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Iran Report: October 16, 2000

16 October 2000, Volume 3, Number 39

ROLE OF RELIGIOUS LEADERS DEBATED. Debates about the clergy's role in Iranian life and politics surfaced at recent meetings of Iran's Shia religious officials, something very rare indeed. And public statements and speeches at meetings in Qom, Tehran, and Hamedan clarified somewhat the normally secretive nature of Shia clerical life. These speeches suggested that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is urging theologians to fight a cultural onslaught, while President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami is calling for some relaxation and an end to some clerics' factionalism.

Khamenei's 6 October speech to the Qom Theological Seminary and Lecturers Association meeting contained the warning that the seminaries must be ready to handle ideological crises. He also raised the subject of the "cultural onslaught launched by the enemy," according to state television.

This warning about the cultural onslaught built on Khamenei's address, one day earlier, at Qom's Hazrat Fatimeh Masumeh Mosque. In the earlier speech he said that Iran's independence was under attack, intentionally by some and inadvertently by others. Before the Islamic revolution, foreigners tried to steal Iran's physical and intellectual assets. But the revolution freed Iran from America' clutches, he explained: "One of the proud achievements of the Islamic revolution was that it destroyed America's influence, its interference [in Iran's affairs], its roots, and its machinations in Iran."

Now, he says, some people are trying to restore America's influence. Khamenei said that people should be suspicious when the "enemy's propaganda apparatus" expresses concern about press laws or incarcerated individuals. The people should maintain unity, and they should trust the government, the judiciary, the Expediency Council, the Guardians Council, and the parliament.

Shortly before Khamenei spoke in Qom, a meeting of Friday Prayer leaders was held in Tehran. Khamenei is the Friday Prayer leader in Tehran, and his substitutes serve in the Expediency Council, Assembly of Experts, Guardians Council, and Judiciary. Most members of the Central Council of Friday Prayer Leaders are appointed by the Office of the Supreme Leader. And the content of the sermon is determined in Tehran by the 10-member executive board of the Central Secretariat of the Central Council of Friday Prayer Leaders.

Khamenei told the meeting on 2 October, according to state television, that the prayer leaders should explain issues so the enemies' efforts to lead people astray are unsuccessful. He explained that "the enemies' propaganda system, foreign radios, and their lackeys and followers inside the country try to confuse truth and falsehood in order to make the Iranian nation despair about the future and to prevent the Islamic system from serving as a model for others. In the face of this onslaught, it is imperative to...remove all doubts with a strong and well-argued defense." Khamenei also warned that prayer leaders must avoid factional issues.

In his 4 October speech to the Tehran meeting, Expediency Council chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani warned the clerics that the U.S. is trying to evict them from the scene and discredit the weekly Friday Prayers.

President Khatami is not a Friday prayer leader, but he addressed the group on 3 October. Khatami spoke out against factionalism in his speech. He added, according to state television, that "internal disputes and conflicts should not become the reason to misrepresent the system." Speaker of Parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi called for constructive criticism and the avoidance of extremism.

The differences between Khamenei and Rafsanjani's words and those of Khatami and Karrubi are noteworthy. The Supreme Leader and Expediency Council chairman essentially delivered a call to arms, ringing the tocsin in what they see as a cultural war. They want the clerics to take an active approach in shaping perceptions and the country's culture. Khatami and Karrubi also issued a call, but theirs was for religious officials to remain apolitical. In an interview with RFE/RL's Persian Service, Qom's Hojatoleslam Mahmud Salavati described Khatami's speech as a warning to the clerics who use religion to promote their own worldly political ends.

The references to the press and cultural affairs by the various speakers also could have been meant as comments about Ataollah Mohajerani, the controversial Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance. He had come under a great deal of criticism by the conservatives and hardliners for what they saw as laxness towards the media and a failure to promote Islamic culture sufficiently. Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, for example, said at a meeting in Qom that "we see that some high-circulation newspapers are openly denying and ridiculing Islam. These are strange days," he warned, "and we must prepare ourselves for many more problems to come," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 5 October.

