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FarsiNet's Iran News
December 1997, Week 1

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Islamic Nations Gather in Iran
By Anthony Shadid
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- Muslim foreign ministers from Africa, Asia and Europe sought to bridge their differences Saturday at a meeting that heralds Iran's growing international acceptance but highlights disputes that have long thwarted Islamic unity.

The 35 ministers are seeking common ground during the two-day meeting that precedes Tuesday's summit of the 55-member Organization of the Islamic Conference.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who serves as the conference's spokesman, said, ``I believe that among the core issues, there is a unity of purpose here.''

So far, however, delegates have disagreed on U.S. policy in the region, particularly in the Persian Gulf. No action has been taken on Iraq's dispute with the United Nations or Turkey's military intervention in northern Iraq.

Still, Zarif insisted that of more than 140 resolutions discussed at the meeting, delegates disagreed on fewer than 10.

Opposition to Israel was the one issue that united nearly everyone present, he said.

``All Islamic countries believe that Israel is the greatest threat to Islamic countries and the greatest danger to the region,'' Zarif told a news conference before the meeting began.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has served to rally Muslim countries for decades.

Saturday's gathering demonstrated the diversity of the Muslim world, an arc that stretches from the west coast of Africa to east Asia. At the conference hall in Tehran, Iranian clerics in robes and turbans mixed with Arab ministers in checkered red-and-white headdress and African delegates in traditional gowns.

Iran has spent months preparing for the conference, which it sees as a way to mend ties with countries that have feared its brand of radical Islam, which began following the 1979 revolution.

Iran fought a war with neighboring Iraq from 1980 to 1988 and repeatedly has declared its hostility for the family that rules Saudi Arabia. Egypt long has accused Iran of supporting the Muslim insurgents who have fighting its secular government since 1992.

But officials from all three countries attended Saturday's meeting, signaling growing regional acceptance of Iran despite opposition by the United States, which considers Iran to be one of the world's leading sponsors of terrorism.

Signs of Iran's fervor remain. Down the street from the conference hall, a sign read, ``Islam humiliates and downgrades the superpowers.''

And Saturday's editorial in the hard-line Jomhuri Islami newspaper derided Egypt, Jordan and Morocco as ``official lackeys of the United States and tools of the Zionists.''

Zarif insisted that the editorial was ``far from the position of (Iran's) Islamic government.''

U.S. Isolated in Its Policy of Trying to Isolate Iran
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) American efforts to isolate Iran are crumbling, eaten away by the country's oil wealth and the Muslim faith it shares with its Arab neighbors.

Some of Washington's closest European allies are ignoring its pleas not to do business with Iran. And Arab states that once bought the U.S. portrayal of Tehran as a bogeyman are sitting down with the Islamic Republic's mullahs this week.

The defections are leaving Washington alone in its attempt to isolate Tehran, which the Americans accuse of exporting terrorism and trying to acquire nuclear weapons. Iran denies the charges.

A meeting of leaders from Muslim nations starting Tuesday in Tehran will be "the largest gathering of heads of state in Iran's history, both before and after the revolution," Iran's President Mohammad Khatami said recently. "It shows the power and stability of Iran."

The most important guest at the Organization of the Islamic Conference will be Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah, the highest-ranking Saudi to visit Iran since the 1979 revolution ousted the Western-oriented shah.

Saudi Arabia is a staunch U.S. ally in the region and has been among Iran's fiercest critics. But it has shown signs of warming up, feeding Iran's hopes for an Islamic axis between two giants of the Muslim world.

Egypt, another strong American ally, has sent its foreign minister, Amr Moussa. Egypt could help Iran mend ties with other Arab countries.

Iran is gloating over the meeting's expected draw officials from more than 50 countries, including 34 heads of government especially because it follows last month's U.S.-backed Mideast economic summit in Qatar. That summit fizzled when most Arab countries stayed away to protest Israel's presence.

The Islamic conference caps an upbeat year for Iran, whose fortunes turned in May with the election of Khatami as president. His soft-spoken manner has helped reduce the rogue-state image of Iran that has been at the heart of the U.S. campaign to isolate the Tehran regime.

After Turkey signed a $20 billion natural gas deal with Iran last year, Washington sought to halt further breakthroughs for Tehran by enacting penalties for any U.S. or foreign company that invests more than $20 million in the Islamic Republic.

