Accessibility links

Breaking News

Iran Report: June 28, 1999

28 June 1999, Volume 2, Number 26

BEHIND THE 'ISRAELI SPIES' CASE. While the international media covers the case of 13 Jews accused of espionage as an episode of religious persecution, coverage in Iran is more varied. There are unofficial statements of an unlikely and conspiratorial nature, there are official statements that try to downplay the case's significance, and there are very rare voices of caution. Meanwhile, some Western states are trying to exert influence to secure the Jews' release.

"Arya" reported on 20 May that one of the 13 was a Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics employee. He allegedly reported to Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, on defense industries and airports. There were also attempts to insinuate a linkage with Ministry of Intelligence and Security official Said Emami, who had just killed himself. The 21 June "Tehran Times" editorialized that Emami was "born into a family of Jewish descent. He went to the United States and established links with the Jewish Agency." The next day the daily said Emami was linked with Israel because his uncle was a military official before the 1979 revolution. "You know that the military personnel during the Shah's regime had definitely a direct or indirect link with the United States and Israel," it added.

Official sources deal with the issue in a straightforward manner, although the charges against the suspects have not been specified. When the arrests were first publicized, Iranian state radio on 7 June quoted an "informed official" as saying that after "interrogation and documented evidence, the detainees are being prosecuted." Fars Province Justice Ministry official Mohammad Karami said: "The case of the Israeli spies is being heard at the Islamic Revolution court of Shiraz." He went on to say that "the case will be heard in accordance with religious and legal standards and away from any hullabaloo and scandal-mongering," according to "Keyhan" on 22 June,

Some of the more restrained commentary has come from Tehran University's Professor Sadeq Zibakalam, although he sees the issue in terms of Iranian factionalism. He wrote in "Neshat": "The conservatives do not deal with the case of the Jewish people arrested in Shiraz in an impartial manner. At this stage, the detained Jews are only accused and not proven offenders. However, some conservative elements think the Jews' offense has been proven and they are looking for ways to punish them."

Western attempts to exert influence in the case continue. French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine described his government's actions at a 22 June press conference. He said: "The Iranian ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Ministry and we told him very clearly and very firmly of our disapproval and condemnation of these accusations and of the way in which they were announced. We are also consulting with our European partners in order to give as much weight as possible to this approach."

The U.S is pressuring the World Bank to kill efforts to renew Iranian eligibility for development loans. "Tehran Times" said on 15 June that there was a direct connection between this and the arrest of the 13 Jews. Anonymous sources quoted in the "Washington Post" on 23 June were reluctant to make a direct connection, although one conceded that the arrest "weighs on taking such a decision." The issue was discussed at the EU-U.S. Summit in Bonn, too. According to the 21 June "Senior Level Group Report to the EU-U.S. Summit": "We agreed that the arrest of 13 members of the Jewish community in Iran is unacceptable and agreed to act accordingly."

In a "New York Post" editorial on 23 June, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer also discussed the case. Schumer wrote that because he has a popular mandate from 70 percent of the population, Khatami should be able to do more than mouth platitudes. But Khatami will not act unless his inaction engenders a response. Japan should freeze its Iranian loans, Schumer urged, while Syria, Russia, and Saudi Arabia should press Khatami for the Jews' release. If the Jews are executed, Iran should know that it "means no loans, no trade, and no international respect."

A resolution was introduced in the U.S. Senate expressing "the sense of the Congress regarding the treatment of the religious minorities in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and particularly the recent arrests of members of that country's Jewish community." The resolution, sponsored by Schumer and cosponsored by 20 of his Senate colleagues, calls for the U.S. to continue working through the UN to ensure that Iran moderates its policies on religious minorities until those groups are "completely emancipated." It asks all countries that have relations with Iran to condemn the treatment of religious minorities there. And it urges the U.S. to condemn the treatment of the Jewish minority and to maintain its current policies until Iran "moderates its treatment of religious minorities." Schumer's resolution was passed by a voice vote. (Bill Samii)

ANOTHER SUSPICIOUS DEATH. Although focused on prisoners, Iranian print media's main concern is not the case of the arrested Jews. The primary point of interest has been the alleged suicide of Said Emami (whose "nom de renseignements" was Islami), one of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security employees arrested in connection with the murder of dissident politicians and writers last autumn and winter.

On 20 May, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Niazi, head of the Armed Forces Judicial Organization, announced that Mostafa Kazemi, Mehrdad Alikhani, Khosrow Barati, and Said Emami were the main culprits in the murder cases. Unfortunately, Niazi said, Emami had just died from swallowing a hair-removal concoction, but not before giving all the information at his disposal. As a result, the authorities knew that "one of the aims and motives of the main agents was to cause problems and generate crises." Niazi said that 23 suspects had been prosecuted and another three arrested, adding that the case "definitely had an extra-territorial dimension." Islamic Guidance and Culture Minister Ataollah Mohajerani also stressed foreign involvement, according to "Iran News" on 23 June.

