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July 1998, Week 1

FarsiNet FarsiNews

U.S. tourists venture to Iran July 7
Earthquake Prediction Spooks Iran July 7
Iran's Khatami holds up soccer team as example July 6
Conservatives say reform too costly for Iran July 5
Iran Pres. Sees Change in U.S. Tone July 3
Khatami Calls for Comprehensive Dialog with EU July 2
Iran: U.S. Oil Companies Welcome to Invest July 1
Khatami Calls on U.S. to Match Words with Deeds July 1

 

U.S. tourists venture to Iran
WASHINGTON (AP) -- A "Death to the U.S.A." sign welcomed the exhausted American tourists to their hotel. But despite that ominous beginning, Jeanne Marie DeGiacomo said she and her party were treated like celebrities in Iran.

Americans are paying up to $5,000 to join tours to exotic cities and towns in the land that denounced America as the "Great Satan."

"The greatest thrill we had was the way we were treated by the people. They were so enthusiastic about having us there," said DeGiacomo, a Boston resident who went to Iran in May because she wanted to learn more about the culture.

Since Iran's new president, Mohammad Khatami, called for a "dialogue of civilizations" in January, the United States and the Islamic republic have taken tentative steps, such as exchanging scholars and athletes, toward ending almost two decades of enmity.

But some Americans, like DeGiacomo, are not waiting for a resumption of full diplomatic relations to explore one of the world's oldest civilizations.

They're jamming organized tours that take them exotic Iranian cities and towns such as Shiraz, where the Persian poet Hafiz is buried; Isfahan, whose Royal Square contains masterpieces of 17th century Islamic architecture; and Bam, which has a medieval fortress with wide views of the valley below.

Three companies in the United States are offering group or individual trips to Iran, lasting up to 24 days and for up to $5,000. Tour operators describe their clients as experienced travelers, usually older than 40.

The tours are being organized despite a State Department travel warning urging Americans to "defer travel to Iran," citing evidence of hostility toward the United States and a trade embargo on Iran that allows Americans to bring back only $100 worth of gifts and publications.

But a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said despite the risks, the administration has encouraged people-to-people contacts, "so basically these trips are fine with us."

Janet Moore, owner of Distant Horizons in Long Beach, Calif., said the trips have been very popular.

Moore went to Iran to inspect the hotels and the infrastructure a few months before sending out the first group in May 1997. She said the Iranian officials she met wanted to make sure "we were not going to be bringing in the hippie type of traveler and that our trips follow very much a cultural program."

Moore said the first tour was tense. The Americans were not sure how the Iranians would react to their presence and whether they would encounter fundamentalists who would attack them. The Iranians didn't want people wandering by themselves in the bazaars or talking to journalists.

But things have relaxed since then, said Moore, and people can go sightseeing on their own.

Ann Aylwin, regional director for Geographic Expeditions in San Francisco recalled the first trip she organized to Iran in 1993 as a "logistical nightmare" because the Iranians were not granting Americans tourist visas. Her group of four had to wait for a personal invitational visa arranged through a mountaineering group.

Things have become easier since last year when Iran began granting tourist visas for Americans.

Tour operators and travelers agree that these are not luxury trips.

"It would be considered a fascinating experience, but it's not the kind where you prop up your feet and say, 'Wow, this is really living,"' said DeGiacomo, 72.

A low point, she said, was arriving at the Homa Hotel in Mashad and being greeted by the "Death to the U.S.A." sign.

"We were startled," she recalled. But she said the Iranian people were unexpectedly cordial and treated them like celebrities.

The hotels where they stayed, most of them Western chains now run by local companies, have hot water, air-conditioning and toilets that flush. But they need refurbishing. Mattresses tend to sag, the furniture is old and most have no direct dial, making access to e-mail difficult. In one, the elevator stops at every floor. In another, stains cover the carpets. In some, the bathrooms in the lobby are Turkish toilets.

Aylwin, who went to Iran in May, said her male companion was advised to jog in the park and not on the streets because one person had been accosted by people who thought he had done something wrong when they saw him running on the street.

Then there's the question of the chador, the long shawl that Iranian women use to cover themselves and that female tourists are required to wear. DeGiacomo and Aylwin found that leaving only their hands and face uncovered was a bit oppressive. Aylwin exchanged her silk scarf for a cotton one because it kept slipping off her head.

David Herriman, 66, a real-estate developer and investor in Covington, Ky., who is planning a trip in October, said Iran's victory over the United States in World Cup soccer will make it easier to go.

"It's got to make the Iranians ... feel much better about themselves and they must be proud of beating the United States," said Herriman.