But Iran broke out of the U.S. sanctions a month after Khatami took office in August. The French oil giant Total, along with Russian and Malaysian partners, signed a $2 billion deal to develop natural gas fields in Iran. France and the European Union rejected U.S. objections and warned against punishing Total.

Iran chalked up another diplomatic victory last month, when European Union envoys returned to Tehran seven months after being called home. The flap resulted from a German court tying political killings to Iran's leaders.

"Efforts of both sides for a speedy resolution of the crisis is clear proof that Iran needs Europe and Europe needs Iran," said the newspaper Iran News, which often reflects the views of the Iranian Foreign Ministry.

Asked about the lack of European support for the U.S. isolation campaign, a State Department official in Washington said many European countries agree Iranian behavior is not what it should be. But he acknowledged there are differences with Europe over how to deal with the problem.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that if European dialogue with Tehran led to a moderation of Iran's policies, Washington would welcome it. But he said the European approach had not yet brought any changes in Iranian behavior.

Washington's prospects for blocking more investment in Iran appear bleak.

Iran is a major oil exporter and has the world's second-largest natural gas reserves. And foreign companies scrambling to get in on Central Asia's vast oil and gas resources are eyeing Iran as the most viable export route.

In July, the United States grudgingly said it would not oppose a $1.6 billion gas pipeline to run from the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan across Iran to Turkey and on to Europe.

Javad Yarjani, an Iranian Oil Ministry adviser, says Iran's strategic importance will only grow.

"Iran is the only country in the world which has borders with the two most important regions as far as the future world's energy supplies are concerned, namely the Middle East and the Persian Gulf on the one hand and the Caspian Sea on the other hand," he said.

"Moreover, it is estimated that the cost and time needed to build a pipeline from Central Asia through Iran will be one-third of any other route," Yarjani said at an oil conference in Abu Dhabi last week.

Pressure also is building within the United States to resume business ties with Iran. Last April, some 440 American companies formed USA Engage to lobby for lifting unilateral U.S. economic sanctions against Iran as well as Libya and Cuba.

Foreign Ministers Gather in Tehran for Ambitious Islamic Meeting
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) With a call for cooperation, Muslim foreign ministers searched for common ground today on disputes that have long kept Islamic unity more a concept than practice.

The two-day meeting of 35 ministers will prepare for a summit next week of Muslim leaders from Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Asia, a high-profile conference that signals Iran's growing international acceptance, particularly among Muslim nations.

One sign of that acceptance was the presence today of ministers from Egypt and Iraq, two Arab countries that long deemed Iran and its revolutionary Islam a threat to their stability. Egypt, as well, is a key Arab ally of the United States, which considers Iran one of the world's leading sponsors of terrorism.

Iranian officials, however, insisted that the meeting was meant to bolster cooperation, not to improve Iran's standing.

"This conference has not been convened to send a message to anyone. It was convened to bring about closer ties among Islamic countries," Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said.

The foreign ministers' meeting will tackle many of the same issues to be considered at the summit Tuesday: development, cooperation, regional ties and policy toward Israel.

So far, disagreements have centered on resolutions critical of U.S. policy in the region, particularly in the Gulf.

Iran, which fashions itself as a leading opponent of the Middle East peace process, had trouble finding support, too, for denunciations of Muslim countries with ties to the Jewish state.

Zarif, however, insisted that of more than 140 resolutions, delegates disagreed on fewer than 10.

In fact, Zarif said opposition to Israel was the one issue that united nearly every delegate present.

"All Islamic countries believe that Israel is the greatest threat to Islamic countries and the greatest danger to the region," he told a news conference.

The Organization of the Islamic Conference organizes a summit every three years, making this year's Tehran meeting only the eighth since 1969. Iran has spent months preparing for the meeting, building a new conference center and refurbishing hotels.

U.S. Vs. Iran Goes Beyond Soccer
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- Iran has spent nearly two decades in a war of words with ``The Great Satan,'' as the United States is known here. On June 21, the Iranians will get their chance to defeat the Americans -- on the soccer field.

``The level of U.S. soccer is not at a level that we could lose from them,'' said Akbar Torkan, head of the Iranian Wrestling Association and a former transportation minister.

