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Iran Report: August 21, 2000

21 August 2000, Volume 3, Number 32

ADDRESSING PROBLEMS OF WOMEN, GIRLS. A recent study by sociology professor Manuchehr Mohseni found that 53 percent of Iranian girls would rather be boys, "Kar Va Kargar" reported on 20 August. Orumieh parliamentarian Shahrbanu Amani said on 9 August that the majority of Tehran's 25,000 street children are female teenagers, IRNA reported the next day. And the Interior Ministry is trying to control the movements of young Iranian females who reportedly travel to Arab Persian Gulf states to seek work and are misled into prostitution, "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported on 8 August, according to DPA news agency. The women are examined upon their return to Iran, and if their "immoral activities" are proven, they are not allowed to leave the country again.

Meanwhile, the parliament approved "generalities" of a bill amending the legally permissible age of marriage, according to IRNA. Currently, nine-year old girls can marry, but under the new bill, only girls aged 14 or older and boys over 17 can marry without the court's authorization.

The efforts to increase the age of marriage caused heated debate in the parliament, but observers are undecided about the relevance of this issue. The 10 August "New York Times" said that the parliament, "fresh from a slap" over the banned press law debate, "showed its determination today to forge ahead with social change and grant women additional rights by raising the marriage age." The 10 August "Washington Times," on the other hand, said a "humiliated parliament" had given in and was instead concentrating on "modest measures," which showed a "dramatic lowering of expectations." A 13 August open letter from 161 parliamentarians said that they would do what they could to resolve the country's problems and to pursue the goals of the 2nd of Khordad movement (named after the date of President Mohammad Khatami's May 1997 election). (Bill Samii)

KHATAMI IN KURDISTAN. President Mohammad Khatami visited Kurdistan Province in the first week of August. At a meeting with local military, Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, and law enforcement commanders, he said that "Praise be to God, today, Kurdistan is one of the safest areas in the country and that is the result of the people's vigilance as well your efforts and self-sacrifice."

This may be reassuring news for the local population, but they have bigger economic concerns. This may explain why Khatami -- accompanied by his three ministers of Construction Jihad, Education, and Mines and Metals, as well as the acting-minister of Post, Telegraph, and Telephone -- was to inaugurate 289 development projects, too. One of the projects Khatami discussed during his stops was the Baneh reservoir dam, which he said would become operational in three years. Another was the Kurdistan Steel Mills Complex near Qorveh, construction of which began five years ago at a projected cost of 81 billion rials (about $46 million), 35 billion of which have already been spent. 63 telecommunication projects became operational during Khatami's visit, too.

Khatami said that since the revolution, the literacy rate in the region has climbed from 29.7 percent to 70 percent. Khatami criticized local officials for not preventing wastage of local water resources, and he said that the reduction of local forests from 500,000 hectares to 320,000 hectares was a national disaster. During a 6 August speech in Sanandaj, Khatami said that the city suffers from "poverty and [a] high rate of unemployment," according to IRNA. Khatami added that the province suffers from the "pain of chronic deprivation," and he suggested that the government's "long-term projects" and the Third Five-year Development Plan would give the matter "due attention."

Such words will be welcome, but they may not be enough. The region suffered a great deal of devastation during the war with Iraq -- many towns and villages were leveled and subject to chemical attack. There has been some reconstruction of local infrastructure in the years since the war, but a great deal remains to be done. Local management was not used, furthermore, and as unemployment climbed, many local youth left for the cities to find work.

Another local problem is that Kurds' constitutionally-guaranteed ethnic and cultural rights are being ignored. Locals "expect Article 15 of the constitution, that permits the teaching of local languages and literature, besides teaching Persian, will be put into action after 20 years. Local radio and TV programs would be increased. ... expansion of universities and research centers would be on the agenda," "Fath" reported in February.

