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Iran Report: January 15, 2007

Reformists Say That Right Destined To Split

By Vahid Sepehri

Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf (in file photo) is regarded by some as part of a "new fundamentalist current"

January 15, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's conservatives regularly maintain that they are united in the broad principles they espouse; just as regularly, reformists argue that there is a persistent division on the right. Could the right-wing electoral defeat in December divide conservatives once and for all?

Iranian conservatives frequently rally around principles that include the "fundamental" values of Iran's polity, its Islamic credentials, and the paramount position of the supreme leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It is among the reasons they rarely refer to themselves as "conservatives," but rather "fundamentalists" or sometimes "principled" or "value-oriented" (arzesh-gara) politicians -- to highlight their concern for certain principles, not just power.

Reformists contend that there is a persistent division between more radical right-wing forces associated with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and his allies, on one hand, and pragmatists or traditionalists associated with senior clerics like Expediency Council Chairman Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, on the other. Signs of that division include the failure to field a joint presidential candidate in 2005, and more recently, the existence of two conservative lists in the December 15 municipal elections.

Reformists say that municipal voting and balloting for the influential Assembly of Experts, a clerical body that oversees the supreme leader's office, marked a repudiation of government radicalism and support for moderation.

Azar Mansuri, a deputy head of the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front, was quoted by ISNA on January 6 saying that "moderate conservatives clarified their divide with radical conservatives." She added that a "third current" of pragmatic conservatism is taking shape, and said recent elections allowed them to "clarify their frameworks". Mansuri said that when the Ahmadinejad government came to power in 2005, "this divide in the fundamentalist faction became clearer [with] every day." She predicted that the rift would "continue in the future" if some "singular" conduct by radicals persisted -- the latter a presumed reference to presidential tirades and confrontational discourse, as well as a purported bid by radicals to take control of all state institutions.

Mohammad Salamati -- the secretary-general of the left-leaning, reformist Islamic Revolution Mojahedin Organization -- said according to ISNA just a few days later that such a "third current" exists and began to take shape around the 2005 presidential election.

Three Or More...

Commentators tend to leave references to such a "current" general, rather than identify its personalities or boundaries.

But Salamati speculated that the "third current" would have to form its own political party -- thus formalizing divisions within the conservative camp. "Contradictions" in the conservative camp are "essential," he said, "and cannot be resolved easily." Salamati went on to claim that "the faction known as 'fundamentalist' is not united...and [that] there are at least three political groups in that current" with each "going its own way" with its own "material and organizational interests."

Right-wing journalist Masud Dehnamaki warned in statements quoted by ISNA on January 9 that four broad "currents" could emerge if the political right fails to unite. He described them as a reformist front; traditionalist conservatives; what he called a "new fundamentalist current" associated with Tehran's mayor, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, and the secretary of the Expediency Council, Mohsen Rezai; and, finally, supporters of President Ahmadinejad and his government. He predicted Ahmadinejad supporters would suffer if they moved away from the conservative mainstream.

Conservatives tried a unified approach in their bid to nominate a single presidential candidate in 2005 -- bringing elders together to find a consensual candidate. That effort failed amid a flurry of reports on the existence, nonexistence, or dissolution of various formal and informal councils of "fundamentalist" elders.

New Election Pressure

The situation could repeat itself as conservatives face the next set of parliamentary elections. A supporter of one of the more successful lists in the recent municipal elections, Mujtaba Shakeri, a supporter of the Great Coalition of Fundamentalists (Etelaf-i bozorg-i Osulgarayan), has suggested that a conservative list for the parliamentary elections be formed around that of his group. Predictably, another prominent conservative, Mariam Behruzi, was quoted by ILNA on January 8 as cautioning that negotiations on that topic would have to include all members of a key coalition of more traditional conservatives: the Front of Followers of the Path of the Imam and Leadership. Behruzi added that she knew nothing of any "group called Fundamentalist Trustees" (Motamedin-i Osulgara) seemingly trying to unite conservatives.