Thursday's World Cup draw set up the high-profile meeting at Lyon, France. It will be a must-win game for both teams since the other two teams in Group F are three-time champion Germany and Yugoslavia, another European power.

In Iran, a nation where ``Death to America'' posters are plastered at hotel entrances and government offices, the game may be particularly emotional.

``We were at a dinner when the draws were announced, and the reaction of many of us there was that the government wouldn't allow the team to play against the United States,'' said Mohammad-Reza Dastmalchi, a 27-year-old soccer fan.

But the government said Friday it won't get in the way.

``This is not a political issue, it's a sport,'' presidential adviser Alireza Moayeri said.

When Iran scored twice in the final 15 minutes at Australia last Saturday to gain the 32nd and final spot in the tournament, millions of Iranians danced in the streets of Tehran in a rare scene of jubilation.

Since then, the players have been proclaimed national heroes. Companies have taken out newspaper advertisements to proclaim the presents it is giving players.

``Iran is soccer crazy in comparison to the U.S., so it will mean more to them than us,'' U.S. midfielder Claudio Reyna said.

Iran is in the World Cup for the first time since 1978, a year before the Islamic revolution toppled the U.S.-backed Shah. The United States and Iran have not had diplomatic relations since 1979, when militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

``For Iran to beat the U.S. would be like winning the World Cup,'' American defender Alexi Lalas said. ``Soccer and the World Cup reflects a nation's personality and history, something that will be seen during the game. And that's what the World Cup is all about. It will show that we can put politics aside and play a good and fair game.''

Still, some in Iran give massive significance to soccer. Thinking back to last weekend's game against Australia, a senior government cleric said soccer and politics overlapped.

``If our team had failed, our enemies would have said `Islam is incapable of running a state,' '' Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati said Friday during a radio sermon.

``It was truly a political matter. The result was, therefore, a political victory,'' said Jannati, head of the Parliament's Guardian Council.

Jannati had urged the national wrestling team not to go to the Atlanta Olympics last year, but the team went and won silver medals.

While Iran has refused to compete against Israel, it has played the Americans.

``We have competed against the United States in other sports events, and have no problem with the American people,'' Torkan said.

Many Iranians are confident of victory.

``At the World Cup we will get what is our right, and help our nation hold its head up high,'' Ali Daie, one of the team's stars, said.

Ecstasy in Iran, Agony for Its Clerics
Scott Peterson, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
QOM, IRAN
Breathless Iranians had clung to their radios and television sets, frustrated that their national soccer team was getting trounced by Australia. But in the last moments, Iran turned the tables - and won a place in the next World Cup competition.

When the final goal was scored on Saturday, thundering cheers swept across every city and village in Iran. Young and old alike poured onto the streets to wave Iranian flags, block traffic, and climb atop cars.

The soccer jubilation brought a brief but unstoppable disregard of tough Islamic restrictions on public behavior - restrictions that are often flouted in private. Men and women openly danced in the streets, and some women removed their mandatory head scarves and let their hair down.

"If I was a conservative cleric, I'd be quaking in my shoes, because the security forces lost control of [the capital] Tehran for five hours," says a senior Western diplomat.

Even Iran's top Islamic rulers had shared in the victory with profuse praise.

But the spontaneous eruption may also have shocked those clerics as much as the unexpected soccer win. For it comes as unprecedented questions are being raised about the nature of Velayat-e-faqih, or "God's deputy on earth" - a post whose sacred primacy has been a pillar of Iran's revolutionary Islamic regime.

It is a debate that has begun to expose a complex power struggle between liberals and conservatives among Iran's clerical hierarchy. The outcome is likely to directly shape Iran's future.

Even in Qom - the center of Islamic learning south of Tehran, and among the most conservative cities in Iran - security forces were nervous as rowdy celebrants banged buckets and pots in place of drums to make "music."

Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, nothing but the most traditional music has been allowed in Iran. Also since then, Iranians say there has never been such a display of people power on the streets.

"It was a revolution," says one Iranian man, mindful of the special meaning of the word here.

The raucous street scenes have coincided, however, with the dispute over the role of Velayat-e-faqih, which began to emerge last month.

