February 1998, Week 4

FarsiNet FarsiNews

Iran top judge condemns officials' torture charges Feb 28
Washington, rebuffed, takes second best from Iran Feb 27
Iranians Welcome American Visitors, Not Warships Feb 26
U.S. encourages Americans to visit Iran Feb 26
Iran to control prices in new year festivities Feb 25
Iran Sides With Former Enemy Against U.S. Feb 25
Iranian Says The Ball Is In U.S. Court Feb 25
Iran's economy hit by slumping oil prices Feb 24

 

Iran top judge condemns officials' torture charges
TEHRAN, (Reuters) - Iran's top judge on Friday denounced city officials close to moderate President Mohammad Khatami for alleging that they were tortured during detention on corruption charges.

Head of judiciary Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi said the Tehran district mayors, who backed Khatami's election campaign last year, could face prosecution for saying after their trials that they had been tortured and kept in long solitary confinement.

``If you have a complaint that police insulted you or tortured you during questioning, you should come to me and the case will be dealt with legally,'' Yazdi said in a Friday prayer sermon broadcast on state-run Tehran radio.

``You who say 'I have been tortured' are required to present your evidence to me within two or three weeks. If you do not, I will charge you with slandering the judiciary,'' Yazdi said.

The rare public debate on torture follows well-publicised trials which moderates have charged were part of a scheme by the conservative-run judiciary to discredit the president.

Yazdi denied there were any political motives behind the trials in which several top aides of Tehran mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi, a key Khatami ally, have received jail and flogging sentences on charges including embezzlement and bribery.

The convicted officials raised complaints about their treatment in jail at a recent meeting of pro-Khatami parliament deputies. Press reports said that some deputies at the meeting had cried over the accounts of mistreatment.

``Why do you go to parliament members...You delivered a mourning eulogy and they shed tears. What was the use of that?'' Yazdi said.

Conservatives have charged that city officials had allowed Khatami's campaigners to use municipality buildings and facilities in the runup to the May elections in which the moderate cleric trounced conservative candidates. Karbaschi, who has not been charged, has denied any wrongdoing.

Moderate newspapers have said many of the convictions in the cases were based on technicalities. One official was convicted of embezzlement for using city funds to buy a computer for a youth centre in northern Iran, the papers said.

In Geneva, a U.N. spokesman said on Friday that Mary Robinson, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, would raise concerns about rights issues in Iran during talks with top officials this weekend.

Iran has rejected U.N. criticism of its rights record as groundless and politically motivated.

Washington, rebuffed, takes second best from Iran
By Jonathan Wright
WASHINGTON, (Reuters) - Washington has settled for second best in its search for rapprochement with Iran and probably has a long wait before Tehran comes round to government-to-government contacts, analysts said on Thursday.

The State Department said on Wednesday that after almost two decades of enmity it was encouraging Americans to visit Iran and would make it easier for Iranians to get U.S. visas.

In January, when U.S. hopes of formal relations were higher, Washington said it would look at expanding private contacts but would rather move straight to official talks with the Iranian government.

Tehran has ignored that offer, apparently in the midst of a bitter behind-the-scenes debate between opponents and advocates of overtures towards the United States, for years the bogeyman in Iranian political rhetoric.

``The United States wasn't given much choice in the matter,'' said Azar Nafisi, an Iranian academic visiting the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

Nafisi, who left Iran shortly after Iranians elected Mohammad Khatami as president in May last year, said domestic politics was the main obstacle to more rapid reconciliation.

``Khatami is bound by so many obligations. He was part of the Iranian revolution (in 1979) and to change policy would be to negate his own role,'' she added.

``Government-to-government contacts are going to be much more difficult ... because much of the Iranian government's support comes from people who don't see an advantage for them in opening up,'' she said.

John Calabrese, scholar in residence at the Middle East Institute, said it was no surprise that the State Department had turned to encouraging private contacts with Iranians. ``They probably realise they can't get more,'' he said.

