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Iran Report: May 24, 1999

24 May 1999, Volume 2, Number 21

KHATAMI TALKS THE TALK. On 23 May, President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami made two important speeches. One, possibly the more significant, was directed to a foreign audience. The other was intended mainly for a domestic audience, particularly his supporters, and carried a different message.

In an interview with Qatar's Al-Jazeera television, Khatami described President Bill Clinton's April comments, in which he said Iran "has been the subject of abuse from various Western nations," (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 26 April 1999) as "courageous." But Khatami wanted more, saying Clinton's view remains "a personal opinion that cannot easily change America's traditional policies towards Iran, the Middle East and the Islamic world." Khatami said the origin of the problem is America's "traditional policy of imposing its views on others... I don't think voicing an opinion can change those traditional policies." American behavior must change "in a practical way." Khatami rejected American allegations that Iran supports terrorism, and he also rejected allegations that Iran opposes the Middle East peace process. Iran only provides "political support," Khatami said.

Earlier in the day, Khatami had addressed about 107,000 members of the recently-elected municipal council members who were gathered in Tehran's Azadi Stadium. The timing of the event was significant, because 23 May (2nd Khordad, its Iranian date) is the second anniversary of Khatami's 1997 election. And although he initially claimed that "it is not a special day," Khatami quickly made sure that everybody knew the contrary. He reminded listeners that "we should be fair and admit that out of the series of elections held [in the last 20 years], the people participated in larger numbers in the 2nd Khordad elections." Throughout the speech, furthermore, he played to his power base, Iran's young people. About 50 percent of Iran's population is under 21, and the voting age is 15.

A major theme of this speech was institution-building and civil society. Khatami said "the policies and activities of groups and factions in society should be made transparent." The president said: "it is important to specify the principles and values of Islam and the revolution which go over and above individual tastes, interpretations, and tendencies in our society, or even the restrictions of time. This means that in our society, tendencies are recognized but that they should turn into identifiable institutions."

Khatami also spoke about "freedom": "Freedom does not mean freedom for those who support us. It means freedom even for those who oppose us. In an Islamic society people should have the freedom to think. Our opponents should be allowed to express their views."

Khatami criticized, indirectly, hardliners who cite religious principles to maintain power. He said: "There may be those who cannot tolerate their rivals and who may even be prepared to resort to the invocation of sanctities in order to drive their rivals our of the arena. This will damage the revolution and our society."

Yet three aspects of Khatami's comments raise questions about his overall commitment to the development of democratic institutions, or to at least deliver on people's expectations. The first of these was his frequent references to "Islamic democracy." It is obvious that Iran will have a form of government suitable to its own cultural and historical circumstances. But Khatami did not define "Islamic democracy." By itself, such a form of government would seem to ignore Iran's religious minorities, such as Zoroastrians, Christians, Jews, and Bahais.

Moreover, Khatami said Iran is in a "transitional period," so "Many of the confrontations and fights are the consequence of this stage of transformation." It is not clear if he meant this as an excuse for past events or as an apology for future ones.

And in his closing comments, Khatami urged the councils to coordinate their activities with the government and to moderate public expectations. "In the councils, we should regulate our expectations and people's expectations in proportion to resources available to the government. Those expectations that are not possible to realize at this stage should not be encouraged." (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN PROPOSES ISLAMIC PEACEKEEPERS FOR KOSOVA. Iran is now advocating a more active role for itself in the Kosova crisis, a shift that reflects President Mohammad Khatami's recent tour of Arab states. On 20 May, Tehran proposed an Islamic peacekeeping force be deployed in Kosova. Deputy Foreign Minister Morteza Sarmadi told the German news agency dpa: "We will propose the dispatch of peacekeeping forces of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to Kosova alongside U.N. forces." And in a conversation with French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi reiterated the OIC's willingness to be an active part of a diplomatic solution.

On the other hand, such a proposal may reflect disillusionment with Russia's potential as a peacemaker or with the fact that it is now negotiating a solution to the crisis with North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Supreme National Security Council Secretary and Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Hassan Rohani told Russian Ambassador Konstantin Viktorovich Shuvalov that Tehran expects Moscow to "play a more active role in international efforts to find a solution to the crisis," reported the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) on 19 May. "Russia's stance on the issue should be such that the Muslims in the world do not feel that Moscow is a supporter of Serb violence against Kosovar Muslims," Rohani said.

Contributing to its discomfort with the Kosova crisis, Tehran alleged that its embassy in Belgrade was damaged during a 23 May air raid. The Iranian foreign ministry said there was damage but no casualties and it protested to NATO.

