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Iran Report: September 18, 2000

18 September 2000, Volume 3, Number 36

NOTE TO READERS: "RFE/RL Iran Report" will not appear next week but will be issued again on 2 October.

PRESS REPRESSION IN PROVINCES. Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani warned at the 8 September Friday Prayers that people should not complain about press closures because newspapers have abused existing freedoms and have tried to undermine the constitution. Be that as it may, the provincial media have tried to fill the gap left by the widescale closures of Tehran dailies, weeklies, and monthlies. Western reporters however, still focus on the Tehran media scene. A major reason for this is that they must have permission from the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance to enter the provinces, and the Iranian government can be reluctant to give permission for such efforts.

To get a better idea of issues facing provincial publications, RFE/RL's Persian Service held a roundtable with Farid Yasamin, editor of Shiraz's "Nim-Negah" daily, Seyyed Hussein Ziavari, publisher of Rasht's "Hatef" weekly, and Hamed Iman, publisher of Tabriz's "Sham-i Tabrizi" weekly. The most pernicious problem is self-censorship. After seeing what happened in Tehran and noting how long their colleagues have been unemployed, provincial journalists have become very cautious. The provincial publications have other problems, not least little money from sales, advertising, or state subsidies. There is also a dearth of modern printing facilities. This means that the provincial publications have low circulations and limited reach.

Yet provincial journalists also face legal problems. Reformist journalist Masud Kordpur, who has been associated with "Arya," "Khordad," "Fath," "Neshat," and "Asr-i Azadegan," was in court on 5 September. Kordpur told RFE/RL's Persian Service that he is facing charges of spreading falsehoods because during a recent speech he criticized the disproportionate presence of non-Kurds in Bukan, Kurdistan Province. Kordpur pointed out that there were no Kurdish officials at his hearing, and their absence is particularly painful given the high level of unemployment in the province.

Davud Bayat, managing editor of Zanjan's "Farda-yi Roshan" weekly, appeared in court on 6 September for a preliminary hearing. Bayat faces charges of printing defamatory articles, publishing falsehoods to divert public opinion, and vilifying institutions, IRNA reported, and Tehran's Justice Department is the special plaintiff. Bayat was released after posting 30 million rials in bail and pledging to attend the next hearing in October.

Meanwhile, Mohammad Reza Nabaie, the managing editor of the weekly "Andalib" was summoned to the court following a complaint from former Malayer parliamentarian Hassan Zamani. Zamani claimed that an article in "Andalib" was defamatory, insulted the people of Malayer, distorted his words, and contained lies.

Journalism often is a hazardous profession, Tabriz's "Fajr-i Azerbaijan" reported on 2 August. The nature of their work makes journalists prone to headaches, ulcers, heart attacks, thyroid problems, and general discomfort, and they are liable to emotional problems. Journalists in East Azerbaijan Province are trying to protect themselves through the creation of a Journalists' Trade Association. And journalism has been added to the Iranian social security organization's list of hazardous occupations. Pending approval by the High Labor Council, this would make journalists eligible for early retirement, a shorter working week, and more overtime pay.

The difficulties facing employees of the media in Tehran have not disappeared. Member of parliament Hojatoleslam Hadi Khamenei, the managing director of the "Hayat-i No" daily, received a summons to appear before the Special Court for the Clergy, IRNA reported on 10 September. Khamenei said he did not know why he was being summoned and he had not decided whether or not he would attend his hearing.

Fatimeh Farahmandpur, publisher of the weekly "Gunagun," appeared before the press court on 4 September. After the second hearing, which was held on 11 September, it was announced that Farahmandpur was guilty of propaganda against the Islamic system because she had published an article by journalist Mohammad Quchani. She was also found guilty of publishing an article by Ebrahim Nabavi that libeled government officials. Farahmandpur also was found guilty of transferring a publication license to "Jameh-yi Ruz," but the sentence was commuted. At her first hearing, Farahmandpur had said the charges against her were a figment of the complainant's imagination, IRNA reported. She added that she had no intention of undermining religious thought or the system.

