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Iran Report: July 12, 1999

12 July 1999, Volume 2, Number 28

VIOLENT DEMONSTRATIONS IN TEHRAN. As students from the Office for Strengthening Unity and other university organizations demonstrated against the press bill and the closure of the daily "Salam" (see below) on the evening of 8 July, club-wielders (according to Reuters) or rock-throwers (according to the Islamic Republic News Agency) attacked them. Reuters went on to report that the students retreated to their hostels but were flushed out with tear gas, and then the hard-liners broke into the hostels and set fires. IRNA reported that Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) entered the hostel and arrested a number of students, but eventually all but the organizers of the demonstration were released. The LEF assault was either initiated by, or conducted with, the assistance of the Ansar-i Hizbullah and the University Basij, violent ultraconservative organizations. There were dozens of injuries and at least one death.

By 10 July 200 people had been arrested, 150 injured, and 4 killed, student leader Siamak Darvish told RFE/RL's Persian Service. Students in Rasht, Tabriz, Isfahan, Mashhad, and Shiraz also demonstrated in the following days. At a march in Tehran on 11 July, some students covered their faces to avoid retaliation.

The Higher Education and Culture Ministry issued a statement objecting to the LEF's actions, and the university chancellors declared their support for the students. Education Minister Mustafa Moin's letter of resignation was rejected by President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami. The Tehran city council also objected to the LEF's actions. In Qom, Ayatollahs Abdul-Karim Musavi-Ardabili and Yusef Sanei suspended their lectures in protest against the assault against students, Reuters reported on 11 July.

The demonstrators demanded the arrest and execution of the LEF chief, General Hedayat Lotfian. They also demanded a meeting with Khatami. Darvish told RFE/RL that students also resent creation of the University Basij. On 10 July, Khatami called a meeting of the Supreme National Security Council, which subsequently stated: "This unfortunate incident is totally unacceptable and unforgivable." It also fired the LEF official who allegedly ordered the attack and said LEF General Muhammad Ahmadi and an unnamed deputy were turned over to the Judiciary.

The catalyst to the entire affair was a 6 July student sit-in protesting the arrest of Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, proprietor of "Hoviat-i Khish." But before the sit-in outside the UN building in Tehran started, a number of demonstrators were arrested. RFE/RL's Persian Service was told that among those arrested were Mohammad Salamati, leader of the Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization, Sayyed Javad Emami, and Parviz Safari.

But there are more long-term reasons for this unrest. Khatami was elected in May 1997 because he represented something other than the status quo (as represented by his highly conservative opponent, Speaker of Parliament Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Nateq Nuri). Since then, however, conservatives have blocked most attempts to reform restrictive laws, and expectations of the mainly youthful electorate have gone unfulfilled.

Some 50 percent of the population is under 25, yet with more than 25 percent unemployment, even the educated have very poor job prospects. They are just confused. Twenty-year-old Arash Shamsai, for example, told "The New York Times" he does not know why there was a revolution in 1979. And 25-year-old Sorajedin Mirdamadi, a disabled veteran of the Iran-Iraq War and a college graduate from a clerical family, earns only $170 a month and must live rent-free in a commune run by the Office for Strengthening Unity. The revolution for which he fought and sacrificed so much has failed to fulfill its promises.

So, too, has Khatami. He fails to react publicly when those allied with him, such as Assadollah Bayat or Mohsen Kadivar, are arrested, and he does not support his cabinet members, such as Abdullah Nuri or Ataollah Mohajerani, when the conservative parliament tries to interpellate them. His quietism as students themselves are attacked, as they were last May, also has invoked their resentment. The most recent demonstrations should encourage Khatami to finally act courageously and openly, otherwise his supporters will think that his civil society and rule of law electoral platform was just another lie from the clerical establishment.

