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Iran Report: May 13, 2002

13 May 2002, Volume 5, Number 17

IRANIAN BROADCASTS AIM TO SHAPE AFGHAN OPINION. Tehran has been closely involved with Kabul broadcasting since it went back on the air in November 2001, but this is not the only way Iran is steering public perceptions in Afghanistan. Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting's Mashhad station doubled its broadcasting slots in November and increased the duration of the transmissions to 11 hours a day. These transmissions reach nearly all of western Afghanistan, and they can be heard as far away as Kabul. Its twice-daily Dari-language news program is 30 minutes long, each time. A survey of the 46 news broadcasts from 17 April-10 May reveals three recurring international themes, four recurring domestic themes, and a noteworthy feature that might indicate Tehran has a new ally in Afghanistan.

The three main international themes are (1) anti-U.S. commentary; (2) anti-Israel commentary; and (3) how much Iran is doing for Afghanistan. There were at least 31 news reports that contained anti-U.S. material. The 10 May morning broadcast and the preceding day's evening broadcast led with the news that Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) commander Yahya Rahim-Safavi had issued a warning about America's intentions in the region -- he said U.S. actions threaten the independence and security of regional states. And near the end of both broadcasts there was a commentary about the threat of U.S. unilateralism.

The 9 May morning broadcast included an item about the arming of Pakistani tribes against U.S. forces and the complaints of Pakistani clerics about the U.S. presence in tribal areas, and this was immediately followed by a report that the Afghan refugee camps are being given to American forces. A similar example of journalism by implication and by juxtaposition occurred on 8 May -- a report about an Iranian-organized religious ceremony in Palestine was followed in quick succession by a report of explosions in Pakistan, Pakistani clerics' request that Americans stay away from madrasehs (religious schools), anti-American demonstrations in Pakistan, and the wounding of civilians in American air strikes. The 8 May news also reported that 300 civilians were wounded in an American attack the previous day, although the Afghan Islamic Press from Peshawar had reported that 30 people had been wounded.

On 6 May, President Mohammad Khatami criticized U.S. foreign policy, and later in the same broadcast a Pakistani political leader condemned the presence in his country of U.S. forces hunting for Al-Qaeda and Taliban personnel. On 5 May, Mashhad radio reported that tribes in Khost Province were opposing the presence of U.S. forces there, and religious leaders in Waziristan were quoted as saying that they would not allow the Americans to desecrate their madrasehs. On 4 May, a Pakistani religious scholar warned the U.S. Army of popular antagonism if its personnel went to madrasehs in the tribal areas, and a report one day earlier said that U.S. military operations in eastern Afghanistan were a pretext for suppressing any opponents of the foreign military presence.

The lead item in the 1 May news broadcast was Khatami's objection to the presence of foreign forces in the region. The 30 April news was more innovative, with an item about the "latest failures of American forces" immediately preceding a report that the U.S. would be training Afghan armed forces. Earlier that day, a report said that foreign interference would increase Afghans' suffering. The lead item in the 27 April news was Khatami's criticism of the White House's Middle East policy. A long interview with a Pakistani newspaper editor on 18 April reiterated that there is no need for foreign forces to pursue Al-Qaeda.

Criticism of Israel is another recurring theme in Mashhad radio's Dari news broadcasts, and it occurred at least 13 times. The second item in the 6 May morning news was IRGC commander Rahim-Safavi's announcement that a jihad would be the only way to free Jerusalem. The lead item in the 4 May morning news was the criticism of Israel by Iran's UN representative, and the lead item one day earlier was criticism of Israel at the Friday Prayers. On 2 May there was a report about an Afghan Shia leader's criticism of Israel, and the lead item that morning and the previous evening was Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's criticism of Israel during a speech he made on 1 May. On 29 April, Iranian officials' criticism of Israel led the news, and on 25 April there was a report about the number of children killed in Palestine.

The U.S. was linked with Israeli activities at least five times. This occurred in the 1 and 2 May reports about Khamenei's speech. It happened again on 26 April, when the lead story about the Friday Prayers claimed that the Zionists controlled the White House. And in the lead story on 19 April, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi during the Friday Prayers condemned the U.S. for supporting Israel, and he issued a warning about the "Zionist regime's crimes." On 18 April, the lead story cited a Syrian official's claim that Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to the Middle East was a failure, and this report was immediately followed by President Khatami's call on Islamic countries to stop Israeli "crimes."

