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Iran Report: July 17, 2000

17 July 2000, Volume 3, Number 27

ABOVE THE LAW. A provincial daily -- "Velayat-i Qazvin" -- asserted in April that Iran's disciplinary forces must find their proper place within the system. The 11 July verdict in the trial of law enforcement officers charged with raiding a Tehran University hostel in July 1999, an incident which led to the country's worst unrest in 20 years, shows that they have indeed found their place within the system -- above the law. And the fact that non-uniformed people who also were involved in the violence were not tried reaffirms that in current Iranian politics and justice, some people can act with impunity.

About 20 Law Enforcement Forces officers, including Tehran LEF chief Farhad Nazari, faced charges in the trial, which started in February. From the outset it appeared that they were merely being used as scapegoats for higher-ranking individuals who gave the actual orders and who created the atmosphere in which such brutality and violence is considered an acceptable reaction to political expression.

But Tehran must have forgotten that scape-goating usually requires scapegoats, because all but two of the accused were acquitted, while Farhad Arjomandi and Lieutenant Orudali Badrzadeh were sentenced to two years in jail for breach of order and to 91 days in jail plus a fine for stealing an electric razor. Thirty-four students will receive blood money from the public properties department, IRNA reported on 11 July.

The sentencing surprised observers in Iran. Tehran attorney Nemat Ahmadi told RFE/RL's Persian Service that "I think the court has shown too much leniency. Although 65 percent of his [the police chief's] actions were self-sacrifice in this sacred scene, but because he was present at all time, and was the highest ranking officer, acquittal is unbelievable to me."

Sadeq Zibakalam, a political science professor in Tehran, told RFE/RL's Persian Service that the verdict did not make sense. "What is certain is that tens and hundreds of military personnel entered the university dormitory in military uniform. What is certain is that hundreds of students were beaten and finally, we either have to say that these hundreds of military personnel entered without orders or they went in with a higher ranking officer's order. According to the court's verdict, none of the above took place."

Professor Saeed Rajai Khorasani, however, told RFE/RL's Persian Service that on the basis of the evidence and testimony that was made publicly available during the hearing, he thought the verdict was fair and acceptable.

Others registered disappointment. Ebrahim Sheikh, speaking on behalf of the Office for Strengthening Unity student organization, said it is "very disappointed that such an unjust ruling has been issued by the court. This means that those who were responsible for throwing the university and the country into turmoil for five days have been acquitted today," reported the Iranian Students News Agency.

Sedighe Vasmaghi , a member of the Tehran municipal council, told RFE/RL's Persian Service that the verdict raises questions about Iranian justice. She said that "this (judicial) system is worrisome. Those responsible have to be answerable to these accusations. Did the military enter the dormitory by permission? Who has caused all these damages to the students? Who has caused these injuries? Who has committed the murder in the university?"

As Vasmaghi's questions indicate, the trial may be over, but the case is not closed. Government reports on the university incident describe the participation of individuals in plain-clothes, presumably government agents but possibly members of the hardline Ansar-i Hizbullah pressure group, and this subject was not part of the just-concluded trial. Presiding judge Tabatabai told state radio that "as far as the issue of plain-clothes individuals is concerned, the case remains open. It is being investigated by the 3rd Branch of the Tehran Military Court." He does not know when this trial will start, Tabatabai added, because "the public prosecutor's office has not completed its investigations yet."

A commentary in the 16 March "Iran-i Farda" asked why the issue of the plain-clothes individuals was being ignored. The monthly pointed out that the demonstration that led to the dormitory attack was in fact a reaction to revelations about the serial murders case. Therefore, the men in plain clothes are linked with the serial murders, and although they are mentioned in government reports and in trials, nobody dares go after them. The commentary noted that this issue is "very strange and painful," and it asked, "are the true masters of this country a group of violent plain-clothes subversives?" (Bill Samii)

PROTESTS PERSIST. The final days of June and the first weeks of July were marked by rallies in Tehran, Rasht, Shiraz, Isfahan, and Abadan that occasionally turned violent. Add to this the violent demonstrations that have been occurring across the country since January, and one sees a pattern of instability and unrest as a reaction to Iranian government policies. And the government has usually reacted to the demonstrations repressively or by shifting the blame.

