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Iran Report: November 8, 1999

8 November 1999, Volume 2, Number 44

WHISTLING IN THE DARK. On 4 November, Iranians celebrated the anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by holding rallies, making speeches, and burning flags. This year, the 20th anniversary of beginning of the hostage crisis, coincided with the day Father of the Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was exiled to Turkey in 1964 and university students were killed by imperial troops in 1978.

The impact of the students' action in 1979 is being felt today, and it is not something most Iranians would celebrate. RFE/RL's Persian Service interviewed university professors Fereidun Khavand, Fariborz Raisdana, and Houshang Amirahmadi, who all agreed that the hostage crisis destroyed Iran's relations with the U.S., something that has cost Iran billions of dollars. Iranian products now have poor access to the huge U.S. market. Also, Iran cannot buy goods from one of the lowest-cost producers, particularly in the oil technology field. Finally, all countries now consider Iran a high-risk investment. Shortly before the 4 November celebrations, the U.S. State Department reiterated its willingness to engage in a dialogue with Iran. But perhaps because this year's anniversary coincided with other significant events, this offer was rejected and the anti-American rhetoric became more heated than usual.

The Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported "crowds from different parts of the capital gathered in front of the former U.S Embassy," and the rally was addressed by Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai (Rezai is a good candidate for an anti-U.S. speech because his son is seeking asylum there now.) In Tehran, tens of thousands (Reuters) or several thousand (Agence France Presse) people burned four U.S., one Israeli, and one British flag, and they chanted "Death to America," Down with the USA," and "Death to the usurping Jewish regime." Similar rallies were held in other cities, too, according to state television.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also discussed the U.S. in a 3 November speech that "The New York Times" described as an "anti-American diatribe that was stunning in its virulence." He said only "simpletons" and "traitors" favored restoration of relations with the U.S. Khamenei also denounced "abject and vile pen-holders" who think Iran's economic problems will be solved if U.S.-Iran relations are normalized. "Nothing has changed, the U.S has its arrogance and oppressiveness as before," Speaker of Parliament Ali-Akbar Nateq-Nuri added, noting that "The U.S. still living under the umbrella of the Zionists." Islamic Revolution Guard Corps commander Yahya Rahim Safavi told a gathering of youth center managers to beware of plots by the "global arrogance," state television reported.

A counterrally organized by the Office for Strengthening Unity was held on 3 November at the Tehran University mosque. This event "attracted only a few hundred people, mainly students," according to AFP. The crowd chanted in support of President Khatami. The organizers spoke out against burning American flags and shouting extremist slogans because it caused friction between Iranians. The previous day, Hojatoleslam Rasul Montajabnia of the relatively moderate Militant Clerics Association (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mobarez) advised against burning the U.S. flag during an address at Ilam University, saying that Iran's argument is with the U.S government, not its people.

Friday Prayer leaders also sermonized against the U.S. as 4 November approached. Rasht Friday Prayer leader Hojatoleslam Sadeq Ehsanbakhsh said "Whenever Iran's independence is threatened by America, our people will destroy the White house in a suicide action," according to "Iran" newspaper. In Qom, Ayatollah Ebrahim Amini-Najafabadi sermonized that "America has never stopped its plots against Iran." Regarding earlier statements by U.S. officials about a willingness to hold bilateral discussions, Amini said: "it is still using the same bullying tone and even worse. ...None of our officials are prepared to accept America's tyranny, our people are not prepared to do that either."

In Tehran, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati said he had a list of "some 30 crimes that the Americans have committed in this country." Among the crimes was America's failed attempt to rescue the hostages. After going on for a while about perceived misdeeds, Jannati urged people to participate in the 4 November rallies, adding that, "This is one of the basic pillars of our policy."