In the short-term, it is likely that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will restore order, as he did in April 1998, when students demonstrated against the arrest and imprisonment of Tehran Mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi. Khamenei had Karbaschi released and order was restored. But this time some students chanted against Khamenei himself, which is unprecedented. There are unconfirmed reports that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the paramilitary Basij Resistance Force have been mobilized. (Bill Samii)

PARLIAMENT APPROVES PRESS BILL AMID NEWSPAPER CLOSURES. On 8 July British Foreign Office Junior Minister Geoff Hoon said the current Iranian government is taking the "right steps" in opening up the Iranian media. He must have been referring to the Iranian parliament's approval on 7 July of a draft bill on a new press law. One-hundred and twenty-five of the 215 deputies present voted for the bill, which was approved on an open ballot.

Part of the bill calls for a reporter to be held responsible for what he or she writes, whereas final responsibility currently rests with the publication's director or chief editor. Granting of press accreditation will be more restrictive. The bill proposes that a Qom seminarian and the head of the Islamic Propagation Organization serve on the Press Supervisory Board. Also, the bill says Revolutionary Courts are qualified to hear press offenses, whereas Article 168 of the constitution only permits press courts to do so. At present, in fact, the accused answer to either the Revolutionary Court or the Special Court for the Clergy.

Debate over the bill emerged shortly after its introduction. The bill's opponents said its unclear wording would restrict freedom of expression, while its conservative supporters claimed the bill would protect Islamic values. This latter point is inadmissible, according to "Hamshahri" on 31 May. Religious punishments are limited to eight crimes, the daily notes, and the press can commit only one of these, accusation of adultery. Speaking to an audience of judicial officials on 27 June, President Khatami spoke out against the current method of trying press cases, saying a jury should hear all cases. Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance Ataollah Mohajerani criticized the proposed press bill, because, he said, "custodians of the press and editors have not been consulted about this bill."

In a 5 July television program, "Neshat" reporter Minoo Badii said: "To attain a civil society and achieve political development we need to have numerous newspapers and publications, [but] if you look at the proposal to amend the press law you will see that it would restrict this trend." The 6 July establishment of the Association for Defense of Press Freedom is meant to protect constitutionally-defined press freedoms, according to Issa Saharkhiz, adviser to the Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry, and was motivated by the debate over the press law. On the other hand, parliamentary deputy Hassan Kamran (Isfahan) said on state television on 5 July that the bill is "designed to safeguard and enhance the freedom of the press." At the Friday Prayer sermon of 9 July, Ayatollah Ali Meshkini said: "Certain members of the press want to use legal freedoms to serve their own ends."

Even without adoption of the new bill, press restrictions have been applied often this year (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 8 February 1999 and 26 April 1999), and events in the last month show that the situation continues apace. At the beginning of June, "Neshat" editor Latif Safari and "Jebheh" editor Kazemzadeh appeared in court. Kazemzadeh faced a complaint filed by Safari, in which the "Jebheh" editor was accused of "defamation and generating fear in the minds of the public." "Sobh-i Imruz" editor Said Hajjarian appeared in court to face a defamation complaint by parliamentarian Ahmad Rasulinezhad.

On 16 June, the Revolutionary Court detained "Hoviat-i Khish" weekly's editor-in-chief, Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, and director, Hossein Kashani, for having published a series of "deceitful and offensive" articles. A day after their detention, "Iran Daily" editorialized: "the country's journalists are expecting all kinds of unpleasant developments." One of these developments was imposition of new press restrictions: "the pretext of amending the press law is part of an organized effort to create obstacles in the way of materialization of the president's plan."

On 7 July, "Salam" daily was closed and its editor-in-chief Abbas Abdi was arrested by the Special Court for the Clergy on the basis of a complaint from the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. The complaint stemmed from a 6 July "Salam" report about a MOIS plan to restrict the press. According to the daily, the plan was masterminded by Said Emami (a.k.a. Islami), the MOIS official who allegedly committed suicide while in prison (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 7 July 1999). Emami's alleged plan said that under the current press law authors, translators, and reporters could write what they wanted, while only editors would be held responsible.

Minister of Intelligence and Security Ali Yunesi said, according to "Keyhan" on 7 July, that the "Salam" report was false. The MOIS had no such plan and the letter cited by "Salam" was not from Emami. Subsequently, the charges were dropped and Abdi was released. But journalists announced a one-day strike on 6 July against the "Salam" closure.