After commemorating "Solidarity with Muslim Kosovars" on 13 May with relatively extensive television and official news agency coverage of refugee issues and encouragement of related charity, Iran has largely turned its attention elsewhere. One reason is Khatami's Arab tour. A second is that Iran already hosts about two million refugees, mostly from Afghanistan. And a third is that most Iranians are enduring hardships themselves, with an unemployment rate of 14 percent (officially, and 20 percent unofficially) and an inflation rate of 25 percent (per the Central Bank). The afternoon news broadcast of 18 May, for example, had almost two minutes dedicated to NATO attacks against Yugoslavia and nothing about refugees, while the morning broadcast had 30 seconds about Serbian forces' continuing expulsion of Kosovar Muslims.

Conservative figures continue to question Western motives. Ayatollah Ali Akbar Meshkini-Qumi, delivering the 15 May Friday Prayer sermon in Qom, said "I don't know what their motives are. But I understand this far that the NATO allies decided to attack Yugoslavia with American support, financial and practical support, and to bomb that place. But I also understand that America never acts out of divine motives. Everything it does should be seen as an act of corruption, an act of shame." The cleric went on to blame NATO for the refugees' situation, and he urged the Iranian people to continue giving aid.

Meanwhile, accusations of Iranian involvement with the Kosova Liberation Army continue (UCK). Not surprisingly, such accusations come from the Yugoslav government, which links Iran and the UCK with an unlikely band of troublemakers. According to a 19 May report from Yugoslavia's official Tanjug news agency, U.S. and British experts are training the UCK in northern Albania. Iran contributed to this project "significantly," and some of the KLA trainees "were trained in secret camps in Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina and other places, as well as in those headed by international fugitive Usama Bin-Laden." As a result, the Tanjug report says, "Albania has become the biggest terrorist center in Europe and the gathering place of different adventurers from all parts of the world." (Bill Samii)

"IRAN IS NOT IRAQ." With the words "Iran is not Iraq," Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman justified his government's reluctance to block the sale of nuclear reactor components to Iran, the Prague daily "Mlada fronta Dnes" reported on 19 May. Deputy Prime Minister Egon Lansky said that money is the deciding factor, with contracts worth up to $200 million. Iran also is recruiting Czech nuclear experts to work in the Bushehr nuclear complex, the daily reported. The U.S. State Department "categorically" opposed any Czech nuclear transactions with Iran in several diplomatic protest notes, according to a 10 May "Washington Times" article. Representatives from Czech industrial conglomerate Skoda met with officials from the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran and Russia's Atomic Energy Ministry to discuss the sale of, among other things, "cooling and ventilation equipment and a steam turbine." (Bill Samii)

RUSSIA REJECTS US NUCLEAR WORRIES. At a press conference in the third week of May, St. Petersburg Deputy Governor Vladimir Grishanov said Iran was impressed with what the city has to offer, especially in the field of nuclear technology. RFE/RL reports that several St. Petersburg companies are already involved with the Bushehr nuclear power station: Electrosila signed an $18 million contract to supply power generators; Izhorsky Zavod signed a $44 million agreement to supply a reactor; and the Leningrad Metal Factory is expected to sign a multimillion dollar contract to provide turbines. Under a contract between the Iranian government and Russia's Atomic Energy Ministry, 38 Iranian nuclear specialists are training at the Atomtekhenergo facility, RIA-Novosti reported on 18 May. This may prove to be a good opportunity for the Iranians to make international connections, because the facility trains Bulgarians and Russians, and soon Indians and Chinese will train there as well, according to the Russian government information agency.

On 12 May, Russian Atomic Energy Minister Yevgeniy Adamov declared Moscow's readiness to build more nuclear reactors in Iran, Iranian state radio reported. In an interview with Interfax four days earlier, Adamov said that Iran had proposed adding a second reactor to the plant currently under construction in Bushehr. Approximately 1,000 Russians are employed at Bushehr already, and the completion of the first reactor will earn about $1 billion, Moscow's official "Rossiyskaya Gazeta" reported on 19 May. The Russian daily continues: "As for U.S. accusations that we are allegedly helping the Iranians create a nuclear bomb, they have been pulled out of a hat, as the saying goes." Apparently, some Americans are not so sanguine: on 20 April, the U.S. Congress began consideration of the Iran Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Act (H. R. 1477). (Bill Samii)

TALIBAN ALLEGE IRANIAN BORDER VIOLATIONS. On 21 May, Afghanistan's Taliban leadership claimed it had "crushed an attempted uprising in Western Herat Province," according to dpa. It went on to claim to have killed 50 and captured 200 Iranian-backed insurgents. Three days earlier, Taliban officials said that Iranian armed forces entered Afghanistan's western provinces and also fired artillery into Afghanistan, Peshawar's "Wahdat" daily reported. As a result of these allegations, the Taliban embassy in Islamabad delivered a protest to Iran's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

An Iranian official dismissed the Afghan claim as "a bunch of lies," according to the "Tehran Times." The next day, the Islamic Republic of Iran submitted four protest notes to the United Nations, complaining that "Afghan armed forces and gangs" violated Iranian land borders and air space 23 times since last autumn. Iran also expressed "deep concern" about the Afghan Border Guard's failure to cooperate "in maintaining peace and order on joint borders."