Mohammad Hashemi, the brother of ex-President Hashemi-Rafsanjani and a member of the centrist Executives of Construction, muddied the waters further. ISNA reported on January 8 that he conceded that there are conservative divisions but added that such differences are so abundant that political life is now characterized by the proliferation of groups -- reformist and conservative -- that must inevitably form electoral coalitions. Hashemi warned that voters are no longer paying attention to factions or groups but instead are voting for familiar personalities. He said it is unclear whether conservative divisions are "fundamental" or "strategic."

A newly elected member of parliament for Tehran, Hasan Ghafurifard, claimed that several groups -- supporters of Tehran Mayor Qalibaf, the Front of the Followers of the Path of the Imam and Leadership, and government supporters -- are broadly "convergent" but merely disagree on "specifics," ISNA reported on January 6. Ghafurifard warned against overstating those differences. He went on to argue that phrases like "traditionalist right," "leftist," and "traditionalist" are "Western labels" that are "not in keeping with the realities" of Iranian politics. He said the labels "fundamentalist and reformist" are simply "the...most suitable names these factions have chosen for themselves."

Greater Malaise

Divisions within the conservative tent may be due to a larger malaise over how conservatives can reconcile their vision of Iran with what Iranian voters want. Reformers sometimes argue that the electorate has changed since the 1997 election of Mohammad Khatami to the presidency. The effort to attract voter support might have contributed to a conservative split: Some conservatives appear to seek the legitimacy that votes confer, and might regard radicalism and revolutionary rhetoric as deterring voters. Reformers claim that one of their ploys is to hide behind appealing titles that blur their conservative identity -- such as "Developers" in the last parliamentary elections, and more recently the Sweet Scent of Service, the list associated with Ahmadinejad.

"Fundamentalism, as the supreme leader has explained in this respect, has specific definitions."

Publicly, there is unity -- as stated by Mohammad Nabi Habibi's Islamic Coalition Society, which is a member of the Front of Followers of the Path of the Imam and Leadership. On January 3, according to ISNA, Habibi denied that younger "fundamentalists" and "the traditionalist right" are divided. He said that "fundamentalism, as the Supreme Leader has explained in this respect, has specific definitions," and went on to claim that he does not know a single "person or formation that wishes to act outside that framework."

The daily "Etemad-i Melli" on January 11 called Habibi's Islamic Coalition the "backbone" of the traditionalist Front of Followers of the Path of the Imam and Leadership. And the paper noted that the Front of Followers did not support the pro-Ahmadinejad list in December's elections. It speculated that the recent announcement of unspecified changes in tactics by the party might even herald the party moving away from the government.

U.S. Expert Predicts Oil-Export Crisis Within A Decade

Iran's Lavan oil refinery (file photo)

January 12, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Economic geographer Roger Stern has predicted in a recent study in a U.S. National Academy of Sciences publication that Iran might run out of oil for export by 2015. Stern, a researcher at John Hopkins University, spoke with RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari about what this might mean.

RFE/RL: You've said in your study that Iran could run out of oil for export as soon as eight years from now. How is that possible in a country that has huge oil reserves?

Roger Stern: It's a good question, and I must say that my results surprised even me. But the having of an oil reserve and the getting of that oil from the ground are very different things. The first is just an accident of nature, and the second is really an economic activity. You might recall that the Soviet Union, for example, was very amply blessed with natural resources yet had great difficulty in lifting oil in the 1980s. So it's possible to have a resource and yet to manage it badly. And the analogy between Iran and the Soviet Union is pretty strong: Iran has the five-year plans, the state-planned economy, [and] the very high participation of the state in the economy, although it's partially privatized. So it's those obstacles that are driving Iranian exports down.

No Longer Overproducing

RFE/RL: What are the signs of this potential crisis and decline in oil export?

Stern: Iran has, like all other members of the OPEC cartel, a production quota. Some OPEC members are chronic overproducers -- that is, they cheat -- and some can't ever seem to meet their production targets. Since the end of the Iran-Iraq War [1980-88], for 90 percent of the time, Iran has been a "cheater." That is, they overproduce their OPEC quota by some amount. About two years ago, the amount by which they exceeded that quota began to fall. And then 19 months ago, they went under quota; and they've been under quota and falling basically ever since. So it's a very anomalous situation for Iran. That's an indication that something inside the republic has changed with respect to their oil production.

RFE/RL: You said that this situation is a result of mismanagement of the oil industry. Could you please elaborate?

