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Iran Report: August 9, 1999

9 August 1999, Volume 2, Number 32

MANEUVERING FOR PARLIAMENTARY ELECTION BEGINS. In advance of the February 2000 parliamentary elections, Iran's political factions are manipulating the organizations they control in an effort to gain, in the case of hardliners, an advantage, and in the case of moderates, a more level playing field. The hardline Judiciary, therefore, is busily closing newspapers, prosecuting reformist political figures, and proposing more restrictive laws. Reformists in the administration and the parliament, on the other hand, are trying to introduce new laws which will allow them to field more candidates in February.

The conviction on 4 August of the daily "Salam's" managing director, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Asqar Musavi-Khoiniha, is correctly viewed as part of the backlash by hardliners against the reformist press. This is borne out by the case against "Salam" editor Abbas Abdi. There have been, furthermore, arrests of many journalists with reformist publications. Cases against hardline dailies are postponed, however, and their journalists are held for only token periods. But Khoiniha's case has as much to do with power politics as it does with press issues. The same can be said about the Abdi case.

Last week, the Special Court for the Clergy found Khoiniha guilty of spreading fabrications, disturbing public opinion, and publishing classified documents. Khoiniha was sentenced, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported on 4 August, to a three-and-a-half year jail term and a flogging. Due to his revolutionary credentials, the sentence was suspended and instead he was fined. He also is banned from publishing activities for three years. "Salam" is banned for five years.

The Islamic Revolution Court in Qom started hearings against Abbas Abdi, a "Salam" editor, on the basis of complaints brought against him by seminarians. The complaint was that he insulted a mob chanting "Death to America" by calling them "thugs." This is not Abdi's first brush with the law: he was imprisoned in 1993 after closed hearings were held.

These actions have a greater significance than merely being the closure of a "pro-Khatami" newspaper. By restricting Khoiniha and Abdi's media access, the hardliners are eliminating some of the institutional support for the 2nd Khordad (the date of Khatami's election) movement. Khoiniha is a co-founder of the pro-Khatami student group called the Office for Strengthening Unity, which is a 2nd Khordad "member." Khoiniha also is the leader of the Students Following the Line of the Imam, the organization that occupied the U.S. Embassy in 1979 and held the Amercian hostages. Abdi is a member of this latter group, and he is a founder of Khatami's Islamic Iran Participation Party. Leaders of the Office for Strengthening Unity, such as Ali Tavakoli, have been arrested, too, "Sobh-i Imruz" reported on 3 August.

Application of the law is by no means evenhanded. The trial of "Kayhan" newspaper manager Hussein Shariatmadari for publishing a classified letter from the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps to Khatami was postponed indefinitely after the judge dismissed most of the jurors. Meanwhile, Soheil Karimi and Reza Monjezipur, correspondents from the hardline "Jebheh" weekly, were released after being held for a few days, "Hamshahri" reported on 3 August. The jury in the case against Khoiniha, furthermore, included individuals such as Hojatoleslam Ruhollah Husseinian, whose hardline tendencies are well known.

Dissatisfied with its efforts to restrict political freedom and freedom of self-expression, the Judiciary has drawn up a bill on legal proceedings against political crimes, with reference to Article 168 (Political and Press Offenses) of the constitution. Judiciary spokesman Hojatoleslam Mohammad Reza Abbasi-Fard said, IRNA reported on 2 August, that political crimes include actions against Iran's independence, sowing discord, disclosing secret documents, spreading rumors and false information, "exchange of any kind of information with the foreign embassies and diplomatic representations, foreign media, and the political parties which may put the interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran in jeopardy."

The bill will be discussed with the cabinet before being turned over to the parliament for approval. State television, an institution run by hardliners, viewed the bill positively in a 3 August commentary. It said "the bill can endow political activities with a special kind of orderliness and meaning." "It will," furthermore, "ensure that our country will have a positive experience of political activities...All opinion-formers and legal experts say that it will be a healthy and effective move." Reza Alijani of the monthly "Iran Farda," however, said if the bill becomes law many more prisons will have to be built, "Resalat" reported on 5 August.

