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Iran Report: February 21, 2000

21 February 2000, Volume 3, Number 8

LARGE TURNOUT IN THE ELECTION... The Interior Ministry announced that 80-83 percent of Iran's approximately 39 million voters participated in the 18 February parliamentary election, but Mohammad Reza Abbasifard of the Guardians Council said that 70-80 percent of the electorate voted. Still, this is close to the 88 percent of the 1997 presidential election and ahead of the 71 percent turnout for the 1996 parliamentary race. Polling stations were supposed to be open for a maximum of 12 hours, but the Interior Ministry reported that turnout was so large that voters who had arrived before the deadline were allowed to vote anyway.

The time it takes to get the results will vary from a few hours in very small constituencies to three weeks in Tehran, the Islamic Republic News Agency reported on 18 February. There may have been some confusion in Isfahan, Semnan, and Mazandaran provinces, which held Assembly of Experts by-elections. The Guardians Council rejected efforts to computerize the counting system, so all votes must be counted by hand.

As of 20 February, vote-counting was complete in 194 constituencies, according to state radio. Incumbents apparently fared badly. The Islamic Iran Participation Party, based on its own exit polls, announced that reformists carried 60 percent of the seats. Reformist dailies, such as "Arya," "Mosharekat," Akhbar-i Eqtesad," and "Aftab-i Imruz" all claimed an overwhelming reformist victory. Hardline publications had little to crow about, and they mainly pointed at the large turnout as a victory for the Islamic revolution. Conservative coalition spokesman Mohammad Reza Bahonar said that conservatives had won 73 out of 150 provincial seats, but he admitted that things had not gone well in Tehran.

Run-offs will be held in constituencies where none of the candidates got 25 percent of the votes. These include: Lahijan, Nour, and Mahmoudabad (Gilan Province); Dehloran (Ilam); Kangavar (Kermanshah); Nahbandan, Andimeshk, and Dezful (Khuzestan); Doroud and Azna (Luristan); Minudasht, Gonbad Kavus, Ramyan, and Azadshahr (Golestan); and Garmsar (Semnan). Other constituencies requiring run-offs are: Samiram and Barkhuar Meymeh (Isfahan), Shabestar and Meshgin-Shahr (East Azerbaijan), Razan (Hamedan), Boroujen (Chahar Mahal-Bakhtiari), Dayyer and Kangan (Bushehr), Abadeh and Bavanat (Fars), Miyandoab, Shahindej and Takab (West Azerbaijan), and Qorveh (Kurdistan). The election headquarters announced that the run-offs will be held in late-April or early-May, state radio reported on 19 February.

Intelligence Minister Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi told state radio on Friday morning that "we have not received any reports of any problems." There were, however, some problems later. Interior Ministry Deputy Mustafa Tajzadeh, who heads Iran's election headquarters, said that Guardians Council supervisors never turned up at some of the polling stations in Tehran and other cities, so polling was delayed by several hours at these locales, "Sobh-i Imruz" reported on 19 February. And in some places, voters outnumbered ballot papers. A mosque in western Tehran refused to open its doors for the election officials, so the Interior Ministry had to use mobile ballot boxes to collect ballots from voters, "Sobh-i Imruz" reported on 19 February. Also, a candidate in Firuzkuh and Damavand constituency was campaigning on election day, and he ignored inspectors who told him this was against the rules.

Hundreds rioted in Shush Danial, Khuzestan Province, when the local winner was accused of buying votes, IRNA reported on 19 February. Police fired into the air and used tear gas to suppress the rioters, who set fires and threw rocks at police. Some 15 people were injured. Similar incidents occurred in the Khuzestan towns of Shadegan and Dasht-i Azadegan, and there were protests in Izeh. (Bill Samii)

...BUT WHAT DOES IT MEAN? The last session of the fifth parliament will occur on 22 February, and the new parliament, which will be sworn-in in May, will face several outstanding issues. Among these are vague press laws, restrictive electoral regulations, social codes that are unevenly enforced, opening the economy to greater foreign investment, privatization of state-owned industries, and relations with the U.S.