A recent point of contention arose over seemingly contradictory statements from Washington. In early-October, State Department spokesman James Rubin suggested that a military option is possible against whoever is responsible for the 1996 bombing that killed U.S. servicemen in Saudi Arabia, which in Iran was perceived as a direct threat. But in mid-October, Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk said the U.S. has not set preconditions for talks with Iran. Rubin clarified these statements in an interview with Shirzad Bozorgmehr of "Iran News." (It is probably just a coincidence that Bozorgmehr also works for CNN.) Iranian state radio responded on 28 October to Rubin's call for a dialogue by saying that, "as long as the U.S. continues to expand its hostile policies towards Iran, any type of discussion between the two countries would be fruitless."

During an October visit to the Persian Gulf, U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen said that the U.S. military presence there helps deter an Iranian strike against the Arab states. Iranian state broadcasting said on 21 and 22 October that Cohen's remarks were "indecent and meddlesome" and intended to promote arms sales and ruin Iran's relations with its neighbors. Columnists for the Arabic newspapers "al-Hayat," "al-Khaleej," and "al-Rai" ridiculed Cohen's assertions about the Iranian threat.

Then IRNA reported on 2 November that U.S. Vice President Al Gore, while speaking at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, referred to Iran as "repressive and fundamentalist." Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said Gore's "unfounded and baseless" comments, coming "as the forthcoming U.S. presidential election approaches, were only aimed to please the Zionists." What Gore actually said was that the "repressive arm of fundamentalist rule" was used against demonstrators during the summer. (Bill Samii)

RUSSIA ADMITS TECHNOLOGY TRANSFER TO IRAN. Speaking at a 2 November news conference in Oslo, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said "Russia is not interested in enlargement of the club of nuclear powers," according to ITAR-TASS. But he added that "it would be silly to let anybody use this to press our firms, enterprises in the military industrial complex, from world arms markets." The Russian prime minister was reacting to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's comments that Israel is concerned about the spread of nuclear and missile technology to Iran.

The previous week, "The Times" of London reported that Russian and Iranian companies are using the Caspian Sea as a route for smuggled parts used in Tehran's Weapons of Mass Destruction programs. Such parts come not only from Russian suppliers but from European ones, too. This smuggling program is reportedly part of a secret agreement signed by Iranian Minister of Roads and Transport Mahmud Hojjati-Najafabadi when he was in Russia in August, according to the "Times." The Russian Foreign Ministry rejected the veracity of the "Times" report, Interfax reported on 25 October. It said the story was based on "insinuation" by those who want "Russia and the United States to quarrel and to put pressure on Moscow so that it halts its cooperation with Iran."

In this case, the Russian Foreign Ministry may be telling the truth. Putin's 2 November comments indicate that Russia does not feel any need to hide its cooperation with Iran in creating weapons of mass destruction. (Bill Samii)

PAST LIGHTS WAY TO FUTURE IN NURI TRIAL. Hearings before the Special Court for the Clergy in the case of "Khordad" Managing Editor Hojatoleslam Abdullah Nuri got underway on 30 October. Three previous high-profile trials suggest the ways this case will have an impact. Whatever its formal outcome, the trial will serve as a platform for an eloquent speaker to undermine some of the shibboleths of the ruling conservatives, which is what happened during the April trial of Hojatoleslam Mohsen Kadivar. Also, the summer trial of "Salam" Managing Director Hojatoleslam Mohammad Asqar Musavi-Khoeniha can serve as a model for the political impact of this trial. On that basis, Nuri's trial will keep him out of politics for the immediate future, and "Khordad" probably will be closed.

A key to Nuri's defense is his view that the Special Court for the Clergy is unconstitutional and illegal. This position is not without precedent; the same defense was used during Kadivar's trial in April (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 19 April 1999 and 26 April 1999). Nuri told the 19 October "Manateq-i Azad" that he hoped the trial would be broadcast so that the public can judge the court's legality, as well as his guilt, just as there were demands that Kadivar's trial be open. Nuri also promised to say in court that he opposes the house arrest of Montazeri, which "has no legal or Sharia [Islamic law] basis." During the 3 November hearing Nuri also criticized the failure to provide honest answers about last autumn's murders of dissidents.

