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[casi] News supplement, 25/5-1/6/02 (1)

NEWS SUPPLEMENT, 25/5-1/6/02 (1)
Articles by Pepe Escobar on Iran (the first two parts of this series were in
last weekıs mailing).

[Extract from Part 4: ŒShariatmadari uses Francis Fukuyama and his thesis of
liberal democracy as the end of history to challenge the concept of liberal
democracy itself. "I believe that today Bush, after the accident of
September 11, killed liberal democracy in the US. He says that one of the
main principles of execution of liberal democracy is the building up of
dialogue. But when he was asked if al-Qaeda had perpetrated September 11, he
said this was a time for building up war. If someone is not with us, then he
is our enemy, and we go to war against him. I'd like to know whether Western
theoreticians consider this as liberal democracy." In the current climate of
ideological confusion, "Western intellectuals and official authorities don't
know what liberal democracy is anymore. So how do they want to transfer it
to the whole world?"ı]

*  IRAN DIARY, Part 3: Knocking on democracy's door [To what extent is the
Iranian constitution Œdemocraticı?]
*  IRAN DIARY, Part 4: Follow the leader [The contested role of Ayatollah
*  IRAN DIARY, Part 5: The guardian [Interview with Mohsen Ismaili, a
non-clerical member of the Council of Guardians.
*  IRAN DIARY, Part 6: Golden domes and mean streets [In Mashhad. Beauty of
the shrine of Imam Reza, squalor of the Afghan refugee quarter.]

*  IRAN DIARY, Part 3: Knocking on democracy's door
by Pepe Escobar 
Asia Times, 25th May

QOM - Twenty-three years after the victory of the Islamic revolution, the
absolutely key question facing Iranian society at the present political,
economic and social crossroads regards the role of the leader and guide -
and consequently the crucial concept of velayat-e faqih (supreme religious

Officially, the highest authority of the Islamic Republic is "the leader who
as per the constitution should enjoy piety and fairness as well as proper
political and social insight, prudence and academic qualifications for
issuing decrees on various issues of fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence]."

One of Grand Ayatollah Saanei's crucial fatwas (religious rulings - see Iran
Diary, Part 2 [in last weekıs mailing - PB]) concerns exactly the concept of
velayat-e faqih. The Qom religious eminence stated that "any comprehensively
qualified mujtahid [jurisprudent] is competent to assume the position of
velayat and as regards the people, and in serving the public interest in
cases for which Islam has not decreed a specific ruling, the legitimacy for
action derives solely from the people." In the political structure of the
Islamic Republic, 70 mujtahids - winners of a popular vote - constitute the
experts assembly that elects the supreme leader.

Certainly there are democratic seeds planted in this garden. But actually
the supreme leader - namely Ayatollah Ali Hoseini Khamenei - among other
crucial tasks determines the guidelines of the system, holds the supreme
command of the armed forces, and appoints and dismisses the six fiqs
(Islamic canonists) appointed to the all-powerful Council of Guardians. He
also controls the judiciary and the audiovisual media, while the Council of
Guardians keeps parliament in check, vetoing any legislation considered to
be "in contrast with Islam and the constitution" and vetting any unsuitable

The debate raging nowadays in Iran regards the possibility of the leader
being converted into a kind of constitutional theocrat - so the elected
President Mohammed Khatami may really govern and the 290-seat majlis
(parliament) legislate with no constraints. Iranian democracy in this case
would function smoothly - without any need to alter the constitution. At
present, with the country governed by both secular and religious leaders and
governing bodies, duties often overlap, although the religious leader holds

But if the leader is to remain the bearer of the last word, it is proven
that the religious order is above the political order - even if the leader
himself is a product of the political order (after all, he was elected by
jurisprudents elected by the people).

