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Iran Report: November 9, 1998

9 November 1998, Volume 1, Number 1

You have before you the first issue of the RFE/RL Iran Report. Prepared on the basis of materials gathered for and by RFE/RL's new Farsi Service, this report -- which will appear every two weeks -- will seek to provide an analytic perspective on events and trends inside Iran and across the Persian Gulf region. We look forward to hearing from you.

RFE/RL�s Farsi Service Begins Broadcasting to Iran. In launching the RFE/RL Farsi Service on 30 October, Thomas Dine, the president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Inc., said that its goal "is to provide balanced, factual information of interest to the Iranian people. This will be news and information about what is taking place within Iranian society as well as the areas around Iran, and international news that affects all of us." Dine indicated that the new service would feature "a variety of opinions -- government, non-government, opposition, academic."

Dine stressed that the new service "will not be the voice of any government. We do not broadcast propaganda now to the many countries of Central-Eastern Europe and Eurasia. We're only trying to provide news and information, so that citizens can have the wherewithal, the tools, to make their own decisions." And he indicated that he welcomed the calls by some Iranians for a dialogue.

The RFE/RL president concluded by saying that he hoped the service would be judged not on the basis of charges made by others but rather on the basis of what it will be doing every day.

Iran Reacts to the Beginning of RFE/RL's Farsi Service Broadcasts. Three days after Radio Free Europe�s first Farsi broadcast, Tehran withdrew its ambassador, Sayyid Jafar Hashemi, from the Czech Republic's capital. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mahmoud Mohammadi said: "finally the satanic voice went on antenna through cooperation of Czech officials. ... In a reaction to such interference in the domestic affairs of Iran, Tehran has decided to reduce the level of its economic and political cooperation with Prague."

This is not the first time that Iran has reacted in this way to a development abroad that it does not like.

Over the past decade, Iranian ambassadors have been recalled at least 30 times by Tehran to express its unhappiness with decisions by other governments. In two cases, there was a mass recall from European capitals in reaction to Europeans� withdrawal of their ambassadors in Tehran. All incidents were accompanied with threats of economic retaliation, but these incidents were not accompanied by violence.

Most recently, several Iranian diplomats in Islamabad and their dependents returned to Iran in October 1998 to protest attacks on Iranian embassy officers there and Pakistan's support for the Taliban. But Tehran's ambassador remained in place.

In April 1997, the Iranian government recalled its ambassadors in Europe after the European Union pulled its emissaries from Iran and announced the end of the "critical dialogue" policy of engagement. Australia, Canada and New Zealand also were recalled. These events occurred after a Berlin court indicted top Iranian leaders of sponsoring the assassination of four Kurdish opposition figures in Berlin's Mykonos restaurant in 1992. The ambassadors returned to Iran in November 1997. New Zealand�s ambassador, however, returned to Tehran much sooner, in response to the Iranian government�s announcement that it would stop purchasing meat, butter and wool from New Zealand.

In February 1997, Iran pulled its ambassador from Turkey after Turkish officials criticized his advocacy of Islamic rule in Turkey during an Ankara rally. The two countries again exchanged ambassadors in March 1998.

In June 1996 Iran recalled its ambassador from Bahrain, which had called home its ambassador after accusing Iran of trying to topple Bahrain's ruling family. Ambassadorial level contacts were restored in 1998.

In January 1995, Iran recalled its ambassador in Oslo because he had implied in a letter to Norway's Foreign Ministry that Iran would be flexible on the Rushdie death sentence. In July Norway said it was withdrawing its ambassador from Tehran because Iran refused to denounce the fatwa on that subject. Oslo also said it would oppose the allocation of new World Bank loans to Iran and Iranian membership in the Asian Development Bank.

In July 1994, Iran recalled its ambassador to Buenos Aires for consultations to protest what Tehran called "baseless allegations and propaganda" linking Iran to the bombing of a Jewish cultural center there in which about 90 people were killed. Argentina had summoned the Iranian ambassador to request his cooperation in the investigation. An Argentinean judge accused the Iranian charge d'affaires of organizing terrorist cells in Argentina, but the Argentinean authorities later acknowledged that their only source for such charges was the testimony of an unreliable Iranian defector.

