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Iran Report: November 29, 1999

29 November 1999, Volume 2, Number 47

NURI CONVICTED, KHORDAD TO BE CLOSED. Hojatoleslam Abdullah Nuri, managing director of the daily "Khordad," was sentenced on 27 November to five years imprisonment and fined 15 million rials cash (about $1,765 at the unofficial rate, or $ 8,571 at one of the official rates). He also was dismissed from the "Khordad" directorship for five years. The newspaper itself will be closed, too, according to Fariba Davoodi of the daily's public relations office.

Nuri was tried by the Special Court for the Clergy for actions which it said included publishing reports that insult officials and institutions of the system, reporting lies and waging propaganda against the system, insulting Father of the Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his views, publishing reports contrary to religious principles, and insulting religious sanctities. Other charges made by the court included backing ties with America, promoting dissident cleric Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri's political views, and urging recognition of Israel.

Meeting with Nuri's parents, Isfahan Friday prayer leader Ayatollah Jalal Taheri said, "It was Mr. Nuri who put the court on trial and not the other way around," "Sobh-i Imruz" reported on 28 November. And in Isfahan itself, according to the Student Movement Coordination Committee for Democracy in Iran, there were violent clashes between those objecting to the sentence and security forces. Reformist parliamentarian from Rasht Elias Hazrati said, "Iran News" reported on 28 November, "We can only express our sorrow. What else can we say?" And the Executives of Construction Party issued a statement saying it was "saddened and concerned" by the "tough, unconventional, and unjust sentence." The statement called for "revoking the verdict and referring the case to a competent court."

Nuri's conviction is something of a blow to reformists in the short-run, because he was touted as the next speaker of parliament after the February parliamentary election. Nuri's imprisonment now precludes his candidacy. At the same time, he is an ally of President Mohammad Khatami. Khatami did not speak out after the convictions of Tehran Mayor Gholamhussein Karbaschi and intellectual Hojatoleslam Mohsen Kadivar, but this time he has been more forthcoming.

Discussing Nuri's case in a meeting with the parliament's Hizbullah Faction, Khatami said "It seems that we have been deprived of an experienced and competent colleague and I hope that during later stages of legal proceeding and given all aspects of the issue we could benefit from his [Nuri's] services more than before," IRNA reported. After the meeting, unnamed sources told AFP that Khatami told the parliamentarians that he would not intervene on Nuri's behalf.

In the long-run, however, Nuri may have served Iranian reformists well. He was the most prominent person to challenge many hardline stands, such as the rejection of relations with the U.S. The actions of the Special Court further undermined the standing of that body with the public--especially when it prevented Nuri from presenting his own final defense. (Bill Samii)

MORE PRESS CONVICTIONS. Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, most recently the editor-in-chief of "Asr-i Azadegan" and before that the editor of the banned dailies "Jameah," "Tus," and "Neshat," was sentenced on 27 November. He must serve three years in prison and was fined 12 million rials (about $1,400 at the unofficial rate or $6,857 at the official rate), the Islamic Republic News Agency reported. Shamsolvaezin was convicted on charges of forgery, forging documents, and publishing two articles in "Neshat" that insulted Islamic sanctities.

Hamid Ahangari, the fourth student to be tried in the case of an allegedly blasphemous play published in the student magazine "Mowj," received a four-month jail sentence on 23 November. Revolutionary Court Judge Gholamhussein Rahbarpur discussed the case in a question-and-answer session with students at Allameh Tabatabai University's College of Economics, "Sobh-i Imruz" reported on 23 November. He said the Freedom Movement was behind publication of the play, because its members have infiltrated the Islamic Association of Students that published it. (Bill Samii)

MAHDAVIYAT GROUP ANOTHER SCAPEGOAT. The Ministry of Intelligence and Security announced on 25 November that it had "crushed" the Mahdaviyat group and arrested all 34 members. The MOIS went on to say that the Mahdaviyat group had links with supporters in other countries, and the group was behind anti-Sunni violence in order to "sow religious discord." Conflicting statements from government officials make this MOIS report as hard to believe as all its other ones. The timing of this report, furthermore, indicates another cover-up and creation of a scapegoat.