"Arya" Managing Editor Mohammad Reza Zohdi was sentenced to four months in prison, fined 2 million rials, and banned from press activities for two years. Also, the daily's license was revoked, IRNA reported on 30 August. Zohdi has appealed the verdict.

A new newspaper -- "Aftab-i Yazd" -- appeared recently. It uses staff from the banned "Bayan" and its occupies the same quarters, and Mojtaba Vahedi is its editor. Calling the publication the "Sun of Yazd" is indicative of a political tendency, since President Mohammad Khatami is from Yazd. In fact, Vahedi declared that "we are absolutely a reformist newspaper," the 12 September "Financial Times" reported.

The official "Iran" newspaper had reported on 4 September that "Aftab-i Yazd" would be the organ of the Militant Clerics Association (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mobarez, MRM), and its license holder was MRM secretary and parliament speaker Hojatoleslam Mehdi Mahdavi-Karrubi. The next day, however, "Iran" printed a retraction and said that "Aftab-i Yazd" had been established by Hussein Mozaffari, it would be a daily without political affiliation, and it did not have links to any party or political group. Editor Vahedi did tell the "Financial Times," however, that he is Karrubi's "cultural adviser."

On the other side of the political spectrum will be "Tehran-i Imruz." Its license holder is the Islamic Propagation Organization (IPO), and "Tehran Times" Managing Director Abbas Salimi-Namin will be its managing director. The IPO is a conservative body headed by Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mohammadi-Araqi. (Bill Samii)

ONE 'OFFICIAL' KHORRAMABAD INVESTIGATION COMPLETE. When it was announced in early-September that the state inspectorate (National Control and Inspection Organization) would investigate the week of unrest in Khorramabad, Luristan Province, some observers suggested that this would be another whitewash by the state. And now that the official investigation into clashes between hardline vigilantes and reformist student groups is complete, that lack of confidence seems justified.

The inspectorate announced its findings on 13 September, IRNA reported. One of its recommendations was the dismissal of provincial Deputy Governor Mohammad Rezai, pending legal action against him, for failing to prevent the unrest. (Rezai had said the investigatory team was biased.) Another recommendation was dismissal of and legal action against provincial Deputy Governor Mehdi Musavi for "publishing a statement in which the public was encouraged to take to the streets and to clash with those assailing on the gathering's participants." "Considering the brilliant revolutionary background of Luristan Governor General Nurollah Abedi," the report said that he was "remote from being blamed."

The inspectorate's "fact-finding team" also said that Interior Ministry official Mustafa Tajzadeh should be interrogated because he "intentionally failed to perform his obligations in such a tense atmosphere." Tajzadeh was present at the Khorramabad airport when the problems started, and he later claimed that no local officials complied with his request for the names of the protesters who were present. He also offered to debate two parliamentarians who said that Tajzadeh called them fascists when he saw them in Khorramabad.

A few hours after the inspectorate's findings were reported, the Supreme National Security Council, which is conducting its own investigation into the Khorramabad unrest, announced that the inspectorate had exceeded its authority, according to IRNA. The SNSC said that the inspectorate's report "contains charges against certain bodies which have had no role in the accident, including the National Security Council's student committee and its chairman." The SNSC said people were accused before being charged in a legal court. The SNSC noted that the inspectorate apparently did not conduct "a thorough and precise investigation into the matter."

The inspectorate fired back, IRNA reported on 15 September, saying that it was beyond the SNSC's jurisdiction to judge the performance of its inspectors. It pointed out, accurately, that the organization is authorized to investigate offenses committed by government officials. The inspectorate also hinted that the SNSC, which is led by Interior Minister Musavi-Lari, is trying to protect Tajzadeh.

The head of the Interior Ministry's political department, Mohammad Javad Haqshenas, also criticized the inspectorate for targeting Tajzadeh. Haqshenas said that the inspectorate's investigation was unprecedented and constituted "unconstitutional interference" in the SNSC's business, IRNA reported on 15 September.