There is a possibility that some of the expectations of voters from the predominantly Kurdish provinces will be met by the sixth parliament. After the first round, in which 18 Kurds were elected, candidate Seyyed Fatah Husseini said that he expected there would be more Kurdish instruction at the university in Sanandaj, and he called on the Khatami government to have more Kurdish officials, Istanbul's "Ozgur Bakis" reported on 4 March. Subsequently, a 40-member faction representing the predominantly Kurdish provinces was formed. Its objectives are somewhat mysterious, because Kermanshah representative Ismail Tatari said it would not have a leader and it has "no objective except to exalt Iran, "Afarinesh" reported on 8 June. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN WORKS WITH KURDISH PARTIES. Tehran's focus is not only on the Kurds living in Iran. It also maintains contacts with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the Kurdish Democratic Party-Iran (KDPI), and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). This seems to be connected with a desire to settle the political situation in northern Iraq, encourage Kurdish refugees to go home, and to maintain pressure on the Iraqi regime.

At the end of July PUK leader Jalal Talabani was in Tehran to meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi. At the same time, a KDP delegation led by Kurdistan Regional Government head Nechirvan Barzani visited Tehran. And in early-May, Talabani met with a KDPI delegation led by Abdullah Hassanzadeh in Suleimanieh.

The Iranian contacts with the KDPI may be somewhat unexpected, because Tehran is responsible for the 1989 assassination of KDPI official Abdul Rahman Qassemlou. In February 2000 reports from Suleimanieh emerged that the PUK was serving as an intermediary between Tehran and the KDPI. In exchange for all KDPI weapons and a promise to engage in political activities only, Tehran was promising to grant the Kurds national and cultural rights and the right to administer local authorities in Saneh district, London's "Al-Zaman" reported in March. The KDPI said, a day after this news was reported, that although it favored dialog and a political solution, it would not enter into "secret talks" at any time with Tehran.

Tehran's efforts to settle the situation in northern Iraq also may be connected with its efforts to persuade Kurdish refugees to leave Iran. Mehdi Abtahi, who is responsible for alien affairs in West Azerbaijan Province, said that due to the more subdued situation in Iraqi Kurdistan, more refugees are returning there. Abtahi said that 16,200 Kurdish refugees had left Iran in the past year, IRNA reported in mid-July. Abtahi added that transportation facilities and financial aid would be provided for the returnees. In early-May, furthermore, an official delegation from the Iranian Health Ministry came to Suleimanieh to provide advice, "Kurdistani Nuwe" reported. KRG Health Minister Yadgar Rauf Hishmat explained that the nine members of the delegation were preventive medicine specialists based in Iran's Kurdistan Province.

Tehran also is facilitating contacts between the Kurdish organizations that operate in northern Iraq and the Shia Iraqi opposition organizations. In late-April, Talabani and other PUK officials met with representatives from the Iranian-supported Islamic Dawa Party. And in February, Talabani and other PUK officials met with Ayatollah Baqer al-Hakim and a delegation from the Tehran-based Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. At this latter meeting, Talabani stressed the importance of unity for the Iraqi opposition if it is to bring about "comprehensive and fundamental democratic changes," Suleimanieh's "Al-Ittihad" reported.

There also is a tendency towards political Islam among the Kurds, although its relationship with Tehran is unclear. Immediately after the 1979 revolution, Tehran translated works by Ayatollah Morteza Motahari, Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Sadr (of Islamic Dawa), and Ali Shariati into Kurdish and distributed them among the Kurds. Sheikh Uthman bin-abd-al-Aziz, founder of the Islamic League -- later renamed the Islamic Movement -- also took up residence in Iran. Now, the Islamic Movement has close ties with the Iraqi National Congress.

