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Iran Report: May 17, 1999

17 May 1999, Volume 2, Number 20

TEHRAN SHOWS 'SOLIDARITY' WITH KOSOVARS. On 13 May, a day of "Solidarity with Muslim Kosovars" was commemorated in Iran. And in the build-up to that event, at least from 8 May, much of the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) coverage of the Kosova crisis had a refugee focus. Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting also had a bit more refugee coverage, although it was still portrayed so that NATO seemed to be responsible for the crisis.

On the 9 May newscast, two minutes were dedicated to NATO air strikes, one minute to Russian efforts to resolve the crisis, and shoehorned into a one-minute segment about the inadvertent bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson's call for greater assistance to the refugees. The next day, 90 seconds were dedicated to China's embassy; 45 seconds to Robinson's questioning the wisdom of air strikes against Yugoslavia; and another 45 seconds to the Yugoslav court case against NATO. On 11 May, the news had four minutes about the alleged withdrawal of Yugoslav forces from Kosova and NATO attacks on targets in Yugoslavia. This was followed by video from Albania about the state of refugees, and more about the protests outside the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

By the afternoon newscast of 11 May, the newscast's approach had changed. Only 30 seconds were dedicated to NATO air strikes and the Chinese embassy. Some 14 minutes later there was a three-minute piece on Iranian humanitarian aid sent to Kosova, with an Iranian correspondent's video report from a refugee camp. The 12 May newscast led with a four-minute piece about "Solidarity with Muslim Kosovars Day," with a call for public assistance and video from a refugee camp in Macedonia. This was followed by one minute of NATO air strikes and a three-minute item on the Russian and Chinese envoys' calls for an end to the bombings.

The 13 May morning newscast devoted 11 minutes to the Kosovo crisis. The first eight minutes consisted of interviews with aid providers and information about the Iranian donations to help Kosovars. The remainder was devoted to NATO bombings, the Chinese embassy, and Russian President Boris Yeltsin's discussions with French President Jacques Chirac.

Iran continues to provide direct humanitarian assistance for the refugees, flying goods to Macedonia and Albania. Tehran's assistance also goes to refugees living in the city of Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Iran established a refugee camp on the Macedonian border, Iran's relief headquarters announced. The Imam Khomeini Relief Committee collected donations throughout Iran, and Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati called on Friday Prayer leaders to participate in the humanitarian effort. Tehran Armenian Archbishop Ardak Manukian called on all Armenians to aid Kosovar Muslims, IRNA reported.

There have been individual acts of generosity, too. Ayatollah Nuri-Hamedani, according to state radio on 11 May, contributed $667 (at the official rate, or $250 at the unofficial rate). The next day, IRNA announced that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had donated $33,333 ($12,500) and President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami had given $16,667 ($6250).

Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Taskhiri, head of the Organization of Islamic Culture and Communications, urged "the United Nations and human rights organizations to terminate the terrible ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and provide all forms of support for participation of the Muslim countries under an international umbrella to ensure security, justice, and welfare of Kosovars." Expediency Council chairman Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani also urged people to show their solidarity with Kosovar Muslims, according to IRNA on 12 May, "to foil the ominous attempts of the Serbs to undermine Islam in the Balkans," because "the crisis in the Balkans is similar to the occupation of Palestine and expulsion of the Muslims from their homeland."

The inadvertent bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade provided Tehran with another opportunity to show its dislike for NATO. The "Iran Daily," published by IRNA – did not see the incident as an accident. It was part, the newspaper said on 11 May, of "what seems like a three-day cycle of obliterating civilian targets in the ongoing bombing of Yugoslavia. Unsurprisingly, the Americans and NATO have repeated that the 'accident' will not be allowed to hinder the ongoing air campaign." NATO really wants to redraw Yugoslavia's borders, the daily said.

