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Iran Report: December 11, 2000

11 December 2000, Volume 3, Number 47

STUDENT DAY IN TEHRAN... Repeating his complaint about powerlessness: "I am the president charged with enforcing the constitution, and to this end, I should have the necessary tools to carry out this responsibility," President Mohammad Khatami faced a mixed reception when he addressed a Student Day rally on 6 December. The government had tried to control the atmosphere of the day and ensure that things did not get out of hand. In this it succeeded and most students welcomed the president. There were some expressions of anger at the Tehran event, and there was some violence in other cities.

During his speech at Tarbiat-i Mudariss (Tehran Teachers' Training College), Khatami decried extremism. He said, according to IRNA, that people with extreme views are trying to show that the system is inefficient and the government is uncoordinated, and some extremists have formed pressure groups and a government within a government. Khatami described the constitution as "the eye and heart" of the nation. He urged people to work together "to bring about prosperity and ensure a better future," and he admonished them to "exercise patience and work hard."

Khatami told the students that they could specify the course of reform, and the first step should be to tolerate opposition. Since civil society institutions are absent, he said, the press and universities must function in their place. The president added that government agencies should avoid factionalism.

The government tried to control events ahead of time. The Supreme Leader's office, in a statement read out over state television, urged students to participate in the official events, and the Interior Ministry forbade a rally planned by Heshmatollah Tabarzadi's Islamic Union of Students and Graduates (an alternate rally is planned for 12 December). One month earlier, state radio announced the arrest of Rasul Abbasi, who is active with student organizations operating under the umbrella of the Iran National Salvation Movement.

The effort to exert control persisted at the rally site. The roughly 5,000 people who gathered to hear the president were confronted by a serious security presence consisting of both uniformed Law Enforcement Forces and plainclothes personnel from the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, journalist Fariborz Gharib told RFE/RL's Persian Service. Only people with valid student identification cards were allowed to enter. The effort to present an image of unity and tranquility was not, however, completely successful.

On his arrival, Khatami was greeted with chants for the release of "political prisoners." His speech was interrupted as well by calls for the resignation of Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, and criticism of state broadcasting chief Ali Larijani. There also were chants against former Intelligence and Security Minister Ali Akbar Fallahian-Khuzestani and current Expediency Council chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. Students displayed photos of jailed journalists, such as Akbar Ganji and Emadedin Baqi, and they also showed copies of banned reformist journalists.

About 30 young hardliners repeatedly shouted that Khatami should "stop the speech," and he paused long enough to tell them that they should learn to tolerate others' views.

At the same time, there were frequent shouts of support for the president himself.

After his speech, Khatami answered questions that were submitted days in advance, Gharib told RFE/RL's Persian Service. There were questions about political prisoners, the serial murders, imprisoned journalist Akbar Ganji, the students future role, the economy, and the future of Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Ataollah Mohajerani.

The questions were difficult and Khatami seemed evasive. When Khatami asked rhetorically, "On the basis of which law, prerogative, or authority are you saying that all prisoners are innocent," the students answered with "Ganji, Ganji." Khatami urged the students to believe in the relevant state agencies, and he then said, "there is a great vacuum in our constitution with regard to political offenses."

University student Reza Saif told RFE/RL's Persian Service that he was not happy with Khatami's answers or with the questions themselves. Saif said that Khatami avoided direct answers to the tough questions, and he concentrated instead on questions that did not directly affect the student movement's future. Another student, Cyrus Siahi, indicated disappointment and told AFP that Khatami should have spoken more forcefully. Other students, however, told AFP that they must help Khatami overcome his opponents.

At the end of the event, Khatami urged the students to heed the Interior Ministry's ban on any gatherings, which they did. And it is noteworthy that the hardline pressure groups were absent as well. (Bill Samii)

...AND IN OTHER CITIES. There were Student Day rallies in Shiraz, Isfahan, Zanjan, and Qazvin. The rally at Hamedan's Bu Ali Sina University turned into two hours of clashes and turmoil, "Hambastegi" reported. Local university student Reza Saif told RFE/RL's Persian Service that Ali Afshari, the invited speaker, was 5-6 minutes into his speech when a hardline pressure group intervened.

Ali Afshari told a rally at Zanjan University that the Judiciary should be reformed and the Guardians Council was acting improperly, "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported.

In Shiraz, reform-oriented attorney Hojatoleslam Mohsen Rahami told students that the reform movement should have its own radio and television network. Rahami, who has worked on several high-profile cases in the last two years, was recently barred from practicing law for five years after being found guilty of defamation and disseminating false information in connection with the video-taped confessions of an Ansar-i Hizbullah member. "Kayhan" newspaper complained that during the rally boys and girls exchanged flowers, "greeted each other by shaking hands," and were not fasting although they are supposed to do so during the holy month of Ramadan.

Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) head Abolfath Fateh addressed a gathering in Tabriz University. He said that Iran has not experienced legitimate civil freedom in one thousand years, so one should not expect the situation to be resolved in the 20 years since the Islamic revolution. Fateh traced some of Iran's current problems -- such as the "general negative attitude towards the student movement" -- to the period immediately after the Iran-Iraq War, according to IRNA.

One day before Student Day, 150 pupils from Khorramabad's Shahid Madani Institute staged a protest against inadequate services, "Tehran Times" reported on 6 December. (Bill Samii)

UN RIGHTS RESOLUTION REJECTED. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi "categorically rejected" a UN resolution adopted on 4 December, IRNA reported the next day. The resolution -- adopted in a vote of 67 in favor, 54 against, and 46 abstentions -- called on Tehran "to take all necessary steps to end the use of torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment, in particular the practice of amputation," Reuters reported. The resolution was very critical about the lack of press freedom, too. Assefi said the report used biased sources and was based on a double standard, and it did not conform with realities in Iran. Tehran last allowed Maurice Copithorne, Special Representative of the Commission on Human Rights on the Islamic Republic of Iran, to visit the country in 1996. And according to the recent Human Rights Watch "World Report 2001": "Access to the country by international human rights observers remained restricted...Human Rights Watch representatives [with one exception] and those of other non-governmental organizations were generally not issued visas." (Bill Samii)

'THOUSAND FAMILIES' RETURN. According to its authors, the Islamic Revolution was meant to eliminate the class-character and elitism of the monarchic period. But in fact, it has lead to the resurrection of an old aristocratic class, known as the "Thousand Families," albeit with a new twist.

The original Thousand Families consisted of the royal families, tribal nobility, military elite, upper clerics, and native landlords. Although their number never exceeded one to two hundred, James Bill wrote in "The Politics of Iran: Groups, Classes, and Modernization" (1972), the exaggeration indicated the power they wielded. Inter-marriage and shared interests furthered their power. Reza Shah reduced their power by confiscating some of their lands, and his son, Mohammad Reza Shah, moved to reduce their power even more in the mid-1950s. At that time, the Shah and newspapers said the Thousand Families blocked reform, while the landowners, becoming irritated with what they saw as the incompetence of the Shah's rule, agitated for a return to the old system in which they exerted greater power.

The Shah's most effective move in curtailing the power of the Thousand Families came with the Land Reform program of the early-1960s. Under this program, landlords were forced to dispose of their land in a number of ways prescribed by the government. In an effort not to alienate this class completely, there were a number of provisions that allowed the landlords to avoid selling their land, Professor Hossein Mahdavy wrote in the October 1965 "Foreign Affairs." For example, religious endowment lands were to be leased to the peasants. The Shah, furthermore, was willing to let the landed interests believe that land reform was a policy forced on him by the U.S.

The power of the Thousand Families was also diminished by the arrival of newcomers whose power was based on their financial status. Among these newcomers were the foreign capitalists, the landless rentier elite of landowners whose land had been confiscated, and the economic elite of bankers, contractors, major merchants, and industrialists.

Twenty-one years later, however, there is a new Thousand Families. Members of this class also rely on nepotism to further their political and financial interests. Conservative publications, such as the 23 February "Resalat," accuse the reformists of seeking to emulate the Thousand Families by citing the relationship between President Mohammad Khatami and his brother, parliamentarian Mohammad Reza Khatami. That may be so, but reformist figures have held the reins of power for a relatively short period. Conservatives, such as former President Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, have been able to place family and friends in positions enabling them to enrich themselves.

There also are claims that political parties resemble the Thousand Families because they hand out jobs on the basis of connections. "We have been stressing the slogan of expertise, professionalism, and meritocracy," Hashtrud representative Mohammad Shahi-Arablu complained to the 7 September "Abrar," but "we have appointed those managers who are better able to secure party interests."

Regardless of who complains about the creation of the new Thousand Families, the impact of their activities is still negative. Young people realize that regardless of how well they do in university, jobs will go instead to people with the best connections. Money will not spread throughout the economy; instead it will circulate among a select group. And whether or not one votes or one is in a municipal council, political power will remain in the hands of a small cabal. (Bill Samii)

EXPORTED PHYSICIANS NEEDED AT HOME. Iranian physicians are moving to other countries, health care workers are being laid off, and the number of unemployed doctors in Iran is expected to rise. But at the same time, there are not enough doctors or medicines in the Islamic Republic, and serious health problems, such as Hepatitis-B and cholera, are on the increase.

Some 4,000 physicians, 14,000 midwives, and 17,000 nurses are unemployed, the final resolution of a seminar of Iran's medical disciplinary boards concluded, according to the 14 June "Shoma." 5,000 medical students graduate every year, "Iran Daily" reported in August, and it is predicted that there will be 12,000 unemployed doctors by March 2001. And in early November, employees of Tehran's Sina Hospital staged a protest against layoffs, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported.

