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Iran Report: January 25, 1999

25 January 1999, Volume 2, Number 4

FACTIONALISM MAY LEAD TO PRIVATE BROADCASTING. On 17 January, Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance Ataollah Mohajerani warned Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) about entering into factional politics. Not only was the warning too late, but it is quite possible that such factionalism may lead to the establishment of Iran's first private television stations.

Mohajerani's warning came after a recent broadcast of the television program "Cheraq," in which one of the guests, Iranian documents center head and former Intelligence Ministry official Hojatoleslam Ruhollah Husseinian, said the spate of murders in Iran were the work of the "left faction" -- in other words, President Mohammad Khatami's supporters.

Mohajerani said "those who are trying to attribute the recent killings to the so-called right or left factions are on the wrong path." He went on to claim that article 175 of the Iranian Constitution gives the media the "constitutional right to disseminate factional issues," but it must "abstain from entering into factional propaganda." (In fact, article 175 does not mention factionalism). Mohajerani went on to say that the Supreme National Security Council met in the presence of IRIB chief Ali Ardeshir-Larijani when it decided not to air programs about the murders, so it was only appropriate for Larijani to apologize, on the air, to President Khatami.

Ayatollah Mirza Javad Gharavi Aliari objected to the airing of factional issues on public television, reported "Sobh-i Imruz" on 14 January. The "Iran Daily" on 19 January referred to Husseinian's performance as "perhaps the low point of poison partisan politics to date." There were also reports that Larijani, who was appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would be banned from cabinet meetings. This is a hollow threat, since the broadcast director does not have ministerial rank and attends the meetings only as an observer.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Persian Service, Nottingham-on-Trent University Professor Ali Mohammadi said IRIB's problems go beyond factionalism. He said IRIB originally was to be run by a council of cabinet members, the judiciary head, and the speaker of parliament. But now it is effectively under the Supreme Leader, while it should be supervised by the president.

Mohammadi went on to say that the critical TV program was run the same night that a critical article was run in the "Keyhan" newspaper. This is because the management of both IRIB and "Keyhan" are selected by the Supreme Leader, so "they give each other mutual support. They have no relation to the government of the president, � They sometimes work against the president." The president's office would like to regain control of IRIB's management, Mohammadi told RFE/RL, but this is opposed strongly by the Supreme Leader's office and those who benefit from the current arrangement. Mohammadi speculated that Iranians may demand private radio and television stations if the current arrangement continues.

The daily "Iran News," which allegedly is close to Expediency Council head Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, may have picked up on the RFE/RL broadcast, and on 20 January it called for "privatization of television and cable stations." It editorialized that, because IRIB must be "absolutely non-partisan," private stations are needed so they are free "to criticize any political faction or figure." Furthermore, privatization would save money for the government. (Bill Samii)

GOVERNMENT REACTS TO ULTRACONSERVATIVES -- BY ARRESTING THEIR OPPONENTS. Sermons given by Isfahan's Ayatollah Jalaledin Taheri in the last two weeks have been the occasion for violence by ultraconservatives, as well as repression of dissident religious leaders by the conservatives' supporters within the Iranian government.

Prior to Isfahan's Friday prayers on 15 January, IRNA reported, people started chanting slogans and throwing objects at the pulpit. The ensuing "commotion" prevented Ayatollah Jalal Taheri from giving his sermon. "Salam" reported that the 14 January arrest of some local clerics, later identified by "Arya" and "Khordad" on 19 January as Mansour Yar-Mohammadian, Mohammad Khairollahi, Ali Shahnavazi, and Alireza Farzaneh-Khu, led to the incident. On 17 January, the Interior Ministry launched an investigation to determine who had caused the disruption.

Some Isfahan residents told RFE/RL's Persian service that there were many strangers in the crowd of worshippers, and they started whistling, chanting, and throwing objects. Mr. Madah, Taheri's spokesman in Isfahan, said in a 16 January interview with RFE/RL's Persian Service that although personnel from "Revolutionary Guards, Intelligence, and Isfahan's police" were present, they did not act. Taheri hoped that by commencing the prayer, order would be restored, but the chanting just got more violent. Then, the protesters cut the loudspeaker cables and cut off the power to prevent the sermon. Wanting to avoid further violence, Taheri left.

