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Iran Report: September 20, 1999

20 September 1999, Volume 2, Number 37

JUDICIAL OBSCURITY THREATENS START OF ACADEMIC YEAR. "The aftermath of the bitter July incident hangs like a cloud over professors, students, and administrators alike," Maryam Zanjani-Pour wrote in the 15 September "Iran Daily." To improve the situation, Zanjani-Pour recommended greater transparency on the part of the Judiciary and other relevant governmental institutions, such as the Ministry of Intelligence and Security and the Interior Ministry.

An interview given by Tehran Islamic Revolutionary Court judge Hojatoleslam Gholamhussein Rahbarpur is not very reassuring for those seeking transparency and clear answers about what happened in July. Rahbarpur said, according to the 12 September "Jomhuri-yi Islami," that 1,500 people were arrested initially in Tehran, then 500 were released. After initial investigations, 800 more were released on bail. "Now we have time to investigate the cases of the main instigators," Rahbarpur said, adding that various branches of the court are pursuing 200 cases. Four people have been sentenced to death already, the judge said.

(Rahbarpur did not name the convicted individuals, but in an interview with Qol Yisra'el International Service on 17 September, Ali Keshtgar, managing editor of "Mihan" monthly, said they are: Manuchehr Mohammadi, Gholamreza Mohajeri-Nezhad, Mehran Abdolbaqi, and Maryam Shansi.)

The cases that still are being investigated relate to people in the Iran Nations Party (Hizb-i Millat), Manuchehr Mohammadi's Association of Students and Graduates, the Marz-i Purguhar group, the Pan-Iranist Party, and Heshmatollah Tabarzadi's Islamic Union of Students and Graduates. And the Freedom Movement has not been ruled out yet, Rahbarpur said. He added that the various groups "have been influenced by foreign countries. We believe that they have a different line of thinking and we consider them to be outsiders."

The next day, according to "Akhbar-i Eqtesad," Tehran City Council member Mahmud Alizadeh Tabatabai and former parliamentarian Qasem Sholeh-Saidi said that the death sentences were unacceptable. The trials should have been open, the accused should have had access to lawyers, and the actual charges should have been publicized. Furthermore, the public has a right to be informed about the cases. Serajeddin Mirdamadi of the Association of Forces Following the Imam's Line told the daily that Rahbarpur's comments "resemble the positions taken by particular factions and groups," rather than those of an impartial judge. The Office for Strengthening Unity criticized the death sentences and asked why nothing is being done about the hardline vigilantes who instigated the violence, "Akhbar-i Eqtesad" reported on 15 September.

Foreign observers also reacted to Rahbarpur's comments. Amnesty International issued an appeal on 13 September and a condemnation on 15 September. Human Rights Watch (HRW) called for a retrial in an open court, and Hanny Megally, HRW's executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Division, said this was an exercise in intimidation of "Iranian students as they return to classes." The International Federation of Human Rights Leagues in Paris urged a public review of the cases, a guarantee of fair trials, and an international inquiry into Iran's human rights situation.

The European Union asked that the condemned students be reprieved, and it hinted that high-level visits to Iran might be canceled, Reuters reported on 15 September. Austria's Green Party urged President Thomas Klestil to cancel a planned trip to Iran.

Writing in "Sobh-i Imruz" on 4 September, Shadi Sadr asked for someone who could "throw light on the dark areas of the Tehran University events." As Judge Rahbarpur's statements indicate, certain portions of the Iranian government do not believe in transparency and want to keep the Iranian people in the dark. Even President Mohammad Khatami was "completely uninformed about the sentences," Hojatoleslam Seyyed Mohammad Ali Abtahi, head of the president's office, told "Akhbar-i Eqtesad" on 19 September. (Bill Samii)

COUNTRY LIFE. Protesters from the capitol are not the only ones undergoing secret trials. On 16 September, 21 people were sentenced to jail terms for their roles in the unrest in the northwestern city of Tabriz. The head of the Revolutionary Court for East Azerbaijan Province, Najaf Aqazadeh, said 260 cases had been reviewed in connection with the Tabriz protests of 10 July. Aqazadeh said the "main culprits" received sentences ranging from three months to nine years in prison. He said 12 of the 21 are students, but he did not specify the exact charges. The judge also said one student was killed in the Tabriz unrest, but the killer has not been identified.

