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Iran Report: February 14, 2000

14 February 2000, Volume 3, Number 7

SILENCE IS GOLDEN. Elections bring out media commentators and a variety of analysts, but the government of Iran has decided that its 18 February parliamentary election will go more smoothly without such unseemly democratic trappings. Since late-January, Tehran has been interfering with the Persian-language shortwave broadcasts of foreign radio services in two ways. The most common sort of jamming is the broadcast of bubble-type interference which is often used in the Middle East to interrupt shortwave transmissions. The other method being used is to override the foreign broadcasts with the Arabic Service of the Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran. These Iranian government activities have been directed at broadcasts by RFE/RL's Persian Service, the BBC, and the VOA. Iran's jamming activities violate international law. They also underline the regime's desperation and insecurity. (Bill Samii)

MEDIA WARNED TO ENFORCE UNITY AND AVOID TENSION. In the run-up to the parliamentary election, the Iranian government is keen to maintain the appearance of domestic unity and to avoid any issues that might raise tensions. Silencing foreign radios is one way to do this. It also has taken steps to do the same with the domestic Iranian media.

An editorial in the 9 February "Iran News" warned that the "press should hold their heads high and brace for more malice and vilification coming their way without giving an inch." The English-language daily was reacting to the "Manateq-i Azad's" voluntary suspension, the press court summons for its director, Mohammad Rezaq Yazdanpanah Fadai, and the imprisonment of cartoonist Nikahang Kosar.

Kosar drew cartoons that ridiculed Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi's 25 January claim that a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency had come to Iran and given money to Iranian publications and individuals. Mesbah-Yazdi went on to say that this money was in addition to the infamous $20 million that was previously dedicated to overthrowing the Iranian regime, "Asr-i Azadegan" reported on 27 January. There was more to this nefarious plot, according to Mesbah-Yazdi: "The CIA has also invited our country's journalists to go to America in order to brainwash them and let them have a good time, so to speak." Curiously, Mesbah-Yazdi went to England in early-February, but he did not say if the trip was organized by MI6 or if he had a good time, "so to speak."

The appearance of the very clever cartoon was greeted with three days of demonstrations by seminarians and hardliners. There also were demands for the firing and/or execution of Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Ataollah Mohajerani, who is responsible for much of the current press freedom. The protests ended on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's orders. Mesbah-Yazdi said his comments were distorted.

Kosar was released from jail on 10 February after posting bail of 100,000,000 rials ($57,000 at the official rate).

Other artworks have caused divisions, too. "Iran" published a cartoon of blindfolded people voting. "Parto-y Sokhan" monthly was suspended for publishing a cartoon that insulted Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri. And the conservative "Qods" received a warning for printing an car advertisement that had a photo of Ayatollah Nasser Makarem-Shirazi.

Mohajerani warned journalists to avoid giving hardliners an excuse for cracking down on them. Hardliners who were participating in rallies marking the revolution's 21st anniversary on 11 February demonstrated against Mohajerani. This occurred in Qom, Karaj, Orumieh, and Shahr-i Kord, "Mosharekat" reported on 12 February. Anti-Mohajerani slogans are being displayed in Nahavand, where Mohajerani is scheduled to visit.

Cracking down on publications is not the only means of avoiding tension and promoting unity. In late-January, a debate surfaced over the advisability of televising the "confessions" of Ministry of Intelligence and Security officials accused of murdering dissident intellectuals and politicians in late-1998. A group of parliamentarians saw the program, in which the accused allegedly acknowledged links with Israel and the U.S. The MOIS said this information must be confirmed before it is broadcast, but the Armed Forces Judicial Organization advocated broadcasting right away. Iranian newspapers reflected this debate, and so far, the "confessions" have not been broadcast. A news conference about the serial murders that was scheduled for the second week of February was postponed by the Interior Ministry, "Mosharekat" reported on 9 February. (Bill Samii)

ELECTION REGULATIONS, MONITORING, AND SECURITY. On 18 February Iranians will vote in the sixth parliamentary elections since the 1978-1979 revolution. The voting age in Iran was recently raised to 16, after being reduced to 15 in 1996. There are approximately 39 million eligible voters.

