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Iran Report: August 7, 2000

7 August 2000, Volume 3, Number 30

PRESS DEBATE POSTPONED INDEFINITELY. The recent election of a parliament considered to be predominantly reformist in Iran brought expectations of increased openness in the media. And after the new parliament was sworn in at the end of May, its new speaker, Hojatoleslam Mehdi Mahdavi-Karrubi, stated that the first item on the agenda would be a review of the recently-enacted restrictive press law. A debate on the press law was expected to start on 6 August, with IRNA describing "the amendment to the press law which is intended to ensure freedoms for a society which is placing heavier emphasis on civil liberties."

But in Iran's political system, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has veto power over all issues, and he exercised it on the press law debate. In a letter read out to the parliament on 6 August, he warned that "Should the enemies of Islam, the revolution and the Islamic system take over or infiltrate the press, a great danger would threaten the security, unity and the faith of the people and, therefore, I cannot allow myself and other officials to keep quiet in respect of this crucial issue." Khamenei went on to say that "The current [press] law, to a degree, has been able to prevent the appearing of this great calamity, and [therefore], its interpretation [amendment] and similar actions that have been anticipated by the Majlis committee are not legitimate and not in the interest of the country and the system."

A total of 23 publications have been closed since April, the most recent ones being the weekly "Tavana" for publishing a caricature of the president and the Zahedan weekly "Ruzdaran" for insulting a municipal official. In the last week, furthermore, the Press Supervisory Board issued warnings to several weeklies--"Cinema Va Varzesh," "Golbang-i Gilan," "Peyk-i Azadi," "Setari-yi Soheyl," "Rokhsat-i Pahlevan," "Alborz," "Afkar," "Shakhis," "Bashir," "Milad," "Hod Hod," "Neda-yi Iran," "Ayeneh," "Imad"--and the monthly "Khavaran." The publications were warned, "Bahar" reported on 1 August, for publishing pictures and articles about "the Satanic regime's movie stars," giving excessive attention to Western and Indian actors, printing sensational headlines, and disregarding government guidelines.

Trials of journalists are continuing, too. Ali Akbarzadeh, managing editor of Tabriz's weekly "Payam-i No," was summoned by the provincial Justice Department on 30 July. Mohammad Reza Yazdanpanah, publisher of the banned daily "Azad," was convicted for press violations on 1 August but his sentence was commuted.

Reformists hoped to reverse this trend by amending the press law, and when Khamenei's letter eliminated such a possibility, they were outraged. Scuffles broke out in the chamber, and there was a walkout. Mashhad representative Ali Tajernia explained, according to IRNA, "Since amendments to the press law was listed in today's Majlis agenda and presiding board excluded it, the MPs walked out of the session to show their protest."

Karrubi reacted by reminding the protestors that the Supreme Leader's action was legally permissible. As he later told state radio, "The constitution emphasizes the absolute rule of the Jurisconsult [Vilayat-i Motlaq] and this is how it is. And, you voted for it."

Khamenei's action was not unexpected. He had accused reformist journalists of treason and of harming the national interest during a speech at the end of July. And in early July, senior seminarians in Qom had expressed their concern about efforts to amend the press law. (Bill Samii)

TRADITION AND POLITICS AGAINST WOMEN. Several recent reports have suggested that Iranian women may see their legal and social status improved. That would be welcome news. But if the measures involved are considered either individually or against the spectrum of all women's issues in Iran, then there unfortunately is relatively little reason for optimism.

On 5 August, Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari appointed Rahmat Ruhani-Sarvestani as district governor of Sarvestan region in Fars Province. It is the first time since the 1979 revolution that a woman has served in such a position. On 1 August, religious authorities announced that women could lead Friday Prayers in all-female congregations. Karaj Education Ministry official Ali-Asqar Nuri said this would encourage girls to pay attention to prayers, according to IRNA. Several weeks earlier, state television announced that Iran's first female firefighters were being trained and that 400 women were being prepared at the Law Enforcement Force training center for employment in Tehran and its suburbs.

