24 July 2000, Volume 3, Number 28
TEHRAN'S LEAST FAVORITE RADIO STATION. RFE/RL's reputation as an objective source of news led some Iranians to attack its broadcasts to Iran even before they started in late-1998. And now, as Iran faces increasing disquiet over its repressive policies, RFE/RL's Persian Service has been subject to mounting criticism. Specifically, Iran's hardline elements are trying to discredit those who want to change the system, as well as reform-oriented publications, by linking them with RFE/RL.
Persian Service director Steve Fairbanks described how the hardliners use RFE/RL against their political opponents. "We are painted falsely as anti-Islamic, but the real purpose of these charges is to show the reformists to be anti-Iran stooges of the foreign plotters. The reformists are accused of parroting many of the pro-democracy ideas that run through our programs, and so the ideas themselves are tarred as part of an evil Western plot to bring down the regime."
Such accusations against RFE/RL were revived by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's 9 July speech to state officials, which was broadcast several times. "A comprehensive American plan was hatched in order to topple the Islamic Republic state. All aspects of this plan were evaluated in advance. The plan is the modified version of the plot which toppled the former Soviet Union. They intend to implement the same plot in Iran. This is the enemy's objective." It was not a military campaign that got the Soviets, Khamenei explained, "they launched a media campaign. In other words, they implemented their plan via propaganda posters, placards, newspapers, films and the radio waves in particular. If one were to calculate the role of each medium, one would realize that the news media and cultural apparatus played the greatest role."
Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani reiterated this theme in the 14 July Friday prayer sermon, which was broadcast to the nation.
Hardline Iranian sources subsequently attacked RFE/RL's Persian broadcasts as well as the reformist newspapers. "Kayhan" (on 10 July) and "Resalat" (on 11 and 12 July) claimed that RFE/RL's broadcasts were part of a plan to cause chaos in Iran, and the newspapers were part of it. "Was it merely an accident when there was suddenly a deluge of newspapers claiming to champion the cause of reforms - of course, of their American type - inundated the newsagents all over our towns and cities? Was it merely an accident when these newspapers began to relay the utterances of the so-called Radio Liberty, or the BBC and Israeli radio stations, who in turn, reciprocated the favor and gave extensive coverage to the articles and analyses publishes by these newspapers?"
"Resalat" claimed, "The so-called 'Radio Azadi,' which has been operating during the past few years on the approval of the American Congress, on the threshold of 18th Tir [8 July anniversary of last year's attack at Tehran University] called on domestic reformists under its protection to stage riots on that day. It is more than certain that if you ask the trouble makers who enticed them to create trouble on the anniversary of 18th Tir, they will reply that 'Radio Azadi' spurred them to stage those riots." The daily advocated jamming foreign broadcasts, something which Tehran did in the run-up to the February parliamentary elections.
Conspiratorial accusations about an RFE/RL role in Iranian unrest or about a grand plan to cause chaos across the country reflect the regime's inability to address its own shortcomings. But as Fairbanks points out, "these commentaries are dramatic evidence of RFE/RL's impact, and it is safe to say that the wilder the accusations by the conservatives get, the more our listenership increases."
Nor have the accusations damaged RFE/RL's popularity. The Persian Service's economic reports are frequently used as a source of information by the print media. The government's closure of most of the reformist publications in recent months, furthermore, has only increased public interest in the broadcasts by radio stations like RFE/RL, with shopkeepers telling "Kar va Kargar" in May that demand for short-wave receivers had increased sharply. (Bill Samii)
GUARDIANS COUNCIL MAY BE MORE ACCOUNTABLE. In an 18 July meeting marking the twentieth anniversary of the creation of the Guardians Council -- a 12-member body charged with ensuring the compatibility of legislation with Islam, with vetting candidates for elected office, and with ratifying the election results -- Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remarked that the Council is the most important institution in protecting the Islamic nature of the Iranian system. Khamenei said the Council is duty-bound to "prevent infiltration of impure elements into pillars of the system," IRNA and "Iran" reported, and he attacked questions about the vetting system as "political lobbying."
Traditionally, defenders of the Council have justified its legislative decisions by saying that it is defending Islam and the revolution, that the public cannot make appropriate judgements, and that it was only answerable to Imam Khomeini and now to the Supreme Leader. So Khamenei's comments, which resemble earlier ones he and the hardliners have made, support the expectation that the Guardians Council will act as a brake on efforts to bring reformists into the government and to reform the law. But other things he said, as well as other news about the Council, suggest that it may be more accountable and may act more transparently in the future.
