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Iran Report: May 29, 2000

29 May 2000, Volume 3, Number 21

RAFSANJANI WITHDRAWS. Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani announced on 25 May that he will not take a seat in the sixth parliament, the first session of which is to be held on 27 May. Rafsanjani explained that he was withdrawing because of the dubious atmosphere surrounding his placement in the Tehran polls (finishing 29th in the initial results, and eventually being placed in the 20th position) and in order to preserve the system's unity.

"In spite of my request to the supervisory and executive officials to take steps to remove any doubt and ambiguity and to discover all the facts..." he said, "there are still certain doubts and ambiguities concerning the results of elections in Tehran. Such ambiguities can be used as a pretext by the enemies of the Iranian nation and cause disunity among forces committed to the Islamic system."

Rafsanjani went on to explain that this made it difficult for him to "discharge my duties and responsibilities in a proper manner and to make efforts in the cause of national consensus and to reinforce the reconstruction of the country, which has been one of the major and important aims of my participation in the political process."

It seems clear that Rafsanjani resigned because few people really believed the outcome of the Tehran results, and as a result, his resignation may indeed help settle the atmosphere somewhat. But the larger question is why he chose to run for parliament in the first place. A former two-term president, a former speaker of parliament, and current head of the Expediency Council, he was certainly a powerful political figure in an official context. And he was also very powerful in the backroom manuevering which characterizes Iranian politics. In his resignation statement, which was carried both by IRNA and by state broadcasting, Rafsanjani explained that he never wanted to run for parliament, doing so only out of a sense of "religious, revolutionary, and patriotic duty and due to the insistence and emphasis of the system's respected figures and personalities."

Another possibility is that Rafsanjani and his conservative supporters believed that he had broad support and was certain to emerge as speaker of parliament. So even if the conservatives did not win a majority in the parliamentary election, Rafsanjani would be in a strong position to shape legislation. But the lack of support Rafsanjani received from the reformist 2nd of Khordad front in the run-up to the election made such an outcome seem increasingly unlikely.

And a third possiblity is that Rafsanjani and his supporters wanted him to be in a position to head off the investigation into the serial murders and other illicit activities. Rafsanjani is widely seen as the "Eminence Rouge" presiding over a secret cabal that runs the country's affairs. So as the investigation into the Ministry of Intelligence and Security's murderous activities rolled up suspects like former MOIS chief Ali-Akbar Fallahian, Rafsanjani himself might have been implicated. Indeed, press articles by journalists Akbar Ganji and Emadedin Baqi alluding to such an eventuality had gained great currency among the public. Rafsanjani and his family, furthermore, have been criticized for corruption and nepotism, and by serving as speaker of parliament, he could have sidetracked any investigations.

Rafsanjani may be down, but he is far from out. He still serves as head of the Expediency Council, which rules on legislation in which there is a deadlock between the parliament and the Guardians Council. He is still a Friday Prayer leader, which gives him a regular forum for expressing his views. But support for him among the general public is dwindling (see below), and for this reason, he may have less influence. Given the opaqueness of Iran's political system, however, the exact reasons for Rafsanjani's withdrawal may never be known. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN BALLOT ISSUE STILL FESTERS. The general public was growing increasingly anxious about the results of the parliamentary election in Tehran, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's instructions that the Guardians Council provide the final results was intended to settle the political atmosphere. But if anything, the council's 20 May announcement of the results for 28 of Tehran's 30 parliamentary seats seems to have disturbed the atmosphere even more.

When the Guardians Council announced the final results on 20 May, it said that 534 out of 3,000 ballot boxes involving more than 726,000 votes had been invalidated. Deputy Interior Minister Mustafa Tajzadeh objected to this, saying that the Guardians Council had approved the Tehran results initially. Tajzadeh demanded detailed information on the invalidated boxes, IRNA reported on 20 May, so the culprits could be brought to justice.

Mr. Ghafuri, who was selected by the Guardians Council to participate in the vote recount, explained the process in a 21 May interview with state television. He said that after the initial results were announced, complaints from election observers and officials began to come in. Executive officials and others "interfered a lot," he said, and candidates' proxies and observers voiced their objections about this. This was why the recount was initiated. As for the specific reasons for invalidating results, Ghafuri referred to the Guardians Council official statement of 18 May, which described the infringements they found (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 22 May 2000).

Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari wrote to Guardians Council secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati and asked for the final results of the second-round polls, IRNA reported on 22 May. The next day, the Interior Ministry filed a lawsuit against Jannati for making unsubstantiated accusations against the National Elections Headquarters, according to IRNA.

And although announcing the Tehran results may have aimed to quell criticism, it seems to have had the opposite effect. In a statement released on 21 May, the pro-Khatami Islamic Iran Participation Party wondered why the Council had not prevented the violations in the initial stages of the vote count. The IIPP statement also suggested that Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Gholamali Haded-Adal, the two conservative candidates who had won seats in Tehran, should withdraw their candidacies.

Moreover, about 3,000 students demonstrated at Tehran University on 22 May and accused the Guardian Council of tampering with the election results. They also objected to Hashemi-Rafsanjani's enduring presence on the political scene, chanting "Hashemi, Hashemi, let go of the country," according to AP. State television added that they chanted "slogans against the revolutionary and legal institutions of the system and officials of the system." The protesting students were supposed to remain inside the university compound because the Interior Ministry refused to permit a street demonstration, but according to state television, they closed down Enqelab and 16th Azar Avenues and marched towards Enqelab Square. They dispersed after warnings from the Law Enforcement Forces.

Members of Heshmatollah Tabarzadi's more radical student organization held a second rally at Tehran University on 24 May and again voiced their objections to the new Tehran results. A "hardline militia" charged the crowd, beat people up, then turned them over to Law Enforcement Forces personnel, who failed to intervene, according to Reuters. About a dozen students were detained. The Iranian Students News Agency reported that the gathering was "broken up by a group called Ansar-i Hizbullah'."

Giving a speech in Bojnurd, Ayatollah Mohammad Abai-Khorasani, secretary of the Qom Association of Seminary Students and Lecturers (Majmae-yi Mudarisin va Muhaqiqin-i Howzeh-yi Elmieh-yi Qom), also discussed the delay in announcing the results and the improvement in Hashemi-Rafsanjani's standing, "Iran" reported on 24 May. Abai-Khorasani said that "after recounting the votes, a person was moved upward from the 30th to the 20th place. God forbid, the people are not stupid. They understand these matters. The Guardian Council, by respecting the people's rights, should clarify the issue. This is why we say that the country needs reforms."

Over a month ago, Hashem Aghajari of the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization predicted that either the Guardians Council wants to prevent the opening of parliament, or it wants to make sure that hardliners can obstruct parliamentary procedures. He warned that there is a right-wing "Mafia of the secret network of power" that opposed the parliamentary elections, and although this Mafia realizes it has no popular support, it refuses to give up its power. Aghajari warned that the right-wingers and secret power-wielders are unwilling to submit to democratic rules. These observations may explain the Guardians Council delay in announcing the Tehran results, as well as the results themselves. (Bill Samii)

NEW PAPER CLOSED ON OPENING. The first issue of "Mellat," a daily which would reflect reformist and conservative views, appeared on Iran's newsstands on 22 May. It drew its staff from the conservative daily "Qods" and the moderate monthly "Payam-i Imruz." The next day, Said Haqi, the daily's publisher, told IRNA that publication had been stopped "until further notice." Haqi said the order to close came from Tehran's Justice Department in a letter to the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance's Domestic Media Department.

The weekly "Arzesh-Ha" closed this week after publishing its 168th edition. The publication originally was the daily mouthpiece of the Society for the Defense of Values of the Islamic Revolution, which had supported Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mohammadi Reyshahri's 1997 presidential bid. Managing Editor Ahmad Purnejati said that the closure was due to financial problems and because, as a newly-elected parliamentarian, he felt obliged to commit himself fully to his new job.

Hussein Ziaei, publisher of "Iran"--the Islamic Republic News Agency's daily--appeared in court on 22 May to study the 11 complaints against him. Riahi said a number of the complaints were made by "different departments of the Iranian Law Enforcement Force (LEF)," while "only one complaint had been filed by a private person."

