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Iran Report: November 1, 1999

1 November 1999, Volume 2, Number 43

KHATAMI FINALLY GETS TO FRANCE. As President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami's 27-28 October trip to France approached, some Iranian newspapers with hardline affiliations sought to undermine it, as did the exile opposition. For example, "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported on 5 October that Salman Rushdie would visit a Paris bookstore, and "Inviting the apostate Salman Rushdie to Paris on the eve of the Iranian president's visit is tantamount to an act of spite by the French government against the Islamic Republic." "Resalat" wondered why the actual status of the trip was not clarified: was it a state or an official visit, was Khatami invited to address UNESCO or the Elysee? Opposition complaints were not unexpected, but "Sobh-i Imruz" wondered on 20 October why domestic publications would "pursue a shared objective with the enemies." The reformist Iranian daily said such actions were intended to serve short-term factional interests. In an earlier issue, "Sobh-i Imruz" suggested that the row over serving wine at French state dinners, which caused cancellation of Khatami's planned trip to France last April, was factionally motivated too. In light of Iran's pending parliamentary election, Khatami's trip is not without political risk for Iranian reformists, Beirut's "L'Orient-Le Jour" suggested on 25 October.

But Khatami's visit to France was sufficiently important to Iran and the host country that it went ahead despite such provocations and risks. The primary interest for both countries is economic. France has lent a great deal of money to Iran. Credit Lyonnais, Societe Generale, Credit Agricole, and Paribas have given Iran over $2 billion in credits, according to "L'Orient-Le Jour." France, furthermore, has been trying to bring Iranian debt under Paris Club protection, which would spread the risk internationally. This clarifies 17 October comments by France's Ambassador to Tehran, Phillipe de Surmain, that if the trip succeeds in strengthening Iran's ties to the EU, other countries might also become interested in building their links with Iran.

Iran is also one of France's main suppliers of crude oil, and Tehran may hope that the advance in relations will be accompanied by an increase in purchases. Another significant development in the oil sector occurred in 1995, when French group Total signed a $800 million contract with Iran after US sanctions disqualified Conoco from participation in the deal.

France currently purchases about 6 percent of Iran's domestically produced goods, and Iran may hope that this will increase, too. (Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Morteza Sarmadi said that France currently runs a trade deficit with Iran, IRNA reported on 16 October, but this probably includes oil purchases.) France also hopes that its companies can take advantage of plans to privatize Iranian industries and railroads, as well as plans to improve telecommunications and infrastructure projects and to purchase new aircraft. Iran has similar interests, as demonstrated by the presence in France of Minister of Roads and Transport Mahmoud Hojjati, Civil Aviation Organization chief Behzad Mazaheri, Iran Air chief Ahmad Reza Kazemi, and railways chief Rahman Dadman.

The potential economic benefits may have a political payoff for Iranian reformists. Hardliners opposed to ties with the West, as well as the Iranian public, will see the rewards for normalized relations. This may undermine the hardliners in the February parliamentary elections and open the way for reformist candidates. (Recently adopted election laws still cast doubt on who actually will be allowed to run for parliament).

Although economics and trade are the two countries' major interests, other issues are also important. It will be important for France's large Muslim population to have the head of the Organization of the Islamic Conference visit their country. French Defense Minister Alain Richard said Khatami's trip would be "more useful if Iran explains its position, particularly on respecting the international rules regarding the issues of security and armament," London's "Al-Hayah" reported on 11 October. And Khatami addressed UNESCO on 29 October.

Not everybody was eager to see Khatami in France, and protests were held over the case of 13 Iranian Jews facing espionage charges and the death sentences against four people involved in the July unrest. In order to prevent disruption of Khatami's visit, Iranian oppositionists in France were detained. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Anne Gazeau-Secret said France asked Italy and Germany to implement border controls to block Iranians' access to France from 23 to 29 October. Furthermore, Iranians were turned back at the Switzerland and Luxembourg borders. (Bill Samii)

NEW AGREEMENTS WITH CENTRAL ASIAN STATES. While ties with European states are essential for the Iranian economy, ties with Central Asian states are important as well. At the end of October, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi visited Ashgabat for discussions on several construction and trade projects. And in the beginning of October, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev visited Tehran to discuss oil and gas production, trans-national energy issues, and possible grain sales.

Kharrazi met with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov on 20 October and discussed cooperation on developing Caspian Sea resources. They signed an agreement for building the Druzhba dam on the Tejan River, which lies on the border between the two countries. They also discussed a joint road construction project. This would refurbish a 550 kilometer highway in Turkmenistan and construct a new 330 kilometer highway connecting Turkmenistan and Iran. At a September meeting in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan had proposed a 10-year economic cooperation pact with Iran.

After the meetings, Niyazov said no countries will be allowed to dictate how Turkmenistan can deal with Iran. Kharrazi added that "When our two countries sign international agreements, we always consider each others interests."

