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Iran Report: June 26, 2000

26 June 2000, Volume 3, Number 25

WHY REFORM THE PRESS LAW? A strong independent media is essential in defending people's basic rights and freedoms. Consequently, many both in Iran and outside have welcomed the new Iranian parliament's motion calling on parliamentary committees to debate amendments to the country's restrictive press law. And these same people have welcomed calls for reopening the 18 publications closed down in April and May. While not all of these outlets were reformist, their reopening would represent a positive step towards democratization. There even have been welcome suggestions that private broadcasting and satellite receivers be legalized.

But it would be an exaggeration to say that these steps would lead to an independent media. Most print outlets receive subsidies from the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance, and many publications serve as the equivalent of party mouthpieces or factional organs. A review of the 18 closed publications illustrates this point.

-- "Aftab-i Imruz" strongly supports the reformist movement and is critical of the conservatives.

-- "Arya" is identified with the Freedom Movement (Nihzat-i Azadi).

-- "Asr-i Azadegan" is the successor to the banned dailies "Jameah," "Tus," and "Neshat."

-- "Bamdad-i No" is a reformist daily formerly known as "Iran Vij."

-- "Fath" succeeded Khatami-ally Hojatoleslam Abdullah Nuri's "Khordad" daily.

-- "Guzarish-i Ruz" is linked with Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, leader of the more radical student group, the Islamic Union of Students and Graduates.

-- "Ham-Mihan" is former Tehran Mayor Gholamhussein Karbaschi's daily.

-- "Manateq-i Azad" is a moderate daily linked with the free trade zones.

-- "Mellat," a daily intended to reflect reformist and conservative views, was closed after its first print run.

-- "Mosharekat" is the Islamic Iran Participation Party's daily.

-- "Payam-i Azadi" is considered part of the radical reformist fringe and its managing editor is Davud Bahrami Minavoshani.

-- "Sobh-i Imruz," Said Hajjarian's daily, is identified with the pro-Khatami 2nd of Khordad front.

-- "Ava," a weekly from Najafabad, publishes views expounded by the popular Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri-Najafabadi.

-- "Aban" is a moderate pro-Khatami weekly.

-- "Arzesh" is a pro-reform weekly.

-- "Jebheh" is a hardline weekly identified with the Ansar-i Hizbullah.

-- "Payam-i Hajar" is a weekly reflecting national religious views.

-- "Iran-i Farda" is the monthly of Ezzatollah Sahabi, who is identified with the national religious movement.

Thus, the parliament's apparent support for press freedom may be little more than political expediency. But without the restoration of these publications, whether or not they are factionally-oriented or subsidized, some of the people's representatives will not have a voice.

Despite the recent closures, many newspapers and publications continue to function. Among these are the most hardline ones, such as "Kayhan," "Resalat," and "Jomhuri-yi Islami." Some of the more moderate ones still operate as well, including "Iran"--affiliated with the official Islamic Republic News Agency--and "Hamshahri"--affiliated with the Tehran municipality and the Executives of Construction party. The hardline ones can effectively publish whatever calumnies they please, but most of the others live in constant fear of being closed down.

Introducing limited competition for Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting could have a similar political impact. The typically biased state broadcasting does not air the views of reformist political figures, nor does it interview anybody but hardline commentators and analysts. Guests on talk shows have accused the president's allies of involvement in the 1998 serial murders. State broadcasting's coverage of elections borders between non-existent and pro-hardline. Private radio and television stations could give a voice to those the regime wants to ignore. It may also provide expanded coverage of parliamentary proceedings, so the public has a better idea of what its representatives are doing.

By making international news sources more accessible via legalized satellite reception, the Iranian public would get unfiltered views about their country, and they will learn how Iran is perceived by other countries. They also would gain a chance to get a perspective on the rest of the world that is free of state broadcasting's stereotypes.

So the parliamentarians' eagerness to see changes in the press law may have more to do with political calculation than with a genuine commitment to press freedom. In the long run, however, a free press and increased access to broadcast media will help all Iranians, not just the politicians. (Bill Samii)

AND JUST IN TIME. Any new press law amendments would come at a time when there are a few positive developments on the Iranian media scene and many negative ones. A rare positive one occurred when "Hayat-i No," Hadi Khamenei's new daily, hit the newsstands on 11 June. It announced that "our newspaper wants to advance the reform movement led by President Mohammad Khatami."

