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Iran Report: June 19, 2000

19 June 2000, Volume 3, Number 24

ASSAD'S DEATH UNLIKELY TO CHANGE IRANIAN TIES SOON. The death of Syrian President Hafez Assad on 10 June and his likely replacement by his son, Bashar, seem certain to affect the relationship between Tehran and Damascus. But it could take up to a year for succession-related issues and internal power struggles to be resolved before Damascus is ready to turn its attentions outward. Tehran's statements and actions after Assad's death, however, demonstrate a solid interest in the maintenance of what generally has been a good and strong relationship.

Hafez Assad's debt to Iranians dated from at least 1973, when Imam Musa Sadr, an Iranian-born Shia cleric who lived and worked in Lebanon, issued a religious decree that Assad's Alawi sect was part of the Shia community. Because Syria's Sunni majority had traditionally ruled the country and because they questioned whether Alawis were really Muslims, this fatwa was extremely helpful to Assad. The religious aspect is still important because some Alawi clerics study in Qom, there are Shia shrines in Syria, and there is a lively pilgrimage business between the two countries.

Political relations emerged on this religious foundation. Imam Musa also introduced Assad to Ebrahim Yazdi (who would later serve as the Islamic Republic's foreign minister), Sadeq Ghotbzadeh (also a foreign minister), and Mustafa Chamran (who would serve as the defense minister). In subsequent years, Assad maintained relations with Iran during the Iran-Iraq War, when the rest of the Arab world supported Iraq. Iran and Syria continue to have good commercial relations. Besides regular trade, Syria purchases Iranian oil, and the two countries have discussed construction of an electric power grid.

From the Iranian perspective, one of the most important issues is the future of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine -- General Command (PFLP-GC), the PFLP, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and Hizballah, all of which have military relationships with Syria and financial ones with Iran. There are questions about this, too, especially after the leaders of such groups were forced to march in the funeral cortege with the Palestinian Authority's Yassir Arafat.

Assad attempted to lay the groundwork for a smooth succession, University of Virginia's William Quant told RFE/RL. "[Assad] has gone to some lengths in the past year or two to make sure that his son would be the logical successor, and the people who support that decision are in place and have a vested interest already in seeing that it happens." To achieve this, potential competitors were shunted aside, while more loyal figures were placed in responsible positions. One must, therefore, determine how individuals like Brigadier General Bahjat Suleiman, the former counterespionage chief and now head of the transition process, or Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara, feel towards Iran.

Tehran also has a vested interest in Bashar Assad. President Mohammad Khatami met with Bashar when he visited Damascus in May 1999, and Bashar was to visit Tehran in January 2000 (he canceled at the last minute). After the president's death, Tehran pulled out all the stops, declaring a three-day mourning period and with Iranian government officials reading tributes to Assad on television. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei cabled his condolences to Bashar. Khatami sent his condolences to Bashar and he attended the funeral in Damascus. Khatami met with Bashar and expressed the hope that Bashar "would proceed with his father's policy line," IRNA reported on 13 June. Khatami assured Bashar that the Iranian government and people would stand by him and support him.

Mrs. Khatami sent a separate message to Mrs. Assad. Expediency Council chief Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and First Vice President Hassan Habibi visited the Syrian Embassy to sign the condolences book. Tributes to Assad were expressed by speaker of parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Mahdavi-Karrubi, Islamic Revolution Guard Corps commander Brigadier-General Rahim Safavi, and Defense Minister Admiral Ali Shamkhani. Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi condoled his Syrian counterpart.

All these efforts may establish some good feelings in the short term, but it will be some time before any changes are likely to emerge in the Syria-Iran relationship. But when that happens, it will undoubtedly have an impact not only on Syria and Iran, but on Lebanon, Israel, and the rest of the Middle East. (Bill Samii)

DISQUIET CONTINUES OVER ELECTION RESULTS. As of 14 June, 267 parliamentarians had their credentials approved and thus were able to begin work. But the Guardians Council disturbed many by nullifying yet another election result.

Students from Arak, Markazi Province, demonstrated in front of the parliament building over the Guardians Council's annulment of reformist Rahman Kargosha's victory in favor of the conservative second-place finisher, IRNA reported on 11 June. Two days earlier, the Interior Ministry had asked the Guardians Council to explain why, 34 days after the second round of voting on 7 May, the results of 31 ballot boxes were overturned. The Interior Ministry claimed that the number of discrepancies in the ballot boxes was negligible.