Earthquake Prediction Spooks Iran
By Afshin Valinejad
Associated Press Writer
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- Thousands of Iranians have left town. Others are stocking up on cash and food. And those with neithe r money nor means are simply praying to God.

A prediction by a man in Slovakia that a powerful earthquake will devastate Tehran this weekend or soon after has spread panic in the capital city of 10 million.

For days, newspapers have printed statements by seismologists and officials saying the earthquake prediction is a hoax. A nd one of the nation's top earthquake experts was appearing on TV Monday night to calm residents.

But callers to a local radio station from villages around Tehran complained Monday that they had been deluged by city fol k looking for a safe place to spend the weekend.

``They're even coming here asking if we have any tents to rent out,'' one caller said. ``What's happening in Tehran?''

Fear, panic and official scrambling -- that's what.

The Slovak Embassy in Tehran received a letter from a man named Lubomir Minarovjech, who predicted that an earthquake of magnitude 5 or more would jolt the capital this month, probably on July 10 or 13.

Trying to be helpful, the embassy faxed the letter to the Foreign Ministry in Tehran, which sent it to the president, who passed it on to seismologists at Tehran University. Somehow, the letter leaked out.

``Scientifically, the time and place of an earthquake cannot be predicted. This letter is a lie and a hoax,'' said Dr. Ba hram Akasheh, one of Iran's top seismologists.

Akasheh said he would go on television Monday to try to restore calm.

``Iranians are generally pretty well-informed about a lot of things. But they know nothing about earthquakes, and that's why this rumor has spread like wildfire,'' he said.

It also probably does not help that Iran is prone to devastating earthquakes.

In 1990, a town in northern Iran was destroyed when two quakes struck, killing 50,000 people and leaving 10 times as many homeless.

Last year, more than 5,000 people were killed in earthquakes, and this year dozens have died in smaller quakes. A minor e arthquake jolted Tehran in November, but caused no casualties or damage.

So, hoax or not, the prediction is the talk of the town.

``I think this is just a rumor or a hoax, but I can't ignore it and relax,'' said Fariba Ahmadzadeh, a secretary in Tehra n who was planning to go to the city of Mashhad over the weekend with her family. ``I don't want to have to live in panic , to have nightmares and be restless.''

But who is Minarovjech, and why does he think Tehran is in trouble?

Mohammad Reza Gheitanchi, head of Tehran University's seismology department, asked the Slovak Embassy about the mysteriou s Slovak.

``They told me he is 74, has no university education, and is not affiliated with any institution or scientific center,'' the Iran daily quoted Gheitanchi as saying.

Iran's Khatami holds up soccer team as example
TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iranian President Mohammad Khatami has hailed the efforts of the country's World Cup soccer squad as an example of unity and teamwork that the whole country should follow.

The president, whose moderate government has met resistance from influential conservatives, used a ceremony honouring the players after they returned from France to complain that Iranian society lacks tolerance for opposing views.

"We have not been able to help each other in establishing a desirable system, for unfortunately we are not tolerant," he was quoted as saying in Sunday's Tehran Times daily.

He said this lack of tolerance stems from "a historical disease" emanating from the lack of self-determination in the country until Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

The Iranian team, considered one of the weaker sides in the world soccer tournament, surprised many with a 2-1 victory over the United States and gave good performances despite losing to powerhouses Yugoslavia and Germany.

Khatami, elected last year in a landslide victory over conservative opponents on a mandate for political and social reform, remains widely popular.

Since his election, open clashes between pro-Khatami moderates and conservatives, who still control key levers of power, have become a familiar feature of the Iranian political landscape.

As the factional fighting has intensified, Khatami's reformist interior minister was ousted last month by Iran's conservative parliament, Tehran's pro-Khatami mayor faces graft charges from the conservative-led judiciary and a pro-Khatami newspaper was ordered to shut down last month.

Khatami said Iranian society should draw lessons from Iran's successful soccer squad, who worked closely as a team towards achieving a common goal.

President Khatami, in a ceremony honouring the team and its coaches, said the national squad brought pride to the nation with their fair play and teamwork.

He said society failed to understand that opposing points of view were inevitable.

Khatami has preached the theme of tolerance, civil dialogue, and strengthening Iran's civil society since his election.

Conservatives say reform too costly for Iran
TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iranian conservatives have launched a broad attack on President Mohammad Khatami's political reforms, saying the country's economic crisis must be addressed first.

In a series of high-profile speeches, leading conservatives have warned that rising inflation, persistent unemployment and the drop in world oil prices have effectively made Khatami's vision of greater political freedoms too expensive.

At the same time, new corruption charges have been laid against a key ally of the president, Tehran's suspended mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi.

