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Iran Report: October 4, 1999

4 October 1999, Volume 2, Number 39

NONALIGNMENT--EXCEPT IN NORTH CAUCASUS. Addressing the UN General Assembly on 24 September, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi decried two things: bipolarity and arms proliferation. On the first point, he said: "The residuals of the bipolar system and security block umbrellas need to be replaced." On the second point, Kharrazi said: "One of the most horrifying manifestations of exclusion had been the global arms race. It marginalized 'others' through accumulation of conventional and mass destructive agents of death, formation of rival military blocks, and a race to expand spheres of influence." His statements only 24-48 hours later, however, indicate either that he had a sudden change of mind about these subjects or that he was being economic with the truth.

In a message to his Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov, Kharrazi not only said that the situation in Daghestan and the North Caucasus is Russia's internal affair, according to the 26 September "Iran Daily," but "he also confirmed Tehran's readiness to undertake effective collaboration in the struggle against terrorists to destabilize the situation in Russia." There may be a link between this statement and ones made at a conference in Moscow by Iranian Ambassador Mehdi Safari. The envoy said there that Iran is interested in military and technical cooperation with Russia, Interfax and ITAR-TASS reported on 27 September.

In a speech before the ministerial meeting of the coordinating bureau of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) on 25 September, Kharrazi condemned attempts by some nuclear powers to "hold on their exclusive position," IRNA reported on 25 September. Through its alignment with Russia, Iran may soon join the nuclear club.

Russia, too, benefits from the relationship--and in several ways. Leningrad Metal Works (LMZ) just signed a $38 million contract to supply a 1,000 megawatt turbine for the Bushehr nuclear station. And Iran is making excuses for Russian repression of the Caucasus' Muslims in international fora. The "Russian Foreign Ministry has said that it attaches great importance for valuable efforts by Iran, as president of the Organization for the Islamic Conference, which can explain to the world the incidents in Daghestan," IRNA reported on 28 September. (Bill Samii)

NAVAL MANEUVERS HIGHLIGHT CONCERNS AND OPPORTUNITIES. Iranian naval forces staged a number of exercises as Sacred Defense Week was commemorated at the end of September. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy staged the "Shahamat 78" maneuvers in the Persian Gulf, while the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy held the "Ettehad" exercises from the southern Persian Gulf through the Straits of Hormuz to the Sea of Oman and the Iranian port of Gavater on the border with Pakistan. Iranian officials made a number of statements that indicate their strategic interests.

Simultaneously, these statements underscore U.S. concerns about Iranian intentions and activities in regional waters. Indeed, naval and maritime issues are a point of disagreement between Iran and the U.S., a study by the U.S.-based Atlantic Council acknowledges. But in this area, the study adds, there are some shared interests which, in the short-term, may serve as the foundation for confidence building measures.

In the Shahamat exercises, IRGC forces practiced airlifting personnel, planting and sweeping mines, and attacks on vessels and shore installations by frogmen, IRNA reported on 26 September. In the Ettehad exercises, submarines participated in a "great underwater maneuver," according to a state television broadcast on 25 September, with the objective of "establishing security without the presence of [military] forces from outside the region." Other objectives include "cooperation and unity among friendly Muslim regional countries," holding joint operations "without the presence of extraregional forces," and anti-submarine operations to "counter any hostile moves made by submarines coming from outside the region."

Tehran's naval policies seek to maximize its control over its coastal waters and minimize the U.S. presence, while the U.S. is interested in the unrestricted flow of oil through the Straits of Hormuz. According to the Atlantic Council's 14 September Issue Brief, Iran has made claims that the U.S. thinks are excessive. For example, Iranian measurement of its territorial waters is almost double of what is accepted by customary international law. The U.S. also is concerned about Iran's fortification of Abu Musa and the Tunbs, three small Gulf islands whose ownership is disputed with the United Arab Emirates. The combination of these islands and two Iranian ones (Siri and Forur) leads to the creation of straits that Iran terms internal waters.

The Straits of Hormuz, the custody of which Iran shares with Oman, are of particular concern to the U.S. All ships are legally entitled to free navigation through the straits, but many in the West worry that Iran will hinder this right by deploying naval mines. The U.S. also is concerned about Iranian acts of piracy, such as illegal searches of neutral vessels which occurred during its war with Iraq and which recently have resumed. There also is unhappiness with official Iran's smuggling of Iraqi oil, in violation of UN-sanctions, and extortion from smugglers using the Shatt al-Arab.

