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Iran Report: August 23, 1999

23 August 1999, Volume 2, Number 33

KHATAMI CALLS FOR BOTH DIVERSITY AND UNITY. In mid-August President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami-Ardakani made important speeches to Qom seminarians and to Basij Resistance Force commanders. In the former, he urged greater intellectual diversity; in the latter, he called for more unity. These speeches are perhaps especially significant because they were made to groups that are not necessarily identified with reform. All his comments explicitly indicated his belief that this was how the system would be strengthened and sustained.

Khatami addressed the Publicity Bureau of the Qom Theological Seminary on 15 August. He urged the clerics to rise above differences of opinion and not represent or identify with a specific viewpoint. Diversity is necessary for the growth and survival of the Islamic system. He said: "It is time for us to accept the fact that we can tolerate different ideas...[thereby demonstrating that] Islam is able to encompass a wide range of views." Khatami continued: "I believe that different points of view should be tolerated." But he added that viewpoints that differ with the Islamic Republic of Iran's Constitution are "tantamount to opposing the very basis of the system."

On 19 August Khatami addressed a gathering of Basij commanders. After describing the Basij's post-revolution origins and praising its sacrifices during the war with Iraq, Khatami made the point that the Basij had a "natural bond with the people." Thus, the Basij should not be seen as another state institution, it should strengthen its bond with its source--the public.

Khatami suggested this explained why Father of the Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi-Khomeini's goal of a 5-million-member Basij was still unrealized. Khatami said: "The Basij must become an all-encompassing institution, and we must prepare the ground for its qualitative and quantitative expansion."

Khatami then praised Basij activities during the July unrest in Iran. "The Basij forces, standing alongside the Law Enforcement Forces, demonstrated courage, firmness, and initiative. They demonstrated the power and potency of the system, and they also revealed the self-restraint exercised by the system." By not resorting to deadly force, Khatami said, the Basij "brought the unrest to an end, and in the process they brought calm and security back to the country."

Finally, Khatami urged the Basij to remain above factionalism and to identify with the public. He said: "The more the Basij mixes and joins ranks with the people, the better its nature and morale will be preserved."

These two speeches, meant primarily for diverse domestic audiences, show Khatami's overall objectives for Iran. He hopes for a pluralistic system that allows for diversity of political thought. But at the same time, he wants to reform the system within the limits set by the republic's 1989 constitution. (Bill Samii)

GUARDIANS COUNCIL TO APPROVE PARLIAMENTARY CANDIDATES. An effort to modify the Guardians Council's role in approving candidates for electoral office was defeated in the parliament on 11 August. This will undermine hopes that reformist candidates could make serious inroads in the February 2000 parliamentary election.

According to the vague wording of Article 99, the Guardians Council has the power to supervise elections. This has resulted in the rejection of potential candidates on what is seen as factional grounds. The new bill, state broadcasting reported on 11 August, gives the Guardians Council the "supervisory task in every stage of the parliamentary elections. This supervision will be expedient and comprehensive in every election related to the Majlis [parliament]."

Other articles of the bill, which were approved on 8 August, state that the Guardians Council must give legal reasons for rejecting the candidates, and if an individual whose candidacy was approved in previous elections is rejected this time, he or she can appeal. Some see this as a compromise. Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, however, has previously threatened disqualified candidates by saying he had "files" of incriminating evidence which he might make public.

Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari, speaking only two days before the bill's approval, said, "competence of candidates and their election depends on the people." He warned that evaluating candidates on the basis of their beliefs might lead to "factional disputes," IRNA reported on 9 August. Speaking on 14 August, Musavi-Lari indicated his unhappiness with the new bill. He said, Agence France Press reported: "As far as the Interior Ministry is concerned, anyone can be a candidate unless he or she is declared ineligible beyond any doubt. The people and only the people should decide who is eligible for office."