In order to address the rising unemployment rate and earn some foreign exchange, Iranian physicians are being sent overseas. Between 150-200 physicians have been sent to work in Persian Gulf states already, "Iran" reported on 3 December, and others may be sent to Malaysia and Indonesia. The doctors will stay for between 6 and 24 months.

Yet the unemployment rate for health care personnel is not indicative of a saturated market place or a lack of demand for their skills. There may not be jobs for doctors in the major cities, "Iran Daily" reported, but there is a shortage of doctors in the provinces. Dr. Fatimeh Khatami of the parliamentary Health and Treatment Commission noted that "just because bigger cities are satiated with doctors does not mean that we don't need physicians anymore. There are still lots of deprived areas in the country which desperately need medical services." She suggested that the government employ young physicians to serve in deprived areas, but said this is unlikely because the Health Ministry's budget "has always been far below its actual needs."

Coinciding with the shortage of physicians is a shortage of proper medicines. Nuredin Pirmoazen, a surgeon who serves on the parliamentary Health and Treatment Commission, told the 15 November "Hayat-i No" that the lack of medicine is now a "crisis." He ascribed this problem, in great part, to the payment of subsidies for medicines and their purchase overseas, which leads to windfalls. Pirmoazen suggested that creation of a domestic pharmaceutical capability could contribute to resolution of these problems.

There are numerous health problems to address. Coronary heart disease is the biggest killer of Iranians, IRNA reported on 9 November, and cancer is the third biggest. The second biggest killer is automobile accidents, accounting for 14,000 lives. In Masjid-i Suleiman, which is an oil town, respiratory and skin diseases have increased recently, IRNA reported in September.

Dr. Reza Malekzadeh, head of the Alimentary and Liver Diseases Research Center, said that Hepatitis-B accounts for 5,000 deaths annually. He explained that 18 million people have encountered Hepatitis-B, two million people carry the disease, and 300,000 people have active cases, "Entekhab" reported on 16 October. Malekzadeh described way in which the disease is contracted: "In 50 percent of the cases, the disease is contracted by the newborn child from the mother. The other 50 percent mainly contract it via blood or body fluids in acupuncture, tattooing, traditional bloodletting [phlebotomy, "hajamat"], ear-piercing, dentistry, etc. In operations like that, if disposable equipment was not used, the chances of contracting the disease are very high." Malekzadeh pointed out the medicines for treating the disease are available in Iran, although they are relatively expensive.

There also are reports of cholera in southern Hormozgan Province. "Tehran Times" reported on 4 December that in Jask one Pakistani traveler has died of the disease and another one has been hospitalized and is undergoing treatment. In September, Chahbahar Health Network chief Dr. Habib Ghaznavi said that 51 villagers had contracted a "cholera-type" disease, "Iran Daily" reported. Discussing the outbreak with "Iran Daily" in August, Ghaznavi ascribed it to the lack of potable water in many parts of Hormozgan. (Bill Samii)

BREAD SUBSIDIES TO INCREASE. Recent rumors about the elimination of bread subsidies have caused great consternation in Iran, where the food is a major part of the diet. To allay these concerns, Mohammad Memarzadeh, managing-director of Iran's Cereal Organization, announced on 4 December that the Iranian government will continue to subsidize production of bread.

Memarzadeh explained that the price of flour in urban areas would be fixed at 40 rials per kilogram (less than 3 cents). The subsidy this year will be 6 trillion rials and next year it will be 8 trillion rials, state television reported. Memarzadeh had noted in September, according to "Iran Daily," that the provision of flour to bakers costs the government 1,800 rials per kilo.

Overhaul of the bread subsidy program is just a proposal, parliamentarian Reza Abdollahi said on 3 December, according to IRNA, and it would not start before 2005. Under this proposal, subsidies would be paid directly to the consumers, rather than to the producers. Commerce Minister Gholamhussein Shariatmadari had announced in August that elimination of bread subsidies is a major priority of the Third Five-Year Development Plan (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 14 August 2000). (Bill Samii)

RUSSIAN BORDER SECURITY MEASURES CONSIDERED. Russia and Iran intend to cooperate in countering drug trafficking, according to a statement released by the Russian Foreign Ministry after a 5 December meeting between Deputy Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov and Iran's Ambassador to Moscow, Mehdi Safari. This seems to confirm a 29 November report from ITAR-TASS that Iran will buy a Russian-made security system for its eastern border with Afghanistan. A 40-kilometer section of the border will be tested first, but according to a "diplomatic source," "some forces" in the Iranian leadership are trying to prevent the deal because they want to keep the border open.