The conservatives in Iran are using any tricks in the book (or not in the
book) to characterize the role of the leader as transcending even the
conditions of his nomination. As the leader - a doctor of law - defends a
system (fiqh) that is not open to a democratic debate, it is fair to assume
that no real democracy is being practiced in Iran, as the so-called "third
generation" of young Iranians - post- revolution - scream louder and louder.

The conservatives are also fighting an extra challenge coming from the
proponents of a "religious civil society". These people are not exactly
secular, but they vigorously defend an "Islamic democracy" where the role of
Islam would be ultimately determined by popular vote. To sum up, in the
current circumstances the heirs of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's revolution
of 1979 are split between the partisans of a "religious democracy" and the
partisans of the velayat-e faqih. Who is the real sovereign, the people or
the leader? 

The answer we get from the ayatollahs in conservative Qom - especially
during the Friday prayers - is that the powers of the faqih are not limited
by the constitution: this would mean that Khamenei enjoys the same powers as
the Prophet Mohammed and the "immaculate imams".

The debate is absolutely crucial because it clarifies how far the Islamic
revolution has deviated from its original ideology - which proposed an
absolute convergence of interests between Islam and the popular will. It is
fair to define the conservatives in Iran today as a group of
neo-fundamentalists no different from the wahhabis in Saudi Arabia. They are
saying that Islam and democracy are incompatible because an Islamic state is
defined by the primacy of fiqh - which is not to be subjected to popular
debate. The whole evolution (or involution) is even more striking because
this was not what Khomeini had in mind.

Fortunately, since Khomeini's death an intellectual criticism of the velayat
by clerics themselves has also been taking place - a criticism that
ultimately "legitimizes parliamentary democracy in the name of Islam", as
enunciated by Farhad Khosrokhavar, an Iranian scholar at the prestigious
Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. He singles out a
moammam ("turbaned", current Persian term designating mullahs), Mohsen
Kadivar, as a master in mixing methods of Islamic juridical analysis with
critical analysis. Kadivar is one of those who tries to smash the concept of
velayat by stressing its minority role in the complex web of Shi'ite
canonical law, which governs Iran. And because of his exhaustive and precise
knowledge he simply cannot be disqualified by the conservatives.

Kadivar has comprehensively demonstrated that Khomeini was never in favor of
the velayat-e faqih, but of the nezarat-e faqih (surveillance). In his Paris
conferences just before the revolution, and then in the first months of
1979, Khomeini advocated nothing else than a function of surveillance for
the faqih. 

But reality today is still being dictated by the faqih. While President
Khatami preaches a "dialogue among civilizations" - a concept widely praised
all over the world - Ayatollah Khamenei refuses any dialogue. The supreme
leader has just rejected the idea of even talks with the US: "While the
United States sets an official budget for anti-Iranian activities, it would
be treason and stupidity to want to negotiate or talk to them."

It is true that Washington's attitude toward Tehran may involve marvels of
stupidity - such as the recent State Department report accusing Iran of
having been the most active terrorist state in 2001. A wonderful way to
debunk this rubbish would be to apply 2,500 accumulated years of
sophisticated Persian diplomacy on novices such as George W Bush and Colin
Powell and Co. But Khatami's "dialogue among civilizations" is not getting
any mileage with the supreme leader and his entourage.

Internally, the abyss widens between Islamic legislation and the new Iranian
society - modernized to a point that was never envisaged by the architects
of the revolution. It is fair to say that the "third generation" is almost
completely de-Islamicized. Segregated buses and the inevitable wearing of
black chadors (veils) apart, the revolution has not managed to stop the
social development of Iran dead in its tracks.

It may not be so obvious in conservative Qom, but among many of the 12
million inhabitants of Tehran - practically 20 percent of the whole country
- the incredible thirst to swallow all about the world is intoxicating.
There's widespread Internet frenzy, everybody watches foreign films on
compact disc, girls dress like those in New York or Tokyo under their
customized and always supremely elegant chadors, and everybody and his
neighbor wants to emigrate to Canada (the new Iranian dream is not the
United States). The established Islamic power is far from controlling the
whole of of society: in popular culture, in the wider economy, in ways of
consuming, one finds all sorts of transgressions and even open opposition.

