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Iran Report: November 22, 1999

22 November 1999, Volume 2, Number 46

ONE STUDENT LEADER RELEASED... Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, director of "Hoviat-i Khish" and leader of the Islamic Union of Students and Graduates, was released from prison on 4 November, "Sobh-i Imruz" reported on 8 November. He was held for a total of six months. The catalyst to the July demonstrations was the 6 July arrest of students planning to stage a sit-in to protest Tabarzadi's detention (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 12 July 1999). In an interview published in the 10 November "Manatiq-i Azad," Tabarzadi said he heard about the July demonstrations while he was in prison. He asked, "why are elements of civil society remaining silent in the face of the attacks in which these students are described as the third current and outsiders?" Tabarzadi expanded on this statement in an interview with a Los Angeles-based radio station the next day, saying: "elements of the 'civil society,' including the president, promised things that never materialized, and denied us support and backing." (Bill Samii)

...BUT MANY STUDENTS STILL IMPRISONED. The Iranian government is continuing its effort to eliminate dissent, particularly among students. Some of the 1,500 students arrested in connection with the July demonstrations in Tehran have been convicted, as were some students in Tabriz.

The weekly "Aban," according to the 14 November "Khordad," reported on the Tehran cases. The "Aban" article confirmed the 10-year sentence given to Ahmad Bateni, the young man whose picture was on the cover of London's "Economist" (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 8 November 1999). Also receiving 10 years was an otherwise unidentified individual named Fardak. Bahram Namazi, Arya, Mehran Mir-Abdolbaqi, and Beyarani (Niyarami) received sentences ranging from 11 months to nine years. Students Ali Alinezhad, Shafii, and Abdi were given two and a half year sentences. Ebrahimi, soccer player Hanasab, and Kurdish student Khaled Rostamzadeh have not been sentenced yet, nor has Bahiye Jilani, a relative of Dariush Foruhar, who was murdered last year.

More students in Tabriz were convicted, too, "Khordad" reported on 14 November. Ali Bikas was sentenced to eight years in prison, Ali Mehri to seven years, Ali Sadeqi and Ayub Salimi to one year, and Farzad Sajed Ardebili to eight months. The sentences of two other students are still under consideration, while four students received suspended sentences and were released. The National Liberation Movement of Southern Azerbaijan told Baku's Turan news agency on 15 November that the defendants did not have legal representation.

The attack on free expression also continues. Semnan University student Sadeq Alinejad was given a three-month prison sentence for writing an article critical of advisory supervision (through which the Guardians Council determines the eligibility of candidates for elected office) and Iranian state broadcasting, "Arya" and "Khordad" reported on 14 November. The Revolutionary Court also claimed that Alinejad insulted Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Meanwhile, the trial of Hamid Ahangari got underway on 13 November. Ahangari is the fourth student being tried in the case of a play published in the Amir Kabir University magazine called "Mowj." The other three students received prison sentences of varying lengths, while a professor tried in the same case was acquitted.

Not all Iranian students are troublemakers, however. Iranian state broadcasting reported on 16 November that "hundreds of Iran's student Basij mobilization forces" signed a pledge indicating their willingness to fulfill the death decree against Salman Rushdie, author of "The Satanic Verses." The pledge was sent to the British Embassy in Tehran. (Bill Samii)

IRGC SUPPORTS KHATAMI. Kermanshah parliamentary representative Seyyed Mojtaba Musavi-Ojaq's description of a recent survey of Islamic Revolution Guard Corps and Basij personnel in 24 provinces may cause some surprises. According to the survey, 9 percent of the sample group favored the hardline faction, 6 percent are apolitical, 5 percent are uncommitted, and the remaining 80 percent support the 2 Khordad movement (the moniker given to reformist political groups that supported President Mohammad Khatami's election). Musavi-Ojaq went on to say that the public should not believe that the entire IRGC supports hardline politicians, "Iran News" reported on 16 November. These results were supported by Ilam IRGC commander Allahnur Nurallahi's statement the next day. "Sobh-i Imruz" reported on 17 November that he said: "The IRGC, will, in the same way as it supported the government of the previous president, continue to support the government of Mr. Khatami and regards this as one of its chief and essential duties." Nurallahi added: "Today, the IRGC, along with other armed forces of the country, is in the service of the government and supports the officials, in particular the honorable, wise, insightful, and popular president."

