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Iran Report: September 6, 1999

6 September 1999, Volume 2, Number 35

U.S. SETS 'NO PRECONDITIONS' FOR TALKS WITH IRAN. "We have not set any conditions for starting negotiations. We have said that we would like to improve our relations with Iran and we have sought a starting point," U.S. State Department official John Limbert told Tehran University Professor Sadiq Zibakalam during a round table organized by RFE/RL's Persian Service. Zibakalam countered that any discussions are hindered by "a double stance in the U.S. towards Iran." The round table was moderated by a Persian service broadcaster in Prague, while Limbert spoke from Washington and Zibakalam from Tehran.

The administration's stance has been consistent, Limbert responded. Referring to "remarks made by the U.S. president at the White House in April--in which he clearly spoke of the importance of improving ties with Iran--and the comments made by the secretary of state over a year ago, to the effect that we are ready to sit down with the Iranians to draw up a blueprint for improved relations," Limbert said, "I think that when both the president and the secretary of state have clearly expressed this point of view, we cannot speak of a double stance in the American administration."

After a 20-year "estrangement," the two countries cannot become friendly right away, Limbert admitted. "But as a first step, we are talking about diplomatic relations and dialogue in order to resolve differences."

Zibakalam complained that the U.S. stereotypes Iran and has in fact set preconditions for talks. For example, "The Americans have said that before any negotiations take place, Iran must modify its stance towards the Middle East peace process. In a word, that is a rejection of the Islamic Republic of Iran."

Limbert's response to this statement was unambiguous: "Allow me to clarify and say that the U.S. has not set any preconditions for starting negotiations." Only through a dialogue can the two countries resolve their differences, he continued.

Zibakalam acknowledged that there is a debate within Iran about relations with the U.S., but "the behavior of the Americans has not helped break the ice." Limbert responded that the U.S. is not concerned about the "hardliner versus moderate" aspects of Iranian politics, because if a person is prepared to think badly of the U.S., nothing can be done to convince him otherwise.

"America, without preconditions, is ready for a dialogue with Iran," the headlines of "Payam-i Azadi" shouted on 28 August, which published the unedited--but without attribution--full text of the RFE/RL round table, having gotten a recording of it from Zibakalam. "Kayhan" gave a synopsis of this report, and then it criticized the "Payam-i Azadi" director for publishing the interview's transcript without a critical commentary. The hardline daily said on 31 August that Limbert was a spy, which explained why he was held hostage for 444 days.

"Resalat" wondered on 31 August what there might be to discuss. It said: "The people who dream of relations with America must know that this dream will never come true." On the other hand, a 1 September editorial in "Neshat" said that over the last few years, Iranians have said one thing publicly and another in private. It asked: "Is it not time for the various factions to stop making contradictory statements and adopt a clear policy on relations with America? (Bill Samii)

FOREIGN INVESTMENT NEEDED TO CURE UNEMPLOYMENT. When Iranians rioted in July, many observers ascribed the unrest to public anger over the closure of "Hoviat-i Khish" and "Salam," trials of journalists, and anti-democratic laws. Others, however, suggested that much of the students' unhappiness resulted from economic issues, particularly unemployment, as much as from more political issues (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 12 July 1999). Iran's leaders seem to realize this, too, and the government is trying to attract foreign investment to improve the economy and attack an unemployment rate estimated at over 25 percent (Labor and Social Affairs Minister Hussein Kamali said "there are about 2 million jobless people in the country," the Islamic Republic News Agency [IRNA] reported on 28 August).

Addressing President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami and his cabinet, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the government should focus on economic issues, IRNA reported on 24 August. In a television address broadcast the same day, Khatami described the "mass flood of job-seekers onto the market" as one of Iran's main economic problems. He promised that in the forthcoming third five-year development plan, employment will be one of the areas of concentration. To reduce the current unemployment rate, Khatami estimated that Iran needs to create 700,000-800,000 jobs every year. Other objectives of the five-year plan include a reduction in dependency on oil as the economy's driver and a reduction in the inflation rate.

To achieve these goals, Khatami thinks private sector investment is needed. Particularly important will be foreign investment. But foreigners may be reluctant to invest in Iran, because as Allameh Tabatabai University Professor Jamshid Pezhuyan told "Abrar" in July, Iran is in the "high-risk" category of countries classified by relative security of capital investment. In a 28 August meeting with Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, Khatami said greater security and transparency are needed to attract foreign investors and help the economy grow, IRNA reported.

On 28 August, Intelligence and Security Minister Ali Yunesi promised to eliminate the violent pressure groups that make investment in Iran seem unappealing. He said there are only about 500 such extremists throughout Iran. "Iran-e Farda" editor Ezzatollah Sahabi said official acknowledgment of the harm done by pressure groups is commendable, "Arya" reported on 28 August. But instead of minimizing the size and influence of the pressure groups, Sahabi said, the MOIS should go after their leaders.