Niyazov's comments seemed aimed at the U.S., which previously objected to construction of a small gas pipeline between Iran and Turkmenistan in 1997. Kharrazi's comments reflected Iranian anger over Turkmenistan's February signing of an agreement with two U.S. firms for building a gas pipeline across the Caspian seabed to Azerbaijan. The gas would then be transported to Turkey along a pipeline the U.S. is promoting, thereby bypassing Iran completely.

In fact, in a 6 October meeting with Turkish Energy Minister Cumhur Ersumer, Niyazov said if construction of the Trans-Caspian Pipeline did not begin within six or seven months, Turkmenistan will export its gas via Iran and Russia, RFE/RL Newsline reported. This may be a bluff, because in September BP Amoco confirmed its July discovery of a 700 billion cubic meter gas field in Azerbaijan's sector of the Caspian, which obviates the need for Turkmen gas.

President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami met with Kazakhstan's Nazarbayev on 5 October. Khatami called for cooperation in use of the Caspian Sea's resources, in stemming the flow of narcotics, and in controlling the Afghan conflict. Nazarbayev also met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Expediency Council chairman Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, both of whom stressed the need to reach an accord on the Caspian Sea legal regime. Kazakh oil company president Balkin Bayev, in a meeting with Iranian oil minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh called for greater cooperation in the energy sector.

On 6 October, memoranda of understanding were signed on railway transportation, connection of the two countries via the port in Aktau, and possible grain sales. "Kazakhstanskaya Pravda" reported that terms and conditions for oil swaps remained undecided, and an Iranian delegation must visit Kazakhstan before the grain deal goes through. Other MOU were signed on cultural exchanges, counter-terrorism, and counter-narcotics. There were verbal agreements on expanded cooperation in post and telecommunications.

These developments also upset the U.S. government. In Almaty, President Bill Clinton's adviser on Caspian basin energy issues, John Wolf, described the U.S. stance, according to Kazakh commercial television on 7 October. He said: "we do not and will not support pipelines and other arrangements through Iran, transactions that would increase Iranian influence in the region and which will enable one of the world's largest energy producers to apply more pressure on the regional and international power markets." (Bill Samii)

GEORGIA KEEN ON RELATIONS WITH IRAN. Tehran's new ambassador to Tbilisi, Abolfazl Khazai-Torshizi, presented his credentials to Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagarishvili on 20 October, the Islamic Republic News Agency reported. At this meeting, Menagarishvili "expressed interest in expansion of bilateral relations in all areas." Two weeks earlier, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze told departing Iranian ambassador Akbar Aminian that good relations between their countries is "one of the priorities of the Georgian government." Shevardnadze said transport has a particular potential in expanding bilateral economic relations. The heritage left by the Persian language "will pave the way for further promotion of Tehran-Tbilisi cooperation in the future," Shevardnadze added.

Such cooperation may not extend to the nuclear field, however. Four men trying to sell one kilogram of uranium-235 were arrested in Batumi, Moscow's "Segodnya" reported on 23 September. The leader of this gang, Georgian chemist Valiko Chkhivadze, previously was imprisoned in Turkey for smuggling radioactive materials. Shukri Abramidze, director of the Georgian Institute of Physics, told "Segodnya" that he believes the U-235 was destined for Iran, citing "the Iran theory -- Iran wants to have its own atomic bomb." Abramidze explained that U-235 is used for weapons and power production. Until recently, Georgian uranium was kept at the poorly secured facility is Mskheta. It was purchased by England and removed for disposal, after Russia reneged on a similar deal. (Bill Samii)

ATTITUDES BLOCK PROGRESS IN WOMEN'S EMPLOYMENT. When asked about possible roles for women in Iran's Islamic Revolution Guard Corps, the armed forces, education, or the executive and legislative branches of government, Father of the Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini said: "None of them are unfit for women, provided the boundaries laid down by religion are not transgressed." It is believed that women, furthermore, voted overwhelmingly for Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami in the 1997 presidential election, reacting to his promises of a greater role for them in Iran's future.

Vice-President of the Women's Sociocultural Council, Batoul Mohtashemi, however, said in the 21 October "Iran Daily" that "Despite the growth in population, the number of working women has not substantially increased [since 1991]." The mental health of the female population is worsening, too. Iranian women are increasingly depressed and they account for most of Tehran's eight daily suicides, according to 5 October reports in "Arya" and "Jomhuri-yi Islami."

Mohtashemi made the point that this situation is harmful to the country, saying, "In countries where women play a less dynamic role, cultural, educational, and economic yields are substantially lower." Women's employment can have a positive effect for the family and the individual, too. According to Mohtashemi: "In addition to helping the family out financially, women's employment has positive effects on health and training, as well as on family bonds. It also promotes economizing by discouraging extravagance. Employment reduces women's vulnerability and provides social security to them during sickness, invalidity, or even old age."