With a more long-term perspective, moderates in the parliament have introduced a bill that they hope will reduce the Guardians Council's ability to disapprove candidates for elected office. The power of "advisory supervision," under Article 99 and the electoral laws, allows the Guardians Council to disqualify candidates without explaining why. The new bill says candidates must be given the legal reason for disqualification, which may give them a greater chance to appeal the rejection. University professor Sadeq Zibakalam said people will not participate in the election if advisory supervision continues, "Resalat" reported on 5 August.

Approval of this bill seems dubious. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei positively endorsed advisory supervision in May (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 24 May 1999). And the Guardians Council has the power to reject or approve laws on the basis of their compatibility with Islam, according to Article 91 of the constitution. All these developments suggest that the months leading to the parliamentary election are likely to be eventful. (Bill Samii)

GOVERNMENT STATEMENT ON MURDERS QUESTIONED. The Armed Forces Judicial Organization issued another statement about the murders of Iranian intellectuals and dissidents by Ministry of Intelligence and Security personnel, the Islamic Republic News Agency reported on 4 August. While this provides more detail than previous statements on the case and while it also discusses the alleged suicide of Said Emami, statements in several Iranian publications suggest continuing skepticism. There also is suspicion that those directly responsible are going free.

Initially, 23 people were arrested for involvement in the case. After their interrogations it was determined that they were not involved in the murders, and they were released on bail, according to the IRNA report. The principle agents involved in the case have been identified, the statement declared. Other than Said Emami, Mustafa Kazemi, Khosrow Barati, and Mehrdad Alikhani, however, nobody was named.

The "attempt to provoke people's sentiments and distort the image of the system, inside and outside the country," explained the killings' brutality. There was a long list of intended targets.

Their objective was to "create crisis and insecurity" which would lead to a "full-scale violent confrontation." One suspect said they wanted human rights agencies to demand permission to visit Iran to investigate the murders. When the Iranian government refused permission, Iran would be internationally isolated. They partially succeeded: Iran regularly refuses human rights agencies' requests for access. But if anything, more countries are restoring full diplomatic relations with Iran.

The statement went on to say that the killers intended to implicate the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps. When that did not work, they threatened to implicate then-Minister of Intelligence and Security Qorban Ali Dori-Najafabadi. Dori-Najafabadi, however, reported their threats to his superiors (Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei or President Khatami, presumably). He then doggedly pursued the case until the murderers were arrested.

Turning to the specifics of Emami's death, the statement said he was "skillful in committing suicide as was evident in the exceptional methods used by him to kill himself." It also said "Emami committed suicide on six different occasions since 3 May 1999," but each time he was saved.

A 5 August commentary in "Khordad" said this statement will not restore trust between the people and the leadership. Some of the culprits were named, it said, but what about former Intelligence Minister Ali Akbar Fallahian, who was in charge when Emami and the others were hired? "Khordad" said Ruhollah Husseinian should be questioned, too, because he said on the "Cheraq" television program that Khatami's supporters staged the assassinations. This is worrisome, because Husseinian serves in the Special Court for the Clergy and the Press Court.

Judiciary and Justice Ministry official Assadollah Badamchian, who is a member of the conservative Islamic Coalition Association, admitted that questions remained, "Entekhab" reported on 5 August, but he urged patience. Abbas Abdi also said , according to "Entekhab," that there were unanswered questions. He wanted to know what circumstances forced these individuals to act in such an extreme way.

In May and again in June, Armed Forces Judicial Organization chief Hojatoleslam Mohammed Niazi said foreigners were behind the case ("RFE/RL Iran Report," 11 May 1999 and 28 June 1999). Now it seems the affair was internally inspired with the intention of alienating foreigners. The MOIS seems aware that public interest in the entire issue will remain high, possibly due to such inconsistencies. Its 4 August statement promised that "all-out investigations into the roots and various dimensions of this plot are continuing with special sensitivity." (Bill Samii)

MEHDI HASHEMI BEHIND ANTI-CLERICAL VIOLENCE. Recently there have been several attacks on institutions and personalities in Iran's Shia establishment. Viewed individually, these occurrences may seem insignificant. But taken as a whole, they tend to indicate a pattern of general displeasure with the mainstream religious leadership, a calculated plan targeting its representatives, or the radicalization of intra-institutional issues.

