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Iran Report: March 22, 1999

22 March 1999, Volume 2, Number 12

IRANIAN EMBASSY CLOSURES. The Iranian Embassy in Brunei closed "in a sudden move which surprised many," announced the "Bandar Seri Begawan Borneo Bulletin" of 9 March. Embassy officials told the publication the closure was due to economic problems, and about 20 percent of Iran's embassies, including some in Europe, will shut down for the same reason. Last November Iranian newspapers reported that, for economic reasons, embassies in Burkina Faso, Gabon, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Brunei, and Nicaragua, as well as consulates in Munich and Shanghai, will close. (Bill Samii)

IRIB CRITICIZED FOR ANTI-KHATAMI BIAS. The official Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) organization was criticized for the way it covered President Mohammad Khatami's trip to Italy. Although his speech at the European International University in Florence was broadcast live, the daily "Iran" reported on 14 March, the applause after the speech was not broadcast in its entirety. This, and the fact that the speech was not rebroadcast nor was it mentioned in news reports the next day, showed that IRIB has an anti-Khatami bias, the newspaper claimed. "Khabar va Nazar" from Rasht recently published an article claiming that IRIB has always been biased against Khatami. During his presidential campaign, the publication said, IRIB "directed its propaganda attacks" against Khatami: "They called him a 'liberal' and even hinted he was against the Vilayat-i Faqih." (Bill Samii)

KHATAMI'S FOREIGN TRIPS TO CONTINUE IN FRANCE. President Khatami's trip to Italy and the Vatican was apparently considered a success by most Iranian political leaders. Most foreign observers consider it one, too. And new invitations from Portugal and Azerbaijan have been announced. Iranian political observers are using the Italian trip as a model for future trips, particularly the one to France planned for April.

Iran undoubtedly hopes to make a financial gain from the French trip, as it apparently did from the Italian one. Minister of Mines and Metals Eshaq Jahangiri told the "Iran Daily" on 12 March that agreements worth $2 billion were made in Italy. Among the projects will be development of the Bandar Abbas Power Plant, weekly Alitalia flights, the upgrade of Isfahan's Mobarak Steel Complex, and a road-building project. There was also discussion about an unsecured $1.2 billion credit pledged to Iran by an Italian bank.

There were aspects of the Italian trip which upset some Iranians. Expediency Council Chairman Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said in his sermon on 12 March that the attack on Khatami's limousine by an Iranian exile group in Rome was the fault of the Italian authorities. Rafsanjani warned: "They could have stopped such incidents from taking place. We could also do similar things here to retaliate." Rafsanjani then provided a pointed example of how the French authorities blocked the movements of Iranian oppositionists when the Iranian monarch visited Paris in the 1970s. "Kayhan International" warned that "the revolutionary nation of Iran is not willing to tolerate such types of behavior on the part of host governments towards their president."

Habibollah Asgharoladi-Mosalman, secretary-general of the hard-line Islamic Coalition Association, expressed unhappiness with the simultaneous presence of Salman Rushdie, the condemned author of "The Satanic Verses," in Italy during the Khatami visit, but thought it was good that Khatami voiced displeasure with this too. He said "we should take a lesson from the experiences gained during the visit to Italy and speak to the West more openly," IRNA reported.

An editorial in the 13 March "Tehran Times" said that "hidden hands" were behind the presence of Rushdie in Italy during Khatami's visit. It wrote: "the ball is now in the West's court. If the West succeeds in containing these hidden hands, bright prospects will be awaiting Iran-West relations."

France has been keen to benefit from these "bright prospects" since at least August 1998. That is when French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine visited Tehran and extended the invitation on behalf of President Jacques Chirac. Vedrine was preceded in 1991 by Foreign Minister Roland Dumas, but little came of the trip because former Iranian Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar was assassinated in France that August by Iranian agents.

The reasons for France being high on the visit list are similar to those for Italy's being first. The first reason is oil deals. In a symbolically important move, French company Total signed a $2 billion contract in 1997 to develop the South Pars oilfield after an American company was forced to withdraw its tender. And earlier this year Elf Aquitane was awarded a contract (with Italy's ENI) to work on the Doroud oilfield.