There also are persistent reports, most of which originate in Turkey, about Iranian assistance to the PKK. An 18 June statement from the PKK, which was carried in the June issue of Cologne's "Serxwebun," casts some doubt on these reports. The report complains that the PKK is facing pressure from Tehran because Iran is trying to improve its relations with Turkey and with the U.S. -- "Therefore, we are faced with intense pressure for the past two months." Furthermore, the Law Enforcement Forces prevented PKK supporters from holding a rally in Tehran in early-July. (Bill Samii)

AZERI-POPULATED PROVINCES UNDERREPRESENTED. During his trip to the predominantly Azeri-inhabited northwest (West Azerbaijan, East Azerbaijan, Ardebil, and Zanjan Provinces), Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei pointed out, in a 24 July speech, that "one of the strongest bases of this great revolution and Islamic system lies in these very Azeri-speaking regions." Indeed, Iranians of Azeri-origin are active in all walks of life, and many of them, such as Khamenei himself, are major players in Iranian politics. Yet many Azeris do not think they get adequate attention from Tehran.

The most serious indication of Tehran's indifference is its failure to prosecute anybody for the security forces' violent actions at Tabriz University in July 1999. The Central Council of Islamic Students Association asked Parliamentary Speaker Hojatoleslam Mehdi Mahdavi-Karrubi to release the Supreme National Security Council's report on the July events in Tabriz, IRNA reported on 12 August, and they called for a parliamentary inquiry that would publicize its findings. Karrubi told them that "the Tabriz students' rights have been ignored."

Provincial officials are clearly unhappy about this situation. The East Azerbaijan Province's governor's office pointed out that the SNSC came to Tabriz in August 1999 to investigate the incidents. But the governorate's announcement said that after "many meetings and exchanges of correspondence, no tangible step has yet been taken to identify or prosecute the university assailants," according to the 4 July "Bahar." Tabriz representative Akbar Alami said that "the political authorities are not pursuing the case seriously, the band of power is imposing pressure, and the political atmosphere of the province is closed." Alami continued, according to the 8 July "Afarinesh," "The individuals who were the flag-bearers in this disturbance are free in the city, and continuing their threats. Some of these individuals formally give press interviews, and proudly talk about their action."

Such problems may be traced to a lack of political representation. A 9 June commentary in Tabriz's "Payam-i No" complained that President Mohammad Khatami does not have enough Azeri ministers and that of three he does have (Minister of Housing and Urban Development Ali Abdol-Alizadeh, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Issa Kalantari, and Minister of Industries Qolam Reza Shafei), only one -- Shafei -- is of any use. The commentary noted that Khatami is not entirely to blame, because the northwestern provinces' parliamentary representatives and Friday Imams did not lobby very hard for their own candidates. The president was urged to have more Azeri's in his next cabinet, and the northwestern representatives were warned that the region's people "have a good memory."

Even spiritual needs reportedly do not get adequate attention in the northwest. Hojatoleslam Mirtajedini, East Azerbaijan's Islamic Propaganda Organization chief, complained that only 20 percent of the province's 2,837 villages has clergymen or missionaries. Mirtajedini explained that clerics are not attracted to the province because of the poor facilities, especially in rural areas, Tabriz's "Fajr-i Azerbaijan" reported on 22 June. (Bill Samii)

KHAMENEI'S NORTHWESTERN TRIP CAUSES CONCERN IN BAKU. Reports in the Azerbaijani media concerning the massing of Iranian military forces, coming after their alleged destruction of Azerbaijani border markings and violations of Azerbaijani airspace in mid-July, reflect heightened concerns in Baku. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's comments when he visited northwestern Ardabil Province at the end of July have only exacerbated the situation despite Tehran's statements that its actions in no way threaten Azerbaijan.

Moscow's "Kommersant" reported on 2 August that Khamenei had accused Azerbaijan of having unjustified territorial claims regarding the Caspian Sea. Aslan Khalidi of the "Southern Azerbaijan parliament" told Baku's "Uch Nogta" on 3 August that Khamenei said, "Our close neighbors are violating Iran's rights in the Caspian Sea and we shall do our best to restore them." Khalidi also claimed that Khamenei said, "As a result of Islamic propaganda, led by our Hizbullah, on the other side of the border thousands of young people want to unite with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Inshallah, we shall make an Islamic revolution on that side and establish an Islamic government." Azerbaijan's former Deputy National Security Minister Sulhaddin Akbar told Baku's "Yeni Musavat" on 4 August that Tehran would rely on "outside supporters and pro-Iranian in Azerbaijan" to pursue its objectives.