The Guardians Council canceled ballot boxes in Islamabad-i Gharb and Khoy on 15 June, according to IRNA, after its inspectors discovered "irregularities." On 18 June, violence erupted when security forces attempted to break up a demonstration in Islamabad-i Gharb.

Parliamentarians rejected the credential of Gholamali Haded-Adal, the conservative candidate who was named as a victor in Tehran after the Guardians Council's long-drawn and controversial ballot recount. Mohammad Reza Tabesh told "Iran" on 8 June that this was not in objection to Haded-Adal's qualifications. Rather, the protest "is directed against the method of vote count in Tehran." The State Inspectorate General will investigate the irregularities in Tehran, IRNA reported on 13 May.

According to state television, the second round for undecided seats in Tehran, Shahr-i Rey, Shemiranat, and Islamshahr constituencies will be held at the end of June. The candidates will be Rasul Montajabnia, Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Mohtashemi-Pur, Elias Hazrati, and Ali Akbar Rahmani. (Bill Samii)

PRESS MAY BE FIRST ITEM ON PARLIAMENTARY AGENDA. Hojatoleslam Mehdi Mahdavi-Karrubi, secretary of the Militant Clerics Association (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mobarez, MRM), was chosen as speaker of parliament on 11 June. He had been interim speaker since late-May. And, after indicating that he wants the restrictive press law to be the first item put under discussion, the parliament complied on 18 June by passing a motion that calls on parliamentary committees to debate as soon as possible amendments that would relax restrictions on the print media.

Karrubi earlier indicated that the parliament would favor economic issues and job creation, and it would cooperate with the executive branch (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 5 June 2000). Such an approach makes sense in a country with an estimated 25 percent inflation rate, where unemployment is officially at 16 percent and is estimated to be at least 25 percent, and where those who are employed often go unpaid for months. Such economic improvements may reduce dependence on government subsidies, drug abuse, and social volatility.

In a later interview, however, Karrubi said that "the parliament must propose new laws governing press freedom," "Time Europe" reported on 6 June. Karrubi also proposed changes to the election law, specifically mentioning the Guardians Council and its "excessive" oversight powers. He said social restrictions must be eased and the power of hardline pressure groups must be curbed.

Karrubi said on 11 June that "We are sure our people are after freedom of expression." And in what seemed like an attack on the Guardians Council, he added that "God willing, we will remove obstacles so that in future elections people will have more room to that they can take part in a climate of opposing viewpoints." Karrubi also sought to reassure hardline observers, saying that "this parliament is faithful to revolutionary and Islamic ideals, values for which our martyrs gave their lives."

The new parliamentarians seemed to concur with these immediate priorities. Journalist and parliamentarian Rajabali Mazrui said on 12 June that "press freedom is the first priority of the new parliament." And movie director and parliamentarian Behrouz Afkhami called for eliminating "supervision over books and materials before they are published." That day, it was announced that over 100 parliamentarians had drafted a bill that would prohibit the arbitrary closure of newspapers and ban the trial of journalists without a jury. Supervision over cultural products, such as books and movies, would be eliminated, too. Under the draft bill, the Special Court for the Clergy and the Revolutionary Courts would be prohibited from molesting journalists.

So far, no date has been announced as to when this bill will be submitted. But rumors have surfaced that some of the signatories had withdrawn their support for the bill, and on 14 June, Karrubi said that the draft bill had not been received by the parliament's presiding board, while another reformist deputy said that the draft was not yet complete, IRNA reported.

A special bill banning military personnel from entering university grounds will be presented to parliament soon, too, according to Khawaf va Rashtkhar representative Qolam Heidar Ebrahim Bay-Salami. He said that 30 people had signed the proposal already, and he expected a total of 150 signatures, IRNA and "Tehran Times" reported on 14 June.

Karrubi said the parliament will pursue its objectives in a cooperative manner. "I believe this parliament must take its program forward with caution and retain friendly relations with the minority. The opinions of the minority should be paid attention to, and their rights observed. People don't expect us to be fighting each other every day." (Bill Samii)

ESPIONAGE TRIAL UNRAVELING. "There will be no more court hearings," in the trial of 13 Jews and eight Muslims in Shiraz on charges of espionage, Fars Province judicial official Hussein Ali Amiri said on 14 June. Once the responses to two inquiries come in, he added, "the case will be closed and the court will issue a verdict within a week." This eagerness to close the proceedings suggests that Tehran has concluded that the authorities have lost control of the case, which so far has had many of the features of a Stalinist show trial (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 8 May 2000). Defense attorneys aren't cooperating: they are questioning the validity of the confessions, and Tehran's shills, in this case members of an extremist Jewish sect, are looking increasingly farcical.

