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Iran Report: May 14, 2001


14 May 2001, Volume 4, Number 19

NOTE TO READERS: The next issue of the "RFE/RL Iran Report" will appear on 28 May 2001.

TEHRAN DENIES INVOLVEMENT IN KHOBAR BOMBING. On 9 May Tehran rejected a report in the "New Yorker" which said that Iranian officials were involved in the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, as a result of which 19 American military personnel were killed and hundreds of others were injured. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said that "such unfounded allegations are being raised by circles which are concerned by the expansion of relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Saudi Arabia." Those who spread such "rumors" are trying to disrupt "regional solidarity" and tarnish "fraternal ties among the Islamic countries of this region."

Immediately after the 25 June 1996 bombing, Riyadh rounded up members of Saudi Hizballah, but the bombing operation was too sophisticated to be theirs alone. Evidence in the case and confessions of some suspects also drew connections with the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps. In the years following the case, FBI Director Louis Freeh succeeded in winning Saudi cooperation in the investigation, but the Saudis questioned U.S. resolve in the case because of mixed signals being sent by President Bill Clinton's administration. Moreover, the Saudis were concerned about the impact on them of any resulting American actions. Freeh himself came to distrust the Clinton administration, and only recently did he give President George W. Bush's administration a list of people who should be indicted.

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah told outgoing Iranian President Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani in 1997 that Riyadh knew of Tehran's involvement in the bombing. Rafsanjani responded, according to the "New Yorker," by pointing upward and saying that "it was he" -- in other words, it was Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (Bill Samii)

TOO MANY CANDIDATES? Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei discussed candidates for the presidential election during his early May trip to Gilan Province. He said during a 1 May speech that "those people who see the capacity within themselves, who have the preparedness to work hard in this post, these people must go forward and present themselves." Just three days later, Guardians Council secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati complained that too many people were signing up, and when the names of just some of the 817 applicants were revealed on 7 May, there were some surprises.

Candidates registered from 2-6 May, and the Guardians Council, Interior Ministry, and Ministry of Intelligence and Security will investigate their credentials, as well as their personal, political, and ideological backgrounds, from 7 May onward. The names of eligible candidates will be announced on 18 May. Presidential candidates might have been motivated by a rumor that they would be eligible for bank loans of 100-500 million rials (approximately $86,000-286,000 at the official exchange rate).

Jannati discussed the applicants during the 4 April Friday Prayers sermon. He asked: "is there any place in the world where all sorts of people are allowed to register with a simple identity card, an application form and four photographs?...You don't even have to be able to read and write." In addition to capable applicants, Jannati complained, "there are also individuals who only cause problems for the administrators, the supervisors, the Ministry of Interior, the Guardians Council, the government and the people. They are hopeless."

Jannati went on to say that "the law is faulty and should be changed.� it is not right. I cannot say but some 1,000 people may register. This causes so many problems.... Should everyone be allowed to register?" Jannati pointed out that the Guardians Council must investigate all the applicants, but when it rejects some there are many complaints. "But were these people eligible? If they were not eligible we should thank the Guardian Council for vetting them."

The backgrounds of some of the candidates, for instance Mohsen Arda, help to explain such reactions. The 22-year old is a farmer and philosophy researcher with a fondness for Sufism, and his language of choice is Azerbaijani because his Persian is weak. Another unlikely applicant for candidacy is Qolamreza Aqai, a 38-year old sock merchant who says he would select Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami as his vice president and would encourage all Iranians to convert to the Shia branch of Islam. Mohammad Hussein Pahlavan, who is a singer known as Arshia, believes that he can get more votes than Khatami if the authorities permit the release of his latest album.

The most notable serious applicant is Khatami, who indicated that he was entering the race with great reluctance. Tehran Municipal Council member Ibrahim Asgharzadeh, who is one of the Students Following the Imam's Line that held 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days, also registered as a candidate and said he would strive for greater democracy if elected.

In something of a surprise, several members of Khatami's cabinet put themselves forward as candidates. Vice President for Physical Training Mustafa Hashemi-Taba's application displeased Khatami, a source close to the president told the 7 May "Tehran Times." "Iran News," citing unnamed "analysts," suggested on 8 May that Hashemi-Taba hopes to cash in on his popularity with Iranian youth. The application of Minister of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Rear Admiral Abbas Shamkhani was unexpected, too. "Iran News" suggested that Shamkhani is popular with conservative technocrats. He may hope to attract the votes of ethnic Arabs from his native Khuzestan Province, too. The presence of these two also may have something to do with the Executives of Construction Party that backed Khatami's 1997 campaign but which had differences with other members of the 2nd of Khordad coalition during the 2000 parliamentary campaign.

