6 December 1999, Volume 2, Number 48
CONTINUING CRITICISM OF NURI CONVICTION. The 29 November sentencing of Hojatoleslam Abdullah Nuri to confinement in Evin prison continues to generate negative reactions in a wide variety of quarters. So too does the closure of his "Khordad" newspaper, while hardline publications are given very lenient sentences for similar offenses. Such events raise questions about the possible outcomes of next February's parliamentary elections.
A number of senior clerics have spoken out against Nuri's conviction. Grand Ayatollah Yusef Janati-Sanei of Qom, who is a Friday Prayer leader, a former prosecutor-general, former member of the Guardians Council, and who served in the Supreme Judicial Council, issued a statement that Nuri is a "committed scholar" whose conviction is a mistake. Referring to Nuri's extensive work with Father of the Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Sanei asked how the Imam himself would not have recognized Nuri's alleged faults, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported on 2 December. Ayatollah Abdol-Karim Musavi-Ardabili, who serves as a Friday Prayer leader in Tehran, is a member of the Assembly of Experts, and was a chief justice, said Nuri had the courage to say "what all of us want and demand," Reuters reported on 2 December.
Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, once designated as the successor to Khomeini, told Nuri's father that his son had done a great service to Islam, the clergy, and the Imam. Montazeri described the Special Court for the Clergy as unconstitutional and illegal, "Sobh-i Imruz" reported on 2 December. A group of Qom seminarians also issued a statement that was sharply critical of the Nuri conviction and of the Special Court for the Clergy.
Political groups also condemned the conviction. The Executives of Construction Party did so, as did the Islamic Iran Participation Party. The IIPP statement, according to the 29 November "Sobh-i Imruz," said "the people's sympathy with and support for the person who was convicted by the court undermined the credibility of the court itself. ...issuing such a verdict was tantamount to admitting defeat in the confrontation with [different] ideas."
Many outside observers have criticized the Nuri conviction. On 1 December, London's independent Saudi-owned "Al-Hayah" compared Iran's courts to those of Stalinist Russia. The Paris-based World Association of Newspapers condemned the Nuri jail sentence (as well as that of "Asr-i Azadegan" editor Mashallah Shamsolvaezin) in a letter sent to Khatami. In an open letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Human Rights Watch "express[ed] its condemnation" of Nuri's prison sentence. Amnesty International, in a 30 November statement, said it considered Nuri and Shamsolvaezin to be "prisoners of conscience."
Some members of the Iranian public also have expressed their unhappiness. An example of public sentiment was seen in the 1 December "Manateq-i Azad," which published callers' comments. One caller said about the conviction: "The enemies' plot will always backfire." Mohammadi from Tehran said Nuri's "determination and courage" are praiseworthy, while an anonymous caller said that "the nation regards him as an innocent man. Guilty are those who oppose reforms, freedom of speech and thought, compromise and tolerance." Dr. Javadi, after expressing support for Nuri and Khordad, criticized Khatami for "not budging" while his "friends" are "under pressure."
But not everybody is unhappy with Nuri's conviction. The hardline Ansar-i Hizbullah, in a statement reported in the 29 November "Kayhan," said: "The quality of Mr. Nuri's defense and his irrelevant and self-incriminating excuses in court have left no room for doubt in the minds of the public about his guilt." It continued: "the verdict of the Special Clerical court has mended the broken hearts of Hizbullahis and has been like a heavy blow to corrupt people, who thought that because of Nuri's fabrications the Imam's road has come to an end in Iran."
The closure of "Khordad," which was part of the sentence against Nuri, also is unpopular among certain groups. The IIPP said the Khordad closure will result in "the further blackening of the record of enemies of political development." Mohammad Hassan Ziaeifar, secretary of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, said the newspaper closures undermined Iran's image and the rights of the banned newspapers' readers, "Iran News" reported on 29 November. Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Ataollah Mohajerani said his ministry regrets the daily's closure. He added that the Special Court is not qualified to deal with press offenses.
What makes the "Khordad" closure seem particularly unreasonable is the mild treatment hardline newspapers get when they commit press offenses. Masud Dehnamaki of the banned weekly "Shalamcheh" was found guilty of insulting a source of emulation, but the jury recommended leniency. As it is, Dehnamaki now produces "Jebheh." Seyyed Mohammad Safizadeh, managing director of the hardline daily "Abrar" was acquitted of libel charges, but he was warned to "respect journalist ethics and the dignity of private and corporate individuals," state broadcasting reported on 29 November. And Press Court Judge Said Mortazavi said "Arya" and "Sobh-i Imruz," as well as the hardline "Kayhan," faced charges, according to Reuters on 5 December.