In February 1989, the Iranian Parliament voted to break ties with Britain unless it reconsidered its "unprincipled position against the world of Islam,� referring to the Rushdie fatwa. In March 1989, 12 members of the European Economic Community broke diplomatic ties with Iran.

In July 1987 France broke diplomatic relations with Iran. The French Embassy in Iran was surrounded by government forces in reaction to a similar action in Paris. The crisis was triggered when Iran refused to let French authorities question an embassy interpreter, Wahid Gordji, about bombings in Paris that killed 13 people. The official took refuge in the Paris embassy, prompting the French blockade. Iran said the French actions were a violation of diplomatic norms.

An Iranian opposition group claimed that Iran�s ambassador to Kenya was recalled to Tehran in July 1998 shortly before the bombing of the U.S. embassy there. In fact, the ambassador returned to Kenya and cooperated with the investigation of an incident which was later traced to Osama bin Laden.

These cases indicate the usual course of events when Iran withdraws an ambassador. There are threats of economic retaliation, sometimes accompanied by threats of more drastic actions. But in the end, the issues usually resolve themselves.

Whatever Became of the Iran-Afghanistan War? The level and tone of rhetoric between the Iranian and Afghan Taliban leaderships during the last several months had led many to believe that a war between the two countries was imminent. But despite much saber-rattling and provocations that some might consider a legitimate casus belli, no military conflict has begun.

There may be several reasons for this. First of all, Iran may be waiting to see how the efforts of other countries and international organizations to resolve or at least contain the Afghan problem, thereby fullfilling the role of a responsible international actor and regional leader. Second, Iran may be showing restraint to gain diplomatic advantage or even theological advantage within the world's Shia communities. And third, the Iranian government may not believe that its own population has much enthusiasm for a new war, especially given the still vivid memories of the long conflict with Iraq.

Nonetheless, the problems that many had suggested pointed toward war remain largely in place.

Relations between Iran and Afghanistan have been poor since the Taliban took power in Kabul. The Iranian government is aiding the Northern Alliance and the Shia Hizb-i Wahdat which oppose the Taliban. Aid from Iran reportedly consists of military instructors as well as weapons. More than one million Afghan refugees are in Iran. And exiled Afghan leaders often travel to Iran.

But the current crisis between the two countries started in early August, when Iran accused the Taliban of taking as hostages ten Iranian diplomats and one journalist in Mazar-i Sharif, and when Tehran expressed its concern about the more than 35 Iranian truck drivers being held by Afghans.

After initially denying any knowledge about the whereabouts of the diplomats, the Taliban in September admitted that what it called rogue elements had in fact killed them. But the Taliban refused to apologize, rejected requests for the extradition of those responsible, and accused the dead Iranians of having been intelligence officers. Meanwhile, various international organizations reported that the Taliban were engaging in "ethnic cleansing" of Afghanistan's Shia. Exacerbating the situation still further were reports that groups opposed to the Iranian government were operating out of Afghanistan. According to the Iranian newspaper Farda, for example, "guerrillas had infiltrated Iran from Afghanistan in order to wage subversive operations."

The Iranian public and the Iranian government were outraged by these developments: there were massive demonstrations, and many members of the leadership demanded action. One of the few voices calling for moderation was Minister of Intelligence and Security Qorbanali Dori-Najafabadi: "... we should be cautious and not get involved in an unwanted war." But despite his remarks, the statements of others made it appear that a conflict was virtually inevitable -- all the more so since these events took place in the run-up to Iran's Sacred Defense Week, which commemorates sacrifices made during the Iran-Iraq War.

In early September, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) began the Ashura-3 exercises along the eastern border with 70,000 troops. When the exercises concluded, these troops stayed behind. With the arrival of other troops for new exercises (Zulfaqar-2), Iranian sources suggested that there were approximately 270,000 Iranian soldiers near the border, although U.S. Assistant Secretary for South Asian Affairs Karl Inderfurth told Congress on October 8 that �the number of Iranian soldiers appears to be far less than that.� Meanwhile, Iranian naval forces increased their activities in the Persian Gulf and in a cluster of small lakes between Afghanistan and the Iranian province of Sistan, known collectively as Lake Hamun.