And during the 4 November hearing, just as the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy was being commemorated, Nuri pointed out that Iran could not ignore the world's most powerful country. He demonstrated that Iran needs the foreign investment, and that the U.S. has a great deal of influence over international financial institutions. He also pointed out that the 1995 deal with French oil company Total was made on unfavorable terms because U.S. firms were not competing for the contract.

The July case of Hojatoleslam Mohammad Asqar Musavi-Khoeniha, managing director of the daily "Salam," serves as a precedent for possible outcomes of the Nuri trial. That case was intended to silence a leading figure in two of the reformist 2nd of Khordad (the date of Khatami's election) groups (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 9 August 1999). Nuri was touted as the reformists' favorite candidate for speaker of parliament. If Nuri is convicted, however, it will keep him out of the parliamentary race. His imprisonment is not necessary, because the Guardians Council, using the power of advisory supervision and additional powers granted unto it by the newly adopted election law, can block anybody's candidacy without providing any explanation.

When Musavi-Khoeniha was convicted, his prison sentence was deferred owing to his revolutionary credentials. But he was banned from publishing activities for three years and "Salam" was banned for five years. Taking that case as a precedent, it seems very likely that "Khordad" will be closed, too. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN STUDENTS WARNED, FOREIGN ACADEMICS FUNDED. Sentences are still being handed out for those accused of involvement in the July unrest. And the students involved in writing a supposedly blasphemous play for the student publication called "Mowj" have been given prison sentences. These actions are intended to serve as a warning to other students and young people that future deviations from accepted norms of behavior would not be tolerated. The timing of this warning is particularly relevant, because some people may want to protest against the possible conviction of Hojatoleslam Abdullah Nuri.

Manuchehr Mohammadi was sentenced to 13 years in prison, "Qods" reported on 28 October. His "confessions" were broadcast on state television in July, and they were edited to make it seem that Mohammadi and other student protesters were agents of foreign powers. Ahmad Bateni, the student wearing a bloody shirt who was featured on the cover of "The Economist," received a ten-year sentence, according to an unconfirmed report from the Student Movement Coordination Committee for Democracy in Iran.

On 2 November the Press Court sentenced three Amir Kabir University students--Abbas Nemati, Mohammad Reza Namnamat, and Ali-Reza Aqai--to prison sentences of up to three years for their role in producing a satirical play about the 12th Imam. A fourth defendant, a professor who said he was not paying attention when the students read the play for him, was acquitted.

While elements within the Iranian regime may be trying to intimidate students at home, internationally they are trying to burnish Iran's image and legitimize Tehran's activities. The Iranian Ministry of Education and the Islamic Center of England is funding two three-year fellowships--worth approximately $279,000--at London's School of Oriental and African Studies, London's "Sunday Times" reported on 24 October. The Islamic Center is headed by Ayatollah Mohsen Araqi, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's representative in England. Academics in other Western countries receive Iranian funding, too. Not only could this make them sympathetic to the Iranian government, but also it might even affect their teaching and their policy recommendations. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN EXPANDS CRACKDOWN ON MEDIA. On 1 November, Maurice Copithorne, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that freedoms of the press, expression, and association have declined in Iran since July. He added that the judicial system must be reformed and persecution of the Bahai minority must stop. Executions (138 reported between January and August) for unknown crimes, torture, failure to pursue the case of dissident intellectuals and journalists murdered a year ago, and repression of this summer's demonstrations are other major human rights problems in Iran, according to Copithorne. Copithorne told the UN General Assembly that President Mohammad Khatami seems committed to reform, "but the slow rate of implementation is leading to increasing skepticism." Iran's UN envoy, Mohammad-Hassan Fadaiefard, said the report was based on "false" information and allegations provided by opposition groups, adding that the report lacked "objectivity" and showed absence of "understanding" of Islamic norms.

