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Iran Report: September 13, 1999

13 September 1999, Volume 2, Number 36

'NESHAT' CLOSURE HIGHLIGHTS RIVALRIES WITHIN REGIME. The "Neshat" newspaper was closed on 5 September on the orders of Press Court Judge Said Mortazavi after the public prosecutor filed a complaint about its publication of articles considered anti-Islamic (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 6 September 1999). Subsequently, according to the Judiciary Public Relations office, Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance Ataollah Mohajerani was taken to task by Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, IRNA reported on 5 September. Hashemi-Shahrudi said newspaper closures would be unnecessary if Mohajerani's ministry did its job. Hashemi-Shahrudi also said "the situation that prevails in the cause for concern."

On 6 September Mohajerani rejected the version of events reported by the Judiciary's Public Relations office and state broadcasting (IRIB), because it portrayed the meeting "in a way that it seems he had been summoned and reprimanded by the Judiciary," IRNA reported. Mohajerani asked the judiciary chief to reveal the truth about their meeting. IRIB responded to Mohajerani's complaint by saying that it just reported the Judiciary's statement, and reports on meetings between heads of government bodies are prepared by their respective organizations. Judiciary advisor Abdolreza Izadpanah hardly clarified things when he said, according to IRNA on 8 September, that when writing about such a meeting, "those news factors which are new and in accordance with recent developments will be used."

The Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry also rejected the legality of closing "Neshat." In a statement issued on 7 September, IRNA reported, the press department of the ministry said that the court "did not observe legal procedures necessary for banning the 'Neshat' daily." Citing Article 24 of the constitution ("Publications and the press have freedom of expression except when it is detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam or the rights of the public"), the ministry said that restricting the right of free expression can be based only on a verdict by a qualified court. The "Neshat" closure, according to the Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry, does not fall within legal bounds. Be that as it may, writers and managing directors were urged to "observe the recent guidelines of the leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, and President Muhammad Khatami and not to publish articles which may cast doubt over people's beliefs."

Confirming rejection of the Judiciary's actions, "Neshat" hit the newsstands with a new title -- "Akhbar-i Eqtisadi" -- on 9 September. Its chief editor is Issa Saharkhiz, formerly a deputy minister in the Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry. Saharkhiz got in trouble last May for permitting publication of a special issue of the banned-daily "Zan." Much of its staff consists of personnel from "Neshat" (who were with "Jame'ah" and with "Tous" before that). According to a 6 September IRNA report, since Khatami "came to power two and a half years ago, six dailies have been closed down, which means suspension of one daily on the average of every four months."

While the Judiciary is authorized to close publications, the Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry issues their licenses. These facts, combined with the statements from the Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry and the Judiciary, are bound to cause confusion and may lead to multiple interpretations. But there is no confusion that the open argument between the ministry and Judiciary exemplifies the Iranian government's inability to maintain unity in the face of vastly differing interpretations of what is good for the public. (Bill Samii)

NEW SECURITY UNIT NAMED. There appear to be two reports from Iran's Supreme National Security Council about the July demonstrations that racked Iran. One of them is the public version that was released in August. But according to Reza Alijani in the most recent "Iran-i Farda," there is another version of this report. This latter version refers to a secret security unit's involvement in the July demonstrations.

The security unit is referred to as NOPO, but the exact meaning of NOPO is a mystery. Is it "Niru-yi Vizhe-yi Payro-yi Vilayat" (Special Force Following the Leadership of the Jurisconsult) or is it "Niru-yi Vizhe-yi Paad-i Vahshat" (Special Anti-Terror Force)? "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reports that this latter name applies to a special security unit formed during the Organization of Islamic Countries Parliaments meeting in Tehran several months ago. "Arya" said that the unreleased version of the SNSC report mentions the violent actions of personnel in "plainclothes," and this is allegedly a reference to the NOPO unit. A more benign view, RFE/RL's Persian Service was told, is that the term NOPO reflects an attempt to put a name on the hardline vigilante groups.

The Iranian government has not been very forthcoming about this issue. Another report indicates that this lack of transparency will not change soon. The committee investigating the violent suppression of the 8 July student demonstration told Tehran City Council that it is in no way answerable to the council, "Sobh-i Imruz" reported on 5 September. The committee was responding to the council's invitation to Law Enforcement Forces chief Brigadier General Hedayatollah Lotfian, issued at the end of July, that he brief them on the committee's findings. The committee's letter went on to say that it is not legally responsible to the Tehran municipal council. (Bill Samii)

STUDENT ORGANIZATION BANNED, MEDIA WARNED. An unnamed official of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security said the Tehran University student unity council is considered "an illegal body," "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported on 4 September. Its activities cause "insecurity" so its "acts of incitement" must cease, the official said, otherwise council members "will be dealt with." Earlier, Minister of Intelligence and Security Ali Yunesi warned the press against creating a "negative" environment by publishing "false" news, according to the 2 September "Neshat." (Bill Samii)

ASSEMBLY OF EXPERTS BACKS LEADERSHIP. On 6-7 September, the 86-member Assembly of Experts held an extraordinary meeting in Mashhad. Among the issues to be discussed were a proposal that the assembly play a more active role and discussion of constitutional articles 107 and 109. These two articles refer to the Supreme Leadership itself: how the Leader is selected and the qualifications for Leadership.

