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Iran Report: January 28, 1999

28 January 1999, Volume 2, Number 3

INTELLIGENCE MINISTER'S RESIGNATION DEMANDED. When news broke that Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) personnel were behind the murders of Iranian intellectuals and opposition figures, various people called for the resignation of Intelligence Minister Hojatoleslam Qorban-Ali Dori-Najafabadi. Some thought he should bear the responsibility for the failure to properly oversee his organization. And perhaps they saw it as an opportunity to undermine the conservatives, who continue to control key ministries. At this point, however, it appears likely that he will stay in place and still has the support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei and President Mohammad Khatami.

The conservative bazaari newspaper "Resalat" and London's "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" on 6 January reported rumors that the president had refused to accept Dori-Najafabadi's offer to resign. On 7 January, the moderate newspapers "Hamshahri" and "Salam" predicted that Dori-Najafabadi would resign, while "Keyhan" said the offer to resign had been submitted and was rejected. During an 8 January sermon by Isfahan prayer leader Ayatollah Jalal Taheri, people chanted for the resignation of Dori-Najafabadi. On 11 January, 300 (AFP reported) �500 plus (AP reported) -1000 (IRNA reported) students demonstrated in Tehran for Dori-Najafabadi's resignation.

But Rutgers University Professor Houshang Amirahmadi believes a resignation is not the answer. In an 9 January interview with RFE/RL's Persian Service, he remarked "Shuffling one cabinet minister with another is not going to [bring about reform]. ... Dori-Najafabadi may be a good man, but he is powerless if his ministry has some structural problems. ... You can fire and imprison every corrupt official in your government, but still you're not dealing with the structural problems of these ministries."

Hashem Aqajari of the leftist Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization (not to be confused with the Iraqi-funded Mujahedin Khalq Organization) said the structural reform would come about only if the Intelligence Minister was dismissed, "Khordad" argued on 11 January. The pro-Khatami Islamic Iran Participation Party echoed this theme in a statement published in "Salam" on 11 January. The daily "Aria" on 13 January and the weekly "Aban" even identified possible replacements for Dori-Najafabadi.

But on 10 January, the "Tehran Times" said in large headlines that although Dori-Najafabadi had submitted his resignation, the president had refused to accept it. The newspaper wrote that Dori-Najafabadi deserved the credit for uncovering the plotters and Khamenei deserved credit for ordering the findings be publicized. On 13 January, 180 parliamentarians wrote a letter to Khamenei expressing "appreciation" for his and the Intelligence Minister's discovery of the plot. It is ironic that Dori-Najafabadi is praised for uncovering the murderers and has the full support of his superiors. After all, on 4 December he had claimed that newspapers had sensationalized one of the murders and "behaved irresponsibly when they said that the death was suspicious." (Bill Samii)

WHO IS TO BLAME FOR IRAN'S RECENT PROBLEMS? The murders of intellectuals and opposition politicians, the arrest of Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) officers, as well as commentary that preceded and followed these events, point to three possibilities. First, "ghostly spirits" may be active in Iran. Second, Iran is a hotbed of political conspiracies and secret cabals. Or third, the regime is trying to find a foreign scapegoat to avoid responsibility for its own shortcomings.

Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) official Mehdi Hashemi was convicted of murder and plotting against the government and was executed in 1987, but apparently his spirit lives on. On 10 January 1999, Shiraz Friday Prayer leader and Assembly of Experts member Hojatoleslam Haeri-Shirazi said the killers in the MOIS are associated with Mehdi Hashemi's gang, according to "Keyhan," a hard-line daily under the direct supervision of the Supreme Leader's Office.

But despite his death, Mehdi Hashemi has remained an active force in Iranian affairs, if conservative officials are to be believed. During the May 1998 riots in Isfahan, an IRGC commander said Mehdi Hashemi's gang was to blame. And people guided by Mehdi Hashemi's spirit are said to have committed the crime of contacting American reporters, too (RFE/RL Iran Report, vol. 1, no. 3).