But even if the new parliament seeks to cooperate with the executive branch's plans, its ability to act is severely limited. All legislation must be approved by the hardline Guardians Council before it becomes law. State security organizations, the military, and state broadcasting are under the supervision of the Supreme Leader's office and are not answerable to the executive or legislature. Press Courts and the Special Court for the Clergy target regime critics. The judiciary and other governmental bureaucracies, even when headed by Khatami-appointees who are seen as reformists, still have many employees who have their own personal and ideological agendas. Influential and powerful personalities who have direct financial interests in the state industries and para-statal foundations will be very resistant to anything that threatens their wealth and influence. And the Supreme Leader has veto power over everything.

New representatives' political affiliations make predicting how they will vote on legislation difficult. In the previous parliament, the large block of independents did not follow any consistent voting pattern. As of 20 February, estimates indicated that independents won 36 seats. Many candidates who were calling themselves independents were in fact conservatives, according to observers, suggesting that once in office they will vote against legislation favored by reformists. Political analyst Khosro Abedi added, furthermore, that there is not much difference between candidates. The public has more choices, Abedi told AFP on 17 February, but this may not be translated into real changes because "Iranian politics is a lot like a private club."

Compared to its neighbors, Iran had a relatively open election, the high levels of participation, furthermore, may represent an attempt by some to change the status quo through legal means. But even here, there are question marks about what really concerns voters. A series of interviews with people in rural Shahriar, south of Tehran, pointed out that the big issues described above have little relevance for many Iranians. They are more concerned with basic issues, such as fuel and telephones and especially jobs, Reuters reported on 18 February. (Bill Samii)

ELECTION COVERAGE BY STATE BROADCASTING. Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari, in a 14 February speech, urged Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting to be impartial in its coverage of the parliamentary election. Apparently IRIB did not heed this suggestion, because 2nd of Khordad movement spokesman Behzad Nabavi and secretary of the Militant Clerics Association (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mobarez) Hojatoleslam Mehdi Mahdavi-Karrubi complained that in the run-up to the election, IRIB's coverage was insufficient, "Fath" reported on 15 February. This is nothing new, and IRIB is frequently criticized for its biased coverage of domestic Iranian politics. IRIB Director Ali Larijani, who is appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is seen by the 2nd of Khordad movement as a hardliner.

Biased or not, IRIB did carry election-related programs during the week of campaigning. State television had a program entitled "The Best Election" that carried interviews with average citizens who commented on the qualities they look for in candidates. The program was interspersed with Father of the Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's comments on the importance of elections.

State radio carried live links with correspondents at the Interior Ministry and the Guardians Council who described the various election regulations. Correspondents at provincial election headquarters provided reports, too. This program also had interviews with average citizens, and it described newspaper coverage of the election. A telephone number was provided so listeners could call in their comments. State broadcasting also carried election-related speeches by state officials.

On polling day, state radio carried live election coverage, interspersed with newscasts. The first item on state television newscasts was President Mohammad Khatami's statement thanking voters. State television's Network 1 carried intermittent election coverage, including a 20-minute election special. Network 2 carried live coverage from 9:30 GMT onward. This coverage consisted of live links with correspondents at polling places around the country. Also, the broadcast of Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi's Friday Prayers sermon was delayed. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN DENIES JAMMING FOREIGN BROADCASTS. Mr. Nemati, director of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting's communications department, rejected recent reports that foreign radio broadcasts are being jammed (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 14 February 2000). "Those who make such allegations on the eve of the elections intend to create tension and discord," he told the 17 February "Asr-i Azadegan." (Bill Samii)

THE FINAL DAYS: CANDIDATES, PARTIES, AND RALLIES. The week of campaigning, from 10-17 February, proceeded much as it had begun, with candidates and parties expressing their views and receiving endorsements, rallies, and occasional violence (see the 14 February "RFE/RL Iran Report" on the first few days of campaigning). Political figures and state officials urged the public to vote. And the Guardians Council found itself continuing to defend some of its rejections of particular candidates.

Islamic Iran Participation Party candidate Ahmad Burqani, for example, suggested that Iran and the U.S. should resume communications, "Iran Vij" reported on 13 February. Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization candidates, such as Mohsen Armin, discussed current issues like the serial killings of political dissidents, "Sobh-i Imruz" reported on 14 February. Ayatollah Mohsen Musavi-Tabrizi, a reformist candidate in the religious city of Qom, where 71 candidates are competing for three seats, said he favors limits on judicial power and an opening of the economy, the "New York Times" reported on 16 February.