In case nobody knows who leads the pressure groups, it has been suggested their leadership can be traced by determining who benefits from their actions. During the July unrest, the rial-dollar exchange rate climbed to over 9000:1. And just then, a quasi-governmental foundation purchased currency worth 9 trillion rials, according to Shiraz's "Nim-Negah." The publication suggested somebody is profiting financially from the unrest, and this explains the pressure group's initiation of violence. The possible existence of a profit-motive suggests that efforts to bring about stability may meet some resistance. (Bill Samii)

PRESS POLICIES PROMOTE PRODUCTIVITY--AND UNITY. The Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance announced that 168 publications, including seven daily newspapers, 27 weeklies, 59 monthlies, 53 quarterlies, and two annuals, had been licensed in the last year, IRNA reported on 29 August. The ministry noted that its press policy is based on "expanding legalized freedoms and increasing the number of publications."

Ayatollah Hassan Taheri-Khorramabadi also has a press policy. Sermonizing at the 27 August Friday Prayers, he said, "the press should not provoke the factional problems and political differences." In this way, the press can help in the effort to achieve "unity and solidarity" among the country's legislative and executive branches. Then, "people--united wholeheartedly and firmly--can follow the path of Islam."

It appears that "Neshat" has done the most against unity. Its 5 September issue was not published, although part of its Internet edition was. This latter version said the paper was closed on the orders of Press Court Judge Said Mortazavi after a complaint from the public prosecutor. The charges are related to the publication of a letter from Yadollah Sahabi urging Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to distance himself from hardliners, and an article by Emadedin Baqi criticizing capital punishment.

Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi criticised Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Ataollah Mohajerani for allowing an environment that permits such attacks against the "principles and basic tenets of the system."

"Neshat already had legal problems. In August, complaints were filed against it by the Law Enforcement Forces, state broadcasting, the state prosecutor, Qom's Special Court for the Clergy, the Islamic Open University, and some Majlis deputies. Managing Director Latif Safari defended against eight of the charges on 24 August, but he requested time to prepare a defense against the others. "Neshat" columnist Ebrahim Nabavi told "Sobh-i Imruz" on 24 August that the press court summoned him to face unspecified charges.

"Sobh-i Imruz" is another newspaper that is not doing enough to promote unity. Its senior editor, Kazem Shokri, as well as two other officials of the daily, were to face trial in the third week of August. The managing directors of "Manatiq-i Azad" and "Ava-yi Luristan" also faced unspecified charges, IRNA reported on 24 August. Mohammad Hassan Alipour, managing director of the weekly "Aban," was summoned to the Special Court for the Clergy, "Iran News" reported on 27 August. Alipour is not a cleric.

Hardline publications also encounter problems. A case was brought against "Qods" and its editor-in-chief, Sayyed Jalal Fayyazi, for offending two (unnamed) sources of emulation, IRNA reported on 9 August. But because an apology was printed the next day, the Press Supervisory Board only issued a written warning. Mustafa Mirbabai, head of the Khuzestan offices of "Resalat" and "Qods," claims he was arrested for "publishing two stories quoting Khuzestan's Justice Department and the director general of the province's physical education," "Tehran Times" reported on 28 August.

Hojatoleslam Mohammad Salimi of the Special Court for the Clergy expressed concern about newspapers' conduct. He claimed, according to the 24 August "Iran" newspaper, that some newspapers "are experts at creating psychological warfare." Salimi did not specify which newspapers displayed this expertise.

As the statistics from the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance attest, new publications are emerging. One of the forthcoming publications will be called "Hizbullah" and be published in Persian, English, and Arabic. Hamid Najjari, secretary-general of the central council of the Hizbullah Assembly (Majma-yi Hizbullah) said the publication will "follow a line above factionalism and in support of the leader of the revolution and the interests of the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran," "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported on 10 August.

"Manatiq-i Azad" discussed some of the other new publications on 7 August. "Musharikat," organ of the Islamic Iran Participation Party, will be published as a weekly. Said Purazizi will run the daily "Bahar;" at one time it was a weekly run by Abbas Abdi. "Hayat-i No" daily will be run by Sayyed Hadi Khamenei, who ran "Jahan-i Islam," which will become a weekly. The Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting will publish "Jaam-i Jam," and Hussein Entezami will be its managing director. Iraj Resangar will run the weekly "Tavana." Another forthcoming publication, according to "Manatiq-i Azad," will be "Farvardin" with Akbar Ganji as its managing director.