When asked why Emami killed himself, Niazi said he did so to avoid a certain death sentence. He also said the MOIS had formed a task force to investigate the suicide further. But in an article in "Sobh-i Imruz" on 21 June, a former prisoner said he was held in solitary confinement and knew suicide was impossible. Those subject to such confinement can bathe only five minutes a week under observation, and a guard visits the cell every half hour.

Niazi corroborated the former convict's comments. He said a guard was watching Emami, even in the bathroom. But when the guard turned away to give Emami some privacy, Emami "took advantage of the guard's decency and drank the stuff." The "stuff," according to Dr. Pezhumand, who attended to Emami, was a cleansing agent containing arsenic and lime. Dr. Tofiqi, the head coroner, confirmed that death was due to arsenic poisoning.

Subsequently, newspapers described Emami's background and connections, believing this would explain his actions. As noted above, the 21 June "Tehran Times" editorialized that Emami was of Jewish descent and had a relationship with the Jewish Agency in the U.S. On 22 June it said Emami was linked with Israel because his uncle was a military official before the 1979 revolution. Knowing this family background, then MOIS official Said Hajjarian (now a Tehran City Council member) tried to block Emami's employment. "Salam" reported that after returning to Iran, Emami sought intelligence-related work, and despite advice to the contrary, Intelligence Minister Ali Akbar Fallahian-Khuzestani gave him a sensitive job. President Mohammad Khatami wanted to fire Emami but could not, according to "Salam."

Commentary on the death ranged from regretful to hopeful. The death "deprived Iran of invaluable information," "Tehran Times" said on 21 June, and it asked "Who is responsible for this great loss?" "Salam" said that Emami killed himself to protect those who have not been arrested yet. "Khordad" regretted that the identity of key figures may never be revealed. "Emami's death was a step forward in a case which was being forgotten," "Neshat" suggested on 21 June, and the revelations about all the other suspects will cause a shock. "Jomhuri-yi Islami" urged the authorities to "provide timely and clear explanations" to end all the speculation. "Keyhan" went further on 24 June, explaining that Emami's gang, which was affiliated with foreigners, intended to sow discord and that "psychological and propaganda warfare" will now follow. This was Emami's intention, it argued, so expressions of mistrust from the press should be investigated by the security authorities.

A 22 June article in the Kuwaiti daily "al-Watan" offers an alternative explanation for Emami's suspicious death. It said Emami was killed because he knew too much. Quoting anonymous sources close to Khatami, the article claimed that Emami masterminded the killings of dissidents on the basis of religious edicts issued by a cabal that included Fallahian and three religious scholars. Agents of Fallahian and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps went to the prison and forced Emami to drink the poison that killed him. Journalist and former hostage-taker Abbas Abdi said Fallahian should be questioned about the whole affair, "Khordad" reported in 23 June.

That Emami would have had an opportunity to "reveal all" is doubtful. But now that he is dead, he has provided the authorities with a convenient scapegoat for a number of events. It is increasingly likely, furthermore, that the complete story on the series of murders will never be known. (Bill Samii)

ITALIANS FREE BUT QUESTIONS LINGER. Despite the safe return on 20 June of three Italian engineers kidnapped a week earlier near Bam in southeastern Iran, few people, other than the Italians themselves, seem truly satisfied.

Although the Law Enforcement Forces are claiming credit for resolving the kidnapping, the incident demonstrates their inefficiency. It also highlights, or at least exaggerates, the sense of insecurity some Iranians might feel. Other incidents, such as the murders of dissident politicians and writers last winter, violent incidents in February as the country celebrated the Islamic Revolution's twentieth anniversary, the February murder of a German businessman, and the April murder of Lieutenant-General Sayyed Shirazi, further undermine people's sense of security.

According to the Italian Embassy in Tehran on 16 June, five Italians were stopped at gunpoint near Bam, but only three of them were abducted. At that point, little else was known, although the Iranian authorities said they assumed the gunmen were bandits or smugglers, for which Sistan va Baluchistan Province is infamous. The next day, "Iran" quoted Kerman's deputy governor-general as saying the kidnappings were meant to undo the good relations created by President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami when he visited Italy in March. The provincial official speculated that the kidnappers may have been associated with the Forqan or Taliban groups, but he forgot to mention other possible scapegoats, like the Mehdi Hashemi gang or Mahdaviyat group.

Suddenly, on 20 June, the Italians' release was announced. Interior Ministry spokesman Bahaodin Sheikholeslami told the Islamic Republic News Agency that the release followed negotiations with the kidnappers. Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi told state television on 21 June that Sistan va Baluchistan MOIS personnel freed the hostages by using "important intelligence instruments and they did so without paying any ransom or causing any damage." An unnamed MOIS official told IRNA the incident was a "plot hatched by enemies of the Islamic Revolution to misportray [sic] the Islamic Republic as an unstable country."