But he added that with Iraq at the top of the foreign policy agenda, the U.S. administration would hesitate to take bold measures with Iran for fear that sections in Congress would oppose them.

Even this week's agreement between Iraq and the United Nations has run into stiff opposition from congressmen who believe it makes too many concessions on arms inspections.

Iran also has enemies in Congress, which in 1996 passed a law to impose sanctions on companies that invest more than $20 million a year in the Iranian or Libyan oil sectors.

Calabrese noted the succession of stages towards better relations -- the election of Khatami, a relative liberal, Khatami's interview with CNN in January and President Bill Clinton's quick appeal for accelerated rapprochement.

``Favorable things have happened but it's going to be a lengthy and incremental process,'' he added.

Peter Rodman, director of national security programs at the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom, said private contacts were already taking place without the U.S. government objecting, so the State Department decision was a natural evolution.

``Obviously they are accepting the reality that the Iranians don't want government relations... The burden is on the Iranians to make a substantive change,'' he added.

``They (the Iranians) seem unable to follow up on their own gestures. They seem to be afraid of a dialogue... This (reconciliation) will have to cook a while longer,'' he said.

A White House official said Washington believed official contacts were needed to address U.S. concerns about support for ``terrorism,'' arms proliferation and Iranian opposition to U.S. diplomacy in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

``But meanwhile, if Iran is not prepared, we will continue to encourage people-to-people contacts,'' he added.

The next big test in Iranian-American relations will come when Washington decides whether to impose sanctions on the French company Total and two other companies for their $2 billion natural gas deal with the Iranian government.

Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat said last week that U.S. sanctions remain a ``viable option'' but the analysts suspect the administration is trying to delay a decision as long as possible, if only to keep its European allies cooperative in the conflict with Iraq.

``Sanctions would certainly give a mixed signal but that's exactly what the U.S. government has been doing,'' said Nafisi.

``I would postpone a decision until the (House of Representatives) elections in November... Then there might be more evidence of change within Iraq,'' said Calabrese.

``The administration would love to keep delaying a decision on Total,'' said Rodman. ``This is not the moment to pick a fight with the Europeans,'' he added.

The shadow of Europe also haunts the United States in its relations with Iran. Almost unnoticed in the shadow of the Iraq crisis, the European Union moved this week to normalizerelations, in an indirect challenge to the U.S. policy of trying to contain the Islamic Republic.

``The European allies are bringing pressure to bear. The United States feels left out,'' said Nafisi.

/tr>
Iranians Welcome American Visitors, Not Warships
By Steven Swindells
TEHRAN, (Reuters) - Many Iranians would probably roll out the welcome mat for Americans visiting the Islamic republic, reserving criticism for a U.S. administration that has sustained a large military presence in the region.

Iranians who talked on Thursday about possible future ties between the two countries said they looked forward to further exchanges, such as the visit last week of the first U.S. sports team to Iran since the 1979 revolution.

U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin on Wednesday encouraged Americans to visit Iran and said it would facilitate visas for Iranians who wanted to go to the United States.

Rubin described ``people-to-people exchanges'' as valuable, potentially helping ``prepare the ground for government-to government talks.''

``Contacts between the peoples of the two countries are welcome. Iranians are very hospitable but there will be, as in every society, those who don't want them here,'' said Aram, a 35-year-old engineer relaxing in one of Tehran's parks.

``What we are all against is the presence of U.S. military forces in the region,'' he added, referring to the heavy stock of U.S. firepower in the Gulf lined up because of the dispute with Iraq over U.N. weapons inspections.

Aram's view was echoed by others who said they bore no grudge against the American people despite nearly 20 years of poisoned relations between the two governments after the 1979-1981 hostage crisis at the former U.S. embassy in Tehran.

``I like the Americans. They will like me,'' said 27-year-old taxi driver Ahmad.

