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Iran Report: February 15, 1999

15 February 1999, Volume 2, Number 7

INTELLIGENCE MINISTER'S RESIGNATION A VICTORY FOR CONSERVATIVES. Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Qorban-Ali Dori-Najafabadi resigned on 8 February. By 19 February, he will be succeeded by Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi (d.o.b. 1955), pending parliamentary approval, "Tehran Times" and "Arya" reported. Yunesi's appointment will be a clear victory for the conservative camp.

When he was selected as Intelligence Minister by President-elect Mohammad Khatami, Dori-Najafabadi was welcomed as a "relatively liberal and pragmatic cleric," the London "Times" said in August 1997. A Friday Prayer leader, Dori-Najafabadi also served as a parliamentarian, member of the Assembly of Experts, head of the board of directors and secretary of the World Center for Islamic Science in Qom, and as a member of the Council for the Discernment of Expediency . Notably, he does not appear to have a background in intelligence or security affairs.

Yunesi's background is quite different. Born in Hamedan, Yunesi studied in a Qom seminary. Because of his political activism, he was imprisoned by the monarchy several times, until he left for military training in Palestinian and Lebanese camps. After the revolution, Yunesi held a number of positions in the judicial arena. His background in intelligence work includes service as representative of the Armed Forces deputy commander-in-chief to the military intelligence department. Most recently, he served on the committee investigating the recent murders of intellectuals and oppositionists in Iran, which may seem like a conflict of interest in light of his new/pending job.

Significantly, Yunesi worked with Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mohammadi Reyshahri in creating the MOIS. The first Intelligence Minister, Ali-Akbar Fallahian-Khuzestani, was another Reyshahri prot�g�. The only Intelligence Minister who apparently is not associated with Reyshahri is Dori-Najafabadi. In fact, Dori-Najafabadi's candidacy for the 1996 parliamentary election was backed by the Executives of Construction party, which may explain Khatami's unwavering support for him.

Yunesi's appointment, therefore, appears to favor Iran's conservatives. Parliamentarian Mohammad Qomi said "I strongly believe that the [parliament] will vote overwhelmingly [for] Mr. Yunesi," "Tehran Times" reported on 10 February. (Bill Samii)

REACTIONS TO DORI-NAJAFABADI'S RESIGNATION. Hojatoleslam Qorban-Ali Dori-Najafabadi is trying to portray his resignation as a personal sacrifice in order to protect the MOIS and the country. In his letter of resignation, which was described by the Islamic Republic News Agency, Dori-Najafabadi complained that the murders "provoked" Iran's external and internal enemies to attack the "immense" MOIS and its "devoted and hard-working" personnel. He also complained of "unkindness" and "ingratitude" towards him.

These comments were corroborated by parliamentarian Seyyed Ahmad Rasuli-Nejad. He told "Tehran Times" on 10 February that some parliamentarians opposed Dori-Najafabadi's appointment "from the very beginning," and once he was appointed he had some deputies "forced on him." Rasuli-Nejad suggested that Dori-Najafabadi is being used as a scapegoat, but there will be no substantive changes in the MOIS because the "same old cadre is still there."

In his sermon in Qazvin on 6 February, Dori-Najafabadi expressed regret over the involvement of personnel from his ministry in the recent murders. He warned that Iran's enemies have taken advantage of such events to "create a rift among the people." Such sentiments were reiterated by Parliamentarian Hamid Reza Taraqi, who said the resignation was a goal of the exile opposition.

Former Parliamentarian and Ambassador to Syria Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Mohtashami-Pur called for the resignation of Dori-Najafabadi and his deputies so the desire for peace and security which underlined the election of President Khatami can be restored, reported "Jahan Islam" on 8 February. He also urged a restructuring of the MOIS. Parliamentarian Mohammad Reza Bahonar said President Khatami had no choice but to accept Dori-Najafabadi's resignation, and that many parliamentarians favored this move, reported "Arya" on 9 February.

Khordad daily, which had previously published articles by dissident cleric Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri in which the Intelligence Minister's resignation was demanded, editorialized on 8 February that the MOIS is not attached to any one person. If this is the case, the editorial continued, Iran can bid farewell to its national security. The departure of one person is not enough, what is needed is a thorough purge of the ministry. (Bill Samii)

1979 REVOLUTION'S 20TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATED. In Tehran, the revolution's twentieth anniversary was celebrated on 11 February in the traditional fashion: government officials made speeches; people marched; and flags and effigies were burned, reported the Islamic Republic News Agency. Also, foreign emissaries, such as Abu Saeed of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, conveyed their congratulations.