About 6,000 candidates will compete (state broadcasting reported on 12 February that 5,527 will compete) for 290 seats, 20 more than last time to indicate the increase in population. Candidates must win a minimum of 25 percent of the votes to win in the first round (this reflects new election laws that reduced the number from 33 percent). Should a constituency's seats remain unfilled after this, there will be a second round in which the remaining seats are filled by the top vote-getters. A date for the second round has not been set.

The Interior Ministry is responsible for running the election, but the Guardians Council is responsible for supervising it. Election monitors will have to watch for several methods of fraud that have appeared in previous Iranian elections. One of these is the use of a dead person's identity card, so a (live) person can vote multiple times. Parliamentarian Mohammad Reza Taraqi claimed that he knew of five million such cards, "Tehran Times" reported on 10 February. A citizen can vote anywhere in the country as long as he or she presents an identification card. The card is then stamped to show that the individual has voted. So even if people vote only once, they can be bussed in from insignificant villages and towns to major cities. In the February 1999 council elections, monitors' access to polling places and to ballot-counting areas was occasionally blocked, and there were complaints that ballots in some areas were not counted at all. In some cases, voters were paid to vote for specific candidates.

Rumors have surfaced that there will be attacks on polling places. Law Enforcement Forces Commander General Hedayat Lotfian said 120,000 police officers will be on guard to prevent disruptions and ensure safety. Deputy Interior Minister for Security Gholamhussein Bolandian said the army, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, and the Basij Resistance Forces would assist the Interior Ministry if necessary, IRNA reported on 31 January. He also said that 40 helicopters will be used to collect ballots in remote parts of the country. (Bill Samii)

PARTIES AND FACTIONS IN THE FEBRUARY ELECTION. Some 111 political parties have been licensed to date, according to Hojatoleslam Ali Movahedi-Savoji, head of parliament's Article 10 Committee, which deals with the formation of political parties. This includes groups with primarily political orientations, as well as those that have more single-issue orientations, such as the newly-formed Armenian See in Tehran or the Society of Assyrians in Orumieh.

On the one hand, this is a positive tendency in terms of political development. As Kerman's "Neha-yi Vahdat" reported on 25 November, many people "believe the presence of different factions and groups makes society dynamic and active, because the different factions' criticism of each other will better the country's orientation, and consequently improve its political situation." Furthermore, the daily says, the factions serve as "connective layers between the people and the government."

On the other, the sheer number of groups indicates some shortcomings, both in the system generally and in the groups specifically. Political parties should express the collective opinions of their membership. In Iran, however, it is the press that expresses opinions, rather than the parties themselves, according to the 9 December "Payam-i Zanjan." The differences between parties, according to the provincial daily, can be traced to their origins and personality differences between their founders. Furthermore, some of them become active only before elections, and afterwards they become dormant. They therefore do not maintain continuous contact with their supporters, nor do they feel responsive or responsible to them, and they do not express their supporters' opinions outside the election periods.

Habibollah Ayubi, head of the Legal and Political Science College of Imam Sadeq University, also decried the current situation in an interview with the 18 January "Entekhab." Currently, he said, "instead of becoming a contrast between two ideas and ways of thinking, factionalism in Iran has been turned into a struggle between bands and individuals." Ayubi believes that a few readily-identifiable and all-encompassing parties would be of greater benefit.

In the 18 February parliamentary election, parties and factions will be most significant in the major cities, where voters must choose from large lists of candidates and ideological considerations will be more relevant in their selections. In smaller constituencies, voters will have fewer choices and their choices are more likely to be based on local interests. Some candidates will identify themselves as independents, but the ideological groupings can effectively be classified as reformists and conservatives.

The reformist groups are identified as the 2nd of Khordad coalition, which is named after the day of President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami's election. There are 18 groups in this coalition. Listed alphabetically, they include:

Executives of Construction Party. A party formed by associates of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, including his brother Mohammad, Tehran Mayor Gholamhussein Karbaschi, and 16 ministers and vice presidents. This group has a strong technocratic core.

Islamic Iran Participation Party. This organization was founded in Autumn 1998 as a pro-Khatami party by former members of the Executives of Construction Party and the Tehran Militant Clergy Association, as well as Students Following the Imam's Line member Abbas Abdi.