Only 190 of parliament's 270 members were present for the voting on the bill, and 116 voted for it. Many independent members of parliament were absent that day, although this large block has sided with reformists on several issues recently. (Bill Samii)

RENTERING THE FRAY. As the parliamentary election approaches, a number of reformist--in early-1990s terms--figures are getting ready to play a major role. Most significant of these individuals is Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who currently heads the Council for the Discernment of Expediency. Normally a candidate must resign from government office three months before registering for the election. But a private members bill made Rafsanjani an exception to this rule, state broadcasting reported on 16 August.

Rafsanjani said he has not decided yet whether he will run for parliament, "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported on 17 August. But Rafsanjani, who is mainly identified with the Executives of Construction Party, seems to be gathering some support and coalition building. On 17 August he addressed members of the Islamic Iran Participation Party and said he favored a multiparty system. He also enunciated his position on general issues: "Reform has never been a propaganda or conventional word; without it we cannot resolve youth unemployment or people's economic problems."

Two other figures who will play a role in the election are Hojatoleslam Mehdi Mahdavi-Karrubi, secretary of the relatively moderate Militant Clerics Association (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mobarez), and former Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Mohtashemi-Pur. Both these figures have voiced serious objections to the Guardians Council's role in approving candidates for various elections. Mohtashemi-Pur recently stated his intention to publish a newspaper that will replace the newly banned "Salam."

Organizations led by Mahdavi-Karrubi and Mohtashemi-Pur are serious players in "the game of big shots," "Neshat" reported on 7 August. On the other hand, groups like the imprisoned Manuchehr Mohammadi's student association, the now-dead Said Emami's assassins, and even journalists from "Jebheh," have only a "minor role." (Bill Samii)

MORE DISTURBANCES IN ISFAHAN. There are differing interpretations of an incident that occurred in Isfahan. According to the official "Iran" newspaper on 12 August, a group of foreign tourists in Isfahan to view the solar eclipse was harassed by local Hizbullah members, which it described as "thugs." Apparently, the attackers surrounded a bus, chanted "Death to America," and shouted at the females for being indecently dressed.

The foreign visitors were not harassed, "Keyhan" retorted on 12 August. A number of local citizens were demonstrating against the removal of graffiti ("Death to America," for example), which the city council had ordered in advance of the foreigners' arrival. "Kayhan" said people "staged a number of protest rallies in parts of the city and shouted revolutionary and religious slogans."

It seems the Isfahan substitute Friday Prayer leader, Hojatoleslam Seyyed Ali Qaziasgar, was unaware of this fine distinction. At the 13 August sermon, "Neshat" reported the next day, he "condemned the attack on foreign an act contrary to law and religious regulations." Qaziasgar went on to say that the attack discredited Islam, and if the tourists were in Iran illegally, the law would deal with them.

Hojatoleslam Habibollah Qafuri, Friday Prayer leader for Aran and Bid Gol (which are in Isfahan Province), was critical, too. He said such an incident was unacceptable because the foreigners were guests and tourism is needed to supplement the country's income, "Arya" reported on 16 August.

At Tehran's Friday Prayers, apparently, a different version of the Isfahan episode had gained currency. According to "Kayhan" on 14 August, "a number of devout people who took part in the Friday prayers in Tehran yesterday condemned the publication of a derogatory report and expressed their condemnation in a petition addressed to the Islamic Revolution court."