Iran is now an active part of the world culture. After 23 years digesting
one of the most devastating social earthquakes in modern history, the time
now is for intellectual debate, burying old ideologies and forging a new
identity. It is never enough to remind that Iran holds the youngest
demographics in the world. Its 35 million young people under the age of 25 -
the children of the revolution - represent nothing less than 60 percent of
the population of the whole country. If the defenders of the velayat-e faqih
don't listen to the young generation, they will soon be relegated to the
cemetery of history - and not exactly as celebrated martyrs.

*  IRAN DIARY, Part 4: Follow the leader
by Pepe Escobar 
Asia Times, 29th May

TEHRAN - As president of the Kayhan Group of Newspapers and Publications,
Hussein Shariatmadari is an unusually well-positioned player on the Iranian
political chessboard. Kayhan is one of the top Iranian media groups -
publishing a daily paper in Farsi, dailies in English and Arabic, a sports
daily, a weekly targeting the Iranian diaspora, a women's weekly, a
children's weekly, a cultural monthly and an academic monthly, this one very
popular in the Middle East. The group "does not belong to the state
directly", says Shariatmadari, "it belongs to the public".

At ease talking about Islamic jurisprudence or quoting Rousseau and US
hawks, Shariatmadari's most important asset, though, is the fact that he is
directly appointed by the supreme leader himself, Grand Ayatollah Ali
Hoseini Khamenei. He has known Khamenei intimately for many years.

Shariatmadari deplores the fact that the Western press, unlike in the case
of the charismatic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the Islamic
revolution in 1979, does not make any effort to understand Khamenei - the
man, his character and his worldview. "I believe Ayatollah Khamenei is just
like Ayatollah Khomeini. But he is younger. He thinks the same regarding the
poor and the oppressed, US policies, the globalization of Islamic points of
view and the Israeli Zionist regime. The supreme leader has a very simple
way of life. He doesn't let any of his children hold any government
positions. Two of his sons in fact participated in the eight years of the
imposed war of Iran against Iraq [1980-88]."

Shariatmadari recalls that Khamenei belongs to a clerical family with a very
long history of fighting the Shah's regime. He studied theology in Qom - and
became one of Khomeini's closest friends, although still very young. Among
these friends there was Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani - a former president
and nowadays the powerful head of the Expediency Council (which arbitrates
disputes between the parliament and the Council of Guardians), and usually
referred to by conservative sectors of the Iranian press as "Iran's top
politician" (instead of President Mohammed Khatami).

Before the revolution, Khamenei was arrested many times by the Savak, the
Shah's secret police, and exiled todifferent cities around the country. He
is considered to have an outstanding knowledge of literature, poetry, music,
Iranian history and philosophy - including Western philosophy. He routinely
discusses Immanuel Kant and Max Weber, the Paris Commune and the history of
Marxism, and compares the great Persian poet Hafez with French romantic
poets. Says Shariatmadari, "I don't know anyone like him who knows so many

But how does Khamenei think? Shariatmadari echoes the ayatollah. "We have
been very determined to establish an independent country according to the
basis of Islam and sovereignty of true justice. This is a need of all
Muslims in this country and all over the world. At the very first stage,
Americans started showing their animosity and their belligerence toward us.
Americans want to take advantage of other countries. We, as Muslims, do not
believe in this kind of domination. This is one of our main differences with
the Americans. There are two alternatives: we may accept this domination by
US governments or US governments will have to abandon this kind of cruelty
towards different countries."