Former Tehran mayor Gholamhussein Karbaschi reminded a 14 February news conference that, at the time of its formation in 1996, the technocratic Executives of Construction Party was taking a daring step, and it therefore opened the doors for other non-religious organizations. In a surprise move, the IIPP changed the order of its candidates list, choosing the president's brother, Mohammad Reza Khatami, as its top candidate. Khatami replaced Hojatoleslam Mehdi Mahdavi-Karrubi, who was moved to 16th place on the list. In a clever move, the IIPP also selected an Armenian candidate, Artanus Baghumian, for its Isfahan list. He is one of the only minority candidates to ever be on a mainstream candidate list. Voters can either choose one minority candidate or an entire list of regular candidates, but they cannot do both.

The parties' campaign slogans shifted away from ideology and revolutionary commitment. Two of the main conservative bodies -- the Tehran Militant Clergy Association (Jameh-yi Ruhaniyat-i Mobarez-i Tehran) and the Coalition of the Line of the Imam and Leader � emphasized "understanding" in their slogans. The ECP described "Security, Prosperity, and Freedom" in its publicity. And the IIPP called for "Iran for all Iranians." In Rasht, campaign literature was dropped from aircraft, and t-shirts with candidates' pictures became fashionable. Slogans promoting 29 Bahman (18 February) as another 2 Khordad (the day President Mohammad Khatami was elected) gained currency.

The reformist publications Fath, Asr-i Azadegan, Sobh-i Imruz, Aftab-i Imruz, Azad, Arya, Akhbar-i Eqtesad, Bayan, and Hayat-i No published their candidate endorsements on 13 February. They endorsed 30 candidates, including Burqani, Khatami, Armin, Karrubi, and a number of other prominent reformists.

Initially, campaign rallies were not very well-attended, possibly out of fear of violence. But a 13 February IIPP rally attracted thousands, and they chanted against candidate Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who may be the next speaker of parliament. They also chanted against Isfahan candidate Ali Akbar Fallahian, who served as Minister of Intelligence and Security from 1989-1997. Fallahian has received a lot of criticism in the reformist press for his tenure as MOIS chief.

There were more violent incidents as well. A percussion grenade went off near Fallahian's house, "Kayhan" reported on 14 February, after another one was thrown at his election headquarters a week earlier. Hardliners attacked the election headquarters of another candidate, former Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Mohtashemi-Pur, on 13 February. A man was stabbed to death at a IIPP rally in the southern city of Bandar Abbas, "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported on 15 February.

A Tehran rally of the ECP was disrupted, "Kayhan" reported on 16 February, when bystanders tore up posters of Hashemi-Rafsanjani, destroyed some Iranian flags, and chanted "Musaddiq, Mussadiq, we shall continue your path" (Prime Minister Mohammad Mussadiq was ousted in a 1953 coup and is still an icon of the nationalist movement). A meeting at which nationalist figure Habibollah Payman, whose candidacy was rejected, was speaking was disrupted when a brawl broke out and lights were extinguished, "Fath" reported on 17 February. In Qazvin, nationalist journalist Fatimeh Govarai was arrested, "Fath" reported on 17 February. (Bill Samii)

...PUBLIC URGED TO VOTE... In the days before the election, senior Iranian officials urged the public to vote. But statements to this effect by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami were noteworthy.

Khamenei told prospective Hajj candidates on 15 February that they should participate wholeheartedly in the election, because "elections symbolize the people's participation and restoration of their rights." Saying that voting is both a right and a duty, he added that "it is important what percentage of people who could vote take part in the elections and vote." Khamenei went on to say there must be a "tranquil and friendly atmosphere." He urged the public to vote for candidates who are "able to stand up to coercion, scare-mongering, excessiveness, and avarice of world powers, and assess the problems of the country and the nation." He closed by criticizing the U.S., foreign radios, and those who are susceptible to propaganda.

Khatami urged women and the young, among his greatest supporters, "to participate actively" in the elections in an 8 February speech. Khatami said that there has been progress in women's affairs, but much more remains to be done if women are to have an active presence in economic, social, and political arenas. At the same speech, Khatami apologized to disqualified candidates. This part of the speech was not cited by state broadcasting, which is criticized for its hardline and anti-reformist tendencies. So, "Mosharekat" daily reported it the next day.

