July 24, 2006, Volume 9, Number 27
JOURNALIST SAYS TEHRAN COULD PLAY LEADING ROLE IN RESOLVING LEBANESE CONFLICT. Prominent Iranian journalist Mashallah Shamsolvaezin says that Iran could play a role in ending the current conflict between Israel and Hizballah. Shamsolvaezin spoke to RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari from Tehran about the views of ordinary Iranians regarding the conflict between Israel and the Lebanese Hizballah and filed that interview on July 19:
RFE/RL: How widespread is the public support for Iran's official policies in the Middle East and it's position regarding the current Lebanese conflict?
Shamsolvaezin: We can't say with certainty what percentage of Iran's people support the official policies of their government and what percent oppose it because there haven't been any scientific polls but, in general, we can say that Iranian people have shown in their history that they support oppressed people anywhere in the world from a sentimental point of view and, especially in the current Israeli war against Lebanon, public opinion does not accept the destruction Israel is causing in Lebanon and naturally a significant part of the Iranian people are with the Lebanese people; therefore they side with the official policy of their government. I have not seen any statements or any stance opposing it from political organizations or civil groups.
RFE/RL: Apart from the current conflict in Lebanon, which is also blamed on Hizballah, what are people's views about the government's support for the Palestinians? Is the Palestinian cause really one of the main concerns for Iranians, as some officials claim?
Shamsolvaezin: This is a question you can ask in all countries; is the sending of troops to Iraq or Afghanistan to help bring peace and democracy really the main issue for American or French people? Governments and politicians define a country's national interests and even though this is a limited group of people it represents the country's reason in guiding national interests toward defined goals, and Iran is not an exception to this rule.
RFE/RL: What are people's views on the Lebanese Hizballah? Is it a respected movement among ordinary Iranians and how do they react to Iran's support for Hizballah?
Shamsolvaezin: Iranian people see a difference between it and similar movements that exist in Iran under the same title and are usually active in opposing intellectuals and disrupting democratic gatherings. They consider the Lebanese Hizballah as a resistance force that has popular support -- this view is common among politicians and journalists -- and this is partly because of its popularity, its actions and, to a certain degree, because its honesty in politics and on economic issues is respected. Of course this doesn't prevent some groups in Iran from condemning and criticizing Iran's support for Hizballah, which deprives some poor parts of [Iran] from certain economic privileges and comfort. This [issue] does comes up.
RFE/RL: Is it also the case with Iran's help to the Palestinians? Is its also being criticized?
Shamsolvaezin: Yes, it can bee seen but not from political organizations or groups, [only] in informal public gatherings, family meetings, or in protests that are made against Iran's policies; people say the government should first make our country progress and improve people's lives and then help should be sent to other countries including, Palestine or Lebanon. Iran's ideological connection or the ideological situation that prevails in Iran's establishment does not prevent Iranian people from expressing their solidarity with the oppressed Palestinian people. Iranians want to see peace in the Middle East and they want the UN Security Council's resolutions to be applied to all equally.
RFE/RL: What are the views of Israeli policies? Iranian officials say there is public hatred and anger toward Israeli actions.
Shamsolvaezin: The extent of destruction Israel has started in Lebanon has brought to Iranians minds the memories of vast Israeli attacks in many Mideast regions. The current generation, the new generation, has a more logical stance toward Israel and Arabs. By logical I mean that young people believe there should be peace in the Middle East and the governments of Israel and Palestine should live side by side peacefully. But the Israeli actions -- for example its attacks on Lebanon's infrastructure, attacks on airports, bridges, and civilian houses -- have negatively influenced people's views on Israel. As a result Israel is slowly losing Iranian public opinion as it was lost before in the Middle East.
RFE/RL: Iran is being accused by Israel and some observers as being behind the current conflict in Lebanon. Iranian officials have denied that and said they only give moral and spiritual support to Hizballah. What is your view?
Shamsolvaezin: It is very clear that Lebanon's Hizballah is fighting by itself and it began its resistance [many, many years ago.] It is Hizballah that has the initiative in its hand; it is a local force and it is fighting Israel because Israel has occupied the south of Lebanon for years.
RFE/RL: Do you think Iran can use its influence on Hizballah and play a role in ending the current conflict?
Shamsolvaezin: This is an important issue. If Iran's role in connection with Afghanistan and Iraq -- its constructive role -- is [positively] evaluated by the U.S. and, if Iran's position is considered in whole: its nuclear case, the crisis in Iraq, and Afghanistan, and the current conflict; if Iran's role is being recognized by the U.S. it seems that Iran could use its political weight and [influence] to reduce this crisis and resolve it. Iran has officially expressed its readiness to resolve this crisis and now it's the U.S. and the EU's turn to give a positive answer to Iran's position or its capability and bring Iran into this arena to use its political weight to reduce the crisis and put an end to it.
