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August 1998, Week 4

FarsiNet FarsiNews

Iran to hold war games near Afghan border August 31
Iran's Khatami appoints moderate as vice president August 31
Iran's media-savvy president hosts radio phone-in August 28
Suspect in killing of Iran prison head dies August 27
French Say Iran Wants World Role August 24
French visit seeks to capitalize August 23


Iran to hold war games near Afghan border
TEHRAN, Iran (Reuters) -- Iran, a strong critic of the Afghan Taliban, said on Saturday it would soon stage major military exercises near its tense border with Afghanistan, but added it did not seek a confrontation with the Islamic militia.

Revolutionary Guards Commander Major-General Yahya Rahim Safavi told reporters that the war games involving 70,000 military personnel reflected "the new security situation" in the region.

"Naturally, these exercises are not without links to the new situation in Afghanistan ... But we strongly condemn any military interference in neighbouring countries," Safavi said.

"We do not recognise this group (Taliban) and we do not see them as worthy to be confronted by the Revolutionary Guards who have engaged America's Navy and the Iraqi war machine," he said, in reference to the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and clashes with the U.S. Navy in the final stages of the war.

Safavi blasted the Taliban as "a small group, created by foreigners whose interests it serves," but said Iran sought peace and stability in the region.

Safavi's remarks reflected heightened tensions between Iran, which backs the Afghan opposition, and the Taliban, which controls most of Afghanistan.

"Last year. the Revolutionary Guards held their big 'Ashoura- 2' exercises in the Persian Gulf ..., this year 'Ashoura-3' will be held in the northeast," Safavi added. Last year's war games coincided with tensions between Iran and the United States in the strategic waterway in the oil-rich region.

The air and ground "Ashoura-3" war games, to be launched in the next few days, would be "the largest manuvers in northeastern Iran since the (1979 Islamic) revolution and even before the revolution," he said.

The Iranian forces will test "recently acquired modern ground and air weapons and equipment, including electronic devices" during the war games in an area near Torbat-e Jam, about 60 km (40 miles) from the Afghan border, Safavi said.

The exercises will also include the rapid deployment of 7,000 troops by aircraft and helicopters from as far away as 1,000 km (625 miles).

Iran has been angered by the capture of dozens of Iranians by the Taleban during its recent sweep of northern Afghanistan.

Tehran has repeatedly called for the release of 11 diplomats, a journalist and 35 lorry drivers who disappeared when the Taliban captured the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, former headquarters of the anti-Taleban alliance, earlier this month.

The Taliban has acknowledged holding the drivers but has denied knowing the whereabouts of the others.

Iran has in the past few years beefed up its defences along its 1,000 km-long border with Afghanistan, a key transit route for opium and heroin headed to Europe from Afghanistan and Pakistan -- the so-called "Golden Crescent."

Shiite Moslem Iran has accused the Sunni Muslim Taliban movement of giving Islam a bad name and has criticized the Taliban's severe restrictions on women.

In New York on Friday, the U.N Security Council condemned the recent capture by the Taliban of Iran's consulate-general in Mazar-i-Sharif, and demanded that all parties, particularly Taliban, do everything to ensure safe passage out of the country its staff and other missing Iranian nationals.

Iran's Khatami appoints moderate as vice president
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- President Mohammad Khatami has appointed a moderate as vice president in charge of legal and Parliament affairs, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported Sunday.

The appointee, Mohammad Ali Sadouqi, formerly served in the Parliament and succeeds Abdolvahed Mousavi Lari, who was appointed interior minister last month.

Sadouqi is a strong supporter of Khatami, and they both hail from the central city of Yazd, where Sadouqi is the Friday prayers leader, a prominent job in Iran.

Khatami has several vice presidents. They serve in the Cabinet but do not require approval by parliament, which is dominated by conservatives.

Iran's media-savvy president hosts radio phone-in
TEHRAN(Reuters) - Go ahead, caller, President Mohammad Khatami is on the line.

"Is that really you? I can't believe it?" the 61 year-old Iranian woman said, her voice shaking.

"Yes it is, but why can't you believe it? You are simply talking to your humble servant. Your president's importance is derived directly from you, the people," Khatami responded. The caller, who broke down in tears, was participating in a national telephone call-in to the Iranian president, broadcast on state-run radio on Thursday afternoon.

Some callers cried, others swooned, a few complained, and some even asked for personal favours, but all expressed thanks for the opportunity to directly address their president.

It was vintage Khatami, who portrays himself as a man of the people with media-savvy events such as standing at the rear of a lunch queue or wading into crowds, smiling and glad-handing the excited spectators. Khatami, to most of the callers, reiterated his presidential campaign themes of tolerance, respect for the law and strengthening civil society.

The moderate cleric, who won an overwhelming election victory last year on a broad platform of political and social reform, waxed eloquent on freedom, tolerance and the role of politicians.

"The problem with our society," Khatami told one caller, "is that we are constantly searching for a hero. People should feel they are heroes themselves and politicians are their servants." One frustrated caller accused Khatami of "compromising" his campaign promises in the face of "those who seek to block your plans."

Khatami responded: "Thank you for speaking so frankly. Our very intention is to work within an atmopshere of different opinions with a referee called law. Those who are opposed should be free to express themselves." "Society will only progress when the people have supervision over government. The problem will not be solved by violence and we must learn to tolerate each other."

Conservatives -- who still control key levers of power -- have clashed with moderate supporters of Khatami on a range of issues. Occasionally, those differences have turned violent.

"Mr President, you always are speaking in the defence of freedom," said one caller. "Don't you think this freedom could lead to anarchy?"