Also in early August, reports surfaced that Iranian forces were massing near the border with Azerbaijan. The 8 August "Ekspress" provided the most detail, reporting that Iran would deploy 6,000 additional soldiers, 75 armored vehicles, eight fighters, and 12 radar complexes near the border and 34 high-speed boats, two (unspecified) boats, one small frigate, and one submarine in the Caspian. The situation escalated further, with "Yeni Musavat" publishing an unverified report on 11 August that 250 NATO peacekeepers had been sent to Azerbaijan to "show the flag."

A spokesman for the Iranian embassy in Baku, however, rejected claims about Khamenei's statements and about the military activities. And a 12 August commentary on Iranian state radio's English-language service rejected allegations of Iranian military activities, too. It said that Iran does not favor militarization of the Caspian Sea region because it would "provoke tension" and "prepare the grounds for the aliens in the region which will be associated with the arms race." The commentary went on to say that such false reports are spread by those who want to spread uneasiness in the region, "something that only the United States and the Zionist regime will benefit from." (Iran's proposal for division of the Caspian Sea's resources would give each state an equal 20 percent share, whereas under a Russian proposal, Azerbaijan would 17 percent and Iran would get 14 percent.)

Details aside, questions remain about how much Azerbaijanis want to emulate the Iranian model. At the end of the 1980s and in the early-1990s, Iranian clerics were quite active throughout Azerbaijan and portraits of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini were seen often, but this did not get very far because Azerbaijan's population is too secularized to welcome a theocracy, according to the 26 July "Nezavisimaya Gazeta." There is resentment in Azerbaijan, furthermore, as a result of the perception that Azeris in Iran face cultural, linguistic, and educational restrictions. According to Ardebil Province Governor-General Hamid Tahai, on the other hand, the people of Azerbaijan welcomed Khamenei's comments. He said that they approached Iranian officials for tapes of Khamenei's comments in the Azeri language, "Tehran Times" reported on 14 August. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN ASSISTANCE FOR CHECHEN REFUGEES. Two truckloads of humanitarian assistance for Chechen refugees, consisting of oil, flour, rice, cereals, soap, clothing, and footwear, will be sent to North Ossetia by Iran's Red Crescent Society on 14 August, IRNA reported a day earlier. The same day, Parviz Atagi, an Iranian citizen, was detained by Russian border guards as he tried to leave Chechnya, Itar-Tass reported. Atagi is suspected of involvement with Chechen military activities in the zone controlled by the Derbent detachment of the North Caucasian regional agency of the Russian Federal Border Service. (Bill Samii)

SECRET ISRAEL-IRAN MEETINGS IN CAIRO. Tehran has repeatedly rejected recent reports about a 31 July-1 August meeting in Cairo between Iranian and Israeli officials. According to the reports, 35 security and military experts -- including Saideh Lotfian and Mohammad Qolam of Tehran's National University; Jalil Roshandel from Ankara; Israeli ambassador to Egypt Zvi Mazel; US ambassador to Cairo Daniel Kurtzer; and diplomats and "experts" from Australia, Canada, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Russia, Sweden, Tunisia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates -- participated in the meetings at a Cairo hotel. Similar sessions, organized by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, have been held in Sweden, Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco, Jerusalem's Middle East Newsline reported on 6 August. But the same day, an "informed source" at Iran's Foreign Ministry told IRNA and state radio that the Iranians were academics who were participating in the meeting of their own accord. The source added that Iran's position on "the regime which is occupying Qods [Jerusalem]" and on regional developments has not changed.

At these same meetings, Israeli officials supposedly admitted that the 10 Jews convicted on espionage charges in July were spies, according to the 9 August "Jerusalem Post," which was citing London's monthly "Ad-Diplomasi" newsletter. An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman said the report was "nonsense."