Moreover, in July, the authorities said that girls up to the fifth grade could wear colors other than black, brown, or dark blue to school. They must still, however, wear so-called "Islamic clothing," such as the smock-like manteau that falls below their knees, trousers, and a hood or scarf that covers their hair. And the Education Ministry announced on 1 August that paramilitary training would be mandatory for all schoolgirls, with the aim of "improving the health of girls going through puberty and giving them more opportunities to be a part of social and cultural life," according to IRNA.

Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi announced on 31 July that judges should avoid imprisoning women as much possible, because "imprisonment is considered the last option in the Islamic punishment system." But this statement may have more to do with a desire to avoid overcrowding in prisons than with anything else: On 24 July Hojatoleslam Ezzatollah Moaei-Nia, deputy chief of the Prisons Organization, said that one person was incarcerated every 59 seconds in the year between March 1999 and March 2000. Incarcerations outnumber releases, he said, and a 2.1 trillion rials ($1.2 billion at the official exchange rate) budget is needed to build the necessary facilities.

And on 25 July, Shahrudi said that judicial procedures used in family courts should be reviewed because they are disadvantageous to women. He explained that "This has nothing to do with Islamic jurisprudence but rather originated from the unhealthy norms prevailing in our society." But there are still no female judges. Ayatollah Mohammad Musavi-Bojnurdi recently said restrictions against female judgeships should be eliminated, but Ayatollah Nasser Makarem-Shirazi said women could act only as court advisers. Iranian women's groups point out that women already can serve in the cabinet or parliament, according to analyst Sadeq Saba, and there were female judges during the previous monarchy, which ended in 1979.

President Mohammad Khatami, who had a great deal of support from female voters in 1997, seems well aware that the situation faced by the female population is not ideal. In a message to a mid-July seminar on the "Status of Women in Islam," he expressed regret "that some injustices are being done to women across the globe in the name of traditions, culture, and even in the name of religion."

Yet these traditions and interpretations of religion explain Tehran's attitudes at June's Special Session on Women at the UN General Assembly. Discussing the relevant documents and women's issues generally before the UN meeting, Ayatollah Makarem-Shirazi warned against domestic and foreign attempts to impose Western culture. Asked if Iran should accept the UN documents if Iran's conditions are included, Makarem-Shirazi said that "it is religiously prohibited."

Afterwards, Tehran only supported the final document "with reservations." Ambassador to the UN Hadi Nejad Husseinian told the Special Session on Women that Tehran is not committed to the concepts in the document that run counter to Islamic values or Iran's constitution. He added that Iran sees gender equity "in the context of Islamic principles." And, Ayatollah Makarem-Shirazi said two weeks later that "it is religiously forbidden to adhere to these documents."

A look at what is seen as women's legislation--calculation of dowry, children's custody, enforced guardianship, determination of women's suffering and guilt in divorce cases--and at the parliament's record also is instructive. Parliamentarians Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi and Nafiseh Fayyaz-Bakhsh explained that they and other female parliamentarians were approached often by women who complained about their inability to obtain justice. So when it came to such issues, the women in parliament worked ultra-factionally to have the new legislation approved.

Fayyaz-Bakhsh, who is the only woman on the Judicial Committee, told "Hamshahri" in late-June that this was problematic from the outset. "Reforming the civil law is an extremely difficult thing to do. This is because some people regard it as being in accordance with the Koran, and unalterable. So, getting approval for proposals to amend the civil law requires going to battle. I myself received the most abusive and ugly words because of my insistence on proposals of this kind, and my support for them." And even after the Guardians Council approved the legislation, judges would not comply with the laws, either intentionally or out of ignorance.

The previous parliament considered 23 pieces of women's rights legislation. The new parliament has fewer women, but they are more closely linked with each other and with the majority faction, a development that has created expectations that they will have less difficulty in getting their laws passed. But because the parliament's leadership is no longer conservative, securing the Guardians Council's approval on the legislation may be more difficult. (Bill Samii)

ACCELERATED APPEALS FOR JAILED JEWS. Fars Province Judiciary chief Hojatoleslam Hussein Ali Amiri said at the end of July that the appeal in the case of the 10 Iranian Jews convicted on espionage charges will be heard on an accelerated schedule and that the case will take precedence over any others. Chief defense lawyer Ismail Nasseri told RFE/RL's Persian Service on 30 July that this is an unusual step, but taking a case out of turn is among the court's prerogatives. Asked when he expected a decision on the appeal, Nasseri responded that, "The way we heard it from his excellency Mr. Amiri, by the end of this month [mid-August] the appeals court decision will be announced."