Second, France has never frozen the credit line granted to Iran by Hermes, its export credit agency, Milan's "Il Sole -24 Ore" reported on 12 March. Even after most European countries withdrew their ambassadors from Iran over the 1997 Mykonos judgment linked Iran's leadership with the killing of exile oppositionists, Hermes credit facilities remained available.

A third symbolic but also politically important reason is that Iran currently heads the Organization for the Islamic Conference. For France's more than two million Muslims it will be symbolically valuable to have the titular head of the Islamic community visit their country. (Bill Samii)

KHATAMI TOUR FALTERS -- SAUDI ARABIA. President Mohammad Khatami was expected to go to Saudi Arabia before his next European trip, but at the last moment the trip was canceled. The trip would have been a chance to discuss oil, religion, and geopolitics. On the first two, Iran and Saudi Arabia tend to agree; on the third, they do not.

In the geopolitical arena, the two would have had to overcome serious differences on the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and an Iranian proposal for an Islamic security organization. The topic which flared up recently and which led to the cancellation of Khatami's trip is rival claims by Iran and the United Arab Emirates over the islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs. This and Iranian naval exercises in the Persian Gulf have earned the condemnation of the Gulf Cooperation Council, of which Saudi Arabia is the strongest member.

A second geopolitical topic is Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia has given the Taliban de facto recognition by signing an accord with them regarding eligibility of Afghans for the pilgrimage. Meanwhile, Iran is still angry over the unresolved case of its diplomats who were murdered by Taliban personnel last summer.

A third security issue is Iran's proposal for formation of an Organization for Islamic Peace and Security. This concept was brought up on 17 March by deputy speaker of parliament Hassan Rohani. The object of this organization will be to "settle disputes and disagreements among Islamic countries," "Iran Daily" reported, with the hope that Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) members will "close the doors on aliens, and prevent them from further intervening in the affairs of the Islamic world."

Saudi Arabia and Iran are the world's biggest oil producers, so the maintenance of profitable oil would likely have been discussed as well. Khatami telephoned Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah about this subject, "Tehran Times" reported on 14 March. At a later oil ministers' meeting in Holland, a decision was made to cut production levels by approximately 2 million barrels per day. The announcement of this decision, as well as earlier anticipation of it, pushed prices up to about $14.50 per barrel for light sweet crude oil and $12.60 per barrel of North Sea Brent Blend crude oil, Reuters reported.

How much each country will cut its original output will be announced at the 23 March OPEC meetings in Vienna. According to a Reuters survey in February, OPEC producers are exceeding their output quotas already. John Toalster of SG Securities told the news agency that one can expect only 70 percent compliance from OPEC and 50 percent compliance from non-OPEC countries. In that case, he said a cut of 1.4 million barrels per day will be very good.

Simon Henderson of the "Financial Times" recently told an audience at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that Iran is unlikely to cheat on its quota. This is because, Henderson said, Iran has already been allowed "to calculate its production cutbacks from an artificially high level." This issue of quota compliance worries Iranian observers. Morteza Zaringol, chairman of the parliament's oil committee, said in a 3 March interview with "Iran News" that Saudi Arabia has "intentionally harmed" other oil producers, including Iran, by exceeding its quota. Central Bank Governor Mohsen Nourbakhsh said on 17 March that with the cutbacks he expects Iranian budget forecasts to be met.

The timing of Khatami's trip to Saudi Arabia would have made it religiously significant, because he was expected to arrive during the pilgrimage period. Because Iran currently is the leader of the 55-state OIC, this would have demonstrated the unity of the Islamic community. In a meeting with the Supreme Hajj Council on 22 February, Iranian state radio reported, Khatami emphasized the theme of Islamic unity. He said: "Unity should flourish during Hajj. That is, attention should be drawn to the dangers threatening the whole of the Muslim world."

