Accessibility links

Breaking News

Iran Report: February 22, 1999

22 February 1999, Volume 2, Number 8

IRANIANS CONDEMN VIOLENCE AT HOME. On the days following the revolution's twentieth anniversary on 11 February, there were a number of violent incidents which may have the effect of galvanizing public opinion against any such events in the future. But statements by some figures in state institutions make this seem, at best, problematic. In two cases, they said the victims had only themselves to blame, and in a third case, they ascribed the violence to chance or outside forces.

Meanwhile, some of President Mohammad Khatami's supporters are criticizing his inaction and failure to deliver on his promises of "civil society and rule of law."

In the holy city of Qom on 11 February a mob attacked Hojatoleslam Hadi Khamenei, publisher of the daily "Jahan-i Islam" and brother of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Ultraconservatives dislike Hadi Khamenei because he is close to President Khatami. The mob chanted "Death to Khatami" and shredded photographs of the president, while counter-demonstrators chanted "Khatami fights on," reported RFE/RL's Persian Service.

Around that date, another mob prevented Abbas Abdi, editor of the daily "Salam" and a former hostage-taker who is now a Khatami supporter, from giving a speech in Qom. In east Tehran, Hojatoleslam Mehdi Mahdavi-Karubi was attacked while leaving the Jalali Khomeini Mosque, "Iran Daily" reported on 14 February. Karubi leads the relatively liberal religio-political Militant Clerics Association. The same day, Rasul Montajabnia of the Militant Clerics Association was beaten up in Qom, Agence France Presse reported on 13 February.

In Sanandaj, a predominantly Kurdish town, there were reportedly demonstrations and about 30 people were arrested on 11 February, reported "Abrar." On 13 February, a German businessman was kidnapped and murdered in Tehran. In Jajarm in northeastern Iran, there were several days of violence, reported Agence France Presse on 18 February.

Many in Iran are fed up with the violence. The attack on Hadi Khamenei was condemned in a 13 February letter signed by the managing directors of "Salam," "Khordad," "Sobh-i Imruz," "Hamshahri," "Akhbar," "Iran," "Etelaat," "Iran News," "Zan," "Arya," and "Kar va Kargar." The letter said the attack shamed Iran by discrediting "the government and people in the eyes of the world." Also, if a cleric like Khamenei is attacked, it will not be long before there are other attacks, "divesting the rest of senior religious figures and seminarians of all dignity." The Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture also condemned the attack on Khamenei, as did the "Society of Lecturers and Researchers at Qom's Theological Seminary." Ebrahim Asgharzadeh of the Office for Strengthening Unity, a loose grouping of pro-Khatami Islamist associations comprised mainly of student groups, said Khatami's government must be given the means to guarantee people's security, reported "Khordad" on 15 February. Another student group, the "Society for Khorasan Students at Tehran Universities" characterized the attacks on revolutionary figures as the last gasp of those guilty of the recent string of murders, the pro-Khatami "Arya" said on 15 February.

Conservative figures also criticized the violence, but for other reasons. Mohammad Mohajeri of "Kayhan," which is affiliated with the Supreme Leader's office, said comments by Abdi and Khamenei were "the root cause of violence and clashes [in Qom]," so they, as well as the attackers, should be condemned, according to the "Tehran Times" on 15 February. Qom seminarian Hojatoleslam Musavian said the religious students are worried by the events caused by Khatami's election and they have decided to bring these events to an end as quickly as possible, the "Zan" daily reported on 15 February.

Parliamentarian Rajab Rahmani suggested that Hadi Khamenei staged the attack to get attention and sympathy, according to the conservative daily "Resalat" on 15 February. Rahmani also said Abdi should not have referred to a crowd chanting "Death to America" as "thugs." "Sobh-i Imruz" editorialized that the Abdi incident showed the desperation of Khatami's supporters and their distance from the Iranian nation, "Akhbar" said on 16 February. Furthermore, the editorial continued, such incidents play into America's hands.

Nor are Iranians satisfied with the government's response to the German's murder, which was officially described as the work of a lone assailant. The murder might have been the work of an Iraq-based opposition organization which does not want to see relations between Iran and Germany restored, "Keyhan" suggested on 15 February. But the German's death might be linked to the string of murders committed by Ministry of Intelligence and Security personnel, the pro-Khatami "Iran News" speculated on 14 February. A curious twist on the murder came from "Tehran Times," which said the event was part of an unhappy suitor's killing spree. "Iran Daily" also questioned the official report on the murder.