The newspaper was not the only anti-Western voice. The Iranian Lawyers Association for the Defense of Human Rights on 12 May compared NATO and Belgrade's actions in Kosova, saying they both "should be tried and punished for war crimes by an international tribunal." (Bill Samii)

KHATAMI'S AGENDA IN DAMASCUS. President Mohammad Khatami was in Damascus from 12-15 May. "President Khatami's visit to Syria is important because of the old and strong ties between our nations," Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara said. According to Reuters, he also said: "There are many issues of mutual concern, particularly the Arab-Israeli conflict and the struggle to liberate Arab land."

Accordingly, Khatami met with Ahmed Jibril, secretary general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine -- General Command (PFLP-GC), PFLP head George Habash, Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, and the head of the Hamas political bureau, Khaled Mashaal. Jibril said Khatami visited Syria first during his three-country tour because it has a "special place in Iranian minds, hearts, and conscience." Jibril called on the Arabs to bolster Syria's relations with Iran "in order to strengthen the steadfastness of the two sides," SANA – the official Syrian news agency – reported.

Khatami told the Palestinians that the future belongs to the Palestinian resistance against Israel, IRNA reported. PFLP-GC spokesman Maher Taher said that Khatami "saluted" the Palestinian struggle against Israel and invited radical leaders to visit Tehran.

On 15 May, Khatami met Hizballah Secretary-General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah at the Iranian Embassy in Damascus. Khatami also met with Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, and Lebanese parliamentarians.

Iran and Syria have other mutual interests. Khatami was accompanied by his Petroleum Minister Bijan Namdar-Zanganeh, and they were preceded by Minister of Housing and Urban Development Ali Abdolalizadeh. Commercially, they expect to sign several memoranda of understanding. Central Bank Governor Mohsen Nourbakhsh, according to Qatar's "Al-Jazeera" television on 15 May, also discussed Syria's "hundreds of millions of dollars" in debt to Iran. Another area of mutual interest is religion. About 12 percent of Syria's population is Shia, mostly from the Alawi sect. Alawis were once considered heretics, but in 1973 Sayyid Musa Sadr, the Iranian Shia leader in Lebanon, passed a decree (fatwa) recognizing the Alawis as Shia. It is alleged that some Alawi clerics study in Qom. Khatami is expected to visit several Shia shrines, as well as the burial site of Iranian intellectual Ali Shariati.

Khatami's visit was so important that his Syrian counterpart, Hafez Assad, met him at the airport. Syrian jet fighters escorted Khatami's airplane when it entered Syrian airspace, a 21-gun salute was fired during the welcoming ceremony, and posters of the two presidents lined the 30-kilometer road from the airport to Damascus. (Bill Samii)

NEW TENSIONS IN TURKISH-IRANIAN RELATIONS. While many European countries are seeking to be the next host for a visit by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, and while the Iranian leader is touring Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, many other countries are obviously less enthusiastic about Iranian behavior and about a possible visit by Iran's president. Turkey is one such case.

Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, according to the semi-official Anatolia news agency on 9 May, said: "Although we never interfere in Iran's domestic affairs, unfortunately, Iran is continuing its efforts to export its ideology to Turkey. Moreover, Iran is unfortunately abetting the PKK [Kurdistan Workers' Party] terrorists along its border with Turkey. It is, in a way, hosting them. These relations are not in line with neighborly ties. The dialogue with Iran is continuing. I believe that President Khatami is trying to bring about a more contemporary regime but there are certain contradictions within Iran."

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi responded by saying: "what is going on in Turkey has nothing to do with Iran and we hope that the Turkish government will realistically evaluate its internal problems and avoid blaming others for its problems." Kharrazi insisted: "we do not interfere in the internal affairs of any country."

This exchange is related to the attempt by Turkish parliamentarian Merve Kavakci of the pro-Islamic Virtue Party to wear a headscarf for her swearing-in ceremony. Secularist Turks see the headscarf as symbolic of efforts to Islamize their country. President Suleyman Demirel hinted that Kavakci had links to Iran, Reuters reported on 9 May. "Keyhan" reported the same day that Ecevit termed Kavakci's action "declaration of a jihad." In Iran, the Turkish ambassador was summoned to "explain the veracity of statements attributed to the Turkish president."