There was little satisfaction with the official explanations. The conservative dailies "Qods" and "Jahan-i Islam" said the Italians were kidnapped by local bandit Shahbakhsh. One of the victims, Lorenzo Termite, asked the captors why they had been kidnapped and was told "it was simply for an exchange and that one of the members of their group, Reza, had an uncle and a brother in the southern Iranian prison of Shiraz," AFP reported. Different government agencies explained the incident differently, causing further press dissatisfaction concerning such details as how the captors were armed, did they shoot any warning shots, where were the Italians and what were they actually doing, and so forth.

In any case, "Qods" wrote, the "capture and release of the three Italians demonstrated well that the governmental information agency in our country operates very weakly and it loses the populace in the back alleys of information, leading to their distrust." (Bill Samii)

DIALOGUE WITH ISRAEL? On 20 March, the Israeli daily "Ha'aretz" reported that President Mohammad Khatami is pursuing a dialogue with Israel. Iranian newspapers promptly rejected the report as an outright lie. Several theories have emerged to explain the dispute.

According to "Ha'aretz", Khatami asked the British government to serve as an intermediary in opening a "secret dialogue" with Israel. Khatami allegedly proposed several arms control treaties as initial confidence-building measures. Those accords would include a regional no-first-strike agreement and a bilateral agreement not to arm long-range missiles with non-conventional warheads. This was of major interest to Iran because it suffered both chemical and biological attacks in its war with Iraq. The Iranians went on to tell the British that their arms build-up was directed against Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq, rather than Israel.

There are three possible explanations behind the "Ha'aretz" report: it is meant to discredit Khatami; it is timed to secure the arrested Jews' release; or it is good journalism. On 21 March, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi dismissed the "'baseless' disinformation campaign by the Zionist propaganda machine." Assefi said it was part of an attempt to "mar the image of the Islamic Republic" and to discredit Khatami's efforts in regional and international forums. An anonymous Iranian diplomat told London's "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that the Israeli report is "merely idle talk," and he backed up his argument by saying that Iranian maps "do not carry the name Israel, but rather Palestine." The hard-line "Keyhan" newspaper said: "This baseless claim is made while the president has, time and again, laid emphasis on the illegitimate and terrorist nature of the Zionist regime." "Kayhan International" on 23 June editorialized: "Laced with poison, the Zionist article has wantonly dragged in 'anonymous' British officials so as to sow discord between Tehran and London over their newly established ties at the highest diplomatic levels."

Coming at a time when Israel is trying to secure the release of 13 Jews arrested on espionage charges, the revelations in "Ha'aretz" seem strangely timed. Stratfor, a U.S.-based think-tank, speculates that the revelation was a hint that, if the arrested Jews are not released, Israel will reveal information about the Iranians it has dealt with for the last 20 years. This might include revelations about which members of the ruling elite were actually paid SAVAK agents before the revolution. Or it could be that the "Ha'aretz" report is genuine, and the Iranian opening resulted from the belief that recently elected Israeli Premier Ehud Barak might be friendlier toward Iran than his predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu. Khatami, however, does not have the authority to make proposals in the defense arena without Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's approval, which seems very unlikely in this case. (Bill Samii)

PERILS WITH PIPELINE. A mid-June meeting in Ashgabat to discuss the Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP) has received condemnation from the Iranian state media, which is actively promoting a pipeline across its own territory as the most economically feasible and environmentally safe route. This may, however, clash with Russian promotion of a Black Sea route. Meanwhile, Iran has other interests in Turkmenistan's petrochemical sector.

Turkmenistan's February announcement that it had signed a deal with U.S. companies General Electric and Bechtel Group to lay a 1,250 mile gas pipeline across the Caspian seabed was denounced by Iran as a violation of previous agreements and a threat to the environment (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 1 March 1999). These charges were renewed in mid-June, when Edward Smith, president of PSG, which includes Bechtel and General Electric, was in Ashgabat to meet with President Saparmurat Niyazov. Smith said PSG is seeking partners for the 50 percent of the project which it does not own. He is confident that funding from U.S. financial institutions, such as the Export-Import Bank, will be forthcoming. Smith said: "We expect that actual construction will start early in 2000 and be completed in 2002," Reuters reported on 17 June.

Iran is trying to discredit the TCP. Iranian state radio, broadcasting in Turkmen from Gorgan on 16 June, claimed: "According to official Turkmen sources, this $4.2 billion project may be dangerous for the environment. ...That is why the Islamic Republic of Iran and Russia oppose such projects." The broadcast then claimed that a feasibility study by Royal Dutch Shell shows that a pipeline from Turkmenistan to Turkey through Iran would not pose a threat to the environment and would be cheaper. Furthermore, gas going through the TCP will earn less money for Turkmenistan. "The only operating route," concluded the broadcast, "is for a pipeline carrying Turkmen gas to go through the Islamic Republic of Iran."