"Aftab-i Imruz," run by Fereidun Amuzadeh Khalili, began full time sales on 23 August. It was announced in early-August that former Interior Minister Ali-Akbar Mohtashemi-Pur will resume publication of "Bayan." Its application for a license was denied by the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance, however, "Tehran Times" announced on 22 August. (Bill Samii)

PRESS JUDGE HAVING PROBLEMS. It was reported that the Prosecutor's Office Disciplinary Court found that Press Court Judge Said Mortazavi conducted himself improperly when he issued a final verdict with neither the jury nor the accused present, IRNA reported on 16 August. The next day the Justice Departments' public relations office said Mortazavi was not convicted of a miscarriage of justice. Little more was heard of this affair, until the 28 August "Tehran Times" reported that Mortazavi "will be most likely charged."

This is consistent with other personnel changes implemented by Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi. Particularly significant is the reassignment of Mortazavi's ally, Tehran Justice Department chief Hojatoleslam Ali Razini, to a position in the Special Court for the Clergy, which is effectively a political exile, according to "Neshat" on 22 August. (Bill Samii)

BUREAUCRATIC FIGHTS SLOW KIDNAPPING RESOLUTION. After being held for 17 days, three Spaniards, an Italian, and an Iranian guide who were kidnapped near Kerman, were released on 31 August. The delay appears to have had as much to do with competition and a lack of coordination between the Law Enforcement Forces and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security as with the intransigence of the kidnappers themselves.

In retaliation for having five of its members killed and two of them arrested, the drug smugglers--members of the Shahbakhsh tribe--kidnapped the tourists. The Shahbakhsh gang was behind the June kidnapping of three Italian engineers near Bam (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 28 June 1999). Initially, the gang wanted to trade its hostages for Qader Shahbakhsh and Hussein Khassi-Farahani.

"Tehran Times" claimed that "The Taliban are giving their support to the group of drug traffickers to put pressure on the Iranian government to ease its anti-drug campaign," Rome's ANSA news agency reported on 17 August. Iran's fight against drug traffickers in the eastern provinces is so intense that the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps, using armor and artillery, is involved, as are Law Enforcement Forces. Nor is Iran just a transit point; addiction rates in the country are climbing.

As the negotiations continued into their second week, Kerman security official Mohammad Ali Karimi said the hostages were "doing fine," and one of them, elderly Spanish priest Joaquin Fernandez, had even received a delivery of heart medicine. Karimi also said that "Entekhab" newspaper faced prosecution for publishing occasionally accurate but always unhelpful stories about the negotiations.

Reports from different publications and from IRNA then claimed that the gang--hiding between Kerman and Sistan va Baluchistan Provinces--was surrounded, but nothing would be done in order to safeguard the hostages.

On the evening of 31 August the MOIS announced that the hostages had been freed through the "round-the-clock efforts" of the MOIS's provincial directorate-generals, "support of Kerman Province's Security Council," "cooperation of the local Law Enforcement Force," and "assistance of the local people and tribes."

Competition or, at least, lack of coordination between security agencies may be one reason why the episode dragged on as long as it did. An unnamed Kerman Province official said that the MOIS had taken over the negotiations, "Arya" reported on 25 August. Law Enforcement Forces were involved too, but it was decided that negotiations should be handled through one channel. Also, the unnamed official said, the MOIS has better contacts in and familiarity with the region.

Apparently, there were similar problems in June. After the Italians' release, spokesmen from the Interior Ministry and MOIS gave contradictory statements about the kidnappers' reasoning. Also, each agency claimed credit for ending the affair. "Qods" stated at the time that the kidnapping and the contradictions led to public distrust. (Bill Samii)

TRANSPARENCY, PRIVATIZATION URGED FOR FOUNDATION. Mohammad Foruzandeh, the new head of the Oppressed and Disabled Foundation (Bonyad-i Mostazafan va Janbazan), said criticism of the Foundation is "suitable" and an exchange of views will help reappraisal of its performance, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting reported on 21 August. He continued: "Criticizing the performance of the Oppressed and Disabled Foundation means that the Foundation's officials will have to undertake a fundamental and clear reappraisal of their activities."

This statement, plus his earlier call for privatization, may indicate pending changes for the foundation. But the similarity of Foruzandeh's background to that of his predecessor (Mohsen Rafiqdust), and the similarity of their opinions, may preclude the occurrence of substantive change.

Calls for greater transparency in foundation activities are not uncommon, and the efforts of parliament's Article 90 committee to oversee the foundation's financial activities have been fruitless. Ali Asghar Saeedi wrote in the 14 August "Iran Daily," "it is necessary for the Bonyad to allow independent and internal inspectors and auditors to audit its books so that its true status in the legal/rational political system can be defined." He also wrote that the foundation should provide an annual report, otherwise it will be "impossible to assess the performance of the Bonyad's investments" and compare its efficiency with other organizations.

