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Iran Report: September 11, 2000

11 September 2000, Volume 3, Number 35

CLINTON ATTENTIVE AT KHATAMI'S GENERAL ASSEMBLY ADDRESS... U.S. National Security Adviser Sandy Berger rejected suggestions that President Bill Clinton might speak with President Mohammad Khatami in New York. He did say, however, "Obviously, we'll be very interested to hear his remarks. He's speaking at a forum on dialogue among civilizations. This is something we've obviously been supportive of, and this -- and been generally supportive of his -- of the effort to bring more freedom to the people of Iran." In fact, Clinton stayed at the U.N. General Assembly after his own 6 September speech to hear Khatami's address, the timing of which had been changed to permit such an occurrence.

Khatami had some comments that may have been intended for the U.S. president. "The exigencies of a few power-holders should not supersede to interests of humanity through familiar practices of endorsement of undemocratic governments, not responsive to the will and needs of their people, and application of double and multiple standards of response to incident around the globe."

Khatami had some ideas on forms of government. He said that "No particular form of democracy can be prescribed as the only and final version." And he added that "[h]ence, the unfolding endeavors to formulate democracy in the context of spirituality and morality may usher in yet another model of democratic life."

Khatami also had a global vision. "Today, in the name of a great nation with a long history and ancient civilization, who, through its magnificent spiritual revolution has opened a new era of governance by the people in the context of religion, I declare before this house that nations can no longer be marginalized on political, cultural and economic pretexts. The world belongs to all its inhabitants," he said. (Bill Samii)

... ALBRIGHT ALSO LISTENS TO KHATAMI. Not only did President Bill Clinton listen to President Mohammad Khatami's 6 September speech, but Secretary of State Madeline Albright attended Khatami's 5 September speech at a UNESCO event. Afterwards, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told a 5 September news conference that "There was President Khatami speaking with Mrs. Albright in the audience -- [she was] listening to him -- and I think this is a very good signal." An unidentified State Department spokesman later explained that because "there is no official dialog with Iran at this point and we wanted to send a signal to the Iranians that we're willing to listen to what they have to say" according to "The New York Times." An anonymous State Department official said that Albright found Khatami's speech to be "thought-provoking and interesting."

Khatami's speech seemed to have at least one message that could be interpreted as being meant for American ears, when he urged members of the UN to "endeavor to remove barriers from the way of dialog among cultures and civilizations." Khatami also suggested that "the Cartesian-Faustian narrative of Western civilization should give way and begin to listen to other narratives proposed by other human cultures." He explained that dialog among civilizations and cultures requires an understanding of one's own culture and civilization, as well as those of others. "Through seeing others we attain a hitherto impossible knowledge of ourselves." (Bill Samii)

KHATAMI MEETS WORLD LEADERS. President Mohammad Khatami met Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin on 6 September, and they discussed conflict resolution in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Caspian region, ITAR-TASS reported. Khatami accepted Putin's invitation to visit Russia in the first half of 2001. Khatami also spoke with Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Afterwards, Algerian UN ambassador Abdallah Baali said Algeria and Iran have decided to re-establish diplomatic relations, interrupted in 1993 after Algiers accused Tehran of supporting radical Algerian Islamists. Khatami also spoke with Austrian President Thomas Klestil, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Croatian President Stipe Mesic, Jordan's King Abdullah II, Mongolian President Natsagiyn Bagabandi, and Pakistan's General Pervez Musharraf. Other meetings were with Qatar's Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, Romanian President Emil Constantinescu, Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdallah Bin-Abd- al-Aziz Al Sa'ud, Spainish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, and Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Salih. (Bill Samii)

LOOKING FOR A PARACHUTE. Paratroopers believe that if their main chute does not open, they can fall back on a reserve chute. But in those seconds when the falling jumper is trying to yank open the reserve as he plummets to the earth, there is modicum of desperation. The Iranian government's desperation for a reserve chute -- foreign investment -- that will fill the place of its tangled main chute -- the domestic economy -- has rarely been more obvious than when President Mohammad Khatami came to the U.S. at the beginning of September. But this time it looks like the reserve is reluctant about its deployment.

On 4 September Khatami spoke to a handpicked group of expatriate Iranians -- termed "a gathering of the outstanding Iranians living in the United States" by IRNA -- and urged them to help Iran's economic development. The invited audience was friendly, although a bit more reserved than it was when Khatami visited New York in September 1998. In contrast to the earlier session, no questions from the floor were permitted.