Unhappiness with government inaction over all these incidents was voiced by "Iran-i Farda" Director Reza Alijani, according to "Akhbar" on 16 February. By standing aside and doing nothing but watching, said Alijani, Khatami is more like a reporter than the enforcer of the rule of law. Thus, he is letting down the over 20 million people who elected him hoping for a civil society. And Tehran University professor Sadiq Zibakalam suggests that such violent incidents will continue, because it is likely that "another religious person whose thinking does not coincide with the gentlemen's will want to speak." (Bill Samii)

MOHAJERANI RENOUNCES RUSHDIE FATWA. Portions of the Iranian public are tired of violence and the general sense of domestic insecurity, but some official and semi-official Iranian organizations benefit from the promotion of violence. Members of the government are trying hard to limit the damage associated with this violent image, although it may cause them difficulties at home. And they appear to be succeeding in changing Western perceptions of Iran.

February 14 was the tenth anniversary of the religious judgment decreeing death for Salman Rushdie, author of "The Satanic Verses." That day, Ayatollah Hassan Sanei of the 15 Khordad Foundation repeated his organization's offer of $2.8 million for Rushdie's life, reported "Jomhuri Islami" in a 16-page supplement. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps said Rushdie "will eventually be burnt in the fire of Muslim's wrath," "The New York Times" reported on 16 February. And the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting service reported that Rushdie is a "moving corpse waiting in disgrace and humiliation for his inevitable fate." "Kayhan International" editorialized on 16 February that Rushdie's British security guards should carry out the judgment.

But Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance Ataollah Mohajerani said that although the government will not enforce the Rushdie judgment, the "ruling cannot be revoked," according to IRNA on 15 February. But the government does have the right to revoke the 15 Khordad Foundation's license. Be that as it may, the British Foreign Office seems to be satisfied with Iranian government statements. The Foreign Office said it will not "hold the Iranian government responsible for every person who makes a comment on Rushdie," "The New York Times" said.

And European governments may be tired of the adverse impact the issue has had on their commercial interests. An anonymous "Middle East expert at one Western embassy" said that "the blame for what's happened since [last September] lies largely with Rushdie, ... because he didn't take the agreement in good enough grace and he said some unwise things," Reuters reported on 14 February. Anonymous British officials said "His initial reaction did provoke the conservative forces in Iran."

Mohajerani himself is in a weak position to make statements which will further irritate his many enemies. He has been physically attacked, parliamentarians and seminarians want to see him dismissed, and after the 12 February Friday prayers, a mob gathered at Tehran's New Era Cinema and chanted "shame on our minister of guidance" and "we do not want Mohajerani or the Western culture," reported RFE/RL's Persian Service. In an interview with the daily "Abrar," Parliamentarian Ali Zadsar dismissed Mohajerani: "[he] talks and analyses a lot and he soon changes his opinions; I don't take his words seriously."

But if more government officials make similar statements, and if a substantive effort is made to prevent Iranian officials and quasi-governmental organizations from making threatening statements, it may accelerate the confidence-building process. (Bill Samii)

CAMPAIGNING FOR COUNCIL ELECTIONS STARTS. With a week to go before Iran's first municipal elections since the 1979 revolution, campaigning officially started on 19 February. Some 300,000 candidates, including more than 5,000 women, will compete for 200,000 municipal council seats.

But there is still unhappiness about the refusal to permit the candidacy of some individuals (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 8 February 1998). The parliamentary representative from Rasht, Ahmad Ramzianpur-Nargesi, said that many of the disqualified individuals were not given the chance to defend themselves, despite their right to do so, reported "Hamshahri" on 17 February. He said this was because Khatami's opponents wanted to prevent his ideas from reaching fruition.

The elections have been the focus of factional rivalry, particularly in Tehran, and several coalitions have emerged. The most conservative coalition consists of the Tehran Militant Clergy Association (Jameh-yi Ruhaniyat-i Mobarez-i Tehran) and the Islamic Coalition Association (Jamiyat-i Motalifih-yi Islami). In the "center" rests the Executives of Construction Party linked with Expediency Council chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Tehran Mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi. The "moderate" pro-Khatami grouping, called the "Grand Coalition," includes the Islamic Iran Participation Party and the Office for Strengthening Unity. Another coalition includes the left-leaning, pro-Khatami Militant Clerics Association (Majmae Ruhaniyun-i Mobarez) and 16 others groups, and it is referred to as the Coalition of Groups Following the Imam's Line, reported "Tehran Times" on 15 February. Two factors make it difficult to determine whose candidacy each coalition promotes: some candidates appear on the lists of several different coalitions, and factions within the coalitions are split over some of the candidates they support.