But Ayatollah Jalal Taheri of Isfahan is more skeptical. On 12 January, he told "Aria" that "whoever they want to remove from the scene, they say he's part of Mehdi Hashemi's gang." The Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance in Isfahan requested further information on the Mehdi Hashemi gang, reported "Khordad" on 13 January, but got no response.

Others say that the murders were committed by agents of a secret cabal, according to reports in the "Iran Press Service" on 3 January and the Saudi-funded, Paris-based "al-Watan al-Arabi" on 8 January. Their reports claim the Fadaiyan-i Islam is the real power in Iran with such members as Ayatollahs Ali Khamenei, Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Mohammad Yazdi, Ahmad Jannati, Mohammad Emami-Kashani, and Hojatoleslam Mohsen Rafiqdust, as well as IRGC leaders Mohsen Rezai and Yahya Rahim Safavi. Former Intelligence Minister Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Fallahian runs the organization's Special Operations Committee, which deals with assassinations and which has secret cells throughout the country's security institutions. London-based journalist Ali Reza Nourizadeh told RFE/RL's Persian Service that he believes 31 senior members of the Intelligence Ministry and the IRGC Intelligence branch were among the 211 arrested plotters.

Some have decided the easiest thing to do is blame another country. Parliamentarian Sayyid Valiollah Tavakoli said the real problem lies with foreign radio stations, because by reporting on the discovery of the murderers in the Intelligence Ministry they are undermining people's confidence in the security forces, "Keyhan" said on 13 January. A similar comment came from Hojatoleslam Seyyed Ebrahim Raisi, Chief of the National Control and Inspection Organization, which is charged with combating corruption and supervision of proper implementation of laws and which is in turn supervised by the Judiciary. In a 13 January interview with "Keyhan", Raisi warned that whenever the Intelligence Ministry is somehow weakened the people suffer a blow.

"Tehran Times" on 11 January also accused foreign Persian-language radio stations of trying to "tarnish Iran's image" by broadcasting news about the arrests of Intelligence Ministry personnel. This claim pales in comparison to one broadcast by Iranian state radio on 15 December: It accused America of committing the murders so it could then broadcast information which made Iran look unstable.

Secretary General of the Islamic Coalition Association Habibollah Asghar-Owladi said at his organization's 11 January meeting: "Some are trying to attribute to the internal forces, the masterminding of the scenarios for the recent murders which are among the most sophisticated plots hatched so far by the CIA, Mossad and their collaborators ..." 180 parliamentarians, in a 13 January letter to Supreme Leader Khamenei, attributed the murders to "agents of the aliens" who intended to "eliminate some personalities devoted to the Islamic system".

At the 15 January Friday Prayers in Shahr-e Rey, Dori-Najafabadi told the congregation that the Intelligence Ministry should be "regarded as a blessing" He went on to say that "the hands of the Zionist regime can be seen in about 90 percent of the conspiracies in the region which are directed against Iran." (Bill Samii)

MONTAZERI AGAIN CRITICIZES INTELLIGENCE MINISTER. Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri discussed the Intelligence Ministry in a 12 January interview with "Khordad," the new Tehran daily founded by former Interior Minister, and former Montazeri student, Hojatoleslam Abdullah Nouri. He said that the intelligence minister should be dismissed, because with information about the killings coming to light, people's confidence in the government is being shaken.

Criticism of Montazeri, deputy to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini until his 1989 dismissal from that position, has been particularly harsh, although this is not the first time that he has criticized Intelligence Minister Dori-Najafabadi. In a May 1998 speech, Montazeri said that the ministry was out of order, and by keeping the same personnel, Dori-Najafabadi would become a mere rubber stamp and on par with his subordinates. "One has to change the whole structure of that ministry to make it into a real Intelligence Ministry and not an infiltration, intimidation, and harassment ministry."