These press-related issues boil down to a matter of censorship, which Johns Hopkins University Professor Azar Nafisi discussed with RFE/RL's Persian Service in May. She said: "the important point is that, in a democratic society, you can compare all the different views. The weapon against insidious views should be debate. That's how you create a healthy society."

The press bill, newspaper closures, and the arrests of journalists cast doubts on the emergence of such a debate. Reza Marzban, former editor of "Asr-i Tehran--Payqam-i Imruz," told RFE/RL's Persian Service on 14 June: "There is no freedom in Iran for us to start debating." Marzban continued: "One group has a hold on power and it has created a regime with two tiers: one which is a pressure valve and the other which is the absolute ruler. They even accuse people in their ranks of anarchy, of unbridled freedom, and of being Western elements. I do not know what percentage of Iran's 60 million people can consider itself insiders in this religious apartheid."

Although the Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry is viewed by some as a moderate institution due to the present leadership of Ataollah Mohajerani, Nafisi points out that such a ministry "presupposes that our writers, journalists, poets, and filmmakers need guidance and do not have the necessary discernment." (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN LINKS ARRESTED JEWS WITH MISSING DIPLOMATS. There have been few new developments in the case of the alleged Israeli espionage ring and the arrest of 13 Jewish Iranians. Zoleikha Behrokhinezhad, the mother of Jewish prisoner Navid Balazadeh, said she had visited her son in a Shiraz prison. He was being treated well and was getting kosher food. She went on to say, "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported on 7 July, "while we ignore the news on foreign radios, we do expect that my son's status is clarified as soon as possible." Manucher Eliasi, the Jewish representative to the Iranian parliament, said the international uproar over the 13 arrested Jews is merely an attempt to "deal a blow to the achievements of the Islamic Republic," "Tehran Times" reported on 8 July.

Ebrahim Yazdi, former head of Iran's judiciary and now leader of the Freedom Movement (Nehzat-i Azadi), said the entire affair is undermining Iran's international standing because "Iranian officials do not act in a transparent manner," "Neshat" reported on 6 July. By not acting transparently, Yazdi said, the Judiciary is violating both the Iranian Constitution and the UN charter, because "the detained individuals have the right to know the charges against them and to be tried in an open court before a jury." In Western systems based on the rule of law, said Yazdi, people are kept informed and therefore trust the investigating institutions. He said: "The only solution is for the officials to act in a transparent manner."

On 6 July the London daily "Al-Hayat" reported that American civil rights leader Jesse Jackson applied to visit Tehran to appeal for the release of 13 Jews. Jackson claimed he had discussed the matter with Iranian officials at an economic forum in Switzerland, but the Iranian officials denied this. "Foreign Report" alleged on 7 July that Israeli Rabbi Menachem Furman traveled to Almaty to meet with President Nursultan Nazarbaev and an Iranian delegation. The subjects discussed were release of the 13 Jews and Ron Arad, an Israeli aviator who was lost in Lebanon and is believed to be held in Iran.

Iran is trying to create a linkage between this case and that of three Iranian diplomats and a journalist who disappeared while in Beirut 17 years ago. A 7 July letter from Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, which was published in Lebanese newspapers, claimed that "The Iranian government, based on evidence that the four citizens are still alive and have been transported to the occupied territories (in Israel), holds Israel responsible for their kidnapping and for their fate." Sources in the Lebanese Forces, the now-defunct pro-Israeli Christian militia that seized the Iranians at a checkpoint in northern Beirut, claim they are dead. (Bill Samii)

THE PKK AND IRAN. In a 30 June interview with Istanbul's centrist daily "Hurriyet," Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said that Syria had expelled some, but not all, of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militants it sheltered. Those who were expelled are now in Iran. Ferhad Barzani, Washington representative of the Iraqi Kurdistan Democratic Party, corroborated this statement in an interview with Ankara's semi-official Anatolia news agency on 7 July. Barzani said the KDP apprehended three PKK members in northern Iraq. They admitted that Osman Ocalan, brother of convicted PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, is based in Iran. The PKK members also admitted that they had secured their explosives in Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) territory. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi issued a denial, saying: "Such false information is leaked to the press by circles who have concerns about the developing relations between Iran and Turkey," the "Turkish Daily News" reported on 9 July. (Bill Samii)