Similar meetings of religious officials were held in Hamedan in September. Khamenei's message to the Tenth Prayer Seminar was read out by Hojatoleslam Mohsen Qaraati, the leader's representative and head of the Prayer Headquarters. According to a short 12 September IRNA summary of the message, Khamenei encouraged Iran's youth to "immerse themselves" in prayer.

Khatami addressed the meeting, too, and in guarded terms and through allusions, he criticized extremism. Khatami said that the more extreme and ascetic aspects of Sufism, such as becoming a hermit or living in a monastery, are unacceptable, unnatural, and un-Islamic. He then turned to alms, a matter very close to the clerics' hearts, and pointed out that if people cannot fully exploit the country's economic potential, there will be a lack of economic vitality. If there is no production, no revenues, and no added value, then "there can be no alms." Khatami also said that enjoining virtue and prohibiting vice applies to the corruption of power. "Real reforms must endeavor to harness power in order to prevent corruption."

Turning to Iran's youthful population, Khatami said that the youth and their dynamism are great assets. He pointed out that young people have "youthful demands," so "we must acknowledge their youth and refrain from asking them to act like old people." Khamenei discussed the youth in a 10 September speech in Tehran, saying that they need "ideological assistance," according to IRNA. He called on theologians and seminaries to confront the promulgation of false and distorted ideas. But he also said that unqualified people discuss religious issues with a factional bias.

It again is noteworthy that, while Khamenei called on religious figures to provide intellectual and ideological guidance, Khatami effectively called for tolerance by the clerics. Knowing what was discussed behind the scenes at all of these meetings might be more enlightening, but this is quite unlikely due to the normally closed and secretive nature of the clerical community and its policies of razdari (secrecy; not revealing honest information about the inner workings or internal discord among the clergy) and taqiyeh (dissimulation; misleading strangers about one's own true beliefs or intentions).

These debates inevitably raise several questions to which there are no clear answers: Will the clerics accept that Iran's Islamic culture is sufficiently threatened, or will they decide that the current form of political Islam is stifling the country's development? Or is it all, as some Iranian observers believe, just a big show, a demonstration of dynamism meant to conceal the ruling clerical class's satisfaction with the status quo? (Bill Samii)

RIOT MARKS 'LAW ENFORCEMENT WEEK.' Iran's commemoration of Law Enforcement Week started on 6 October, even as unrest broke out in the western town of Ajabshir, where locals and security forces clashed. The Ajabshir riots appears to justify the Iranian leadership's concern about domestic security, which was underlined by the emphasis on the Basij Resistance Forces during the late-September Sacred Defense Week (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 2 October 2000). Other developments also highlight the regime's nervousness about domestic security: the appointment of a new commander for the IRGC base in Tehran, the creation of a new security force, Basij maneuvers in Tehran, and speeches by the Supreme Leader and the head of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps.

The four days of violence in Ajabshir grew out of a demonstration about the designation of the locality as a town or village, which would determine its eligibility for government funds and other resources. The LEF intervened, and there was one death reported after they attacked the local high school.

At the same time that this was happening, Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi announced the formation of a yet-to-be-named organization that would prevent "cultural, social, and economic insecurity," "Tehran Times" reported on 10 October. Another security unit that may have similar functions was identified in summer 1999 as NOPO (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 13 September 1999) Although the hardline and reformist press discussed the subject extensively, nobody appeared to know the exact meaning of NOPO (Niru-yi Vizhe-yi Payro-yi Vilayat, Special Force Following the Leadership of the Jurisconsult, or Niru-yi Vizhe-yi Paad-i Vahshat, Special Anti-Terror Force). And nobody appeared to be entirely sure what it did.