Khatami also referred to Sunni and Shia differences, such as allegations that Shia are idolaters. Khatami spoke of the Baqi cemetery in Medina, burial site of the Prophet Mohammad and his daughter Fatima, and of the second, fourth, fifth, and sixth Shia Imams. For Shia, visiting Baqi is considered part of a complete pilgrimage, whereas it is less important for other Muslims. Khatami said: "This is not worship of graves. We want to express our respect for the source and foundation of our historical identity."

Khatami's presence and the desire to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia might have served as a damper on the demonstrations Iranians usually hold during the pilgrimage. This year, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei promised a political message of "Muslim unity, resistance against the enemies of Islam, and disavowal of pagans headed by the U.S. and Zionism." But Khatami said: "we do not want to make troubles there." What happens now and whether a different message is sent to the Saudis remains to be seen. (Bill Samii)

FOREIGNERS BLAMED FOR RECENT MURDERS -- AND NOT SO RECENT ONES, TOO. British and American agents are behind the deaths of a bewildering assortment of Iranians, as well as other events, according to articles published in the Iranian weeklies "Asr-i Ma" and "Tavana" in the third week of March. "Asr-i Ma" blamed England and the U.S. for the autumn murders of intellectuals and oppositionists, and for killing former Premier Shahpour Bakhtiar (in 1991) and Kurdish dissident Qasem Sharafkandi (in 1992), although later court cases assigned guilt to agents from the Islamic Republic -- specifically the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS). Foreigners were also blamed in the March 1996 capture in Antwerp of an Iranian ship carrying mortars, explosives, and MOIS personnel. "Asr-i Ma" blamed the British for killing journalist Esmail Raiin (in 1982), Toilers Party chief Mozafar Baqai (circa 1989), and high-ranking intelligence officer Hossein Fardust (in 1987). "Tavana" said the British killed Bakhtiar, Kazem Rajavi (member of an Iraqi-funded terrorist organization), as well as oppositionists and intellectuals last autumn. Both publications said the motive is to harm relations between Iran and Europe.

But Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai said in mid-February that the Israelis were to blame. He said they were behind the recent murders of oppositionists and intellectuals, the assassination of Iranian prisons' chief Assadollah Lajevardi, and the attempt on Tehran province Justice Department chief Hojatoleslam Ali Razini. (This last attack was blamed on Mehdi Hashemi's gang, too; see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 1 February 1999.) Rezai also said Israel was behind the November attack on a vanload of Americans visiting Tehran, "Salam" and "Iran" dailies reported on 16 and 17 February, respectively.

This penchant for conspiracy theories which attribute "the course of Persian history and politics to the machinations of hostile foreign powers" is described by University of Pennsylvania Professor Ahmad Ashraf in "Encyclopedia Iranica." Such "collective delusions," Ashraf writes, divide the world into a good and evil camps in which the latter determine history. "Various failures and disasters, ... can thus be blamed on powerful enemies." And in the current atmosphere of extensive factionalism, it is a convenient way to avoid blame for one's own failures, while simultaneously linking one's opponents with foreigners.

Rezai's claims did not get much credit from Iran's more liberal newspapers. "Sobh-i Imruz" asked on 17 February: "Why?" The newspaper said the Americans' van was pictured in a hard-line daily before the attack occurred, and the hard-liners defended the attack after it occurred. "Such people are like mice who have entered a trap to eat cheese," the daily said. "And even after the trap closes they want more cheese!" If Rezai's claims are true, "Khordad" wondered on 18 February, why cannot the intelligence and security forces protect Iran from foreign agents?

Nor will the judiciary be affected by conspiracy theories or extralegal pressure. Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi said some political factions and publications were trying to obstruct judicial investigations. He went on to say that "the judiciary will not be frightened or intimidated by threats of those working for some newly established dailies," the Islamic Republic News Agency reported on 15 March. (Bill Samii)

NET SPREAD FOR BIOLOGICAL RESEARCH PARTNERS. "The objective of our trip to Cuba, ... is to visit biotechnology centers in Cuba, and to conduct an analysis of our future cooperation in the field of biotechnology," Iranian parliamentarian Seyyedeh Ghodsiyeh Alavi declared when she arrived in Havana on 7 March, according to Cuba's Radio Rebelde Network. Among agreements signed by the Italian and Iranian sides during President Mohammad Khatami's recent European trip was "a document on scientific and technological cooperation," Milan's "Corriere della Sera" reported on 11 March. Minister of Construction Jihad Mohammad Saeedi-Kia discussed an exchange of scientific information in the veterinary field when Australian Trade Minister Tim Fischer visited Tehran in early March, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency.