It is so difficult to determine what factions are in each coalition that "Kayhan" asked, on 15 February, "finally, how many are there?" Isfahan's "Sol-i Farda" daily asked why such divisions exist after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's statement about the importance of the council elections, "Iran" reported on 16 February. In a 10 February interview with RFE/RL's Persian Service, Saeed Barzin of Durham University partially explained the proliferation of factions and the resulting divisions, saying: "It has also become the fashion of the day to form parties. Many people just follow trends."

There is concern that such factionalism may lead to violence during the elections. Gilan Province Governor Ali Sarfi warned that security commanders are prepared to quell any disruptions, reported "Khordad" on 16 February. And a Kerman governorate official warned that the different views should not lead to any unhappy incidents during the elections. Among the voices urging people's participation in the election is that of Ayatollah Jalal Taheri, Isfahan's Friday Prayer Leader. He said it is their "duty" to vote "in these elections, the most important elections since the revolution," "Hamshahri" reported on 16 February. (Bill Samii)

"IT'S THE ECONOMY, ..." Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency often carries reports about the country's economic progress and development. And during the twentieth anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami made a number of claims intended to show how much Iran's economy has improved since 1979. But a Paris-based Iranian economist told RFE/RL's Persian Service that such claims depend more on statistical manipulation and false comparisons than on reality. And although Iran has rescheduled much of its foreign debt, this may provide only short-term relief.

In the first two weeks of February, IRNA carried a number of upbeat reports. It said the export of foodstuffs, fruits, vegetables, construction materials, carpets, and agricultural goods from Bushehr increased by 110 percent since December. Export of raisins, onions, dried fruits, potatoes, walnuts, apples, and macaroni from East Azerbaijan Province increased by 30 percent compared to last year.

An embankment dam was built in Arak Province, and it will irrigate 700 hectares of farmland. Some 32 dams have been built in East Azerbaijan since the revolution, eleven more are under construction, and there are feasibility studies for another 18. A diversionary dam was built in West Azerbaijan Province, and it is expected to irrigate 800 hectares of farmland. Energy Minister Habibollah Bitaraf said 95.5 percent of the country's urban population has access to clean drinking water. Minister of Post, Telegraph, and Telephone Mohammad Reza Aref said 3,000 villages have joined the national telecommunications network since 1995.

Industries Minister Gholamreza Shafei said Iran soon will produce Peugeot station wagons, with a eye towards eventual export. Iran Khodrow Company manufactured 70 percent of its own automobile parts, and it has already exported 500 Paykan cars to Sudan. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed for the export of motorcycles to Italy, and 5,000 already have been exported to Africa. Seven export-oriented trade fairs were held in Tehran.

In a speech during the twentieth anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, President Khatami made a number of claims intended to show how much Iran's economy has improved since 1979. He said grain production increased more than twofold; there are three times as many active mines, and ore production skyrocketed; steel production increased tenfold; and non-oil exports and industrial exports as a percentage of GNP doubled.

Such claims are completely unrealistic, said Dr. Ali Fatemi, head of the Faculty of Economics at the American University of Paris. In an interview with RFE/RL's Persian Service, Fatemi said Khatami should have mentioned that "the international buying power of the rial has fallen below 1 percent of its value before the revolution." Also, national savings and investment is at its lowest level ever. And when Khatami discusses the rise in the percentage of non-oil exports compared to total exports, he fails to mention that oil exports have decreased.

IRNA and Central Bank Governor Mohsen Nourbakhsh reported rescheduling of Iran's foreign debt as a victory. In mid-February, 40 German banks approved a $1 billion refinancing facility for Iran. The agreement consists of about $231 million in pre-paid oil sales over three years and the extension of a repayment deadline from September 1999 to March 2001 for about $722 billion, IRNA reported on 15 February. Also, Japanese businesses and the Japan Export Import Bank rescheduled all of Iran's debt of almost $500 million, so repayment must start in April 2000. In the first week of February, the Italian export credit agency agreed to reschedule $370 million in Iranian debt.