But press closures and persecution are unlikely to have a lasting impact. "Conservative political systems can set up obstacles to communication, but not to education," Seyyed Morteza Mardiha, a member of the banned "Asr-i Azadegan's" editorial board, commented in the 23 May "Le Monde." If Iran re-enters "a new period of close surveillance of free communication," Mardiha warned, "then the press will once again take up its function of education, in the hope of indirectly weakening conservative resistance. It is sufficient to increase the number of educated people and explain, simply, what democracy is. People understand the rest." (Bill Samii)

HAJJARIAN GUNMEN CONVICTED. Seyyed Hussein Musavi-Tabrizi has called for execution, amputation of limbs, or banishment for the people involved in the shooting of Tehran city council member Said Hajjarian, "Kayhan" reported on 22 March. And Tehran Justice Department chief Abbas Ali Alizadeh warned that if Hajjarian sues his attackers, their prison sentence could be extended by 10 years, IRNA reported on 18 May.

These reactions follow the relatively light sentences given to the men responsible for shooting Hajjarian last March. Gunman Said Asqar received a 15-year prison sentence, and three of his accomplices received 10-year sentences. Mohammad Ali Moqaddam is to serve seven years, Safar Maqsudi four years, and Ali Pur-Chaluei three years. Three people were acquitted.

Even before the sentence was handed down, the haste with which the case was investigated and the trial conducted had raised a few eyebrows. For example, city council member Ahmad Hakimipur, who was, at one point, also among the suspects, urged Hajjarian to clarify the situation, "Iran" reported on 16 May. Hakimipur asked why the Ministry of Intelligence and Security was not allowed to complete its investigation, what were the gunmen's motives, and why were so few of the suspects actually brought to court?

Indeed, from the very beginning the question of motive has been the key issue in the case. How could a group of young inexperienced people decide they were going to assassinate somebody without some sort of leadership, and who are those leaders? Furthermore, who is making it seem that violence is the appropriate reaction to opposing views?

Newly-elected reformist parliamentarian Behzad Nabavi knows who is responsible for the Hajjarian shooting, as well as the serial murders, the July 1999 attack on a Tehran University dormitory, the uproar over the Berlin conference, and the press closures. He said that "This scenario is planned by a small minority of people that consists of members of some 'Cabal' [mahfel] and those who live in 'dungeons.' These people belong to certain factions, and they continue their activities with the intention of suppressing the public." But he warned that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will not allow them to succeed, "Asr-i Ma" reported on 3 May, and because they do not have the military's support, "they must be counting on foreign support." (Bill Samii)

ESPIONAGE TRIAL CONTINUES. The ninth hearing of the case of 13 Jews accused of espionage for the U.S. and Israel was held on 24 May. The purpose of the hearing was to allow the defendants' lawyers to question the suspects en masse, with the intention of showing contradictions in their confessions. Two days earlier, five of the suspects who were free on bail appeared before the court to hear the charges against them. They were not identified and it is not known if they are Muslims or Jews. Other suspects must appear by 25 May.

Chief defense lawyer Esmail Nasseri explained his strategy in an interview with RFE/RL's Persian Service. He said that "We have asked the court to present documentation that [the accused] have passed on information [to Israel]. But the court replies that the evidence is the information itself which they exchanged. [The court says] this information was either oral or in the form of documents and that the documents were immediately destroyed after they were transported or transmitted. [And the court says] it can bring forward the accused and tell them to describe by themselves the transmitted information and sign their statements and [that is the evidence]. But that means the only real evidence against the accused is the accused testifying against each other."

Judicial official Hussein Ali Amiri told state radio on 24 May that "Questioning of the suspects in court on Wednesday has confirmed their previous confessions."

At the end of last week, some of the suspects also confessed to espionage on behalf of Iraq. An editor from the Iraqi News Agency dismissed these confessions, saying they reflected the factional power struggle in Tehran. The unnamed editor added, Baghdad television reported on 22 May, that "there are those in Tehran who try to take their place in the U.S. ranks and who do not want to remember that the U.S. ranks are the ranks of the devil led by the greatest Satan. They seem to forget that joining those ranks cancels out all claims of belonging to the ranks of Islam, the revolution, and the oppressed, as well as all boasts of opposing imperialism, Zionism, and world forces of arrogance."

As many observers feared, the trial has generated a backlash against Iranian Jews. Harun Yashyai, head of Iran's Jewish society, said that "This trial has created problems for the whole Jewish community in Iran." He explained that he had "documents showing that several shops owned by Jews were attacked, and one was set on fire in Tehran."