A 16 May report from IRNA sheds some light on the original Afghan complaint. It said that the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps eliminated about 25 drug traffickers and released local hostages during a 48-hour operation. And while this most recent incident involved substantial military force, it is by no means an isolated one. For example, the 77th Samen ol-Aemmeh Division of Khorasan staged "helicopter operations with artillery support" to rid the area of "the filthy presence of armed insurgents," state television reported on 18 April.

Nor are such activities confined to the northeastern province. Iranian anti-narcotics forces, with the support of two air force helicopters, ambushed drug traffickers in Sistan va Baluchistan Province and seized their opium and weapons, IRNA reported on 11 May. (Bill Samii)

CHEMICAL WARFARE INJURIES COURSE IN TEHRAN. On 15 May a specialized chemical weapons suppression medical training course began in Tehran, the English-language daily "Iran News" reported. Minister of Health, Treatment, and Medical Education Mohammad Farhadi explained that Iranian medical professionals had gained a great deal of experience in treating chemical warfare injuries due to the use of such weapons by Iraq "during the Sacred Defense years" (1980-88). Farhadi went on to say that 100,000 people were injured by Iraqi chemical attacks. In addition, 30,000 Iranians are still being treated for mustard gas poisoning, and many continue to die from its effects.

The deputy director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), John Gee, speaking at the same event, said Iran is the only member of the OPCW to have suffered a chemical attack in recent history. Gee condemned the international community's lackadaisical response to the Iraqi attacks, but "with the Chemical Weapons Convention now firmly in place, with 121 states parties and a further 48 signatory states, this must not occur again."

Iran is keen to share its experience, OPCW Director-General Jose Bustani learned in meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi and Supreme National Security Council Secretary and deputy parliamentary speaker Hassan Rohani, according to the March-April 1999 issue of the OPCW newsletter "Synthesis." If Iran is attacked with chemical agents again, Kharrazi told Bustani, it would "seek and expect a coordinated and rapid response from the OPCW's member states."

There may be motives other than humanitarianism behind official Iranian enthusiasm for the OPCW. "Unrestricted transfer of chemical technology and chemicals for peaceful purposes between state parties to the Convention" was also discussed in Tehran, according to "Synthesis." Iran expects other OPCW members to meet their "commitment to foster the free trade of chemicals and chemical technology between state parties." The Iranian parliament ratified the CWC expecting implementation of the articles which emphasize the removal of any sort of technological and equipment embargo of chemicals, "Jomhouri-yi Islami" reported on 24 January.

Nor is there complete enthusiasm in Iran for the CWC. Will the OPCW ever be allowed to check "the frightening stockpile of chemicals in Israel, the U.S. and other western countries," wondered "Kayhan International" – which is under the direct supervision of the Supreme Leader's office – on 25 January. Without full and unfettered access, "the campaign by Third World states will be an exercise in futility as those responsible for proliferation of chemical weapons remain scot free." The daily went on to say: "the OPCW praise for Iranian cooperation on the deadly effects of toxic arms, appears -- sorry to say -- the praise for guinea pig who underwent laboratory test, and nothing more." (Bill Samii)

RENEWED UNHAPPINESS WITH COUNCIL OF GUARDIANS. Looking forward to parliamentary elections next year, on 18 May Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei spoke out in favor of the Guardians Council, a 12-member body which screens candidates. According to IRNA, he said: "The next step of the opponents of the Islamic system is to infiltrate the pillars of the Islamic system of government. The fuss about 'advisory supervision' is nonsensical and unfounded, and is done with the idea to weaken the Guardian Council and with the idea of paving the way for the presence in the legislative organs of the state of people opposed to Islam."

Deputy parliamentary speaker Hassan Rohani echoed these sentiments the next day when he said "confirmation of the Islamic nature of the system lies within the authority of the Guardians Council." The Guardians Council, in a 19 May open letter, clarified its interpretation of Khamenei's words. "the Guardians Council deems itself duty-bound, ... to stop short of nothing in its efforts to supervise the Majlis bills, monitor the elections and protect the Majlis from infiltration by individuals who are against Islam, the system, and the imam [Father of the Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini]."