From six points around Tehran, people marched to the monument now called Freedom Square. There, officials such as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hojatoleslam Muhammad Khatami spoke to the people.

Khamenei's speech had several key points. He condemned Iranian monarchies "during the past few centuries," particularly the last one "for its servile submission to certain foreign governments." He praised Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's leadership and the "political system composed of representatives of the masses."

Khamenei traced two international developments to the Islamic Republic. First, many Muslim youth in other countries imitated Iranian Muslims. Second, "enmity and spite" from the "American government and its Zionist appendix in the Middle East" was displayed towards Iran. The revolution's accomplishment was "the growth of religion and intellectual ideality [sic], of national independence and national pride, and of freedoms and political enlightenment."

Khatami's speech had a more moderate tone. He said the bond between the people and the leadership, combined with Islamic values, enabled Iran's endurance of "sanctions, aggressions and antagonisms by the enemies," IRNA reported. He praised Iran's development in non-oil areas, and sounding like a politician in any country, he took credit for the "35,000 job opportunities" created during his presidency. He then praised, indirectly, the nationalist movement of the early 1950s and its leader Muhammad Musaddiq by referring to nationalization of the oil industry as a "bright chapter" in Iranian history.

Some members of the audience apparently did not care for what is perceived as Khatami's openness towards the West. It is was during his speech that they chanted "death to the world arrogance" and "death to the U.S." while burning the U.S. flag and an effigy of Uncle Sam, reported IRNA and observers in Tehran.

From Damascus on 10 February, Abu Saeed told IRNA that among the most important accomplishments of the Islamic revolution was the campaign against "the cancerous tumor Israel." And because of its support for the Palestinian cause, he said, Iran is the "target of threats by the arrogant powers." Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah of Lebanon's Hizballah expressed similar sentiments in a 2 February interview with IRNA. Other world leaders, such as Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev, Armenian President Robert Kocharian, and Turkish President Suleiman Demirel relayed their countries' felicitations. (Bill Samii)

MONTAZERI SAYS TIES WITH UNITED STATES PERMISSIBLE. On 6 February, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri-Najafabadi, who was once selected as the successor to Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, said that Khomeini's order freezing ties with the United States was "a temporary one and not permanent," reported "Khordad" daily. Montazeri's statement got little attention in the domestic press, possibly because there is a desire to avoid such controversial issues during the celebration of the revolution's twentieth anniversary. But the cleric's statement and the newspaper's repetition of it mark their entry into dangerous territory, and this may be another reason why the domestic media has avoided the issue.

Questioning Khomeini's views is generally taboo and can carry severe repercussions. When Ayatollah Azari-Qomi questioned the irrevocability of Khomeini's orders in February 1990, he was excoriated by hardline newspapers, criticized in parliament, and eventually his movements were severely restricted. Montazeri, however, has been under house arrest since 1989, so this may not be much of a concern for him.

But the real danger might be to "Khordad", which is run by Hojatoleslam Abdullah Nouri, Montazeri's former student. A week after "Khordad" published a letter by Montazeri in early-January, Nouri was summoned by the Special Court for the Clergy for violating the press law, reported "Arya" on 19 January. Nouri said he would not attend because press issues are not within the Clerical Court's jurisdiction. "Resalat," which is associated with conservative bazaar merchants, threatened that its rival newspaper could be closed down for publishing Montazeri's statements.

"Khordad" did not back down from discussing this controversial aspect of Montazeri's statements this time either, even if other publications were more wary. On 8 February the newspaper reported on the commentary of an England-based analyst who said that because Montazeri is a "source of emulation" and has many clerical followers, he is qualified to reinterpret Khomeini's judgments. Montazeri's views will be helpful to Iranian moderates who favor renewed relations with the U.S. The concern is that opponents of such relations will attack Montazeri and use his statements as a reason to continue his confinement to his home.

Subsequently, students at Khajeh-Nasredin Tusi University criticized Montazeri, reported "Tehran Times" on 10 February. In a letter to Montazeri, the students asked why he made remarks which violated the principles of the revolution.