The MOIS said targets of the group were President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, Expediency Council chairman Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and former Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi.

The MOIS also said Mahdaviyat tried to assassinate Tehran Province Justice Department chief Hojatoleslam Ali Razini in January, repeating an earlier statement (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 10 May 1999). Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mohammadi-Reyshahri, however, had said the Mehdi Hashemi gang was to blame (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 1 February 1999). Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai, on the other hand, said the Israelis were to blame (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 22 March 1999).

There has been speculation that the Hojjatiyeh Society was behind the Razini attack, although that had been rejected by the MOIS (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 26 April 1999). But be that as it may, there are many similarities between the Mahdaviyat group and the Hojjatiyeh Society, including the leadership. Hojjatiyeh leader Sheikh Mahmud Halabi had moved to Mashhad after the group was forced to disband in 1983, and now it turns out that he was a leader of the Mahdaviyat group. Mahdaviyat also was linked with a clergyman named Milani, the grandson of Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Hadi Milani.

While the MOIS claims that it has apprehended all the members of the Mahdaviyat group, the close connection with Hojjatiyeh suggests otherwise. This is because many members of the Hojjatiyeh Society were serving in the Iranian government. When the society was dissolved, its members were absorbed by the Islamic Coalition Association (Jamiyat-i Motalifih-yi Islami), and they continue to serve in their government posts. The 16 May "Khordad" suggested that Mahdaviyat members worked for state broadcasting, and there also have been allegations of links with the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps. (Bill Samii)

A YEAR LATER, NO ANSWERS TO SERIAL MURDERS. A year has passed since the brutal murder of Iranian dissidents Dariush and Parvaneh Foruhar, but the case does not seem any closer to being resolved. Conservative parliamentarian Hamid Reza Taraqi said, according to AFP on 25 November, that parliament will abandon its investigation. Taraqi said the Supreme National Security Council and an investigatory commission established by President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami were blocking the parliamentary investigation. Taraqi is not the only person who is dissatisfied with the course the case has taken.

A group calling itself the Devotees of Pure Mohammedan Islam of Mustafa Navvab delivered a letter about the murder investigations to "Khordad" newspaper on 22 November. The letter stated that MOIS official Said Emami, the main suspect in the case, was tortured before his death in June. The letter went on to say that Khatami knows about this. The president was urged to inform the public about the case, and if he does not do so, the Devotees of Pure Mohammedan Islam of Mustafa Navvab will publish the relevant documents on the Internet.

The next day, Ali Shakouri-Rad of the pro-Khatami Islamic Iran Participation Party explained that the commission's investigation was derailed because former commission member Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi was replaced by Hojatoleslam Mohammad Niazi, head of the Armed Forces Judicial Organization. Niazi is the same person who announced in June that Said Emami had confessed to everything and then committed suicide (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 28 June 1999). Yunesi is now Minister of Intelligence and Security.

Shakouri-Rad added, according to "Tehran Times," that the investigation is being delayed further because Hojatoleslam Ruhollah Husseinian--head of the Islamic Documents Center, member of the Special Court for the Clergy and the Press Court, and a former Intelligence Ministry official--and Intelligence Minister Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Fallahian-Khuzestani have not been interrogated. Former prosecutor Ayatollah Hussein Musavi-Tabrizi said he certainly would question Fallahian if he was investigating the series of murders, "Arya" reported on 23 November.

In an attempt to divert attention away from Husseinian, Fallahian, and their ilk, a new group has been identified: the Said Emami gang. The MOIS said the Devotees of Pure Mohammedan Islam of Mustafa Navvab were the "dregs" of this gang. Member of parliament Hojatoleslam Ali Movahedi-Savoji said that although he and the public expected an earlier resolution of the case, he honestly believed that Emami was the ringleader, "Iran-i Vij" reported on 22 November.