In late-June "Tehran Times" reported that the Council is about to under-go a restructuring into three departments. One would deal with elections, the other with logistics, and the third department would be a research center. During his 18 July speech, Khamenei said that the research center would be a valuable resource for the entire community. But he also called on the Council to "provide firm justifications" for its legislative decisions, which suggests greater accountability, rather than the old excuses.
There appears to be little reason for hope of greater transparency -- other than the belief that indications about accountability might apply here also. In the period surrounding the parliamentary election, with debates about candidate rejections, Council spokesmen did describe reasons for rejections in statistical terms and they specified the problems they found in different constituencies (ex: mismarked ballots, unsealed ballot boxes). Until this year, Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati would simply respond that rejected candidates had "full files" and he would refuse to disclose any actual evidence, even if the candidates requested this.
Jannati's second Friday Prayer sermon on 21 July also indicated that greater transparency would not be readily forthcoming. He explained that the whole reason for having the Council ratify the election results is to avoid creation of "rubber-stamp" parliaments, and he warned that outside pressure would be ineffective, saying that "the Guardians Council is independent and firm and will stand up to anyone who tries to violate the elections. " Jannati made it clear that outside opinion on the issue is irrelevant: "The Guardians Council never asked for any favor from anyone or any source. The 20-year record of the Guardians Council is before you and you can judge it for yourself. (Bill Samii)
WHAT ABOUT THE BAHAIS? "I am proud of being president of all Iranians,..., and of defending rights of them all; I hope that problems, if any, would be eliminated gradually," President Mohammad Khatami said on 17 July, according to IRNA. Khatami went on to say there should be no problems between the three main monotheistic religions -- which the Iranian constitution recognizes -- and any disputes are imposed from without. Two days earlier, Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Ataollah Mohajerani said that his ministry is "trying to secure the rights of all the religious minorities in Iran," IRNA reported.
Such claims renews questions about official Iranian treatment of the Bahai minority. Douglas Samimi-Moore, spokesman for the Bahai International Community, said in the 18 July "Jerusalem Post" that more than 200 Iranian Bahais have been executed in the past 20 years. Many others are imprisoned and some face execution. Moore said that "There haven't been any recent crackdowns, but there was an execution of one of our members as recently as late-1998."
The Bahai faith is not recognized in Iran, and it appears that the Iranian government is trying to destroy their community. Their group meetings, often held in private homes and offices, are curtailed. They are sometimes offered relief from persecution if they recant their faith. Their marriages are not recognized by the government, leaving the women open to charges of prostitution. Children of Bahai marriages are regarded as illegitimate and are denied inheritance rights. Their properties are confiscated. Bahais are not allowed to bury their dead in keeping with their religious tradition, and many Bahai gravesites have been confiscated, desecrated, or destroyed. Bahais rarely receive compensation for injury or criminal victimization, and they are prohibited from government employment. Because the Bahai headquarters is in Israel, and the Bahais' contribution go for the support of this facility, they are sometimes charged with being supporters of Israel and Zionist spies.
Public and private universities will not admit Bahai students, and a Bahai Open University was founded shortly after the Islamic Revolution. This facility employed Bahai faculty, many of whom had been dismissed from other teaching positions by the government. In September 1998, the authorities began a nationwide operation to disrupt the Bahai Open University. There were raids in at least 14 different cities, faculty members were arrested, and books, papers, and furniture were destroyed or confiscated. (Bill Samii)
INSUFFICIENT FUNDING FOR EASTERN SECURITY MEASURES. Iran's border with Afghanistan reportedly was sealed in an effort to prevent smuggling and general banditry during Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari's visit to eastern Khorasan Province. Musavi-Lari stated that 100 kilometers of the eastern border would be protected with barbed wire and 200 kilometers would be equipped with electronic devices, IRNA reported on 12 July, and he said that the area was supplied recently with more ground fortifications, watchtowers, and radar. Musavi-Lari added that the parliament has earmarked 200 billion rials (about $114 million) for the security measures.
Some 350 billion rials (about $200 million) is needed to seal the borders completely, Deputy Interior Minister for Security Gholamhussein Bolandian said on the same day and in the same province, according to IRNA. Tehran estimated in January that it had already spent $600 million on the creation of static defenses.