But Russia may not agree with this conclusion. Russia's condemnation of TCP is connected with its promotion of Gazprom's Blue Stream pipeline, which will pass under the Black Sea. According to the "Petroleum Economist" on 21 April, Blue Stream is at the top of Gazprom's investment agenda. Blue Stream will be the deepest pipeline ever, being laid at depths of up to 3,000 meters in places. And Russia is shedding the proverbial "crocodile tears" over the potential environmental danger of TCP. Just as earthquakes may threaten TCP, "Petroleum Economist" reports, "hydrogen sulfide seepages in the Black Sea will pose a risk to Blue Stream."

Some of Iran's other interests in Turkmenistan look doubtful. According to 15 June reports in the "Financial Times" and Islamic Republic News Agency, Dragon Oil, which transports Turkmen oil to the Caspian port of Neka and picks up Iranian oil at a Persian Gulf port, announced losses equivalent to about half its market capitalization. The Dublin-based firm wrote off $46.1 million on its Asian assets because of uncertainty over finding a market for Turkmen gas. And last April, an Iranian drilling rig operating in Petronas Carigali's Caspian concession broke two of its three foundation anchors, leading to a suspension of operations pending repairs.

On the other hand, Turkmenistan President Niyazov said on 22 June, that "compared to last year, Iranian technology prevails in all branches of economy of Turkmenistan," according to Azer-Press. He went on to describe his country's need for Iranian assistance and technology in the oil, gas, and machine-building sectors. Underlining this is the construction by Iran's Ramshir company of a gas purification plant in the Korepje field of western Turkmenistan. (Bill Samii)

KOSOVA CONFUSES JANNATI. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati heads the headquarters for relief aid to Kosovar Muslims. During the Friday Prayers sermon of 18 June, Jannati discussed the subject. He said: "God knows what has happened in Kosova. In fact, I neither want to talk about it, nor would I be able to explain them [sic], nor would I like to talk about some of the issues concerning Kosova. All that can be just mentioned here are issues regarding the mass graves, the refugees, the killings, and setting on fire [of buildings]. While the Muslims are faced with difficulties some people have peace of mind and can sleep well. I do not know how God will deal with them and what sort of sufferings are awaiting them."

But in previous sermons, Jannati seemed to have figured it all out. On 14 May, he said "NATO is bombing Serbia for private reasons," according to the Islamic Republic News Agency. In the 16 April sermon, Jannati said: "In the name of defending these people, the wicked Americans are making the situation even worse. Some of the refugees are killed in the bombardments and missile attacks. The Americans are working toward their own objectives. They want to strengthen their position in the Balkans." He explained further: "America is seriously following a policy of carrot and stick. It is planning to devour the world. It is moving toward that objective step by step." (Bill Samii)

DESPITE PROBLEMS, IRANIAN AVIATION FLIES ON. Flights between Tehran and Oslo, which were announced in May (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 7 June 1999), commenced on 20 June, the Islamic Republic News Agency announced. According to Iran Air's Information Dissemination Department, the opening of this route can be explained by the reduction of passenger loads on the flights to Gothenburg, Stockholm, and Copenhagen, IRNA reported on 15 June. Also, the regular weekly flight to Germany has been suspended because of financial problems, "Tehran Times" reported on 10 June.

Iran Air's deputy commercial director Ahmad Sanei said flights to Jiddah were canceled "after Saudi authorities refused to grant the airline permission to fly to the country," IRNA reported on 9 June. Regular commercial flights had resumed last September after many years. Possibly in a related development, IRNA reported that flights to Beirut will start soon.

In spite of these occasional problems, Deputy Road and Transport Minister Behzad Mazaheri, who heads Iran's Civil Aviation Organization, signed a protocol for cooperation with a French airports company for personnel training and equipment overhaul and maintenance, IRNA reported on 16 June.

Also, a factory in Isfahan began assembling civilian and military versions of Antonov-140 transport aircraft with components from Ukraine. Ukraine and Iran recently concluded negotiations on construction of an aviation plant in Iran, Kiev's Intelnews announced in March. The contract was signed in May, according to "Inzhenernaya Gazeta." (Bill Samii)

CLARIFICATION: Some "RFE/RL Iran Report" readers in Iran report that the English-language daily "Tehran Times" is not published by a body affiliated with the Islamic Guidance and Culture Ministry, as asserted by us previously. They say the daily is published by the Islamic Propagation Office, a conservative body headed by Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mohammadi-Araqi. (Bill Samii)