The most dramatic incidents occurred on 8-9 July, when people gathered to mark the annual anniversary of the violent events that were initiated by an assault on a Tehran University dormitory. Initially, 200 students gathered in front of Tehran University, chanted pro-reform slogans, and demanded the release of Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, leader of the Islamic Union of Students and Graduates. This group was attacked by hardline vigilantes. The police stood by until the fighting ended, at which point they arrested some of the wounded students. The Student Movement Coordination Committee for Democracy in Iran reported that Arabic-speaking Lebanese mercenaries were among the hardline forces.

Other citizens joined the student demonstrators in Tehran, and the crowds swelled. The protestors then objected to the poor standard of living. They also objected to President Mohammad Khatami's habitual inaction, chanting "Khatami, Khatami, show your power or resign" and "Khatami, Khatami, this is the final notice." Reuters reported that the Basij Mobilization Forces and the Ansar-i Hizbullah beat up the protestors and then turned them over to waiting police vans.

17 people were arrested in Tabriz, according to Tabriz revolutionary court Najaf Aghazadeh. He added, according to IRNA, that they were "acting under the influence" of RFE/RL and "other mass media aimed at fomenting trouble." Protests in Shiraz and Isfahan were less violent, according to Reuters. And in Rasht, the security forces refused to intervened on behalf of the hardline groups, SMCCDI reported. In Tehran, the more mainstream student organization, the Office for Strengthening Unity, distributed flowers. It distanced itself from the violent incidents.

There were 13 hours of street violence -- groups of people attacked and damaged public buildings -- in Piranshahr near the Iraqi border, state television reported on 5 July. "Following the murder of a 15-year-old youth by an Iraqi criminal, the members of the family of the victim burned the house and car of the murderer in the town of Piranshahr," the report said. Piranshahr is predominantly Kurdish, many of whom are refugees from Iraq. Three days earlier, state television reported that an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officer was killed in Mahabad, a predominantly Kurdish town in Western Azerbaijan Province.

Protests in the southwestern city of Abadan also turned violent on 5 July, according to state television, when a crowd of people gathered outsider the governor's office to object to the salinity of local drinking water. The protestors then broke windows and burned tires, at which point the security forces opened fire, used tear gas, and arrested over 150 people. Hojatoleslam Jami, the local Friday prayer leader, explained on 7 July that "opportunists" were behind the violence. Order was restored when Basij took to the streets, "Kayhan" reported.

And on 27 June, about 3,000 people in Islamshahr, a suburb southwest of Tehran, protested against inadequate social services. The protestors blocked the highway leading to the capital and burned tires. In January, Islamshahr residents also staged demonstrations that turned violent. Other protests against poor social services have occurred in northwestern Alamdar (in April), Shahr-i Rey in Central Province (in March), and southwestern Ramhormoz (in January). 10 July riots in Astaneh Ashrafieh, which "Tehran Times" reported were due to the "interference of police forces and Fire Department staff in a Monday bazaar," may have similar roots.

Many demonstrations this year have been linked with the parliamentary election. Some people were objecting to the rejection of potential candidates before the election (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 14 February 2000). Other demonstrations -- in Bandar Abbas, Minab, Gachsaran, Damavand, Khalkhal, Islamabad-i Gharb, and Tehran -- were objections to the reversal of election results.

Protests against the April press closures were held in Bandar Abbas, Hamedan, Kashan, Mashhad, Sanandaj, and Tehran. There were three days of riots in the northern city of Rasht in April when people objected to Basij efforts to enforce rules of social interaction.

Unpaid workers have held numerous strikes throughout the year. Student groups also have held demonstrations throughout the year. Many of these have related to the continuing imprisonment of their peers since summer 1999. Others, for example those in Qom, Khorramabad, Tehran, and Qazvin, have staged strikes to protest inadequate educational facilities.