These developments have Iranian reformists concerned, but the outpouring of pro-Nuri sentiment has the hardliners concerned, too. On the day of Nuri's sentencing, many Law Enforcement Forces were stationed outside Tehran University, according to the "Tehran Times." Dozens of members of Islamic Association of University Students held a protest rally at Urumiyeh University, "Hamshahri" reported on 4 December. On 5 December, about 1,000 Iranian students held a rally at Tehran's Allameh Tabatabai University to protest Nuri's imprisonment.
The impact of these developments on the parliamentary election remains to be seen. Will hardliners and reformists settle on a compromise candidate for the parliamentary speakership, and does Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani fit such a description? Will the Guardians Council try to eliminate reformist candidates? Will public participation be high? (Bill Samii)
PROMISES OF JUSTICE. On 5 December, the Armed Forces Judicial Organization released its findings on the July attack against a Tehran University dormitory that marked the start of Iran's worst unrest in 20 years. The timing may be connected to the unhappiness many Iranians have expressed about the lack of transparency in the official investigation. So far, the slow pace of the investigation into the murders of dissidents and intellectuals last year also is upsetting many Iranians. Reformist Iranian newspapers have been critical of these delays and the lack of answers for quite a while. Now, cabinet members and parliamentarians are expressing their disgruntlement.
Referring to the university incident, Armed Forces Judicial Organization head Hojatoleslam Mohammad Niazi told a 29 November meeting of judicial officials that "50 people were questioned as suspected culprits or informed individuals, and the file is going through the final stages." Niazi added that a full report will be presented "within the next few days."
The next day, Niazi met with Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari, Minister of Culture and Higher Education Mustafa Moin, Minister of Intelligence and Security Ali Yunesi, and Minister of Health, Treatment, and Medical Education Mohammad Farhadi, as well the Supreme Leader's university representative, Hojatoleslam Mohsen Qomi. At this meeting, IRNA reported on 30 November, the officials expressed "their gratitude over the conduct of the affair so far." They also called for a "prompt, severe, and just encounter with those responsible" and urged that the outcome of the investigation be announced in the mass media. Niazi expressed the hope that when the investigation was completed "its details would be presented to the public."
What makes this odd is that President Mohammad Khatami had indicated his satisfaction with the Supreme National Security Council's report on the July unrest. The SNSC investigatory committee's findings, presented on 14 August, described the sequence of events and some of the causal factors. It said damage was caused by the Law Enforcement Forces, "officers in civilian clothes," and some students. "Unofficial civilian forces" -- presumably Ansar-i Hizbullah -- were involved in subsequent violence.
The 5 December findings of the Armed Forces Judicial Organization said the demonstrations spread due to officials' inappropriate actions, IRNA reported. Specifically, the Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) entered the university illegally and on the orders of the LEF commander, Brigadier General Farhad Nazari. A bill of indictment has been issued against four officers, seven non-commissioned officers, and nine regular LEF personnel, but because all the people involved have not been identified yet, the case is still open. So too is the investigation into the murder of Ezzatollah Ebrahimnejad, a guest at the dormitory.
Conservative parliamentarian Hojatoleslam Ali Movahedi-Savoji announced on 30 November that a parliamentary commission's investigation into last year's murders will start "next week," IRNA reported. Movahedi-Savoji said the 15-person team, under parliamentary statute, will have access to all relevant documents possessed by government agencies. He added that if the MOIS and the Armed Forces Judicial Organization do not cooperate, the investigatory commission will follow this up.
This rather obtuse last statement suggests that these two organizations are not obliged to share information in their possession. This is not the first suggestion that the parliamentary investigation into the murders has met roadblocks. Less than a week before Movahedi-Savoji's announcement, parliamentarian Hamid Reza Taraqi had said that the parliamentary investigation was being blocked by the SNSC and an investigatory commission established by Khatami (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 29 November 1999).