Khatami again addressed electoral issues during his 11 February speech marking the revolution's anniversary. He again addressed the young, saying "Our revolution is the youths' revolution and they played an outstanding role in this revolution... The revolution also belongs to today's youth." And then he urged people to elect candidates that will not oppose the executive branch's policies. Khatami said that "The government will be able to take more confident steps to serve you, if it were to enjoy the cooperation of a qualified parliament and a parliament which carefully scrutinizes the behavior and decisions of the executive officials and the judicial authority."

Khatami's 16 February address to the nation urged everybody to vote. He said: "Noble and great nation of Iran! a day for mapping your destiny."

Senior clerics, such as Sources of Emulation Ayatollah Nasser Makarem-Shirazi, and Ayatollah Yusef Sanei urged massive participation. So did State Prosecutor Ayatollah Morteza Moqtadai. Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari also urged massive participation, during a speech in Rasht, because the "election is a manifestation of republicanism of the system and an opportunity for the entire community to play a role in the management of the country." Dissident cleric Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri-Najafabadi urged people to choose their candidates with care, because if a parliamentarian pursues harmful policies, those who elected him or her are considered accessories, "Sobh-i Imruz" reported on 12 February. (Bill Samii)

...AND GUARDIANS COUNCIL SPEAKS OUT. The Council of Guardians has been subjected to a steady stream of criticism for rejecting candidates specifically and for its power of "advisory supervision" over elections generally. President Khatami apologized publicly to the rejected candidates on 8 February (see above), and on 12 February, Interior Minister Musavi-Lari urged voters to overcome the pessimism created by the rejections.

Musavi-Lari told the 14 February "Hamshahri" that the Guardians Council was trying to disqualify ten more candidates. But it was too late, and the Interior Ministry announced on 16 February that there was a total of 6,083 candidates running for parliament.

Then 890 candidates withdrew, the national election headquarters announced on 16 February, which would bring the total to 5,193. The candidates presumably withdrew to avoid splitting the reformist ticket.

The Guardians Council announced on 15 February that all disqualified candidates were provided with written explanations. Those who appealed got a fair hearing and were shown the relevant documents, except in case where "this had to be done for legal reasons and for the sake of safeguarding the rights of third persons or the country's interests. (Bill Samii)

'IT WASN'T ME.' Manuchehr Eliasi, parliamentary representative for Iran's Jewish minority, said on 16 February that all 13 Jews arrested last year on espionage charges would be released. Three of them were released on bail in early-February. He predicted that the charges against all of them "probably" would be dropped, according to Reuters. Israel continues to press for the release of the remaining 10 prisoners. Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Nawaf Musalihah asked Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, the country's top Muslim politician, to intercede with Iran on the prisoners' behalf, Voice of Israel reported on 17 February.

Washington, meanwhile, urged Iran not to execute three Bahais -- Cyrus Zabihi-Moghaddam, Hedayat Kashefi-Najafabadi, and Manuchehr Khulusi. "In all three cases it is clear that the individuals were arrested, charged, and sentenced to death solely because of their religious beliefs," White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said on 11 February, according to Reuters. Iranian judicial official Esmail Asadi said none of the three individuals had been sentenced to death, Iranian state radio reported on 13 February. Asadi added that one of three was arrested in the case of the 13 alleged spies. Regarding the White House's expression of concern, Asadi said that "We believe that, like in the past, they seek to conspire against the course of the Islamic Republic of Iran and interfere in our internal affairs."

Omid Teflin, in a comment on the Jewish prisoners released on bail, said a misunderstanding led to the arrests. "That's all it was with me, a mix-up," he told AFP on 13 February. (Bill Samii)

WHY COLOMBIAN BEEF? Iran imported about 200,000 tons of beef annually, IRNA reported on 10 February, but it will no longer need to do so. The Construction Jihad Ministry's Deputy Minister for Livestock Affairs, Ahmad Kabiri, said Iran "has attained self-sufficiency in production of major animal products." Kabiri added that Iran can now export its surplus cattle. Which makes one ask why Iran was so keen to build a slaughterhouse and meat-packing plant in Colombia (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 27 December 1999). A Colombian official had said the project was intended to sell 20,000 tons of meat per year to Iran, Santa Fe de Bogota's "Semana" reported last November. (Bill Samii)

TEL AVIV BLAMES TEHRAN FOR HIZBALLAH ACTIONS. As Hizballah struck against Israeli forces in Lebanon, reports about extensive Iranian support for the organization resurfaced. The implication of such claims, mainly from Israeli sources, is that Iran is responsible for resistance to the Israeli presence in Lebanon. Iran does not deny supporting Hizballah, and it almost certainly does supply Hizballah with weapons. But even without Iranian support, Hizballah appears likely to be prepared to continue its actions, because Israeli actions have alienated portions of the Lebanese population.