The length of the sentences passed on 1 July varies, with 13-year prison terms for Hamid Teflin and Asher Zadmehr, down to a four-year sentence for Ramin Nematizadeh. Two of the Muslim defendants received two-year sentences. Nasseri told RFE/RL's Persian Service that he was optimistic about reductions in some of the sentences, but he would not venture any predictions.

Nasseri explained that the appeals court normally has two judges. If they achieve unanimity on an appeal, they will announce that decision, but if they fail to do so, a third judge will be called in and the majority will carry the decision. Amiri had announced previously that three judges will hear the appeal, and Nasseri said this was more favorable for the defendants.

U.S. President Bill Clinton, meanwhile, told the World Jewish Congress that his administration is doing its utmost to help secure the prisoners' release. In a 13 July letter to the WJC, he wrote "Please be assured that my administration has pressed every foreign government that carries weight in Tehran to take up this case with the Iranians and I have personally raised the issue with any head of state I believe can be of help in this matter." WJC Executive Director Elan Steinberg said that his organization has asked France, Germany, Great Britain, and the Netherlands to intercede, Reuters reported on 28 July. And Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said that he discussed the 10 Jews' fate during his visit to Tehran from 3-13 July. (Bill Samii)

CHRISTIANS IN IRAN OFTEN MISTREATED. His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of the Holy See of Cilicia, "lauded" Iranian officials on 30 July for "safeguarding religious freedoms for ethnic minorities living in the country," according to IRNA. A day later, he said that "Iran has never believed in discrimination against different religions." Indeed, on 29 July Aram I led a prayer ceremony attended by 10,000 people at the 1,300-year-old Black Church in West Azerbaijan Province, in the culmination of an annual pilgrimage that attracts Armenian Orthodox Christians from around the world. The approximately 200,000 ethnic Armenians in Iran face relatively few state-imposed problems, and parliamentary seats for Armenian representatives are constitutionally guaranteed. "Armenians in Iran had certain problems with their rights in the past, but today we can consider them solved," Aram I told a 1 August press conference.

In sharp contrast to the 90 percent of Iran's Christians who belong to ethnically-linked churches, such as Armenians or Assyrians, most Protestants in Iran face serious problems. Shortly after the 1979 revolution, Episcopal (Anglican) church property was confiscated, several pastors were arrested, and church leaders and their families were physically attacked. The son of Episcopal Bishop Hassan Dehqani-Tafti was shot and killed. The UN special rapporteur on religious intolerance reported in 1996 that the authorities closed churches in Mashhad (1988), Sari (1988), Kermanshah and Ahvaz (1988), Kerman (1992), and Gorgan (1992). Most recently, the bishop of Rochester, Reverend Michael Nazir-Ali, stated in a 29 July letter to the "Guardian" newspaper that Iranian Christians have been the subject of "both judicial sentences and extrajudicial sentences."

Tehran is intolerant towards proselytization by evangelical Christians who conduct services in Persian. Some evangelical churches have been closed by the authorities, while others can meet only on Sundays. The authorities also pressure evangelical church leaders to sign pledges that they will not evangelize among Muslims or allow Muslims to attend their services.

Bishop Haik Hovsepian Mehr, president of the Council of Evangelical Ministers of Iran and secretary-general of the Church of the Assemblies of God, described the situation in a statement released in late-1993. Until that time, according to Human Rights Watch, many Christian leaders had kept silent due to official pressure and to avoid attracting unwanted attention and government reprisals. Tehran responded by forcing all the Christian leaders "to sign statements attesting to their good treatment in the Islamic Republic." Evangelical churches refused to sign and were dealt with severely. In January 1994, Bishop Hovsepian Mehr was abducted and murdered. In June 1994, another minister, who had been released from prison a few months earlier after being held for 10 years without trial, was killed.