>From the point of view of the Iranian leadership, it is impossible to talk
to these arrogant Americans. "The Americans say we are among the axis of
evil [with Iraq and North Korea]. [George W] Bush threatens us with a
military attack. The American Congress votes to prevent Iranians from
entering the US because all are considered terrorists. Americans announce to
the world that one of their main strategic objectives is to eradicate the
Islamic Republic of Iran. It's hard in the present situation not to consider
negotiations with the US either as stupidity or treason." On April 7, 1980,
the United States broke diplomatic relations with Iran following the seizure
of American hostages in Tehran the previous year. This remains in effect,
including a ban on most trade between the two countries.

Rafsanjani himself repeated the idea of no negotiation with the US when
speaking as a substitute Friday prayer leader last week at the Tehran
University campus. He hit back at the usual US accusation that Iran was
"sponsoring" terrorism by accusing the White House of being "the axis of
disorder". "They still have not announced a precise definition for
terrorism, and yet are leading a war aimed to uprooting it." Rafsanjani
emphasized that the conduct of the US military in various parts of the world
is a serious threat against the world of nations, and in a way it should
also be regarded as terrorism.

So Ayatollah Khamenei has established the official line. "To accept
negotiations [with the US] is to accept our inferiority." Shariatmadari once
again regrets that "the Western press has not examined all the facts -
especially the Zionist press". And he is adamant: so-called secret talks
between Iran and the US are nothing but rumors. "They don't have any support
inside the country, neither from Ayatollah Khamenei nor from the Majlis

The leadership considers that "the Americans don't really want to establish
a relationship with the Islamic Republic. We were never frightened by US
threats. Our behavior has become a symbol for other Muslim nations". (But
not exactly to Pakistan, which was eager to accept the American embrace).
"The Palestinians of the Intifada consider Iran as a symbol of resistance
against the US. They don't want to live in their occupied territories under
the domination of the Zionist regime. The US is trying to eradicate this
symbol of the Islamic Republic of Iran. They want to say to other Islamic
countries in the world - and especially to the Palestinian Intifada - that
after 23 years of resistance by the Islamic Republic of Iran against the US
we accepted their negotiations. They want to say that the supreme leader of
Iran did not have any alternative but to surrender."

Shariatmadari uses Francis Fukuyama and his thesis of liberal democracy as
the end of history to challenge the concept of liberal democracy itself. "I
believe that today Bush, after the accident of September 11, killed liberal
democracy in the US. He says that one of the main principles of execution of
liberal democracy is the building up of dialogue. But when he was asked if
al-Qaeda had perpetrated September 11, he said this was a time for building
up war. If someone is not with us, then he is our enemy, and we go to war
against him. I'd like to know whether Western theoreticians consider this as
liberal democracy." In the current climate of ideological confusion,
"Western intellectuals and official authorities don't know what liberal
democracy is anymore. So how do they want to transfer it to the whole

Shariatmadari also quotes Samuel Huntington, during a seminar on demography
in Nicosia, Cyprus, widely featured in the international press. "He said
that the most undemocratic country in this region, Saudi Arabia, was the
closest to the US. At the same time, the US has taken the most belligerent
attitude toward the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has the most democratic
regime in the region."

Shariatmadari prefers to skip cultural differentiation between Western
countries and Islamic countries when engaged in a defense of the crucial
concept of velayat-e faqih - or the role of the supreme leader. "Velayat-e
faqih has been elected by the people. As the people are Muslim, they want a
jurisprudent. In the referendum in the very first stage of the revolution in
the 1980s, 98.2 percent of the people cast their votes in order to have this
same system of government. In the latest referendum, during the presidential
election of 2001, more than 30 million people also voted, 80 percent of
registered voters. This is a high percentage. Under the framework of the
constitution, all the candidates knew the jurisprudent was at the peak of
the system, and so they were defending the constitution."