It underscores a growing rift between hard-line conservatives - led by Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, Iran's spiritual guide who is meant to represent the will of God - and moderates such as the recently elected President Mohamed Khatami.

Mr. Khatami, who has himself kept clear of the fracas, won the May vote with 70 percent of the ballot in a landslide that shocked conservatives and displayed the depth of division within Iran.

But left-leaning students, former government ministers and - most outrageously, in the view of the regime - one of Iran's most senior clerics, have called for curbs of the "supreme leader's" power.

The heart of the dispute
The words of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri drew the most violent reaction. The Veli-e-faqih's duty, he said, was to "supervise" only and "should not interfere in all affairs."

Khamenei, considered young at 58, was not seen as qualified to be supreme leader and can't issue religious laws.

Ayatollah Montazeri's criticism is particularly cutting, because by rank the cleric should have been supreme leader himself, diplomats and analysts say, to follow in the footsteps of the charismatic leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Desperate to boost his standing, Khamenei presented himself two years ago in Qom, but was refused the title of mojtahed, the highest spiritual rank. Diplomats note a joke in Tehran that Khamenei "paints" his gray beard white to fit in with the older ayatollahs.

Still, before he died in 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini wrote a letter that cast doubt on Montazeri's own abilities saying that was "naive" and "dangerous" and should keep out of politics. But this time right-wing militants took him seriously - drawing a line that they hope no other critics will cross.

Last month, they attacked his house and ransacked the religious school where Montazeri is director. Police used tear gas to end the violence, though the ayatollah is still kept under tight security control at home. Grafitti on nearby walls reads: "Death to the anti-Veli-e-faqih."

"I established Velayat-e-faqih myself, and now they call me anti-Veli-e-faqih," Montazeri said in a controversial Nov. 20 speech.

Ruling clerics have responded noisily at this unprecedented public attack. Khamenei declared that dissidents who questioned his authority "were enemy agents, even though they might not be conscious of it."

"All state officials are moving in the same direction," he said, and called upon them to "carry out their duty against" dissidents who practice such "treason against the people.... You should get to know who the real enemy is. World arrogance is the enemy, America is the enemy, the Zionists are the enemy."

Clerics in Qom try to play down the significance of the division, arguing that the principle of Velayat-e-faqih has been debated in religious circles for centuries. It is only the recent high-profile comments, they say, that have turned it into a sensitive political issue.

"The way Montazeri did it was insulting, like an attack, and this [militant] reaction is what it brought," says Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, in an interview. Such disputes should be resolved according to the law, he adds, and not on the streets where it harks back to the early days of the revolution. Such violence is rare these days.

Emerging conservatives
He notes, however: "The nature of the Islamic government is political, and the nature of the Velayat-e-faqih is also political."

The divisions push to the heart of Iran's Islamic regime, and indicate how much conservative forces have emerged since the death of Khomeini, who is still regarded as the "imam of the age."

Khomeini did not encourage clerics to take top political positions, nor did he believe in the "divine right" of clerical rule, as do many conservatives. Instead, he noted the "constitutional nature" of the regime.

But according to many Iranians, the point of no return has already been passed. "Before the revolution, clerics had a big following in Iran. People would make any sacrifice for them," says one Iranian professional.

"But now the pendulum has swung the other way. Clerics are the losers of the revolution, and many of them know that. They say they are losing their respect because they are involved in politics."

The result was the victory of Khatami last May. His promises to ease social restrictions, renew the rule of law, find jobs, and work for women's rights struck a deep chord that has been part of the growing protest of the clerics' hard-line rule.

Signs of dissent
The most open signs of dissent came last month. At the annual demonstration in front of the former US embassy on Nov. 4, for example - where militants chant "Death to America" and burn flags to mark the 1979 embassy takeover - students staged a parallel demonstration to protest a conservative speaker.

Liberal academics have also been shouted down by militants. The well-known head of a leftist student organization who called for curbs on the power of the supreme leader - and more recognition of the liberal policies of the democratically elected president - was severely beaten.

The militants are widely believed to be with the Ansar e-Hizbullah (Followers of the Party of God), a group that operates with the sanction of the government but is not controlled by it. "When they think they see a threat, they react automatically," notes one Iranian.

"We are seeing a very muscular campaign by the radical right to demonstrate that the Khatami election victory did not mean anything," says a Western diplomat. "The forces Khatami does not control - these are making examples."