Even now, Iranian Muslims who convert to Christianity are in for a particularly difficult time. The case of Akbar, who was baptized in January 1997, is typical. A year after his clandestine baptism, the police raided a prayer service Akbar was attending and arrested everyone. A month later, he was arrested again, the "Wall Street Journal Europe" reported on 14 July. As news of the arrests spread, Akbar lost his job as a manager with the National Iranian Oil Company, where he earned about $225 month, and he could no longer get the additional work with which he supplemented his income. His wife, Laleh, who also had been baptized, was threatened, and the customers of her sewing business stopped coming. Akbar's daughter, Banafsheh, was threatened at school, and although she passed all her classes, the school would not award her a diploma.

After being warned that all their lives were in danger, Akbar, his family, and three Christian cousins fled to Turkey in July 1999 with the help of a Kurdish smuggler. But even after escaping the country, their problems did not disappear. For when they sought asylum from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, they were confronted with many more difficulties, according to the "Wall Street Journal Europe." Eventually, only part of the family was given leave to enter the U.S. by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The problems faced by Iranian Christians, as well as Bahais, Ismailis, Jews, Sufis, Sunnis, and Zoroastrians, affect Iran's international standing. Using information from the U.S. government, victims, religious groups, and other private organizations, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom investigated reports of violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by various governments. It therefore urged the U.S. State Department, in a 31 July press release, to list Iran as a "Country of Particular Concern" in its forthcoming "Annual Report on International Religious Freedom." (Bill Samii)

SHIA SUPPLICANTS STYMIED BY IRAQ. Some 500 Iranian pilgrims who were unable to visit Shia shrines in Iraq held a demonstration near the border, state radio reported on 1 August. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said a day earlier that Iraqi officials had blocked the pilgrims' access without prior notice and in violation of earlier agreements, and the Kermanshah Province director-general of Hajj and pilgrimage affairs explained on 30 July, "Today, Iraqi officials unexpectedly requested Iranian pilgrims to pay additional entry fees."

Qasr-i Shirin Governor Zakeri told state television that this is the third time the Iraqis have blocked the Iranians' access to Karbala, "because the depth of our people's love for the immaculate imams, peace be upon them, has led the Iraqis to take undue advantage of them. They pick on them and cause problems for the honorable pilgrims."

The Iranian complaints were rejected by an Iraqi Foreign Ministry spokesman, Baghdad radio reported on 5 August, who said, "The decision to stop the Iranians' visit to the holy shrines was an Iranian decision, after Iran failed to fulfill its contractual obligations. He added that "If the Iranian side is unwilling or unable to admit to its people that it is incompetent, or if it lacks the will, then this is its own problem, and it is up to it to solve it."

Those Iranians who manage to make the trip are in for some unpleasantness. The first thing they see at the Khosravi border crossing is three giant portraits of Iraqi President Saddam Husseyn, "Entekhab" reported on 26 June. Iranians are then subject to Iraqi surveillance. The pilgrims also must avoid taking about politics with the locals, they must safeguard their money and possessions against theft, and they should not accept any packages from strangers because they may contain bombs planted by the Mujahedin Khalq Organization.

What is most striking, however, is the poverty and ruin, according to "Entekhab." Iranian cities that were destroyed in the 1980-89 war with Iraq have been rebuilt, but Iraqi cities still have not been rebuilt after suffering more damage when international forces liberated Kuwait. Locals sell any sort of dirt and claim it comes from a shrine, and Iraqi police seek to extort anything from 500 rial to 10,000 rial banknotes from the visitors. (Bill Samii)

MORE UNREST. A sit-in was held at the Mazandaran Province governorate to protest the arrest of villagers who objected to state confiscation of their lands for an environmental project, "Tehran Times" reported on 25 July, and citizens from Kalikash of Minudasht staged a protest against the poor quality of their drinking water. Also, a riot occurred in Qir, Fars Province, after security personnel arrested and then beat up a grocer for leering at a judge's wife. Fars Province Judiciary chief Hojatoleslam Hussein Ali Amiri explained that a misunderstanding led to the incident, because the grocer is crosseyed and just looks like he is leering. (Bill Samii)