The security situation in Khorasan Province is so bad that villagers in Tayyebad told state broadcasting on 4 July that just grazing their sheep and irrigating their farmlands has become very dangerous. The Basij Resistance Forces in the province were given additional powers, and a plan to increase their bases was approved by the Supreme National Security Council, state television reported on 7 July. Six days later, state television announced that the Basij would be armed. (Bill Samii)
WHO'S HELPING BUILD IRAN'S MISSILES? The second test of Iran's 1,200-kilometer-range Shihab-3 missile, held on 15 July according to state television, has exacerbated concerns of some regional and Western observers. Not surprisingly, Tehran has rejected these concerns, but the test revives questions about who is helping develop Iran's missile program and about the future of regional counter-proliferation.
U.S. State Department spokesman Phil Reeker said on 17 July that the missile test was indicative of a "serious threat to the region and to U.S. nonproliferation interests." He added that "the tests show Iran is continuing aggressive efforts to develop missiles more capable than the existing 300 - and 500-kilometer Scuds that they have." Turkish Foreign Ministry officials said that Ankara is closely monitoring developments, Ankara's TRT television reported on 17 July.
The greatest expressions of concern originated in Israel. Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz said on 16 July that "The Iranians are making an effort not only to produce missiles but also to achieve non-conventional capabilities. This combination constitutes a threat to Israel and to all the countries within a 1,200-km radius of Tehran." Defense Ministry Director General Amos Yaron, however, cautioned that there is a difference between intentions and capabilities. He and other Israeli officials tried to reassure the public, saying that defensive systems like the Arrow missile can respond to such a threat fairly well. ("The Arrow anti-missile system Israel is currently producing cannot protect against Iran's advanced Shihab-3 ballistic missiles, according to internal deliberations at high levels of the defense establishment," Tel Aviv's "Haaretz" reported on 12 March.)
On the day of the missile test, an official from Iran's Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics told state radio that "the test was carried out within the framework of the current projects of the defense industry and it should, in no way, pose a threat to any other country." State television repeated the next day that the missile is defensive. And after hearing the American and Israeli reactions, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi asked "how is it that the Zionist regime can equip itself with various kinds of weapons including weapons of mass destruction, but regional states should not have weapons to defend themselves?" ("The Sunday Times" reported in mid-June that Israel had test launched cruise missiles from one of its German Dolphin-class diesel-electric submarines, but Deputy Defense Minister Efraim Sne denied the report in an interview with the 9 July "Haaretz.")
Foreign observers expected development of the Shihab-3 to take longer, leading to speculation that Iran's missile program got help from abroad. The "Far Eastern Economic Review" reported in its 20 July issue that Defense Minister Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani had met with his Chinese counterpart in Peking in late-June, arriving with President Khatami's delegation but staying on for two more days. Although the content of the discussions was not known, a "senior U.S. official" said there is reason for concern because, "We have seen China continue to sell equipment like guidance systems, gyroscopes, accelerometers, specialty steel and other technology to Iran, that could enable it, with the help of Russian scientists, to build long-range missiles." Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao denied reports that China was helping Iran's missile program, AFP reported on 18 July.
Reports of Russian involvement also continue. "Izvestiya" reported on 18 July that "the Shihab-3 is an improved modification of a North Korean missile," and it "has been developed using the latest Russian technology (and possibly with the involvement of Russian specialists)." (Israeli officials had complained that the White House was not doing enough to stop Russian assistance to Iran's missile program, "Haaretz" reported on 17 March.)
The Shihab -3 missile is modeled on the North Korean No Dong missile, but Pyongyang is demanding compensation from the U.S. if its export of missiles to "states of concern" (countries formerly known as rogue states) is to end. During three days of talks in Kuala Lumpur in the second week of July, North Korean diplomat Kim Myong Gil said that exports and compensation are "inseparable," Kyodo news agency reported.
External actors' contributions notwithstanding, there is little hope for ending proliferation in the Persian Gulf region or in the Middle East more generally. Anthony Cordesman, Senior Fellow for Strategic Assessment at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, told a Congressional committee in March that several factors shape regional proliferation. These include a "covert arms race" between Iran and Iraq; they cannot trust each other or arms control agreements, so for them "proliferation is the only current answer to proliferation." Aside from their ambitions for regional power, furthermore, neither Iran nor Iraq trust their neighbors or accept America's regional role.