The appointment of a new commander -- Mohammad Aziz Jafari -- for the IRGC's Sarollah base in Tehran also coincided with these developments. Formerly head of IRGC ground forces, Jafari and his deputy were both signatories of a July 1999 letter to President Mohammad Khatami in which they urged him to restore order before they took matters into their own hands. Jafari, therefore, seems like he would be willing to employ personnel under his command against reformist forces. There is a desire, furthermore, to employ individuals seen as "insiders" in such sensitive security posts in case of further domestic unrest, analyst Nima Rashedan told RFE/RL's Persian Service.

Basij commander Brigadier-General Mohammad Hejazi announced that the force's Companions of Imam Ali maneuvers will start in southern Tehran on 18 October with the participation of 110,000 troops. Only a week before making this announcement, Hejazi was making comments that seemed to give a green light to Basijis who act as vigilantes, or he was at least disassociating his organization from them. He pointed out that there are three types of Basijis, and only the "special" ones (the full-time, salaried, and active Basijis) are banned from political activities. Other members of the Basij -- "ordinary" and "active" ones -- are free to be as politically active as they wish, "Hayat-i No" reported on 7 October. Hejazi did not define his concept of political activism.

A day earlier, IRGC commander Yahya Rahim-Safavi was telling a gathering of 20,000 Basijis at the Ashuraiyan cultural and military camp in Hamedan Province that they are the "strong arms of our leadership" and they represent Iran's strategic power. He also called for a 10-million strong Basij within three years, according to IRNA on 6 October. When Rahim-Safavi was in Khorramabad a few days earlier, he told reporters that any people or political groups who insult the IRGC or the armed forces are traitors and will be taken to court, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 1 October.

By comparison, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's 9 October speech to LEF commanders and graduates of the LEF University was subdued. He said that "security is one of the most fundamental needs of a nation and a country." A country cannot fulfill its potential without security, he said, but in a secure atmosphere the country and its people will thrive. Khamenei said that the LEF bears responsibility for making the people feel secure.

Since the late-June appointment of Brigadier-General Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf as LEF chief, there have been several other personnel changes in the LEF. In mid-September, Mohammad Reza Naqdi was replaced as head of LEF counterintelligence by Brigadier-General Abdulhussein Ramazani of the IRGC. Naqdi was appointed as deputy chief of Depots and Support and Industrial Research Division of the Armed Forces, replacing Brigadier-General Jalali. According to unconfirmed reports, furthermore, Ebrahim Eyvazi is the new head of the LEF command office and Mohammad Nia is the new LEF University head. (Bill Samii)

INSPECTORATE, JUDICIARY NEED SUPERVISION, VETTING. Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi told a 10 October meeting of state inspectorate (National Control and Inspection Organization) officials that some of its methods are ineffective and must be changed. Shahrudi added that the inspectors must be impartial and non-factional, and he said a "special team of investigators" is needed to control the inspectorate's personnel, state television reported.

The inspectorate, which is supervised by the Judiciary, is charged with combating corruption, bribery, and embezzlement, and with making sure laws are properly implemented by government personnel. It's recent report on the August unrest in Khorramabad has created some controversy and is seen as biased against the reformists. Shahrudi's endorsement of that report is undermined by his warning against factionalism in the inspectorate.

Shahrudi's message to the nationwide gathering of the judiciary's selection committees (hastehha-yi gozinesh) also indicated that there are some problems with the organization's personnel. He said, state radio reported on 11 October, that "suitable and capable people must be put to work in the judiciary through the establishment of a strong system and organization for election [vetting]." (Bill Samii)

ONE STEP FORWARD, THREE STEPS BACK. The emergence of another pre-reform daily will be welcome among Iranian press watchers. With another high-profile press trial, more closures, and increased criticism on the grounds that the press is insulting Islam, however, the print media continues to face serious problems. Some of the anti-Islamic claims seem to have more to do with personal interpretations than with legal definitions.