"Today political development is of fourth or fifth degree of importance. Economic problems are of primary importance," Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, head of the judiciary, told worshippers at the weekly Friday prayers, broadcast on state television and radio.

"Political development has its own place, but the state of our society's economy is most important right now," Yazdi said.

His comments were echoed on Sunday by Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, the speaker of parliament and a failed conservative rival to Khatami in the May, 1997 elections.

Nateq-Nouri dismissed calls by radical Islamist students to elect a new parliament, warning the nation had no time to waste on political squabbles.

"My dear brothers and the noble people of Iran...Let's not lose these opportunities. Today our real problems are inflation, low oil prices and unemployment," Nateq-Nouri said in remarks to parliament carried by state radio.

"Let's all join hands and fight against these enemies," he said.

President Khatami, a moderate cleric, has made political and social reform within Iran's Islamic system the watchwords of his tenure under the slogans of "civil society" and "political development."

Neither Yazdi nor Nateq-Nouri criticised the popular president by name, but their attacks on "political development" left no doubt among pro-Khatami forces just what is at stake.

"What will be the president's answer to those who voted for him in view of his pivotal slogan of 'civil society' if he follows the advice of Ayatollah Yazdi and gives political development fourth or fifth priority?," asked pro-Khatami daily Hamshahri.

"How can the youth lead the country out of economic crisis? Isn't one of the ways to free the creativity of youth making them participate in political power, or what is referred to as 'political development,"' the newspaper said.

Khatami's message found a potent resonance within society, contributing to his surprise landslide victory over Nateq-Nouri, candidate of the traditionalist Iranian establishment.

Conservatives, who still control key levers of power, have worked to undermine many of Khatami's reforms in the 14 months since his election.

Recent weeks have seen the political factionalism break into the open, with the Tehran mayor's corruption trial, the recent impeachment of the president's interior minister and pressure to close pro-reform newspapers.

On Sunday a Tehran court accused the suspended mayor Karbaschi of obtaining contributions to Khatami's 1997 election campaign from wealthy developers who were then allegedly given illegal advantages in their dealings with the municipality.

Karbaschi denied the charges, saying they were based on confessions obtained under pressure and torture from jailed city officials.

The case is widely seen as being part of the power battle and now mounting economic woes appear to have given the president's critics more ammunition.

Khatami is expected to make a major address to the nation later this month outlining his economic reforms -- something analysts say will be crucial to the long-term survival.

Inflation is officially listed at 17 percent but private economists say that figure is too conservative. Unemployment is reported at nine percent but independent analysts suggest up to 20 percent are jobless.

Likewise, low world oil prices have hit Iran hard. The Islamic republic relies on oil for 80 percent of its hard currency earnings and 40 percent of government revenues. Prices are currently lagging near nine-year lows.

The debate has spilled over into conservative newspapers as well, appearing in an editorial in the English-language Tehran Times, entitled, "Political development or economic progress, which is first?"

"President Khatami must come out with a clear economic plan to complete his economic programme. Else, his political development will fall prey to economic short-comings," the newspaper said.

Iran Pres. Sees Change in U.S. Tone
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- The United States is adopting a different tone toward Iran, but it should demonstrate its good intentions through deeds, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami said Wednesday.

Khatami, credited with softening Iran's attitude toward the United States since his election last year, was speaking to reporters covering the visit of Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi.

Prodi, the first EU leader to travel to Iran since 1992, said Wednesday his visit will help ease Iran out of its international isolation.

``I consulted with President Clinton before coming to Tehran,'' Prodi said. ``This trip will have far-reaching implications. It will not only improve ties between Tehran and Rome, but also between Iran and the West.''

He gave no details.

Khatami had been asked about remarks President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made last month.

Clinton had said that Iran was ``changing in a positive way'' that could lead to a return to normal relations. Albright said that while the rift between the United States and Iran remained wide, ``it is time to test the possibilities for bridging this gap.''

``Changes are seen in their tone,'' Khatami said. ``We judge their sincerity by action and not only words.

``We hope this change of tone is a sign of better understanding of American politicians from the status of the Islamic Republic of Iran,'' Khatami was quoted as saying by the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

The United States broke off relations with Iran after militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran following the 1979 Islamic revolution and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

Khatami has promoted sporting and cultural exchanges with the United States, but has stopped short of calling for diplomatic ties.

The 15-nation EU broke off regular meetings with Iranian officials and withdrew its ambassadors in April 1997 after a German court implicated the Tehran government in the 1992 assassination of four Kurdish Iranian dissidents in Berlin. The envoys returned late last year and in March the EU agreed to resume dialogue with Iran.

Khatami Calls for Comprehensive Dialog with EU
TEHRAN - XINHUA - Iranian President Mohammad Khatami has called for overall talks between Iran and the European Union (EU), saying Iran is willing to boost relations with the EU on the basis of mutual respect and common interests.