The Atlantic Council Issue Brief speculates that such points of difference, despite appearances, may not be insurmountable because, it suggests, both countries have certain common interests. For example, both countries can participate in regional search-and-rescue operations, "which are often the first form of naval cooperation." There also could be coordinated efforts in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. The two countries could cooperate in addressing environmental issues, although Iranian Navy spokesman Admiral Abdullah Manavi said, according to a 29 September IRNA report, U.S. Navy vessels in the Persian Gulf are the ones causing "pollution of the environment." A fourth area of potential cooperation is counter-narcotics, since both countries are interested in stanching the flow of drugs through the Gulf. (Bill Samii)

KHAMENEI PASSES FATWA TO PROTECT PLAYWRIGHTS. Giving the Friday prayer sermon on 1 October, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei moved to quell the uproar that emerged over a play about the 12th Imam that was published in an Amir Kabir University student magazine called "Mowj." Khamenei called for calm, saying that "No one should take any excessive measure. Everyone must control his emotions." He forbade people from taking the law into their own hands. Khamenei continued: "Even if someone, for instance, follows a particular source of emulation, my forbidding of the act makes it unlawful for him, too. This is a fatwa of all ulama. Nobody has the right, lest anyone should perpetrate an uncalculated deed."

This statement was a direct reaction to Ayatollah Hussein Mazaheri's 26 September statement that the "writers of this text and those who published it...are condemned to execution." Also, National Police counterintelligence chief Brigadier-General Mohammad Reza Naqdi, who was recently acquitted of torturing suspects, volunteered to implement the "divine verdict" against the authors, "Qods" reported on 28 September.

The authors of the play were arrested by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security shortly after the story broke (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 27 September 1999). Some people blamed foreigners for encouraging the authors, while others, such as President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, said the crisis was little more than the creation of Iranian hardliners.

At the 24 September Friday Prayers of Qom, Ayatollah Abdullah Vaez-Javadi-Amoli described the play as part of a Western plot to destroy Islam. In Tehran, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati said the writers "should be given the most severe punishment possible. ...we must find the real culprit in order to ensure that there will be no second, third, and fourth culprits." Parliamentary speaker Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Nateq-Nuri termed the play a "grave catastrophe" which "cannot be unrelated to foreigners." The Expediency Council termed the play "a token of the machinations of the world arrogance against the Islamic Republic," according to IRNA on 25 September. The Culture and Higher Education Ministry said the whole affair stemmed from an attempt to create a crisis at the beginning of the academic year by "hegemonist America, international Zionism, and counterrevolutionaries who are acting as foreign agents."

There was criticism of government ministries for allowing such a play to be produced. Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem-Shirazi called for calm, saying that "The enemy is trying to cause agitation in our society." In an open letter to Makarem-Shirazi, Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Ataollah Mohajerani said his ministry is not responsible for licensing campus publications. Some 170 members of the Iranian parliament indirectly criticized Mohajerani by calling on Khatami to increase control over cultural affairs, and a 28 September demonstration demanded Mohajerani's resignation.

Ayatollah Mohsen Mojtahed-Shabestari, Tabriz Friday Prayer leader, said that if the judiciary had dealt sternly with press violations in recent months, then "the anti-religious and anti-revolutionary publications would not have been produced," "Iran" reported on 26 September. The next day, Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi-Shahrudi responded: "The executive and judicial officials have fulfilled their legal duty. ...The actual perpetrators of this incident have been identified and with their arrest their activities will be curtailed."

But the attention showered on a student play published in 150 copies of a student journal raises questions. Interior Minister Abdulvahed Musavi-Lari said the subject of the play was regrettable, but he questioned how the issue had been "promulgated in society on such a wide scale and been converted into a national and international issue." At a 26 September cabinet meeting, according to IRNA, Khatami said that "it is unfortunate that...blasphemous and insidious material is published which not only insults the sanctities of the Islamic religion but also incites and stirs up the emotions of the pious people." Khatami then asked: "can't this act of incitement be deduced as the two sides of the same coin? Can't such a notorious act be regarded as a calculated design?" Such comments can be interpreted in two ways: Khatami is criticizing foreigners, as others have, or he is criticizing hardliners for playing up the issue.

A statement by Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mohammadi-Araqi of the Islamic Propagation Office indicates that many political figures are painfully unaware, either accidentally or intentionally, of students' real concerns. Mohammadi-Araqi said the play was "more painful to the souls of Muslims than what happened at the Tehran University dorm last July," IRNA reported on 25 September. The Supreme Leader's fatwa, however, seems to have put the issue to rest for the time being. (Bill Samii)

FACTORY CLOSURES AND LABOR PROBLEMS. Some 100 employees of a Kashan spinning and weaving factory demonstrated against non-payment of wages, "Akhbar-i Eqtesad" reported on 30 September. Meanwhile, 300 employees of Tonekabon's "Khazar Khez" factory held a demonstration on 19 September to protest non-payment of wages and bonuses for seven months, "Akhbar-i Eqtesad" reported on 21 September. Workers from a Lorestan hide and leather factory demonstrated against what effectively amounted to the facility's closure in early August, according to the 23 September "Resalat" and the 21 September "Akhbar-i Eqtesad." The employees were told to take a vacation, whether or not they wanted to. Gilan Province's Iran Poplin textile plant, one of the largest in the country, was shut down recently, the Associated Press reported on 31 August. Such reports, coming at a time when unemployment is reaching worrisome levels, underline the problems facing the average Iranian.