Taheri's spokesman said the event was "absolutely" an attack against the Khatami government, but "it will end in favor of the people and the government."

Taheri refused to back down. "Sobh-i Imruz" quoted him as saying: "I will stand next to these loyal people until my last breath. I will not resign as long as I'm alive, unless I am ousted. I see resignation as a form of escaping the scene. That would be criminal. I would never commit such treachery."

Taheri promised to make up for the missed sermon and on 18 January some 70,000 people attended his sermon marking Eid-i Fitr, the end of the holy month of Ramadan. At the service's end, reported "Salam" and "Tehran Times" newspapers, supporters of Ayatollah Hossein Montazeri chanted slogans in his favor. These individuals were arrested. "Asr-i Azadigan," however, reports on 21 January that Taheri had to preach using a hand-carried loudspeaker, rather than the public address system which mysteriously failed, and that the violence erupted when opponents and supporters of Taheri confronted each other and were subsequently dispersed by the authorities.

These are not the first disruptions of Taheri's sermons. Nor are they the first occasions when he has run afoul of Iran's conservatives. In the past, Taheri denounced government corruption. Most recently, Taheri ridiculed accusations that killers in the Intelligence Ministry were part of Mehdi Hashemi's gang. Also, Taheri is recognized as a supporter of Ayatollah Hussein Montazeri, who is a vocal critic of conservative political figures in the regime and who some see as a potential threat and rival for power. Despite these factors, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei finds it impossible to replace Taheri because he was appointed by Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In an interview with "Salam" on 20 January, the secretary of the Islamic Association of University Professors, Najafgholi Habibi, described Taheri as "one of the most loyal companions of the late Imam ..."

The disruptions alarm other senior clerics, too. Ayatollah Abai Khorasani told "Sobh-i Imruz" on 19 January that if such incidents are not prevented and their causes not eliminated, "even the highest-ranking officials of the country, including the Supreme Leader and the president would not be immune from such attacks." (Bill Samii)

MONTAZERI FALLOUT. "Asr-e Azadegan" newspaper reported on 20 January that the Supreme National Security Council had approved lifting the restrictions on Ayatollah Hussein Montazeri, but the relevant agencies had not acted. This seems farfetched, because shortly thereafter, "Khordad" Director Hojatoleslam Abdullah Nouri was summoned before the Special Court for the Clergy for violating the press law, reported "Arya" on 19 January. Nouri told "Arya" he would not attend the court because press issues are not within its jurisdiction. Last week, "Resalat" newspaper, which is associated with conservative bazaaris, published an editorial suggesting "Khordad" newspaper might be banned for publishing statements made by Ayatollah Hossein Montazeri. (Bill Samii)

HIZBULLAH THREATENED AGAIN. "Zan" newspaper reported on 19 January that Hussein Allahkaram of the Ansar-i Hizbullah, the group which is usually associated with violent activities in support of conservative causes, fears that blame for the recent murders of Iranian intellectuals and dissident politicians will be pinned on his organization. He said that an unspecified "they" had mounted a month-long publicity campaign to put the blame on Hizbullah members acting on the orders of the clergy.

Allahkaram may have a point. "Shalamcheh," his organization's publication, was banned recently. Founded in 1996 by veterans of the Iran-Iraq War, "Shalamcheh" was "the voice of hard-line fundamentalists and right-wing pressure groups," reported RFE/RL's Persian Service recently. It also practiced "investigative journalism" by exposing corruption among government officials, which may be the real reason for its downfall, although the publicly stated reason for the closure was that the publication had said the late Grand Ayatollah Khoei was on the payroll of SAVAK, the Intelligence and Security Organization, from 1957 to 1979. The publisher of Hizbullah's publication said he would soon be launching a new weekly called "Jebhe."

On 20 January, "Tehran Times," which is published by an arm of the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance, reported that "Shalamcheh" was closed because it made negative remarks about "Zan" Director and Khatami ally Faezeh Hashemi after she was "chosen as the woman of the year by an Italian magazine along with some personalities who are famous for their corruption." Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Ataollah Mohajerani reacted by "using his influence ... to secure the closure of ["Shalamcheh"]." (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN MILITARY PERCEPTIONS. A recent feature article in the Iranian armed forces journal "Saff" describes Iran's objectives in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. The article shows how the Iranian armed forces perceive U.S. strategic interests in the Gulf. It may thus prove to be particularly important because these perceptions are a major factor in shaping Iranian military policy.