Shariatmadari emphasizes that "in every system of government, Islamic or
non-Islamic, there must be a center that says the last word". He is in favor
of a fluctuation of power, but does not consider that "the head of the
judiciary power should be elected by uninformed people; he should be elected
by an intellectual [in the Islamic Republic, this is one of the attributes
of the supreme leader]". The problem remains though: any progressive
legislation in the Majlis can still be vetoed by the Council of Guardians -
composed by six ayatollahs and six lawyers, but in fact controlled by the
ayatollahs. Shariatmadari defends the guardians as "the representatives of
the public and the constitution whose function is to support public

The bottom line according to the leadership is that "as long as the people
are Muslim, they want the present system. They want Islam. We don't want the
same democracy in the Western countries that often can go astray."

Inevitably, the discussion has to turn to the concept of individual freedom.
"The difference between us and the Western countries is we believe in the
divine sovereignty of God. It is the opposite of the secular approach.
Islamic democracy cannot be compared with Western democracy. We believe that
individual freedom has been more emphasized in Islam. We consider that some
freedoms in social life can be hurtful to the individual, like suicide or
some sexual practices. In Islam, we do not consider the opinion of the
majority in all cases."

So ultimately who decides? "In Islam we believe it is God. Inside our
Majlis, when there is a law that goes against shariah [Islamic law], it will
not be approved. What is forbidden by God is prohibited."

So half-jokingly, Shariatmadari comes to the conclusive punch line, "What
the Americans want is to eliminate the jurisprudent. Maybe after that they
will leave us alone."

*  IRAN DIARY, Part 5: The guardian
by Pepe Escobar 
Asia Times, 30th May

TEHRAN - Mohsen Ismaili, 37, is an Iranian lawyer. But not just any lawyer.
He is the youngest of the 12 members of the powerful Council of Guardians.
Ismaili was appointed by the National Consultative Assembly, or Majlis
(parliament), in 2001 for a six-year tenure, and he can be (indirectly)
re-elected by the head of the judiciary.

The Council of Guardians - created by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini - is one
of the key institutions of the Islamic Republic of Iran and it was
established to protect both Islamic laws and the constitution. The 12
members are split into six ayatollahs and six jurists. The real power
brokers, though, are the ayatollahs - selected by the supreme leader
himself, Ayatollah Ali Hoseini Khamenei.

Ismaili graduated from Modarres University in Tehran. He proudly admits that
at the time he was considered the best university student in Iran for years.
He has published five books - on the constitution, civilian law, press law
and force majeure in Iran-US relations. He is now a visiting professor at
the Imam Sadeg University - built during the Shah's reign as a sort of
Iranian Harvard in northern Tehran. Its current dean is a reformist-inclined
ayatollah, Mahdavi Kani. Ismaili received Asia Times Online at the Imam
Sadeg University for the first interview ever granted by a member of the
Council of Guardians to a foreign publication.

ATOL: What are the main functions of the Council of Guardians?

Ismaili: The Council of Guardians has three main functions. The first is to
be a watchdog over the ratified verdicts of the parliament. This screening
of laws and verdicts means that they should not be against the constitution
and Islamic laws. The second function regards the interpretation of the
constitution. There should be no ambiguity. The third function is to act as
supervisor of the referendums held inside the country.

ATOL: How were you nominated?

Ismaili: The six jurist members of the Council of Guardians are nominated by
the head of the judiciary and approved by the parliament. The head of the
judiciary acts in consultation with the Supreme Court, which proposes the

ATOL: But who selects the candidates in the first place?

Ismaili: Some institutions announce two or three times the names of the
final candidates to the judiciary power. The judiciary power introduces
these names to the parliament. And after the parliament the head of the
judiciary approves the final six jurists.

ATOL: But which institutions present these names in the first place?

Ismaili: Any university, any faculty of law can do this.

ATOL: How are the tasks divided inside the council between the six
ayatollahs and the six jurists?