After the speech, in which he also criticized Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Montazeri was placed under house arrest. Because of his seniority and large following, the authorities could not risk imprisoning him. But at least ten of his senior associates were arrested, among them his son-in-law Hojatoleslam Hadi Hashemi, the brother of Mehdi Hashemi. In mid-November Intelligence Ministry personnel resumed physical intimidation of Montazeri's supporters and isolation of his home. There was even speculation that Montazeri would be defrocked.

On 21 December, "Khordad" published a letter from Montazeri, in which he alluded to the current atmosphere of intimidation and insinuation.

He wrote: "a curious self-censorship has appeared among the nation and a state of terror has gripped many people." He urged writers to "tackle unnecessary and ostentatious expenditure which comes from the public purse." "Shoma," the Islamic Coalition Association organ, criticized Nouri for publishing the letter and accused Montazeri of sedition from which Khomeini had saved the nation by dismissing him, reported "Akhbar" on 2 January.

But Montazeri was not to be silenced. On 10 January he gave a speech which was summarized in "Sobh-i Imruz" the next day. After referring to the recent murders of dissidents as "bitter events" and "treason" which had given Islam and Iran a bad name, he turned to a discussion of the country's intelligence needs, thereby indirectly criticizing the Ministry, its personnel, and its chief. He emphasized the importance of good intelligence by citing Napoleon's maxim that a good spy is worth a thousand soldiers.

Montazeri added that if intelligence officers harass the citizenry, such actions will create a distance between them. He then laid out the requirements for recruiting and training good people so "Islam, the revolution, and the country" will not be embarrassed. The intelligence minister must have the confidence of the people and his subordinates, he said, thereby suggesting that Dori-Najafabadi does not. Montazeri also implied that the Intelligence Minister should be punished, saying that although it is possible for some people to retire or be reassigned, that is insufficient to repair the damage.

Montazeri's comments appear to have frightened certain Iranians. "Resalat," which is associated with conservative bazaar merchants and Expediency Council chairman Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, criticized the newspapers that quoted Montazeri and asked if they wanted to follow in the steps of the now-banned "Tus" and "Jameh" newspapers. Why was Montazeri getting involved in politics, "Resalat" asked, when Khomeini had instructed him not to. "Resalat" repeated Khomeini's concern that Montazeri would deliver Iran to the "hypocritical opposition," and cited Khomeini's anger with Montazeri for repeatedly defending the life of Mehdi Hashemi. It was the Mehdi Hashemi gang, "Resalat" charged, that had committed "the only precedent for the recent murders in the revolution's history." (Bill Samii)

TRADE SITUATION THREATENS ECONOMY. The arrest of a criminal gang in the Ministry of Intelligence and Security is not the only story in the Iranian press, nor is it Iranians' only concern. Economic affairs and trade are more directly relevant to peoples' daily lives. But the unstable political atmosphere is having a negative impact on foreign trade, and that in turn will only worsen the general standard of living.

In November, Morteza Alviri, head of the Free Trade Zone Council, told the "Hamshahri" daily that foreigners feel encouraged to invest by President Mohammad Khatami's policies. Also parliament was considering a law to reimburse investors for anything nationalized in the free trade zones. Some 14 foreign banks, including ones from Saudi Arabia, Dubai, and Switzerland, were considering establishment of branches in the free-trade zones pending approval of the law, according to a September Reuters report.

Parliament approved the law, but the conservative Guardian Council did not. The council said, according to a 6 January report from the Islamic Republic News Agency, that under the Iranian constitution banks and insurance companies must be controlled by the state.

When the Central Bank of Iran announced on 5 January a negative trade balance of $829 million for the period from March through September 1998, "Iran News" on 11 January asked "Who's Guilty?" Over reliance on oil revenues to balance the books was blamed. The newspaper complained that there is insufficient privatization and too much government interference in the market. The newspaper also complained that there are "insurmountable obstacles" for exporters.