Others believe that Said Emami was effectively another victim in the series of murders and that he is being used as a scapegoat. Alireza Alavi-Tabar, a member of the Islamic Iran Participation Party, said Emami was a lower-ranking person, not the head of any gang, "Iran-i Vij" reported on 17 November. Journalist Ezzatollah Sahabi said numerous crimes are blamed on Emami so the trail dries up and investigations end, "Arya" reported on 21 November. This idea was echoed by Parastou Foruhar, daughter of murder victims Dariush and Parvaneh Foruhar, in an interview with the 21 November "Sobh-i Imruz."

This discussion revives questions about Husseinian, who made a speech last September in which he blamed Khatami allies, by name, for the series of murders (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 27 September 1999). Journalist Akbar Ganji said, according to the 21 November "Aftab-i Imruz," that Husseinian is covering for somebody else. Ganji suggested that Fallahian could provide the answers.

Another possibility is that Husseinian is covering for Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mohammadi-Reyshahri, for whom he worked in both the Special Court for the Clergy and in the MOIS. Fallahian is connected with Reyshahri in the same way. For that matter, current Intelligence Minister Yunesi has a similar background. The likelihood that any of these individuals will be questioned about the series of murders is very slim, because if they did speak, too many other people would likely be implicated. (Bill Samii)

JEWS WANT TO LEAVE IRAN. The case of 13 Iranian Jews charged with espionage was discussed by Revolutionary Court Judge Hojatoleslam Gholamhussein Rahbarpur during a question-and-answer session with students at Allameh Tabatabai University's College of Economics, "Sobh-i Imruz" reported on 23 November. He said that while the Judiciary does not act according to outside pressures, the Supreme National Security Council "may decide to free some convicted people tomorrow." Rahbarpur said this is legally permissible because the SNSC decides what is in the best interests of the country.

Some interpreted this statement as an indication that a compromise might be reached and some of the 13 might be released. In an interview with Iranian state broadcasting on 23 November, however, Rahbarpur rejected that possibility. He said the trial would be fair and the court will not submit to outside pressure.

The international community is also working quietly to secure the release of the 13. U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat, for example, said "Suffice it to say that there is a great deal going on behind the scenes, including if I may say with the French, and the Germans, and the British and others who have much closer ties to Iran than we do," Reuters reported on 1 November.

There are conflicting reports about the quality of life for Iran's 27,000 Jews, especially since the case of the alleged spies came to light. Farangis Hassidim, who runs Tehran's only Jewish hospital, said "Our position here is not as bad as people abroad may think," the "Christian Science Monitor" reported on 26 October. Manuchehr Eliasi, the Jewish representative to the Iranian parliament, presents a similar view. "From the beginning of the revolution, we have never had any problems with the revolutionary government. ...We are 100 percent free." He concluded, "The New York Times" reported on 16 October: "Jews have deep, deep roots in this country, and I am very sure that there will never be an Iran without Jews."

But in Shiraz, where the arrests occurred, a Jewish businessman told the "Christian Science Monitor," "It's getting bad for us here." Others complain about discrimination in employment and in getting travel documents. A wife of a rabbi said, "Every week you hear of another family going." A man outside a Tehran synagogue told "The New York Times" that he stayed in Iran even after the revolution because it has been home to his family for 2,500 years. But now, "because of Shiraz, I know I must take my family, and lock my house, and leave." (Bill Samii)

U.S. INTEREST IN DIPLOMATIC PRESENCE REJECTED. Addressing a gathering of staff and students at the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran on 22 November, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rejected the possibility of a U.S. diplomatic presence in Iran. Khamenei said that U.S. interests in Iran are served by Switzerland, but the U.S. is applying pressure to open an interests section in Iran. Iranian officials have rejected this proposal, Khamenei said, because: "[the Americans] want to open an intelligence-political site in Tehran to make contact with elements which have sold out--this is their aim."