Statements by government and hardline publications, however, indicate a desire to ignore real problems. Instead, the incidents are either dismissed or blamed on one of the usual scapegoats, the Mehdi Hashemi gang.

Hojatoleslam Hajiaqa Nevisi, Delijan's Friday Prayer leader, was stabbed while delivering a sermon on 16 June. Law Enforcement Forces arrested the attacker immediately, and Nevisi was taken to the hospital, "Iran" reported on 19 June. Markazi Province Governor Hamid Haji-Abdolvahab said the attacker, Hadi Safari, was a deviant and "he was not politically-motivated," "Iran" reported on 21 June. Isfahan's substitute Friday Prayer leader, Hojatoleslam Seyyed Ali Qaziasgar, was attacked while giving his sermon on 30 July, IRNA reported. The assailant had a history of mental instability, "Iran" reported on 31 July.

About 35 members of a group called the Ansar-i Vilayat attended but did not participate in Isfahan's 16 July congregational prayers. They called for Friday Prayer leader Ayatollah Jalaledin Taheri's dismissal, "Iran Daily" reported on 18 July. Almost two weeks later, the Madrasah-yi Sadr-i Bazaar-i Isfahan, which is run by Ayatollah Hussein Mazaheri, was subject to an arson attack on 28 July. This incident was condemned by the top theological institution in Qom, and President Khatami also expressed his concern, IRNA reported on 31 July and 2 August.

The explanation for the first two incidents, mental instability, is a possibility, but the similarity suggests something more than a coincidence. The events in Isfahan, however, are almost certainly connected and they probably reflect political conflicts around Taheri.

In addition, Taheri is a relative moderate who frequently criticizes hardliners, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and supports Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri. Isfahan is the site of occasional protests because it is close to Montazeri's home in Najafabad. In spite of his revolutionary credentials, Taheri himself was physically assaulted in January (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 25 January 1999).

Because Taheri is popular and because Father of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini appointed him, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei cannot replace him as a prayer leader. Khamenei did, however, appoint Mazaheri as a counterweight. If anything, that step only increased tensions. Taheri staged a march past Mazaheri's institution and gave the sermon marking the end of the Ramadan fasting period, after his supporters tore down posters promoting Mazaheri's sermon.

A statement by the Isfahan governorate that the fire was the result of internal institutional arguments was sharply criticized in "Resalat" on 2 August. A preferred version of events was seen in "Kayhan" coverage of the fire. "Kayhan" reported on 29 July that a year earlier, the library and other facilities of a different religious school were burned down under similar circumstances. The conservative daily said that incident was traced to the Mehdi Hashemi gang.

The Mehdi Hashemi gang frequently is blamed for various misdeeds. Just last winter, only 11 years after Mehdi Hashemi's death, the gang was accused of contacting "The New York Times" (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 21 December 1998), assassinating dissidents (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 18 January 1999), and trying to assassinate Justice Department chief Hojatoleslam Ali Razini (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 1 February 1999). This raises the question: why is the Mehdi Hashemi gang such a common scapegoat?

Hojatoleslam Mehdi Hashemi was the brother of Ayatollah Montazeri's son-in law, Hadi Hashemi. After the Ayatollah's son, Mohammad, died in the bombing of the Islamic Republican Party headquarters in 1981, Mehdi Hashemi took control of Montazeri's armed followers. According to several sources, he came to head the liberation movements unit in the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps, dealing with Lebanon's Hizballah and Afghan mujahedin units.