A MATTER OF TASTE. A visiting Chinese group performed the first opera in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution on 2 August, according to "Jam-i Jam." The Teheran Symphony Orchestra is allowed to present a limited repertoire already. In Qom, however, the authorities arrested dozens of young people for listening to loud music in their cars, "Qods" reported on 25 July, and in Mashhad, 80 cars were seized by the police. A local judge told "Qods" that penalties against the music fans could include lashes, fines, and confiscation of their musical equipment, and repeat offenders could be exiled. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN ENCOURAGES AMAL AND HIZBALLAH UNITY. Nabih Berri, speaker of the Lebanese National Assembly and leader of the Amal Movement, arrived in Tehran on 2 August for a four-day visit. Coming on the heels of Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah's early-July visit, the timing suggests that Tehran is trying to heal rifts between the two groups before the Lebanese parliamentary elections in late-August and early-September. By working together, the two predominantly Shia organizations can gain a greater number of seats and have a greater say in national politics. And by acting as a unifier, Tehran will gain even greater influence over Lebanese affairs, supplanting Damascus as it reaches a modus vivendi with Tel Aviv.

The Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon is seen as a great victory for Hizballah, and in the absence of a Lebanese Army presence in the south, Hizballah is seen by some as the de facto government there. Indeed, after the withdrawal Hizballah tried Lebanese accused of collaborating with the occupation forces, and more recently, it interfered with UN Interim Force in Lebanon personnel as they tried to take up positions in the south. Amal sought to capitalize on Hizballah's popularity, according to the 28 July "Al-Watan al-Arabi," so Berri announced that Hizballah must participate in the next government.

But the latter half of July has seen shootouts between Amal and Hizballah forces, which may be fallout from the political battle. Hizballah, while best known for its military activities, has earned a place in Lebanese political and social life through its electoral and charitable activities. Amal forces were part of the "Islamic Resistance" (as was Palestinian Islamic Jihad) that fought the Israelis, but it has received far less recognition for this, and Amal now may be concerned that it will be supplanted politically by Hizballah. Berri, therefore, has been engaged in coalition building with other Shia, such as Ali Qansuh, leader of the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party, and with Christians in the south.

Nor is Hizballah convinced that success on the battlefield will be converted into policymaking power. For this reason, Hizballah Deputy Secretary-General Naim Kassem told Beirut's "Al-Mustaqbal" in early-July, the party will campaign for the state's rebuilding of the south and greater provision of social services there. Possibly of greater importance will be Hizballah's views on the assignment of public sector jobs.

The two Shia parties' desire to present a united front in the Lebanese parliamentary election already looks weak. Hizballah's candidate list was announced on 1 August, and Amal's Hussein Musawi announced that he would run against the Hizballah candidate in Baalbek. But in June, Amal deputy leader Muhammad Abd-al-Latif Baydun told Amman's "Al-Ray" that "Amal and Hizballah have always coordinated their positions, and they also have an understanding over current issues." This arrangement would continue, because as Baydun explained, "Amal and Hizballah have reached an understanding to run for the upcoming parliamentary election in one list, just as we did it twice in the past."

The Iranian efforts to play a role in the Amal-Hizballah rift and to extend Tehran's influence in Lebanese politics were seen in late-July, when former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati visited Beirut and met with Berri and with President Emil Lahud. Velayati stressed, according to IRNA, "that consolidating unity and solidarity among the Lebanese nation was the only means" by which to safeguard the Israeli departure, and he encouraged "continued resistance."

On arriving in Tehran, Berri was greeted at the airport by his counterpart, Hojatoleslam Mehdi Mahdavi-Karrubi, and he announced that the objective of his visit was to "expand and consolidate parliamentary relations between Iran and Lebanon," IRNA reported. At a later meting, Karrubi said the "main reason" for the Israeli withdrawal was the "unity among the people, government, and the combatants of the resistance movement," while Berri said that the "victory" owed a great deal to such unity. He also thanked Iran for its consistent assistance and said the world's Shia communities look to Iran for support. And Expediency Council chairman Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani told Berri that unity among the Lebanese people could "foil the ploys hatched by their enemies."

Similar emphasis on unity occurred in Berri's meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami. Khamenei told Berri that victory in the "great struggles" ahead requires resistance, perseverance, and solidarity, and he warned that Israel still has ambitions towards southern Lebanon. Khamenei advised, according to IRNA, that "one should by keeping the spirit of resistance in Lebanon alive and by supporting it and maintaining unity among the resistance forces be alert and prepared against the danger." (Bill Samii)