Others applicants included former MOIS chief Ali-Akbar Fallahian-Khuzestani, Kurdish parliamentarian Ismail Tatari, and former deputy Hassan Qafurifard. Several women, including Farah Khosravi and Turan Jamili, applied, although female applicants in previous elections have not been approved, partly because there is some question about Arabic-based terminology in the constitution and whether or not a female can be president.

Notable by his absence is Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai. In the weeks preceding the election, Rezai had given all the signs that he would stand as a candidate. He had been vocal about the president's strengths and weaknesses, telling Qom seminarians that Khatami was a decent person but unsuitable for running the country. Rezai went on to complain that unemployment and insecurity had increased in the last four years, "Siyasat-i Ruz" reported on 29 April. In an open letter to Khatami, Rezai criticized the release of unemployment statistics in the period preceding the election, "Noruz" reported on 26 April, suggesting that this only confused the public. He added that if Khatami continued on his current path, people would distance themselves from him. And in an interview with the 17 April "Aftab-i Imruz," Rezai said that the two factions seem to have reached an informal agreement that allows them to make decisions for everybody else.

Rezai continued in this vein in the first week of May. On 5 May, he told female students in Qom that Khatami should deliver on his promises rather than "chanting slogans." The next day, Rezai suddenly announced that he would not compete in the election. Nobody has explained Rezai's sudden change of heart, although he claimed that he was just trying to end the country's political deadlock.

Rezai and Khatami met shortly after the publication of his late April open letter. There is no information about their meeting, but it is possible that a deal was made -- possibly Rezai's support in exchange for cabinet positions for his allies; a promise not to push cultural reforms too fast; or the elimination of parliamentary investigations into administrative corruption and the dealings of parastatal foundations. Yet this seems unlikely; what could Rezai offer in exchange, other than his silence? Reformist deputies subsequently criticized Khatami for receiving Rezai, "Hamshahri" reported on 3 May, saying that they also asked to meet with the president but had not received a response.

Even before registration began and there was just talk about who would run for president, Abbas Abdi of the Islamic Iran Participation Party said that multiplicity of candidates would be a good thing. He went on to say, in an interview published in the 23 April "Noruz," that the number of candidates should correspond with the number of ideologies and political inclinations in Iranian society. At the same time, candidates should be serious and have a real program, otherwise everybody would be a candidate and "then the election would turn into a farce."

Said Hajjarian, who is a presidential adviser, Tehran municipal council member, and reformist ideologist, was shot last year by hard-line youth (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 20 March 2000). Having spent part of February and March 2001 in Washington, D.C., to undergo physical therapy, he is back in Tehran and ready for the election. Unlike Abdi, Hajjarian suggested that the reformists' rivals should form a cohesive organization and agree on one serious candidate. He went on to say, in an interview published in the 14 April "Noruz," that the hard-liners want "an impotent and restricted Khatami who is just a ceremonial figurehead." But, Hajjarian said, Khatami would never act like "a pretty and eye-pleasing democratic facade covering an authoritarian political structure." (Bill Samii)

GETTING OUT THE VOTE. "The enemy hopes for voter apathy or it may even prefer a certain candidate," Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said during a 1 May speech in Rasht, Gilan Province. But what "I personally want from the people is for them to turn out in large numbers in the election and for every individual of this massive nation to see their participation in the election as a duty."

Matching the estimated 90 percent turnout of the 1997 presidential election will not be easy, but the Supreme Leader wants a high turnout because it supports the pretense that Iran has a functioning and popular democracy. Conservatives want a low turnout that will undermine reformist claims that President Mohammad Khatami has a new mandate. And the reformists are encouraging people to vote and presenting statistics that will support them. An opinion poll conducted by the pro-Khatami Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) showed that 24.1 percent of people interviewed believed that turnout in this election would be larger than in the 1997 election, 36.1 percent of people polled said that there would not be much difference, and 35.7 percent said the number of voters would be less than before.

Khamenei is not the only official encouraging the Iranian people to vote. Vice President Hassan Rohani called for a massive turnout and told a public gathering in Garmsar, Semnan Province, that public participation in the election would "represent national strength and security and would discourage enemies of the revolution," IRNA reported on 2 May. Speaker of Parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi told members of the public in Saveh, Tehran Province, that they should turn out in massive numbers for the eighth presidential election, IRNA reported on 1 May.

Yadollah Sahabi, of the banned Liberation Movement of Iran, said in an open letter that "all Iranian intellectuals who have been attempting to institute democracy and freedom in the country [should] massively trickle [sic] to the ballot boxes and hold a lively election," IRNA reported on 7 May. The conservative Tehran Free-Thinkers Front (Chakad-i Azad-Andishan) also called for a massive turnout in a statement faxed to IRNA on 1 May, saying this would be possible in a healthy election campaign.