There are several obstacles to women's employment, Mohtashemi said. These include "attitudes and biases which bar the promotion of women to higher professional and educational levels," circumstances that discourage creativity, lack of training, and discriminatory policies. This effectively forms a "glass ceiling" beyond which professional Iranian women cannot progress.

An example of this is the case of Shirin Ebadi, a lawyer who now represents the family of Dariush and Parvaneh Foruhar, dissident intellectuals who were murdered last year by members of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. Now a lecturer at Tehran University, Ebadi was Iran's first female judge before the Islamic Revolution. After the revolution, the "Christian Science Monitor" reported on 14 October, Ebadi was dismissed because the ruling clerics "decided women were too emotional and irrational to hold such posts."

Ebadi's situation also demonstrates some of the attitudes towards professional women, particularly those who challenge the system in some way. After RFE/RL's Persian Service did a broadcast about her, the 19 October "Jomhuri-yi Islami" criticized her for having an award from Human Rights Watch and for having a Statue of Liberty on her desk.

Another example of discriminatory attitudes towards women was reflected in an August "New York Times" article by University of Virginia's Professor Farzaneh Milani. She described how women in a Tehran restaurant reacted to a raid by "vigilantes of the self appointed morals police." One was "deftly wiping off her lipstick," another covered "her painted nails with thick black gloves," a third covered "her colorful head scarf with a black one," and a fourth put on "knee length socks to hide her impeccably colored toenails." One of the women yelled: "I am sick and tired of all this. We have to free ourselves or die."

Even in the family arena women are at a disadvantage, according to an unnamed women's right activist cited in "Abrar" on 6 October. She said it is more difficult for women to obtain a divorce than it is for men, and they have little legal say in their children's welfare, particularly in terms of custody. Zahra Shojai, Khatami's adviser on women's affairs, said that new laws give the preference to mothers, although male judges do not always enforce such laws, the "San Jose Mercury News" reported on 24 October. Lawyer Mehrangiz Kaar added that too many laws are still discriminatory.

All these factors make it seem that the chances for women's advancement in Iran's current political and cultural environment are poor. But UVA's Milani, on seeing the resilience and determination of Iranian women, wrote: "women still have to cover themselves, but they have become a vibrant political force." She continues: "Iranian women have successfully invaded male territories. Perhaps the next victory will be ownership of their bodies." But a cautionary note comes from parliamentarian Faezeh Hashemi, who said, "considering the problems that women have, and considering that for centuries there has been domination of men over women, it will take time." (Bill Samii)

AGRICULTURAL OUTPUT WASTED, MORE WHEAT NEEDED. Agriculture Ministry official Mohammad Baqer Tabibi announced on 25 October that Iran expects domestic wheat purchases to drop by 2.4 million tons, due to this year's drought. He expected the government to buy 4.3 million tons this year, compared to 6.7 million tons last year. The Commerce Ministry added that it would import 800,000 tons of sugar, 6,000 tons of chicken, and 800,000 tons of rice in the current Iranian year (until March 2000), "Akhbar-i Eqtesad" reported. While the drought harmed this year's crops, Iranian farmers have had to contend with bad management, corruption, and lack of investment.

In mid-October, Agriculture Minister Issa Kalantari discussed another serious problem with Iranian agriculture: wastage. He said, according to the official "Iran" newspaper on 17 October, that 13 million tons, or 20 percent, of all agricultural products were wasted annually in the various stages of production and consumption. This news undermines Kalantari's claim, reported by the 20 October "Abrar," that the government intends to boost olive oil production to at least one million tons annually under the new five-year development plan.

And the news that the government will buy even less wheat comes on the heels of an announcement by the Supreme Economic Council that it raised the price it pays for domestic wheat by 30 percent, according to a 27 September Reuters report. This will do little to inspire confidence in local farmers.

Kalantari's statement about wastage also may undermine confidence in the Republic of Azerbaijan and in Haiti. Iran and its neighbor in the Caucasus signed a cooperation agreement aimed at expanding scientific and technological cooperation in the agricultural field, Iranian state television reported on 18 October. And in a meeting with Haiti's President Rene Preval, Ambassador Mohammad Kezav Vadev said Iran is considering providing assistance to the Haitian Government in the agricultural field, Port-au-Prince Radio reported on 22 October. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN GOVERNMENT SUBMITS TO HOSTAGE TAKERS. On 19 October, three Portuguese citizens who had been taken captive in Iran were freed, a source at the Interior Ministry told the Islamic Republic News Agency. While this put a happy ending to the case, the authorities' conduct and statements during the affair suggest that institutional rivalries took precedence over the lives of the hostages. Such problems also hampered the resolution of similar kidnappings in June and August, and they have sparked criticism of government institutions and policies. Furthermore, it seems that the government conceded, once again, to the hostage-takers' demands.