This announcement may be the response to the Office for Strengthening Unity's demand that the Supreme National Security Council identify and punish those behind the violence in Tabriz. But it certainly is not the response the Office for Strengthening Unity wanted. It had said that hardline pressure groups were behind the violence, Reuters reported on 8 September, and "after firing directly at the students, they did not even show any mercy towards the wounded, attacking hospital wards and dragging out the injured."

Tabriz and Tehran are sharing another fate. Just as the Ministry of Intelligence and Security ordered the dissolution of the student unity council at Tehran University (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 13 September 1999), it also has ordered the closure of the student council at Tabriz University, according to Baku's "Avrasiya" on 7 September. (Bill Samii)

MEDIA GETS MORE ATTENTION. Apparently encouraged by the closure of "Neshat" for publishing items deemed offensive to Islam, Iran's religious leaders are continuing their criticism of the press. Also, parts of the media are being blamed for inciting the July unrest. At least one newspaper with hardline links is trying to take advantage of this atmosphere to undermine its rivals. Such an atmosphere, furthermore, may have an impact on the parliament's second reading of a restrictive new press bill.

The Friday Prayer sermons on 10 September were relatively unanimous on media issues. In Tehran, Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani criticized articles "written by various individuals home and abroad," because they used "fallacious reasoning" in their commentary on Islamic retribution, violence in Islam, and the July riots. Emami-Kashani continued: "Now [the newspapers] question the work of Imam [Khomeini] and the actions taken by the nation and then juxtapose them." Referring to questions about violence and retribution, Emami-Kashani said: "Now some people say that violence promotes violence--that Imam Hussein [leaves sentence incomplete]. Why is there this attack on the Eminent Prophet? Why is there this attack on Imam Hussein? What is going on?" To counteract such attacks, "we should all unite." Emami-Kashani warned newspaper writers: "You may think you can write whatever you wish today. You may boast about your action because you defamed this or that person, but when we are dead and buried in our graves, we shall be together again."

In Mashhad, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Baqer Farzaneh was more succinct, saying that "the global arrogance is waging a cultural war in Iran by acting through its mercenaries." He continued: "American mercenaries are conspiring against Islam, the Islamic government, and the foundations of the revolution by using the nation's writers, newspapers, and resources." In Tabriz, Ayatollah Mohsen Mojtahed-Shabestari said: "Those who oppose our newspapers and foreign media are, in reality, opposing Islamic principles."

While discussing the July unrest, Tehran Islamic Revolutionary Court Judge Hojatoleslam Gholamhussein Rahbarpur said, in a 12 September interview with "Jomhuri-yi Islami," that "the new dailies" were part of a predetermined plan. He explained that the 8 July demonstration, subsequent newspaper reports, and statements by the Freedom Movement and Office for Strengthening Unity "could not have been coincidental." Rahbarpur added that newspaper reports and public speeches will be used as evidence.

In what may be only a coincidence, but which smacks of opportunism, "Tehran Times" said on 11 September that "Neshat," "Khordad," and "Sobh-i Imruz," followed closely by "Iran" and "Hamshahri," were identified by the Revolutionary Court as having publicized the July riots. These newspapers are not just competitors of "Tehran Times." All of them are identified, in one way or another, with the 2nd Khordad group (the moniker given to supporters of Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami's presidential campaign). "Tehran Times," on the other hand, is published by the Islamic Propagation Office, a conservative body headed by Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mohammadi-Araqi. (Bill Samii)

SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES. Just when Salman Rushdie appeared to have been forgotten, a reward has been offered for someone else's head. But in this case the reward is relatively insignificant compared to the $2.8 million bounty on Rushdie. Also, its allocation is conditional on the approval of a fatwa, or religious decree, which has not yet occurred.