EVEN WITHOUT IRAN, HIZBALLAH HAS ITS MARTYRS. At a recent rally in the pre-dominantly Shia suburb of Haret Hreik in southern Beirut, Hizballah Secretary-General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah explained the proposed unilateral withdrawal of Israeli forces from South Lebanon. He said the withdrawal is "an admission of [Israel's] defeat and helplessness and the victory of Lebanon, the Resistance, and the martyrs," both Baalbek's Voice of the Oppressed and Beirut's "Al-Safir" reported on 12 November.

In Shia Islam, martyrdom is a powerful theme, with its paradigm being Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, who died in 680 with his small army in a battle over leadership of the faith. In Haret Hreik, the theme of martyrdom stands out to this day.

As one turns off the main highway and enters Haret Hreik, one immediately notices that the streets are lined with large paintings of men in uniform. Most of these men--they are referred to as martyrs--have died fighting Israeli forces in the south. In many shop windows one sees posters of a bearded and bespectacled Shia cleric--Sheikh Abbas Musawi. Commander of Hizballah's Islamic Resistance and then the party's secretary-general, Musawi was personally responsible for the 1988 kidnapping and subsequent murder of U.S. Lieutenant-Colonel William Higgins, and he was killed by Israeli forces in 1992.

Hizballah's media office, which is located on Sheikh Raghib Harb Street, also features the theme of martyrdom. Harb headed Hizballah in southern Lebanon and was assassinated in February 1984. These constant reminders of martyrdom show that Hizballah bases much of its legitimacy on its role as the armed resistance against the Israeli occupation of the south.

But it is not martyrdom alone on which Hizballah bases its strength. From its creation in the early-1980s, the party has always received support, of varying types and in varying degrees, from Iran as well as Syria. Most recently, President Mohammad Khatami sent a message to Lebanese Prime Minister Selim al-Hoss that expressed Iran's support for the "resistance in the occupied areas in southern Lebanon," IRNA reported on 15 November. There have been many recent reports of Iranian military aid to Hizballah, but it now appears that some of these reports are based on Israeli disinformation (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 25 October 1999).

Also, Iranian ambassador to Beirut Mohammad Ali Sobhani denied the provision of weapons from Tehran to Beirut International Airport, Beirut's "Daily Star" reported on 4 November. He did say, however, that "We support Lebanese resistance to Israeli occupation." Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi reiterated, Damascus official radio reported on 6 November, his country's support for Lebanon's right to regain land occupied by Israel and for the "liberation of Jerusalem."

Not only does Iran deny supplying weapons, Iranian officials, such as Kharrazi, also deny involvement in Hizballah decision-making. Frequent trips made by Sheikh Nasrallah to Iran make such denials implausible. When he visited Tehran in late-October, for example, Nasrallah met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Khatami, and Parliamentary Speaker Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, among others. A major topic in those meetings was Hizballah's relations with Amal, Lebanon's other major Shia party, and the need to maintain unity, according to Paris' "Al-Watan al-Arabi" on 22 October.

In addition to Hizballah's military activities, the party is involved in political and social welfare activities, too, in an effort to strengthen its base of support. Hizballah has almost 10 parliamentary representatives and provides some low-cost social services. An example of this is the Al-Rasul al-Azam Hospital in southern Beirut.

This hospital was established in the 1980s with financial assistance from Iran's Martyr's Foundation (Bonyad-i Shahid). Because funding from Iran has been greatly reduced, hospital administrator Hajj Mohammad Hijazi told "RFE/RL Iran Report" that the hospital must rely on earned income and assistance from the local Al-Shaheed Organization. According to Hijazi, the hospital provides out-patient care for 5,000 people per month and emergency room care for another 3,000 per month. He said patients of all confessions--Shia, Sunni, or Christian--are attracted by the low cost of care--about $10 per clinic visit.

But even here, the concept of martyrdom is relevant. Hijazi explained: "The Shaheed Association is responsible for the family and the dependents of the martyr. The family means the father, mother, the wives, and kids. The responsibility comes to us. We take care of the family from all aspects. ...We have other parts of the Shaheed Association that take care of education of the kids. They pay for schooling of the kids."