Khatami praised the Iranian sprit and culture in the face of adversities such as the Arab invasion and imposition of Islam. He also said that "the Iranians have inherited a culture which enables them to initiate practical ideas, whereas the calculating Japanese copy ideas." Khatami complained about the U.S. role in the August 1953 ouster of Prime Minister Muhammad Mussadiq, and he demanded an apology, asking "are the Americans ready to admit to the means to which they resorted?"

Khatami also discussed the constitution and said the way is open for changes within its framework. He admitted that there have been "shortcomings and flaws" in Iranian policies and programs, but constructive criticism could resolve such problems in a tension-free and calm climate. There is significant internal pressure, he said, especially intolerance for different views, hasty actions, and a lack of realism.

Five speakers preceded Khatami. One of them was Pittsburgh businessman Jahangir Ghaznavi, who urged Khatami to simplify the means by which people and their assets can enter and leave the country. He also encouraged Khatami to guarantee investments, which would mean that they are safe from confiscation by the state.

Indeed, Iran attracted less than $1 billion in direct foreign investment in 1999. When Iranian parliamentarians were in New York in the first week of September, they described a bill to attract and protect foreign investment. This new bill, in theory, makes allowances for repatriation of profits and for compensation in case of nationalization. There are also allowances for conflict resolution, although, as an Iranian attorney warned in Menas Associates' "Iran Energy Focus," "foreign investors should be aware of constitutional restrictions regarding conflict resolution when the other side is the government." This new bill, plus current laws, is vague in certain areas, too, which could be a serious problem in case of a dispute with the government.

Article 44 of the Iranian Constitution, which defines the economy's sectors (state, cooperative, and private), gives the state extensive control in most parts of the economy. It has control over foreign trade; exploitation of mineral resources; banking; insurance; power generation; dams and irrigation; broadcasting; post, telegraph, and telephone; aviation; shipping; roads; and railroads. The new budget, passed in March, modified these restrictions slightly, permitting the establishment of private banks and the sale of up to 49 percent of state banks. The Guardians Council, which must approve all legislation, blocked other incentives for privatization, and a similar danger exists for the new bill.

The taxation system is another disincentive for foreign investors. Ten percent of the total taxable income is deducted from any corporation, a priori, then there is a tax of 12 to 54 percent. The multiple-exchange rate system means that someone operating in the economy who wants to get foreign exchange must buy it on the black market (about 8,000 rials for every $1). But when they want to repatriate some income or nationalization issues arise, the official rate (175 rials to the dollar) is applied.

Khatami also expressed concern about the brain drain. Forty Iranian parliamentarians proposed a bill on 3 September that would give an amnesty to any Iranian who has left the country. Iranians with proven records of terrorism against the state are excluded from the amnesty, IRNA reported on 3 September. But Iranians leave the country to escape its oppressive atmosphere and unpromising future, and those factors do not seem set to change soon. Using the term "amnesty," furthermore, implies that somebody has broken the law, whereas Iranians abroad generally do not believe such a definition applies to them.

Several members of the audience told RFE/RL's Persian Service that Khatami's warm remarks were welcome but underwhelming. Badie Badiolzamani said, "For the first time we hear nice things from someone at the peak of power. We hope that this will be closer to action. Financial difficulties and unemployment in Iran are tremendous and threaten Iran with the danger of explosion but that was not properly addressed here today." And Heshmatollah Reyazi said he regards Iran as still far from democratic: "There is still a continuation of dictatorship in the name of religion." (Bill Samii)

RELIGIOUS MINORITIES SUFFER DISCRIMINATION. At the end of President Khatami's speech to Iranian expatriates in New York, he thanked "our dear Jewish, Zoroastrian, Assyrian, and Armenian compatriots for taking part in this meeting." And during the speech he noted that Iranians from all ethnic and religious backgrounds have contributed to their country: "We have Jewish martyrs, Zoroastrian martyrs, Armenian martyrs, and Assyrian martyrs among our martyrs." In fact, a son of the recently deceased leader of Iran's Zoroastrian community, Mobed Rostam Shahzadi, died in the war with Iraq.