Mohammad Javad Haqshenas, the Interior Ministry's director-general for political affairs, mentioned another problem relating to newspaper closures. He said in the 2 November "Iran Daily" that closing newspapers and prosecuting press figures will undermine the public's ability to participate fully in the February parliamentary elections. This is because, according to Haqshenas, "In our country, each member of the press community represents a certain school of thought."

The current press law under consideration in parliament will strengthen the government's ability to close publications and punish journalists and editors (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 18 October 1999). About 300 journalists signed a petition calling for suspension of the proposed law, "Sobh-i Imruz" reported on 27 October. Also, members of the reformist 2nd of Khordad (the date of Khatami's election) group met with 150 members of the legislature and asked for suspension of the bill.

Some parliamentarians are threatening to stage a walkout if the bill comes up, in order to prevent the formation of a quorum. Deputy Faezeh Hashemi, however, warned that if this tactic is used in this case, hardline parliamentarians might resort to it in the future, "Tehran Times" reported on 27 October. Another parliamentarian, Hojatoleslam Majid Ansari, predicted that the voting on the press law would go ahead, "Sobh-i Imruz" reported on 3 November. Mohammad Baqer Nobakht of Rasht explained that the parliament must maintain good internal relations so voting on the third five-year development plan goes ahead successfully.

Meanwhile, Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, former editor of the banned daily "Neshat" and current editor of "Asr-i Azadegan," was arrested and taken to Evin prison on 2 November, several weeks after the warrant for him was issued. New charges against him include forgery, illegal use of forged documents, and forging the signature of Hussein Baqerzadeh (author of an article criticizing capital punishment). Earlier charges against Shamsolvaezin were for allowing the publication of articles by Baqerzadeh and Emadedin Baqi (who had urged Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to distance himself from hardliners). Shamsolvaezin's trial is scheduled for 8 November and he refused to post bail, which was set at about $58,000 (at the unofficial exchange rate). In September, "Neshat" managing director Latif Safari was given a two-and-a-half year prison sentence and banned from publishing for five years (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 27 September 1999).

A possibly more positive development is a report that the daily "Bayan" will hit the newsstands on 13 November. The new publication will make use of the banned "Salam" newspaper's facilities, "Manateq-i Azad" reported on 3 November. Former Interior Minister and Ambassador to Syria Ali Akbar Mohtashemi-Pur will be its editor.

But the court cases of Shamsolvaezin and of "Khordad" Managing Editor Abdullah Nuri increase the likelihood that "Asr-i Azadegan" and "Khordad" will be closed. This is further evidence that the law is being manipulated by the Judiciary to eliminate reformist newspapers before the February elections. And it will serve as further evidence of the worsening human rights situation in Iran. (Bill Samii)

HARDLINERS STILL FEAR MONTAZERI. The men in Iran who exert power in the name of Islam are still afraid of one man: Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri-Najafabadi. That may be for good reason, because although the 78-year-old Montazeri has been under intermittent house arrest for the last ten years, he continues to have a substantial and vocal following. The state, in turn, has supposedly issued a decree (which, if it exists at all, remains unpublished) forbidding writing about Montazeri. Moreover, it persists in punishing those who publicize Montazeri's views. But attempts to silence Montazeri and his supporters appear increasingly desperate.

A number of Montazeri's supporters have been arrested for publishing a book he had written, "Arya" and "Aftab-i Imruz" reported on 2 November. Akbar Tajik-Saeedi, prayer leader at a Tehran mosque, was convicted by the Special Court for the Clergy in the last week of October for "propagating for Montazeri, spreading lies, and confusing public opinion." Tajik-Saeedi was one of 180 clerics who signed a letter protesting Montazeri's confinement.

