The life and [troubled] times of the Islamic Republic of Iran
Hundreds of employees from a Tehran refinery and of Tehran gasoline stations staged a sit-in on Taleghani avenue in Tehran on Sunday, in front of the main building of the Oil Ministry. The demonstration began at 8 AM on Feb. 16 and continued peacefully up until 4 PM, when units of the Special Guards of the Islamic Revolution were called in and began to attack the demonstrators.
Information on the oil workers strike was first distributed by the Flag of Freedom Organization, an opposition group based in Paris, France. Subsequent reports, with new details, were transmitted by the Constitutionalists Movement of Iran and by the Mujahidin-e Khalq, an opposition group based in Iraq. Most of the opposition reports estimated the number of demonstrators as "several thousand." The exile groups all confirmed the late-afternoon attack against the demonstrators by the security forces. [FFO, CMI, NCR statements, 2/16/97]
According to eye-witness reports from FDI observers in Tehran, the Special Guards troops called in to break up the demonstration fired shots in the air and arrested dozens of workers. Opposition groups reported that their sources had observed the security forces hauling away demonstrators by the busload.
For several days prior to the sit-in, representatives of the oil workers had been engaged in negotiations with the Oil and Labor Ministries on a wide range of issues. Workers complained that their salaries had lagged way behind Iran's staggering inflation, but also asked for better work conditions, better schools for their children, and better fringe benefits.
The sit-in was preceded by several weeks of intermittent work-stoppages and slow-downs. "This is only the beginning," said Dr. Manoucher Ganji, Secretary General of the Flag of Freedom Organization.
The Associated Press reported on Sunday from Tehran that some 300 riot police armed with batons took up positions outside the ministry after breaking up the demonstration, "detaining hundreds of demonstrators and taking them away in buses." [AP 2/16]
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i has fired the commander of the Law Enforcement Forces, Rev. Guards Brigadier Seyfollahi, after widespread criticism of the LEF's inability to quash internal dissent and a growing crime wave throughout the country.
Khamene'i announced he was sacking Seyfollahi on Feb. 15. The former LEF commander has been kicked upstairs to the Armed Forces General Staff. He is replaced as LEF commander by Rev. guards Brigadier General Hedayat Lotfian. [Tehran Radio 2/15]
Although Khamene'i praised Seyfollahi while sacking him, it should be noted that the LEF has been subjected to mounting criticism in the state-controlled press and in the Majlis for its inability to stop a growing crime wave throughout the country, from drug smuggling in the eastern provinces, to murder, burglaries, embezzlement, and corruption everywhere else.
In recent months, the LEF has come increasingly to be deployed against "counter-revolutionary" forces, whether these be striking workers, Sunni demonstrators in Kermanshah, or dissident intellectuals.
Key Senators, including Majority Leader Trent Lott, have called on President Clinton to intensify pressure on the Tehran regime, and to support freedom and democracy in Iran.
The letter to the President was dated Feb. 10 and signed by ten Senators, following the lead of Alfonse D'Amato (R,NY).
"We urge you to maintain and intensify your efforts to isolate the Iranian regime through diplomacy and multilateral fora, since there is simply no reasonable cause to believe this regime can be reformed from within," the Senators wrote.
The Senators urged the President to craft new measures aimed at ending the Islamic Republic's support for international terrorism, its massive human rights abuses, and its pursuit of nuclear weapons, while drawing " a very clear distinction between the regime and the people of Iran." The President should also "make it very clear in your public comments about Iran that U.S. policy is aimed at changing the behavior of the regime, not at penalizing the Iranian people," the Senators wrote.
"We strongly believe that the United States can encourage democrats inside Iran by extending a hand of friendship to the Iranian people. We urge you to put support for democracy and human rights at the very center of your Iran policy. A strong, free, and democratic Iran is in America's long-term strategic interest."
The letter was the first time prominent U.S. politicians have openly called for a support to democratic opposition forces inside Iran..
Following the announcement that the 15th Khordad Foundation had upped the bounty on British novelist Salman Rushdie's head by $500,000 to $2.5 million, a state-controlled daily in Tehran has once again given its unequivocal support to the death edict.
"Let us put it very straight...this issue will not be resolved unless the damage is redressed and this certainly would not happen unless Rushdie meets his fate,'' the English-language Kayhan International wrote in an editorial. [2/16]
Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic Guards Corps (IRGC, or Pasdaran) issued a statement on Thursday, Feb. 13, saying that Moslems across the world would not rest until they killed Rushdie. The 15th Khordad foundation had upped the bounty on Rushdie's head the previous day.
