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Iran Report: November 27, 2000

27 November 2000, Volume 3, Number 45

MAHDAVIYAT TRIAL COULD UNDERMINE PRESSURE GROUPS. Tehran's Revolutionary Court will postpone the trial of the Mahdaviyat group, IRNA reported on 24 November, following a request for a "respite" from the defense team. The Tehran Province Justice Department had announced four days earlier that the trial would commence on 25 November.

The trial was scheduled to be an open one, according to an official statement cited by the 20 November "Hambastegi." This could have been another opportunity for the regime to stage a show trial that links internal unrest and other problems on outsiders and other scapegoats. A hint that this would happen came when apprehension of the gang was announced in late-1999. At that time, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security said that the Mahdaviyat group had links with supporters in other countries, and the group was behind anti-Sunni violence in order to "sow religious discord" (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 29 November 1999).

A few Mahdaviyat members were arrested on 24 April 1999 for trying to assassinate Tehran Justice Department chief Hojatoleslam Ali Razini, and in November 1999, the MOIS announced that it had arrested all 34 members. It was later reported that the group intended to assassinate President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, and other leading officials.

If the trial should unexpectedly prove to be fair and the related investigation legitimate, it could be a fascinating expose of official links with hardline pressure groups. There are many similarities between the Mahdaviyat group and the extremely conservative and anti-Bahai Hojjatiyeh Society, including the leadership. Hojjatiyeh leader Sheikh Mahmud Halabi had moved to Mashhad after the group was forced to disband in 1983, and he also was a leader of the Mahdaviyat group. The MOIS claimed that it apprehended all the members of the Mahdaviyat group, but the close connection with Hojjatiyeh suggests otherwise. This is because many members of the Hojjatiyeh Society served in the Iranian government. When the society was dissolved, the Islamic Coalition Association absorbed its members, and they continue to serve in their government posts. Since the initial arrests in April 1999, reformist publications suggested that Mahdaviyat members worked for state broadcasting and had links with the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps.

SERIAL MURDERS TRIAL MAY START IN DECEMBER. Another trial which also may throw light on the internal workings of the government involves the "serial murders" -- the 1998 murders of political dissidents and journalists, allegedly at the hands of rogue elements in the Ministry of Intelligence and Security -- which is due to start on 23 December. A decision on whether or not the trial will be open has not been reached yet.

On 23 November, deputy Judiciary chief Hojatoleslam Hadi Marvi announced that the main culprits in the case are Said Emami (who allegedly killed himself in 1999 while in custody), and Musavi and Alikhani. Marvi told a group of clerics in Qom that 18 people are accused of involvement in the murders -- three for giving the orders and the rest for carrying them out. Marvi went on to say that Musavi had confessed to giving the order for the killings. The others claimed their actions were based on the belief that the victims were corrupt people and agents of foreigners. Marvi predicted that the final verdict would be issued by May 2001.

Iranian political activists and the murder victims' families remain unconvinced by such claims. Defense lawyer Naser Zarafshan told the 22 November "Hambastegi" that there still are flaws in the government's case, adding that if these are not eliminated they will not participate in the trial. Parastu Foruhar, the daughter of victim Dariush Foruhar, added that she did not think the flaws could be eliminated so quickly. She went on to say that "What we want is for the truth to be revealed and justice to be done."

The belief that the serial murders started well before 1998 persists, too. A group of political activists issued a statement declaring that the murders of Majid Sharif, Piruz Davani, Barazandeh, and Tafazzoli should be part of the trial. The statement added, "Hambastegi" reported on 21 November: "We call on the officials investigating the killings and, especially, the parliamentary deputies, to provide adequate and transparent information about the killing of Sharif and the others to their wronged and grieving families and to the expectant public which longs for justice."

An 80-page "shabnameh" (literally "night letter," a kind of samizdat) circulating in Tehran in late-October and early-November implicated 140 MOIS personnel for torturing Emami and his accomplices. It also linked MOIS officials and regime figures with murders that preceded those of 1998. Interestingly, real names -- rather than covers and aliases -- were mentioned for one of the first times. Anti-reformist and Islamic Documentation Center chief Hojatoleslam Ruhollah Husseinian is described in the shabnameh. So too are former MOIS chiefs Ali Akbar Fallahian and Qorban-Ali Dori-Najafabadi.

The Judiciary and the Armed Forces Judicial Organization are investigating these claims. But parliamentarian Akbar Alami, who said that he saw the shabnameh, described the claims in it as false and said its publishers are trying to undermine the MOIS, "Hayat-i No" reported on 2 November. (Bill Samii)

CORRUPTION IN THE GOVERNMENT OF GOD? The extent of governmental corruption in Iran is a major reason why few expatriates are inclined to return there for business or to invest in the country's economy. Foreign investors also cite corruption as one of the major problems they encounter in Iran, in addition to vague laws and threats of nationalization and confiscation. And the Iranian public itself is increasingly resentful about the growing economic gap between average citizens on one side and officials and their cronies on the other side.