On October 8, the situation appeared to deteriorate toward war. Iranian news outlets reported that Taliban forces had attacked an IRGC post in Khorasan province but had been beaten back. A Taliban spokesman said the Iranian reports were "totally baseless."

But the threat of a new war caused the international community to focus its attention on the region. Representatives from Iran, China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, and China -- the Six Plus Two group -- had met in New York already on 22 September, during the UN General Assembly session. According to Secretary General Kofi Annan, this meeting was intended to send a message about the world's determination "to take action to bring peace to Afghanistan and the entire region." He indicated that it also reflected a desire to tell the Taliban "what the international community expect of them by way of minimum standards of behavior.�

As a result of these sessions, Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN's special envoy to Afghanistan, met with President Mohammad Khatami in Tehran. He also traveled to Afghanistan to meet with Taliban officials after guarantees for his safety were made. Concerned parties were urged to comply with UN Security Council Resolution 1193, which called for a peaceful settlement and an immediate end to all fighting. The resolution also called for the immediate cessation of "outside interference," including military training and arms supplies. The capture of the Iranian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif was condemned and the safe return of the diplomats was demanded.

By mid-October, Brahimi�s shuttle diplomacy appeared to be yielding results, as the Taliban released groups of imprisoned Iranians. But the Iranian government has refused to meet with its Taliban counterparts until the killers of the Iranian diplomats have been punished.

By early November, Iran�s patience appeared to be wearing thin, and the Zulfaqar-2 war games were initiated. But there are several reasons to believe that Iran may not move beyond such actions anytime soon.

Iranian President Khatami clearly wants Iran to be perceived as a responsible international actor on this and other issues. When he addressed the United Nations in September, he indicated that his country would seek a diplomatic solution because it realized that there was no �military solution.� Khatami later said that war is not the �primary solution� to the problem, an apparent reflection of both the difficulties of any Afghan campaign and the war-weariness of the Iranian population itself.

In addition and because it is now chairman of the Organization of Islamic Countries, Iran clearly wants to play the role of leader and defender of all Muslims. Numerous Iranian leaders, such as the president and the Rahbar, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have said that the Taliban are giving Islam a bad name. Nonetheless, when U.S. missiles struck Afghanistan in July, Iran�s leadership condemned the U.S. At the same time, the Iranian leaders are clearly concerned about how they look in an ongoing debate within Shia Islam. At present, some Shia look to Qum, others to Najaf, and still others to Lebanon for their sources of emulation. And by avoiding an open conflict, Tehran may hope to reassert its place as primus inter parest among the umma.

Finally, regional states have taken steps to prevent the conflict from escalating. In mid-October, for example, Kyrgyz officials stopped an Iranian arms shipment from reaching the Northern Alliance. The normal route through Dushanbe was blocked by Tajik authorities, and supposedly Uzbek officials retained part of the shipment.

This is not to say that Iran is completely committed to avoiding the use of force. Supplying the Northern Alliance suggests that at least some in Tehran continue to see the application of military force as a viable option. And a report in the 24 October issue of Al-Hayah states that Iran has recruited 30,000 former Afghan Communists living in Iran and Central Asia, possibly in an effort to form a new Taliban-like group.

A Defining Election in Iran? The 23 October election of the third Assembly of Experts, the 86-member, supra-governmental body with the power to appoint and dismiss the country's supreme religio-political figure, the Rahbar -- currently Ayatalloh Ali Khamenei -- may prove to be a defining vote on the future of the country.

There are at least three reasons for this conclusion. First, the way in which the candidates for the election were chosen highlights the willingness of the supporters of Khamenei to violate their own rules to guarantee their own success, a pattern likely to undercut their authority with the population. Second, the turnout for the election, down significantly from earlier votes, suggests that the population is ever less concerned about and attentive to the Assembly, a development that may also undercut both its authority and its ability to impose its will. And third, the outcome of the vote points to ever greater friction between the forces loyal to Khamenei and those backing President Khatami.