Stern: There are three basic components to Iran's -- what I call -- its export crisis. And the first is a failure to reinvest in the industry. Oil is like any other heavy industry -- a maintenance of the infrastructure is very important. In oil it's even more important, because every oil well that's ever been drilled declines a little bit from one year to the next. So if you want to keep your production level, let's say, you have to find a little bit of new oil via new well-drilling in order to replace the natural decline of a well.

A man pumping gas in Tehran (Fars file photo)

So Iran has failed to do this, and it's failed for a couple of reasons: It's very hostile to foreign firms working in the country; and secondly, the state oil company in Iran doesn't have control of its own revenues. A second big category of problems are the demand subsidies within Iran. Fuel is very cheap; I think a liter of fuel in Iran is nine U.S. cents ($0.09). So, as a result, demand is exploding. So you could say that Iran is burning the candle at both ends -- it's both producing less and less, and it's consuming more and more.

Policy Options?

RFE/RL: You've predicted that as a result of these two trends, Iran will run out of oil for export in just eight years. What if Iran changes its policies?

Stern: Iran could change its policies and reduce its subsidies and begin to reinvest and change that projection that I make, but the trend that they're on looks like [by] 2015 -- that exports could go to zero by that time. Iran is its own worst enemy in this petroleum crisis, and it could change its mind. But it's had 20 years since the [1979 Islamic] revolution to do that and its behavior now is consistent with that over the last 20 years, so I don't anticipate a change in policy.

RFE/RL: Could that mean that Iran is really in need of energy and that it has a genuine and legitimate reason to pursue a nuclear program, as Iranian officials have said many times?

Stern: I would say that within the distorted economic logic that prevails in Iran, there is a legitimate need -- but only because the Russians are basically financing the nuclear reactor for Iran by selling this reactor at a very, very cheap price. If normal economic reasoning applied in Iran, what Iran would do to generate more electric power would be to modernize its gas-turban generation base. Most of Iran's electric power comes from gas generation, a little bit from oil, and a very small bit from hydro[-electric power]. But Iran has the same reinvestment problems in power generation as it does in oil -- that is, the product is subsidized, so the power generation firms can't make money so they're not reinvesting. So here comes Russia willing to sell Iran a nuclear reactor at maybe one-fourth [of] the world price. So with no other, better alternative, that is an appealing alternative to Iran. It doesn't mean, nor do I believe, that Iran does not have an intention to develop nuclear weapons.

Room For Maneuver

RFE/RL: What does this mean for the U.S. and other countries that are putting pressure on Iran over its sensitive nuclear activities?

Stern: If exports decline as I project, and if price fails to rise to compensate for the decline in the quantity that can be exported, then that would -- in my opinion -- be a real political constraint on the regime, whose popularity is really quite dependent on the distribution of these monopoly oil profits that the state oil firm collects. Iran's government relies on oil exports for somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of its revenues, so this a real problem.

RFE/RL: Some Iranian officials have in the past said Tehran could use oil as a weapon in case of increasing international pressure over the country's nuclear program. How do you see that?

Stern: I think that that's laughable. If your government relies on oil export for 80 percent of it revenue, by cutting off oil to the world, basically the regime would be cutting its own throat. Iran exports a little under 2 1/2 million barrels [of oil] a day; the world consumes 85 million barrels. So while the disappearance of that amount of oil would definitely have an impact on price, the world would not stop, it would simply pay a higher price; Iran's government would stop.

Former Officials, Reformists Criticize Nuclear Policy

By Golnaz Esfandiari

The logo of Mosharekat, Iran's largest reformist party

January 10, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Despite last month's UN Security Council resolution imposing limited sanctions on Iran over its controversial nuclear program, the country's leaders say they will continue their nuclear work with great determination. At the same time, a growing number of voices inside Iran are calling for a change in Iran's nuclear policy.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, during a speech in Tehran on January 8, described Iran's nuclear program as a "native achievement" and "a source of pride" for Iran and the Islamic world.

"It is expected that the international and domestic pressure will increase on Tehran as the two-month UN deadline for Iran to curb its nuclear activities draws closer."

'Indisputable Right'

"[The Iranian nation] will not abandon its right and the country's officials have no right to deprive the nation of its right," he said.