Newspapers were slightly more willing to publish other views of Montazeri, although they shied from citing him directly. "Arya" on 6 February quoted his son Ahmad, when he said his father wanted Iran to end its war with Iraq in 1984. (Bill Samii)

NEW IRANIAN POLITICAL PARTY ANNOUNCES FORMATION. In Tehran on 9 February the Islamic Labor Party announced its formation, although the party officially registered last October. Other parties have emerged in Iran in the last few months, but they usually are identified with specific personalities or are very small and locally oriented. But the Islamic Labor Party's objectives are linked to a socially oriented program that could have strong appeal to wide sections of the electorate.

The Islamic Labor Party's objectives or "platform" were initially described as "protecting the rights of the workers and laborers," reported the Islamic Republic News Agency in October. In a country where the official unemployment rate is 11% and unofficial estimates are around 20%, this strikes a chord. And there is concern that this figure will grow higher because approximately half the Iranian population is under the age of 18 and is beginning to move into the depressed job market.

And the party's broader social agenda can be surmised by examining the background of leading members Alireza Mahjoub and Soheila Jelodarzadeh of Tehran, Elias Hazrati of Rasht, and Labor Minister Hussein Kamali.

Mahjoub, reflecting his role as Secretary-General of Iran's state-affiliated Workers House, said he would support candidates in the 1996 parliamentary election who focused on employment-related issues. And when there were calls to change laws that made it difficult to fire employees, Mahjoub leapt into the fray, saying: "There are still a lot of injustices committed against workers under the existing laws, let us stop those loopholes before talking about other issues," Reuters reported in November 1998. Jelodarzadeh complained that "many workers in state-run factories had not been paid for months," Agence France Presse said that month.

Jelodarzadeh, in addition to advocacy of workers' interests, also supports a greater role for women in governmental affairs. She said Khatami's appointment of two women in his cabinet eradicated the impression that women are unable to hold "key positions," IRNA reported in August 1997. She believed, however, that women should have more positions of responsibility in the government, and she urged the government to do more "to give housewives [a role] in political, social and cultural affairs as well as for promotion of managerial posts for women at ministries."

But the current Iranian political arena is a dynamic one of complex alliances and evolving coalitions. Activities of the Islamic Labor Party can be seen within the broader context of its ties to the technocratic Executives of Construction Party associated with Expediency Council chairman Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The Workers House is considered part of the "2 Khordad group" which helped elect Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami., as is the Executives of Construction party.

The candidacy in the 1996 election of both Mahjoub and Jelodarzadeh was supported by the Executives of Construction. In fact, Jelodarzadeh said on 6 February 1996 that a Workers House - Executives of Construction coalition "was tantamount to backing industrial development of the country and improving workers' conditions." She then served as a leader of the parliamentary faction called the Hezbollah Assembly (Majma-e Hezbollah), which included representatives from the Executives of Construction.

Hazrati, in the run-up to the 1997 presidential election, openly supported Khatami, the eventual victor, who at that time was backed by the Executives of Construction. He said Khatami was a "recognized politician and scholar" with expertise on regional and international politics, reported "Iran News" in March 1997. And Kamali, in addition to serving in Khatami's cabinet, served as Labor Minister in both terms of Rafsanjani's presidency (1989-1997) and also as a manager in the Defense Industries and Armed Forces Logistics Organization. (Bill Samii)

BORROWING TO MEET BUDGET. Central Bank Governor Mohsen Nourbakhsh says Iran's current debt is $12 billion, with another $11 billion owed for foreign purchases made through the Central Bank, according to Reuters on 9 February. Not only has Iran's Central Bank asked international lenders to reschedule $2 billion of its debt, (see RFE/RL Iran Report, 8 February 1999) Nourbakhsh says it is now pursuing another $1.5 billion in external credit to repay its foreign obligations. $3 billion in loans already has been sought from Iran's main creditors, Japan, Germany, and Italy.

Also, Iran is seeking $18 billion in loans in order to compensate for the expected deficit in next year's budget, reported "Sobh" monthly in its 23 January-19 February 1999 issue. A clause in the draft budget, which is pending approval by the Council of Guardians, entitles the government to borrow the money "to finance investments and oil projects and also to close the anticipated budgetary gap." But "Sobh" warns that such international borrowing is an American and Western weapon used "to bring independent countries to their knees."