The way in which candidates were screened highlights the willingness and ability of those opposed to any moderation to manipulate the process. According to the existing regulations, the Council of Guardians has the right to determine who is eligible to run for this office. In the past, potential candidates had to demonstrate ijtihad, the highest form of Islamic learning which enables Koranic interpretation. But the head of the Research Center of the Assembly of Experts Secretariat said that this year all potential candidates must demonstrate the proper political inclination as well.

And the imposition of this latter requirement undercut expectations of greater competition for seats. The Council accepted fewer than half of the 396 applicants. It rejected eight of the nine women who applied, and the ninth subsequently withdrew her candidacy. And adding insult to injury, the Council allowed a number of current members of the Assembly to run again even though they failed to pass the ijtihad examination. The Council argued that these people could do so because Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini earlier had approved their credentials.

Once the list of candidates was established, the big question became how many people would take part in the voting. In the 1997 presidential election, approximately 90 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, and the conservative establishment hoped to attract at least as many in order to enhance the authority of the Assembly of Experts as a counterweight to President Khatami.

Some 25 Shia religious scholars and leaders in Qum said that voting was a "religious obligation." The Executives of Construction Party, despite its inability to get its candidates approved, also urged people to vote in order to help build popular sovereignty. And for much the same reason and with disappointment at the candidate selection process, President Khatami also urged people to vote.

On the day of the election, state-run radio and television encouraged people to vote in order to counter "the efforts of foreign media and the enemies of the revolution." Radio programs drew parallels between last year's presidential election, known as the Second of Khordad (its Iranian date), and that day�s election, referring to it as the First of Aban. Such references are powerful for Iranians, who still refer to the 1953 ouster of a former premier as the Twenty-eighth of Mordad and a religiously-inspired anti-government demonstration in 1963 as the Fifteenth of Khordad.

But neither these get-out-the-vote efforts nor the last-minute extension of voting hours helped. Early reports indicated that election observers and security officials outnumbered voters by a wide margin. According to state radio, 18 million of 39 million voters took part, approximately 46 percent. But because this number was so low, other Iranian official sources attempted to revise it upwards. The Tehran Times, which is published by a government ministry, argued that the total number of eligible voters was only 35 million and hence the level of participation above 50 percent.

But other sources suggested that the Tehran Times article was wrong. The Arya newspaper reported that turnout was under 50 percent in 17 of the country's 28 provinces. And the Salaam newspaper said that the lowest turnout figures were in the capital city of Tehran. But no one challenged the fact that the percentage of those participating in the elections for the Assembly of Experts had fallen significantly from the 77 percent that did so in 1983. Several government outlets, however, did point out that participation had risen since the 1990 vote for that body when only 37 percent of the electorate took part.

Despite the low turnout, the results were what most observers had expected. An estimated 63 of those elected are generally classed as conservative or at least right of center. Many pro-Khatami candidates were rejected. Among them were Sayyid Mohammad Asqar Musavi-Khoeniha, who once had served as national prosecutor and is currently a member of the Tehran Militant Clerics Association and managing editor of Salaam. But there were some surprises: the Kumayl Association of Qum complained that the Council of Guardians "blocked the entrance of a large number of university and seminary teachers."

Reactions to the outcome varied. Those opposed to reform generally were pleased, but others were not. The Executives of Construction issued a statement regretting rejection of its candidates. President Khatami said in a radio address that there are many more people eligible to be candidates than those who were chosen. And he complained that the electoral authorities did not create "the climate and the conditions which would have attracted eligible individuals to enter the scene." The Office for Strengthening Unity (Daftar-i Tahkim-i Vahdat), a loose grouping of pro-Khatami Islamist associations comprised mainly of student groups, reacted more vigorously to the rejection of its candidates.

In the short term, this election, the candidates, the level of participation, and even the outcome may not matter very much. It is difficult to imagine why the public should be that interested in a body of religious men which rarely meets and which most of the time has very little impact on their daily lives. But in the longer term, this election may prove to be more significant than many expect precisely because of its role in choosing a new Rahbar in the future.