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said that rumors about such meetings were baseless, according to state radio on 10 August. "The downhearted Zionist regime, following its repeated defeats in the region, is resorting to such venomous rumors in an attempt to divert public attention and create the appropriate climate for its fresh acts of conspiracy." (Bill Samii)

MORE IRANIAN TRADE IN CARIBBEAN. Guyana's Minister of Trade, Tourism and Industry Geoffrey Da Silva recently opened an Iranian trade fair and exhibition in Georgetown. The exhibition was meant to acquaint Guyanese with Iranian goods, while the Iranians examined local items for export, and it was intended to encourage Iranian-Guyanese joint ventures. After less than a week, the event was closed by Customs and Trade Administration officials who told Mehdi Soori, Research and Marketing Manager of Sadr Export House Company, that the exhibits could not be sold. Among the offerings were carpets, plastic utensils, ceramic vases, and table lamps, Georgetown's "Stabroek News" reported on 27 July. (Bill Samii)

BAZAAR UNHAPPY, BUT IS IT UNSTABLE? A number of incidents involving Tehran's bazaar and mercantile sector in recent weeks recall the pattern of events that preceded the 1978-1979 revolution. But despite the similarities, there is little reason yet to conclude that today's incidents point toward a revolution.

On 19 August, a fire broke out in southern Tehran. IRNA said the blaze occurred when a tanker truck carrying gasoline crashed near Shahr-i Rey. The Student Movement Coordination Committee for Iran, however, reported that the hardline Ansar-i Hizbullah set the fire to serve as pretext for the presence of security forces.

Clashes between tradesmen and officials erupted on 12 August in the Nematabad region southwest of Tehran, IRNA reported the next day, and rioters attacked and damaged the municipality. The disturbances ended after the Law Enforcement Forces' intervened and made a number of arrests. In the bazaar of southern Tehran's Shahr-i Rey suburb, a 5 August explosion caused extensive damage but no injuries. Investigators told "Entekhab" daily that they suspected a bomb had been placed in a television left in a shop for repairs. Firefighters extinguished the blaze.

The Islamic Associations of the Bazaar and Guilds of Tehran (Anjumanha-yi Islami-yi Bazaar va Asnaf-i Tehran) announced that the bazaar would remain closed for several hours on 8 August. This was so the merchants could hold a rally supporting Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's decree banning debate on the press law, "Iran" reported. A fire broke out in downtown Tehran's Sepahsalar Garden on 6 August, according to IRNA. The blaze destroyed two shoemaking centers, causing some 200 million rials (about $114,000) in damage. Also, a clothing store on downtown Tehran's Neauphle-le-Ch?teau Avenue burned for 45 minutes before the fire died out. [IRNA reported that there have been several fires this year because of insufficient precautions.]

And at the end of July, the Islamic Associations of the Bazaar and Guilds of Tehran sent an open letter -- published in the conservative daily "Resalat" on 30 July -- to President Mohammad Khatami demanding that he deal with the country's economic problems. The letter said that "twenty-five thousand workers are threatened with redundancy, 500 factories across the country are closing, while the cost of living does not stop rising to the detriment of the working classes." The letter urged Khatami to "look into the economic crisis and show on state television a balance sheet of your administration's work during the past three years so that the people know what has been done, what still needs to be dealt with, and in the end, how you plan to carry through the reforms which were never achieved."

It is not just Iran's general economic malaise that upsets the bazaar. There also is irritation with efforts to relocate many small workshops from the bazaar to outlying, suburban industrial units. The pretext for doing this, in cities like Tehran and Mashhad, is to eliminate air pollution. Mohsen Amiri-Nia of the Tehran Blacksmiths Guild said the plan to move such workshops started in 1994, but no suitable facilities are available yet, "Iran Daily" reported on 12 August. Bijan Riahi of the Tehran Province Blacksmiths Union added that shopkeepers do not want to relocate because they "have been working in a district for a long time and have found their credibility with the customers after many years of hard work."