"Iran News" editorialized on 28 April that it would be quite an accomplishment if 60-70 percent of the electorate of 42 million voted this time. One reason, the English-language daily suggested, is that Khatami failed to match his pre-election slogans about reform with post-election action. And another reason might be that people take it for granted that presidential candidates will serve two terms, so there is less enthusiasm in the second election. (Bill Samii)

ETHNICITY AN ELECTION ISSUE. A conservative Kurdish candidate, Ismail Tatari, is seeking candidacy for the 8 June presidential election, but it appears that the Kurdish community will support the incumbent. Support for President Mohammad Khatami is visible in Kurdistan Province, according to a 1 May report in the "Financial Times." Khatami promoted decentralization and he was the first presidential candidate to give the Kurds serious attention. Moreover, Khatami appointed a Kurd -- Abdallah Ramazanzadeh -- as governor-general for Kurdistan Province, which is a first. Moreover, deputies from constituencies with large minority populations told the 2 May "Noruz" that the voters would support Khatami, contrary to right-wing wishes.

That support may come at a price. A group of writers, intellectuals, and parliamentarians sent an open letter to Khatami in which they criticized insufficient funding for cultural activities in ethnic communities and appealed for protection for the country's ethnic languages. The letter also noted inattention to ethnic rights, which are constitutionally-guaranteed, and called for their protection and an end to discrimination, IRNA reported on 6 May. (Bill Samii)

SNARLING TRUMPETS BEGIN TO CHIDE. "Whenever there is a presidential election, the enemies' propaganda blow-horns start well in advance to spread their poison and sully the atmosphere, with the hope of damaging the election in some way," Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said during a 1 May speech in Rasht, Gilan Province. These "blow-horns" usually are wielded by the Persian Services of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America, and the BBC, according to Tehran.

Two new shortwave broadcasts intended for Iranian listeners, possibly broadcast via hired shortwave transmitters in Eastern Europe or the Commonwealth of Independent States, have joined the horn section. One new radio service "belongs to counterrevolutionaries," the "Tehran Times" whined on 8 May. Radio Equality (http://www.barabari.org) says that it wants to "reflect the struggle of the workers and all the wage-earners, to voice the concerns of unemployed, deprived, women, foreign residents, young people, intellectuals, and religious and ethnic minorities and all those Iranians who fight for freedom and equality."

Another new addition to the Iranian airwaves is Radio Payam-i Dust (Radio Message from a Friend). It is trying to eliminate misunderstandings between Muslims and Bahais, so they can "live, work, and worship freely and in total harmony in the cradle of one of the most ancient civilizations in the world," according to its website (http://www.bahairadio.org). The Voice of Iranian Kurdistan, which is connected with the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (http://www.pdk-iran.org/) has been broadcasting in Persian and Kurdish recently, too. Iranian agents killed KDPI chief Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou in July 1989, and his successor, Mohammad Sadegh Sharafkandi, in September 1992. (Bill Samii)

APPROACHING 50 PRESS OUTLET CLOSURES. The press court closed the daily "Nosazi" on 9 May, just a few days after it hit the newsstands, IRNA reported. The court said that publisher Hamid-Reza Jalaipur "is under investigation and not qualified to run a paper." Meanwhile, the Press Supervisory Board has issued new licenses for six quarterlies, two bimonthlies, and an annual magazine. There is little reason to see this as a meaningful development, because it took about a year from the time "Nosazi" received its license to the time that it actually appeared in newsstands (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 22 May 2000 and 7 May 2001). (Bill Samii)

WATER THAT'S NOT WASTED IS EXPORTED. The Ministry of Energy announced on 27 April that Iran will pump 150 million cubic meters of water to Kuwait in 2001 and it will pump twice that amount next year. The water will come from the Karkheh reservoir dam in Khuzestan Province, which was inaugurated by President Mohammad Khatami on 19 April. Yet Iran itself is experiencing a devastating drought, and at the same time local officials and agriculture experts complain that scarce water resources are being wasted.

The presidential cabinet has proposed a 2.5 trillion rial (approximately $1.4 billion at the official exchange rate) urgent bill as part of a 4 trillion rial (approximately $2.3 billion) aid package in the state budget for drought relief, IRNA reported on 1 May. If the parliament approves the urgent bill, the state-owned Agricultural Bank will be authorized to distribute the funds, some of which will go directly to farmers. Two days earlier, 151 members of parliament called on President Mohammad Khatami to hold an emergency drought debate in the cabinet.

Deputy Energy Minister Qolam Reza Manuchehri said on 27 April that the steadily falling level of water behind Iranian dams indicates that the country will face a drought for the third year in a row, according to IRNA. Bushehr, Chahar Mahal va Bakhtiari, Fars, Kerman, Markazi, and Sistan va Baluchistan Provinces would be the worst affected, Manuchehri asserted. Heidar Keikha, head of the Sistan va Baluchistan Province water organization, said in late-March that the Hirmand River, which supplies Afghanistan and Iran, has dried up again, according to IRNA. Keikha said that the Hirmand River is the only source of water in the province's eastern region.