Several Tehran dailies condemned the incident. Such actions are attributable to factional politics and hostility towards opening the country to foreigners, according to "Iran" on 12 August. The newspaper, which is published by the Islamic Republic News Agency, said such "childish" actions damage the "reputation and honor of the nation, the system, and the entire country." "Payam-i Hajar" editorialized on 14 August that the incident permanently marred the visitors' memories of Iran. (Bill Samii)

ISFAHAN ARSONIST APPREHENDED. An arrest has been made in the case of an arson attack against the Madrasah-yi Sadr-i Bazaar-i Isfahan seminary, which occurred in July (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 9 August 1999). The unnamed arsonist is affiliated with "one of the extremist political factions in Isfahan," "Kayhan" reported on 11 August. The hardline daily expressed concern that the arsonist will be declared "insane and suffering from a mental illness" before a proper interrogation occurs. A previous "Kayhan" report suggested the Mehdi Hashemi gang was behind the fire, as did a report in the weekly "Jebheh" on 3 August. (Bill Samii)

IRAN DEPORTS REFUGEES. At a May conference in Tehran, Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari said Iranian aid for roughly 3 million Iraqi, Kurdish, Afghan, and other refugees was imposing a major expense in the face of declining income and high unemployment (see "RFE/RL Iran Report, 31 May 1999). At that time, Musavi-Lari appealed for greater international assistance, but it appears that sufficient help has not been forthcoming. Musavi-Lari told IRNA on 7 August that refugees with a residence permit will be relocated to camps, and illegal refugees will be repatriated. In conjunction with this, the government launched a crackdown on illegal refugees and stepped up border controls. Deportees said, according to London's "Al-Zaman" on 12 August, that Iraqis in Iran face "arrests, provocations, and constant humiliation to force them to leave for the Kurdistan area in northern Iraq." They said the campaign against them started two months ago. About 70 foreigners, mainly Bangladeshis, were tried in Tehran for illegal entry and forged documents, "Iran" reported on 19 August. (Bill Samii)

IRAN DIVIDED ON LEBANESE HIZBALLAH. There are conflicting reports about the end of official Iranian support for Lebanon's Hizballah (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 9 August 1999). This does not mean that Iranian state institutions or factions within them have ended their support either for Hizballah or more radical Lebanese groups, such as followers of Subih Tufaili. Nor does this mean that all Hizballah identification with Iran has ended.

According to an unconfirmed report in London's "Foreign Report" on 18 August, an Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) "think-tank" created by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei advised Hizballah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah to create a clandestine network of arms and equipment caches. The think-tank also advised that Hizballah increase its military operations to demonstrate its continued viability. During his recent visit to Lebanon, Iranian Commerce Minister Mohammad Shariatmadari met with Nasrallah, IRNA reported on 12 August. Previously, Sheikh Subih Tufaili said Hizballah militiamen were paid directly from funds provided by Khamenei, the Lebanese Christian "Lebanon Bulletin" reported on 2 June 1997. The official Iranian position towards Hizballah may be unclear, but its position towards Israeli activities in Lebanon remains consistent. Following the 16 August assassination of Hizballah official Ali Hassan Dib (Abu Hassan Salameh), Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi stressed "Iran's continued support for the national Islamic resistance of Lebanese people and government," according to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) on 18 August. Assefi condemned "the continuation of the Zionist regime's aggressive and terrorist acts." He went on to say that Israel is pursuing "expansionist policies" and it is "the main factor of tension, instability, and crisis in the region."

Five days earlier, President Khatami sent a message to President Emil Lahud that stressed the "need for unity between the government, various groups, and the people of Lebanon against the Zionist enemy." Khatami's message also said, Iranian state broadcasting reported on 13 August, "We are standing by the people and the government of Lebanon."

Hizballah parliamentarian Muhammad Fenish, speaking at a 16 August meeting on "Iran-Arab Relations" held in Jebel Amil, said there should be no animosity between Iran and Arab states. He said the U.S. sought to promote the differences because of Iran's hostility towards a regional peace accord, IRNA reported. (Bill Samii)

