and it should be finished by August. (Bill Samii)