On 8 May, women in Tehran held a rally in support of Kavakci. Two days later, "Keyhan International" editorialized that "the plot to suppress spiritual principles in Turkey" might "badly backfire on the West and its subordinates." The hard-line daily, which is under the direct supervision of the Supreme Leader's office, went on to say that the Turkish officials' comments appear "to be dictates from abroad."

Also on 10 May, "Tehran Times," a daily published by a division of the Islamic Guidance and Culture Ministry, commented: "Is a scarf really so dangerous for the foundations of the Turkish society? If so, then either the scarf must be an extremely powerful weapon or the Turkish government must be extremely weak." The English-language daily went on to say: "If the message of the Islamic revolution is so strong that it influences millions of voters in Turkey, then not only the Turkish army, but even the strongest foreign supporter of Ankara will not be able to stop the spread of such a message throughout Turkey."

Professors and students at Al-Zahra University staged a sit-in on 11 May, protesting the "insult to Islamic values of Turkish Muslim female Member of Parliament Merve Kavakci." The same day, "Keyhan" daily reported that Turkish soldiers abducted and executed seven Iranians in Western Azerbaijan Province. Turkish provincial governor Tacettin Ozeren rejected the report as "an obnoxious slander," Anatolia reported.

Ecevit's complaint about Iranian support for the PKK is nothing new, but last week Osman Dara of the nationalist Motherland Party claimed that he was kidnapped and held in Iran by the PKK for 26 days so he could not participate in the April elections. In a warning note, Ankara's center-right "Istanbul Star" cited military documents: "Cooperating with the PKK terror organization from time to time, [Iran's] activities aim at dividing and dismembering our state and forcibly changing the constitutional system." (Bill Samii)

ARGENTINE COURT HOLDS HIZBALLAH RESPONSIBLE. On 10 May Argentina's Supreme Court blamed Lebanon's Shia Hizballah party for the March 1992 car bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 29 people. The Supreme Court said: "The attack was organized and carried out by the terrorist group Islamic Jihad, the armed wing of Hizballah," Reuters reported. The news agency goes on to say "Israel has for years insisted that Lebanese-based Hizballah (Party of God) and the Palestinian group Islamic Jihad were behind the bombing."

The 1992 bombing, as well as a 1994 attack on the Jewish Mutual Association building in Buenos Aires, has consistently been linked with Tehran. The two attacks killed 115 people and wounded another 300. In March 1998, Iranian cultural attache Mohsen Rabbani was told not to return to Buenos Aires because of suspected involvement in the 1994 bombing. That May, Argentina complained about Iran's failure to cooperate in the investigation and eventually all but one Iranian diplomat was expelled from the South American state.

There have been questions about the witnesses' veracity, and there also have been allegations that the Iranians are being used as scapegoats. Herman Schiller, a journalist with Argentina's Radio Jai, claims that the real culprits are Buenos Aires police officers, according to "The Jerusalem Report" on 15 February. And in fact, the Argentine Supreme Court's 10 May statement came only "days after the discovery of a recorded radio conversation in which police officers apparently ordered a patrol car to leave the vicinity of the embassy just minutes before it was blown up." According to Reuters, Interior Minister Carlos Corach has ordered investigations into the tape's authenticity and whether police helped foreigners stage the attack.

University of St. Andrews Professor Magnus Ranstorp writes in "Hizballah of Lebanon" (1997) that the 1992 bombing was in retaliation for the February 1992 execution of Hizballah Secretary-General Sheikh Abbas Musawi by Israeli forces. The bombing was claimed by Islamic Jihad in the name of the "Martyr Child Hussein" (Musawi's son). Ranstorp writes that Islamic Jihad was a "nom de guerre" used during the 1980s in Lebanon by groups involved with suicide bombings and kidnappings. While some Hizballah personnel were members of groups claiming to be "Islamic Jihad," it was not always clear if the perpetrators were acting within the Hizballah framework, semi-independently, or completely independently. Eventually the "Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine" emerged as a cover name for Hizballah operations to show solidarity with Shia prisoners held by Israel.