There have been reports of unrest in Tabriz throughout the year. These incidents related to ethnic issues, the repression of last July's demonstrations in Tabriz, and the parliamentary election. But these cases, like all the other ones, have been met by denials and/or repression. (Bill Samii)

WHAT NEXT FOR THE CONVICTED JEWS? "Iran today, under the present regime, is the only country in the world where Jews suffer for being Jews," Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel told a 10 July rally in New York against the trial of 13 Iranian Jews on espionage charges. Although sentences were passed on 1 July in the controversial case, with 10 Jews and two Muslims receiving prison sentences, it is far from over. Iranian officials are seeking an international arrest warrant for another suspect in the case, efforts are being made to secure the Jews' release, and condemnation of Iran is continuing in some countries.

Another rally calling for the Jews' release was held in Berlin on 11 July. Michael Friedman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany said that "If Khatami wants to play the liberal and say Iran is on the way to respecting democracy, then we are asking him to reopen the trial and in the meantime release the prisoners who were imprisoned just because they were Jewish," AP reported.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Richard Holbrooke, who said he was speaking on behalf of the White House and State Department, told the New York rally that the trial was "not in accordance with international norms." He went on to say, Reuters reported, that "we hope, we implore, and we demand that that there be a re-examination and a reopening of this process."

That seems unlikely. The day the sentences were passed, state television praised them as "an example of Islamic mercy." And nine days later, the Shiraz Revolutionary Court issued an arrest warrant for another Jew, Eshaq Belanas, and will seek Interpol's help in finding him, IRNA reported. Fars Province judiciary official Hussein Ali Amiri said that Belanas emigrated, possibly to the U.S., about nine years ago. Amiri added that there are other suspects, but he did not identify them.

Chief defense lawyer Ismail Nasseri, meanwhile, has expressed optimism about an appeal. But he also alleged on 13 July that his clients were subject to psychological torture. He explained that "solitary confinement before court hearings is considered a form of torture by Islamic traditions and the constitution has banned torture as a means of getting confessions." Nasseri went on to say that "our clients were held in solitary confinement for long periods during the investigations. This can invalidate their confessions." Nasseri warned that foreign expressions of concern about the case may cause a backlash by Iranian officials.

There are conflicting reports on how outside actors will try to affect the current situation. The conservative Jewish Arutz-7 news service reported on 3 July that Israel and Iran are in touch via a third party, possibly Hizballah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, in order to arrange a pardon. Such a deal may entail the release of Lebanese imprisoned in Israeli jails in exchange for the imprisoned Iranian Jews. Avi Baqar, director general of the Israeli branch of the World Jewish Congress, told the 3 July "Haaretz" that an overt and aggressive campaign will be mounted: "The intention is to put public pressure on the leaders of these countries and on the commercial companies within them, which maintain broad links with Iran, to make these links conditional on a change in attitude toward the jailed Jews. This includes organizing large demonstrations against those governments and companies, to demand action from them."

There is concern that since the danger of death sentences seems to have passed, the Jews' case may be forgotten. An unnamed Israeli government official told "Haaretz" that "we fear that some European countries, for whom economic ties with Iran are of greater concern than the fate of the Jews, will make do with this achievement and regard it as a warrant to go back to business as usual." (Bill Samii)

KHATAMI PLEASED WITH GERMAN TRIP. President Mohammad Khatami said in a 13 July interview with state radio that his recent trip to Germany was a success. He added that "the achievement of this visit is the desire and determination of the two countries to expand relations in all areas." Khatami was particularly pleased with economic developments, such as the increase in Hermes credit risk coverage, from 200 million to 1 billion marks, and the plan to revive a joint Germany-Iran commission. Environmental and cultural issues were discussed, too, and it was decided to hold more discussions on cooperative counter-narcotics efforts..

Germany is already one of Iran's biggest trading partners, but the increase in insurance guarantees may make German firms more willing to invest in Iran: They had been put off by over-regulation, corruption, and political instability. And as long as such a situation persisted, some observers believed that there was little likelihood of major foreign direct investment in Iran.