Amiri announced on 12 June that the Jewish and Muslim defendants would appear in court together so the means by which they cooperated could be determined, IRNA reported. But when Javid Bin-Yaqub confronted one of the Muslims later in the day, he denied that they had ever met. The next day, only four of the Jews -- Shahrokh Paknahad, Farzad Kashi, Nasser Levi Haim, and Farhad Saleh -- appeared in court, and the prosecution presented new evidence. Attorney Karim Sadeqi said he could not say what the evidence was, but "what I can say is that it was wholly unconvincing and we found little that was new in it."

Lead defense attorney Esmail Nasseri cast doubt on the "confessions" by which the court and some foreign observers have set so much stock. He said that "they may have made confessions in the past but one must not forget they were in prison for a long period and confessions made during such a long period are not always exact in that they are not aware of the legal terminology," Reuters reported on 13 June. Provincial official Amiri "categorically" rejected claims that the accused had confessed under pressure.

On 7 June, Tehran welcomed four rabbis from the Neturei Karta sect. One of the rabbis said that "taking into account the amount of publicity surrounding the trial, misunderstanding between Jews and Muslims has increased to a high level and it is our aim to do our utmost to reduce this misunderstanding," according to "Entekhab." Iranian state radio reported that the rabbis had issued a statement that "implicitly accepted" the espionage charges against their 13 Iranian co-religionists, but which also called for the defendants to be "pardoned or have their penalties reduced."

And on 12 June, Neturei Karta's Rabbi Yisrael David Weiss said, according to state radio, that "Life for the Iranian Jews has improved a great deal over the past 20 years, and they practice their religious rituals freely. And we are grateful to the Iranian authorities for this issue." When the group met with Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Taskhiri of the Islamic Culture and Communications Organization, he told them that "We believe that Israel is an alien and usurper entity in the region which should be destroyed soon," IRNA reported on 14 June.

Tehran's attempt to use the Neturei Karta representatives backfired almost immediately when Jewish leaders in Iran refused to meet with them. The Iranian American Jewish Federation announced on 9 June that "it appears that these rabbis have made no attempt to meet with the prisoners or their lawyers, see the files, or otherwise probe into any facts which might be relevant to establishing the guilt or innocence of the accused. Therefore, we have to conclude that any statement they might have made in this respect emanates from their own ideological opinions, which in some ways are closer to those of the very people who are persecuting these prisoners, than to the opinions of fair minded, neutral, and educated observers."

Indeed, Neturei Karta is not very representative of mainstream Judaism. The sect is linked with Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam, and it claims that the Holocaust was a punishment against Zionist Jews.

Some observers in Tehran also discount the representative nature of Neturei Karta. An article in the 12 June "Tehran Times" -- a daily linked with the Islamic Propagation Organization -- suggested that the four rabbis are in cahoots with the CIA and Mossad. The article said that the U.S. has sent others to infiltrate Iran and Lebanon, citing the case of "William R. Higgins under the cover of a priest to acquire more information." (Lieutenant-Colonel Higgins was a U.S. Marine assigned to a UN observation mission in Lebanon. He was kidnapped in 1988 and hanged in July 1989 by the Organization of the Oppressed on Earth, which is a Hizballah cover name. Higgins was murdered on the direct orders of Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Mohtashemi-Pur.) "Tehran Times," distanced itself from this article on 15 June. (Bill Samii)

NATURE AND MAN CONSPIRE AGAINST FARMERS. Assadollah Barati, director-general of Khorasan Province's Rural Cooperatives Organization, announced in late-May that the central government intends to purchase 350,000 tons of surplus grain in the northeastern province. But just two weeks earlier, Mostafa Addad of the Agriculture Ministry said that Iran has approved a plan to import 4.5 million tons of grain by March 2001, although this figure could climb to six million tons.

In fact, Iranian agricultural output is even lower than usual due to a continuing drought and an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. What makes the situation even worse is a combination of man-made factors: high prices, under-investment, and mismanagement. As a result, Tehran is now seeking international assistance.