"Muslims of the world have always considered Salman Rushdie an apostate and shall not rest until Imam Khomeini's order is implemented,'' the Rev. Guards statement said. "Rushdie should know that in the end he will be burned on the fire which he started." [Jomhouri-e Eslami 2/13]
A radical Tehran university student group also urged the government to actively participate in Rushdie's execution. "We seriously urge esteemed officials of the sacred Islamic Republic... to disregard international diplomatic norms and take action to implement the revolutionary fatwa,'' the students said. [Salam 2/13]
In London, Rushdie told the Independent on Sunday that British intelligence agents had told him that the British government has expelled "a couple of dozen Iranians" from Britain for attempting to carry out the death edict. "They did not get close. I was not told any more details," he told the newspaper. All of those expelled, Rushdie said, had been Iranian government agents, contradicting Tehran's claims that it would not send out hit teams to execute Rushdie. [Independent on Sunday, 2/16]
Also in London, exile politician Mehrdad Khonsari has proposed that the Rushdie fatwa be handed over to a council of senior Muslim clerics, to determine its legality.
While senior clerics in the past have ridiculed the fatwa as illegal and illegitimate (See "Rouhani proposes "solution" to Rushdie affair," in Newswire 24), Khonsari appears to be motivated by an urge to save the regime, not Salman Rushdie.
In his "proposal for ending the Rushdie impasse," Khonsari states that his over-riding concern is to "remove the obstacles" blocking better relations between the Islamic Republic and the West, so that Western oil companies will have free reign to develop Iran's oil and gas resources, regardless of Iran's political system.
"There is no question any longer that the future prosperity of our nation and the destiny of our future generations is today dependent on a number of critical decisions, likely to be made in the next few years, which will prove decisive in determining the future economic prospects of our nation. Consequently, FRONT LINE is committed to a political platform that is able to remove any obstacles - the Rushdie episode being only one in a number of important outstanding issues - contributing to Iran's isolation in all international circles," Khonsari writes [Front line statement 2/14, emphasis ours]
Once the Rushdie fatwa is lifted, Mr. Khonsari seems to be saying, British Petroleum (and others) will be having a real romp down in southern Iran.
Nowhere in Mr. Khonsari's statement are the notions of internationally-recognized standards of human rights, or pluralistic democracy given even a passing mention. Instead, the Rushdie "impasse" is seen as a legalistic problem that can be resolved by appealing to a different judge, while the structures and power centers of the Islamic Republic remain intact.
In a dramatic and forceful departure from the status quo in Europe, the London Times newspaper has urged the British government to abandon the policy of appeasement toward Tehran taken by its European partners and support Washington's tougher stance of sanctions against the Tehran regime.
"Tomorrow (Friday) is the eighth anniversary of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, and the news from Tehran is grim. One of the most powerful members of the Iranian clergy, Ayatollah Sanei, has declared that the fatwa still stands and that the bounty on his head will be increased, at least temporarily, to $2.5 million, in order to incite 'Muslim or non-Muslim, including Rushdie's bodyguards' to assassinate the author of The Satanic Verses."
"After five years of 'critical dialogue' with Tehran, it is time to accept that the fatwa is unlikely ever to be revoked as long as Iran remains a theocracy dominated by fundamentalist imams. There is no sign from that quarter of the compassion and mercy which are such central concepts of Islam. Ayatollah Sanei is head of the 15 Khordad Foundation, an influential Islamic organization connected to senior figures in the Iranian regime. President Rafsanjani's claim that the Ayatollah and his foundation are no more than private bodies is mere sophistry."
"If Mr. Rafsanjani wishes to disown the fatwa, he has only to say so, publicly and unambiguously, and to supply the written guarantee of Mr. Rushdie's safety which Britain has sought for the past eight years. But the Iranian President, who is anyway expected to lose office in the elections next July, has offered only weasel words. Ayatollah Sanei also warned other presidential candidates not to distance themselves from the fatwa against Mr. Rushdie. It seems unlikely that any likely leader will dare to challenge the late Ayatollah Khomeini's cruel anathema. "
"The Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, has two choices: to support the American policy of sanctions against Iran, or to align Britain with those European partners, notably Germany, which have argued that tough measures would only strengthen the hard-liners in Tehran. The bankruptcy of 'critical dialogue' means that the option of appeasing Tehran by continuing normal trade and diplomacy while the fatwa still stands should now be ruled out."
"Sanctions should never be imposed lightly, but the case for solidarity with Washington against state-sponsored Iranian terrorism is now very strong. When the new American Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, visits London next week, it would be a welcome gesture for Mr. Rifkind to announce that selective sanctions against Iran were being actively considered. Europe is no longer pursuing a credible policy on the Rushdie affair. Nor is it likely to do so unless Britain offers to take a lead." [London Times 2/13]
Another Iranian intellectual, Dr. Habibollah Peyman, has been blocked from foreign travel as he was attempting to fly to London from Tehran's Mehrebad airport, the opposition Iran Nation's Party revealed on Feb. 13 [INP statement 2/13]
Dr. Peyman, the leader of the Militant Muslims Movement in Tehran, confirmed the incident in a telephone interview with the Persian service of the BBC on the following day.