The number of Zoroastrians in Iran is between 35,000 (Iranian government estimate) and 60,000 (the claim of Zoroastrian groups). And after hearing Khatami, Iranian Zoroastrian Banou Mehr said, "we'll all go back as soon as we can enjoy complete religious freedom." Ms. Mehr might be reassured because the State Department's Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, released on 5 September, notes that "there were no reports of government harassment of the Zoroastrian community" in the last year. But the last time Khatami spoke to Iranian expatriates in New York he had fielded a question from another Zoroastrian, Boston University's Professor Farhang Mehr. Mehr had asked a question about discriminatory laws on inheritance and blood money ("diyeh," the amount of compensation one must pay for harming another person) that favor Muslims. So far, such laws have not changed.

In fact, according to the State Department report, "the Government restricts freedom of religion," and its actions create a "threatening atmosphere" for Bahais, Jews, and evangelical Christians. Furthermore, Tehran "fuels anti-Bahai and anti-Jewish sentiment � for political purposes." The Ministries of Islamic Culture and Guidance and Intelligence and Security (MOIS) have the lead in monitoring religious activity. The report catalogs arrests, arbitrary detention and continuing incarceration, confiscation of property, denial of educational rights, and desecration of cemeteries. It also describes difficulties in Bahais' and Jews' access to employment opportunities and to legal redress. Yet Jews are reluctant to complain because they fear government reprisals. Tehran, furthermore, does not even recognize Bahaism as a legitimate religion. The government also charges members of minorities with drug offenses, apostasy, and "confronting the regime," all of which can be capital offenses.

Neither the State Department report nor President Khatami mentioned Iran's Anglican Christians. Bishop Hassan Dehqani-Tafti, the predecessor of the current bishop in Iran, told RFE/RL that the Anglican properties confiscated by the regime in the early days of the revolution have not been returned to their rightful owners yet. These properties include hospitals, schools, churches, and shops. Dehqani added that the existing Anglican community, which is very small, is not bothered as long as it does not try to convert any Muslims.

Despite all this, Iran was cited for making "noteworthy" improvements in respect for religious freedom, and overall, the report had not changed much since its premier issue, which was released a year ago. A reporter criticized Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Robert Seiple for the light treatment Iran received in this year's report. Seiple replied that "Iran has not gotten by at all�we looked at how they treated the Bahais, primarily this is state-sponsored, this is more than discrimination -- this is persecution -- and the report spells that out."

Tehran reacted predictably. "The allegations made by the State Department in its annual report about the absence of religious freedom in Iran are unfounded and repetitive," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Assefi said. He added, according to IRNA, that such accusations are repeated annually because of a "lack of knowledge about the human rights situation in Iran and especially the freedom of religious minorities." (Bill Samii)

INVESTIGATIONS INTO KHORRAMABAD UNREST. Conflicting reports on the status of the official investigation into the late-August and early-September unrest in Khorramabad, Luristan Province, when clashes between hardline vigilantes and reformist student groups resulted in arrests and deaths, appear likely to undermine public confidence in any final findings and conclusions.

The Judiciary ordered the state inspectorate (National Control and Inspection Organization) to investigate the Khorramabad events on 29 August. IRNA reported on 4 September that the inspectorate's investigation was completed, after conducting interviews with the provincial governor and other provincial officials, the Friday Prayer leader, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the provincial Law Enforcement Forces commander, university officials, and other witnesses. One day later, an unidentified inspectorate official denied that its investigation was finished.

IRNA also reported on 4 September that the Supreme National Security Council and the parliament were conducting their own investigations. But it was not until 6 September, according to another IRNA report, that the parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy committee agreed to the demands for an investigation by Mashhad's Ali Tajerani and Isfahan's Ahmad Shirzad.

There is some question about the objectivity of the investigations. Luristan Province's deputy governor in charge of political affairs, Mohammad Rezai, warned that "it seems that some individuals [within the investigatory delegations] have adopted particular stances," "Hayat-i No" reported on 6 September.

There were parliamentary disagreements over who started the unrest. Pol-i Dokhtar (Luristan Province) deputy Mohammad Mehdi Shahrokhi said on 5 September that the Office for Strengthening Unity (OSU, or Daftar-i Tahkim-i Vahdat, the largest pro-Khatami student organization) started the unrest. Shahrokhi claimed, according to IRNA, that video footage showed the students throwing rocks at a peaceful opposing rally.