A discussion of employment-related issues in the 27 September "Iran Daily"--the Islamic Republic News Agency's English-language publication--presented the human side of factory closures. Sociologist Mehrdad Mirshojaei told the newspaper that unemployment causes disorder: "one can easily see the correlation between the rates of crime and unemployment." He added that it can "lead to the disintegration of families." Mirshojaei went on to say that "Indolence and penury are rooted in an unhealthy economy and their harmful effects will threaten the social and cultural systems in the long run." Researcher Ali Moini said 60 percent of the Iranians who commit suicide are unemployed.

Nor does education guarantee a job. According to the "Iran Daily" article, over 40 percent of the unemployed in Iran are university graduates. As Mirshojaei told "Iran Daily," furthermore, "less than 10 percent of employees at the executive and governmental organs are graduates of higher seats of education." It seems that nepotism and cronyism are what qualify a person for employment in the state sector.

A major aspect of the third five-year development plan, which was presented to the parliament recently, is job creation. Until the hoped-for effects of the plan are felt, however, there appears to be little the Iranian government can do. For example, in a meeting with East Azerbaijan Province workers, Labor and Social Affairs Minister Hussein Kamali urged them to participate more actively in the country's social, political, and economic affairs, "Iran Daily" reported on 27 September. Kamali encouraged greater interaction between labor and management.

At this point, Kamali's comments amount to little more than mollifications. While Iran only has a 4 percent growth rate, the demand for jobs increases 6 percent annually; to achieve an equilibrium between supply and demand, the country needs to create 800,000 jobs annually. The current disequilibrium is to be expected due to the state's role in the economy. "It is natural to have over two million unemployed in a country where 86 percent of the economy is state-run," academician Mohammad Qasemi said. (Bill Samii)

EUROPEAN OFFICIALS IN TEHRAN. More and more high-ranking European officials are visiting Iran. The Muslim member of Bosnia-Herzegovina's collective presidency, Alija Izetbegovic, arrived in Tehran on 26 September. The previous week, Austria's President Thomas Klestil visited Tehran. And British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said that he will go to Iran next spring.

In a 27 September meeting with Izetbegovic, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hailed the valor of Bosnian Muslims in "what he termed an unjust war that was imposed by the West on the Muslim people of former Yugoslavia," according to IRNA. Turning to NATO's actions in the case of the Kosovar Muslims, Khamenei said that was meant to "legitimize a new mode of crisis handling behavior that would merely set a precedent as a rule for future contingencies."

Also on 27 September, Izetbegovic met with President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami. Khatami pledged Iran's continued support for the Bosnian people and expressed his hope that they would enjoy their "religious and human rights." IRNA quoted Khatami as saying Iran still supports peace and detente in the Balkans. Izetbegovic met Vice President Hassan Habibi, too.

Iranian state radio said Izetbegovic's visit reflects appreciation for "Iran's humanitarian efforts during the hard war years in Bosnia, when Iran extended humanitarian assistance" and also because of Iran's diplomatic efforts as part of the Organization of the Islamic Conference Contact Group. "Sobh-i Imruz" reported on 29 September that Izetbegovic's visit was aimed at mediating for the release of 13 Iranian Jews arrested for spying for Israel.

Klestil's visit to Iran was the first by an EU head of state since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Trade was Austria's main motivation, according to Vienna's Oesterrich Eins radio network on 20 September. A delegation of over 100 business representatives, led by Economics Minister Johannes Farnleitner and Chamber of Commerce President Leopold Maderthaner, accompanied Klestil. Also, Austrian Foreign Ministry official Albert Rohan said that Klestil's visit would strengthen Iranian reformists.

Some Austrians said Klestil's trip would send the wrong signal when the Iranian government is conducting secret trials and imposing death sentences on student protesters (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 20 September 1999). Perhaps reflecting such criticism, a 21 September broadcast by Austria's state-supported ORF television network claimed that Klestil discussed human rights when he met with Ayatollah Khamenei. Also, according to a letter from Klestil to the Simon Wisenthal Center in Los Angeles, Iranian officials promised a "careful investigation" of the espionage charges against 13 Iranian Jews, Reuters reported. The conservative English-language daily "Tehran Times," however, interviewed a number of Austrian delegation members who denied that such issues had arisen.

Iranian Chamber of Commerce chief Alinaqi Khamushi said his organization hopes Austria will help remove "sanctions imposed on Iran for purchase of multipurpose [i.e., dual-use] goods." Maderthaner told "Tehran Times:" "We are interested to buy the Iranian crude." Six memorandums of understanding were signed in the presence of Khatami and Klestil.

