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Iran Report: December 27, 1999

27 December 1999, Volume 2, Number 51

SYRIA AND ISRAEL, LEBANON AND IRAN. The resumption of peace talks between Syria and Israel after an almost four-year break has focused attention on Iran's reaction. Tehran has indicated acceptance of return of the Golan Heights to Syrian control, while stating outright its continued hostility to Israel. This may be translated into continued support for Hizballah or other Lebanese organizations in their conflict with Israel. Concern about this and about continued Iranian hostility to the Middle East Peace Process has led to speculation that Israel and the U.S. may improve their relations with Iran.

The initial Iranian reaction, initially, was skeptical. State broadcasting said on 9 December that "by resuming talks with Syria, the Zionist regime is trying to overshadow its negotiations with the Palestinian Authority." The broadcast went on to say that linkages with control of water resources and the Israeli presence in south Lebanon will make it difficult to reach an agreement.

By 20 December, however, the Iranian approach had changed. While Iran now considered the return of the Golan Heights to Syrian acceptable, it ruled out any talks with or any other recognition of Israel. State broadcasting went on to say that Iran supports the return of any territory to Islamic control. A later televised statement by Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said that return of the Golan Heights is acceptable, although there are "still contradictions in the Middle East Peace Process." Talking to reporters, Assefi referred to the return of the Golan Heights to Syria, which had lost them in 1967, as a "liberation," according to a 20 December Islamic Republic News Agency report. The official Syrian radio station noted, on 21 December, that "Iran said it supports Syria's position."

But what will become of Hizballah, which some observers believe is an Iranian creation that owes its continued existence to Iranian and Syrian support? Hizballah Secretary General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, in an interview with the 16-22 December edition of Cairo's "Al-Ahram" weekly, said that "any political gains made by Syria, Lebanon, or the Palestinian people are the result of our resistance."

Nasrallah defined Hizballah's objectives in a comparison with Lebanon's, which state that an Israeli withdrawal to the international border "is insufficient." Lebanon also wants an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, repatriation of all Palestinian refugees, and a return of all Lebanese territory occupied before and after 1949. Nasrallah said: "Hizballah's position is that peace in the region will not be achieved by withdrawal from one piece of land 'here and there.' Rather, the problem in this region is the Zionist entity and its aspirations for regional domination. � The existence of an entity with such goals precludes the achievement of peace."

Turning to the Iranian role, Nasrallah pointed out that Iranian support has remained consistent and constant, while Arab states were unhelpful. Iran's help, furthermore, was unqualified and based on its beliefs: "Iran's support for the resistance in Lebanon and for the Arab stand against the Zionist project is at the expense of its own interests." Nasrallah said that the provision of Iranian arms to a "movement fighting for liberating its land" should not be condemned, but he rejected reports that Iran is supplying long-range Katyusha rockets to use against Israel (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 13 December 1999).

Sheikh Muhammad Yazbik, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's representative in Lebanon and also a Hizballah official, said that "We will continue to hold arms and confront the enemy until it leaves our land in humiliation." Hinting at the impact of Syrian-Israeli negotiations, he said, according to Baalbek's Voice of the Oppressed radio: "We will not accept any recommendation from here or there, nor will we accept the negotiations to be based on end to the resistance."

An unnamed U.S. official said he expects Iran to instruct Hizballah to lay low temporarily, but Tehran will reactivate Hizballah after a peace agreement is signed, "The Jerusalem Post" reported on 21 December. The official added that Hizballah may engage in more discreet cross-border infiltrations, rather than an open bombardment of northern Israel. Israeli Defense Forces speculate that Hizballah may lay low, "Haaretz" reported on 14 December, but it and Iran will continue operations through "dormant organizations." They could unite Shia and Christians or work through Palestinian groups. Furthermore, recent attacks have shown a high degree of Amal involvement. Israeli Chief of General Staff Lieutenant General Shaul Mofaz said Iran sees an Israel-Syria peace as a threat, so it will "back and finance a rejectionist stream.," "The Jerusalem Post" reported on 15 December.

Hizballah Deputy Secretary General Sheikh Naim Qasim refused to say whether a Syrian-Israeli agreement would make Hizballah more reliant on Iran. He did say, however, that relations with Iran "will have continuity," Radio Monte Carlo reported on 11 December.