Cordesman added that international arms control agreements do not favor Iran (or Iraq) and in reality create "a discriminatory barrier." He explained: "For Iran and Iraq, the only way out is a 'liar's contest' in which they trade claims to have not proliferated for access to the dual-use technology they need to proliferate. Yes, they lie, cheat, and steal. So might we in their place. So did our ally Israel during its efforts to obtain its missiles and nuclear weapons. In this region, diplomacy and arms control are an extension of war by other means." Cordesman conceded that his assessment of the future of counter-proliferation in the Persian Gulf region was pessimistic, but, "in the Middle East, a 'pessimist' is simply an 'optimist' with practical experience." (Bill Samii)
TEHRAN INDIFFERENT ON CHECHNYA... "As long as I live, I will tell people how they 'brought order,' what those Russians brought to our republic, our people, how they 'liberated' us," according to Aset Chadayeva, Muslim survivor of a February massacre in Chechnya. Chadayeva described the four-day bombing of her village before Russian troops attacked, as well as the subsequent casualties and atrocities, in an interview with the 11 July "Moscow Times." Because of this situation, civilians have been fleeing to the relative safety of Ingushetia. Yet Iran, Chechnya's largest Muslim neighbor, is doing nothing other than describing the conflict as an internal Russian matter and providing some humanitarian assistance.
This approach continues to cause irritation among the Chechen leadership. Former Chechen president Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev accused Iran of "having betrayed the interests of the Moslem world," because it does not support the Chechen cause. He told Qatar's Al-Jazira television on 6 July that "all the Moslem countries should participate in the Chechen jihad, rendering it both military and humanitarian support."
Reacting to frequent Iranian statements that the war in Chechnya is Russia's "internal affair," Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev asked Tehran, "is this what the great Imam Khomeini bequeathed to you?" Basayev's open letter to the Iranian leadership asked several other questions, Kavkaz-Tsentr news agency reported in June. "Since when have the infidels become closer to you than the Muslims?" "Who released you from Jihad?" "Why is the murder of Muslims an internal affair for the infidels? "If Ichkeria [Chechnya] is Russia's internal affair, why is Iran not the USA's internal affair? "Is it not better to be terrorists in the eyes of the infidels that hypocrites in the eyes of God?"
The most pointed question was the last one: "Iran is the closest neighbor of the Caucasus and Chechnya. Is it not your direct duty before God...in accordance with Sharia, to take part in Jihad and support the Muslims waging war for Islam?"
Basayev's letter underlines Tehran's indifference to the plight of its co-religionists in Chechnya. At the same time, Tehran's inaction demonstrates the inaccuracy of Moscow's efforts to paint the Chechen war as a conflict against militant international Islam under the generic and inaccurately used rubric of "Wahhabism." As indicated in a recent RFE/RL analysis, Moscow tried to have the Council of Russian Muftis ban Wahhabism, but it refused to do so because the term was inadequately defined. (Bill Samii)
...BUT INTERESTED IN AZERBAIJAN... There are continuing indications, however, that Iran has ambitions towards the predominantly-Shia Republic of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani border troops have repeatedly complained about Iranian violations of their territorial waters and airspace, Baku's ANS television reported on 21 July. They claimed that on 14 July Iranian vessels destroyed buoys marking the Azerbaijani-Iranian maritime border, and on the next two days Iranian aircraft entered Azerbaijani airspace to see if the buoys had been restored.
Turkic nationalists in Tabriz are founding a political party which probably will be known as Gunesh (Sun), Baku's "Yeni Musavat" reported on 2 July. This organization will have Iranian Justice Ministry approval.
Tehran's support for Azerbaijani dissidents also is causing problems. Azerbaijan's President Heidar Aliev, during an official visit to Austria, requested assistance in the extradition of Mahir Javadov, whose brother was involved in a coup attempt in Azerbaijan in the mid-1990s and who has established an anti-Aliyev organization himself, from Tehran to Baku, "Uch Nogta" reported on 6 July. Although Javadov is an Austrian citizen, he resides in Tehran. Javadov recently told "Yeni Musavat" that "There is no respect for Aliyev here....Iran is obliged to invite him...Aliyev has committed many crimes....This government must be fought as a foreign occupier."
More potentially disturbing are reports carried by Tabriz's conservative papers. The "Fajr-i Azerbaijan" daily reported on 6 May that the Muslims of the Caucasus always yearned to be part of Iran, and "after the collapse of the Soviet Union, their thirst to return to the main body of the Islamic Republic of Iran and to be annexed to their motherland has intensified even more." The daily went on to say that "thousands" are trying to cross the border into Iran, others have voiced their desire for annexation, "Iran would like to answer positively to this call," and "our nation wishes that in a not very far future their desire and call will be answered, and that we will all live under one flag."