But government pressure on the media continues elsewhere. Publication of "Bayan," Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Mohtashemi-Pur's daily, was suspended on 25 June. "Sobh-i Imruz" publisher Said Hajjarian was summoned by the Hamedan press court on 19 June, just 48 hours after undergoing surgery to remove a bullet from his neck. Tehran Justice Department chief Hojatoleslam Abbasali Alizadeh said on 12 June that the trials of the banned publications' editors would start within two weeks.

Meanwhile, new hearings are being conducted. Mohammad Hussein Kuzegar, managing director of Tabriz's "Ahrar" weekly, was brought before the court after a complaint from counterintelligence chief Brigadier-General Mohammad Reza Naqdi, the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps, and the East Azerbaijan Basij of the Dispossessed, "Hayat-i No" reported on 18 June. Alireza Khoshandam, managing director of Gofteman Khallaq publishing, was summoned by the Tehran Revolutionary Court for offending Islamic sanctities and insulting the Supreme Leader during his unsuccessful parliamentary campaign, IRNA reported on 16 June. He could not make bail and was sent to Evin prison.

Six Iranian film magazines--"Hod-hod," "Shakhiss," "Afkar," "Rokhsat-i Pahlevan," "Millad," and "Khavaran"--received warnings from the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance for publishing pictures of actors from the monarchic era. "Bayan" Managing Editor Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Mohtashemi-Pur was summoned by the Special Court for the Clergy to face complaints from the Tehran Law Enforcement Forces, state broadcasting, the Tehran municipality, and a private individual.

Iranian media restrictions are not just aimed at domestic publications. The authorities removed a picture of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher from the French newspaper "Le Figaro" because her dress was too low cut, AFP reported on 16 June, and censors removed artwork featuring a bare-chested French revolutionary icon from a French teachers' union magazine.

These events seem to contradict public sentiment. People donated 357 million rials to the Iranian journalists' union to help the employees of the banned newspapers, "Bahar" reported on 29 May. Such support can be explained by journalist Mohammad Quchani's explanation for why people follow the reformist press. "It's the rhetorical equivalent of the new liberal thinking. It's a new way of analysis, language, and writing. People have turned away from a press that only curses and calls the U.S. an imperialist...Our writing cannot smell of ideology." (Bill Samii)

ANOTHER ELECTION RESULT CANCELED. The Guardians Council canceled election results in Saqqez and Baneh constituency, claiming that reports of irregularities made the overall validity of the vote questionable. An unnamed Interior Ministry official told IRNA on 24 June that he did not understand how the irregularities were found, 48 days after the election, without even one ballot box being recounted. (Bill Samii)

'WE GOTTA GET OUT OF THIS PLACE.' "I would go to any Western country. It would be better than Iran," an asylum-seeker in Turkey told Reuters. The tragic discovery on 19 June of 58 refugees who suffocated in the back of a truck while being smuggled into Britain underscores the desperate measures to which people will resort when they try to flee their country, as well as the sometimes tragic consequences arising out of such desperation.

Soroush Javadi, a consultant on refugee affairs, told RFE/RL's Persian Service that all of Europe is facing an influx of refugees and asylum-seekers. They come from Iran, Afghanistan, China, Africa, and the Balkans--places where instability or increasingly young populations make the economic situation tenuous. Iran has been in the top 10 countries of origin for asylum-seekers in Europe for the last two years, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, with 19,570 Iranian applicants just in 1999. UNHCR spokesman Metin Corbatir added that many of those Iranians are Bahais fleeing persecution.

There are many tangible signs of Iranians' eagerness to get out. In June, 9 Iranians stowed away on a Belgian truck and were captured by British police. Sixteen Iranians were arrested in Tuzla, Sarajevo's daily "Dnevni Avaz" reported, and they were transferred to the Rajlovac refugee camp near Sarajevo. Fati Ezzine, the official responsible for issuing visas at the French Embassy in Tehran, was suspended and sent back to France for improperly issuing more than 350 visas to middlemen. According to French Ambassador Phillipe de Suremain, Iranian youth and minorities are desperate to leave the country, and some agencies represent themselves as intermediaries in the visa procurement process.