TURKEY AND IRAN REACH SECURITY UNDERSTANDING. Events in the last two weeks suggest that there has been an improvement in recently strained relations between Iran and Turkey. On 9 August, two Turkish soldiers held in Iran since inadvertently crossing the border in July were handed back to Ankara. In the following days, a series of meetings under the auspices of the High-Level Turkish-Iranian Security Cooperation Committee were held in Ankara to resolve other points of contention. For Turkey, the main concern is alleged Iranian support for the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Reports from Turkey's intelligence service (Milli Istihbarat Teskilati, MIT) say that 1,200 PKK combatants are trained in 50 camps in Iran, the "Turkish Daily News" reported on 9 August. MIT also reports that Iran provides transportation, hospital care, logistical support, and financial aid. The PKK has six representative offices in Iran, provides publishing facilities, and facilitates illegal border crossings, according to the "Turkish Daily News" article. The "Kurdish Vengeance Brigade" trained at an Iranian camp called "Shahid Han," Istanbul's "Milliyet" newspaper reported on 11 August. An anonymous Turkish official said, according to "Turkish Daily News" on 10 August: "We expect Iran to take measures against the existing PKK presence on Iranian territory and take adequate measures against a possible increase in their number after 1 September." Turkish officials have complained that Iran has not acted against the PKK despite previous agreements. Iranian Interior Ministry official Gholam Hussein Bolandian, who headed the Iranian delegation to Ankara, said ambiguities were eliminated during the most recent discussions, IRNA reported on 11 August. But he also said, according to a 13 August Reuters report, "If you have the address of these places, such as camps and hospitals, then let's go and see together. There are no such places." A memorandum of understanding was signed on 13 August, in which Iran and Turkey agreed to conduct simultaneous operations against the PKK and the Iraqi-sponsored Mujahedin Khalq Organization. Turkish Interior Ministry official Yahya Gur said, according to Reuters on 13 August: "Simultaneous operations mean the commanders on both sides decide to hold an operation at the same time in their own region. It is not a joint operation." An unnamed Turkish official also said a telephone hot line would be created. Bolandian said other aspects of the MOU included information exchanges between border officials and inspection visits, Iranian state broadcasting reported on 13 August. He said "All the clauses of the draft agreement were drawn up by the Iranian delegation and accepted by the Turkish side." Bolandian also said that Turkey "implicitly" agreed to provide compensation for damages incurred in an alleged Turkish air strike on Iranian territory last month. (Bill Samii)

NORWAY WELCOMED BACK. The pending arrival of Norway's new ambassador to Tehran, Svein Aass, after a four-year break in relations over an attempt on the life of William Nygaard, publisher of Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses," has been welcomed by the Iranian government. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said the Islamic Republic would remove barriers to trade with Norway, IRNA reported on 9 August. Saying that he did not know there were any trade sanctions in place, Norwegian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ingvard Havnen confirmed their elimination all the same, Oslo's "Aftenposten" newspaper reported on 9 August. In fact, Norwegian firms maintained their involvement with Iran, mostly in the oil sector, even after the withdrawal of the ambassador. Arild Blixrud of the Norwegian Export Council said his country's goods have been sold to Iran through third countries, including subsidiaries in Sweden and the EU, "Aftenposten" reported on 4 June. Many Norwegian firms that left Iran relocated to Dubai.

With the change in relations, there are greater opportunities. Norwegian Export Council director Per Andreas Vogt said "the possibilities in Iran are limitless," "Aftenposten" reported on 14 July. Telenor Satellite Services hopes to sell Iran mobile telephone technology. Iranian Ministry of Roads and Transport official Abdullah Nowruzi said there is potential in shipping and fisheries, as well as the expansion of Iranian airports and railways.

The two countries are mainly involved in oil-related ventures. Norwegian firms work with Iran in major Persian Gulf oil exploration projects (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 21 June 1999). Also, Norway's Statoil owns 25.5 percent of a Caspian Sea oil consortium in which Iran is a partner, "Aftenposten" reported on 14 July.

To facilitate trade with Iran, the Norwegian Export Credit Guarantee Institute announced that it would resume providing guarantees for Norwegian firms dealing with Iran, Iranian state broadcasting reported on 25 June. (Bill Samii)