Khamenei's comments put the cap, at least for the time being, on a debate about the Guardians Council which began before the October 1998 Assembly of Experts election, and which was revived recently. Hojatoleslam Asadollah Bayat of the less-conservative Militant Clerics Association (Majmae Ruhaniyun-i Mobarez) said: "The Guardian Council should not supervise or interfere over issues related to the eligibility of voters and candidates. It should just supervise the elections process," "Neshat" reported on 17 May. As Bayat indicated, Article 99 of the constitution gives the Guardian Council the "responsibility of supervising the elections," but no mention is made of determining candidates' eligibility. And as Shahid University's Mohammad Reza Tajik asked, "who would be eligible to supervise the Guardian Council itself?" The next day, the secretary-general of the Militant Clerics Association, Hojatoleslam Mehdi Mahdavi-Karrubi, complained that while the Guardian Council can reject the credentials of any candidate, "it would not be accountable either to that person or to any legal authority in the country," "Iran News" reported. All of these individuals expressed concern that factionalism will interfere with the country's interests.

Last October, Karrubi challenged Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati to a debate over the screening process. Jannati declined the challenge and accused Karrubi, in a letter published in the newspaper "Iran" on 17 October, of inadvertently "creating tension." Karrubi's angry response was published in "Hamshahri" on 24 October. Karrubi said attempts to resolve issues behind closed doors, as Jannati recommended, had always been unproductive. Furthermore, it was insulting to the public: "the people of Iran have enough political maturity and wisdom so that when they are informed about disputes and differences of opinion, they can make a well-judged assessment ... Why do you imagine that ... debates would lead to tension, and why do you think that they would cause public anxiety?"

What has really caused tension and anxiety, Karrubi wrote, "is the behavior of some of you gentlemen who believe that your inclinations and interpretations are synonymous with religion and that, if any natural person or legal entity is of a different opinion from you, they are contravening religion." (Bill Samii)

NIYAZOV CALLS FOR TURKMEN TO RETURN. Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov was in Iran's Gulistan Province (Gorgan) on 18 May for the inauguration of a mausoleum dedicated to the 18th century poet Makhtum Kuli. During his speech, according to the IRNA, he said construction of the shrine "is an indication of friendship and cordiality between the two nations." He also said "it will help strengthen friendship between the two nations."

There are approximately 1.35 million Turkmen in Iran, and the relationship between Iran and Turkmenistan in religio-cultural terms is strong. In March, Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance Ataollah Mohajerani was in Ashgabat for No Ruz celebrations. Mohajerani and his counterpart, Orazgeldi Aydogdyev, signed memoranda of understanding for bilateral cultural cooperation, thereby making cooperation in this field "totally transparent and clear." Presidential adviser Jamileh Kadivar, who is Mohajerani's wife, met with a Turkmen women's delegation and urged them to play a greater part in their country's affairs. Kadivar said the Iranian representative's office can play a role in "promotion of the Farsi language and the exchange of students and professors."

There were, particularly after the break-up of the Soviet Union, allegations of Iranian religious prosleytization in Turkmenistan. Also, seminaries in Qom issued "hajj certificates" to Central Asians who were unable to make the pilgrimage. But former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati said "It is up to them if they want to follow Islam or not."

Iranian state radio and television has Turkmen-language broadcasts. In fact, during the Soviet-era these broadcasts caused some disquiet. A January 1989 report by the head of the Turkmenistan House of Scientific Atheism said: "Broadcasters in Turkmen departments of Iran's radio stations "Gurgen" and "Bender Turkmen" are discussing [bourgeois clerical propaganda] constantly." Overall, this was seen as part of a major Iranian propaganda effort, according to an essay by David Nissman in "Nations and Politics in the Soviet Successor States" (1993).

But the cultural ties cut both ways. During Niyazov's speech, according to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, he urged Iranian Turkmen to return to Turkmenistan and participate in a December council of elders. This is not without precedent. Turkmenistan's Vatan (Fatherland) Society, established in late-1990, had the declared goal of establishing relations with Turkmen in Iran and Afghanistan. In May 1991, Iranians attended the First International Conference of World Turkmen in Ashgabat.

Perhaps more important to Iran are commercial ties. Reflecting this, in 1992 Turkmenistan was given a $50 million credit. The next year they reached an agreement on building a gas pipeline and on improving road and railway links. In subsequent years they reached agreements on politics, agriculture, telecommunications, and on building a regional electric power grid. There was even an extradition agreement, as demonstrated in August 1998 when 38 Iranians were sent home after being arrested for drug smuggling.

Reflecting the overall importance of commercial issues, in February 1999 the two countries had a public disagreement over the Caspian Sea legal regime. This occurred when Turkmenistan announced plans to lay a gas pipeline across the seabed with cooperation from two American firms shortly after reassuring Iran it would take no such actions without prior consultation (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 1 March 1999).

But the importance of commercial issues does not negate the Iranian government's sensitivity to cultural issues. On 15 May, "Tehran Times" -- published by a division of the Islamic Guidance and Culture Ministry -- criticized assertions that Makhtum Kuli was anything but Iranian. (Bill Samii)