A short drive from the hospital is the Al-Mahdi School, which was established by Hizballah but which now is funded and managed by another non-governmental organization, the Islamic Institution for Education and Teaching. The school is one of nine Al-Mahdi institutions in Lebanon. There also is one in Qom, Iran. Some of the schools, such as the two in Beirut, are private, while those in the south and in the Bekaa Valley are funded partly by the government and partly with fees paid to the Beirut schools.

All Lebanese students, regardless of the school they attend, must meet standards set by the Lebanese Ministry of Education. There is, therefore, uniformity in the curricula. But the Al-Mahdi schools emphasize certain subjects. In an interview with "RFE/RL Iran Report," school head Ahmad Kassir explains: "These things (the occupation) are enjoined during the history or the geography. Say we talk about the south, what happened in the south. ...Talking in history about Algeria, the occupation of Algeria. In these ways we try to make our students well aware of what is going on. We try to give our students knowledge of Israel, what are the goals of Hizballah."

Kassir says that support for Hizballah is a key element in education at the Al-Mahdi School. "Our work supports the growth and ends of Hizballah. We try to give the people the idea of Hizballah educational work. ...Hizballah is not the guerrillas that you talk about. Hizballah also has the schools and supports the schools. Our students here, their families, some of them work for Hizballah, we try to provide a high level of teaching. ...For example, on special occasions, festivals, we try to join our students in it. We have the same aims and goals as Hizballah."

And the issue of martyrdom is very important in the Shia school, according to Kassir. "We have also in the week of resistance, we tell our students who Seyyed Abbas (Musawi) is, why we respect this man; also Sheikh Baqir (al-Sadr, founder of Al-Dawa and executed by the Iraqi government in the 1980s), why we respect shahida (martyrs), why we respect them, why Islam gives great importance for such people because they give everything they have for the benefit of others."

Iran may reduce financial and military support for Hizballah. But by sponsoring essential social services and operating within the legal and political framework, Hizballah has ensured that it will be part of Lebanese politics for the foreseeable future. And there always will be reminders of the martyrs.

Some observers, however, believe that even if Hizballah acts as a wholly political organization, the military aspect of its activities will be taken up by another group and with Iranian support. "Al-Quds"--which supports the Palestinian Authority--reported on 16 November that Palestinain Islamic Jihad has appeared in Lebanon and its is operating in coordination with Hizballah. To survive, the PIJ will need the patronage of others, and, according to "Al-Qods," such patronage is coming from the office of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps, and hardline Iranian clerics. There also are reports thast Hizballah is creating "Lebanese Battalions" to replace its combat units. (Bill Samii)

THIRD DEVELOPMENT PLAN RUNS INTO TROUBLE. While touring Isfahan, President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami expressed the hope that parliament would approve the third five-year development plan quickly, according to IRNA on 16 November. The plan, introduced by Khatami in mid-September, is intended to attract foreign investment, reduce government expenditures, improve economic growth, and address Iran's unemployment rate (in August, Labor and Social Affairs Minister Hussein Kamali said that about 2 million Iranians are unemployed). In early October, Iran's executive and legislative branches attempted to resolve differences over the plan (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 11 October 1999), but despite the gravity of the problems it is meant to address, the plan still has not been approved.

On 10 November, "the overwhelming majority" of the parliament voted in favor of the main principles of the development plan, according to state broadcasting. It then came out that a major point of contention revolved around the differences between quantitative estimates and forecasts and reality, particularly in the areas of foreign investment and subsidies. This may be why, on 14 November, Central Bank of Iran Governor Mohsen Nurbakhsh said oil revenues exceeded the third plan's estimate by $3 billion, so this extra money would be used to stabilize the national currency and provide the manufacturing sector with cash for importing raw materials.

On 11 November, the parliament failed to reach a quorum on the third plan, delaying the debate for two more days. Speaker of Parliament Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri explained that 180 people must be present to form a quorum. On 13 November, several articles of the plan were approved, including some that addressed streamlining and downsizing ministries, and another that commissioned the government to pay salaries for the next five years with adjustments for the inflation rate. Articles regarding privatization of state firms, reduction of monopolies, and increasing competition were approved on 14 November.

On 15 November, however, things ground to a halt when a number of hardline deputies--such as Abbas Abbasi and Ahmad Rasulinezhad--made a proposal banning any price increases in goods or services provided by the state or by state-affiliated organizations for the next five years. Nateq-Nuri refused to accept the proposal, according to "Khordad," because he was concerned that it will block the development plan entirely. Parliamentary presidium spokesman Mohammad Baqir Nobakht said the proposal would increase the government's financial burden to untenable levels, while the deputies defended the proposal by saying it is necessary to "satisfy the public and lessen their economic burden."