Islamic Labor Party. This party announced its formation in February 1999, and its initial platform was described as "protecting the rights of the workers and laborers." Spokeswoman Soheila Jelodarzadeh also is a an advocate of women's issues. Founding members were part of the Workers House (Khaneh-yi Kargar), which supported Khatami's presidential bid. Militant Clerics Association (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mobarez). This group's leadership is Hojatoleslams Mehdi Mahdavi-Karrubi, Mohammad Asqar Musavi-Khoeniha, and Ali Akbar Ashtiani. This group broke away from the original Tehran Militant Clergy Association (Jameh-yi Ruhaniyat-i Mobarez-i Tehran), and it is now considered the left-leaning clergy association. Dissatisfied with what it saw as manipulation of the system, it ran no candidates for several years. In October 1996, the group resumed its political activities.

Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization. This group is led by former Minister of Heavy Industry Behzad Nabavi-Tabrizi and Mohammad Salamati. Much of its membership consists of ex-Mujahedin Khalq Organization members. It dissolved in the early-1980s but re-emerged in the late-1990s. The group advocates government intervention in the economy and in development.

Office for Strengthening Unity. This loose grouping of pro-Khatami Islamist associations is comprised mainly of student groups. It is the most active of the university-affiliated ones, and it has gotten into physical confrontations with the hardline Ansar-i Hizbullah. Its leaders include Amir Mir-Damadi and Ebrahim Asgharzadeh.

Other reformist groups are the Islamic Solidarity Party and the Groups Following the Imam's Line. There are differences among these groups over carrying Hashemi-Rafsanjani's name on their candidate lists.

There are a number of conservative political groups, too, although there are fewer of them fielding candidate lists and there is greater unity in the lists:

Islamic Coalition Association. This conservative group is led by Habibollah Asgaroladi-Mosalman. It was formed as a coalition of grassroots, local Islamic clubs, and a joint venture of conservative bazaaris and clerics. Interwoven with the Resalat Foundation, it supports the Supreme Leadership. It supported parliamentary speaker Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri in the 1997 presidential election. The ICA absorbed members of the anti-Bahai Hojattieh Society when it ceased its activities in 1983.

Tehran Militant Clergy Association (Jameh-yi Ruhaniyat-i Mobarez-i Tehran). This group originated in 1936, and it was active in the 1963 riots in Iran. It supported Nateq-Nouri in the 1997 presidential election. Members favor a market economy, and are very conservative culturally. This group strongly supports Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the doctrine that ultimate decision-making power should rest with the Leadership.

Not only are the coalitions fielding different candidate lists, there is an overlap in candidates of the reformist and conservative factions. Some Executives of Construction candidates, for example, also appear on the Islamic Coalition Association and Tehran Militant Clergy Association lists. The top five candidates, according to an 8 February report in "Iran News," are Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Mehdi Karrubi, Mohammad Reza Khatami (the president's brother), Ali Reza Nuri (Hojatoleslam Abdullah Nuri's brother), and Jamileh Kadivar (Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Ataollah Mohajerani's wife).

The Guardians Council announced its ultimate list of 576 rejected candidates on 7 February. "The list sent by the Guardian Council to the election headquarters, dated [7 February], is final and should form the basis for action," state television reported on 8 February. Campaigning officially started on 10 February. (Bill Samii)

KHATAMI CAMPAIGNING IN KHUZESTAN... President Mohammad Khatami explained his first visit to southwestern Khuzestan Province since 1997 by saying "I always wanted to come and see the good, noble, and selfless people of the province again," according to state radio on 9 February. Also, Khatami inaugurated a new sugar cane processing factory and two phases of the Ramin thermal power plant of Ahvaz.

Actually, Khatami was there to campaign for the Islamic Iran Participation Party (IIPP) and for some damage limitation. When his brother, Mohammad Reza, was in the Khuzestan town of Andimeshk for a IIPP session on 22 January, the meeting was attacked by 30 people chanting anti-reformist slogans, "Iran"--the IRNA daily--reported. There were three reasons for this violence, according to the 8 February "Kayhan," a hardline daily. First of all, the town was plastered with posters of the president and signs welcoming "Dr. Khatami," so locals had prepared petitions and letters of complaint for the president. When his brother showed up instead, they were somewhat irritated. Secondly, Mohammad Reza Khatami was effectively campaigning before campaigning can legally start (10 February). Finally, the IIPP's parliamentary candidate is not a local.