The daily "Hambastegi" hit Tehran's newsstands on 7 October. The pro-Khatami Islamic Iran Participation Party is the license holder, IRNA reports, and the managing director is parliamentarian Qolam-Heidar Ebrahimbay-Salami. The daily's objective was described in its inaugural edition as: "reflecting the people's voice and defending the people's rights." "Hambastegi" joins "Aftab-i Yazd" and "Hayat-i No" as pro-reform publications that have emerged since mass press closures commenced in April. The status of "Nur-i Khuzestan," meanwhile, was changed from a semi-weekly to a daily.

The trial of Qafur Garshasbi, editor of the banned reformist daily "Asr-i Azadegan," started on 9 October. Garshasbi faces charges of spreading rumors and of publishing false and defamatory reports. Complainants include the prosecutor general, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, the Law Enforcement Forces, and state broadcasting. The licenses of three publications -- "Ayadin," "Danesh-i Hisabresi," and "Nava" -- were revoked by the press supervisory board. They have not published for a "long time," "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported on 3 October.

Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, meanwhile, has stepped up his criticism of the press. During a discussion with prayer leaders and seminarians, according to the 5 October "Aftab-i Yazd," he warned that "if we study remarks by the Imam and the eminent leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei], we will realize that such people ['masked enemies'] are unfortunately present in our society. We will realize that they have found their ways into most organizations and media -- such as the press -- and are in fact waiting for an opportunity to deliver blows to the political system." He told a meeting in Qom's Abshar Mosque, "Iran" reported on 3 October, that Khamenei "issued a warning to these nonsense-babblers. As a result they retreated one step. But if the people cooperate with us, the nonsense-babblers will be banished to the desert where Arabs play flute." Earlier, Mesbah-Yazdi had compared reformist organizations to Yazid, who killed Imam Hussein, and said that "if the government had done its duty, it would have hanged all these idle babblers from gallows, so that the people might utter their worst curses over them," "Hadis-yi Qazvin" reported in August.

How exactly is the press causing offense and attacking Islam, and exactly which newspapers are doing so? The failure to answer these questions clearly, an editorial in the 8 October "Aftab-i Yazd" stated, shows clearly that these allegations cannot be proven in the court of public opinion or in a court of law. This means that "some individuals are inclined to add their own personal viewpoints to the list of Islamic sanctities." (Bill Samii)

KHATAMI CALLS FOR LAWFUL TREATMENT OF PRESS OFFENDERS. "When it comes to people who engage in political or press activities and who face some charges, the expectation is that they should not be treated more harshly than stated in the law in the course of the investigations, interrogations and trial," President Mohammad Khatami told a 10 October meeting of officials from the State Prisons Organization, according to state television. In light of the closed trial of Hojatoleslam Hassan Yusefi-Eshkevari and the continued imprisonment of journalist Akbar Ganji, Khatami's comments were timely.

Eshkevari was arrested in August because of comments he made in April at a controversial conference in Berlin. Eshkevari's trial by the Special Court for the Clergy started on 7 October, and his wife said that he has a court-appointed lawyer, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 10 October. Eshkevari's request for an open trial was declined on the grounds of protecting national security and public feelings. His son described some of the charges against Eshkevari, including "slander and insult against the authorities of state by publishing articles in the press," acting against national security, and "negative publicity campaign against the Islamic Republic by rejecting absolute principles of the religion and by committing deeds contrary to the status and dignity of the clergy." Other charges include heresy, corruption on earth, and being "at war with God" (mohareb) -- a capital offense.

Khatami expressed unhappiness with the case against Eshkevari in a meeting with Fars Province parliamentarians, "Tehran Times" reported on 11 October. Human Rights Watch condemned the trial and said that Eshkevari's prosecution is based on public statements he made in Berlin, and as such, it is a violation of his right of free expression. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Federation Internationale des Droits de l'Homme, the Ligue Iranienne pour la Defense des Droits de l'Homme, and Reporters Sans Frontieres also expressed concern.