And international concern about the case continues. Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Rabbi Avi Weiss, who heads The Coalition For Jewish Concerns, met with Amir Zamaninia, a senior counselor in the Iranian mission to the U.N., to discuss their concerns, AP reported on 25 May. Cooper said that "We only want those 13 innocent individuals reunited with their families." He seemed encouraged by the meeting, saying that "The fact is Iranian authorities decided to meet with us, overlooking that gathering, is an indication of their level of concern on a variety of international relationships and bilateral initiatives - including a few with the United States." (Bill Samii)

IRAN'S ANTI-NARCOTICS EFFORT FACES OBSTACLES. Both Tehran and Kabul have been quite vocal lately about their efforts to stem the flow of narcotics from Afghanistan to Iran. But it seems unlikely that Tehran will be able to meet its objectives, and Kabul's sincerity in stopping opium production seems very dubious. Voices in Tehran, meanwhile, continue to demand Western aid in the fight with narcotics traffickers.

In a parliamentary debate broadcast on 14 May, Khavaf and Reshtekar (Khorasan Province) parliamentarian Ebrahim Baysalami complained that "[e]very day our children, our women, and our men are shot dead, taken hostage or raped by Afghan bandits and drug traffickers. ...five teachers from Torbat-i Heidarieh were held hostage for 60 days by smugglers and bandits...children are being shot dead in the middle of the street." He added that "many abduction cases are not reported to the authorities." As a result, on 17 May the parliament authorized the government to allocate about $115 million to close or control Iran's eastern borders.

Tehran's weak economic situation, however, makes one question whether or not this plan will reach fruition. Mahmud Alizadeh Tabatabai, President Khatami's representative to the Anti-Narcotics Headquarters, explained in mid-April that Tehran initially budgeted $1 billion to counter-narcotics, but because of the country's enfeebled economy, that amount was halved. Tehran estimates, for example, that the construction of static defenses along the eastern borders already has cost about $600 million. Tabatabai complained that the West has only provided about $20 million in aid.

And the idea of strengthening the borders with Russian help dates from at least January, when deputy speaker of parliament Hassan Rohani visited Moscow to discuss, among other subjects, drug interdiction, and specifically, construction of an "iron curtain" along the Iran-Afghanistan border. Initially, a 100-kilometer stretch of the border would be equipped with Russian structures, and if this were deemed successful after an 18-month experimental period, the entire border would be equipped with Russian security systems. But until the recent outburst in parliament, the subject had not received much attention.

For that matter, the poor security situation in the east is not a recent development either. Last November, Abbas Ali Nura, Zahedan city's parliamentary representative, said that there is almost a war-like situation in southeastern Sistan va Baluchistan Province. In asking the Interior Ministry for help, Nura said that "Because of the lack of law-and-order and insecurity, people are buying up arms to protect themselves, while drug-traffickers, kidnappers, � and criminals are getting bolder."

The Taliban, meanwhile, are claiming that they are trying to eliminate opium cultivation. They also have claimed that, with Iranian assistance, they are investigating the cultivation of alternative crops, Peshawar's Afghan Islamic Press News Agency. reported in late-April.

Indeed, the size of this year's opium crop is smaller than usual. But that is because of the drought afflicting the region. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization believes that Afghanistan is the worst hit by the drought, which has caused extensive losses of livestock and crops and that large numbers of people are now in need of urgent food assistance. Shukri Ahmed of the FAO's Early Warning System told RFE/RL that "What we see now in Afghanistan is a drought condition that has really extended to the central and southern parts of the country, and it already has killed a lot of livestock. And we are now hearing some news that it also is causing human loss in some of those areas, and people are migrating to urban centers."

The drought comes on the heels of last year's outbreak of pests in Afghanistan that cut cereal production by some 16 percent. The UN says that has made it necessary for Afghanistan to import a record 1.1 million tons of grain over the past 12 months. And the agency calculates that the import requirement is likely to be substantially higher this year.

Not only are Afghan opium crops smaller than usual, but the decreased flow of the Helmand River and its tributaries is affecting crops in Iran. Officials in Sistan va Baluchistan Province and Khorasan Province report that the water flow has stopped completely and 50 percent of agricultural output has been damaged. In Sarakhs, 90 percent of farming land has been ruined, Mashhad's "Qods" reported on 19 April.

Even if the Taliban wanted to eliminate opium cultivation, they would be hard put to do so. Afghanistan produces three times more opium than all other areas of the world combined. The trade earns Afghan poppy growers some $69 million annually and supports an estimated 1.4 million people. The country produced some 4,600 tons of opium in 1999, more than twice its yield in 1998. Not only is opium the main revenue generator for Afghanistan, the Taliban actually collect a 10 percent tax from opium growers, and the Taliban also tax the heroin laboratories.