U.S. National Security Adviser Samuel Berger denied making such a request of the Iranians, AFP reported on 23 November. But at the regular State Department briefing on 23 November, State Department spokesman James Rubin said "We think it's high time that Iran allowed U.S. officials the same privilege in their country. More specifically, we have long wanted U.S. consular officials to visit Iran to look into facilitating the issuance of visas for Iranians to travel to the United States and the assistance of American citizens wishing to travel to Iran. We have allowed Iranian officials to visit their Interest Section in Washington, for example. Unfortunately, the Iranian government has not been prepared to reciprocate."

U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright clarified the U.S. approach on 24 November. She said: "We are trying to figure out a way to build on the possibilities of a people-to-people program. There have been some Iranians that have come to the United States...And we wanted to be able to improve the ability of Americans to go to Iran, which is one reason that we had been talking about having some American consular officers visit there." She explained that the outcome of the February parliamentary election will be an indicator, saying "We're going to have elections in February in Iran, which we think will be very important and will, I think, give a signal as to the direction in which Iran wants to move."

Iranian state broadcasting noted Albright's comments but said on 25 November that "no change is observed in Washington's expansionist policies against Iran." It added that "the dispatch of consular officials to perform consular tasks without resolving the fundamental differences between the two countries would precisely revive the memory of performance by America's Tehran embassy, which was acting not as an embassy but as a center of espionage for America." It warned that "the repeat of conciliatory proposals by the American officials is not a sign of their goodwill." The commentary concluded that "America is pursuing a fully ad-hoc diplomacy vis-a-vis Iran because, on the one hand, America's diplomatic tools have lost their efficiency; and on the other hand, Washington lacks the courage to apologize to the noble nation of Iran and the Islamic Republic of Iran as the nation's representative."

Parliamentary Foreign Policy Commission member Mohammad Azimi of Torqabeh va Chenaran told the 27 November "Tehran Times" that, "As long as the U.S. continues its hostility, we cannot establish a positive political relation with this country." Ahmad Qazai-Niyari of Ardebil said that until U.S. policies towards Iran change it is up to Iran to decide on relations between the two countries. Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi told journalists on 28 November that Iranian-American ties "are not at a level" to justify the presence of U.S. consular officials. He said the large number of Iranians living in the U.S. demands heavier consular work in Washington.

Former Foreign Minister Ebrahim Yazdi, however, suggested that the establishment of a U.S. interests section in Tehran would be in Iran's best interest. Yazdi pointed out that Iranians who currently seek a U.S. visa must travel to a third country where a consulate is located, "Akhbar-i Eqtesad" reported on 27 November. Such trips, and the need to get hard currency on the black market, incur heavy costs. Yazdi also wondered why U.S. officials are not allowed to visit Iran, if Iranian officials are allowed to visit the U.S. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN TO AID CHECHEN REFUGEES. After meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi in Tehran on 28 November, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said the two sides had discussed the conflict in Chechnya. Ivanov said both countries regarded the issue as "purely internal, which Russia itself can and must solve," Interfax reported. Kharrazi told reporters that he "suggested that Iran lead an OIC [Organization of the Islamic Conference] delegation to Moscow to discuss the conflict."

Kharrazi also repeated his request that Iran be permitted to send humanitarian aid for Chechen refugees. Kharrazi made the same request when he met with Russian Premier Vladimir Putin in Dushanbe, the Islamic Republic News Agency reported on 23 November. At that time the Iranian government said the first shipment of humanitarian aid was scheduled to leave soon. But after the 28 November meeting, Kharrazi said "Mr. Ivanov has promised to bring up the issue at the (Russian) cabinet tomorrow."

So far, the official Iranian attitude towards the North Caucasus conflict has been muted. When civilians were targeted in a Russian attack on a convoy at the end of October, the Iranian Foreign Ministry confined itself to saying that force would only worsen the situation (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 15 November 1999). Asking Russia for permission to send aid is not a very tough message, either.