The Israeli Defense Forces said in early January that Tehran had ordered Hizballah to sabotage the Middle East Peace Process, and that Iran had encouraged Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad to cooperate with Hizballah. Soon thereafter, a senior IDF intelligence officer gave the Israeli parliament more detail on the Iranian encouragements, which included the provision of more arms and training and bonuses for successful attacks. In the first week of February there was a report in Tel Aviv's "Haaretz" that Iran had stepped up its supply of equipment, arms, and ammunition to Hizballah.

These reports, if accurate, may explain recent Hizballah attacks in the southern Lebanon security zone, a 15 kilometer-wide strip patrolled by Israeli forces and the South Lebanon Army. Five IDF soldiers were killed. Also, Akl Hashem, second-in-command of the SLA, was assassinated.

Israel retaliated on the night of 7-8 February by launching airstrikes against infrastructure targets in Lebanon, such as electrical power stations. Seventeen Lebanese civilians were wounded in these attacks. Israeli Culture Minister and former Deputy Chief of Staff Matan Vilnai explained that the airstrikes were a hint to the Lebanese government that it should restrain Hizballah, according to the "Mideast Mirror." Fearing retaliatory Katyusha rocket attacks by Hizballah, civilians in northern Israel took shelter, while Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy warned that "the soil of Lebanon will burn" if Hizballah fired any rockets.

Hizballah took the hint, but only partially. It responded by killing members of the IDF and the SLA in the security zone on 8 February, rather than launching Katyushas. An IDF official explained that Hizballah's recent successes were due to lookouts trained by and equipped with special equipment from Iran, "Yediot Aharonot" reported on 8 February. IDF officials also claimed that Israeli outposts were being hit by Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire-command-link (TOW) anti-tank missiles that Israel supplied to Iran in the mid-1980s as part of the arms-for-hostages deal, "Haaretz" reported on 10 February.

Retaliatory actions like Israel's recent ones have if anything strengthened the resolve of its opponents, according to a series of articles in the Lebanese media. An editorial in the 8 February "As-Safir" said: "It is our destiny to resist and to stand up to aggression. We must pay the price for liberating our land. Our weapons are few: we have only our blood, our will, and our spirit of martyrdom to sustain us... We also enjoy some support from certain Arab and international quartersa ..." "After its infrastructure is destroyed, all of Lebanon will turn into a field for resistance," "al-Qods al-Arabi" warned, because "the Lebanese will have nothing to lose."

Israeli parliamentarian Rekhavem Zeevi recognized the impact of Tel Aviv's actions. He wrote in the 9 February "Maariv" that "The death of the SLA's No. 2, Col. Akl Hashem, the bombs at the gates of our outposts, the continuous shelling of our forces � all these bolster Hizballah's fallen spirit and place the great and strong IDF in a ridiculous light."

This brings the discussion back to suggestions of Iranian responsibility for Hizballah's recent actions. On 8 February, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi reaffirmed Tehran's "support for the resistance shown by the Lebanese government and nation." Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said on 14 February that Israel should withdraw unilaterally if it wants the attacks on its personnel to end. He added that "It is the legitimate right of Hizballah and of any Lebanese individual to resist against the occupiers, and therefore we cannot deny Hizballah or the Lebanese government this legitimate right." When asked about the alleged TOW missiles, Kharrazi said the reports were baseless and Tehran only supplies "humanitarian and political assistance."

Muhammad Funaysh, a Hizballah member of Lebanon's National Assembly (parliament) described reports of Iranian-instigated meetings between his party, Hamas, and the PIJ by saying: "This is a pure lie. It is absolutely not true at all." He went on to say that such reports are part of a campaign "against our resistance and our people with a view to covering up the enemy's terrorism and attacks against civilians." Asked if there is any coordination between Hizballah, Hamas, and the PIJ, Funaysh stated that "In the course of resisting the occupation, we are not linked to any other quarter other than the will of our people." (Bill Samii)