The Taliban's claims, therefore, are not very convincing. Iranian state radio, furthermore, reported on 19 May that Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad said that the Taliban had an interest in growing opium "because of the enormous income derived from poppy cultivation. The Taliban have announced their support for poppy farming in the country."

There is continuing resentment in Iran over what is seen as the lack of Western support for the fight with narcotics smugglers. "Iran News" editorialized on 18 May that "Iran is in fact fighting the smugglers in order to save the American and European youth. effect, our youth suffers because of Western appetite for drugs." It is true that the West is the ultimate destination for much of the narcotics that enters Iran, but the UN Drug Control Program estimates that 40 percent of the drugs go to major trading centers in Iran for domestic consumption. This keeps prices low and attracts more consumers. Faced with an estimated 25 percent unemployment rate, a weak economy, and stifling social codes, more and more young Iranians use drugs as a means of escape. (Bill Samii)

IRAN WELCOMES ISRAELI WITHDRAWAL... As the Israeli Army withdraws from southern Lebanon after almost 20 years of occupation, followed closely by members of the South Lebanon Army, Hizbollah is taking control of the area, setting up roadblocks, searching for Israeli collaborators, and seizing discarded weapons and munitions. The pullout has been marked by scenes of jubilation among the Lebanese people, and officials in Tehran are just as happy.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a 25 May message that "this victory revealed that the solution to the bullying and atrocities of the usurper Zionists is only in the logic of resistance, Jihad and devotion." Khamenei said the pullout shows how one must deal with Israel: "The victory of the Islamic Resistance and the honorable Hizbollah organization in Lebanon and the success they brought to their nation teaches everyone that straight path towards freedom and independence requires but brave and justice seeking behavior of the youth based on faith and awareness."

President Mohammad Khatami said in a telephone conversation with his Lebanese counterpart, Emile Lahud, that the pullout is "a sign of the greatness and ceaseless efforts of the resistance, government, and nation of Lebanon. We hope to be a witness to the liberation of the remaining [occupied] territories." Lahud responded, according to IRNA, that "The victory of the withdrawal was realized in light of the unity of the entire people, government, resistance forces, the national army, and unsparing support of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Syria."

Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi relayed his congratulations to Lebanese Premier Selim al-Hoss. Al-Hoss responded, according to IRNA: "We too offer felicitations to the Iranian nation and government on the liberation, because the Iranian leadership and people supported Lebanon and played a key role in the victory."

Kharrazi visited Lebanon on 25 May, and while speaking at a mosque in Bin Jbail, he made rather pro-Shia comments. Specifically, he lauded Hizbollah's leadership, Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri (a Shia), and paid tribute to Imam Musa Sadr (the Iranian-born founder of Amal, who gave the Lebanese Shia a sense of community in the 1960s and 1970s), IRNA reported. In the town of Ayn Ibl, however, Kharrazi gave a more rounded speech, according to Beirut radio, "I am extremely delighted with Lebanon's victory, which was achieved through the efforts of all its sects, Muslims and Christians. The pullout came under the intensity of the blows dealt by the brave Resistance. The Israeli occupation oppressed the entire population, Muslims and Christians."

The Islamic Revolution Guard Corps, which has provided training and arms to Hizbollah, and the Martyrs' Foundation, which has sponsored its Lebanese counterpart in providing social services, also relayed their congratulations. The IRGC statement, according to IRNA, said that "following two decades of violation against South Lebanon by the Zionist regime of Israel under the support of the global arrogance and at their head the United States, the Zionists were forced to leave ignominiously the South Lebanon due to the unflinching resistance by the Islamic movement."

Iran's ambassador in Beirut, Mohammad Ali Sobhani, also expressed pleasure with the pullout, and he visited southern Lebanon to congratulate the locals directly. He told Iranian state radio that this a great military victory for Hizbollah and it shows the value of "resistance based on Islam."

HAMAS, the Iranian-supported Islamic Resistance Movement, congratulated Lebanon, its people, and the resistance, "led by the valiant heroes and mujahidin of Hizbollah," too. "We likewise congratulate Syria and Iran and any other quarters that have stood by the reistance."

The Iranian people celebrated by chanting "God is great" from their rooftops on 24 May, according to IRNA. (Bill Samii)