Khatami replied: "The boundaries of freedom are expressed in our constitution, which gives people the right to express their opinions. The notion that this freedom leads to anarchy... is either a misunderstanding or a fallacy." "If one particular attitude is imposed on society, in the name of religion, this could lead to young people's disillusionment with religion," he added.

The call-in programme, taped earlier and expected to be broadcast on prime-time television on Thursday, offered Iranians a rare opportunity to publicly address their leader.

A seven-year-old girl complained about the lack of parks and swimming pools for girls in her southern city.

"You are right, many of our people are deprived, particularly our girls," Khatami told the chirpy-voiced youngster. "We must do our best to eradicate poverty and improve our people's living standards." One young man complained about the inflexibility of Iran's military service laws. "I have a wife and a child. How can I spend two years in the military?" Khatami promised the young man he would try to help him, "within the boundaries of the law, of course."

Suspect in killing of Iran prison head dies
TEHRAN,Iran (Reuters) - A man arrested for the assassination of a former Iranian prison chief died on Wednesday from wounds suffered at the time of his arrest, the official IRNA news agency reported.

"The terrorist MKO member Ali Akbar Akbar Deh-Balaie, who was injured at the scene of the martyrdom of Assadollah Lajevardi and was arrested ... died despite attempts of the doctors to keep him alive," IRNA quoted an Information Ministry source as saying.

There was no official word on how the man was injured but the Iraq-based Mujahideen Khalq (MKO) armed opposition group, which claimed responsibility for the assassination, said there had been a fierce shootout at the scene of the attack.

The Mujahideen denied any of its members had been arrested. Lajevardi was killed on Sunday at a tailoring business he owned in Tehran's bustling business district.

Iran has said one of two assailants was arrested at the scene. Lajevardi, 63, who headed Tehran's Evin prison after the 1979 Islamic revolution and was also a prosecutor, was often accused by opposition groups of being responsible for alleged torture and mistreatment of political prisoners. Many political prisoners were held at Evin in the years before and after the revolution.

French Say Iran Wants World Role
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- Iran's new leaders, who are trying to raise their nation's profi le on the world stage, strongly condemn terrorist acts like the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, France's foreign minister said Sunday.

In his two-day mission, Hubert Vedrine was clearly seeking to give a boost to Iran's moderates in their bitter struggle against the hard-liners.

Vendrine made a point Sunday of saluting ``the impressive will of the Iranian elector ate'' that voted moderate President Mohammad Khatami into power a year ago.

``Iran is looking to recover her role, her strategic role'' in world affairs, Vedrine said, a role he said was natural, given the country's ``size, potential and position .''

Vedrine held a second day of talks Sunday, meeting Khatami and again speaking with hi s Iranian counterpart, Kamal Kharrazi. He would not elaborate, however, on the most d ifficult issues he came to discuss: human rights and terrorism.

Still, Vedrine emphasized that all the officials he met condemned acts of terror, inc luding the recent U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

``All my interlocutors said in a solemn tone that they absolutely condemn acts of ter rorism,'' Vedrine told a news conference.

On human rights, he would say only that the dialogue is continuing.

``On certain points we have values in common, and on certain points we have different interpretations,'' he said. Vedrine did not mention the Iranian reaction to his quer y on lifting the death sentence imposed on British author Salman Rushdie in 1989 for his book `The Satanic Verses,' which Tehran considers blasphemous.

On Middle East peace, Vedrine said the Iranians felt the peace process was dead becau se of the intransigence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government.

France feels any peace process is better than none at all, Vedrine added.

Vedrine's trip, which ends Sunday evening, is the highest-level French visit in seven years. Relations between the two nations chilled in 1991 when a former Iranian prime minister turned opposition leader was assassinated in Paris.

Shapour Bakhtiar was one of eight dissidents in France believed killed by Iranian hit squads.

Lately, however, both Europe and the United States have noted positively the changing signals from Iran.

The gap between the United States and Iran remains wide despite tentative moves by bo th sides to overcome the rupture in relations caused by Iranian militants who seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979.

Vedrine said U.S.-Iranian relations came up only indirectly in his talks, when Khatam i spoke of a desire to open up to the West in general.

Vedrine also spent much time discussing trade with Iran. And the two countries agreed to cooperate in agriculture, the fight against drugs, civil aviation, and peaceful u ses of nuclear energy.

Vedrine also handed Khatami an invitation to visit Paris from French President Jacque s Chirac.

French visit seeks to capitalize on moderate signs from Iran
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- France's foreign minister traveled to Tehran on Friday to meet the country's moderate president and other leaders, the latest high-profile European visit to forge closer ties with Iran.

"My country places great importance on what is going on in Iran," Hubert Vedrine said upon his arrival. "I came to see for myself, to listen and understand better."

Vedrine's trip is the highest-level French visit in seven years and follows a visit to Tehran in June by Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi.

During his two-day visit, the French foreign minister said he planned to discuss all subjects with President Mohammad Khatami, who has sought to renew Iran's contact with the West since he was elected last year.

Vedrine made it clear terrorism would be on the agenda of his talks with Iranian officials, especially in the wake of recent attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and Washington's retaliatory attacks Thursday in Sudan and Afghanistan.

Earlier this summer, President Clinton acknowledged Iran's shifting political atmosphere, saying the longtime foe was "changing in a positive way." The United States has long seen Iran as a rogue state that sponsors terrorism.

The issue directly concerns France. In the last 10 years, eight Iranian dissidents have been assassinated on French soil; the last in 1996. They're believed to have been killed by Iranian government hit squads.


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