Jamal Ahmed, who heads the Iran office of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), described the severity of the drought in a recent interview with RFE/RL. "13 out of the last 22 years, Iran was hit with droughts. And last year was one of the worst droughts it has experienced in the last 30 years. This drought of this year is even worse. In fact, 17 out of the 28 provinces of the Islamic Republic are hit badly by the drought, and ten of them are in extremely bad condition and severely affected. The drought hit the eastern, southern, and central plateau of Iran where there is most of the rain-fed agriculture and also the livestock. So, it is affecting the wheat cultivation, barley cultivation, rain-fed orchards and livestock in those areas."

Ahmed told RFE/RL that the drought is affecting the grain and live-stock production sectors most severely. "Last year, the [production of] wheat went down. This year, we expect that the wheat and the barley will both go down. The most severely affected portion of the agriculture sector is the livestock [and] now in many places, in areas like Sistan va Baluchistan, the people are either taking their livestock to other cities -- the prices of livestock already went down -- and in some places it has been reported that the government is slaughtering animals to reduce losses." Ahmed estimated that this year's wheat crop could fall by 30 percent.

Contributing to the livestock problems is an outbreak of Type Asia-1 foot-and-mouth disease, which has become widespread in Iran since September 1999. Over 7,200 animals caught the disease, 34 died, and 3,531 were slaughtered. The disease outbreak has spread into Turkey's eastern Agra Province, which borders Iran, Moscow's "Veterinariya" reported in April, and there is concern that it will spread in Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Azerbaijan.

Attempts to treat sick animals are unsuccessful because effective medicines are unaffordable, according to a March report in "Khorasan" daily. Drugs and food supplements available at the legal outlets -- cooperatives, licensed pharmacies, and distribution companies -- are so expensive that farmers must turn to illegal sources. But illegally acquired items are ineffective or are past their sell-by dates.

In all, the drought is estimated to have caused $1.7 billion in damages, according to IRNA. Complaints about drought are heard from Iranian officials frequently when agricultural issues are discussed. An editorial in the 22 April "Iqtisad-i Asia," however, says this is done to cover "weak points and poor planning." The daily suggests that the Ministry of Agriculture plan better and increase investments. The Ministry of Agriculture, furthermore, "has turned into a millipede, of which its extensive bureaucracy has formed its heavy body, and its small and weak feet are unable to carry such a body." "Iqtisad-i Asia" suggested that the Agriculture Ministry merge with the Construction Jihad Ministry for the sake of efficiency.

The parliament recently approved a $183 million aid package to help the affected farmers. The aid may not reach the farmers in time. Rasht parliamentarian Ahmad Ramazanpur-Nargesi complained in a January letter to President Mohammad Khatami that government institutions are not providing previously promised financial relief, "Khabar va Nazar" reported. Ramazanpur-Nargesi said that banks were demanding repayment of loans and trying to recover their losses, which contradicts debt-relief bills passed by parliament. Insurance companies, furthermore, are paying only those who have suffered losses of 50 percent or more.

Not only are the banks demanding repayment of debts, there is a general reluctance to invest in the agriculture sector. Professor Mohammad Yazdanpanah told the 21 May "Iran Daily" that the lack of private investment can be traced to the insufficient profitability of agriculture. The return on investment in heavy equipment, furthermore, is slower than in other sectors. Uneven demand and price fluctuations also make the availability of capital unpredictable.

The lack of investment is reflected in the low number of tea-drying factories in the western part of Mazandaran Province. Farmer Morad Moghadary said that the area has only one factory, and it cannot accommodate all the tea farmers, "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported on 2 May. And this works out to the detriment of the farmers, because the factory, having a relative monopoly, pays a lower price for the tea.

Planning also is weak. Horticulturist Reza Mozaffari told "Iran Daily" that "national priorities" change annually, so people cannot meet their forecasts or their marketing objectives. Allameh Tabatabai University's Professor Ahmad Mojtahed discussed planning problems at an agriculture seminar earlier this year. He said that the institutions that control water, machinery, pesticides, fertilizer, credits, and market controls pursue specific goals which seem to conflict with stabilization policies that try to control the prices of agricultural goods.

Tehran needs foreign assistance to address all these problems. FAO's Jamal Ahmed told RFE/RL that Tehran cannot handle the crisis alone. "It's a little too much. The devastation is too much actually, if we take 17 out of 28 provinces. I think the Islamic Republic would do a lot [by itself] but still some assistance from outside is needed to cope with the situation." He added that "at the moment, the most urgent thing is drinking water for livestock and humans in the most-hit provinces." (Bill Samii)