The SNSC stated that its report is forthcoming. Another investigation, by parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy committee, was announced on 6 September. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati said during the 15 September Tehran Friday Prayers sermon that he hoped the judiciary would deal with this case more quickly than it did with the cases of the July 1999 Tehran University unrest or the 1998 serial murders. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN COMPLICIT IN IRAQI OIL SMUGGLING. Iranian naval forces seized three ships -- sailing with flags of convenience from the United Arab Emirates, Belize, and Honduras -- that were transporting oil in its territorial waters, state television reported on 13 September. And on 6 August Tehran announced that its naval forces had impounded a Belize-registered tanker carrying 800 tons of Iraqi oil.

These events, plus the state-generated publicity surrounding them, may reflect the Islamic Republic's attempt to get international recognition for its token efforts to stop a form of smuggling that is particularly irritating to other countries. Iraq is allowed to sell oil only under the auspices of the UN's oil-for-food program. In violation of the UN embargo, third country-flagged ships take on oil in Iraq, then pass through Iranian territorial waters, bypassing the Multinational Interdiction Force. This is done with the cooperation of the Islamic Revolution Guards Navy, and it is believed that it earns Iran at least $500 million a year in "tolls."

U.S. government officials said in early-July that Iran's Kish Island was being used for the secret transfer of Iraqi oil. This way, small vessels could transfer the oil to much larger ships with a capacity five to seven times greater. The Iraqi regime was moving as many as 100,000 barrels of oil a day and netting $42 million a month, "The Los Angeles Times" reported. By using Kish Island, 90 percent of the smugglers could avoid interception.

Iranian interception of oil smugglers in April and May had been hailed by some observers as a "signal" indicating Tehran's gratitude for the late-March announcement, by Secretary of State Madeline Albright, that some Iranian goods could be sold in the U.S. So there was confusion in some corners when the smuggling resumed. Some claimed that the smuggling was part of a rogue operation by the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), whereas the regular navy intercepted the smugglers. Adherents to this school of thought saw the issue in terms of factionalism within the Iranian government and the armed forces. Others claimed that the interceptions were done in the hope of receiving financial compensation for losing the "tolls" on the smugglers.

This latter interpretation found some support in former Iraqi military intelligence chief Wafiq al-Samaraa's explanation for the spring 2000 interceptions. He said that Tehran was "merely seeking to increase the smuggling charges in line with the increase in price [of a barrel of oil]." "It got what it wanted," he wrote in the 26 July "Al-Sharq al-Awsat." Al-Samaraa went on to say that the perception in Baghdad is that the Iranians want the sanctions to stay in place because they permit a greater financial return than there would be in their absence. He believes that the money earned from cooperation in oil smuggling covers a great deal of the IRGC's hard currency requirements.

Unnamed U.S. officials told "The Los Angeles Times" that the IRGC makes about $20 million a month from the smuggling operation, charging the smugglers $50 for every metric ton that comes out of Abu Flus. Kish Free Trade Zone officials denied the allegations about their role in oil smuggling, IRNA reported on 8 July. (Bill Samii)

INTERNATIONAL MEETINGS TO COUNTER NARCOTICS SMUGGLING. Tehran makes frequent claims about its self-sufficiency, but when it comes to fighting the flow of narcotics coming from Afghanistan, the world's largest opium producer, the Iranian government is willing to swallow its pride and ask for international assistance. To this end, Iranian and U.S. officials have participated simultaneously in multilateral meetings; Iranian officials have met with their European and Asian counterparts; and there even have been meetings between Iranian and Taliban officials.

Perhaps most significantly, Secretary of State Madeline Albright and Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi sat across from each other when the Six Plus Two group (Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and China as well as Russia and the U.S.) met in New York on 15 September. Afterwards, Albright said that the meeting was "useful" and the discussions touched on drug trafficking. Other Six Plus Two representatives met to discuss problems caused by Afghan opium production.

Meanwhile, an Iranian delegation went to Islamabad on 11 September to strengthen counter-narcotics cooperation, Interior Ministry official Mustafa Tajzadeh told "Karachi Dawn." When President Mohammad Khatami met with European Commission head Romano Prodi on 8 September they discussed counter-narcotics, according to IRNA.