Just days earlier, ten Iranian and four Iraqi stowaways hijacked an Italian ship bound from Bandar Abbas and demanded refuge in Europe. They eventually gave up, and the Indian government may turn the hijackers over to the UNHCR after determining their status. Russian security forces arrested six Iranians in the port of Nakhodka for trying to go to Japan illegally. Six other Iranians were arrested in the region earlier this year, and Russian sailors have made a lucrative business out of people smuggling.

In late May, four people drowned when a boat carrying 38 Iranians from Bosnia-Herzegovina to Croatia capsized in the Sava River, and their bodies were recovered near Banja Luka. The survivors were transferred to a refugee center near Sarajevo. An Iranian citizen and a Serb are involved with the smuggling ring, Banja Luka's RTRS Radio reported. And in April, two Iranians who had illegally entered Croatia on their way to Italy were captured, HINA reported. The two had forged Greek passports and were banished from Croatia for two years by the magistrates court.

The situation faced by the Iranian asylum seekers once they get abroad is not always easy. Shahin Davitian, an immigration lawyer in Sydney, told RFE/RL's Persian Service that 20-25 percent of the refugees that reach Australia are Iranians. Although the refugee centers fulfill all their basic requirements, they are based in remote locations--usually former military bases--and there is little opportunity to leave the facilities, leading to frustration and anger. Davitian said he has seen asylum cases take up to 18 months before they reach the tribunals, meaning that the applicants must remain in the camp the whole time. Earlier in June, about 500 "boat people" from Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan rioted and broke out of their detention center.

Some of the Iranians who flee their country find that legal employment is not so readily available abroad, either, so they turn to crime. In mid-April, a former Iranian air force officer, Avar Amiri, was sentenced by a U.S. District Court to 21 months imprisonment for defrauding banks in Ohio and Kentucky. After serving his sentence, Amiri will be deported to Germany, which granted him asylum in 1990. And in late-March, Farhang Hamad, an Iranian living in Oshikango, was arrested for his part in an illegal diamond transaction, Windhoek's "The Namibian" reported.

In some cases, the Iranian immigrants are not real asylum-seekers, they are agents of the government in Tehran. Police in Islamabad arrested seven Iranians for their parts in a plan to bomb several locations and attack the U.S. consulate, Karachi's "Amn" reported in March.

The flood of young people leaving Iran is having an adverse impact on the country's development. About 70 percent of the Iranians who competed in international science Olympiads in the last three years are now studying in the U.S., "Bayan" daily reported on 20 June. These students complain that Iranian universities are poorly equipped and many of the instructors are poorly qualified. To gain a university place, furthermore, depends a great deal on connections and ideological commitment, rather than on any real qualifications. And for graduates of foreign universities, the professional and social environment that confronts them when they return can be stifling and frustrating.

Although the flow is distinctly away from Iran, some Iranians do return after living abroad, usually for economic reasons. Some younger Iranians return to Iran to exploit their training and language skills as middlemen for Western businesses. And members of older generations often return to benefit from Iran's lower cost of living or because of homesickness. Still others who return claim that they want to help their country progress. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN MARKS INTERNATIONAL COUNTER-NARCOTICS DAY. Every 26 June the world commemorates the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. Iran traditionally marks this event by destroying several tons of captured narcotics in a huge bonfire in front of the diplomatic community and the press corps. The message is clear: Iran is at the forefront of the war on drugs, and because most of those drugs are destined for Europe, Western states should do more to help Iran.

But there are growing signs that some of the international assistance Tehran receives is wasted due to bureaucratic infighting; bureaucratic conflicts and poor planning hamper effectiveness; and the country's difficult social situation fosters domestic demand for drugs.

President Mohammad Khatami and Pino Arlacchi, head of the United Nations Drug Control Program (UNDCP), met in Tehran on 10 June. During this meeting Khatami said that "the assistance provided for Iran by other states to curb the inflow of drugs inside its soil through its eastern borders was insufficient," according to IRNA. He went on to ask for "all-out" international support in eradication of the illicit cultivation, production, and distribution of narcotics. And when Dutch Foreign Minister Jozias Van Aartsen visited Tehran at the end of May, Kamal Kharrazi, his Iranian counterpart, asked for counter-narcotics assistance. Kharrazi said that "we expect a real start in our political and economic cooperation and the start of cooperation to fight against drugs."