But in Gilan Province such ideological sentiments might be secondary to practical concerns. Hojatoleslam Shafii, during the Friday Prayers, criticized the government budget because it did not allocate sufficient credit for provincial investment. He also said the government should attempt to decrease its expenses, such as the high salaries paid to certain government employees, the Sari publication "Peyk-e Khazar" said on 16 December. (Bill Samii)

CLERIC QUESTIONS THEOCRACY'S COMPATIBILITY WITH 21ST CENTURY. The Iranian Revolution was driven by more than frustration over issues such as income inequality and social disparity. The leadership of highly motivated and dedicated intellectuals � nationalists, liberals, leftists, and Islamists � was decisive too. But soon after its ascendancy, the Islamic regime started to eliminate intellectual dissent by denouncing its proponents: they were called uncommitted, alienated, and Westoxicated. By the late-1980s, however, some prominent Iranian intellectuals began to question the compatibility of a theocratic state with the requirements of the late twentieth century.

Within the clergy, there was a split between advocates of dynamic jurisprudence and advocates of traditional jurisprudence. One of those who advocates a dynamic version of religion is Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari (b. 1935), a professor of theology at Tehran University. Because of his views, Shabestari has been severely criticized by both clerics and laymen. In an interview published in a recent "Rah-i Now", Shabestari explained some of the beliefs which are threatening to those who hold the reins of power in Iran.

Shabestari says the official reading of Islam is in crisis and is "neither logical in the intellectual arena nor correspondent with tangible reality." Western countries, he says, were the first to adapt to the needs of modernity, and later other nations, including Iran and other Muslim ones, followed suit. But now there is a conflict between reality and the official reading of religion. Official Islam "strives to retain antiquated content and formalism ... religious officialdom [administers] our modern society with antiquated tools of theology and its jurisprudence." But there is no disparity between the pursuit of progress and development and belief in religion and God, says Shabestari.

Religion must be liberated from its "present chronic crisis," Shabestari says, because existing theological rulings and edicts fall "far short" of modern requirements. "Doctrinal and ideological machination" have been turned to in order for the official version of religion to affect every aspect of life, although "in such machination there can be no genuine truth." Iran's current administrators face secular problems whose solutions are not to be found in theological texts. Shabestari does not believe that answers to questions such as how to solve inflation, what to do about the fall in oil prices, how to solve unemployment, or how to deal with Afghanistan can be found in theological texts. The whole idea of Islamic government exists only in the minds of those who coined the term, he says, and they refuse to submit their ideas for debate, saying they should be accepted as dogma.

But here is where thinking like Shabestari's is threatening to his critics. If religion is to be a valid source of inspiration, then Islam must be a subject of curiosity and speculation so it stays vital and dynamic. He says: "the official reading of religion leads to a withering away of faith." On the other hand, the further the elite's faith is from dogma, the closer it is to "purity".

What Shabestari encourages is an Islamic reformation, similar to the Christian one, in which theology is exposed to the criticism of atheist thinkers. For the traditional clergy, or at least those who justify their views by citing traditionalism, this is "the ultimate heresy", according to a special report on "The Islamic Republic in Ferment" in the "Mideast Mirror".

Shabestari is neither the first nor the only Iranian intellectual to espouse such progressive views. Abdolkarim Soroush, once a regime stalwart, has expressed similar views, but because he is a layman, he has been more severely criticized. Ali Shariati (d. 1977) also enjoyed great popularity among Islamists until he criticized the conservative clergy.

Such critical and reflective commentary can be dangerous, too, because it has inspired anti-regime violence. Shariati's writings may have inspired the Furqan organization, according to Tehran's "Ayandigan" newspaper. Furqan assassinated a number of leading regime figures, such as Ayatollah Morteza Motahari and General Valiollah Qarani. Expediency Council chief Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani narrowly escaped a Furqan assassination attempt. (Bill Samii)

AYATOLLAH AZARI-QOMI DIES Ayatollah Ahmad Azari-Qomi-Bigdeli died on 11 February 1999 of a stroke, reported the Islamic Republic News Agency. Azari-Qomi was under house arrest recently, although it is reported that he went to Germany for treatment of leukemia last summer. An architect of the current Iranian political system, his fall from grace started in February 1990, when he seemed to question the infallibility of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and it was finalized by December 1993, when he questioned the qualifications of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (see RFE/RL Iran Report, 8 February 1999) (Bill Samii)

CORRECTION: Last week's RFE/RL Iran Report said "Adineh" magazine's first editor was Faraj Sarkuhi. A reader says Sarkuhi was the second editor, and he was preceded by Cyrus Alinejad. (Bill Samii)