And a Taliban delegation visited Mashhad at the Iranian government's invitation, Herat's "Itifaq-i Islam" reported on 14 August. Mullah Abdulhamid Akhundzadeh, director general of Afghanistan's counter-narcotics campaign, headed the delegation, and he was accompanied by heads of the counter-narcotics departments in the Kandahar and Herat provinces.

It is clear that most of the narcotics entering Iran come from Afghanistan, where the ruling Taliban depend on the opium crop as a major revenue generator. What is less clear is the amount of opium entering Iran from Afghanistan. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration reported that opium shipping routes have shifted northward to Central Asia, the "Guardian" reported on 29 August. This northward shift is due to Iranian security activities, Milan's "Panorama" reported on 31 August, and now Tajikistan is the favored route. Also, it was reported earlier this summer that the Afghan opium crop was much smaller than in previous years because of the drought affecting the entire region. But Iranian Law Enforcement Forces commander Mohsen Ansari said that the drought has caused an increase of drugs coming into Iran, state radio reported on 6 September.

The prevalence of narcotics in Iran has had a serious domestic impact, with about 1.2 million addicts and many more casual users. Availability does not explain drug abuse, however. Addiction rates are climbing among Ilam Province's young people, for example, due to unemployment and poverty, "Hayat-i No" reported in July. Similar problems exist in Mazandaran Province, according to LEF commander Talai. He said that 1,788 people were arrested for drugs offenses and 179 kilograms of narcotics were seized in 1999, but in the first three months of this year 901 people have been arrested and 519 kilograms seized, Sari's "Bashir" reported in June.

Measures taken to block the influx of narcotics include physical obstacles on the eastern borders, such as concrete barriers and trenches. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, however, reported that the trenches are meant to prevent the entry of Afghan refugees. Russian-made and supplied electronic detection devices are planned, too. Tehran also has begun arming eastern villages and establishing autonomous security zones (see below).

Tehran's forced repatriation of Afghan refugees, while intended to ease the country's financial burden and eliminate crime, furthermore, may be contributing to the drug smuggling problem. Colonel Dayyani, commander of the Tayyebad Central Battalion, said that the same man who was living and working in Iran has been driven back to Afghanistan, where he is armed, given a small opium shipment, and sent back to Iran. When he gets to Iran, the Afghan exploits his old contacts to move the drugs, state television reported on 18 August. (Bill Samii)

THE WILD, WILD EAST. A nasty byproduct of the continuing conflict in Afghanistan has been insecurity in Iran's northeastern Khorasan Province -- more specifically, the presence of armed Afghan gangs who engage in kidnapping, robbery, and smuggling. These problems were manifested in late-August, with the kidnapping of 16 people from Qaleh Jug village in the Feyzabad District of Torbat-i Heidarieh in the northeast. Hardline critics of the government have exploited this situation.

A gang of Afghans seized the villagers, state television reported on 31 August, and demanded 180 million rials in ransom. Eight of the hostages were released on the same day. They told the 3 September "Qods" that the kidnappers were armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades.

Law enforcement forces (LEF) announced on 4 September that three hostages were rescued, three of their captors were killed, and efforts to rescue the other hostages were continuing. On 6 September law enforcement forces announced the restoration of law and order in the east, gave assurances that it was in control of the region, and expressed the hope that there would be no more kidnappings. The Interior Ministry added, according to IRNA, that it had adopted a plan to eliminate the state of insecurity, and mopping up operations had been launched to deal with drug traffickers.

Then, on 8 September, state television reported that the LEF rescued eight hostages, killed 11 of their captors, and seized a large amount of arms and ammunition. Locals reportedly slaughtered sheep and offered sweets.

Hardline newspapers have capitalized on this state of insecurity by criticizing the Interior Ministry, which irritates them by refusing to license hardline rallies and trying to block vote-rigging during elections. "Qods," for example, asked on 7 September who in the ministry would give an honest answer about the problems in the east, and it also wanted to know why the state news agency (IRNA) was delayed in its reporting on the situation. And when Interior Ministry official Mostafa Tajzadeh said that Iranians do not feel insecure, the 16 August "Qods" invited Tajzadeh and his family to spend a night in a Khorasan village.