Islamic Jihad of the West Bank and Gaza has an Iranian connection, too. Ziad Abu-Amr writes in "Islamic Fundamentalism in the West Bank and Gaza" (1994) that the group "believes that Islamic Iran is the state that is most committed to the Palestinian issue." Islamic Jihad's rivals label it a Shia group which carries out Iranian policies. Furthermore, Abu-Amr writes, members of the group's leadership have close relations with Iran. He does not, however, indicate whether the relationship goes beyond an ideological one.

If there were any questions about Iran's continuing involvement with Hizballah and Islamic Jihad, they were answered by Iran's Ambassador to Syria, Hussein Sheikholeslam, on 9 May. Discussing what the Iranian and Syrian leaders will review during Khatami's visit to Damascus, he said: "There is no doubt the talks will cover the Lebanese resistance. The Syrian-Iranian backing is the most important support for this resistance." Sheikholeslam went on to say: "We should not ignore this Syrian-Iranian backing which is allowing the resistance to continue with strength and force to achieve its objectives in the future." "There will be a meeting in Damascus between Khatami and the Palestinian opposition leaders ... Iran's support for these groups did not and will not cease," Sheikholeslam concluded.

In the 1980s, Sheikholeslam was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Director for Arab Affairs. In this position, he coordinated Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps participation in Hizballah operations, Ranstorp writes. (Bill Samii)

AZERBAIJANI JOURNALIST RELEASED. The editor in chief of Azerbaijan's "Express" newspaper, Qanimet Zahidov, was released from Iranian custody on 8 May, according to a press statement from Baku's Trade Union of Journalists. Although he is back in Baku, the circumstances of his detention remain far from clear.

According to the press release, Zahidov claimed at a 10 May press conference in Baku that he had been arrested for interviewing Iranian-Azeri academic Mahmoud Ali Chehragani (Johragani). He went on to claim that his captors tried to coerce him into spying and participating in a plot to assassinate ex-President Abulfaz Elchibey, an advocate of a greater Azerbaijan. Zahidov was released after agreeing to cooperate. Turan had reported on 6 May that Zahidov's arrest was in connection with his having written articles accusing Tehran of "trampling on the rights of ethnic Azeris."

Zahidov explained at a press conference in Bandar Enzeli that he was in Iran to learn more about the country and had traveled widely, Tehran's "Sobh-i Imruz" daily reported on 10 May. He photographed Ashura and Tasua ceremonies, and he hoped the two countries could have greater informational exchanges.

But according to Turan news agency on 10 May, Zahidov said he was arrested at the Astara customs office and that his photos and recordings of Chehragani had been confiscated on the grounds that he had entered Iran on a tourist visa and had no right to work as a reporter or anything else. When Zahidov got the proper visa, his property was returned and he came back to Baku. Zahidov said that while in Enzeli awaiting a new visa he was incommunicado. According to Turan, Zahidov thanked his Iranian colleagues for their assistance while he was in Iran. And just to muddy the waters further, on 8 May the head of the Iranian customs post at Astara denied the detention of Zahidov, Turan reported. The official explained that previous reports of Zahidov's detention resulted from a case of mistaken identity.

In an 11 May interview with Azerbaijan's ANS television station, Zahidov had a new version of events. He said the Ministry of Intelligence and Security tried to recruit him. Zahidov also said the Iranians told him to silence sources of anti-U.S. propaganda in Azerbaijan because Iran preferred to deal with the U.S. on its own terms. (Bill Samii)

EVEN IN JAIL, EX-MAYOR OF TEHRAN ATTRACTS ATTENTION. The 6 May imprisonment of former Mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi continues to generate public interest. Responding to a letter from 146 parliamentarians, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declined to pardon Karbaschi, as he had in April 1998. Khamenei said the judiciary must resolve such issues, and executive managers must not be immune from prosecution. "It would be best if the honorable deputies and other officials did not perturb public opinion, which is something desired by their enemies. In any case, the authority responsible for resolving such affairs is the judiciary and it is in the interest of the country and the nation to ensure that judicial rulings are not tarnished on the basis of various motives," Khamenei wrote.