Shahram Chubin, a regional expert at the Center for Security Policy in Geneva, described the situation in an interview with RFE/RL. He said that much of Iran's economy remains under the monopolistic control of state and quasi-state organizations. These conservative strongholds may resist opening the economy to foreign investment, which might create a more competitive environment and undermine their power. "The difficult issues are transparency, the rule of law, the ability to repatriate profits, and also questions of being able to import material and the rates at which you can do that. All of these are very much under a stranglehold of bureaucratic and even clerical control unwilling to open the Iranian marketplace to real competition."

German firms such as Elenac, Linde, Lurgi, and Krupp are already negotiating to get involved in the Iranian petrochemical market, "Le Figaro" reported on 12 July. And after learning of the new Hermes guarantees, Franz Schosser, Chief Executive Officer of the German Industry and Trade Association, spoke of a "new spring" in bilateral commercial ties, "Handesblatt" reported on 12 July.

Berlin was keen to make sure that Khatami's trip went smoothly. Its Interior Ministry suspended Schengen agreements for visa-free travel so it could prevent exile Iranian oppositionists from entering Germany by sea, air, or land. There also were mass arrests of Iranians in Germany. Khatami was mostly transported via helicopter, even within Berlin, so he could avoid any protestors, AP reported. An earlier trip to Italy was marred by Iranians protests. Several thousand protestors marched through Berlin on 10 July, and a rally demanding the release of 10 Jews recently imprisoned on espionage charges was held in Berlin on 11 July. Although the Mujahedin Khalq Organization tried to organize a 25,000-person rally, only about 3,000 people attended it.

There were efforts to disrupt the trip even before it started. Iranians occupied the German consulate in Amsterdam on 7 July and demanded cancellation of Khatami's visit. Some 500 national and local German lawmakers petitioned their government to cancel the trip, according to AP.

Although the two countries have good ties right now, it has not been entirely smooth sailing in recent years. A hiccup in relations between the two countries came in 1997, after a Berlin court indicted top Iranian leaders of sponsoring the assassination of four Kurdish opposition figures in Berlin's Mykonos restaurant in 1992. Other problems include the two-year imprisonment in Iran of German businessman Helmut Hofer and cases involving Iranian spies in Germany. (Bill Samii)

KHATAMI URGES HIZBALLAH ONWARD. "President [Hojatoleslam Mohammad] Khatami strongly praised Hizballah and the Resistance and renewed his demand for the liberation of all the Arab territories and the return of the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people," according to Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Sadr, who attended a discussion between Khatami and Hizballah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah. Nasrallah arrived in Tehran on 3 July, and meetings with Iran's top officials during his approximately one-week stay clarified Hizballah's future plans and Iran's role in those plans.

Nasrallah described his 8 July meeting with Khatami in Beirut's "Al-Mustaqbal" two days later. He said that "Our views are completely identical on the continuation of the Resistance and the need for weapons to remain in the hands of Hizballah or in the hands of the remaining parties as part of the broad resistance, because Israel will remain a threat to Lebanon's security and stability." The Lebanese cleric added that "the Resistance will continue and we will remain in our positions even after the completion of the withdrawal because a new file will be opened, which is the file of Palestine and holy Jerusalem, which concerns the entire Islamic world."

Nasrallah and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei met on 4 July, according to Iranian state television. Khamenei told Nasrallah that Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon is "the first stage of struggle against Zionism," and Hizballah "must maintain its vigilance to pass the next stages to achieve the final victory over the Zionist enemy." Nasrallah "confirmed that struggle against the Zionist regime will continue until the Lebanese occupied lands are liberated and their prisoners are free from Zionist prisons."

Nasrallah also met with Speaker of Parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Mahdavi-Karrubi, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps chief Yahya Rahim-Safavi, Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, and Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi.