The article describes Iran as the "first country to come forward" when the British left the region in 1971. The article fails to mention, however, that this action stemmed from the Iranian monarch's ambition to be the regional "gendarme," a desire fueled by (a) the Nixon Doctrine, in which U.S. allies would become more self-sufficient militarily; and (b) aggressive sales tactics by Western arms dealers.

Because of its naval victories in the Iran-Iraq War, the article says, the Iranian Navy established overall control over the Gulf, but this alarmed the U.S., which began to expand its activities. Such activities included, the article claims, participation in the battle of Faw, "recapturing this port city from Iran and handing it back to Iraq." Since then, America's main concern has been to establish itself as the unipolar security guarantor in the region, in exchange for which "America was to demand full political, financial, and infrastructural support from its allies." The presence of American military forces in Bahrain, Jordan, Diego Garcia, and the Rapid Deployment Force are all part of this scheme, the article states.

The article then makes an implicit threat. "[The] recent bomb explosions in [Saudi] Arabia serve as reminders that no matter how strong and how sophisticated American military muscle might be, it is still no match for the dedication of the strugglers. If anything, the sophisticated and ultra-modern military hardware would provide tempting targets for the attacks by those strugglers."

According to the article, the West has eight major goals in the region: 1) Security of the seas to transport Persian Gulf oil to the West. 2) Preventing any country, especially a regional one, from wielding influence in the Persian Gulf or spreading Islamic ideology there. 3) Ensuring the safety of investments. 4) Political stability in friendly states. 5) "Ensuring that the regional countries continue to toe the line as set by the arrogant powers." 6) Preventing non-nuclear countries from acquiring nuclear weapons. 7) "Encouraging separatist movements in the non-friendly countries of the region, and if possible, bringing about the disintegration of those countries." 8) Causing occasional crises in "non-friendly countries" which will weaken their governments. (Bill Samii)

WHO WILL BE THE NEXT INTELLIGENCE MINISTER? As soon as suggestions came that Minister of Intelligence and Security Qorban Ali Dori-Najafabadi might have to resign because personnel under him had been implicated in the recent murders of intellectuals and dissident politicians, rumors followed about his possible replacement. "Hamshahri" reported that parliamentarian and Assembly of Experts member Hojatoleslam Majid Ansari is the most likely candidate, although he denied this rumor in "Resalat" on 20 January. Some see Ansari as a Rafsanjani/Khatami ally who voiced support for ties between Iran and the U.S. in January 1998.

The "Tehran Times" reports that Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi will probably be the replacement. Yunesi was the public prosecutor whose investigations of financial improprieties led to the disqualification of parliamentary candidates in 1992, and by 1996 he had become head of the armed forces judicial department. "Zan" reports that possible replacements are Yunesi, Ansari, or Hojatoleslam Mohammad Esmail Shushtari. Shushtari is currently the justice minister and served in this position during the Rafsanjani administration.

"Iran" mentions all these candidates plus Mohammad Mohammadi Reyshahri (see RFE/RL Iran Report, 11 January 1999). Some sources cite Ali Rabii as the next intelligence minister, although IRNA reports that he was offered a job he has held before, that of deputy intelligence minister. (Bill Samii)

IRAN STILL ACTIVE IN BOSNIA, BUT OBJECTIVES UNCLEAR. On 12 January Ambassador Seyyed Homayoun Amir Khalili presented his credentials to Bosnia-Herzegovina Presidency Chairman Zivko Radisic. Comparing Khalili�s background with that of his predecessor may indicate a shift in Iran's approach towards Bosnia-Herzegovina. But Iran's activities in Sarajevo indicate continuing participation in military and intelligence operations.

Khalili told Sarajevo's pro-Alija Izetbegovic (Muslim member of the Bosnian presidency) "Dnevni Avaz" newspaper on 8 January that prior to his current assignment he was director of a foreign affairs think-tank in Tehran, and before that he was ambassador to Sofia. These assignments are fairly benign compared to those of his predecessor, Mohammad Taherian. Taherian was ambassador to Afghanistan, and, according to an April 1996 Congressional Research Service study, "he helped funnel Iranian aid to Shiite guerrilla groups."