Khorasan Province's representative to the Assembly of Experts, Hojatoleslam Ismail Ferdosi-Pur, described the noteworthy conclusions of the panel investigating leadership issues in a 7 September interview with IRNA. Ferdosi-Pur said the panel decided "that the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei have [sic] the highest possible merits for Vilayat-i Faqih [guardianship of the Supreme Jurisconsult]." Ayatollah Mohsen Mojtahed Shabestari of Tehran described the assembly's role as "safeguarding Vilayat-i Faqih and the Islamic and revolutionary values."

The combination of these two views was reflected in the meeting's closing statement. Since 1979, Iran has deflected attempts to "eliminate or weaken the role of the leadership and its great popular base." The old anti-Vilayat elements are back and are using the same old slogans via new media facilities to launch and intensify "propaganda against the Leadership by aliens." They are doing this, according to IRNA on 8 July, because the Islamic Leadership "obstructs submission to foreigners and arrogance."

In a speech to a gathering of 50,000 Islamic Revolution Guard Corps and Basij personnel, Khamenei described some of the means by which outsiders are trying to undermine the leadership. For one thing, they are "distorting the truth and acting as the enemy's loudspeaker," but "Those who imagine that they can achieve their aims with the support of the propaganda machinery of arrogance and Zionism are badly mistaken."

Khamenei also described what he would do with such people while describing his distaste for "Neshat's" publication of an article criticizing capital punishment (one of "Islam's commands and rulings"). "If anyone sets out to attack the express rulings of religion, including Islamic retribution, this person is an apostate and, in Islam, an apostate must be destroyed."

In a statement broadcast on 1 September, the Association of Qom Seminary Lecturers echoed the Supreme Leader's comments. Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, and other high-ranking figures have issued similar statements in the last two weeks.

But there appears to be an exception to this consensus. In Qazvin, Ayatollah Muhammad Reza Tavassoli said he was "ashamed" of the commentary about capital punishment, the "Tehran Times" reported on 1 September. (Bill Samii)

PALESTINIAN ISLAMIC JIHAD UP TO BAT? Developments in the relationship between Iran, Syria, and Hizballah, and between Syria, Jordan, and Hamas, have prompted suggestions that Iran may be changing horses. Not only have Iran and Syria abandoned their military commitment to Hizballah, but they are seeing that further cooperation with Hamas is untenable. Attention may be shifted, therefore, to Palestinian Islamic Jihad's struggle in Israel itself.

The relationship between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Lebanon's Hizballah remains a subject of dispute. Two quite interesting suggestions come from the European-based, Arabic-language press. Paris's "Al-Watan al-Arabi" suggested on 6 August that as Iranian and Syrian military aid decrease, Hizballah's activities will become purely political. For purposes of armed struggle, Hizballah has fostered relations with Palestinian Islamic Jihad, "Al-Watan al-Arabi" suggested. This decision to do so is based mainly on Iranian advice dating from the 1995 assassination of the organization's secretary-general. This means that Hizballah will be a political party at home, and a militant one in Palestine.

But a different view was presented during an interview with political analyst Ehud Yaari in London's "Al-Majallah" on 17 July. He suggested that Hizballah will cease its attacks against Israeli settlements, but it will continue as a political party and still receive Iranian financial assistance. Whenever Israel withdraws from Lebanon, Yaari said, Hizballah and Amal will start fighting over who really represents Lebanese Shia. Yaari believes there are bad relations between Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah and President Muhammad Khatami's Iran, because it "has confirmed that it will accept peace agreements" between Israel, Lebanon, and Syria.

There is even disagreement on the nature of outside aid to Hizballah. "In recent weeks Iran and Syria have doubled their support for Hizballah," Tel Aviv's "Maariv" announced on 20 August. Citing "senior intelligence officials," "Maariv" said that since the beginning of June there were six flights of military supplies from Tehran. "Iran is striving to 'compensate' Hizballah for the loss of ammunition and equipment in the wake of Israeli bombings," while Syria is facilitating the shipments' overland passage to show its anger over Israeli intransigence on returning to its pre-1973 borders. Ten days later, "Maariv" had a very different version of events, citing "a report presented by American elements to their Israeli counterparts." This report said that although Hizballah activities have not dropped, Iranian contributions have decreased. There is less money and a "significant decline in the frequency and quality of the 'airlift' of weapons from Iran to Hizballah via Syria."