Shahrokhi and Khorramabad MP Abdolrahim Baharvand also complained that the unrest started when Interior Ministry official Mustafa Tajzadeh had insulted them and called the locals "fascists." Tajzadeh was at the Khorramabad airport when the problems started, and he claimed that at the time he had asked for the names of the protestors who were present. If his request had been fulfilled, Tajzadeh said, the instigators of the unrest would be known now. Tajzadeh said he was ready to debate the two parliamentarians, IRNA reported on 6 September.

The Islamic Associations of the Bazaar and Guilds of Tehran (Anjumanha-yi Islami-yi Bazaar va Asnaf-i Tehran) also called for the authorities to identify those who are behind the Khorramabad unrest. But it may be that all the investigations are unnecessary, because the Bazaars and Guilds Associations' statement said that the Khorramabad unrest was the beginning of a "scenario staged to please the U.S.," "Iran" reported on 6 September. (Bill Samii)

BASIJ FORCES TO BE ARMED. General Gervehi, deputy commander in charge of coordination of Basij Mobilization Forces in Khorasan Province, said on 7 September that all active Basij members serving at Basij bases in Iran are to be armed "on a gradual basis." The Basijis will be trained in the use of their weapons, he added. There are three possible explanations for this statement.

Gervehi's statement may reflect efforts to improve security in the border provinces and Khorasan specifically. There was a recent hostage situation there, and the province is plagued with smugglers of narcotics and other goods, kidnappers, and insurgents. At a 5 September seminar of Iranian security commanders, there was great deal of discussion about the elimination of criminal activities in the provinces, "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported. The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps' Colonel Moqaddam, deputy commander for coordination of security forces, told the seminar that "one of the most important objectives of the seminar is to survey ways and means of strengthening the security of the frontiers. We are also going to study plans for the establishment of autonomous regiments and strengthen the existing operational garrisons on the frontier regions." Earlier in the summer, the province's Basijis were given additional powers and it was decided to arm them (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 24 July 2000). Also, the Supreme National Security Council approved a plan to increase their bases.

Gervehi's statement about arming the Basij could reflect an effort to strengthen national security in the face of possible domestic unrest. Large-scale military exercises involving 15,000 Basijis and IRGC personnel were held near the Gulistan Province town of Abqalla in the first week of September. Paratroopers, tanks, artillery, and pilot-less drones were involved in the exercises. 30,000 Basijis held exercises in Mazandaran Province at the end of August. Also, there were reports that security forces had moved in to deal with a week of unrest in Luristan Province in August and September. Furthermore, "formation of the Basij paved the way for the permanent, comprehensive defense of the Islamic revolution and its valuable achievements," according to the 31 July "Javan."

A third explanation could be that Gervehi's statement reflects the general expansion of the Basij that was reported earlier (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 28 August 2000). Basij commander Brigadier General Mohammad Hejazi had said on 21 August that Iran's volunteer forces would be increased by 1.5 million people, in line with establishing a 20 million-person army. More recently, IRGC commander Lieutenant General Yahya Rahim Safavi told state television on 31 August that "we must attract volunteers from the second generation of the revolution, that is, young people who have no memory of the pre-revolution era and the holy defense [the Iran-Iraq War]. And in a possible attempt to bolster the force's dwindling popularity, Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani condemned critics of the Basij during Tehran's 8 September Friday Prayers. (Bill Samii)

ATTEMPTS TO MUZZLE MONTAZERI MISFIRE. The State Department's most recent Annual Report on International Religious Freedom notes that the Iranian government restricts the movement of several senior religious leaders and has kept some of them under house arrest for years. Such a situation is having extreme results.

Earlier this summer security personnel in Qom arrested a young man, who was wearing an Islamic Revolution Guards Corps uniform, for slashing his wrist and writing on a wall with his blood. The young man was openly demanding the release from house arrest of Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri-Najafabadi, saying he would rather die than see the cleric's detention continue. A few weeks later, Iran's press court permanently closed "Ava" weekly and barred its publisher from press activities. "Ava" is known for carrying Montazeri's views, while its publisher, Mustafa Izadi, is a Montazeri supporter.

Montazeri was designated the successor of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, in 1985. He fell out of favor in 1989, however, because of his post-facto criticism of the conduct of the war with Iraq. After returning to Qom, Montazeri resumed teaching and attracted many students. His views on the relationship between religion and politics, furthermore, attracted the support of many other senior Iranian clerics. They subsequently called for Montazeri's re-designation as a source of emulation, the highest position for a Shia Muslim cleric, as well as his freedom.