In his interview, Khalili stressed Iran's acceptance of the 1995 Dayton Accords. He went on to describe Iran's desire to invest in Bosnia-Herzegovina and to say investment is an "important item" in his mission. But before any investment occurs, he warned, Iran must analyze the country's laws and degree of privatization. He went on to say that Iran is especially interested in the agricultural and industrial sectors.

This is not the first time Iran has expressed an interest in Bosnian industry. A few years ago Iran wanted to invest in a steel mill in Zenica, a town 60 kilometers west of Sarajevo. This fell through, however, and the Kuwait Investment Agency stepped in.

But it appears that Iran is interested in more than trade and investment. The Iranian community in Sarajevo keeps a low profile and mainly engages in business, a Balkan affairs analyst said after a recent trip to Sarajevo. The Iranian cultural center, however, is believed to be the site of "aggressive ideological training." Bosnian Muslims, Sandzaks, and Afghans are seen there often, as are Kosovar Albanian refugees and Albanians who served with the Bosnian Muslim forces. These people work in a wide variety of jobs, leading the analyst to believe that they are well placed for intelligence gathering.

This is not the first time observers have questioned Iranian motives in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In the early 1990s Iran -- in its self-perceived role as a leader of the Islamic community -- persuaded the Organization of the Islamic Conference to call for an end to the international arms embargo on Bosnia. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati created and led an Iranian aid agency called the Bosnia-Herzegovina Support Headquarters, and he traveled to Bosnia in 1992. The Oppressed and Disabled Foundation (Bonyad-i Mostazafan va Janbazan) provided aid, too. Iran also made an offer, never accepted, of military personnel for a U.N. peacekeeping force.

So Iran began provision of military aid. Substantial Iranian military support began in March 1994 after Croatia and Bosnia formed an alliance. In September 1994, the "Washington Times" reported that Bosnia's government asked Iran for arms, night-vision equipment, and guerrilla warfare specialists. U.S. government officials described "regular shipments" of weapons flown from Iran and Lebanon via Croatia. RFE/RL's South Balkan service reports that 30 percent of all those shipments stayed in Croatia. By April 1995, reported "The Washington Post," it was clear that, with the U.S. administration's tacit approval, "hundreds of tons" of weapons and ammunition from Iran came to Bosnia.

Reports emerged that 350 to 400 men from Iran�s Revolutionary Guards Corps and Lebanon�s Hizballah were serving there, but Iran denied this. Also, personnel from Iran�s Ministry of Intelligence and Security were working with their Bosnian counterparts in the Agency for Investigation and Documentation. At that point, Western officials were "deeply concerned" about the possibility of a suicide bombing against NATO forces, reported "Jane's Intelligence Review" in March 1996.

But when nine Iranians were detained in the Croat-held part of Bosnia in February 1996, IRNA described them as Koran recitors traveling the region to organize concerts. Iran's foreign minister said any Iranians in Bosnia were involved in humanitarian work and none of them were "fighters." In January 1997, Iran's foreign minister denied funding Bosnia's main Muslim party or then-Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic's election campaign, saying any money from Iran was for humanitarian purposes. That February, Clinton administration officials said they believed that Bosnia's ties with Iranian intelligence services were severed and Iran was being edged out of the country. A White House spokesman said: "[Bosnia] is not conducting an operational intelligence program with the Iranian government or a military assistance program with the Iranian government." Under the terms of the Dayton peace agreement engineered by the U.S., all foreign fighters had to leave the former Yugoslavia.

Such denials and statements were, at best, overly optimistic. On 28 November 1997, "The New York Times" reported that Western and Bosnian officials believed more than 200 Iranian intelligence agents were mounting extensive information gathering operations in Bosnia and infiltrated the U.S. program to train the Bosnian army. Furthermore, they were to "sow dissension between Muslim and ethnic Croat officers." A Western observer described the Iranians' activities as a "classic intelligence program" in which agents were placed as journalists and aid workers and then awaited activation, wrote "The New York Times."

At his party's annual conference on 12 January, Izetbegovic asked "Are we going to accept Europe and take our people toward European integration; are we going to create a civil state with less ethnic emotions with the domination of what we call Western civilization?" The possibility remains that, despite superficial personnel changes, Iran intends to be part of that decision. (Bill Samii)