London-based human rights activist Hussein Bagherzadeh, author of a "Neshat" article criticizing capital punishment, is the object of this attention, according to "Akhbar-i Eqtesad" on 12 September. At the end of August, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had termed Bagherzadeh an apostate for attacking Islamic rulings, and "in Islam, an apostate must be destroyed." The hardline weekly "Jebhe" said: "if the sources of emulation approve the fatwa that the author of 'Neshat' daily is an apostate, 'Jebhe' will allocate a hundred million rial [$11.1 million at the unofficial exchange rate] reward for the revolutionary execution of this despicable element."

Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Ataollah Mohajerani said Bagherzadeh is not an apostate and "no religious scholar would issue such an edict," Reuters reported on 11 September.

A few religious scholars might be willing to issue a fatwa, although their authority is nowhere near that of Father of the Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini when he issued the Rushdie decree. Speaking in Mashhad, Ayatollah Abbas Vaez-Tabasi said: "Denying and rejecting divine and religiously binding commands amounts to apostasy and the punishment for that is execution," IRNA reported on 14 September. And on 7 September, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Fazel-Movahedi-Lankarani reconfirmed the importance of Islamic retribution, giving as an example the Rushdie decree: "This fatwa has led to the complete isolation of Salman Rushdie, who wishes death for himself every day." (Bill Samii)

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN IRAN. "The government restricts freedom of religion," leads the section about Iran in the U.S. Department of State's 9 September "Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999." The constitution specifies that the "Twelver" sect of Shia Islam is Iran's official faith, and there are three recognized minorities--Zoroastrians, Christians, and Jews. Despite this recognition, they all face some common problems. For example, the minorities receive less compensation for death or injury than Muslims do. Muslim males may marry non-Muslim females, but marriages between Muslim females and non-Muslim males are not recognized. Also, Muslims who renounce their faith are apostates, and apostasy is punishable by death.

Each minority faces certain unique problems, according to the State Department report. Evangelical Christians, for example, are "pressured by government authorities to compile and hand over membership lists for their congregations." The government has closed churches and arrested converts, and church officials must inform the Ministry of Information and Security before admitting converts. Jews also face repression, according to the report, including the recent case of 13 Jews arrested on espionage charges. For example, anti-Semitic propaganda is on the increase: "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," an anti-Semitic and fictional book, was serialized in the monthly "Sobh."

The greatest difficulties are faced by the Bahais, a religious minority not protected under the constitution, the report states. They are precluded from holding government jobs. Their educational institutions are not allowed to operate and members are arrested. The presence of Bahai headquarters in Haifa opens the organization to charges that its members are Israeli agents. If Bahais renounce their faith, government authorities tell them, they will be spared persecution. Bahai marriages are not recognized.

Although Sunni Muslims are protected under the constitution, they also face governmental persecution, according to the report. Sunni leaders in southern Iran have been murdered, allegedly by government agents. Sunnis also complain that they do not have a mosque in Tehran and cannot get a permit to build one there. There also are reports of Sufi Muslims facing increasing repression.

According to IRNA on 11 September, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said that the State Department report was "biased and unjust" and indicated "ignorance of human rights in this country." Assefi said the U.S. was "exploiting human rights," and the report was timed to coincide with a "time when both Islamic ideals and sanctities of Muslims in Iran were being targeted." Assefi added, "all Iranian nationals are equal in the eyes of the law."

Vartan Vartanian and Manuchehr Eliasi, parliamentary representatives of the Armenian and Jewish communities, respectively, told a visiting Danish official that "they enjoy equal rights with their Muslim colleagues," IRNA reported on 13 September. In an interview with state television's international Jaam-i Jam service, Eliasi said the U.S. report about religious minorities in Iran is "unfounded," "Tehran Times" reported on 13 September. Eliasi added that "Iranian minorities are in no way restricted." (Bill Samii)

IRGC SPEECHES INDICATE FACTIONAL TENDENCIES. Leading figures in the Iranian regime addressed a gathering of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders on 15-16 September. The speeches were interesting not only because they shed light on Iran's foreign policy thinking but also because the way they were covered in the media provides insight into power relations in Tehran at the present time.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei decried the Israeli-Palestinian accord, saying it is a sell-out in which Palestinians are given "partial and false sovereignty in 4 percent of the country of Palestine." Those who signed the agreement, Khamenei said, are a "worthless and abject group who do not really deserve to be called Palestinians." This speech was broadcast by state radio and television (IRIB).