While Mashhad radio is shaping Afghans' views towards the rest of the world, it also wants to ensure that they have a positive perception of Iran. It therefore broadcast at least 20 reports about Iranian contributions to Afghanistan's welfare. There were a few reports dealing with subjects such as Iranian training for Afghan journalists and the donation of schoolbooks by Iranian children. The majority of the reports, however, dealt with reconstruction, development, and trade, as well as Iran's leadership role in convincing other countries to contribute to Afghanistan.

On 8 May there was an interview with the Afghan communications minister, who had just returned from Iran, and one day earlier there was an interview with an Afghan deputy minister of water and electricity, who had been in Iran to arrange for the provision of electricity to western Afghanistan. The second item in the 5 May news was a report that the Herat Province governor had visited a road that is being rebuilt with Iranian aid. The lead story in the 4 May evening news reported on assurances by the Japanese foreign minister, made during a meeting with his Iranian counterpart, that Japan is ready to help Iran in reconstructing Afghanistan.

The 30 April news reported that Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and a UN agency would meet soon in Tehran to discuss reconstruction, and on 29 April an Iranian official was quoted as saying that Iran would help Afghanistan's water and power sectors. In a 25 April report the governor of Nimruz Province, who was visiting Iran, called on Iran to strengthen its trade ties with Afghanistan. The signing of an economic aid memorandum by the Afghan and Iranian chambers of commerce was described on 24 April.

Mashhad radio does carry reports that are of more immediate interest to its listeners, but even this "local" news has an Iranian dimension. There are four recurring domestic Afghan themes. These are (1) refugee repatriation; (2) news about Herat Province and promotion of its governor, Ismail Khan; (3) counter-narcotics news; and (4) Loya Jirga news.

There were some 19 stories about the return of refugees to Afghanistan on Mashhad radio in the 17 April-10 May period. This is an important subject for Iran, which hosts almost 2 million Afghan refugees and is keen to see the last of them and the costs they incur. Most of the reports are relatively straightforward discussions about the number of Afghans who have gone home from Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Iran. Some of them try to encourage the Afghans to go back. A 24 April report that Iran is to send home 700,000 Afghan refugees during the year was followed immediately by a report that with foreign assistance the Herat Province health department is to open a clinic for refugees and residents.

There is a greater emphasis on refugee affairs in Iran, however; on 1 May, for example, listeners were told that the registration of refugees had started in Zabol, and later that day an Afghan official described the daily return from Iran of 2,000-2,200 refugees. There are reports about repatriations from many different Iranian provinces, not just those bordering Afghanistan.

News about Afghanistan's Herat Province, which borders Iran and is governed by Iranian ally Ismail Khan, also is prominent in Mashhad radio's reports about Afghanistan. At least 20 reports dealt with Herat Province in some way. On 7 May Ismail Khan talked to the Turkmen minority in his province and assured them that all Afghans would enjoy equal rights. On 1 May and 30 April there was a two-part interview with Ismail Khan in which he praised Iran's contribution to Afghanistan's reconstruction and called for the creation of an Islamic state. Furthermore, in an interview that was broadcast on 28 April, Ismail Khan said: "The people of Afghanistan who fought to bring an Islamic state system to the country fought for two goals. The first goal was to set up an Islamic system, and thank God, you see that Islamic law prevails.... The other goal was to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan and see it free and independent, which, thank God, you also see today."

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's trip to Herat and his meeting with Ismail Khan were described in the 28 April evening broadcast, and this news was followed immediately by an Afghan analyst's statement that Ismail Khan is the only local governor to whom the U.S. pays attention. This demonstrates, according to the analyst, "that Washington is trying to free Ismail Khan of Tehran's influence."

There were several reports about celebrations in Herat, such as Workers Day (1 May), the anniversary of the Afghan revolution (8 Sawr, 28 April), and the liberation of the province from communist rule (18 April). Such reports may be trying to convey an impression of great happiness and satisfaction with life in the province, which in turn would encourage refugees to return.