"On Thursday, around 8 AM, I arrived at the transit hall of Mehrebad airport to fly to London," Dr. Peyman told the BBC. "I intended to give a speech at the University of London, called 'The Social and historical reasons for the lack of progress in establishing democracy in Iran.'"
Dr. Peyman's account of the incident demonstrates the confusing and conflicting powers Iranians confront in their everyday lives. "At the transit hall of the airport," he said, "one of the MOIS personnel confiscated my passport. When I asked the officers of the LEF at the airport what was the problem, they answered that from their point of view there was no problem, but from the viewpoint of the MOIS something was wrong and that I should refer to the MOIS to check the case." Dr. Peyman speculated that he was probably stopped from leaving the country because of the topic of his speech, and commented: "I believe that these kinds of moves by the regime should be protested." [BBC Persian service 2/14]
The travails of Faraj Sarkuhi, whose 14-page letter is now available in English on our human rights page, is not finished his worries. The INP has reported from Tehran that the woman who accompanied him to the airport on his ill-fated trip to Germany last November, Ms. Parvin Ardalan, is now missing and has presumably been arrested by the authorities. Friends began to notice her absence two weeks ago. [INP weekly bulletin, 2/16]
Meanwhile, in an interview with the Persian-language service of the Voice of America, Sarkuhi's wife, Farideh Zebarjad, claimed that her husband was being detained and tortured because of his efforts to set up a democratic writers' association in Iran. She noted that his troubles began in 1994, when he got 134 writers to sign an open letter demanding greater freedom of expression from the Islamic Republic authorities. [VOA 2/14]
Iranians in exile staged demonstrations against the Islamic Republic, focusing on the arrest of Faraj Sarkuhi, at a number of IRI embassies and consulates around the world on Feb. 10 and Feb. 11, the 18th anniversary of the regime.
In London, the exiles were joined by members of the British PEN club. In Los Angeles, several thousand exiles gathered in front of the Westwood town hall to stage their yearly protest against the regime. As in earlier years, their demonstration was ignored by the U.S. media.
In Paris, some 1,500 Iranian exiles demonstrated on Feb. 14 against the Rushdie fatwa and the European Union's continued policy of "critical dialogue" with the Tehran regime.
The son of Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Shirazi, who was recently released after more than 18 months in jail, has reportedly escaped to Syria and has requested political asylum, the INP reported in Tehran.
Until now, the escape of Hojjat-ol eslam Seyed Morteza Shirazi has not been reported by other sources, including the followers of Grand Ayatollah Shirazi. [INP statement 2/12]
In what may be pure coincidence, IRI Defense Minister Dr. Mohammed Forouzandeh met with his Syrian counter-part in Damascus two days following Seyed Shirazi's reported escape. The two were scheduled to discuss defense cooperation, although press speculation noted their talks occurred as Israel was increasing its protests of Iranian arms deliveries via Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. [UPI 2/14]
Nine months after the arrest of Grand Ayatollah Ya'sooboddin Rastegaari in February 1996 by the Special Court for Priests, Tehran finally acknowledged it was detaining the 70-year old dissident cleric on trumped-up charges.
In a letter issued to one of Rastegaari's supporters by the IRI embassy in Toronto, Canada on Nov. 18, 1996, following inquiries by Amnesty International's Urgent Action Network, the regime stated he had been repeatedly imprisoned, sentenced to house arrest and eventually to internal exile. from which the 70-year old escaped and had to be put (definitively?) behind bars.
"Referring to your inquiries regarding Mr. [sic] Ya'sooboddin Rastegaari, the Embassy would like to clarify that Mr. Rastegaari was arrested for misinforming and activities against the security and public order of the country.
"First he was sentenced to ten years of supervised residence inside Iran and was pardoned and released later.
"Again he committed the same crimes and was convicted to five years supervised settlement in Yazd (a town in the Central region of Iran).
"He escaped from his residence without authorization. Therefore, he was sentenced to two years imprisonment and he will stay until the termination of his conviction term," the letter from the IRI embassy in Canada concluded.
Grand Ayatollah Rastegaari is perhaps best known for having organized a mourning ceremony for Grand Ayatollah Shariat Madaari in 1986. Shariat Madaari was the driving force behind the 1978 revolt against the Shah, was later repudiated by the Islamic Republic, put under house arrest, and - supporters say - executed by the regime in 1986.