Iran's relationship with Hizballah is no longer relevant to the organization's survival, writes Ahmad Sueidan in the monthly "Al-Hadath ad-Dawli." The organization has shown increasing self-sufficiency. Since its creation in 1982, furthermore, Hizballah has demonstrated an "impressive combination of inventiveness, resolve, and tactical flexibility" to succeed in its three struggles within the Lebanese Shia community (with Amal; with Muhammad Mehdi Shamsedin in the Higher Shia Islamic Council; and over Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah's role and status). Finally, Iran's attractiveness as a model has decreased sharply. The Iranian government's treatment of demonstrators in July may have been unappealing, and the case of 13 Jews arrested as part of an espionage ring may lead to Iran's abandonment and isolation. (Bill Samii)

HAMAS LEAVING AMMAN FOR TEHRAN? Although the Jordanian government issued arrest warrants for five Hamas leaders, three of them were in Iran at the time. This is seen by some as, effectively, a deportation, because they will be arrested, in theory, if they return. On 31 August, Iranian state radio criticized the crackdown as a demonstration of the "Jordanian government's willingness to fall into step with demands by America and the Zionist regime."

Jordanian sources said Hamas officials contacted Iran about shifting their training activities there and to get other assistance in anti-Israel operations, "Al-Qods al-Arabi" reported on 31 August. Jordan was using the ties between Iran and Hamas as the pretext for the crackdown. An unnamed Jordanian official said his country is sending Iran a message that "it can no longer run Hamas from Tehran," according to Amman's "The Arab Daily" on 1 September. Members of Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Damascus said the Syrian government had already told the Palestinian groups it hosts to suspend their military activities, the Kuwaiti daily "Al-Watan" reported on 1 September. Syria may, furthermore, order Hamas to end its activities completely. (Bill Samii)

IN THE AIR AND ON THE GROUND. Recent developments in Iranian aviation include the testing of the Tolou-4 "mini-jet" engine on 30 August. Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Minister Ali Shamkhani said this demonstrated that "political, economic, and propaganda pressures cannot stop Iran's Defense Ministry from producing the technology it needs," according to Agence France Presse and IRNA. State television claimed on 22 August that the Iranian Air Force had modified its F-14 aircraft to serve as multipurpose bombers. Among the modifications is development of an air-to-ground missile.

Yadollah Adibi, director-general of Iran's aviation organization, announced that Iran will manufacture the Iran-140 jet and the Tupolev 334, according to "Tehran Times" on 29 August. Iran-140 is being built in collaboration with Ukraine; annual output will be four units per year. The TU-334 air-frame and powerplant are Russian, and Iranian industries are entitled to make repairs. During talks between an Iranian delegation and Russian Vice Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, however, the possibility of Iran's buying the TU-334 was discussed, ITAR-TASS reported on 23 August. After the talks, Klebanov announced that it would be a joint project with manufacturing to start in Russia. A Russian negotiating team will go to Iran on 15 September, Klebanov said, and a contract could be signed by 1 October. Klebanov said "as few as three or four minor financial issues remain to be resolved," according to Interfax on 23 August.

Iranian airports are undergoing changes, too. Construction of the Imam Khomeini airport (located southwest of Tehran between the Qom and Savveh highways), which began in 1994, will be complete by the end of 2000, "Jane's Airport Review" reported on 1 September. The $1 billion airport will be able to handle 4.5 million passengers and 120,000 tons of cargo. Letters of interest for completion of hangars, catering, hotel, duty-free shops, fuel supply, and passenger and cargo handing are being solicited.

The main contractors are Dey and Melli Sakhtiman, both of which are affiliated with the Oppressed and Disabled Foundation, although the design and master plan is by the Aeroports de Paris company. The terminal, according to Jane's, will include a basement, departure and arrival halls, restaurants, and retail outlets. The design will be attractive but sturdy, "with the graceful lines of the roof lending substance to the outline of the 78,3577 square meter building."

Behzad Mazaheri of Iran's aviation company said the cities of Yasuj, Arak, and Zanjan will have operational airports by 21 March 2000, according to "Tehran Times." (Bill Samii)

RUSSIA BEGINS TRAINING IRANIAN NUCLEAR SPECIALISTS. Iranian nuclear specialists will commence training at Balakovo nuclear power station in September, Moscow's daily "Nezavisimaya Gazeta" reported on 1 September. Some 342 Iranian chiefs of services, shops, sections, and laboratories, as well as engineers and other specialists, will have completed the training by August 2001. It is believed that the Iranian reactor being worked on in Bushehr will be similar to the one in Balakovo. (Bill Samii)