Drug control is another recurring theme in Mashhad radio's programs, and there were at least 10 reports on this topic. On 9 May Mashhad radio reported that the UN Drug Control Program backs Iran's plan for crop substitution in Afghanistan. In the evening of 5 May there was a report that London and Tehran would cooperate in drug control in Afghanistan, and on 23 April Iranian Anti-Narcotics Headquarters Secretary-General Mohammad Fallah was quoted as saying that Iran would assist Afghan crop substitution efforts. In the 29 April broadcast, Herat Province drug control officer Said Omar Sadat said that 1,798 kilograms of narcotics had been confiscated and crop substitution was under way, and on 24 April there was a report that Ismail Khan had ordered the destruction of all opium poppy crops. On 23 April Said Omar Sadat explained, "The destruction of the remaining poppy crops, in cooperation with the people and officials of the province, is intensively continuing in Herat Province."

Mashhad radio also is covering preparations for the Loya Jirga process; there were 23 reports about this topic. Many of these reports were either about the progress of the election of candidates (particularly in Herat Province) or were explanations on how the elections would take place. Six of these reports were about the visit to Iran of a delegation that was encouraging Afghan refugees to participate in the Loya Jirga process.

The attention paid by Mashhad radio to Ayatollah Mohammad Assef Mohseni of the predominantly Shia Harakat-i Islami movement is noteworthy. The 4 May news reported that Mohseni had accompanied Hamid Karzai on a visit to Kandahar, where they encouraged local officials in opium eradication. On 3 May, Mohseni's Friday Prayer sermon was the third item in the news report. On 27 April Mashhad radio reported that Afghan religious scholars had called for the country's laws to conform to Islam, and in that report it included Mohseni's call for the election of religious people to the Loya Jirga. On 23 April Mashhad radio cited Mohseni's call for public cooperation with the interim administration's disarmament drive. In January Mashhad radio quoted Mohseni's complaints about U.S. bombings and his view that the bombings' continuation without Afghan Defense Ministry permission would show that the interim administration is powerless.

Clearly, Mohseni has not become the star of Mashhad radio, but he gets more coverage than other Shia leaders in Afghanistan. This is somewhat unexpected, because he was estranged from Iran following his 1979 imprisonment by the revolutionary authorities, while Iran helped create and has been closer to the Hizb-i Wahdat, a Shia party led by Planning Minister Mohammad Mohaqeq. (Bill Samii)

HIT ON HEKMATYAR. An American Predator unmanned aircraft on 9 May fired a Hellfire missile at a target believed to be Hizb-i Islami leader Gulbudin Hekmatyar in an unsuccessful attempt to kill him, according to Western news reports. Neither the Department of Defense nor the Central Intelligence Agency would confirm nor deny these reports. Ghairat Bahir, the spokesman for Hekmatyar's Hizb-i Islami Afghanistan, dismissed the reports, IRNA reported on 11 May. He said: "No such incident has taken place. And there is no justification for the Americans to target Hekmatyar as he is neither a member of the Al-Qaeda nor Taliban." Hundreds of alleged Hekmatyar supporters were arrested in Kabul in early April for their participation in a purported plot against the interim administration (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 8 April 2002), Hekmatyar himself was linked with another plot earlier in the year (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 28 January 2002), and until being forced out of Iran in February, Hekmatyar made many hostile statements against the interim administration. (Bill Samii)

CLAIMS AND COUNTER-CLAIMS ON IRAN-U.S. CONTACTS. Hashtrud parliamentarian Mohammad Shahi-Arablu told the RFE/RL Persian Service on 9 May that according to his inquiries, rumors of secret U.S.-Iran contacts are untrue. He explained that conservative newspapers printed the rumors to provide a platform for the regime to deny them. Such talks cannot take place as long as the U.S. addresses Iran from a position of superiority, he added.

On 8 May, government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh denied that either the administration or any of its staff had held official talks with U.S. officials, IRNA reported on 9 May. He explained that only the Foreign Ministry would be authorized to do so, and other talks would be "unofficial." He added that the administration would not accept responsibility for a dialogue outside this channel. Moreover, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told a news briefing on 9 May, according to Reuters, "We have not had direct or secret discussions to discuss the bilateral agenda that we have with Iran." The State Department is concerned by Iran's efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction, its promotion of terrorism, its violent obstruction of the Middle East peace process, its interference in neighboring countries' affairs, and its human rights record.