His comments came some three weeks after the adoption of a UN resolution that put sanctions on Iran in an attempt to get Tehran to curb its nuclear program.

Iranian officials have rejected the resolution as "illegal" and said that they will continue their nuclear program with speed and determination.

Officials have also dismissed UN Security Council sanctions as insignificant and said they will not affect Tehran's nuclear activities.

Parliament Concerned

Four days after the adoption of the UN resolution, the Iranian parliament passed an urgent bill that obliges the government to "review its relations with the UN nuclear energy agency."

Parliament speaker Gholam Ali Hadad Adel said Iran should react to the international pressure.

"The parliament warns the government not to limit the country's authority in the framework of the [IAEA] and show a proportionate and timely reaction to the pressure on Iran," he said.

Parliament speaker Gholam Ali Hadad Adel (Fars file photo)

But there is also growing concern about the costs of Iran's defiance and what is termed as the inefficiency of the official stances. In recent weeks a number of former officials have warned that the UN's December 23 resolution could result in economic sanctions that could severely affect Iran's economy.

The Security Council has given Iran a two-month deadline to suspend its uranium-enrichment program or face tougher measures. So far there are no signs that Tehran will comply.

Unhappy Reformers

On January 3 Hossein Moussavian, a former member of Iran's nuclear negotiating team, called for renewed diplomacy in the nuclear standoff. Moussavian said Iran has no choice but to return to the negotiating table.

Reformist legislators have also spoken out and blamed President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's government for failing to prevent UN sanctions and causing tensions by organizing a Holocaust conference.

Iran's largest reformist party -- the Islamic Iran Participation Front, or Mosharekat -- has also voiced similar concerns. The party last week called for a return to the nuclear policy followed by the previous reformist government in order to prevent a further deterioration of the nuclear crisis.

Mosharekat said Iran should return to international negotiations, create trust in its nuclear program, and refrain from what it called "adventurist" policies. It also said Tehran should talk to all UN Security Council permanent members, including the United States, over the nuclear issue.

Others, including a group of religious nationalist activists, have also publicly criticized the country's nuclear policy.

Focus Is Only On Nuclear Issue

The group -- which includes several former government officials -- said in a recent statement that Tehran's "vain" persistence on the right to have a nuclear program has damaged the country. The statement added that Iran has other rights -- including human rights and the right to development and welfare -- that are being ignored.

Iranian officials often described the nuclear program as the country's most important issue and "Nuclear Energy is our indisputable right" has become a major catch phrase of the government.

Ali Akbar Moinfar, a former oil minister and a signatory to the statement, told Radio Farda on December 25 that officials should give up "slogans" and act wisely.

"Unfortunately foreign countries and also inside the country, everyone has focused on the nuclear issue," Moinfar said. "It seems that people's real issues have been forgotten. Human rights are the most important thing for the people of Iran. Our main point is that people's] rights should be officially recognized and [respected]."

Observers believe the growing criticism is unlikely to have an immediate impact on the country's decision makers.

More Than A Scrap?

On January 9 the conservative daily "Joumhuri Eslami" said in an editorial that those who have criticized the country's current nuclear policies and called for a return to past policies do not realize that they are giving a lever to "foreigners" who think they can make Iran back down by passing a resolution.

The daily acknowledged that the UN resolution is damaging for Iran, adding that it should neither be exaggerated nor called "a piece of scrap" in an indirect reference to comments made by Ahmadinejad.

The daily, which is said to reflect the views of Iran's supreme leader, also openly criticized Ahmadinejad's rhetoric on the nuclear issue and advised him not to comment on it during his provincial trips and to leave such commenting to those who are in charge of the case.

Gholamreza Aqazadeh, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, said last week that Iran will continue its cooperation with the IAEA. But he said a committee with Iran's National Security Council is reviewing ties with the IAEA.

Meanwhile, it is expected that the international and domestic pressure will increase on Tehran as the two-month UN deadline for Iran to curb its nuclear activities draws closer.

For example, on January 9 the United States banned all transactions with a major Iranian bank, Bank Sepah, because Washington said the bank has actively supported Iran's ballistic-missile program.

(Radio Farda broadcaster Mossadegh Katouzian contributed to this report.)