In the short-term, the debt rescheduling is "a good deal for the Iranians," a banker close to the agreement said. But many economic analysts question Iran's ability to service the rescheduled debts, according to "Middle East Economic Survey" on 15 February. They believe Iran's revenue plans are unrealistic: the budgetary expectation of $11.80 per barrel of oil is "optimistic" and production of 2.46 million barrels per day is "ambitious." Such output, furthermore, is in violation of Iran's OPEC obligations. And the repayment time frame is too tight: one banker said that "in three years there will be no fundamental change to their economy; I don't think that this package is helping them a lot." (Bill Samii)

MISSILES, PERISCOPES, AND HELICOPTERS. In a February interview, Defense Minister Admiral Ali Shamkhani said Iran's Shahab-3 missile was test-fired successfully, so he foresaw no further need to test it. But French Defense Minister Alain Richard said the missile exploded seconds after its July launch, reported Agence France Presse in October. Shamkhani also said Shahab-3, with its 1,300 kilometer range, is adequate for all military applications, "Iran" reported on 8 February. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens downplayed such claims, saying that Iran is having trouble with its missile program, "but with the help of foreigners, the Russians and others, I think in time they can achieve operational capability," reported Reuters on 11 February. The Shahab-3 is based on the outdated North Korean Nodong-1 ballistic missile, and when the North Koreans demonstrated such missiles to Iranian officials in 1993, not one target was actually hit, "Izvestiya" said on 21 October 1998.

Shamkhani also said that the Shahab-4 missile is undergoing tests, but it is only for launching satellites into space, not military applications, reported IRNA. But the Shahab-4 is based on the Soviet SS-4, and not only is the SS-4 too small to launch a satellite-size payload into space, it has a 2,000 kilometer capacity which puts Western Europe within range, according to "Jane's Defense Weekly." While the SS-4 is an obsolete design, it can be upgraded with the addition of Russian technology. In fact, Russia sold Iran SS-4 blueprints and gyroscopes, and it also helped develop the missile's nose cone and targeting and control system, "Izvestiya" said.

There have been other military developments. The managing director of Electronic Industries of Iran (Sairan), General Vafa Ghaffarian, said Iran is ready to begin mass-producing a night-vision periscope for armored vehicles which permits driving at over 40 kilometers per hour, reported IRNA on 2 February. And President Khatami inspected Iran's first domestically-produced helicopters, the Shabaviz 2-75 for light transportation and "2061" for light reconnaissance. The helicopter production line will become operational within a year, IRNA reported on 10 February. (Bill Samii)

MONTAZERI RESTRICTIONS LIKELY TO CONTINUE. Ahmad Montazeri said in a recent interview that his father, Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, is still confined to his home, the "Zan" newspaper reported on 17 February, because the three-month old Supreme National Security Council decree ending his house arrest has not been signed yet by the Supreme Leader's office. And the Ayatollah's comments about recent violent incidents in Iran are not likely to get him time off for good behavior.

Ayatollah Montazeri compared the violent mobs and pressure groups to those that existed during the monarchy, according to "Arya" on 17 February. In the 1950s, Shaban "Brainless" Jaafari organized "rent-a-crowds" to attack the supporters of Premier Mohammad Musaddiq and opponents of the monarchy. And in 1978, SAVAK and the Mihan Committee organized such groups, leading to clashes in many cities. Similar groups were the Underground Committee of Revenge and the Civil Defense Organization. Although they claimed to act out of patriotism, such groups were available for relatively small amounts of money.

And the repression of Montazeri's followers continues. Isfahan's "Nasl-i Farda" publication wrote that Hojatoleslam Hassanali Nuriha is still imprisoned after being arrested several months ago simply for meeting Montazeri, "Zan" reported on 17 February. (Bill Samii)

IRANIANS WITHOUT FRONTIERS. An Iranian was arrested by Russian Border Guards while trying to enter Norway on 7 February, Interfax news agency reported. Two other Iranian citizens were arrested while trying to enter Russia from Azerbaijan at the Yarag-Kazmalyar border checkpoint in Dagestan, according to Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency on 8 February. Another Iranian citizen was apprehended at the same checkpoint a week later, ITAR-TASS reported. These incidents seem to indicate a trend. Russian Border Service commander Col. Gen. Konstantin Totski spelled it out, saying: "One of the basic problems are the citizens of Third World countries that are illegally trying to reach the West by way of Russia." He went on to say his organization's biggest trouble spot is the northern Caucasus, on the borders with Dagestan and Azerbaijan, Helsinki's "Helsingen Sanomat" reported on 10 February. (Bill Samii)