During a late-May visit to Sistan va Baluchistan Province, Swiss Ambassador Tim Guldimann was told by provincial Governor-General Mahmud Husseini that Iran is fighting the traffickers "single-handedly," IRNA reported. Husseini called for more aid, and he said the international community should help find substitutes for Afghan poppy cultivation. Two weeks later, IRNA reported that Switzerland had pledged $140,000 in financial aid for Iranian counter-narcotics, after a delegation of Swiss police visited eastern Iran. The visitors also discussed ways to combat money-laundering.

Another form of assistance is Britain's early-June waiver of a ban on providing military equipment to Iran. In this case, Britain permitted a private firm, operating on behalf of the UNDCP, to buy night-vision equipment for Iran. Britain previously supplied Iran with body armor for its counter-narcotics troops. The UN also supplied Iran's Anti-Narcotics Headquarters with 50 cars. But Anti-Narcotics Headquarters chief Mohammad Fallah complained that the cars have been sitting in the port of Bandar Abbas for three months, according to the 15 June "Iran Daily." He said that "they avoid providing us with automobiles only on the pretext that the Anti-Narcotics Headquarters is not a governmental organization."

Intra-organizational infighting is inhibiting the efforts to stem domestic drug abuse, too. Fallah complained that the Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry has not made any real contribution to the war on drugs. He said the ministry could do much more to increase public awareness about drug-related problems, such as addiction, HIV/AIDS, and hepatitis.

Nor does there seem to be a real counter-narcotics plan, although Tehran and the UNDCP created the NOROUZ project, which addresses interdiction, demand reduction, legal reform, and public awareness. Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi said, after a trip to the southeastern Kerman Province, that what Iran really needs to combat the traffickers is "development and implementation of comprehensive programs and plans." And while in Kerman, Shahrudi said that what Iran really needs is an independent counter-narcotics organization. Brigadier General Morteza Ansari, deputy commander of the law Enforcement Forces, said that the Health Ministry has established special addiction treatment clinics, but there are not enough of them.

The impact of Tehran's poor or non-existent planning and insufficient resources, as well as Iran's location next to a major narcotics exporter--Afghanistan--has been profound. Ansari said that 350 laboratories with a capacity for processing 120 tons of morphine operate in Afghanistan near the Iranian border. Almost 40 percent of the drugs that cross the border stay in Iran, where the street price of heroin is $3-4 gram, about 1 percent of the cost in the West.

Moreover, pushers find it easy to attract new purchasers: "In our country, there aren't many opportunities for recreation, and alcohol is banned," a recovering opium addict said in the 7 June "Globe and Mail." Ansari added that as long as unemployment prevails in Iran, "the devastating disaster of narcotics will not be eradicated," IRNA reported on 24 June.

The problem of drugs is far-reaching. Jalal Ahmadi, a member of the Torbat-i Jam city council, was arrested with three grams of heroin in his possession. His sentence included a cash fine, 45 lashes, and a two-month suspended prison sentence, "Tehran Times" reported in May. In the last month, furthermore, 11 Iranians were arrested for selling drugs in Japan and another was arrested in Istanbul. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN ACTIVITIES IN HAITI. Haiti's President Rene Preval, in a 17 June meeting with Iran's Ambassador Mohammad Keshavarzadeh (who is based in Venezuela), said he supports Iranian commercial activities in Haitian markets, IRNA reported. Keshavarzadeh said the current exhibit of Iranian commercial goods in Port au Prince is a sign of the growing relations between the two countries. An organizing team and 30-35 exhibitors offered a wide range of goods, such as plumbing fixtures, water towers, silverware, lighting fixtures, mirrors, carpets, jewelry, handicrafts, and paintings. Industrial items, such as soft-drink refrigerators, soda dispensers, and ovens also were available. This event can be seen as part of Iran's efforts to increase the non-oil sector's share in the economy. Despite such efforts, non-oil exports are down by 30 percent since March, according to Reuters.