SMUGGLING PROBLEMS CONTINUE. Mehdi Karbasian, head of Iran's Customs Administration, said smuggling costs Iran 10 trillion rials annually, "Iran Daily" reported on 5 July. Karbasian called for greater coordination between Iran's customs, armed forces, Interior Ministry, and with neighboring states. The problem has reached such a level that it tops the Economic Headquarters' agenda. Countermeasures include reinforced fines, Karbasian said: "the fine for smuggling gas oil and gasoline has increased to 4,800 and 7,200 rials/liter, while they were 700 and 900 rials/liter respectively." A 700-person customs inspection force will be created, too, Karbasian told "Tehran Times" on 5 July, and 200 more security officers will be recruited. These steps may be insufficient. Pakistani Coast Guards stopped an attempt to smuggle 1.2 million liters of Iranian gasoline into its western Baluchistan Province, dpa reported on 5 June. A Pakistani official said ten oil tankers were seized, and the action stemmed from oil distributors' complaints that Iranian petrol is smuggled and sold throughout the province regularly. The Iranian oil and gas is cheaper than what is available domestically, so selling the smuggled Iranian products is very profitable. And in January, Iranian trucks were barred from entering Azerbaijan because they were carrying excessive fuel in extra tanks. (Bill Samii)

IRAN SEEKING FUSION REACTOR? Canadian physicist Real Decoste, director of the Canadian Center for Fusion Magnetics, said Iran is negotiating with his firm for the purchase of its know-how, technology, and an experimental reactor, Reuters reported on 7 July. Fusion is the method by which hydrogen bombs operate. So far fusion has not been economically viable for power generation, which it does by joining atoms, which explains why the Canadian government ended its support for the project. When Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari visited Moscow in late-June, among the topics discussed was a draft protocol on the construction of three new nuclear reactors in addition to the current Bushehr project on which Russian firms are already working, Interfax reported on 28 June.

But not all of Iran's nuclear pursuits are going well. Czech parliamentary deputy Jiri Payne has expressed strong disapproval over his country's possible provision of cooling facilities for the Bushehr nuclear project. Payne said such a sale could have wide-reaching security implications, CTK news agency reported on 6 July, and he expressed concern over the reaction of the Czech Republic's NATO partners.

German businessman Karl-Heinz Schaab, who was given an 11-month suspended sentence in 1993 for helping Iran build a centrifuge, was given a five-year sentence by a Munich court for selling atomic secrets to Iraq. He was found guilty of treason and foreign trade law violations because he supplied Iraq in 1989-90 with the technical expertise for building a high-powered centrifuge that can be used to produce weapons-grade uranium. (Bill Samii)

COMPLAINTS ABOUT SATANIC VOICES. A 5 July article in the "Tehran Times" criticized Ahmad Montazeri, spokesman for dissident cleric Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, for giving an interview to RFE/RL's Persian Service, and it wondered why Montazeri would do such a thing. "Radio Liberty is directly under the American Central Intelligence Agency," "Tehran Times" wrote falsely. The daily advised Montazeri: "If you want to interview with foreign radios, do it with those whose dependence is not as clear as that of Radio Liberty."

Parliament's Article 10 Committee banned managing directors of the print media from giving interviews to "radios which are hostile to Iran," "Tehran Times" reported on 27 June. The report went on to say the ban is mainly aimed at RFE/RL and Radio Israel. "The U.S. Congress has allotted $20 million for anti-Iran activities. Free Radio is funded by the same fund," the English-language daily reported.

RFE/RL is a private, non-profit organization funded by the U.S. Congress. RFE/RL receives its funds as a grant for U.S. non-military international broadcasting from the presidentially-appointed Broadcasting Board of Governors. Funding for the Persian Service was approved by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in October 1998 as part of the omnibus appropriations bill for fiscal year 1999 (Public Law 105-277), within the provisions of the Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act of 1998, "Sec. 2417 Radio Broadcasting to Iran in the Farsi Language." (Bill Samii)