``They are very welcome here. Our peoples should love each other,'' said Morad, a 50-year-old clothes trader in Tehran, a city of about seven million people.

Morad saw great significance in last week's visit to Tehran of a team of U.S. amateur wrestlers who were cheered and treated like heroes at an international tournament in the capital.

``I think it was all politics, that American wrestler (Melvin) Douglas carrying the portrait of (Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali) Khamenei. I think it was a healing of wounds between the countries,'' Morad said.

U.S. academics, tourists and Iranians living in America have become increasingly regular sights in Tehran.

American Middle East policy experts from the Washington-based Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom and the RAND think tank in California are in Tehran this week as guests of Iran's leading state foreign policy institution, The Institute for Political and International Studies, to attend a seminar.

The Nixon Center's Geoffrey Kemp, a former national security adviser to Ronald Reagan, and RAND's Jerrold Green were among those on Wednesday who shook hands and spoke with Iran's Foreign Minister Khamal Kharrazi on the sidelines of the conference.

Signs of a possible slow thaw in relations between the countries came after an interview last month on U.S. television by Iran President Mohammad Khatami who called for a dialogue between the two peoples to bring about a ``crack in the wall of mistrust.''

U.S. President Bill Clinton, who follows a policy of dual containment of Iran and Iraq, has said he hopes his country and Iran will soon be able to enjoy ``good relations'' once again.

Although Clinton said Washington had real differences with some Iranian policies, he described these are ``not insurmountable.''

Clinton has accused Tehran of sponsoring terrorism, seeking nuclear weapons, and seeking to destroy the Middle East peace process and has imposed economic sanctions against Tehran. Iran has repeatedly denied the charges.

Tehran says the U.S. military presence in the Gulf destabilises the oil region and that Washington only supports Israel in a doomed Middle East peace process.

It wants Washington to release Iranian assets frozen in the United States after the revolution and an apology for the shooting down of an Iranian passenger plane in 1988 which killed all 290 on board.

U.S. encourages Americans to visit Iran
WASHINGTON( Reuters) - The United States Wednesday encouraged Americans to visit Iran and said it would facilitate visas for Iranians who want to come to America.

The comments by State Department spokesman James Rubin were the latest step by the United States to respond positively to the election last year of a moderate, Mohammad Khatami, as president of the Islamic republic.

Iran to control prices in new year festivities
TEHRAN, (Reuters) - Government inspectors have been ordered to enforce strict price controls in Iran in the run up to the Iranian New Year, which is celebrated on March 21, newspapers and state television reported on Tuesday.

"An official at the Commerce Ministry's inspection and supervision department...said a scheme to check the prices of products, services and distribution will start on Sunday," the daily Kayhan reported.

Iranian television said price checks covered foodstuffs, clothes, transportation and "other production and service centres" and would last until April 12.

Shopkeepers often take advantage of new year celebrations to boost prices as consumers compete for goods that are sometimes scarce.

Many taxi drivers also increase their rates ahead of annual fuel price rises of about 20 percent, which are in line with efforts to reduce heavy state subsidies under a five-year economic plan. Iran has some of the world's cheapest fuel prices because of the subsidies, with a litre of petrol at 160 rials (5.3 U.S. cents)

Newspapers said last week that bazaar traders in the central city of Isfahan closed their shops in a one-day protest against the actions of the price-control inspectors.

Controlling inflation -- officially running at an annualised 16.9 percent -- is a key economic policy of the government and the country's Central Bank Governor Mohsen Nourbakhsh. Inflation in the Iranian year to March 20, 1997 stood at 23.2 percent against 49.4 percent the previous year.

Iran in 1994 slapped price controls on a number of basic goods after a public outcry over spiralling inflation. Offenders have been fined, flogged and had their goods confiscated.