This led to factional conflicts, as different Iranian factions promoted Hizballah or Amal. Hashemi's followers reportedly revealed the arms-for-hostages deal to undermine then-Parliamentary Speaker Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. The Ministry of Intelligence and Security, led by Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mohammadi Reyshahri, kept a constant watch on Mehdi Hashemi. After his followers kidnapped a Syrian official in Tehran in October 1986, Mehdi Hashemi was arrested. Reyshahri helped create the Special Court for the Clergy that tried Hashemi. Reyshahri's deputy, Ali Akbar Fallahian, also played a big part in prosecuting Hashemi and others implicated without public evidence.

Hashemi's arrest harmed Ayatollah Montazeri's reputation. But Montazeri continued trying to protect Hashemi. Reyshahri said Montazeri was a dupe for associating with Hashemi, and this only undermined his ability to succeed Khomeini. Hashemi's "confessions" were broadcast on television, when he claimed to have ordered murders and to have planted arms caches around the country. Hashemi was executed in September 1987.

While it is easy to dismiss accusations of foreign plots and other scapegoats, references to the Mehdi Hashemi gang are more believable in the Isfahan case. For one thing, Hashemi had a reputation for anti-clericalism. There were accusations that he had killed the conservative Ayatollah Shamsabadi before the Islamic Revolution. For another, his base of operations was the Isfahan area.

Whatever the case might be, three Isfahan-area lawmakers, Nasser Taleqi, Said Valliollah Tavakoli, and Abdulrahman Tajaldin, urged the Ministry of Intelligence and Security to act quickly in solving the recent arson case, in order to restore the public's sense of security. They also wanted to know how somebody could break into such important religious facilities, "Khordad" reported on 4 August. (Bill Samii)

RUSSIA, IRAN, AND ISRAEL DISCUSS WMD. "Cooperation with the Islamic Republic is a cornerstone of the Kremlin's foreign policy," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told Tehran's ambassador to Moscow, Mehdi Safari. Karasin said, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency on 3 August, the pending visit of Iranian Vice President for Atomic Energy Qolam Reza Aqazadeh-Khoi indicates the "incentives and innovations of bilateral ties." Cooperation in the peaceful use of atomic energy will be discussed when Aqazadeh-Khoi visits Moscow, sources in the Russian government told Interfax on 28 July.

Non-proliferation issues were discussed when Iranian Foreign Ministry Director-General for International Affairs Mohammad Reza Alborzi met with his Russian counterpart, Georgiy Bordnikov, the Islamic Republic News Agency reported on 27 July. Among the subjects they considered were creation of a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the Middle East and a working group on export controls.

This apparent commitment to non-proliferation may explain Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin's 2 August statement, reported by ITAR-TASS, that the official position of Russia is that "it is not in our interests that any country, including such as Iran, possess nuclear weapons." The statement came after Stepashin's talks with Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak. It also was decided that Israel would not pressure Russia about the transfer of missile technology to Iran for a three-month period, "Haaretz" reported on 2 August.

The U.S. will handle monitoring of Russian efforts to stem the flow of technology and material to Russia during that period, the Tel Aviv daily continued. Stepashin said, ITAR-TASS reported on 2 August, "If somebody has fears, suspicions or, which is better, facts, witnessing a 'leak' from Russia of technologies, which may help Iran produce nuclear weapons, we are ready to consider such facts."

Germany believes it has sufficient evidence of a Russian role in development of Iran's WMD programs. Germany's Federal Intelligence Service (BND) warned German firms, "Frankfurter Allgemeine" reported on 24 July, against doing business with several Russian firms because they are helping Iran's weapons procurement program. Among the Russian enterprises involved in this, according to the German newspaper, are: Baltic State Technical University, Baumann University, Europalace 2000, Glavkosmos, Nigrafit, Inor Scientific Center, Moscow Aviation Institute, Nikiet, NPO Lavochkin, Polyus Scientific Production Association, Rosvooruzhenie, Russian University of Chemical Technology D.J. Mendellev, Samara Science and Technical Complex N.O. Kuznetsov. Some of the equipment German firms should export cautiously are wind tunnels, driving and control systems, telemetry systems, and testing and measuring devices.