The Office for Strengthening Unity (Daftar-i Tahkim-i Vahdat), a pro-Khatami coalition of student groups, is tired of waiting for the completion of long-promised investigations. On 30 November, it showed a filmed speech by the main suspect in the case, the now-deceased MOIS official Said Emami. Although the 1996 speech revealed nothing about the murders, Emami did say that he was behind the creation of a television program called Hoviyat that was critical of intellectuals and dissidents. (Bill Samii)
NORTH CAUCASUS CRISIS WORRIES IRAN. As Russian forces bombarded Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, with rockets and artillery, Russian officials said they will use a more powerful type of explosive to attack combatants in the mountains, "The Washington Post" reported on 27 November. Military leaders added that the Kremlin is drafting a decree to station troops in Chechnya permanently. Such occurrences may have led to Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi's statement that the crisis in Chechnya is "worrying," IRNA reported on 1 December. Also, an Ilyushin-76 aircraft loaded with 40 tons of humanitarian aid from Iran landed at North Ossetia's Beslan airport, the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry press service told Interfax on 1 December. Kharrazi added that a delegation from the Organization for the Islamic Conference will visit Moscow on 6 December to study the issue and hold talks with Russian officials. This may seem a like a minor step, but the OIC, under Iranian leadership, was being criticized for its inaction. (Bill Samii)
IRAN AND THE WTO. Iran was not among the 135 countries which attended the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle. But despite that, Tehran appears increasingly aware of the benefits of the organization and interested in eventual membership.
Addressing the annual seminar on Economic Policies and International Trade, Commerce Minister Mohammad Shariatmadari said that should Iran join the WTO, "Iran's presence in international markets can (significantly) improve." He went on to say, the "Iran Daily" reported on 18 November, "Our exclusion in WTO is like staying outside the United Nations." Also, some of the problems described by Ali Naqi Khamoushi, president of Iran's Chamber of Commerce, Industries, and Mines, can be addressed by the WTO's training program for transition economies. In a 23 November interview with Reuters, Khamoushi said "We have to reconsider some of the regulations and past methods. We must reduce the volume of paperwork, try to shorten the process it takes to make investment in Iran." Khamoushi continued: "We have both good laws and cumbersome laws. Our problem is that they are not in tune. It takes much energy to get through the maze of paperwork."
Nor is Iran uninterested in WTO membership. Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, said, "We have also requested to become a WTO member. We hope to be accepted as a member of this major international organization in view of the support which has been offered by the current and the next chairman as well as by the current members of the WTO," state broadcasting reported on 11 November.
If Iran understands the benefits of WTO membership, and if it wants to be a WTO member, why has it been unable to join? Iranian opinion is divided on this point. On 2 December, the Commerce Ministry's Planning and Information Dissemination Deputy, Mohammad Nahavandian, said "certain countries" were keeping Iran's application for membership off the agenda. Nahavandian was more precise when he said "America is an obstacle in the way of our joining the WTO," according to the 7 July "Khordad." Commerce Minister Shariatmadari said, "So far America has prevented the 1375 [1996-97] letter of proposal by the Iranian ambassador in Geneva about Iran's participation in the organization from being debated," "Akhbar-i Eqtesad" reported on 2 November.
But such explanations were rejected by Ali Rashidi of Iran's Association of Economists in an interview with the 7 July "Khordad." He said: "America's opposition is not a key factor in preventing Iran from joining the WTO." Rashidi explained: "Admission of a new member requires the approval of two-thirds of the current members. America is only one member of the WTO and only has one vote. Unlike many other international organizations, there is no right of veto in the WTO."
There are government-imposed obstacles to Iran's membership in the WTO. Shariatmadari explained, according to the 2 November "Akhbar-i Eqtesad," that Tehran has not completed formulation of the protocols of association. Nor does it seem in a hurry to do so: "The more concessions we can extract from the WTO in the protocol we will certainly be in a better position to secure the country's interests." He added that Iran's institute for trade research is conducting 25 research projects to determine the potential impact of WTO membership on the Iranian economy.
Economic expert Mustafa Ansarizadeh described other state-imposed barriers to Iran's WTO membership in an interview with the 17 March issue of "Khorasan." "The interventionist and monopolist role of the government in the economy of the country, ... In addition, the support provided to the industrial sector in recent decades has not been given with a view to increasing export capacity, and these things form the main obstacle to Iran's membership in the WTO." He added that Iranian industries do not have a comparative advantage internationally, and the foreign currency requirements serve as a sort of tariff. Other problems relate to mobility of labor, insurance, banking, and customs regulations.
Moreover, there also are those in Iran who would lose their privileged economic status if Iran joined the WTO. When Iran applied for WTO membership in September 1996, the government stayed quiet about it. This was because although technocrats in the government, as well as a minority in the parliament, recognized the need to increase international trade, they faced considerable opposition. Ranged against these economic reformers were leftists who favored a state-run economy, conservative merchants, and hardline isolationists. The traditional merchants wanted to maintain import controls because they had favorable licensing arrangements and were well-connected -- Parliamentary speaker Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Nateq-Nuri is close to them, the "Financial Times" reported in October 1996.