Iran Sides With Former Enemy Against U.S.
By Kenneth J. Cooper
Washington Post Foreign Services
TEHRAN-An outsider might suppose that the bitter memory of Iraq's 1980 invasion of Iran, which led to eight years of war, would make Iran eager for the United States to punish Iraqi President Saddam Hussein militarily in the standoff over United Nations weapons inspections.

Not so.

Tehran has opposed the use of force against neighboring Iraq, and on this issue there appears to be no split between moderate President Mohammed Khatemi and Ayatollah Ali Khameini, Iran's spiritual leader and main voice of the nation's Islamic fundamentalists.

"We sympathize with the oppressed Iraqi people," Khatemi was quoted in local newspapers as saying after his meeting here last week with Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Saeed Sahhaf.

Khameini made nationalistic speeches last week along the Persian Gulf coast, condemning the U.S. threat to attack Iraq as "illegal and despotic" and warning Iran's military to be ready to meet any threats.

Ironically, it is the memory of the suffering during the territorial war with Iraq that has made many Iranians in this sprawling capital follow their nation's leaders and cite humanitarian reasons for opposing military action. Thousands of Iranians died in the war.

"This is the biggest mistake the Americans can make," said Anamallah Henry Moghadasi, a shopkeeper in the main bazaar. "If they want to get rid of Saddam, they don't have to bomb the Iraqi people. The Iraqi people are innocent."

Iran reportedly is worried that a pro-U.S., anti-Iran leader might replace Saddam Hussein, should an attack succeed in removing him.

An Iranian professor of international relations who asked not to be named said government officials are "scared of fragmentation [of Iraq]. If people get out of control, you'll have trouble on the border. If Saddam is in charge . . . at least someone is in charge."

Iran and Iraq have resumed diplomatic relations since the war ended in 1988 but have not worked out an agreement to return prisoners and settle border disputes, including control of the Shatt al Arab waterway that flows into the Persian Gulf.

Tehran knows Saddam Hussein can pose a threat, but it considers the world's only superpower to be a bigger one.

Iranian leaders long have condemned the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf as a form of imperial domination, and an attack on Iraq would amount to a concrete demonstration of U.S. dominance, reminiscent of the strong American influence in Iran before the 1979 Islamic revolution. Ordinary Iranians have joined in criticizing the United States as being too domineering.

"I don't think Americans really care about Iraq's nuclear capacity and its tools of destruction," said Amir Poor, a trader. "It wants to be the main power in the region."

With three permanent Security Council members -- Russia, China and France -- not endorsing the use of force against Iraq, some Iranians have argued that the United States and Britain need the U.N. body's approval to attack. The Clinton administration disagrees.

"We think that the Security Council is an independent body, and the Security Council has to decide what to do about Iraq in consultation with the governments of the region," said Salman Yazdanpanah, a cleric who is an administrator at a Tehran religious school.

U.S.-Iran diplomatic relations have been severed since fundamentalists stormed the U.S. Embassy in 1979 and took 52 Americans hostage, holding them for 444 days. In recent weeks, Khatemi and President Clinton have traded overtures, raising the possibility of reduced tensions.

Many Iranians fear that if Iraq is attacked, their country could be next, an Asian diplomat said. Even though the United States has never struck Iran militarily, some Iranians do not believe it was an accident that a U.S. warship shot down an Iranian airliner in 1988, killing 290 civilians.

Washington and Tehran do agree on one aspect of the Iraqi crisis: Iran has urged its neighbor to comply fully with U.N. resolutions authorizing the weapons inspection.

Tehran's position on that issue harks back to the war, during which Iraq used chemical weapons against Iranian troops. Of the mass destruction that chemical weapons can cause, the Iranian professor said: "We know exactly what it is."

Iranian Says The Ball Is In U.S. Court
TEHRAN- Reuters-Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said today that he is encouraged by recent statements by President Clinton, and he shook hands with American Middle East analysts in another of a series of recent contacts between arch-foes on Iranian soil.