Indeed, lack of substantive evidence seems to be the key factor in Russian denials of WMD cooperation with Iran. When asked if Russia has stopped supplying missile and nuclear technology to Iran, Stepashin replied, according to the 2 August "Newsweek," "Nobody has proved that Russia supplies missile technologies to Iran."

This attitude may explain why Israeli Prime Minister Barak's attempts to get reassurances on proliferation issues were fruitless. "Members of Barak's office said that, in fact, they had little expectation that Israel would be able to pressure Russia into controlling the leakage," the "Jerusalem Post" reported on 3 August. Barak himself said: "Despite the promises I received from President Yeltsin and his top ministers, I think the Russians will continue to assist the Iranian effort to manufacture nuclear weapons and ground-to-ground missiles," "Yedioth Aharanot" reported on 4 August.

The Iranian weapon purchases often are coordinated by the Shahid Industrial Group. Two companies affiliated with the Oppressed and Disabled Foundation (Bonyad-i Mostazafan va Janbazan) conduct procurement activities in Dubai. The two firms identified by "Frankfurter Allgemeine" are "Al Nibras Plant and Equipment and Machinery Trading" and "Bonyad Clearing and Forwarding Company." Many dual-use items purchased by Iran go through the Jebel Ali Free Trade Zone in Dubai. (Bill Samii)

IS HIZBALLAH BEING RESTRAINED? Lebanese Hizballah has curtailed its activities on orders from Iran and Syria, Nabil Abu Rafa, commander of the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army's central sector, told the Voice of Israel on 28 July. Remaining activities, such as boobytraps, are merely an effort to show independence in the field, he said. Arabic media sources speculated in June that Iran's approach to Lebanese affairs is shifting from one centered on Hizballah to one that operates on a bilateral, state-to-state level, and Syria is exerting pressure on Hizballah to demilitarize (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 7 July 1999).

This view was reiterated in a 21 July report from London's Arabic-language "Al-Zaman." Citing "Arab diplomatic sources," it said this is part of a Syria-Israel peace agreement. Syria agreed to pressure Iran to stop aiding Hizballah. Also, Hizballah will disarm and become a purely political party, it will close its military bases, and it will turn over its equipment to Syria. In exchange for Israeli acceptance of a Syrian military presence in Lebanon, 80 percent of the Syrian troops there will be withdrawn. In exchange for ending its support of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), Israel and Turkey will include Syria in an information exchange and may include it in a security committee.

Spokesmen for Hizballah, however, denied being pressured by Syria or Iran to curtail their activities, Iranian state radio reported on 20 July. Spokesmen for HAMAS, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine -- General Command, and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine also "rejected the veracity" of such reports. When Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi visited Lebanon in June he urged Hizballah to keep fighting. President Mohammad Khatami met with representatives of Hizballah when he was in Damascus in May, although the substance of the discussions is not known (see "RFE/RL Iran Report, 17 May 1999).

Meanwhile, Iran is continuing with what is seen as an example of its new bilateral approach with Lebanon. A contribution of $75,000 from Iran is sponsoring part of the reconstruction of a bridge destroyed in a June Israeli air-raid, Beirut's "Daily Star" reported on 24 July. Iranian engineers are supervising the project, which is expected to cost $295,000. The project's Iranian supervisor, Houshang Daryabeigi, said Iran's "decision to finance repairs was prompted by its hostile relations with Israel." Iran also intends to finance reconstruction of bridges at Jiyye and Bqosta.

News about these bridge reconstruction projects may help Hizballah legislator Abdullah Kassir's suggestion that the Lebanese government "renew contacts with Iran" regarding loans for housing construction. Kassir said, Associated Press reported on 2 August, that Iranian Housing Ministry officials came to Beirut in 1997 to discuss financing and a role for Iranian companies there. Kassir also said that former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri rejected Iran's offer to finance housing projects worth $500 million. Hariri's actions stemmed from his concern about Iranian influence among Lebanese Shia and his hostility towards Hizballah. (Bill Samii)