Speaking at a banquet in honor of visiting Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, Khatami said he is pleased that Iran's declared policies, including those concerning removal of tension, dialog among civilizations and cultures, have attracted attention of the European society, the official news agency IRNA reported Thursday.

Khatami said Tehran believes that through comprehensive dialog, Iran and the EU can elevate mutual understanding, consolidate relations and cooperation and play a constructive role in solving regional and international issues.

Praising Italian government's "positive" measures to remove misunderstandings between Iran and the EU, the president expressed optimism about prospect of Tehran-Rome cooperation.

He said he believes Italy can as before continue to act as a bridge in Iran-EU ties, adding the meetings between high-ranking officials of the two sides indicated the political resolve of the two sides.

He predicted a bright prospect for Tehran-Rome relations in the next century in nuclear disarmament, campaign against illicit drugs, terrorism, organized crime and joint effort to attain equal rights for nations in an international civil society.

He said that Iran will provide Italian companies with suitable opportunity to participate in Iran's economic projects, and that scientific and cultural cooperation and establishment of further contacts between the two countries are also of paramount importance.

Prodi arrived here Tuesday night on an official visit and left for home after the Banquet. He expressed the hope that through strengthening bilateral ties, the two countries would be able to play an active role in international arena.

Stressing that cooperation with Iran is given priority by Italy, he said joint efforts at international forums, including joint campaign against international terrorism, can strengthen the basis of Tehran-Rome cooperation.

Iran: U.S. Oil Companies Welcome to Invest
LONDON (AP) Iran wants to boost its oil production capacity by 1.4 million barrels per day with help from the West, and officials said American oil companies would be welcome if they had no concerns about U.S. sanctions.

The Iranians have been in London this week seeking financial backing for oil ventures worth some $8 billion and even though a number of U.S. oil executives came to listen, that's about all they can do for now.

"They have the problem of sanctions, which is imposed on them," said Seyed Medhi Hosseini, deputy Iranian oil minister.

The United States will not let its companies invest in Iran, although the government backed off in May from threats to slap sanctions on oil companies based in the European Union that do business with the Iranians.

Hosseini told a news conference that Iran is seeking $5 billion for projects to increase oil production onshore and $3 billion for projects to increase offshore production. Much of the work would involve what oil companies call "enhanced recovery," meaning they would try to get more oil out of an existing field.

The Iranian official sought to play down any concerns that internal political squabbles could undermine the Islamic nation's efforts to reopen its doors to Western investment, and he was asked about the oil companies' concerns that they might not be able to find financing because it would be difficult to obtain appropriate insurance for investing in Iran.

"If you're looking for American banks to be included in this project, they have a problem," Hosseini said. "I don't see a problem with other banks."

He was vague about any insurance concerns but said there was little risk that Iran would again turn its back on new Western investment after kicking out multinational companies after the 1979 revolution.

"This has been approved by the Parliament," he said. "If something is approved by the Parliament, it is law, and I can't see any reason to be hesitant about it."

Iran will invite Western companies to Tehran in August to start issuing bids for various oil projects.

Iran is the second-biggest producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, pumping about 3.6 million barrels of crude a day. But it has recognized that it needs Western help to boost capacity and halt the decline of some oil fields.

Khatami Calls on U.S. to Match Words with Deeds
TEHRAN - XINHUA - Iranian President Mohammad Khatami Wednesday called on the United States to take actions to prove its goodwill gesture to Iran, the official news agency IRNA reported.

Speaking after a meeting with visiting Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, Khatami said that "changes are seen in their tone, but we judge their sincerity by actions and not only words."

"We hope this change of tone is a sign of better understanding of American politicians from the status of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Iranian nation and the global situation," he said.

It is the first reaction by head of the Iranian government to recent statements by U.S. President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on Washington's willingness to explore ways to rebuild confidence between the U.S. and Iran in order to resume diplomatic relations after nearly two decades.

On Tuesday, Clinton said in Shanghai during his tour to China, that he hoped the recent U.S.-Iran football match in the World Cup would help reach rapprochement between the two countries.

Clinton expressed belief that Khatami has the intention to have a "more regular relationship with the rest of the world in accordance with international law."

However, Khatami said that it is not the time to raise the issue of Tehran-Washington ties. "Naturally, our foreign policy bodies will make further comments on the issue, if necessary," he told reporters.

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi has also stressed that the U.S. should take practical actions, instead of good words, to back up its offer.

"The United States is obliged to adopt a more realistic position" by lifting an oil embargo on Iran, Kharrazi said, "This is the easiest move to ease the situation."

 

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