Ismaili: We have the same functions except in one case, regarding Islamic
laws. In this case, it is the faqih - the clerical Islamic canonist - who is
the only one in a position to deliver a verdict. Otherwise, everybody is

ATOL: Let's have a practical example. Suppose the Majlis wants to vote a new
press law - to allow more freedom of the press. The Council of Guardians
could rule that the new press law is against Islamic law. Based on which
criteria does the council establish if a new law is anti-Islamic or not?

Ismaili: The function of the Council of Guardians is to impose the legal
recognition of laws which are not against Islamic laws. It is not necessary
to ratify or reject any new laws.

ATOL: This is a bit confusing.

Ismaili: I'd like to give an example. Regarding freedom of the press, the
council believes that we should not prevent freedom of the press, because
this freedom belongs to the journalists. But at the same time it is
considered to be against Islamic law if these journalists trespass legal
borders - against national security or against public order or against
private individual rights.

ATOL: But if you are an Iranian journalist and you write an article
criticizing the Islamic Republic's regime, is it considered as trespassing
the limits? 

Ismaili: At the very outset, I'd like to tell you that I also have a
journalistic background. Press law Article 3 says that publishing a report
is a legal right of the press. But you are not allowed to trespass private
or family individual rights.

ATOL: But it's the same in any democracy. The question is about criticizing
a regime, not criticizing people. Newspapers and publications are routinely
closed down in Iran because they criticize the Islamic regime.

Ismaili: In our laws and regulations we have two kinds of criticism. The
first is constructive and the second is destructive. This is also mentioned
in the press law. Constructive criticism does not disrupt public order and
does not offend the feelings of the people.

ATOL: Coming back to the question: to criticize the regime is destructive or

Ismaili: Of course constructive criticism is allowed. If you take a look at
daily newspapers, it shows that this kind of criticism has been totally
accepted. Last week I delivered a lecture in Mashhad. They asked me a
question regarding the banning of some newspapers. Unfortunately on that
occasion one journalist misinterpreted my speech. He said the Council of
Guardians supports the permanent closure of publications. Fortunately before
the news was published, IRNA [the Iranian news agency] said that this
mistake has been made by them - not us. Only one newspaper printed the
offending article in the first page. They wanted to take advantage of this
news. Some foreign radios - for example Israeli radios - also took advantage
of this speech. So I ask this question: is this kind of criticism

ATOL: Of course not. But we are talking about intellectual, philosophical
criticism of the system that at present is not tolerated in Iran.

Ismaili: The Council of Guardians does not have the executive power to limit
or ban the press. At the same time, we are watching an increase in the
number and circulation of the press.

ATOL: Let's turn this around. Everybody we talk to in Iran, young people
mostly, the first thing they say is that there is no freedom of the press
because the regime does not allow criticism.

Ismaili: I don't know what kind of young people you have talked to. I do not
agree with this kind of belief among some of our young people. The students
of this university - I mean Imam Sadeg University - are also young. With
students in some other universities, they do not share this same idea.
Yesterday students had a gathering in front of the Ministry of Culture and
High Education. They said they wanted to ask why did the government tolerate
so much criticism by the press.

ATOL: But the government does not keep quiet. Publications are closed all
the time. Anyway: how do you explain the fact there are so many
disillusioned people in Iran at the moment?

Ismaili: There is also a great number of people who show their loyalty to
the government. 

ATOL: So do you consider this to be a viable Islamic democracy - and
therefore the system does not need any improvement?

Ismaili: We believe there is still a far cry from here to an optimized
point. Definitely we need some outstanding changes in our viewpoints and
methods. This is not something in contrast with our regulations and Islamic
laws. We had been tolerating an unbearable autocracy for centuries. What you
call Islamic democracy we call religious, or public democracy. Twenty years
is not enough to accomplish this national religious democracy - especially
with those difficulties we have experienced in the last few years, like the
eight-year imposed war [against Iraq], and the bad effects after the war. We
are trying to do our best to achieve a very modern pattern of thought under
the protection of democracy, not only here but all over the world.