Ganji's arrest is linked with the Berlin conference, too. His extensive reporting about and numerous allegations regarding a secret "Power Mafia" that runs Iranian affairs have earned him many powerful enemies. A group of Iranian parliamentarians visited Ganji, IRNA reported on 12 October. He complained to the parliamentarians about his maltreatment and his lack of access to a lawyer. (Bill Samii)

MOHAJERANI RESIGNS. Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance Ataollah Mohajerani submitted a one-sentence letter of resignation, the conservative "Entekhab" reported on 10 October, saying that he is no longer prepared to serve in the cabinet. Reports of Mohajerani's resignation are not uncommon, but an anonymous Guidance Ministry official told Reuters on 10 October that "the minister has re-submitted his resignation [and that] it will be accepted this time." President Khatami reportedly rejected his earlier letter of resignation because it was too sharply worded. Other cabinet members who have left since 1997 are Interior Minister Abdullah Nuri and Intelligence and Security Minister Qorban Ali Dori-Najafabadi. Zahra Rahnavard, the wife of former Prime Minister Mir-Hussein Musavi, is being considered by Khatami as Mohajerani's successor, "Abrar" reported. With only seven months before the presidential election, however, Khatami may not bother expending the political capital and energy on getting a new minister approved. Possible acting-ministers would be two current Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry officials, either Ahmad Masjid-Jamei or Shaban Shahidi. (Bill Samii)

KHARRAZI MEETS SADDAM HUSSEIN IN BAGHDAD. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi flew into Baghdad on 13 October, making him the most senior Iranian official to visit Iraq since 1990. Once there, Kharrazi met with his counterpart, Mohammad Said al-Sahhaf, Vice President Taha Yasin Ramadan, and President Saddam Hussein. Before leaving, Kharrazi told state television that "the visit will only cover the solving of problems from the time of the war." And afterwards, IRNA reported that discussions on border delineation, prisoners of war, and security would resume.

Be that as it may, the two countries have numerous topics to discuss, particularly the sponsorship and hosting of opposition organizations and the Kurdish situation. Both sides stand to gain if their relations become less contentious. Shahram Chubin, a regional specialist at the Center for Security Policy in Geneva, described the situation in an interview with RFE/RL. From the Iranian perspective, he said, "Normalization of relations with Iraq, or at least a defusing of problems on the borders, some limited accommodation with Saddam Hussein's regime which the Iranians don't trust, might increase [Tehran's] leverage in the region." In Baghdad, he added, "The Iraqis have every interest in diversifying their relations. And normalization with Iran would give Saddam an opening to say to the Gulf states that he no longer constitutes a threat, that other states [should] have normal relations with him."

The issue of opposition groups has been a major irritant for Tehran, and it may soon become one for Baghdad. The Mujahedin Khalq Organization, which is based in Iraq, has assassinated several Iranian officials and conducted random bombings and mortar attacks. Iranian government officials also have made claims about MKO participation in recent unrest in Khorramabad and Ajabshir. Tehran, for its part, has hosted the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Although the SCIRI showed a lack of interest in the U.S.-sponsored Iraqi National Congress last year, the situation seems to be changing. INC sources said that they will be allowed to open an office in Tehran, London's "Sunday Times" reported on 1 October and "Al-Hayat" reported on 2 October. Previously, Tehran had hosted the founder of the Kurdish organization that became the Islamic Movement -- which has close ties with the INC.

Iran and Iraq also have an interest in seeing some sort of settlement in the recent clash between the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). There also have been reports of Iraqi-armed Kurdish groups attacking the northern Kurdish Regional Government areas. Tehran maintains contacts with the KRG, as well as the PUK, the PKK, and the Kurdish Democratic Party-Iran (KDPI). Baghdad may hope the Iranians will turn a blind eye to its incursions.