Concern about Hizballah's objectives has led to American attempts to improve relations with Iran, according to "The Jerusalem Post." Nasrallah said as much in his interview with "Al-Ahram." "The Americans have made offers to Iran, through various channels, regarding two matters. Firstly, the Americans asked that Iran remain silent vis-a-vis the settlement process, not that it was asked to support this process, but that it not reject it or speak out against it. Secondly, they asked Iran to end its support for resistance movements in the region. In return, the economic and political embargo the United States is imposing on it would be lifted and its isolation ended; many countries, which cannot move without a green light from the United States, would also start normalizing their relations with Iran."

Israeli officials also are keen to improve relations with Iran, believing that such a step is instrumental in achieving security objectives. After completing negotiations with Syria, Tel Aviv's "Haaretz" reported on 14 December, Ehud Barak and former Israeli Army Intelligence chief General Uri Sagi believe "a thaw in relations with Iran will further improve Israel's strategic position." (Bill Samii)

IRANIANS OUT OF COLOMBIA. The Iranian embassy in Bogota announced on 22 December that Tehran has suspended construction of a meat-packing plant and slaughterhouse in Colombia's Demilitarized Zone, according to Spain's official EFE press agency. The embassy explained what is behind this decision: "incorrect interpretations of some authorities of the Government of Colombia" which "have created conditions in which there could not be any guarantees for the security of the investment." The Iranian Embassy would not be more specific about these "incorrect interpretations."

Colombian Defense Minister Luis Fernando Ramirez had expressed concern at the end of November that Iranian military advisers were part of the group installing the slaughterhouse, and these Iranians were somehow connected with the leftist and anti-U.S. Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which controls the DMZ. The Iranians' refusal to permit inspection of their personal effects had raised suspicions among Colombian authorities, AFP reported on 27 November. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi had dismissed Ramirez's comments, IRNA reported on 30 November.

An Iranian delegation first visited the area in June 1999, and an agreement was signed between the local government and the Islamic Republic on 21 October. This promptly raised suspicions. Jorge Visbal, head of the Colombian National Cattlemen's Association, said building such a high-capacity facility in an area that cannot fulfill export requirements does not make sense, Santa Fe de Bogota's "Semana" reported on 8 November. Most of Colombia's beef production occurs on the other side of the Andes Mountains.

Visbal also wondered why there was such a rush to conclude an agreement, when other negotiations had lasted for two years. According to Ambassador Hussein Sheikh Zein-ed-Din, that area was chosen because Iran wants to contribute to the Colombian peace process.

Iranian interest in that immediate region may be linked with the narcotics trade and the FARC. The FARC has extensive ties to narcotics traffickers, "principally through the provision of armed protection for coca and poppy cultivation and narcotics production facilities, as well as through attacks on government narcotics eradication efforts," according to the U.S. State Department's "Patterns of Global Terrorism." There also may a connection between the FARC and Hizballah groups that allegedly operate in the region between Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.

The timing of the Iranian announcement that it is withdrawing from the Colombian meat-packing project is suspicious. On 22 December, the same day that Iran said it was pulling out of the project, security officials in Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina were visiting people they believe are linked with Hizballah and Hamas. The authorities suspected that terrorist acts were planned in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay; Foz de Yguazu, Brazil; and Puerto Yguazu, Argentina; according to Asuncion's ABC Color. Among the people the authorities visited was a suspected member of Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security. (Bill Samii)

IRAN'S MISSILE AMBITIONS. Iran's ambition to develop an independent missile capability is beyond question, but the strategic aspirations behind that goal remain open to various interpretations. Islamic Revolution Guard Corps commander Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi announced in mid-November that Iran is a major regional ballistic missile power.

Assessing Iran's desire to develop a short- and medium-range missile ability, Shahram Chubin, Director of Research at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, told RFE/RL's Persian Service on 29 September: "I think that the Iranians believe that missiles are a good substitute for warplanes." This belief emerged during the 1980s, when spare parts for aircraft were hard to get. Furthermore, there is no need to train pilots. Iran has used missiles only against Iraq, although relations with its immediate neighbors are occasionally tense. Developing long-range missiles creates strategic problems, however, particularly when Iranian officials say their target is Israel, Chubin continued. There also are concerns about the type of warhead Iran would use.