Plan and Budget Organization chief Mohammad Najafi complained, IRNA reported on 16 November, that most of what the parliament had approved to date only increased the government's outlays. Proposals that would reduce government expenditures or increase government revenues, on the other hand, have been deleted, he said. Such problems stem from factional disagreements, according to an editorial in the 18 November "Iran News." The English-language daily reminded the parliamentarians that any damage done to the third plan will harm everybody equally, irrespective of their factions. "The damage will take the shape of long-term torment for the nation." (Bill Samii)

ANOTHER OIL CONTRACT. Royal Dutch Shell announced on 14 November that it had signed an $800 million contract to develop the Sorush and Noruz oilfields in the Persian Gulf. The two oilfields are estimated to have up to 555 million barrels of oil reserves. The contract is based on the buy-back principle, in which Shell will provide all the capital and expertise, and it will be reimbursed for its investment with the production of the oil fields. Also, Royal Dutch Shell and the Iranian Petrochemical Company will study joint investments to produce ethylene and similar products at the Bandar Imam Special Economic Zone, Iranian state broadcasting reported on 14 November.

Iranian Petroleum Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh described the specifics of the contract. "We sell our oil to Shell at the market price. If there is a buyer who is prepared to pay more than the highest price upon which we have agreed, then we will sell our oil to the new buyer. We will pay our debts to the company [Shell] by drawing upon those revenues. The other points are as follows: In two cases, we can reduce the wages of the contractors in line with the contract. First, it has been calculated how much it [Shell] should invest every year. If it invests less than the amount we have stipulated in the contract, its revenues will be less. Similarly, if the cost of the total investment--the ceiling of which is $779 million--is reduced and if it decreases by more than 10 percent, then the cost of implementing the contract will be reduced as well. However, if it increases by up to 10 percent, we will neither increase their revenues nor will we pay for the cost of the investment."

Some other countries are eager to get involved in the Iranian petrochemical sector. Norwegian Trade and Industry Minister Harriet Berg, for example, spoke at the opening ceremony of the first-ever seminar on Iran's oil and gas industry in Oslo. She described Norway's record in developing the North Sea's resources and said that her country's industries are increasingly interested in investing abroad, IRNA reported on 15 November. Berg went on to say that she will lead a Norwegian trade delegation's visit to Tehran on 19 November, and while there she would inaugurate Saga oil company's branch office. She admitted that she was not sure how the U.S. government would react to Norwegian investments in Iran's energy sector.

On the basis of recent precedents, the Norwegians should not be very worried. In the last year, American reactions to investments in Iran's energy sector have been relatively subdued, in spite of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA), which imposes penalties on companies investing over $20 million in Iran's energy industry. Regarding the most recent deal, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said the U.S. is deeply disappointed and it remains strongly opposed to any investment in Iran's petroleum sector. In late-March, when Canada's Bow Valley and France's Elf Aquitaine signed a $300 million contract for exploitation of the Balal oil field in the Persian Gulf, State Department spokesman James Rubin also indicated deep disappointment and great concern.

In fact, several Norwegian firms are involved in the Iranian petrochemical sector already. Saga is assessing seismic data and bidding on redevelopment of the Dehloran field, which was damaged during the war with Iraq. Norex is conducting a seismic survey in the Persian Gulf. Kvaerner, an engineering and construction group, is pursuing alliances with local Iranian firms and concentrating on offshore projects.

In a related matter, on 18 November Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia signed a series of legal documents on transit questions and tariffs to build a pipeline that will transport oil from Azerbaijan, through Georgia, to the Turkish port of Ceylon. The estimated cost of the project is $2.4 billion. U.S. President Bill Clinton was on the sideline of the signing ceremony. This project bypasses Iran and Russia. An official from Russian gas company Gazprom said on 15 November that his firm is ready to pay for 60 percent of a 140 kilometer gas pipeline from Iran to Armenia, Interfax reported. Gaz de France and the National Iranian Gas Company are the other potential partners in this project. Details of their project and the price of Iranian gas have not been decided yet. (Bill Samii)