Various sources have claimed that Hizballah still has hostile intentions towards Israel, possibly acting in concert with HAMAS, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Ahmad Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command (PFLP-GC). Palestinian sources told the 8 July "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that Hizballah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad are working together to form a "Secret Islamic Revolutionary Army" (al-jaysh al-thawri al-sirri al-Islami), and this is being organized by Iran. Increasing reports of Hizballah preparations for a military confrontation were recounted by Israeli state radio on 5 July. And a "most senior defense source" said that Hizballah is collecting intelligence and making other preparations, although it will not act before the upcoming Lebanese parliamentary elections, "Maariv" reported on 3 July. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN AND CAMP DAVID. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi described Iran's opposition to the meeting between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at Camp David, Maryland, saying that "Iran views such a meeting as not being in the interest of Palestine." IRNA reported on 11 July. Assefi explained that "From the very beginning, the negotiations have just imposed Israeli demands on the Palestinian side and Iran opposes such a summit which is not in the interest of Palestine." Assefi described Tehran's position: "In Iran's view, vindicating full rights of Palestinian people, the right to determine their own fate and the right of the Palestinians for repatriation and restore the sovereignty of Palestine with its capital in Holy Qods are the only way to restore stability and put an end to the crisis in the region."

Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi discussed the Iranian position on the peace process in an interview published by London's "Al-Hayah" on 11 July. "We have never considered these negotiations just. We do not think that they can ensure the full rights of the Palestinian people and other countries. Resisting the occupation can ensure this." Asked about Palestinian Islamic movements opposed to the peace process, Kharrazi said that "we extend moral and political support. We consider resistance and struggle a legitimate right of the Palestinians in order to obtain their rights."

"Iran Daily" -- the pro-Khatami Islamic Republic News Agency's English-language publication -- commented on 13 July that another Camp David treaty could cause splits within the Palestinian community and would be harmful to the Palestinian cause. The daily's commentary warned that Barak will not compromise, and the U.S. "is totally biased in favor of Israel and hence Washington is not a neutral party in the Camp David Summit.."

"Kayhan International," a daily that is linked with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's office, noted that the Camp David meeting will be unproductive due to Israeli intransigence. The daily advised that Arafat "should learn from the experience of the Lebanese Hizbullah that 'resistance' to the Zionists is the only sure victory for the Palestinians." (Bill Samii)

NUCLEAR ALLEGATIONS PROTESTED. President Mohammad Khatami said at a 6 July meeting in Yasuj that "Iran is the front runner of nuclear disarmament," state television reported. State radio, furthermore, condemned on 2 July allegations by German intelligence chief August Hanning that Iran is working on a secret program to enrich uranium for use in weapons. One day before Khatami's comment, Kazakhstan security forces detained three people who were smuggling un-enriched Uranium-235, which "was expected to be brought to Afghanistan and then, ... to Iran," Moscow's NTV reported. In late-April 2000 and in September 1999, uranium shipments bound for Iran were intercepted in Georgia. And in early-April 2000, Uzbek customs officers intercepted a shipment of radioactive materials destined for Kazakhstan in an Iranian truck driven by an Iranian citizen (this shipment may have been destined for Pakistan, "Izvestiya" reported on 18 April). (Bill Samii)

COMPETITION AMONG SOUTH AMERICAN HIZBALLAH RESUMES. There are new reports about the conflict among different Shia organizations in the tri-border region of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. Concern was renewed when Sheikh Akram Ahmad Barakat (brother of Assad Ahmad Barakat, the alleged Hizballah military chief in the tri-border area), interviewed Said Mohammad Fahs, leader of the Ciudad del Este Islamic Education Center and the local Shia mosque. Contending that Fahs was not teaching correctly, Barakat has opened a new Islamic center which is supposedly connected with Hizballah, Asuncion's "ABC Color" reported on 12 July. Akram Barakat is hiding in Brazil, because Paraguayan anti-terror forces are operating near Ciudad del Este. "Regional intelligence sources have identified Sheikh Akram Ahmad Barakat, who resides in Iran, as a kind of roving Iranian ambassador for Latin America," ABC Color reported. Earlier this year Fahs claimed that his opponents were trying to blackmail him (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 10 January 2000), and last November he was shot by unidentified gunmen, according to London's "Al-Sharq al-Awsat." (Bill Samii)