In December, amidst publicity about the murders and attacks on Americans, Parliamentarian Hojatoleslam Majid Ansari asked "How can we expect foreign companies to invest in Iran when the security of our foreign guests is not provided by the Law Enforcement Forces?" (A conservative, he was attempting to undermine the Interior Ministry). Former Heavy Industry Minister Behzad Nabavi, speaking as a member of the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization, repeated this theme in an interview with "Khordad" on 30 December.

Ansari and Nabavi are right that investors are deeply interested in a country's political atmosphere and its general stability. But the political risk analysts employed by multinational corporations consider more straight-forward factors like return on investment and the risk of nationalization. Only when Iranian law guarantees the security of investments is the trade balance likely to improve significantly. (Bill Samii)

AZERI SEPARATIST SEEKS ASYLUM IN BAKU. The recent killings and arrests in Iran are having an impact in the Republic of Azerbaijan, too. The Goettingen-based Society for Threatened Peoples (Gesellschaft fuer Bedrohte Voelker) on 13 January wrote to Azerbaijan's President Heidar Aliev, requesting that Iranian citizen Mohammad Ali Galibi receive "permanent political asylum" because his life would be at risk were he to be returned to Iran. Galibi reportedly is a founder of the separatist "New Union" organization in Iran (RFE/RL Iran Report, vol. 2, no. 2). (Bill Samii)

FOUNDATION'S FACTORIES MAY CLOSE. Eight textile factories belonging to the Oppressed and Disabled Foundation (Bonyad-i Mostazafan va Janbazan) currently are unable to make payments on their loans and may be forced to close by 20 March, according to Iranian media. The closure could leave 8,000 people unemployed. Rahim Bonya Molavi, deputy managing director for textile industries, told "Iran Times" on 12 January that some of the reforms which could prevent such events are an import ban on textiles; export bonuses; revision of labor laws; and the implementation of direct taxation. To reduce chances of such factory closures, "Kar va Kargar" wrote on 13 January, the government should "find new ways to boost industry." There have been calls in the parliament to end the tax-exempt status of the semi-governmental foundations. (Bill Samii)

LOW INTEREST IN COUNCIL ELECTIONS. In 6 percent of Iran's villages, February's council elections will not be held because too few candidates have registered. But as bad as things are with elections in the rural areas, they may be worse in the cities: The Interior Ministry official in charge of electoral affairs Javad Qadimi Zakeri told IRNA on 11 January that the number of candidates in villages is eight times more than in cities. Some 2.2 percent of the registered candidates are women, he said. According to the 4 January "Iran News," the elections should be postponed because the Interior Ministry originally predicted 1 million candidates would register. Parliamentarian Seyyed Morteza Salehi-Khansari faulted the media for not publicizing the elections adequately. Dr. Fariborz Rais-Dana told "Tehran Times" on 11 January that interest is low because people believe that they will be forced to vote in favor of certain candidates." This is not without precedent. In a 1 November 1998 "New York Times Magazine" report on "The Post-Khomeini Generation," Jafar Azadi said he voted in the 1997 election because "that was the only way he could get his identity card stamped to make him eligible for food ration coupons." (Bill Samii)

RULES FOR FLAG-BURNING? Saveh IRGC Commander Mustafa Bujari said during a recent discussion of plans for World Qods (Jerusalem) Day that America's flag will not be burned at the ceremonies this year because the flag represents the American people rather than its government. He was quoted in "Khordad" on 13 as saying that "we will burn only the flag of the occupiers of Qods." But on Qods Day itself, 15 January, IRNA reported that demonstrators in Tehran chanted "death to the U.S." and "death to Israel," and then they set the flags of Israel and the U.S. on fire while chanting "Allah Akbar." The report stated that President Mohammad Khatami and other officials were among the demonstrators. Two days earlier Iranian political leaders met with "leading members of jihad groups of Lebanon and Palestine," including Abu-Mohammad Mustafa from Hamas, Abu-Jihad from the Islamic Jihad Movement, and Seyyed Abdullah Safieddin of Lebanon's Hizbullah, IRNA reported. (Bill Samii)