Of the province's voters, 95 percent cast their ballots for President Khatami, Yusef Azizi Bani-Taruf wrote in "Asr-i Azadegan" on 18 January. Arabs make up 65 percent of the provincial population, and Khatami rewarded their support by ensuring that more Arabs are in government positions: from 2 out of 120 posts to the current 17. The formation of the Al-Janat al-Wefaq, a small Arab-Iranian society, indicates the related improvement in local self-worth, Bani-Taruf wrote. He added that more needs to be done by the Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry, such as permission for the creation of Arabic publications. Local Arabs would not, therefore, have any attraction to so-called "liberation movements" from across the border.

Such ethnic sentiments are taking a divisive turn in Khuzestan, according to other observers. "Some of the candidates and their supporters are involved in inciting nationalist feelings and provoking ethnic tendencies among the people to obtain votes," reported "Jomhuri-yi Islami" on 3 February. Ethnic sentiments have been a political issue in Khuzestan "in the last couple of years."

Other problems in Khuzestan make it fertile ground for those wanting to use ethnicity to pursue separatist agendas. "Hundreds" of workers at the Abadan refinery have been demoted so they will voluntarily quit, "thousands" of workers in the steel mill have not received their pay or bonuses, and the "legitimate wages of Khuzestan's pipe-manufacturing plant have been unpaid for months." These events have resulted in demonstrations and hunger strikes, "Kar va Kargar" reported on 18 January. "We should not expect workers to continue to bear the problems and say nothing," the newspaper warned. (Bill Samii)

...BUT NOT IN GILAN? President Khatami did not feel obliged to visit Gilan Province, although events there are following a similar pattern. Violence erupted when the Islamic Iran Participation Party's Mohammad Reza Khatami spoke in Rasht. Protestors also chanted "Down with the Hypocrite" and objected to the nomination of Roshanak Siasi, a candidate who is not a local, "Iran Daily" reported on 8 February. Earlier, Ebrahim Asgharzadeh of the Office for Strengthening Unity was "beaten up and seriously injured in Rasht," "Sobh-i Imruz" reported on 5 January. Shareholders and workers of Gilan Electric factory held a protest gathering to demand payment for their shares, "Tehran Times" reported on 31 January.

A group of Gilan students were quoted by "Nasim" as saying "We will elect pro-Khatami candidates," "Iran Daily" reported on 9 February. "Khabar va Nazar," a Rasht daily, warned in December that the 2nd of Khordad coalition has a great deal of support locally, but this support may not be translated into votes cast in the polling place. That is because the reformists do not seem to have much of a platform, while many conservative candidates are promoting themselves as "independents." In November, the same newspaper said that conservatives are "trying to pretend they belong to 2nd of Khordad," and it urged the reformists to identify their candidates and their platform as quickly as possible. (Bill Samii)

CAMPAIGNS IN TABRIZ, ARDABIL, AND ISFAHAN... Most voters in Tabriz intend to boycott the parliamentary election, because the authorities refused to allow the registration of "independent candidates for deputy, including Tabriz University Professor Mahmudali Chehragani," Baku's Turan news agency reported on 28 January. In Ardabil, about 50 Chehragani supporters were arrested, Baku's "Azadlyg" reported on 25 January. The sources of these reports are the United Azerbaijan Movement and the National Liberation Movement of Southern Azerbaijan, nationalist-separatist organizations based in Baku, so one can guess at their accuracy.

There were other reports of political violence in Ardabil. A hardline pressure group physically assaulted members of the reformist Office for Strengthening Unity at an 11 February rally, "Hamshahri" reported the next day. Students from Mohaqeq-i Ardabil University were chanting "Death to monopolists" when they were attacked by a group chanting "Death to anti-Vilayat-i Faqih [leadership of the Supreme Jurisconsult]."