Recent reports that the Basij Mobilization Forces will be armed and are increasing their presence in the east also are related to the insecurity there. Torbat-i Jam security forces commander Colonel Mowlananejad told state television on 18 August that the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps had mobilized the locals and implemented a plan to arm the villagers. Colonel Kolahbakhshi, the Tayyebad Basij commander, added that 54 villages were armed and the locals were responsible for mounting patrols.

Such security measures may not be very effective. The former hostages told "Qods" that kidnappings are relatively common-place, and they are afraid to tend their lands or their flocks. Residents of Gisur village in Gonabad told the 9 August "Iran" -- produced by IRNA -- that the kidnappings have increased in the last three years. Villagers have sold their flocks because they are afraid to tend them; one man said his sons refuse to get into farming or cattle-breeding because of the insecurity. (Bill Samii)

SUBSIDIES AND TARIFFS ENCOURAGE 'BLACK ECONOMY.' Much of Iranian commerce is heavily subsidized by the state in order to encourage native industries and to keep prices low for consumers. At the same time, tariffs exist to protect native industries from better-established foreign competition. Subsides and tariffs actually encourage the smuggling of goods to and from Iran, however, reducing demand for local goods, causing shortages, and decreasing government revenues.

The Republic of Azerbaijan's border guards intercepted a shipment of 320 kilos of scrap metal and 5,500 electronic devices that were being smuggled into Iran from the village of Abbasali, Baku's ANS television reported on 5 September. Indeed, some $3 billion worth of contraband goods are smuggled into Iran annually, according to Hussein Nassiri, secretary of the Supreme Council of Free Trade Zones. Nassiri said that cigarettes account for one-third of that $3 billion, and furthermore, televisions are smuggled from Afghanistan and refrigerators are smuggled from Nakhichevan, IRNA reported on 23 August.

Cigarettes, as well as fabrics, computer parts, satellite dishes, and vehicles, are usually smuggled from the south, the Law Enforcement Forces' director-general of the goods and foreign exchange smuggling department, Brigadier-General Mehdi Aboui, explained 20 days earlier. He added that the main item smuggled from the northwest is alcoholic beverages, while home appliances, glassware, crystal, and fabrics are brought in from the east.

LEF chief General Mohsen Ansari announced on 1 August that in the first three months of the current Iranian year (from 21 March), 152 billion rials worth of goods had been seized, which marked a 15 percent increase over the same period last year. He warned that a continuation of the smuggling could have disastrous effects on the economy, and he urged officials to ignore minor smugglers and focus on the big gangs instead.

Deputy Interior Minister Gholamhussein Bolandian suggested that the LEF centralize its anti-smuggling activities; identify the smugglers' import, export, and distribution networks; and utilize more sophisticated communications methods. Bolandian added that violence against the smugglers would not solve the problem.

Bolandian said that economic difficulties sometimes compel families in the border provinces to get involved in illegal activities. The deputy LEF chief for foreign trade, Abdul-Hussein Vahaji, described some of the other reasons behind smuggling: restrictions on legitimate export-import trade, lax enforcement, and tariff and non-tariff barriers.

Goods are smuggled out of Iran, too. Foodstuffs, luxury goods, cement, and asphalt are delivered to Basra from Khorramshahr under the protection of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, a former member of Iraq's military industries organization told London's "Al-Zaman" on 26 June. More than 1.2 million cattle are smuggled out of Iran annually, Construction Jihad official Ahmad Seifkaran said in November 1999. Some 40-50 percent of Iran's saffron production leaves the country illegally, too, "Iran Daily" reported last November. Petroleum products are shipped illegally to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Other illegally exported items are fishery products, pharmaceuticals, flour, wheat, and detergents.

Iranian goods are cheaper than local ones in these other countries because their production is subsidized. Although the subsidies are meant to help Iranian producers and consumers, in reality it is the smugglers who benefit. Smuggling is sufficiently rewarding that there are about 2,000 Iranian companies just in Dubai engaged in the practice, General Aboui said last December. (Bill Samii)