But rumors of such talks persist, regardless of the denials. Parliamentarian Mohsen Mirdamadi, who heads the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said on 8 May that, contrary to Foreign Ministry denials, there is evidence that talks between Iranian and American officials have taken place, ISNA reported. The former hostage-taker added: "Although our interests in [13]58 [1979, according to the Western calendar] were such that the occupation of that country's embassy was in keeping with them, today, our interests dictate that we follow a policy of detente, while safeguarding our principles." Mirdamadi went on to say that Iran must not create a climate that would encourage an attack against it.

Observers say that with the consent of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei conservative politicians secretly explored the possibility of U.S.-Iran talks in at least one meeting with U.S. officials, according to a report by Alireza Taheri of RFE/RL's Persian Service, but they found that the two sides could not reach an agreement. News of the contact(s) appeared as "rumors" in the official radio and television daily "Jam-i Jam" and the conservative daily "Resalat." But when the reformist newspaper "Bonyan" published articles that questioned the wisdom of the official policy, it was banned.

Mirdamadi, who also is the managing director of the reformist daily "Noruz," also is in trouble for a press matter. On 8 May IRNA reported that the court sentenced him to six months and two days in jail, banned him from journalism for four years, and fined him 2 million rials ($250 at the open rate). Charges against him include libel, insulting state officials, publishing lies, attempting to incite the public, and violating election regulations.

The National Defense University's Judith Yaphe said in a recent interview with RFE/RL's Persian Service that any negotiations between the two sides should be transparent and should include the views of all Iranian political factions. And Mashhad representative Ali Zafarzadeh said during the 7 May parliamentary session that if the system has decided to meet with the Americans, it should not be kept a secret. Zafarzadeh urged the Foreign Minister to meet with the parliamentarians in a closed or open session to discuss these rumors. To do otherwise, Zafarzadeh said, would be an insult to the people who voted for these representatives. (Bill Samii)

IRANIANS DISCUSS KHATAMI'S THREAT TO RESIGN. In two early May 2002 speeches, President Khatami criticized the opponents of reform and he offered to resign if his efforts to enact change continue to be stymied. Political analysts in Tehran who discussed the speeches with RFE/RL Persian Service correspondent Amir-Mossadegh Katouzian did not seem overly impressed with Khatami's words, but members of Khatami's government assert that the president meant what he said.

In his 5 May Teacher's Day speech that was broadcast by state television, Khatami said: "A state that is religious and compatible with religion must also be brought to power by the people. And the people can remove it from power. They have the right of supervision.... And a state that arises from the people is under the supervision of this people." Khatami acknowledged that the people who elected the reformists wanted changes: "You know; you have voted -- and I am grateful and indebted to you -- for a series of slogans, principles, and programs." He also acknowledged that those changes have not been forthcoming, saying, "But there have been problems along the way; wrong deeds have been committed, stemming from differences of taste." If his government is unable to fulfill its promises, Khatami said, "we will stand aside and they will continue on their path." He offered to resign, saying that if "it is felt that we have become diverted from the path we promised the people, I will not remain at my position for a moment longer."

And in an 8 May speech, Khatami seemed once again to criticize opponents within the government, saying, "serious threats exist even from inside." He called for greater cooperation by officialdom: "the three branches should recognize their boundaries and agree with each other within the framework of the law."

Nationalist-religious activist Taqi Rahmani told RFE/RL's Persian Service that Khatami is not direct enough, and the fact that the target of his criticism is unknown leads to conflicting interpretations. Rahmani urged the president to capitalize on his 20 million-vote mandate and deal, from a position of power, with those who resist the popular will.

Tehran University's Professor Sadeq Zibakalam told RFE/RL's Persian Service that Khatami would not resign because he does not want to undermine the regime's stability. The threat is intended to persuade hard-liners to reduce their pressure on the reformists. Zibakalam predicted that in the coming days Khatami would tone down his position.