Knowledge in these fields can be either benign or malign. Microbes can be developed to protect or destroy crops. Genes can be manipulated to strengthen livestock and create disease-resistant plants, or to create incurable diseases. Pesticides and herbicides can either protect crops from hostile insects and weeds, or they can destroy crops.

When "The New York Times" published an article on 8 December 1999 stating that Iran was recruiting Russian scientists with biological warfare experience, the Iranian government denied it. Such claims were "categorically rejected" by the counselor of Iran's United Nations Mission, Gholamhossein Dehghani. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said such claims were meant to retard "technological progress in Iran."

Valery Bakayev, a Russian biologist with the Pasteur Institute in Iran who was formerly employed in Soviet weapons programs, told "The New York Times" on 19 January that he had never worked on biological warfare projects for Iran, focusing "solely on the civilian development of vaccines." And the head of the Pasteur Institute, Morteza Azartoush, said that his organization "is in no way involved in such activities," "Tehran Times" reported on 27 January.

Scientists from other countries, such as Cuba and China, allegedly work in Iran, too. Many Iranians work in related scientific and medical fields. Some are employed at academic institutions, such as Tarbiat-e Modaress University and Tehran University. Others work for governmental research bodies, such as the Razi Institute of Hesarak, which performs venom and anti-venom studies for the Construction Jihad Ministry. Others work for military institutions, such as the Defense Industries Organization or the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps.

Even exile Iranian opposition groups are involved in biological research projects, according to an article in the 16 December "Los Angeles Times." United Nations Special Commission chairman Richard Butler complained that inspectors' access to an Iraqi facility occupied by the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (a.k.a. Mojahedin Khalq Organization, for which the National Council of Resistance is a cover) was blocked. (Bill Samii)

CANDIDATES FOR JUDICIARY CHIEF. In December, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mohammadi Reyshahri was touted by "Khordad" newspaper as a possible replacement for hard-line judiciary chief Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 11 January 1999). The conservative weekly "Siyasat" identified two new candidates this week. One of the candidates is Ayatollah Morteza Moqtadai, who has served as prosecutor-general and as a parliament deputy. He seems to be a genuine hard-liner who, during a February 1998 sermon at Tehran University, said about condemned author Salman Rushdie: "The shedding of this man's blood is obligatory." Moqtadai also was involved in the court case against "Tous" and "Jameh" newspapers, and in September 1998 he accused "certain anti-revolutionary elements or ignorant persons of making bad use of the new liberty." The other candidate mentioned by "Siyasat" is Ayatollah Mohammad Momen-Qomi, who is a member of the Council for the Discernment of Expediency and the Council of Guardians of the Constitution. He appears to be more of a theologian than a political cleric, having been present at the mourning ceremony for the dissident cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Azari-Qomi. (Bill Samii)

KHATAMI'S COMMENTS ON RUSHDIE WIN HARD-LINER SUPPORT. Reports from the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) show that when it comes to the issue of Salman Rushdie, condemned author of "The Satanic Verses," President Mohammad Khatami knows how to please domestic hardliners. In an interview with IRNA, Khatami said Rushdie is "a person who has desecrated ... the feelings of more than one billion Muslims." Khatami went on to "confirm" the sentence against Rushdie. Habibollah Asgharoladi-Mosalman, secretary-general of the hard-line Islamic Coalition Association, said Khatami's statement shows that such anti-Muslim sacrilege "means war of civilizations and not dialogue among civilizations," IRNA reported on 15 March. And Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, a Friday Prayer leader and member of the Assembly of Experts, said "[Khatami] very nicely defended Imam Khomeini's fatwa for killing Salman Rushdie." (Bill Samii)