Worth noting is that Haiti's influential Lebanese businessmen, many of whom are Shia, control many local export-import businesses, as well as several shipping firms. The lack of marine law enforcement, political instability, and weak democratic institutions has meant that smuggling organizations have been able to operate with impunity in Haiti. Drugs come into Haiti in large shipments, are broken up, and then sent onward to the U.S. via smaller vessels or via couriers. There is relative indifference to corruption among law-enforcement personnel, and money laundering is not a crime. But there is no evidence available linking Iranian interests in Haiti with drug smuggling or money laundering. (Bill Samii)

IRAN IS KEY TO STOPPING OIL SMUGGLING. Mokhtar Kalantari, managing-director of Iran's Ports and Shipping Organization, announced on 14 June that his organization is legally obliged to block the passage of tankers smuggling Iraqi oil through the Persian Gulf in order to prevent pollution of regional waters. Kalantari's comments came a week after an American newspaper, citing unnamed U.S. officials, reported that Tehran resumed permitting the transit of the smugglers after a two-month hiatus. But as the Multinational Interception Force commander told RFE/RL, Iran is the key to stopping the smuggling of Iraqi oil in violation of UN sanctions.

There has been a great deal of speculation about why Tehran stopped cooperating with the oil smugglers in the first place. This was a particularly unexpected step because the smuggling operation was coordinated at high levels of the Iranian government and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Navy was earning up to $500 million a year by charging a toll of $50 per metric ton of oil.

Some observers wondered if blocking the smugglers was a signal to the U.S. "Considering that the sanctions against Iran are imposed by the Security Council, Iran's action can be considered to be within carrying out international obligations. Also, this action will be in the direction of the Americans' opinions and wants," Imam Sadegh University's Professor Davud Hermidas Bavand told the 8 April "Khorasan." Bavand went on to say that "there is no doubt that under the conditions in which Iran considers itself obligated to implement Security Council resolutions, in a way it ends up in the same directions as the Americans' opinions and wants."

Vice Admiral Charles Moore, commander of the U.S. 5th Fleet and head of the Multinational Interception Force, told RFE/RL that the Iranian activities are causing some confusion. "The use of their waters did not synchronize very well with what we observed to be their strategy in the region, which appears now to be a strategy more inclined toward cooperation, accommodation, a strategy which reaches out at least for the time being to the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] states. I can only assume that [motivation] is financial. It could be that there are select ships, or companies or entities which have reached some arrangement with Iran, I don't know, we are studying that."

Moore also pointed out that the interceptions that did occur were the work of the regular Iranian Navy, rather than the IRGC Navy. IRGC naval forces patrol the territorial waters, Moore said, but they were never seen actually seizing or intercepting a smuggler.

Moore speculated that Tehran may be unaware of what is happening in the Persian Gulf, and local commanders are permitting smuggling for financial gains: "This whole operation is driven by money, and individuals who have the responsibilities I am sure are susceptible to payoffs." Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, however, had indicated awareness of the smuggling in an interview with the 6 June "Los Angeles Times." Zarif said that there was a limit to what Iran could do, and he hinted strongly that Tehran expects the international community to provide financial assistance.

Iran is the key to stopping the oil smugglers, Moore pointed out. When Iranian waters are closed, the smugglers must go through international waters, where their interception by the MIF is inevitable. Smuggling surges when Iranian waters are available, because the MIF cannot operate there. But according to Iranian ports and shipping chief Kalantari, Iraq smuggles oil "through the collaboration of some Arab states and under the supervision of the American fleet," state radio reported on 16 June. (Bill Samii)

'WHAT'S IN A NAME?' During a 19 June discussion on North Korea, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that "we are now calling these states 'states of concern' because we are concerned about their support for terrorist activity, their development of missiles, their desire to disrupt the international system." State Department spokesman Richard Boucher later elaborated that the term "rogue state"--hitherto applied to Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Cuba, and North Korea--"has outlived its usefulness." Referring to Iran, he said that "Some places that were described that way have embarked upon more democratic internal life."

Tehran radio responded on 21 June in a commentary that said the change in nomenclature was "politically motivated." "American firms are exerting pressure," and in comparison to the rest of the world, "the American stance against Iran was a maverick attitude."

In recognition of Libya's turning over two suspects in the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103, Boucher said that "Others have been willing to address some of the issues that are of primary concern to the United States." That comment could also be a reference to an unfulfilled U.S. request for Iranian assistance in the investigation of the 1996 al-Khobar bombing in Saudi Arabia, in which 19 American servicemen were killed. (Bill Samii)