High-level corruption has been a constant feature of Iranian life, regardless of regime. Indeed, a reaction to perceptions about corruption under the monarchy was current constitutional article 142 (the assets of the Supreme Leader, the president and his cabinet, and their immediate families are to be examined before and after their terms of office to ensure that they have not increased their wealth illegally). And the same constitution's article 76 gives the parliament the right to investigate any national issue. But the results of such investigations have never been described fully, according to the 5 August "Bahar."

Governmental officials are supposed to perform their duties, irrespective of financial inducements or connections. To be sure that this is the case, constitutional article 174 called for the creation of an inspectorate (now called the National Control and Inspection Organization) that would investigate allegations of governmental misconduct. The Administrative Tribunal was created in late-1999 to investigate complaints lodged against governmental bodies.

Yet Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi pointed out in October that inspectorate personnel need increased supervision. And Mr. Rafikhah, general manager of the East Azerbaijan and Ardabil Provinces inspectorate, told the 26 June "Mahd-i Azadi" that his organization does not have enough personnel.

Just as governmental corruption has been a longstanding feature of Iranian life, so too has official use of lower-level scapegoats and government officials' platitudes to divert attention from it. For example, businessman Mohammad Taqi Amini was executed in late-November for his part in smuggling gold, antiques, and hard currency out of Iran. Amini's three accomplices served in the customs office and they also received death sentences, but there is no news about them. And President Mohammad Khatami told a gathering of provincial governors on 19 November that the government's priority is to eradicate corruption, poverty, and discrimination. It is unlikely that the execution or Khatami's comments will satisfy the public.

Corruption in Iran has many sources and takes many forms. One reason is that Iran does not have a professional civil service system, "Kayhan International" reported on 30 August, so promotions are not linked to merit or hard work. There is extensive use of appointees, and high-level ones bring in new people for management positions. And there is a distinct lack of accountability and transparency.

Deputy speaker of parliament Mohammad Reza Khatami told the 3 August "Bahar" that in some cases state officials let the bribes settle in the bank accounts and pockets of their cohorts. That way they can avoid direct blame in any investigations, but at the same time, they can reap the profits their positions allow.

Tenders for government projects are not competitive: state contractors and organizations do not submit tenders on an equal footing with their private sector competitors, "Bahar" reported on 13 July. The terms for the tenders are not made public, and the state organizations already benefit from facilities such as cheap credit and preferential exchange rates. This has reduced efficiency and increased the state's monopolistic position in the marketplace. Bureaucrats benefit from the bidding process, too, and according to "Bahar," state bodies are seen as first-class contractors while private sector firms are second-class contractors.

Some firms receive tax exemptions to which they are not really entitled. Deputy Finance and Economy Minister for Tax Affairs Ali-Akbar Arab-Mazar said that this was a common way for firms to avoid paying taxes, IRNA reported on 10 July. Fifty companies in Hormozgan Province, all of which have their main offices in Tehran or other major cities, were found guilty of tax evasion on this basis.

The privatization of state services and industries also contributes to corruption, as well as to waste. Government officials are not fired and do not receive early retirements when privatization occurs. Instead, they are transferred to other government offices, through connections and the influence of powerful people, "Jam-i Jam" reported in early-June. In fact, retired personnel are even brought back under short-term contracts. State officials, meanwhile, continue to receive cars, expense accounts, and chauffeurs, and they have access to villas at seaside resorts in the north. Not only do they receive subsidies; their agency's protocol department covers much of their expenses.

Political factions also make allegations about the corruption of their opponents. A state foundation was accused of selling land near Damavand to a parliamentary deputy for one-tenth of its real value. The deputy divided the land and started to resell it at a healthy profit, "Khorasan" reported on 7 August. Another foundation sold real estate to a high official in the previous presidential administration for one-fifth of its real value.

Lower-ranking officials in the government also engage in corruption on a lesser scale. Extensive regulations and bureaucratic layers often necessitate bribes if anything is to be accomplished. Officials can delay the processing of paperwork until receipt of an incentive. Tax inspectors and customs inspectors are in a particularly good position to extort money in exchange for turning the other cheek. Sometimes officials are expected to pass on some of their take to their superiors.

Money laundering, while not specifically illegal in Iran, may also be part of the corrupt practices that occur there. Diplomats and other officials can use their positions to physically transport funds across the borders, or the money can be placed in domestic banks and then used to buy goods -- such as precious stones -- that can be exported. Money can be moved around electronically, so it is generally untraceable. Overseas shell companies with Iranian partners are part of this process. There is speculation that many real-estate transactions, with the money changing hands overseas, actually conceal money made through less legal methods. Iranians' lack of confidence in the financial system may contribute to this development.