The three Portuguese -- Ricardo Andreia, Jorge Duarte, and Joao Mendes Pinto -- were kidnapped on 28 September while driving through Sistan va Baluchistan Province in southeastern Iran. They were participating in the preparatory phase of a transcontinental rally commemorating the return of the former Portuguese enclave of Macao to Chinese rule.

"Iran News" commented on 29 September that local residents resort to drug smuggling and hostage taking to earn money, because there are few legitimate sources of income available. The English-language daily urged the government to do more to create jobs in the region. It also said that the Law Enforcement Forces' lackluster way of dealing with the previous kidnappings has emboldened others. "Kayhan International" also criticized provincial law enforcement forces, but in this case for allowing the foreigners to travel unescorted in a dangerous area.

The affair followed a pattern similar to that of the previous kidnappings, with contradictory reports about when and how the crisis would be resolved. "The hideout where the hostages are being held has been located, and they will probably be released soon," "Aftab-i Imruz" reported on 29 September, quoting an "informed source." "Akhbar-i Eqtesad" reported on 29 September that negotiations had already begun.

Talking to the "Tehran Times" on 3 October, an unnamed Interior Ministry official said, "We will use force to teach a lesson to the drug traffickers who must stop this sort of blackmailing." The unnamed official said the drug traffickers are part of the "Narooi" gang, and they hope to exchange the Portuguese for an imprisoned member of their gang. The next day, however, Interior Ministry spokesman Abdolreza Bandi said, according to AFP: "The Interior Ministry vehemently denies such reports."

Rumors then emerged that the hostages had been killed. Interior Ministry spokesman Bahauddin Sheikholeslam told "Iran News" on 5 October: "these are just rumors and totally unfounded. The hostages are alive and the officials and security forces are doing their best to secure their release."

Provincial LEF commander Brigadier General Mohammad Shabani said on 9 October, according to IRNA, that "we will make no deal with the armed thugs and based on the guidelines of the Supreme National Security Council and upon the orders of the president and Minister of the Interior we are determined to decisively encounter the armed thugs." Shabani went on to say that the hiding place has been located and isolated. The next day, LEF evacuation of local villages for a rescue operation was announced. But on 12 October, provincial Deputy Governor for security Danial Mollai said, "Moves against the abductors and the freeing of the hostages have to be carried out with caution and there is no place for over-hasty action," according to Reuters.

The "Iran" newspaper, which is affiliated with IRNA, reported on 13 October that "the new round of release operations are taking place while the hostage takers are trying to prevent military operations by security forces through setting up human shields and permanently changing their hideout." Meanwhile, an Interior Ministry official said negotiations with the kidnappers had started, and although "security officials do not intend to give bribes, the talks would bear fruit," he predicted. By 17 October, provincial Governor-General Mahmoud Husseini said the captors were surrounded and had little choice but to surrender.

Then, on 19 October, there were several conflicting stories about the crisis. Portugal's Ambassador to Tehran, Arsenio Jose Manuel Da Costa, told AFP that the hostages would be released that day, "most probably," according to provincial Deputy Governor-General Danial Mollai. "Tehran Times," citing one of its many "informed sources," reported that "Attempts are still being made to secure the release of the hostages." "Etelaat" reported: "In a brave attack carried out by the forces, the Portuguese hostages were freed and the kidnappers have been arrested." Meanwhile, the official "Iran" newspaper said the hostages were released when the kidnappers fled, as did Interior Ministry spokesman Hussein Sheikholeslam. And finally, in a report about the jubilant reunion of the hostages and their families, LEF General Shabani said "all those who have been involved in the inhumane acts of aggression have been arrested."

These conflicting statements indicate that the government gave in to the kidnappers' demands. First of all, how else could a government official know the release time precisely enough to tell the Portuguese ambassador? Moreover, how did the kidnappers escape the LEF dragnet without governmental collusion? And finally, if the kidnappers were caught, which remains doubtful, what proof is there of this?

Any remaining doubts about this were laid to rest on 23 October, when one of the hostages, Ricardo Andreia, said "There was definitely a deal between the kidnappers and officials," according to AFP. He then described the orderly transfer of the hostages to the authorities.

The Iranian government's handling of the crisis probably will have two effects. Conceding to the kidnappers' demands probably will encourage further kidnappings of Western visitors to Iran. Also, Iran's attempts to attract foreigners and develop its tourist industry will suffer a setback. Even before the crisis was resolved one could see this, because on 15 October the British Foreign Office described the kidnappings and warned: "Visitors are strongly advised to avoid travel to Sistan-Baluchistan and Kerman provinces." Travelers also were warned against overland travel to Pakistan and to avoid areas bordering Afghanistan. (Bill Samii)