Those who leave the bazaar for the industrial units are also dissatisfied. Ramezan-Ali Malek-Zadeh, who heads the Tehran Masons and Stonecutters Union, explained, "Almost all members of our union have been transferred to the Shamsabad district of Tehran which lacks sufficient facilities. The most important problem is that there is no water, which is necessary in masonry. There are only two water reservoirs in the district, which cannot meet the demand so that stonecutters have to rely on supplies from tankers. We raised the problem with the Tehran governor's office only to get the retort that 'we cannot supply water for Tehran, let alone industrial townships'."

Complaints from the traditionally conservative and religious bazaar institution should be taken seriously, because it is not afraid to exert its influence. In the years before the revolution, wealthy merchants supported institutions such as the Husseinieh Irshad, which served as a meeting place and lecture hall for Islamic-oriented nationalists. Speakers at the Husseinieh included Ayatollah Morteza Motahari, Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Beheshti, Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and Ali Shariati. Other merchants contributed heavily to the clerical opposition, organized huge events, such the September 1978 Eid al-Fitr march in Tehran, and closed the bazaar several times.

For their support, the merchants were awarded positions in the semi-governmental foundations and in the Kayhan newspaper group, according to Shaul Bakhash's "The Reign of the Ayatollahs." With the onset of the Iran-Iraq War, the bazaar's power and influence grew. The government, from necessity, let the bazaar distribute goods via its traditional networks, "Akhbar-i Eqtesad" reported last December, and centers where goods were stockpiled came to serve as the major merchants' brokerages. Ayatollah Mohammad Saduqi claimed that profits reaped by the merchant class in the immediate post-revolution period equaled all its profits during the preceding monarchy.

The bazaar and the merchants now are linked mainly with the Islamic Coalition Association, one of the main conservative political organizations. The ICA was formed as a coalition of grassroots, local Islamic clubs, and a joint venture of conservative bazaar merchants and clerics. The ICA absorbed members of the anti-Bahai Hojattieh Society after it ceased its activities in 1983. The Resalat Foundation is interwoven with the ICA.

In reaction to the letter to Khatami from the Islamic Associations of the Bazaar and Guilds of Tehran, Speaker of Parliament Mehdi Mahdavi-Karrubi defended the Khatami administration's economic record. He said, according to IRNA on 14 August, "Since President Khatami emphasized political development and reforms in his election campaign, some people presume that due attention has not been paid to economic issues." This is not correct, Karrubi said, because Khatami's administration has done a great deal to help the economy. Karrubi explained that not enough has been done to disseminate economic news, and the concentration is instead on the administration's political actions.

A July editorial in "Iran News" also sought to defend the Khatami administration's economic performance against conservative criticism. It reminded readers that conservatives dominated the fifth parliament (1996-2000), and in fact, they were the ones who approved the government ministers who are being criticized now. Moreover, the current Five-Year Development Plan was approved by the fifth parliament, and Iran's approximately $30 billion in foreign debt was accumulated under previous administrations. The editorial added that the situation has only worsened because of the bazaar's failure to cooperate with the government's economic policies.

It is important to bear in mind that although similar incidents occurred in the late-1970s, many other factors that were present then are absent now. In the 1970s, a new entrepreneurial and industrial elite threatened the bazaar, and people linked with the regime had professional privileges that made them incredibly wealthy. There were links between these groups and the banking sector, bypassing the bazaar, the traditional source of borrowed money. They also established trading networks that bypassed those of the bazaar. Finally, the government's anti-corruption and anti-profiteering campaigns seemed to focus on middle-level merchants, rather than the really dishonest figures in the government itself. And when the revolution occurred, the monarchy was opposed by forces that included the bazaar, the civil service, the public sector, and the oil industry, as well as many others.

Now, the linkages between the bazaar, the foundations, and top figures in the political and religious elite are such that a recurrence of the above factors seems very unlikely. It is, therefore, probably too soon to suggest that the current bazaar-related developments are much more than expressions of frustration with the government's economic and political policies and their impact on business. But in the meanwhile, such developments could have an impact on the media and on the upcoming presidential election. (Bill Samii)