An article in the 26 January "Sobh-i Imruz" said the hidden hand in Iran is not the one Adam Smith had in mind. Discussions with economists and executives in sugar, textile, tire, and vegetable oil industries led to the conclusion that the hidden hand in Iran is against opening up the economy. Al-Zahra University Professor Iraj Tutunchian, for example, said individuals connected with "the holders of power and influential men" control state monopolies. Professor Fariborz Raisdana added that 90 percent of the importers are related to state officials.
It would seem, therefore, that the main obstacles to Iran's WTO membership are self-imposed. If Iran does not overcome these problems, it could have a serious impact on the country's economic survival in both the short- and the long-term. "Should we lose our chance of becoming a WTO member, there is no guarantee for us to attain the $41 billion export revenues from the non-oil goods in the Third Economic Plan," read an editorial in the 22 November "Iran News."
Mohammad Hussein Mahdavi of the Scientific Board of the Faculty of Administrative Sciences and Economics of Ferdowsi University in Mashhad explained the longer-term impact, according to "Khorasan." He said: "The founding countries set up the process of joining the World Trade Organization in such a way that not joining the organization in the coming years will result, in practice, in countries becoming isolated, and experiencing numerous trade problems." (Bill Samii)
AN EMPTY GESTURE. In what is probably another attempt to counter the Iranian brain-drain and to lure back the billions of dollars in assets that the Iranian diaspora allegedly holds, a draft law granting amnesty to exiled dissidents was proposed in Iran's parliament at the end of November. Under this bill, Iranians abroad can return without fear of prosecution unless they have engaged in terrorism or murder.
As it is, Iranians continue to try to leave the country, legally if they can, illegally if they must. Roughly 300 Iranians were apprehended in Turkey's Edirne Province between 6 and 22 October as they entered the country illegally, according to reports from Ankara's semi-official Anatolia news agency. At least another 40 were arrested there in September. Russian border guards arrested six Iranians who were trying to get to Japan on a freighter, ITAR-TASS reported on 1 October. The Russian authorities said the six were part of a much larger group and they had arrested another three Iranians the week before.
A group of 21 foreigners, including some Iranians, visited the Japanese Justice ministry to request special permits to stay in Japan, Tokyo's Kyodo news service reported on 18 October. They said they felt established in Japanese society, some of their children spoke only Japanese, and they feared deportation. Also, Saeed Abedi, who came to Japan seven years ago on a tourist visa and has been living there illegally, was arrested recently. Abedi appeared on a Japanese TV program called "Strange Habits of Japanese People," "Iran Daily" reported on 11 November.
Soheila Jahanbakhsh, Kermanshah city council head, is seeking asylum in Sweden, "Kayhan" reported on 8 November. At the end of September, Faramarz Sahand was detained in the Istanbul airport for entering the country illegally. He claimed that if he returned he feared execution because he worked for the banned "Neshat" newspaper, "Akhbar-i Eqtesad" reported. Thirteen Iranians, including four children, were captured as they arrived in Croatia illegally, Zagreb's official HINA press agency reported on 13 September. They were trying to get to Great Britain via Slovenia.
But according to the 30 November "Tehran Times," "In many cases, [Iranians abroad] are desperate and want to come back to their homeland." Then the daily gets to the point: "a good number of Iranians living abroad are ready to come along with their capital to invest in their country. ...These Iranians not only have capital, but also all the necessary technical know-how that can change the economic face of Iran."
Iran's "economic face" is not a pretty sight, according to the "2000 Index of Economic Freedom," which is co-published by "The Wall Street Journal" and the Heritage Foundation. Every year countries' economies are ranked according to 50 economic variables in 10 broad categories. This year Iran is ranked number 154 -- in the "repressed" category.
The "Index of Economic Freedom" notes in Iran a very high level of protectionism in trade policy, with tariffs that can exceed 100 percent; very high tax rates and government expenditures; and a very high level of inflation. There are very high barriers to capital flows and foreign investment; a highly restricted banking system that is government-owned; and a high level of intervention in wages and prices. In terms of property rights, there is a very low level of protection, with the government confiscating private property and the judiciary not enforcing existing laws. There is also a high level of government regulation and a very active black market, especially in smuggled goods. (Bill Samii)