Iranian economists Ali Rashidi, Fariborz Raisdana, and Jamshid Pezhuyan discussed transparency and other foundation-related issues in a round table reported by the "Iran Daily" on 25 August. Rashidi said there has been "no independent investigation" of the foundation's spending or assets, and it is "exempt from taxes and audit." Raisdana said that the foundation's "performance is never evaluated," despite its size. Pezhuyan stressed that the government must take control of the foundation and it "must come under audit and control."

Nor does the foundation serve its originally-intended purpose. Rashidi explained that the foundation took over properties held by the Pahlavi Foundation "for the benefit of the people." Not only has this not happened, Rashidi said, but also "the Iranian economy is drifting further away from a competitive free market economy due to the activities of the foundation." As a result, the national economy is becoming "increasingly feudalistic." Rashidi believes the foundation is harming the economy through "non-payment of taxes and exerting undue influence to gain major concessions, "its monopolistic performance," and "its management."

In addition, the foundation enjoys special privileges. For example, Rashidi said, the foundation put up some of its holdings as collateral for a billion-rial loan. When the loan was renewed, the collateral was canceled and the Central Bank got no profits or service charges. Raisdana said that because the foundation has established a "private monetary institute," its activities violate the constitution, which stipulates state-ownership of banking institutions. Raisdana gave another example: "It was decided in this year's Budget Law that the foundations would have to pay taxes. Despite the fact that the proposal was approved by a small majority of the Majlis deputies, it was rejected by the Council of Guardians." Pezhuyan noted that such concessions upset market balances because "other economic agencies are deprived of such privileges."

Foruzandeh said the foundation would adopt a new management style, IRNA reported on 28 July. This may be encouraging for some observers, but Foruzandeh and Rafiqdust have similar backgrounds. Born in 1953, Foruzandeh studied at Tehran Teachers' Training College (Tarbiat-i Modaress University) until his expulsion for anti-regime activities. After the Islamic Revolution, he served as governor-general of Khuzestan Province. In 1986, Foruzandeh served as the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps' chief of staff, and in 1993 he was appointed as defense minister by then-President Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Rafiqdust has a similar pre-revolution background, and he headed the IRGC when it was a ministry (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 21 June 1999). Also, Rafiqdust will continue to serve on the foundation's Board of Directors, IRNA reported on 28 June.

That they have similar opinions is also suggested by Foruzandeh's statement that the foundation will sell its smaller holdings and concentrate on "large economic projects." Rafiqdust himself has become an advocate of privatization. He said, "Kar va Kargar" reported on 17 May: "While the economy of this country remains restricted, the economic problems facing the people will not be solved. It is therefore essential to pay attention to the development of the private sector." Rafiqdust also called for a re-evaluation of Article 44, regarding property in the state, private, and cooperative sectors.

The hardline publication "Arzesh-ha" criticized Rafiqdust for this and accused him of siding with the pro-Rafsanjani Executives of Construction Party, the "Iran Daily" reported on 17 June. (Bill Samii)

TIME'S UP. "Matters like [the issue of credits] and sanctions remain under continuing review," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said, according to Reuters on 1 September. He was responding to complaints from congressional representatives that without the provision of credit for Iranian buyers, the Clinton Administration's waiver of sanctions against some food sales is meaningless. Even if credit is provided, it may be too late. The "Middle East Economic Digest" reported on 30 August that "what appears to be the last big Iranian wheat order for this year went to Canada in late-August." Canada gave Iran's Government Trading Corporation a credit line, as did France for a July purchase. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN DISASTER AID REACHES TURKEY. The third of four shipments of Iranian humanitarian relief, including blankets, rice, canned food, tents, and medical supplies, arrived in Turkey on 30 August, the semi-official Anatolia news agency reported the next day. Mohammad Farhadi, Iran's Minister for Health, Treatment, and Medical Education, visited the disaster zone. Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit thanked Farhadi for Iran's assistance, IRNA reported. President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami sent a message to Turkish President Suleyman Demirel in which he expressed his "deep sorrow" and his condolences to Turkey and its people. (Bill Samii)

FOREIGN WOMEN FLOCK TO QOM. Ahmad Vaezi, deputy head of the Qom Seminary School of women, said 669 women from other countries study there, "Tehran Times" reported on 16 August. While foreign women are keen to study in Qom, its native females are less enthusiastic about the city. An Iranian government study found that women in Qom were more depressed than those in Tehran, the presidential adviser on women's affairs, Zahra Shojai, said on 29 August, according to Reuters. Shojai explained: "This goes back to the suppression of girl's interests and existing restrictions." (Bill Samii)