Indeed, there is some skepticism in Tehran. Member of parliament Elahe Kulayi told the 4 December "Iran Daily" that Russia is pursuing its own interests. She suggested, "it would be more constructive for Iran to try to find a solution for the Afghan crisis." Another parliamentarian, Hassan Qashqavi, said that border security was at the top of the national security agenda, and he complained that other countries have not helped Iran.

The example of Russian Federation Federal Border Guards patrolling the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border does not inspire confidence in many Iranians. The border guards do not have modern communications equipment or optical and electronic surveillance equipment, Russian public television reported on 29 November. Smugglers are equipped with modern equipment and vehicles, as they are when entering Iran, while the Russian border guard usually patrols on foot and his surveillance equipment consists of a sheep dog. (Bill Samii)

COMING TO AMERICA. At the end of November, several members of the Iranian parliament presented a bill calling for the fingerprinting of Americans visiting their country. This is meant as retaliation against the fingerprinting and photographing of Iranians visiting the U.S., measures to which Sudanese, Iraqis, and Libyans also are subject.

The purpose of the Iranian bill would be, state radio reported on 28 November, "giving the country's security officials a mission to initiate a complete archive on the background of American nationals who arrive in the country and stop undesirable elements and those who intend to disrupt the country's security from arriving in the country." Some parliamentary deputies are afraid that such a bill will be harmful to foreign investment, "Iran Daily" reported on 5 November.

In a similar vein, there were complaints at the recent Middle East Studies Association conference in Orlando about the difficulty Iranians have in getting visas to visit the U.S. One should have a sense of proportion, however, because about 25,000 Iranians received visas to visit the U.S. last year while less than 1,000 Americans got visas for Iran. American scholars and journalists never know if their next application for an Iranian visa will be denied because of some perceived misdeed, and human rights observers rarely get Iranian visas.

A related complaint one hears is that Iranians must travel to a third country (such as Turkey) to apply for their U.S. visas. But the Iranian government is responsible for these abnormal obstacles to the visa process. Both Iran and the U.S. have "Interests Sections" in their respective capitals, per a 1981 agreement. The Islamic Republic will not allow the U.S. to have a diplomatic presence in Iran, and the U.S. Interests Section in Tehran is staffed with a handful of Swiss diplomats and about 10 locals. The Iranian Interests Section in Washington is staffed with around 100 people, most of whom are either Iranians with Green Cards or are now U.S. citizens, and they are authorized to issue visas. What this also means is that the Iranian Interest Section employees can travel anywhere in the U.S., whereas Iranian diplomats assigned to the United Nations in New York are restricted to a 25-mile circle. Waivers to that restriction are granted with some frequency, and an Iranian diplomat actually attended the MESA conference in Florida. (Bill Samii)

ISRAELI CHEMICAL SUPPLIER AND RON ARAD. Nahum Manbar, an Israeli convicted in July 1998 for supplying Iran with the raw materials for manufacturing chemical weapons, on 5 December lost his appeal against a 16-year jail sentence. Charges against Manbar include aiding an enemy country, attempting to aid an enemy country, and giving information to an enemy state with the intent of harming national security. Manbar signed a contract and entered agreements with a representative of the Iranian government to supply the Islamic Republic with the knowledge and equipment to build plants that could manufacture five types of poison gas, Tel Aviv's "Haaretz" reported on 6 December. Manbar fulfilled the terms of his contract and received several million dollars.

But this is not a simple story of greed. Manbar claimed that his dealings with Iran were actually directed at getting information about Ron Arad, an Israeli air force navigator whose aircraft went down over Lebanon in 1986 and who is presumably in captivity in Iran. Manbar did have high-level contacts: Deputy Iranian Defense Minister Majid Hassan Abbaspur and Tehran businessman Fereidun Sadeq Baniki Movazelani, "Yediot Aharanot" reported in September. Israeli intelligence sources argue that Manbar pretended to seek information on Arad while actually pursuing profits, and all he ever did was provide a bogus videotape and some skin samples that failed a genetic test.

Manbar, on the other hand, claimed in a July 1998 interview with "Yediot Aharanot" that Israeli security agencies were after him "in order to cover up their failures, especially on the subject of Ron Arad." He also claimed that he only supplied Iran with thionyl chloride, a multipurpose chemical, and he had permission from the security services. In the interview, Manbar claimed that his being singled out for supplying chemicals was unfair because other Israeli firms have supplied Iran with military supplies. A July 1998 report in the "Jerusalem Post" notes that "in the late-1980s and early-1990s, a host of Israeli defense contractors sold their goods to Iran. ...In most cases the equipment was sold via European countries, but with the knowledge and permission of the Defense Ministry's SIBAT arms export agency." Iran also has purchased chemicals from Israeli firms (see "RFE/RL Iran Report, 17 January 2000). (Bill Samii)