One of the charges against Hojatoleslam Abdullah Nuri, managing editor of "Khordad," is that he promoted Montazeri's political views (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 18 October 1999). The Special Court for the Clergy's prosecutor, Hojatoleslam Neku-Nam, referred to a Supreme National Security Council decree that forbids promoting the dissident cleric's views. But as "Sobh-i Imruz" pointed out on 18 October, "this decree has been neither printed in the Official Gazette nor been advised to the press. It is said to be a classified document."

Mohammad Hassan Alipur, managing editor of the weekly "Aban," also is accused of promoting Montazeri. In a hearing before the Special Court for the Clergy, Alipur said his weekly "always printed news about Montazeri and reflected his expert views within the framework of its task to inform the public," Aban reported on 11 September. Regarding the Supreme National Security Council decree forbidding promotion of Montazeri, "Alipur said that he was totally unaware of the existence of such a decree." Although he asked for a copy of the decree, the court did not provide him with one. The Special Court for the Clergy also charged Alipur and "Aban" with printing the views of reformist cleric Hojatoleslam Mohammad Taqi Fazel-Meybodi, who has been identified as a Montazeri supporter.

The weekly "Ava," which is close to Montazeri, was sent to the Press Court by the Press Supervisory Board in August, according to "Hamshahri." Also, the Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry stopped giving financial support to "Ava," "Aban," and "Payam-i Hajar" because they published photos of and articles about Montazeri, "Neshat" reported. The Qom governor-general's political deputy was suspended from government service and fined for reproducing Montazeri's statements using government facilities, "Resalat" reported on 12 September.

The government's efforts to keep Montazeri out of the public eye have not been very successful. The Organization of Former Members of Parliament issued a statement requesting the end of Montazeri's house arrest, "Khordad" reported in mid-August. Next to a large photograph of the cleric, "Iran-i Vij" asked in late August: "Does the house arrest of Ayatollah Montazeri conform to Islamic law?" Also, Hojatoleslam Nadi-Najafabadi requested an end to Montazeri's house arrest, "Sobh-i Imruz" reported on 19 September.

In fact, Montazeri has been the subject of a debate that started in August with the publication of his statements about violence and the state in "Khordad" and "Aban." Montazeri said, "Violence occurs when a government responds to its own people's complaints against the state's deviations, and demands for their rights, with acts of suppression, instead of granting their rights or placating them. Violence occurs when the government acts like an alien aggressor, instead of...being kind to the people who are the true owners of the state."

Referring to the prevalence of thugs, vigilantes, and goon squads, Montazeri said this "method is being pursued in the Islamic Republic by a group using paramilitary teams and immature persons." Montazeri went on to call for open debate and said the lack of security undermines investor confidence.

Parliamentarian Mohammad Javad Larijani responded to Montazeri's comments in an interview published in the 16 August "Neshat." He asserted that Mafia-like groups that seek the physical elimination of their opponents wage violence. It also is waged by "some groups who feel that people like them. However, they believe that this has not been translated into gaining positions of power." Larijani said that Hojatoleslam Mehdi Hashemi's gang exploited Montazeri's name in the mid- to late-1980s. Now, Montazeri is being exploited by those who "favor a secular and liberal government."

"Neshat" columnist Emadedin Baqi wrote on 21 August that attempts to link Montazeri and Mehdi Hashemi are based on ignorance, and furthermore, Larijani's argument is full of historical mistakes. The next day, Baqi wrote that Montazeri saw the relationship between the government and the people as a social contract, and "If the rulers do not meet those claims and demands [of the people], the contract becomes invalid." Baqi went on to say that, "Larijani has joined the faction involved in oppressing the people."

Trying to discredit people and institutions by linking them with the Mehdi Hashemi gang and by saying that they are un-Islamic is a frequent tactic of hardline publications and their supporters, Baqi said in an interview published in the 6 September "Khordad." Such tactics are very harmful, Baqi said, explaining that "Attempts to further political objectives by exploiting religion and the Koran over the past 20 years have caused irreparable damage to the standing and position of religion in this society." (Bill Samii)