Ayatollah Mohsen Mojtahed Shabestari, Friday Prayer leader in Tabriz, said during his sermon that once a person is imprisoned after an appeal, the conviction cannot be overturned, "Arya" reported on 10 May. "Tehran Times" on 10 May condemned the involvement of President Mohammad Khatami and his predecessor, Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, in efforts to get leniency for Karbaschi, "because he committed crimes against the oppressed Iranian nation and dealt a great blow to the revolution and the aspirations of its leader." Also, their comments created confusion and made people question the judiciary.

The deputy from Ardakan, Mr. Razavi, demanded the names of people who had received funds from the municipality, "Resalat" reported on 12 May. During the trial Karbaschi claimed that 40 deputies got money from him, said Razavi, and until the names are released, the reputation of the whole parliament suffers.

Bahman Keshavarz, Karbaschi's lawyer, said his client will be released after a two-month period, "Kar va Kargar" reported on 10 May. Meanwhile, he is receiving distinguished visitors, such as Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance Ataollah Mohajerani, "Qods" newspaper reported on 12 May.

Karbaschi's greatest hardship in prison, according to "Neshat" on 10 May, is that he only has access to the conservative dailies "Keyhan," "Qods," "Resalat," and "Jomhuri-yi Islami." And although he is a convict, "Hamshahri" reported on 8 May, he will continue to be the secretary-general of the Executives of Construction Party. (Bill Samii)

THE MEN WHO WOULD BE MAYOR. Tehran is more than the Islamic Republic of Iran's political capital. It also is the country's largest city, with 10 million residents, and its political heart. The choice of mayor, therefore, is very significant. "Sobh-i Imruz" reported on 11 May that some people think Gholamhossein Karbaschi will be released from prison and reinstated as mayor.

So far there are 74 candidates for that position. According to Tehran City Council chief Abdullah Nouri in the "Tehran Times" of 12 May, candidates include Hussein Marashi, Mohammad Gharazi, Mohsen Hashemi, Abdolalizadeh, Mohammad Salamati, Gholamreza Foruzesh, Mir-Hussein Musavi, Mohammad Haqani, Mohammad Atrianfar, Mohammad Hashemi, Mustafa Tajzadeh, Mohammad Aqazadeh, Behzad Nabavi, and Faezeh Hashemi. The next day, the daily identified Atrianfar and Gharazi as the frontrunners.

"Arya" said on 10 May that the frontrunner is Ebrahim Asgharzadeh. "Iran" newspaper interviewed some of Tehran's political observers to get their ideas on likely candidates. On 11 May it said Mohammad Atrianfar, Said Hajjarian, Behzad Nabavi, Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, and Mohammad Gharazi were the most likely candidates. The conservative daily "Entekhab" reported on 12 May that the favorite candidates were Gharazi, Atrianfar, Asgharzadeh, Haqani, Sahhabi, and Taqizadeh.

Based on the municipal councils' recommendations, Tehran Province Governor-General Mohammad Ayatollahi appointed Ghulamhussein Tabesh-Far, Ahmad Karimi, and Ali-Reza Shahly as mayors of Rabat Karim, Firouzkuh, and Shahr-e Qods, respectively, IRNA reported on 10 May. (Bill Samii)

NAQDI TRIAL POLITICIZED. In a letter to Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, members of the Tehran City Council expressed their concern over the case of Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naqdi, head of National Police counterintelligence, and some of his subordinates. The letter called for an open trial, with members of the council present, "Iran" newspaper reported on 10 May. During the second session, held the same day, presiding Judge Tabatabai cited Constitutional Article 165 and Article 327 of the criminal code as giving him the right to decide whether or not the trial will be open. The next hearing will be on 17 May, said Tabatabai. One of the torture victims, Ayat Karimi, said he was first accused of having relations with "too many women," then he was accused of theft, "Sobh-i Imruz" reported on 11 May. (Bill Samii)