Recent reports indicate that Iran will buy its first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), the Taepo Dong, from North Korea. The Taepo Dong I was tested in July1998 and is estimated to have a range of 4,000-6,000 kilometers. Development of the Taepo Dong II was postponed in exchange for U.S. aid, but the missile's range is estimated at 10,000 kilometers. Iran's Shihab 3 missile is modeled on the North Korean No Dong missile and has a range of about 1,300 kilometers.

Estimates of how long it will take for Iran to develop its own ICBM vary. Some analysts think the first flight test of an Iranian ICBM is likely to occur before 2010, while others think there is a less than 50 percent chance of a flight test before 2015. Assistance from Russia or North Korea may accelerate this schedule. Also, it is believed that Iran is targeting U.S. missile information.

The missile only needs to be tested once, and a simple deployment plan employed, thereby decreasing the time it takes for the missile to be militarily significant. What is of particular significance is not the missile's actual ability, but its ability to deter and constrain other countries.

Nor are Iranian missiles intended only as a deterrent. They also are being exported to other countries. Unnamed White House officials said that Iran sold Scud B and C missiles to the Democratic Republic of Congo in October, the "Washington Times" reported on 22 November. Didier Mumengi, Congolese Minister of Information, said his government was "scandalized" and indignant at this "misinformation campaign," according to Kinshasa state radio on 23 November. An unidentified official from the Iranian Embassy in Pretoria also rejected reports of missile sales, according to the 27 November "Tehran Times." Denials aside, Iranian arms sales to the DRC and other African states are a matter of record. For example, Iran, Russia, and China were involved in deal to provide the DRC and Zimbabwe with helicopters, tanks, and "an assortment of guns and bombs," Harare's "The Financial Gazette" reported on 25 November. (Bill Samii)

IS AN ANTI-CORRUPTION CAMPAIGN UNDERWAY? Recent reports about official involvement in the commercial sector and about several arrests in fraud cases indicate the extent of state-condoned corruption. These reports also may indicate that the state is trying to crackdown on such corruption. Iranian history suggests that such anti-corruption campaigns have little real impact. Even more to the point, there is little reason to believe that the Iranian government is serious about ending corruption.

Vice-President for Plan and Budget Mohammad Ali Najafi said that all the commercial activities of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security had been closed two months earlier (October), Iranian newspapers reported on 19 December. The most likely reason for the MOIS to create such enterprises is to serve as fronts for placing agents with unofficial cover. These fronts also can be used to acquire products that will be used in the military or the energy sector. Finally, these fronts can be used to supplement the incomes of MOIS officials.

Also on 19 December, the MOIS announced that it had arrested employees of the Maskan and Mellat banks on charges of embezzlement and fraud. According to a report in "Iran Daily," the case involved bribes worth billions of rials and the illegal sale of foreign exchange certificates.

The previous week, Mehdi Assali of the Plan and Budget Organization (PBO) said that there is no information on how foreign loans received in recent years were spent, according to a 21 December "Iran News" editorial. Najafi of the PBO tried to assuage concern about this point by saying that his organization had the details on 60-70 percent of the loans, and the rest of the information was in different banks.

The Tehran Prosecutor's Office issued a statement on 12 December that the managing director of Arj, a state enterprise that builds domestic central heating equipment, was jailed for embezzlement. According to a state television report, the unnamed official and board members had taken millions of dollars worth of bribes.

Such reports, coming so close together, suggest that an (unannounced) anti-corruption campaign is underway. The average Iranian citizen would undoubtedly welcome such a long-overdue step. But Iran's history suggests that this anti-corruption campaign, if indeed there is one, will not amount to much.

In October 1958 the Imperial Inspectorate Organization (Bazrasi-i Shahanshahi) was created in the wake of numerous corruption scandals and on the heels of a proposal that government officials could not engage in commercial activities. Originally formed as a complaints bureau in the Imperial Court, the IIO was to investigate public complaints against military personnel, civilian government officials, and judges. Less than a year after its creation, the IIO claimed to have received and investigated 39,000 complaints about various Iranian bureaucrats, although the Iranian public believed that only minor officials would actually be affected. The IIO was shut down in 1962, but it was resurrected in 1968 to adjudicate citizens' complaints against the government and conduct investigations The IIO's actual efficacy, however, was questionable, witness the fact that in March 1976 - March 1977 less than 12% of the cases it investigated actually resulted in recommendations for correction.