Vice President for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Mohammad Ali Abtahi, on the other hand, said in the 8 May "Noruz" that Khatami is serious about his threat to resign: "Khatami does not [want] to remain in government [power] at any [cost] and under any conditions. This is what makes Khatami different from many other politicians.�" Abtahi acknowledged that the president wants to avoid destabilization: "Disruption of the society, in any form, would harm the reforms. Preventing disturbance in the society is a serious strategy. Because when the main body of the society has chosen the way of reforms, a disturbance and creating excessive demands will only lead to despair in the society."

Vice President for Political Affairs Hussein Valeh also told "Noruz" that Khatami meant what he said. According to Valeh, "This warning should be taken seriously and attention should be paid to the conditions that have led to it."

The reform movement has not capitalized on its major electoral victories -- about 80 percent of the votes went to Khatami in 1997 and about 78 percent went to him in 2001, and reformists dominated the 2000 parliamentary election. Former parliamentarian Qasem Sholeh-Sadi told RFE/RL's Persian Service that the public's dwindling confidence in the reformists is behind Khatami's comments. Khatami knows better than anybody that the reforms have failed, he said, and the Islamic Republic will not last without reforms. Khatami's weakness, according to Sholeh-Sadi, is his reluctance to pay a price for achieving his reforms. (Bill Samii)

NOT QUITE AN AZERBAIJANI CONSULATE IN TABRIZ. Mohammad Reza Rashed, who heads the Iranian Foreign Ministry's office in Tabriz, announced on 6 May that tourists arriving there would have access to consular services and could get two- or three-day visas at the Tabriz airport, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency. Rashed explained that his office would extend consular services to foreigners, especially those from neighboring countries who visit East or West Azerbaijan provinces, but did not explain why these people would not just get a visa in their respective capitals. Rashed added that his office would provide consular services to Turkish visitors. The absence of a Republic of Azerbaijan consulate in Tabriz is one of the issues frequently raised by irredentists, and furthermore, Baku allowed Iran to open a consulate in Nakhichevan on the condition that it could have one in Tabriz, a deal on which Iran reneged once its own consulate opened. This step by the Iranian Foreign Ministry may be intended to head off such complaints. (Bill Samii)

KURDS AND SUNNIS WANT FAIR TREATMENT AND ACTIVISM. Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) satellite television reported on 1 May that 220 people who had traveled illegally from Iran to Turkey had been arrested and returned to Kurdistan Province. The asylum seekers' ages ranged from 16-30, and they said that they had paid a lot of money to be smuggled to Europe. Many people seek asylum in Europe for economic reasons, but in the case of Iranian Kurds, they may be seeking better treatment by the state.

Members of the Iranian parliament's Kurdish faction have demanded an apology in a letter to Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Director Ali Larijani, "Noruz" reported on 27 April. In their letter to Larijani, the parliamentarians complained about the 23 April television broadcast of the program entitled "Ta Mehr," in which "the presenter compared the Kurds to usurper Zionists." Programs like this are aired "now and then," the letter continued, and the Kurds "will not tolerate such unjustified insults that are paid for out of public funds and will not accept unilateral attacks against their human rights."

Commerce Ministry adviser Mohammad Rauf Qaderi, who represented Kermanshah in the fifth parliament (1996-2000), also complained about the treatment of Kurds in the 24 April "Mardomsalari." Qaderi wrote that during elections the political groups and parties use "appealing terms such as democracy, the rights of citizens, civil society, equal rights, justice, understanding, and the distribution of power and wealth for all the Iranian people from every ethnic group, race, nationality, and religion." When these groups come to power, however, the Kurds and Sunnis are "missing or are in a cloud of ambiguity." Qaderi wrote that "talk therapy" is used to dominate Kurdistan, and he asked if the time has not come to believe that "the Kurdish people and the Sunnis are Iranians and Muslims."