We expect Western countries to not deprive people from these new
experiences. For example, the Islamic Republic of Iran is trying to execute
its own objectives and purposes. We believe that we need experiences set
forth by the West and also by our people to establish a national religious
democracy inside our country. By the West, I definitely mean the heads and
officials of the US government. Of course we don't have any problems with
Western people, especially from other countries, like in Europe. We do not
feel any difficulty with the people of the United States. We think that if
the heads and officials of the United States do not interfere in the
country's ruling and do not interfere with our methods, Iran can continue
its humankind civilization caravan in its own way.

*  IRAN DIARY, Part 6: Golden domes and mean streets
by Pepe Escobar 
Asia Times, 30th May

MASHHAD - The Astan-e Qods-e Razavi - housing the holy shrine of Imam Reza
and other haram-e motahhar (sacred precincts) - is undoubtedly one of the
most dazzling religious complexes in the world. We are immersed in a
celebration caravan featuring golden minarets, blue domes, a fabulous golden
dome, a Timurid mosque, a kaleidoscope of calligraphy and floral motifs,
museums, breathtaking iwans (courtyards with four vaulted halls, two of them
entirely coated with gold), madrassas (schools), libraries, stalactite
stucco decorated with multicolored glass, and marvels such as the
30-million-knot Carpet of the Seven Beloved Cities.

At sunset, lost in the multitude of black chadors (veils) and white turbans
occupying every square inch of this huge walled island, the power of the
Shi'ite faith hits as hard as the power of Buddhism when one visits the
Jokhang temple in Tibet. The shrine complex was built by Shah Abbas at the
beginning of the 17th century - and been enlarged ever since. Imam Reza's
shrine itself, where pilgrims from all over the Shi'ite world touch and kiss
and weep and cling to a silver cage, is absolutely off-limits to

The public relations officers that care for foreign pilgrims tell us that
"your holy host is in fact Imam Reza, the 8th Shi'ite imam, born in Medina
in 765 AD and martyred by the Abbasid Caliph Mamoon in 818". Mashhad means
literally "the burial place of a martyr".

It is also big business. The foundation that manages the complex is now an
enormous business conglomerate including almost 60 companies. Most of the
funds come from donations, bequests and the selling of grave sites beneath
the shrine: being buried next to Imam Reza is an invaluable honor. The
foundation is heavily involved in charity, runs pharmacies and hospitals,
provides housing, builds mosques and develops poor areas in the province of

A ziyarah - a pilgrimage to Mashhad - is a key event in the life of a
Shi'ite. As a pilgrim to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia receives the
honorific title of haji, a pilgrim to Mashhad receives the title of mashti.
If a pilgrimage to Mashhad, as some Islamic scholars say, can assure a place
in Paradise, a pilgrimage to the "animal crossroads" is more like a vision
of Hell. 

The "animal crossroads" in Golshar district is Mashhad's Little Afghanistan.
In this opium and heroin free-for-all, Iranian informants try to appear
inconspicuous under their thick Afghan beards, Farsi is drowned by a
linguistic cacophony of Dari, Uzbek and Pashto, and the Mashhad police do
everything to make the Afghans feel uncomfortable. We are only four hours by
taxi from the Afghan border.

There are not many options if you are an Afghan kid in the mean streets of
this ghetto. To start with, you almost never leave the ghetto itself -
perhaps once a week to pray at the dazzling Imam Reza shrine. You can work
in a brick factory in a wretched area 20 kilometers from Mashhad -
surrounded by other intrepid Afghans. Tiny but heavy bricks are drowned in a
mix of adobe and sand and then left to cook for a month in an undercover
gallery - under the drowsy eyes of the semi-roasted Afghans.

