Prague, 11 February 1999 RFE/RL) -- Supporters of moderate Iranian president Mohammad Khatami have announced the formation of a political party advocating workers' rights ahead of nationwide local elections this month.
The Islamic Labor Party, which was officially registered in October, has a platform of socially oriented programs which could have strong appeal in the elections on February 26.
The elections -- the first since the founding of the Islamic Republic 20 years ago -- are not party based. But the endorsement of organizations can help voters decide which candidates to support. The polls pit independent candidates who have been pre-screened by local selection boards approved by the government.
Iran's official news agency IRNA quotes Abdolqasem Sarhadi-Zadeh, a member of the Islamic Labor Party and a former labor minister, as saying the party wants to encourage worker participation in political life.
The same news agency reported at the time of the party's registration last year that its platform was "protecting the rights of workers and laborers."
But the Islamic Labor Party is likely to have a broader social agenda, if the backgrounds of four of its leading members are any indication.
The leaders include Alireza Mahjoub, the secretary general of Iran's state-affiliated Labor House, which handles issues like unemployment and workplace conditions. They also include Soheila Jelodarzadeh, a parliamentary deputy from Tehran and strong advocate of workers' and women's rights.
Another leader is Elias Hazrati, a parliamentary deputy from Rasht and a strong Khatami supporter. Hazrati openly backed Khatami when he was a relatively little-known candidate for president in 1997 by calling him a "recognized politician and scholar" with expertise on regional and international politics.
A fourth leader, Hussein Kamali, served in Khatami's cabinet and before that as Labor Minister under former president Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. He has also served as a manager in the Defense Industries and Armed Forces Logistics Organization.
Islamic Labor Party leaders are likely to try to mobilize worker support to address a wide range of economic concerns. In recent years, consumer prices have risen while the earnings of most people have remained the same.
High on the list of concerns are improvements in working conditions and worries over job security. Officially, the unemployment rate is 11 percent, but according to Western estimates the real rate approaches 20 percent. Fears this figure will grow higher are fueled by the fact that half the Iranian population is under the age of 18 and is now beginning to move into the depressed job market.
Since the start of last year, the economy has been buffeted by a drop in oil prices, which have sunk to 10-year lows. The oil price slump has deprived Iran of an estimated 40 percent of its hard currency earnings and forced the government to set aside some of its plans to invest in job creation programs.
Among the most vocal advocate of workers' rights is Mahjoub. During Iran's parliamentary elections of 1996 he said he would support candidates who focused on employment issues. And when there have been calls to change laws that make it difficult to fire employees, Mahjoub has leapt to workers' defense. He was quoted last year as saying that "there are still a lot of injustices committed against workers under the existing laws, let us stop those loopholes before talking about other issues."
Soheila Jelodarzadeh has been equally outspoken. She was quoted by Western news agencies as telling the Iranian parliament last month that "many workers in state-run factories had not been paid for months."
Jelodarzadeh also supports a greater role for women in government and has said that Khatami's appointment of two women in his cabinet eradicated the impression that women are unable to hold "key positions" in Iran. She advocates greater involvement of women in administrative positions and has 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."
The new party appears to have ties to the technocrat and non-ideological Executives of Construction Party, founded in 1996 by Tehran's populist mayor Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi. The mayor, an associate of Khatami's, was removed from office last year after a trial on corruption charges which he claimed was a politically motivated attack by conservatives.
The Executives of Construction Party backed both Mahjoub and Jelodarzadeh in the 1996 parliamentary elections. Jelodarzadeh said in February of that year that a coalition with the Executives of Construction "was tantamount to backing industrial development of the country and improving workers' conditions." She later served as a leader of a parliamentary faction which included members of the Executives of Construction.
The formation of the Islamic Labor Party is part of a wave of political activity ahead of this month's local elections which are seen as a key move toward democratizing state institutions.
But most of the new parties are local groups or they are formed around personalities. The Islamic Labor Party is one of the few which has nationwide scope and is based on issues.
Political parties have been a rarity in the Islamic Republic up to now even though the constitution allows their formation, provided they respect an Islamic form of government.
Those parties which do exist are largely political and religious organizations loyal to the regime and have been active as pressure groups, endorsing but not fielding candidates in elections.