The situation in Isfahan, a city of 1.4 million people, is less predictable than in Tabriz. Municipal council head Hussein Mollai told the 5 February "Financial Times" that 80 percent of the voters will back reformist candidates. Council member Abdulhussein Sassan, however, said that the reformist groups are not united and this will harm their chances at the polls. And newspaper editor Reza Mahzuniyeh said "The result is not predictable."

When Ahmad Shirzad, an Islamic Iran Participation Party candidate, told a 12 February rally at an Isfahan mosque that dissident cleric Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri-Najafabadi should be released from house arrest, he was jeered and a scuffle occurred. Shirzad was jostled by hardliners.

Montazeri said that some of the reformists should withdraw their candidacy so the reformist vote would not be diluted, Reuters reported on 12 February. He said that "Candidates should consider the expediency of Islam, the country and their constituency and, if necessary, withdraw in order to create unity and to allow the best person to win." Montazeri reminded candidates that "Self-sacrifice is one of the attributes of the godly." (Bill Samii)

...AND IN MASHHAD AND TEHRAN. The office of Islamic Iran Participation Party candidate Ali Tajernia in the northeastern city of Mashhad, Khorasan Province, was set on fire on 10 February. An anonymous official from Tajernia's office said the fire was the work of hardliners, according to AP. A 16-year-old who was distributing IIPP campaign literature was stabbed earlier in the week.

In Tehran, the Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) and judicial police inspected the office of the banned but tolerated Freedom Movement on 9 February, "Asr-i Azadegan" reported two days later. Party member Hussein Darvish said the LEF had a search warrant, and it said the Freedom Movement must stop its electoral activities. Although none of the party's candidates' eligibility was approved, the Freedom Movement had vowed to continue campaign activities.

Tehran candidates Mohammad Kazem-Kuhi and Elahe Rastgu claimed that their election headquarters was attacked by individuals claiming they were from the LEF, "Sobh-i Imruz" reported on 12 February. They have complained to the Tehran governor-general's office and to the LEF headquarters. (Bill Samii)

UNEMPLOYMENT HIGH BUT EVEN THOSE WITH JOBS NOT PAID. Some 2.876 million members of the Iranian workforce are unemployed. This means that the country has a 16.3 percent unemployment rate, the Plan and Budget Organization reported on 5 February. These figures vary from province to province. Underdeveloped Luristan Province has a 31 percent unemployment rate, while Semnan has an 8.8 percent unemployment rate. An estimated 20.6 percent of the female workforce is unemployed, and 15.1 percent of people with higher education or university degrees are unemployed.

So if an Iranian does have a job, he or she should be grateful. Right?

Not necessarily. The Deputy Minister of Labor and Social Affairs announced on 9 January that workers in more than 500 factories have not received their wages for three to 15 months, "Entekhab" reported the next day. Parviz Ahmadi, head of the board of directors of the Islamic Work Councils Center of Tehran, said the "wood industry workers have not received their wages for 22 months." Soheila Jelodarzadeh, a member of the parliamentary Labor Commission, explained that in many cases factory owners create fake crises so they can avoid paying their workers.

The Iranian government is making it increasingly difficult for workers to demand their rights. All laborers' meetings must be held under the umbrella of the Social Welfare Organization, "Kar va Kargar" reported on 6 December. When a group requested a permit to meet outside this format to protest the Social Welfare Organization's refusal to allow short-term and seasonal contracts or to permit early retirements, the Interior Ministry rejected their request. The Interior Ministry said any gathering would be "forbidden and illegal," IRNA reported on 18 December.

A member of the Board of Managers for Labor of the Tehran City Council added that the Social Welfare Organization is refusing to pay unemployment insurance benefits, although it receives a 3 percent insurance payment from employers. It is not clear what happens to this money.

Unemployment will be one of the most important issues facing the incoming parliament, a group of Iranian experts, such as Professor Ebrahim Rezaqi, said in interviews with the 2 February "Resalat." Quchan parliamentarian Mohammad Baqer Zakeri, however, warned that none of the political factions has a clear economic plan, "Javan" reported on 9 February. Part of the government's plan for creating jobs is the promotion of small businesses, Cooperatives Minister Morteza Haji said on 26 January. He said there are currently 50,000 cooperatives in Iran. (Bill Samii)