The Imperial Commission, which had similar functions, was created in November 1975. It was tasked with assessing government performance in several areas. The Commission was, in fact, several committees and inspection teams which oversaw government spending and tried to eliminate waste and corruption.

The work of the IIO and the Imperial Commission resulted in televised hearings. But as the public suspected, only some middle-level merchants were prosecuted, rather than the high-ranking officials who participated in much more substantial deals. Anti-corruption efforts, furthermore, can be turned around and used against rivals.

The case of the Arj officials may be a case in point. The Arj officials are in jail because they refused to enter an imposed relationship with government-connected firms or individuals, Paris-based journalist Safa Haeri wrote in a 23 December "Iran Press Service" article. Similar incidents occurred under the previous regime.

Finally, there is little reason believe that the government is serious about ending corruption. As Harvard University Professor Samuel Huntington noted in his 1968 study, "Political Order in Changing Societies," "He who corrupts a system's police officers is more likely to identify with the system than he who storms the system's police stations." (Bill Samii)

UNITY IN TABRIZ. During the 17 October Friday Prayer sermon, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said: "[Iran] comprises many diversities, it has diverse geographical locations and we speak different languages. Despite all the differences, the noble nation of Iran has maintained its cohesive unity before and after the revolution." Khamenei added: "The noble nation gives priority to unity over factors which might divide it." This emphasis on "unity" over geographical and linguistic diversity may explain recent reports from Tabriz.

Tabriz-based academic Mahmoud Ali Chehragani (Johragani), who advocates Azerbaijani national rights, told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service that on 16 December he was on his way to the Tabriz election headquarters to register as a candidate for February's parliamentary election when he was arrested by local Ministry of Intelligence and Security officials. Chehragani said he was interrogated and held until after the deadline for registration had passed. Chehragani added that while being held by the MOIS he was told "you talk too much to foreign countries." Azerbaijan's "Yeni Musavat" daily and Turan news agency carried reports about Chehragani's detention on 18 December.

While conducting a class on 18 December, Chehragani suffered a stroke and was rushed to the Imam Khomeini Hospital. He told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service that he now is paralyzed on the left side of his body. Asked if his stroke was brought on by his interrogation, Chehragani said: "this time I was not beaten."

A letter sent to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan by Alireza Asgharzadeh and B.M. Saleh, the editors-in-chief of the journals " Qurtulush" and of "Ildirim," respectively, notes that Chehragani's problems with the authorities date from the run-up to the 1996 parliamentary election. At that time, according to the letter, Chehragani won a seat but was not allowed to take his place in the parliament. 600 of his supporters were arrested in Tabriz in April 1996, and a month later, five of them were executed. Since then, "Chehragani has been summoned and interrogated on a regular basis." "As a result of frequent arrests and physical abuses," the letter continues, "Dr. Chehragani is now partially paralyzed; he has also lost the sight of his right eye."

The prevention of Chehragani's registration can be likened to the imprisonment of Hojatoleslam Abdullah Nuri, the sentencing of Hojatoleslam Mohammad Asqar Musavi-Khoeniha, and the strengthening of the Guardians Council's power to approve candidates for office as indicators of hardline efforts to block reformist candidates from participating in the election. It is unlikely that Chehragani's case will as much impact in the rest of Iran.

It is having an impact in Tabriz, however. The National Liberation Movement of Southern Azerbaijan reported that 70 percent of the Tabriz population "has stood up" for Chehragani, Baku's ANS television reported on 25 December. As a result, an "unofficial state of emergency" has been imposed and entry and exit from Tabriz is being controlled.

Chehragani and nationality issues are still important in the Republic of Azerbaijan, too. On 21 December, Baryshmaz Jalaloglu of the National Liberation Movement of Southern Azerbaijan attempted to commit an act of self-immolation in front of the Iranian Embassy in Baku. Jalaloglu and NLMSA leader Piruz Dilenchi were detained by police, while picketers carried signs saying "Down With Farsi Chauvinism" and "Long Live Mahmoud Ali Chehragani," Turan news agency reported. (Bill Samii)