The same month, Tabriz newspapers carried several reports advocating unity and theocracy. Superficially, such reports can be seen as a reaction to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's calls for unity and an end to factionalism. But one can also see such reports as a call for unity between people to the north and the south of the current border. On 18 May, "Fajr-i Azerbaijan" reported that "the people of Tabriz said the Supreme Leader's wise and enlightening words strengthen a sense of unity and solidarity among people and officials." Hojatoleslam Seyyed Mohammad Reza Mirtajedini, head of the provincial Islamic Publicity Organization, told the 17 May "Payam-i No" that the Supreme Leader was the "pivot of national unity" and "Guardianship of the Supreme Jurisconsult is the fundamental pillar of the system." Tabriz Azad University lecturer Hassan Alipur told the 4 May "Fajr-i Azerbaijan" that "the people's massive participation in [the 23 May 1997] elections was a stamp of approval and support for the guardianship of the spiritual leader and the Islamic government in Iran." (Bill Samii)
...AND ESPECIALLY ARMENIA. Tehran's interest in ties with Armenia is more overt than its interest in Azerbaijan but that appears to be because Yerevan reciprocates Tehran's feelings. The interests of the two countries were seen in recent reports about three subjects: Greece-Iran-Armenia trilateral discussions, a gas pipeline from Iran to Armenia, and religio-cultural issues. There was just one slight problem.
In the third week of July, foreign ministry officials from Greece, Armenia, and Iran met in Tehran to discuss trilateral cooperation, which "is based on common interests and bonds among the three countries and is not against any states," Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi told IRNA on 18 July. Kharrazi said the trilateral grouping could maintain collective security and stability in the region. (Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisyan met with Iranian Ambassador Mohammad Farhad Koleini in late-May, Snark reported, but the subject of their discussions was not disclosed.) Armenian Transport and Communication Ministry adviser David Rostomian said that establishment of a transit telephone cable between the three countries is another priority, Armenpress reported in mid June. He said a fiber optic cable has been laid to Meghri, a 150 kilometer section is to be built in Iran, and the cable will also connect with Novorossiysk and then Europe.
A trilateral meeting between the European Union, Armenia, and Iran was held in Yerevan in the third week of July to discuss construction of a gas pipeline from Iran to Armenia, completion of which has been delayed due to financial shortfalls. Participants in the meetings stressed that the pipeline is necessary to provide an alternative energy supply to the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant, which is still in use although it is built on a seismic fault line. Armenian Prime Minister Andranik Markaryan also mentioned the possibility of building an oil pipeline from Iran and an oil processing plant in the border town of Meghri.
At this trilateral meeting, Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Hussein Adeli called for increased cooperation in the transportation sphere, Noyan-Tapan reported on 14 July, and he recommended Armenian government efforts in Meghri to encourage Iranians to invest in local infrastructure and tourism projects. President Robert Kocharian also expressed interest in improved transport cooperation when an Iranian delegation led by Roads and Transport Minister Mahmud Hojjati-Najafabadi visited Yerevan in June.
Religio-cultural issues are also important, because of Iran's approximately 200,000-strong Armenian minority. President Mohammad Khatami met with His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of the Holy See of Cilicia, in Tehran on 17 July. Khatami told his visitor that the "divine religions are not in conflict with each other in nature," described "plots hatched to remove unity through provocation of religious differences," and said that "the community of Armenians in Iran enjoy all civil and political rights and are well -organized," IRNA reported. Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Ataollah Mohajerani met with Aram I on 15 July.
Mohajerani met in Tehran with Armenia's Culture, Youth, and Sports Minister Roland Sharoyan on 18 June and described the renovation of St. Stephanos and St. Tadeus churches in northern Iran. Mohajerani also expressed his government's willingness to assist in increasing Persian language instruction in Armenia. The Iranian government has established the Mihr cultural club in Yerevan, Armenpress reported in July.
A slight blemish appeared in relations between Tehran and Yerevan when Iranian Ambassador Koleini was beaten up at the Yerevan airport in early-June. According to ITAR-TASS, Koleini got off his airplane during a delay, at which point a "vigilant security guard" attacked him. Armenian Prime Minister Markaryan apologized to Koleini on 22 June, IRNA reported. Subsequently, according to an unconfirmed Mediamax report on 27 June, Armenian ambassador to Iran Gegam Garibdzhanyan was held up at the border because his documents were not in order, but the Armenian Foreign Ministry denied this. (Bill Samii)