But Kharrazi said that the United States, often derided in Iran as the "Great Satan," must act first to show it wants improved ties with the Islamic republic.

"I hear some good words from the American side . . . [but] words are not enough," Kharrazi said in an interview during a foreign policy seminar in Tehran.

Clinton said last month that he hopes the two countries would soon be able to enjoy "good relations" once again, and that although real policy differences remained between the two states these were "not insurmountable."

"It is up to others how to seize the opportunity to establish better relations," Kharrazi said, but he declined to say what Washington must do to show its good intentions. Kharrazi shook hands with American Middle East analysts attending the seminar, just days after a U.S. wrestling team took part in a tournament in Tehran, the first Americans to compete in Iran since the 1979 revolution.

"It's good to be back again after 20 years," Geoffrey Kemp, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom, told Kharrazi. "Tehran's grown so much. . . . That is why we are here, to promote dialogue."

But, Kemp said afterward, "there will have to be a lot more private diplomacy before we see government-to-government talks. Hopefully, one of the areas will be indirect talks between American and Iranian officials in multilateral sessions in the United Nations."

Iran's economy hit by slumping oil prices
TEHRAN,(Reuters) - Slumping world oil prices, and resulting slower economic growth, have forced the Iranian government to again review its petrodollar-dominated budget.

Iran's central bank governor Mohsen Nourbakhsh told a Tehran news conference on Monday weak oil prices had led the government to set up a body to review the budget for the next Iranian year which starts on March 21.

If the group -- made up of officials from the Central Bank, the Economy and Finance Ministry and the state Plan and Budget Organisation -- recommended a change in the budget, it would be the second time in just over a month Iran has had to alter its economic plans.

Iran's parliament finally passed a revised budget for 1998/99 in late January based on oil revenues of $16.2 billion using an average oil price of $16 a barrel. The government had earlier counted on $17.50 a barrel.

"If current (oil) prices continue we will have to re-examine the budget or find appropriate means to finance it," Nourbakhsh said in response to a Reuters' question. "A special commission has been set up by the government...in case the current downward trend of oil prices continues."

Iran's main export grade crude oil, Iran Heavy, was trading in Europe on Monday at $11.35 a barrel, in line with world prices which sunk to their lowest level in 46 months because of perceived supply glut and news of a United Nations-brrokered deal with Iraq over arms inspectors.

Oil accounts for more than 80 percent Iran's hard currency export earnings. Iran is the world's third largest petroleum exporter after Saudi Arabia and Norway.

Revenue from oil sales in the first eleven months of the current Iranian year reached $14.335 billion on an average oil price of $16.86, Nourbakhsh said. This year's budget envisaged $17.7 billion in oil earnings.

Nourbakhsh said Iran's growth rate in the current and next Iranian year would hit 3.2 percent, down from 4.2 percent in 1996/97.

He stressed Tehran would meet its foreign debt obligations -- $14.1 billion mainly to German, Italian, Japanese and French creditors and a total debt balance of $26.4 billion -- despite falling oil income.

"Whatever we have (in revenue), we are definitely going to pay on time. There is going to be no delay on it."

Nourbakhsh, detailing Iran's economic performance, said the trade balance surplus was $2.1 billion in the first six months of the Iranian year, based on exports of $9.86 billion and imports of $7.75 billion.

"We have adjusted the trade balance for next year on the basis of the minimum possible oil prices," he said.

Non-oil exports in the first ten months were $2.615 billion and the government aimed for this to hit $3.5-4.0 billion in the next Iranian year.

Growth in liquidity was 5.1 percent during first eight months, compared to 12.8 percent in the same period last year.

Imports of general goods and foodstuffs in the first nine months had increased to 18.943 million tonnes, two million tonnes higher than the previous year.

The central bank's latest estimate of annualised inflation for the first ten months of the year was 16.9 percent, down from 23.2 percent in the 12 months ending March 20, 1997.

 

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