President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami's speech did not even address the Palestinian issue, or at least the version of the speech carried by the governmental Islamic Republic News Agency did not carry that part of the speech. According to the IRNA excerpts from the speech, Khatami told the IRGC about the importance of his detente policy. He said that detente meant "mutual respect and insuring growth and development of regional states without foreign intervention." And because Iran's military expenditures are less than those of its neighbors, it shows that "Iran is not after strengthening itself to invade other countries." IRIB only carried short excerpts from the speech in its news broadcast.

Expediency Council chairman Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani's address to the IRGC commanders was carried by IRNA, but only a short excerpt from it was carried by IRIB. According to IRNA, Hashemi-Rafsanjani said "world arrogance expects total submission and obedience from world nations." He went on to say that Iran's enemies do not want it to be independent. He also discussed military expenditures, saying that Iran gets so much value for money, or in this case, "bang for the buck," because "structurally the country has been designed by efficient and committed Iranians, and because militarily, industrially, and economically, our country is now self-sufficient." (This latter statement is a reference to the technocratic prowess of the Executives of Construction Party and his administration).

Parliamentary speaker Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Nateq-Nuri's comments to the IRGC commanders were portrayed in different ways by IRIB and IRNA. On television he was quoted as saying: "Only a Basiji and Hezbollahi mentality in the country, especially among the young people, can keep the Islamic Revolution healthy, powerful, and enthusiastic." In the arena of foreign policy, Nateq-Nuri said: "Iran is a center for the export of revolution and revival of Islamic thought." But the IRNA version of his speech quoted his statements that "It is truly unfortunate for the Islamic world that Yasser Arafat signed the most humiliating of agreements with Israel." He added that the Palestinians "surrendered to the usurper and its main supporter, namely the United States."

What one sees, then, is an obvious attempt to shape perceptions by state-run media organizations. IRIB Director Ali Larijani is considered a hardliner, and the IRIB is criticized frequently for its biased reporting of events. IRIB programming is meant for a domestic audience.

On the other hand, IRNA chief Fereidun Verdinezhad is considered close to Iranian reformists, and he has had legal problems when his agency's publications deride IRIB. Information carried by IRNA, particularly that carried by its English-language web site, is meant for a foreign audience. IRNA, therefore, portrays Khatami as a peaceful moderate, while others, particularly political rivals like Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Nateq-Nuri, are portrayed as aggressive hardliners. (Bill Samii)

WHITHER HIZBALLAH? Conflicting signals about Lebanese Hizballah continue to raise questions about the organization's objectives and about its relationship with Iran. Hizballah's secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, said the party is Lebanon's "sharp sword" for liberating the "occupied lands," IRNA reported on 13 September. Denouncing "disinformation," Nasrallah said the organization's "aim is to exhaust the enemy's power" so it will withdraw its forces from Lebanon. As long as Lebanon is occupied, Nasrallah said, "the resistance will not be stopped under any circumstances."

There also are reports that some Hizballah elements are being urged to radicalize even more. Citing anonymous sources only, Milan's "Corriere della Sera" reported on 6 September that a relationship has been formed with "Palestinian fringe groups, which are strong in the refugee camps around Sidon." From the Bekaa Valley, where Sobhi Tufaili "reigns," "orders have already gone out to reorganize cells abroad." Imad Mughniyah and Aqil Amiyah, according to the Italian daily, are in charge of this project. Their representatives have been seen in Milan, Copenhagen, Cyprus, and Spain, and they have "established a number of secret structures in the Andalusian region." These events are irritating a factionalized Tehran, "so much so that someone has now, perhaps on [President Mohammad] Khatami's orders, informed the Western police forces about the Hizballah hotheads," according to "Corriere della Sera."