During a recent speech calling for government guarantee of freedoms, Khatami nevertheless made clear this priorities: "First comes Iran, then Islam," he said.

Officially, the current tension is blamed on "hands from outside," though top clerics admit that "factions inside" may be active.

"The best way to undermine the position of Velayat-e-faqih is to have someone revolutionary ... do it," says Grand Ayatollah Shirazi, stroking his white beard.

But he dismisses the question of any real threat to clerical rule: "We think we've been through a lot more than this."

Iraq Voices Readiness to Solve Issues with Iran
TEHRAN- XINHUA - Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahhaf said here today that Baghdad is ready to solve issues with Tehran, the Iranian official news agency IRNA reported.

Al-Sahhaf made the remarks in a meeting with his Iranian counterpart Kamal Kharrazi on the sidelines of the foreign ministers' meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

Al-Sahhaf said that Iraq considers the OIC summit, to be held on December 9-11 following the foreign ministers' meeting, as very important.

Meanwhile, Kharrazi expressed Iran's sympathy with the Iraqi people for having endured tremendous hardship brought about by the seven-year-old U.N. sanctions, adding that trust and confidence is essential for solving regional problems.

He expressed the hope that Tehran and Baghdad will solve their problems and move towards greater cooperation. The two foreign ministers also discussed the issues of prisoners of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

Both sides stressed the need to accelerate efforts to settle the issue of POWs (prisoners of war).

The issues of POWs and war compensation are the major barriers on the way of the normalization of relations between the two neighbors.

Iran said it has released 49,196 Iraqi POWs, of whom 10,000 have been released unilaterally by Iran. It also claimed that some 15,000 Iranian POWs are still being held in Iraq.

It accused the Iraqi government of making no response to Iran's humanitarian measures of releasing Iraqi POWs.

However, the Iraqi side repeatedly dismissed the allegation of any Iranian POWs in Iraq. It claimed that Iran is still holding 18,000 Iraqi POWs.

Moslem Leaders to Test Iran's Goodwill Message
By Ashraf Fouad
KUWAIT, (Reuters) - Iran's calls to ease Gulf tension and end years of mistrust will be put to the test next week when Moslem leaders gather in Tehran for an Islamic summit, diplomats said.

Iran put on its best face to encourage those leaders to attend the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, boosting an image tarnished since the 1979 Islamic revolution by charges that Tehran supports guerrilla groups and has sought to destabilise its neighbours.

``Some of the leaders are coming to work out for themselves what is really happening here,'' said a Tehran-based Western diplomat, referring to ``positive noises'' by the administration of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, who took office in August.

Some of Iran's critics in the Gulf have responded favourably to its recent ``charm offensive.'' Others say Khatami has only made positive statements but taken no real steps to ease fears over Tehran's ambitious armament programme.

``Yes, he (Khatami) is a moderate but a moderate within an Iranian context. He is a clergyman from within the system,'' said an Arab diplomat.

Analysts said non-Arab Iran's main task at the summit on the bilateral front would be building trust across the Gulf to be able to convince other states beyond the area that it was seriously interested in easing tension and better ties.

But a Gulf-based Western diplomat said despite some slight improvement in ties, including those with Saudi Arabia, ``let us not kid ourselves, there is always going to be tension and the two sides will not fully embrace and resolve all their issues.''

The diplomat said Washington too ``would love to have good ties with Iran.''

But, he added, Gulf states ``have to remember who they are improving ties with -- a country which backs terrorism, is developing mass destruction arms and has a terrible human rights record. Are these the people you want to be friends with?''

Iran denies it supports terrorism. Some Gulf states like Oman and Qatar have urged their main ally Washington to review its containment of Tehran policy and establish a dialogue.

But U.S. and other Western officials say Khatami has yet done little to encourage a switch in the approach.

``What have the Iranians done so far? ...A lot of good words, and we appreciate the words, but no real steps. Khatami is living in an amorphous power structure where he does not have absolute power. The West needs concrete public steps,'' the Gulf-based diplomat said.

Under Iran's system of rule, hardline cleric Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the country's supreme leader while parliament is led by another conservative, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, who lost the presidential race to Khatami.