An editorial in the 16 November "Asr-i Azadegan" was very critical of Iranian policy towards the Chechen conflict. The daily said Iran's policy was "cold and indifferent." It noted that Muslim Chechens are wondering about the silence of their Iranian brothers and sisters. And the paper suggested that Iran's silence on a matter so close to home is odd, especially in comparison to its actions during the Bosnian conflict, which was farther away.

Delivering the 27 November Friday Prayer sermon in Qom, Ayatollah Ebrahim Amini-Najafabadi also voiced concern about the Muslim stand towards the North Caucasus. He said: "we are witnessing the onslaught of Moscow's Red Army on the Chechen Muslims. This is very distressing. Unfortunately, the Muslims are silent and the Organization of the Islamic Conference is not performing as it should." Iran currently leads the OIC. (Bill Samii)

SEEDS FROM ISRAEL, FLOUR TO PAKISTAN. Iran is about to close a deal with Israel for the purchase of seeds and machinery, according to the 22 November "Yediot Aharanot." An agreement in principle between Israeli businessmen and representatives of Iran's Ministry of Agriculture was reached during negotiations at Amman's Intercontinental Hotel on 31 October. The first stage covered Iran's purchase of seeds for cherry tomatoes, green peppers, and potatoes. Other aspects of the negotiations addressed the purchase of Israeli irrigation and fertilization systems, as well as creation of an agricultural desert farm.

"Yediot Aharanot" goes on to report that a German cut-out is being used so the Iranians can avoid the embarrassment of dealing with Israel. Revelations about six months ago that 16 Israeli agricultural advisers were in southeastern Iran led to the temporary suspension of contacts between the two countries.

Such steps may improve agricultural output, but the real problems Iranian farmers face are man-made and connected to the government. For years, Iranian farmers have been confronted with a lack of investment, mismanagement, and corruption. Problems peculiar to this year are a drought and wastage (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 1 November 1999). To meet the shortfall, Iran is buying wheat from other countries, such as Canada and France.

Iran purchased 500,000 tons of Western White Canadian milling wheat in the third week of November, Reuters reported on 22 November. Since 1 July, Iran has purchased from 1.2 million to 1.3 million tons of Canadian wheat. The Canadian Wheat Board financed the deal, but credit details are bound by confidentiality rules.

Iran bought a lot of French wheat this year, too. Iran's purchase of 1.1 million tons is four times higher than last year's, 100 times higher than in 1997, and is, in fact, the highest in 15 years, according to figures from the French National Inter-Professional Cereals Office (ONIC) and the International Cereals Council (CIC) cited in the 28 October "Le Figaro."

Iran's main suppliers so far have been Canada and France, but Australian and Argentinean wheat will be available soon. In fact, Argentina sold 120,000 tons of wheat from last year's harvest to Iran recently, Reuters reported on 22 October. Producers of secondary grains, such as barley, also sell to Iran. The ONIC believes Iran will import 2.2 million tons of secondary grains this year. The main sellers are in Europe, but Iran buys from Kazakhstan, too.

Chicago consulting firm AgResources believes that at the current pace, Iran might import up to 8.5 million tons of wheat in the period from June 1999 to June 2000, Dow Jones Commodities Service reported on 23 November. The International Grains Council believes Iran will import 5.5 million tons of wheat, although IGC spokesman Bill DeMaria hinted that this estimate may be revised upward. If Iran buys 8.5 million tons of wheat, it will surpass Egypt as the world's biggest wheat importer.

All the wheat Iran is purchasing will not go for domestic consumption. Iran has offered so much high-quality wheat flour to Pakistan that the south Asian state will be able to re-export some of it to Afghanistan at competitive prices. The Zahedan Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Baluchestan Chamber of Commerce have been discussing the deal, Pakistan's "Dawn News" reported on 13 November. (Bill Samii)