While aspects of the latter report are not completely inconceivable, it seems unreasonable to associate Hizballah with Sobhi Tufaili. Although he was once an official in it, Tufaili split with Hizballah and formed the "Revolution of the Hungry." Forces loyal to Tufaili attacked Hizballah facilities in early-1998, and he was forced to flee with the Lebanese Army in hot pursuit. It is rumored that he is hiding in his home village of Brital near the Syrian border. Hizballah is increasingly, although not entirely, a political organization, so Nasrallah's statement could be interpreted as an attempt to reiterate the organization's original raison d'etre.

Meanwhile, Argentina's Supreme Court has issued an international arrest warrant for Imad Mughniyah, according to Buenos Aires's "La Nacion" on 3 September. He is suspected of having ordered the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Argentina on 17 March 1992. (Bill Samii)

CORN, SUGAR, WATER, AND WAR. An unnamed "U.S. grain industry official" announced that Iran has purchased 100,000 tons of corn, Reuters reported on 14 September. Earlier in the summer, Iran purchased 50,000 tons of corn. The U.S. dominates the world corn market, but there are many wheat suppliers from which Iran can choose. To make American wheat more attractive, therefore, the National Association of Wheat Growers is urging the White House to give Iran a credit line.

While Iran consumes 1.9 million tons of sugar, it only produces 900,000 tons, Karachi's "Business Recorder" reported on 14 September. Imports from Brazil, Thailand, and Europe make up for the shortfall. The Pakistan Sugar Mills Association proposes that Pakistani sugar be swapped for Iranian oil, since such transactions go through government agencies anyway. The PSMA believes that both sides will benefit from this arrangement, especially because Iran will save on transportation costs and because its railways also can be used to transport Pakistani sugar to Central Asia.

Agriculture Minister Issa Kalantari believes there are three reasons that Iran's agricultural sector is not meeting public demand, according to IRNA on 7 and 12 September. First, there are parallel and multiple institutions that interfere with the ministry's functions: "reform of bureaucracy is essential." Second, there is a lack of investment in agriculture. Kalantari said that agriculture gets less than 2 percent of the national budget. Also, the rate of return in agriculture is 12 percent, while interest paid on bank deposits is 19 percent. The third reason is natural: the draught has caused 8 trillion rials worth of damage to the agricultural sector, destroying up to 6 million tons of commodities, 60 percent of which is wheat.

"In Iran, working in the agricultural sector is like being at war with nature, and policymakers should pay more attention to the 3 million farmers who are working under the hardest conditions," Kalantari said. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN LEADERSHIP IN INTERNATIONAL ATOMIC ENERGY AGENCY. Iran will be chosen as one of the eight vice presidents in the 27-31 September general conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), IRNA reported on 13 September. Iran was chosen unanimously by the countries of the Middle East and South Asia group. The vice presidents review such issues as credentials of member states. Iran and the IAEA plan to implement 12 joint projects by the end of 2000, Iran's atomic energy organization spokesman, Khalil Musavi, said on 29 August.

In other nuclear news, the Islamic Republic's Moscow embassy denied a report that Russia and Iran would discontinue their nuclear cooperation, according to IRNA on 7 September. Russian Science and Technology Minister Mikhail Kirpichnikov rejected U.S. claims about military cooperation between the two countries, IRNA reported on 16 September. Speaking after signing an agreement with Iranian Minister of Culture and Higher Education Mostafa Moin, the Russian said the two countries' scientific and technological cooperation is conducted according to their own laws and within the framework of international rules and regulations. The agreement they signed "provides for mutual inspection by technical experts and researchers of universities and research institutes in Iran and Russia, organizing training courses in universities of the two countries, exchange of university professors and students and technology, as well as joint implementation of scientific projects."

The Canadian government announced that it had blocked the proposed sale of a fusion reactor to Iran (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 12 July 1999), fearing that the technology might be used to make weapons. In a Reuters report of 9 September, Canadian Foreign Ministry spokesman Sean Rowan said that "the rationale for the decision was that the experimental nuclear fusion facility could indirectly benefit a nuclear weapons program." (Bill Samii)