A Tehran-based Western diplomat said Iran had put ``a very positive spin on things and went out of its way to be nice.''

``But after the summit is over will it continue? Is it a tactical choice by the pragmatic side of the power structure here?'' he asked.

Iran Says it Has Built New Tank
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) Iran has manufactured a light battle tank that it intends to mass produce in the near future, a newspaper reported Thursday.

Named "Tosan," or fury, the tank is "capable of rapid response and built for strategic missions," the Salam newspaper quoted Mohammad Ali Jafari, a commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, as saying.

Jafari said Tosan is equipped with a 90 mm gun, a superior firing and targeting system and does not require special trucks to carry it.

Iran claims it is nearly self-sufficient in arms. Since 1992, it has unveiled a range of weapons, including armored personnel carriers and missiles.

Iran was not known to have possessed advanced technology to build fighter planes or tanks. However, officials announced in September that Iran had started mass producing its first locally-designed fighter-bomber.

Iran To Shut Schools, Offices during Moslem Meet
TEHRAN,(Reuters) - Iran will close schools and most offices in Tehran during an Islamic summit next week to reduce traffic in the notoriously congested capital.

Tehran radio said on Thursday the cabinet had decided all schools and universities in the city would close and most civil servants would get days off to ease traffic during the summit of the 55-member Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

Officials said earlier Iran's Revolutionary Guards would be responsible for providing security for some 6,000 foreign guests attending the summit, the most prestigious event to be hosted by Tehran since its 1979 Islamic revolution.

Iran has said it expected many Moslem heads of state, including three kings and 27 presidents, to attend the three-day summit which is due to start on Tuesday.

Iran Soccer team returns to heroes' welcome
TEHRAN(Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Iranian soccer fans, including women who ignored an official order banning their presence, packed a stadium on Tuesday to welcome home the national team that qualified for the World Cup finals at the weekend.

An estimated 70,000 flag-waving fans, with about 3,000 young women in their midst, poured into the Azadi stadium to cheer the team members who arrived by helicopter from the capital's airport.

Residents said the women rushed through gates despite police attempts to enforce a ban on female fans attending the event. Once inside, they were seated in separate stands from the male fans.

Thousands of other fans jammed the airport despite calls by Iran's media to gather instead at the stadium to avoid a crush.

Iran grabbed the last place in the World Cup finals by forcing a 2-2 draw with Australia in Melbourne on Saturday.

The match was followed by the biggest scenes of mass jubilation in Iran since the shah went into exile shortly before the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled him.

State radio and television earlier read a statement by the Iranian Football Federation saying women would not be admitted into the stadium.

"In view of the lack of suitable space and in order to safguard Islamic dignity, sisters will be strictly prevented from entering the Azadi stadium," Tehran radio quoted the statement as saying.

"Sisters can witness the fervent ceremonies (on live television) at home," the statement added.

Iran in 1994 briefly suspended the ban on women going to football stadiums, which dates back to the revolution.

But authorities reimposed the ban after a few weeks following protests by conservative Islamist newspapers which said the women's presence was at odds with norms of contacts between the sexes.

Iranian officials have said the ban was partly prompted by the "immoral" language and behaviour of some fans which make soccer games unsuitable as family outings.

Womwen Crash Iron Socer Celebration
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- Iran's soccer team that qualified for next year's World Cup finals, was given a hero's welcome by 70,000 flag-waving fans, including 5,000 women, who showed up despite an official request that they stay away.

The official Islamic Republic News Agency said some 3,000 women occupied one corner of the Azadi Stadium and 2,000 more rushed in ``with the cooperation of security forces.''

In a statement carried on Iranian television, the National Football Federation asked women to stay away from the welcome ``to safeguard Islam's dignity.'' Strict Islamic laws, followed in Iran, prohibit mingling of the sexes. The Iranian players arrived at Tehran's Mehrabad airport from Dubai and were flown by helicopter to the Azadi Stadium.

The crowd, which had waited for hours in the 27-degree weather to see their heroes, broke into cheers and applause as the helicopter landed in the stadium. The soccer team became national heroes after Saturday's match in Melbourne when Khodadad Azizi and Karim Bagheri scored goals within five minutes make up a 2-0 deficit and tie Australia 2-2. Iran won the final berth in next year's on the basis of more away goals.

 

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