Although Montazeri has some popular and elite support, he has enemies, too. Many in the Iranian government and leadership see Montazeri as a potential threat and rival for power. Montazeri's frequent criticism of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, saying that he is not religiously qualified to lead Iran, does not help his situation.

Attempts to silence Montazeri have not been very successful and are undermined by improvements in communications technology. His views are faxed to Western newspapers and news agencies. Visitors to his home, even when they cannot meet him personally, can conduct interviews via an intercom from the neighboring house. Montazeri has a website,, which has selections of his writings and photos of him. And people can e-mail questions to Montazeri.

Some of his views are about Iran's relationship with other countries. "Please tell the people of the world on my behalf that Iran is a tortured and oppressed nation that has endured the whip of despotism and the unjust rule of its emperors for many years," Montazeri says in an e-mail reproduced by "Frankfurter Allgemeine" on 20 May. He explains that although Iran is suffering economically because of the long war with Iraq and "sanctions and boycotts by individual states," "we are not hostile toward any country in the world and wish to have dialog and reconciliation with all nations and states." Montazeri adds, in a 25 May interview with London's Arabic-language "Al-Sharq al-Awsat," the Iran should eliminate tensions in Iran's international relations that have been brought about by "mismanagement and futile extremist slogans."

Montazeri's main interest, however, remains domestic Iranian politics. In his opinion, Islamic government and democracy are not mutually exclusive, and he tells "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that "the Islamic system of government depends on the people's acceptance of this system." The Iranian people support an Islamic system of governance, Montazeri believes, but they are "indignant at a certain dictatorial group that has monopolized the interpretation of the concepts of Islam and described others as infidels and apostates."

Montazeri still propounds the Vilayat-i Faqih (guardianship of the Supreme Jurisconsult) theory, but its current Iranian incarnation needs to be changed. He believes that the people are "bearing heavy burdens to achieve the reforms for which they are striving and to sweep away the dust that has settled over the revolution."

The most necessary reform, Montazeri says, is letting the people choose or remove the country's chief executive �the Supreme Leader -- through direct election. Currently, these powers are restricted to the Assembly of Experts, a wholly clerical body. Elections are held for the Assembly, but public participation in them is low and candidates are effectively pre-determined by the Guardians Council, a body that vets candidates for national-level elected offices.

Montazeri calls for other changes as well. Constitutionally-guaranteed public rights must be safeguarded, particularly freedom of the press. In an 8 August fax to the BBC, Montazeri condemns the Supreme Leader's ban on press reform, and he said that over-ruling the parliament would lead to despotism. In a related issue, Montazeri calls for changes in the state broadcasting organization, which currently is run by hardliners.

Reforms in the state bureaucracy are necessary too, Montazeri says, and all state organizations require oversight. Montazeri would eliminate the Expediency Council, which rules in cases where the Guardians Council and parliament are deadlocked on legislation. The Foundation for the Oppressed and Disabled, a semi-state organization with immense economic power, should be eliminated, as should "illegitimate utilization of public funds" and "unnecessary public expenditures." The growing divide between the rich and the poor has to go.

Moreover, the penal code should be amended because what Montazeri terms "pseudo-trials" are unproductive. He also calls for elimination of the Special Court for the Clergy and the Revolutionary Courts.

Montazeri wants to see the municipal councils, which were elected in February 1999, have a more significant role in local politics, which would help eliminate some of the power concentrated in Tehran. And laws addressing the Guardians Council's role in supervising elections must be amended, because the current interpretation violates the spirit of the constitution.

And he warns that Iranians' desire for reform is countered by "a group of people who are manipulating the religious sentiments and beliefs of the people as an instrument to achieve their political objectives under the pretext that they want to protect the faith and the Islamic holy shrines." (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN PARLIAMENTARIAN SEEKS TO SUE U.S. Parliamentarian Alaeddin Borujerdi has announced that he will file a legal complaint against the U.S. in court for Washington's rejection of Borujerdi's application for a U.S. visa to attend the late-August Inter-Parliamentary Union meeting in New York on national security grounds. Borujerdi was one of the "students" who held American diplomats hostage in Iran from 1979-1981. (Bill Samii)