Germany's deputy economics minister for energy and foreign trade, Axel Gerlach, is to arrive in Tehran on 1 October. His office told "Iran Daily" on 29 September that he will attend a trade fair and meet with Iranian officials.

British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook announced on 21 September, according to the London Press Association, that he will go to Iran next spring, becoming the first British minister to visit Iran since the 1979 revolution. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi is expected to visit London later this year. "Tehran Times" warned on 25 September that Cook was being insincere, because he pledged that Great Britain will support condemned author "Salman Rushdie in both his safety and his right to express himself freely." In June, a delegation of British business people--known as the British Trade and Investment Mission--visited Iran. According to Iranian state broadcasting, the visitors are interested in oil and gas, power generation, petrochemicals, civil engineering and construction, water supply and waste water treatment, telecommunications and information technology, and financial and technical services. (Bill Samii)

KHATAMI TO VISIT FRANCE. President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami will visit France "before the year 2000," the Iranian embassy in Paris told Agence France Press on 30 September. In a 30 September interview on Iranian state television, the French Foreign Ministry's (un-named) deputy spokesman said: "We hope to improve our relations with Iran in every field. We are trying to resolve minor obstacles that exist in the path of relations between the two countries."

One of those obstacles appears to be the imprisonment of a Franco-Iranian accused of murder on behalf of Iran. Mojtaba Mashhadi, who has been held for about six years in connection with the 1990 murder of dissident Cyrus Elahi, a member of the Flag of Freedom Organization, was released on 1 October. His release was announced the same day that Khatami's visit was announced. Under the terms of his release, Elahi is prohibited from leaving France.

The French release of an agent of the Iranian regime is not unprecedented. In August 1998, Massud Hendi, who was convicted to ten years in prison for complicity in the 1991 assassination of former Iranian Prime Minister Shahpur Bakhtiar, was released from prison. In 1990, Anis Naccache, leader of an anti-Bakhtiar hit squad which killed two French police officers instead, was pardoned. Wahid Gordji, an Iranian embassy interpreter suspected of involvement in a wave of bombings in Paris in 1985-1986, was allowed to leave France in November 1987 after a cursory interview with an investigating magistrate.

A similar case might involve German businessman Helmut Hofer, who was on trial in Tehran for having extramarital sexual relations with a Muslim woman. On 29 September it was announced that Hofer will be released soon. But on 30 September the Judiciary accused Hofer of having "contact with suspicious elements," according to the dpa news agency. This usually refers to espionage, and when Hofer was returned to prison in August, Law Enforcement Forces refered to his "relationship with certain suspicious foreigners" (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 2 August

The new charges against Hofer may be connected with the case of Kazem Darabi, who is imprisoned in Germany for his part in the assassination of Iranian dissidents, and who supposedly was going to be exchanged for Hofer (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 26 July 1999). There also may be a connection with the case of Hamid Khorasandi, who was arrested in Germany for trying to infiltrate Iranian opposition groups there, according to press reports at the end of July. (Bill Samii)

IRAQI REFUGEES WANT TO GO HOME. Speaking at the 46th session of the World Health Organization's Eastern Mediterranean regional group, Iranian Minister of Health, Treatment, and Medical Education Mohammad Farhadi asked the international community to provide health care expenses for refugees in Iran. According to a 21 September IRNA report, Farhadi said Iran hosts over 2 million refugees and this imposes high costs. There are suggestions, however, that the refugee-related expenses may soon decrease. Baghdad's "Al-Ittihad" weekly reported on 7 September that "thousands of Iraqis residing in Iran have thronged the Iraqi Embassy to obtain valid official passports following a recent decision by Iraq to grant these Iraqis passports." Furthermore, Mashhad's Dari-language "Boyad-i Wahdat" had reported several months ago that Afghan refugees in Khorasan Province are being encouraged to return to Afghanistan, although repatriation "should be likened to sending the refugees back to be slaughtered." (Bill Samii)

RESPONDING TO VIOLENCE. In July, Hojatoleslam Qolam Reza Hassani-Bozorgabad, Orumieh Friday Prayer leader and Assembly of Experts representative, said, according to "Sobh-i Imruz," that "violence cannot be eliminated from the society through giving advice. I would use my machinegun to shoot at murderers, criminals and corrupt people." In August, Hassani said, "Those who staged riots in Tehran must be executed. If I had a machine gun, I would perform the task myself in front of the public," according to the 14 August "Sobh-i Imruz." Somebody decided to take the game to Hassani, apparently. He complained to the local Ministry of Intelligence and Security office that his house had been shot at by an unknown individual, "Abrar" reported on 19 September. (Bill Samii)