Or you can make rugs in a clandestine workshop - where all the weavers are
between 10 and 18. The youngest are on opium, the oldest on heroin. A dose
of opium sells for 5,000 Iranian rials (60 US cents). One gram of pure
heroin sells for almost $7. The young Afghans earn no more than 12 cents a

But you can forget about work and simply become a drug addict in the mean
streets of Golshar. At least 30 percent of the kids are on opium -
production is booming again in "liberated" Afghanistan.

Or you can try to study. If you are an Afghan kid and manage to finish high
school, this is nothing short of a miracle. Semi-officially, there are now
slightly less than 2 million Afghans in Iran. Only half carry a resident
permit - which is the key to be enrolled in school. Illegals have to be
educated at home or in underground schools - routinely closed by the police.
While 98 percent of Iranian kids have finished primary school, illiteracy
rates among Afghans remain very high. The days when Ayatollah Khomeini
wanted to export the Islamic revolution are long gone. Iran at that time
(during the 1980s) was at war against Iraq and it badly needed Afghans to
work in industry and agriculture. But in the early 1990s - after the end of
the anti-Soviet jihad and the beginning of the mujahideen government in
Kabul - Iran decided to get rid of its Afghans. Dreaded "transit camps"
proliferated near the Iran-Afghan border, off the road between Mashhad and
Herat. Iran may be a multi-ethnic jigsaw puzzle, and Afghanistan may have
been a satrapy (province) of the Persian empire - not to mention the Shi'ite
faith uniting Persians and Tajiks and Hazaras. But racism is a fact. Most
Iranians rule out the option of living in an apartment block with other
Afghan families. And most would not tolerate their offspring marrying an
Afghan. Getting married is also not exactly an option for a kid in the
Afghan ghetto. According to Afghan tradition, the groom must reimburse the
family the total price of the milk consumed by his bride from her mother's
breast. This could amount to anything up to 4 million rials, a fortune at
$500. After the Islamic revolution (1979), a flurry of nationalizations, the
eight-year "imposed" war against Iraq (no one seems to be able to say
imposed by whom), and a certain international isolation, everything in Iran
now costs 10 times more than in 1979. Officials admit that the official
"back to Afghanistan" policy may not succeed, even with massive unemployment
corroding the Iranian economy. It's not clear that Iranians are willing to
take the hard-core jobs now performed by Afghans. Underpaid illegal refugees
work night and day in the construction business - the only booming sector of
the economy. Late at night, in the streets of Tehran, the father may be
working while his daughter roams the closing cafes selling plastic-coated
copies of Islamic verses. Fouzia Hariri is the head of the release committee
for Destitute Afghan Refugees in Tehran. She says that at least 1 million
refugees still live in south Tehran. Her NGO - financed by Japan and the
International Organization for Migration to the tune of $50,000 a year -
runs literacy classes and a vocational training center teaching English,
computer technology, sewing, carpentry and handicraft-making. The Australian
and Dutch embassies are also involved in running programs - in agreement
with the Iranian government. Hariri, an Afghan, says that the Afghans face
tremendous medical problems, such as tuberculosis. Some need complex
operations, but Iranian hospitals charge very high prices. Female heads of
families cannot afford rents that go up all the time. Most Afghans hold only
a residence permit - which entitles them to no social benefits. According to
an agreement between Iran, Afghanistan and the United Nations, 400,000
Afghans should return home in the year 2002. Hariri considers the figure
extremely unrealistic, "Return to what? They tell me there are no houses, no
food, no water, the prices are high, and there are no jobs. And they say
Iran is a good place for refugees compared to Pakistan." There is some hope
that after the loya jirga (grand council) in June in Afghanistan there will
be more security - the all-important issue as far as the refugees are
concerned. As far as Afghanistan registers in Washington's worldview, the
only thing that matters are pipelines - the new Texas Silk Road in Central
Asia. An eventual, selfish American-led commercial corridor may secure more
jobs for petro-executives and corrupt officials - but certainly not for the
mass of Afghan refugees. And there's nothing Imam Reza can do about it.

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