The drought is affecting West Azerbaijan Province, too, and several rivers there have run dry. A number of cities in the province -- Bazargan, Chaldoran, Khoy, Maku, Northern Orumieh, Pol Dasht, Salmas, Shoot, and Takab -- are facing water shortages, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 17 April. This has resulted in damage to livestock and pastures, agriculture, urban and rural sewage, and the drinking water supply. Gilan Province Governor-General Ali Sufi, citing Health Ministry statistics, complained that "Gilan heads the list of provinces where families lack safe drinking water," Rasht's "Hatef" reported on 13 February.

A spokesman for the Shandabad municipal council, the aptly-named Mohammad Baqban, said that the drought is turning the city and its outlying areas into a desert, Tabriz's "Mahd-i Azadi" reported in mid-January. Baqban said that the city has lost over 50 percent of its farmland to the drought. Remaining water resources are not used efficiently, furthermore, and underground water supplies have become salty and acidic.

Baqban is not the only person to complain about inefficient water use. An anonymous "agricultural expert" said in January that 70-90 percent of Iran's water resources are wasted, and this costs the country about $63 billion annually. This expert said that Iran uses about 88 billion cubic meters of water a year, and of this amount, 83 billion cubic meters are used for agriculture and 63 billion cubic meters are wasted. Last December, furthermore, the head of Tehran's water and sewage company said that the water level in the city's reservoirs -- Karaj, Lar, and Latiyan dams -- had fallen dangerously low. Sattar Mahmudi explained that water consumption was excessive and badly managed, "Jam-i Jam" reported, and distribution and provision methods were inefficient. (Bill Samii)

MONSIEUR JAILED IN TEHRAN. Belgian-Ivorian-Iranian arms dealer Jacques Monsieur has been held in Tehran since November 2000 on espionage charges, Brussels' "Le Soir" reported on 26 April. This is an odd turn of events for Monsieur, who had been granted an Iranian diplomatic passport because he was such a good supplier (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 27 September 1999). Monsieur was being investigated by the Belgian public prosecutor two years ago, and now a French prosecutor is looking for him. "Le Soir" suggested in January 2001 that the Tehran Revolutionary Court is trying Monsieur. (Bill Samii)

EXTENSIVE VISITS BETWEEN TEHRAN AND SANAA. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi left for a two-day visit to Yemen on 28 April and during the trip he met with President Ali Abdallah Salih, Prime Minister Abd al-Qadir Ba Jamal, Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qurbi, and Minister of Industry and Trade Abd al-Rahman Muhammad Ali al-Uthman. A major topic of the discussions was increasing economic cooperation and private-sector activities, according to IRNA. The two sides also discussed the Palestine issue and cooperation within international fora. Kharrazi said that "Iran and Yemen should play their role in maintaining peace and security in the region." Kharrazi also delivered a message from President Mohammad Khatami.

Just days earlier, Yemeni Speaker of Parliament Sheikh Abdallah Hussein al-Ahmar and several of his compatriots were in Tehran to participate in the "Support for the Palestinian Intifada" conference (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 30 April 2001).

Iranian Deputy Education Minister Jafar Alaqemandan, who also serves as chief of the Research and Educational Planning Organization, visited Sanaa on 19 April. Alaqemandan and Yemeni Deputy Education Minister Abdelaziz Salih Bin-Habtur signed an agreement to increase cooperation in the pedagogical field. Specifics of the agreement, according to the official Yemen News Agency, dealt with technical cooperation in printing and educational tools; information exchanges; training of teachers and technicians; and education of adults and the disabled. The agreement provides for exhibitions of books, paintings, and children's films. Another aspect of the agreement provides for the summer exchange of 40 students.

Iranian Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Mohammad Sadeq Kharrazi was in Sanaa on 3 April. During his trip he delivered messages form Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Khatami to Yemen's President Salih. According to the Yemen News Agency, the discussions focused on cooperation, particularly in the cultural field.

In mid-March, Yemeni Minister of Youth and Sport Abd al-Rahman al-Akwa and a high-ranking delegation visited Iran for five days. The visitors' declared reason for visiting Iran was to visit sports facilities and discuss sports cooperation with their Iranian counterparts. In early January, Yemeni Deputy Agriculture Minister Abdulmali Ahmed Al-Arshi was in Tehran, and he met with a group of female Iranian parliamentarians to discuss bilateral cooperation. Soheila Jelodarzadeh told the visitor about the significant role played by Iranian women in politics, economics, cultural, and science. Moreover, Ms. Idalat told the Yemeni official about the involvement of rural women in production, agriculture, and animal husbandry. (Bill Samii)

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