Power Cuts In An Energy-Rich Land Spark Protests

By Vahid Sepehri

Snow in Tehran on January 1

January 10, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Despite its wealth of oil and natural-gas reserves, Iran has faced a gas crunch as people turn up the heat this winter.

Partial or total energy cutoffs were reported in 11 provinces, with residents of colder western provinces worst affected, and exports to Turkey were suspended for five days.

The National Iranian Gas Company issued a statement on January 2 warning of shortages and asking Iranians -- including Tehran residents -- to moderate their consumption or face cuts.

There are energy shortages in 11 provinces, with partial or total cuts that include Kurdistan in western Iran, the northwestern Zanjan Province, and the provinces of East and West Azerbaijan.

Lawmaker Fakhredin Heidari asked President Ahmadinejad whether he would respond similarly if it were his family and that of the oil minister spending nights in the cold.

Officials have blamed rising consumption and delays in unspecified projects for the shortages. Deputy Oil Minister Hasan Kasai told ILNA on January 1 that gas consumption rose by 45 percent over last winter.

Authorities have in the past lamented Iranians' wasteful use of natural gas, electricity, gasoline, and water. And some have blamed the problem on state subsidies that keep those prices low.

Iran also suspended natural-gas exports completely to Turkey on January 3-7, after determining that its 40-day reduction was not enough, Radio Farda and AFP reported.

Iran signed a deal in 1996 to supply up to 10 billion cubic meters of gas a year to Turkey by 2007. Turkey has been receiving natural gas since 2001 through a pipeline running from Tabriz in northwestern Iran to Ankara.

Public Anger

In western Iran, the energy cuts led to protests. In Saqqez, in Kurdistan Province, residents gathered outside the district governor's office on January 4 to protest eight days without sufficient gas supplies.

From there, some 200 protesters went to the city council, then to the town's central square, by which time they numbered about 1,000, according to Protesters demanded that the government resolve such fundamental problems instead of attending to its high-profile nuclear program.

Fakhredin Heidari, the parliamentary representative for Saqqez and Baneh, wrote to President Mahmud Ahmadinejad on January 3 to complain about the situation.

Heidari reminded Ahmadinejad that on his last visit to Saqqez, the president responded to public outcry by promising that shortages would not happen again "this year." The lawmaker recounted the death of a family of five due to a faulty heater that they were forced to use because of a lack of gas.

Heidari asked whether Ahmadinejad would respond similarly if it were his family and that of the oil minister who had to spend the night in the cold.

He also accused gas authorities of "giving away" natural gas to states who side with Iran's opponents in the nuclear standoff, leaving none for Iranians.

About Fairness

Heidari struck a note that the president himself has played in many of his speeches since taking office 1 1/2 years ago -- that of social justice. The lawmaker questioned the justice of a situation in which "the negligence of some officials" leaves Saddez residents "shivering in the cold" or burning to death in their homes.

Iranian Oil Minister Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh (Fars file photo)

Lawmaker Amin Shabani, from Sanandaj in Kurdistan Province, argued on January 5 that Oil Minister Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh should be questioned in parliament if the gas shortages continue -- particularly in the country's colder western provinces. He said many western areas had experienced weeks of gas shortages or cutoffs.

Shabani said that such areas are living "entirely the opposite" of Ahmadinejad's reported campaign pledge to bring "oil to the people's tables" and oil wealth into Iranian homes. He said gas exports should be cut until domestic needs are met. He invited Vaziri-Hamaneh to visit Kurdistan "one day" and -- in his words -- "feel the cold...and properly answer how helpless people are to live" in near-freezing temperatures without gas, gasoline, or oil.

The crisis appears to have eased for now. Shabani said recently that there are currently sufficient supplies for the city of Sanandaj, and intermittent but less severe cuts in Saqqez and Baneh, according to ILNA on January 8.

But Shabani also warned ominously of a "100-percent possibility that with another cold wave, people in cold regions will face a fuel crisis."

He accused the oil minister of fulfilling just half of his pledges to help avoid fuel shortages.

Shabani also took up the challenge to the Ahmadinejad administration, saying the public expected a government that "takes pride in...understanding issues close-up to have traveled to the region" as the crisis unfolded, ILNA reported.