What Kurdistan needs, according to Qaderi's article, is a political party and greater unity between Kurdish and Sunni artists, elites, intellectuals, politicians, and thinkers. Now is the time for the Kurdish and Sunni elite to "have a more active and united presence in the Iranian democratic society in various social and political arenas of the country." (Bill Samii)

KHORASAN CRISIS FELT IN PARLIAMENT. There have been repeated incidents of violent unrest over the plan to divide northeastern Khorasan Province into smaller units ("RFE/RL Iran Report," 3 September 2001, 11 February 2002, and 6 May 2002), and these disputes now have moved into the legislature. A bill to interpellate -- to question formally regarding an official action or policy, which could result in a no-confidence motion -- Interior Minister Abdol-Vahed Musavi-Lari because of the plan has been submitted to the legislature's presiding board, Neishabur (Khorasan Province) representative Hussein Ansari-Rad said on 8 May according to IRNA. Ansari-Rad said that dividing the province would cause inflation, expand government bureaucracy, and increase borrowing from the Central Bank, and it also clashes with the province's cultural make-up.

Musavi-Lari said that dividing the province was not his affair.

Gholam-Heidar Ebrahim-Bay-Salami, who represents Khaf and Rashtkhar in Khorasan Province, was quoted by IRNA as saying that only three deputies have endorsed the interpellation motion. He added that two-thirds of the legislature backed the bill to divide the province, and the Interior Ministry is just enforcing the parliamentary decision. Ebrahim-Bay-Salami went on to say that security measures in the province have cost 600 billion rials since March 2000, to insufficient effect. The measure to divide the province into five smaller provinces, he said, would improve this situation.

This last comment, if reported correctly, is noteworthy because legislation introduced in February called for dividing the province into three parts. Much of the unrest has related to which towns would become provincial capitals, which in turn would give them greater access to government funds. (Bill Samii)

HOUSING MINISTER FACES INTERPELLATION. Fifteen legislators on 8 May called for the interpellation of Housing and Urban Development Minister Ali Abdol-Alizadeh, state television reported. Among the complaints they cited were inadequate planning for low-income housing, low-quality urban development, and inattention to environmental issues and land management. Tehran parliamentarian Elias Hazrati, however, complained during the 5 May session that the interpellation was called for on 1 May, and the failure to announce this was a violation of Article 228 of the parliament's internal constitution.

Some of the precise reasons for deputies' unhappiness with Abdol-Alizadeh were heard during the 30 April session of the legislature, the proceedings of which were published in "Hayat-i No" on 1 May. Ardabil's Vali Azarvash, who serves on the Construction Committee, said that 50 percent of the residential, official, and commercial units in Tehran are vacant. They are neither sold nor used, he said, because "a number of the house and stock mafia make profits in this way." Azarvash said that duties should be charged for unused residences and offices, and this would help urban revenues and prevent unregulated building construction and price increases. He said, "Surveys show if all of these buildings were used, this problem would not turn into a crisis for the people, and the housing problem would have been solved many years ago."

Housing Minister Abdol-Alizadeh said in mid-April that the Tehran municipality had not submitted to his ministry a plan to reduce building density in the city. Rumors of such a plan had sent prices upwards, "Entekhab" reported on 17 April, and the municipality resumed selling building density (presumably, permits to build higher-occupancy buildings). Abdol-Alizadeh attributed the rise in prices to the increased cost of building materials, rather than speculation. Nevertheless, he said that his ministry would try to provide enough housing to counter the rise in prices. He added that an increase in home loans is being considered.

Problems with housing are noticeable in other parts of the country, particularly in the "shahraks" that have been built in the last decade. "Payam-i Ostan-i Semnan" published on 9 April a survey of shahrak residents in Semnan Province. Some of their complaints focused on poor or nonexistent public transportation, the lack of telephones, no schools, and the distance from hospitals. Mr. Nazemian, who lives in southern Semnan, described "worn out and depleted suburbs and buildings in ruins," as well as "[residents who] empty the water and sewerage of houses in streets, lanes, and open gutters around the dwelling quarters, and they sadly cause the spread of illnesses and outbreak of epidemics." Mr. Katashlu described streets and alleys that flood when it rains.

Ms. Solhi described unregulated and unaffordable rents in "Payam-i Ostan-i Semnan." Mr. Jabbari said the biggest problem in Semnan is the increase in housing and land prices. "Even the apartments and flats that are sold by the government and Housing Bank have exorbitant prices," Jabbari said. (Bill Samii)