Rastegaari was jailed for two and a half years for his offense. After his release, he was re-arrested on charges of having performed a public prayer without getting permission from the appropriate authorities. Tried before the Special Court of Priests, he was sentence to one year in jail. He has been jailed several times since.
In February 1996, secret police raided his home in Qom, confiscating books and papers and arresting him. For several months, his whereabouts were unknown. Finally, he was tried before the Special Court for Priests in August 1996 and sentenced to three years imprisonment. He had no access to a lawyer for the trial and was not allowed to defend himself. The trial lasted only a few minutes.
After months of appeals, Ayatollah Khamene'i agreed to release him on Nov. 25, and he left prison on Dec. 21. Almost immediately, Rastegaari was placed under house arrest, where he has remained.
Ansar-e Hezbollah thugs have struck again, this time assaulting a crowd of mourners on Feb. 12, who had gathered for the commemoration ceremony of well-known nationalist journalist, Ahmad Anvari, who died in the city of Karaj one week earlier. The ceremony was being held at the Seyed mosque in Isfahan. During the attack, the Hezbollahi thugs beat Anvari's son, Majid Anvari, and were eventually kicked out of the mosque by Hojjat-ol eslam Mehdi Tahami, who was delivering a speech in Anvari's honor.
According to reports from Nimrooz in London, the attackers were led by a well-known leader of the Isfahan Hezbollah branch, Haj Agha Kaveh. [Nimrooz 2/14]
A group of teachers from the 20th district of the Ministry of Education in Tehran staged a demonstration in front of the Tehran town hall on Wednesday, Feb. 5, to protest the government's failure to fulfill its commitment to build them new houses. As part of their benefits programs, the teacher's had regularly been paying into a housing investment trust over the past eight years, but discovered that it now contained insufficient funds to finance the houses as promised.
The lack of adequate housing is a growing problem among the middle classes and among government employees. A similar problem existed in 1978 and was one of the reasons the middle classes rallied to the revolution against the Shah. [INP weekly bulletin 2/9]
Large crowds chanting "Death to Israel" and "Death to America" marched in Tehran on "Jerusalem Day" (Feb. 7), and listened as President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani denounced Israel during as a "dragon" created by the West.
Demonstrators stepped on Israeli flags laid on street pavements and burned a large map of the Jewish state. A resolution read at the rally said: "The liberation of Jerusalem and its return into Islam's bosom is only possible through armed struggle and a united anti-Zionist front".
Speaking before Rafsanjani, parliament speaker and presidential candidate Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri blasted Israel as a "bastard" state. "The only path to salvation is to struggle, resist and wage war. May God give you (Palestinians) victory. I hope one day we will celebrate your victory and the destruction of Israel," Nateq-Nouri said. [Reuter 2/7]
Feb. 10, 1997
The Honorable Bill Clinton
The White House
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Mr. President,
We are writing you to express our support for a strong and clear U.S. policy toward Iran during your second term.
We urge you to maintain and intensify your efforts to isolate the Iranian regime through diplomacy and multilateral fora, since there is simply no reasonable cause to believe this regime can be reformed from within. The failure of European countries to obtain any meaningful results through critical dialogue with the Islamic regime in Iran is indicative of the kind of response that the United States can expect from a similar approach.
We hold the regime in Tehran responsible for the behavior the U.S. government and its allies have found so objectionable: its use of terrorism as a tool of foreign policy, its efforts to subvert neighboring governments, its violent opposition to the Middle East peace process, its pursuit of a clandestine nuclear weapons program, and its abysmal human rights record.
In crafting new measures aimed at ending this objectionable behavior, we urge you to draw a very clear distinction between the regime and the people of Iran, and to make it very clear in your public comments about Iran that U.S. policy is aimed at changing the behavior of the regime, not at penalizing the Iranian people.
We strongly believe that the United States can encourage democrats inside Iran by extending a hand of friendship to the Iranian people. We urge you to put support for democracy and human rights at the very center of your Iran policy. A strong, free, and democratic Iran is in America's long-term strategic interest.
A current report by the U.N. Human Rights Commission confirms that political executions, discrimination and breaches of human rights have reached an all-time high in Iran. In light of these very disturbing facts, we urge you to put support for democracy and human rights at the very center of your Iran policy. A strong, free, and democratic Iran is in America's long-term strategic interest.
We encourage you and the Secretary of State to state publicly and consistently that the United States supports the sovereign right of the Iranian people to choose their form of government by democratic means. The United States became a great nation by providing decisive leadership in the world in promoting human rights and democratic principles. Your continued support of these ideals will undoubtedly have the approbation of the American people and other Western nations.
Senators Trent Lott, Spencer Abraham, Launch Faircloth, Carl Levin, Connie Mack, Alfonse D'Amato, Thad Cochran, Daniel K. Inouye, Joseph I. Liberman, Craig Thomas.