Although relations between the two neighbors have been rocky since they went to war in 1980, Iran and Iraq have engaged in all sorts of economic activities. Oil smuggling is a major type of trade for both sides. Oil that Iraq smuggles through Iranian coastal waters and overland into northern and western Iran (overland into Turkey and Jordan, too), earns Baghdad $2 billion annually, the "Financial Times" reported on 3 October. The earnings from this are used by leadership figures to purchase luxury items. Oil smuggled through Iranian waters earns the Islamic Republic at least $500 million a year in "tolls." Iranian pilgrims have visited Shia holy sites in Najaf and Karbala, when the Baathists permit it. Iraqis participated in Tehran's recent International Trade Fair.

A big step in normalization of relations came when President Mohammad Khatami and Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan met at the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries gathering in Venezuela in September. Another major step came when Iranian Transport Minister Mahmud Hojjati-Najafabadi met with Iraqi Minister of Transport and Communications Ahmad Murtada Ahmad in Tehran. After the meeting, IRNA reported on 2 October, Hojjati announced that Tehran will allow flights from Baghdad to Moscow to fly through Iranian air space. Ahmad expressed the hope that Iranian flights from Tehran to Damascus will go over Iraq. Rail and highway lines were on the agenda, too, according to the 6 October "RFE/RL Iraq Report." (Bill Samii)

REJECTIONISTS AND RUSSIANS IN DAMASCUS AND BEIRUT. Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi visited Damascus and Beirut before going to Baghdad. In fact, the trip to Baghdad should be seen in the context of these earlier trips, according to London's "Al-Zaman" on 11 October. It said that "Kharrazi will discuss in Baghdad allowing Iran to send military equipment and forces across Iraqi territories to support Syria and Lebanon if they come under an Israeli aggression. Iran wants to ensure cover for its support for Syria and Lebanon against the Israeli threats."

In Damascus, Kharrazi met with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi later explained that Iran asked Russia "not to allow a certain power [the U.S.] to monopolize the region." Kharrazi also met with President Bashar Assad. They discussed the Shabaa farms, declared their support for the Palestinian people, and denounced Israel.

Before leaving Damascus for Beirut, Kharrazi participated in a meeting with Palestinian Islamic Jihad Secretary-General Ramadan Abdallah Shallah, HAMAS's Musa Abu Marzuk, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine -- General Command Secretary-General Ahmed Jibril, and Palestine's National Freedom Movement -- Fatah Intifada Secretary-General Abu Musa. Other participants in the meeting were Palestine's Communist Party Secretary-General Arabi Abbad; Movement for Palestinian Popular Struggle Secretary-General Khalid Abd Majid; Palestinian Popular Struggle Front Secretary-General Abu Nidal Ashkar; and Organization of the Vanguards of Palestine's Liberating War spokesman Sami Qandil.

Kharrazi arrived in Beirut on 12 October. He held separate meetings with Lebanese President Emil Lahud, Prime Minister Salim Hoss and Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan spoke with Kharrazi at the Iranian embassy. Kharrazi then conveyed a message from Annan to Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah regarding the three Israeli soldiers captured last week. According to IRNA, Hizballah wants to exchange the three for 19 Lebanese held by Israel. Kharrazi asked Annan to look into the case of four Iranian diplomats who are supposedly in Israeli custody, and he also discussed the matter with Nasrallah.

On his return to Tehran, Kharrazi said that Syria, Lebanon, and Iran "agreed that all regional problems are essentially the consequence of the existence of the Zionist regime," IRNA reported on 13 October. All agreements between Yasser Arafat and Israel were useless, he added, and Ivanov and the rejectionists opposed the autonomy deals with Israel.

Before starting his most recent travels, Kharrazi told state television on 10 October that regional unrest is Israel's fault. The Middle East peace talks, furthermore, were bound to fail because they "have always been under the monopoly of America, monopolized by America. And America is not, it goes without saying, neutral. It is clear that America is on the side of Israel." The Society of Tehran Preachers has issued a similar statement, "Kayhan" reported on 7 October: "Experience has shown that the [global] arrogance and blasphemy, led by America, is not only not impartial in the case of Palestine, it also supports that self-imposed regime [Israel] to the best of its ability." (Bill Samii)