Yet another form of corruption concerns the trade in coupons for rationed goods. The coupon system was created during the Iran-Iraq War to ensure equitable distribution of essential goods, such as cooking oil. Now most goods are available on the open market, "Kar va Kargar" reported on 19 August, but the trade in government-issued coupons persists, often as a form of speculation. (Bill Samii)

BASIJ EXTENDS ITS REACH. President Mohammad Khatami told the cabinet on 22 November that "the Basij is a progressive force which seeks to play a better role in maintaining religious faith among its allies, and acquiring greater knowledge and skills." The deputy commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, Brigadier-General Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr, made comments in a similar vein at the annual Basij Supreme Association for Political Studies and Analysis gathering. He told the audience that the Basij pursued military activities in the first decade after the revolution because the main threat facing Iran at the time was a military one. Now, Zolqadr explained, the Basij will become "involved anywhere if the country's security, goals, or national interests are threatened," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 23 November. A statement issued by the Basij Center at the Science and Technology University explained how this will be accomplished, "Hambastegi" reported the same day: "The Basij Resistance Force is equipped with the most modern and up-to-date weapons and is undergoing the most advanced training. It is making such achievements that if the enemy finds out it will tremble and have a heart attack." The Basij demonstrated what it would do in case that fails during 23 November civil defense exercises, when armed Basijis took up positions in the streets and along strategic locations. (Bill Samii)

MORE SECURITY DISCUSSIONS WITH TURKEY. Turkish and Iranian officials have resumed continuing discussions on counter-narcotics and security just as the concerns about these subjects resurfaced in the Turkish press. Questions remain about Iranian dedication to such undertakings, in light of the Islamic Republic's toleration for smuggling into Turkey by Kurds and its outright support for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

The Turkish and Iranian customs organizations signed a Mutual Administrative Aid Agreement addressing counter-narcotics and crime prevention, Anatolia news agency announced on 23 November. A week earlier, the 28th Turkey-Iran Security Sub-Committee meeting was held in eastern Van Province. The closed meeting focused on border security and trade, Anatolia reported. The 15-member Iranian delegation included Khoy Governor Ismail Karimzadeh, Khoy Military Region Commander Ibrahim Karimkhan, and Salmas Military Region Commander Vahit Musavi.

These most recent gatherings are timely. Istanbul police apprehended an Iranian-led gang involved in human smuggling and drug trafficking on 9 November. Gang leader Hojatollah Sallah Selahvazri and four Turks were arrested, and police seized 60 false passports, equipment for making the passports, identification cards, photographs, two kilograms of opium, and 195 grams of hashish.

There are, furthermore, continuing reports of Iranian assistance to the PKK. Appearing in the Turkish press, the information reportedly comes from intelligence and security sources. PKK cave-camps exist on the slopes of Mount Sehiden, near the village of Bedkar and around the village of Jerme. There are other PKK camps in the area of Doli Meyran, between Piranshahr and Oshnavieh. The PKK stores equipment at temporary bases near Piranshahr and Mt. Kandi. PKK leaders reportedly use Iran as a safe-haven, Istanbul's "Star" reported on 18 November. And there have been reports that the PKK has camps in Armenia. (Bill Samii)

IRAN ALLEGEDLY TRAINS KUWAITI SABOTEURS... Allegations of Iranian involvement in a Kuwaiti sabotage network appeared in that Arab state's press in November. Kuwaiti security sources said that Mohammad Al-Dawsari, a suspect in the case, participated in training camps in Iran and Pakistan, "Al-Siyasah" reported on 20 November. Dawsari said that the sabotage network intended to attack targets in Qatar. Earlier reports said that the network intended to target U.S. Army facilities and personnel in Kuwait, also.

In early-November the Kuwaiti Interior Ministry had announced the arrest of three Kuwaiti nationals in possession of a large quantity of explosives. Another suspect, according to the announcement, still was at large. Kuwaiti authorities asked Tehran to arrest the suspect, a man of Moroccan descent who fled to Iran on a forged Saudi passport, "Al-Watan" reported on 15 November.

"Informed sources" identified this individual as Muhammad al-Dawsari, "Al-Ray al-Amm" reported on 18 November. His escape to Iran was facilitated by a Kuwaiti named Saud Fayiz al-Huwaylah al-Ajami. (Ajami indicates that the man has Iranian origins.) The informed sources added that Dawsari went on to an unknown third country from Iran. (Bill Samii)

...AS KUWAIT INTERCEPTS IRANIAN FOOD AND DRUG SMUGGLERS. The Kuwaiti coast guard intercepted an Iranian ship believed to be carrying 360 tons of Iraqi dates on 22 November. Export of the dates violates United Nations sanctions against Iraq. Kuwait's Interior Ministry announced that police arrested four Iranians on 12 November for trying to smuggle 141 kilograms of hashish into Kuwait by sea. If the four are convicted, they could face the death penalty. (Bill Samii)

PAKISTAN WHEAT DEAL REVIVED. Negotiations for an Iranian purchase of Pakistani wheat, which Islamabad sources had described as "unproductive" because of disagreements over pricing (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 20 November 2000), have taken on a new life. An official with the state Trading Corporation of Pakistan (TCP) told Reuters that it had extended the closing date for the tender to 30 November, and an additional extension could be granted. The official explained that because this was Pakistan's first venture into the wheat exporting market, the TPC wanted to attract more buyers. Pakistani officials will go to Iran on 24 November to negotiate a possible 500,000-ton deal. (Bill Samii)