RFE/RL But while Iran's foreign minister has suggested a few ways to end the conflict, including a cease-fire, other officials have used other terms, including parliamentary speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, who [on July 18] praised [Hizballah leader] Hassan Nasrallah and quoted him as saying that the war has just begun.
Shamsolvaezin: Currently Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah has become a symbol of resistance against Israel in the whole Middle East; he has turned into a courageous international figure, therefore comments like that should not be considered as the official policy of a country. The demonstrations and support for Palestinians and Lebanese has spread in the region and Iran is not an exception to this rule. The difference between Iran and other countries in the region is that the Iranian government supports the Palestinians and Lebanese and it has a clear anti-Israeli stance, therefore the people do not feel that they need to act themselves.
VOCAL IN SUPPORT FOR HIZBALLAH, IRANIANS HEAD FOR LEBANON. The Islamic Republic of Iran has served as an ideological inspiration for Hizballah since the Lebanese militant group's creation in 1982, and Tehran acknowledges that it supports the organization morally and politically. A prominent Iranian journalist, furthermore, recently told RFE/RL that many of his compatriots sympathize with Hizballah and view it as a legitimate resistance organization (http://www.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2006/7/8FDBDC91-8CC0-4139-80F2-D4D9C53419BA.html). The extent of the Iranian government's involvement with the June 12 kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Hizballah and the earlier kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by Hamas is far from clear, however, and Tehran has denied that it is involved in the current conflict. Nevertheless, Tehran has been active in generating public outrage over the events in Lebanon, and even if Iranian military personnel are not going there openly, other Iranians are volunteering to do so.
Volunteers head for Lebanon.
Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the father of the revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, said in a July 18 letter to Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah that he is ready to go to Lebanon to fight the "enemies of Islam and humanity," Iranian state television reported. Khomeini met with Nasrallah during a July 2 visit to Damascus, IRNA reported at the time.
The Pro-Justice Student Movement announced on July 15 that a convoy of students will be sent to Palestine and to Lebanon in the coming week, ILNA reported.
A spokesman for the Commemoration Headquarters for the Martyrs of Islam's World Movement, identified only as Mohammadi, said on July 16 that 27 members who have been trained to carry out suicide bombings have been sent to Lebanon, Mehr News Agency reported. These individuals will take action if Israel attempts to occupy Lebanon, he said, and they also are ready to form resistance cells.
Iran's Basij Resistance Force, which is an arm of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, issued a statement on July 16 in which it condemned the Israeli attack on Lebanon, condemned Western governments that support Israel, and pledged support for the Palestinians, according to the Basij News Agency (www.basijnews.ir). The statement added, "the Basij Resistance Force believes that Israel, the region's rancid cancerous tumor, must be wiped off the map."
Iranian Military Leaders Voice Caution
While this sort of enthusiasm and self-sacrifice is almost certainly welcomed by the Iranian leadership, the Iranian armed forces seems to have a greater sensitivity to the repercussions of amateurish Iranian combatants being captured or killed in Lebanon.
General Mohammad Hejazi, commander of the Basij, said on July 21 that groups with no official connections or proper authorization had raised the possibility of dispatching volunteer suicide bombers to Lebanon, Fars News Agency reported. Hejazi said this is nothing more than "propaganda," and although it might be well-intentioned it does not help Iran or Hizballah. "There no doubt exists better ways to defend the Islamic resistance," he added.
In addition, allegations that Iranian military supplies and even personnel were involved in the conflict appeared almost as soon as hostilities commenced (http://www.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2006/7/541D7659-F99F-4559-8281-3949D4FA3AF7.html). Most recently, long-time defense correspondent Ze'ev Schiff wrote in "Ha'aretz" on July 21 that Iranian munitions are being trucked to Hizballah via Syria, and the Iranian embassy is coordinating actual military operations. Schiff noted that the long-range Zilzal missiles that Iran has allegedly provided to Hizballah have not been used yet.
Hejazi of the Basij dismissed such allegations in his July 21 comments, adding that Israel makes unsubstantiated statements to hide its own failures.
Major General Hassan Firuzabadi, head of the Armed Forces General Staff, said on July 22 that there will be no Iranian military involvement in the Lebanese conflict, IRNA reported. "The Islamic Republic of Iran will just continue its political and diplomatic support for Lebanon," he said. Firuzabadi added that U.S. President George W. Bush and U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair planned the war.
Mohammad-Javad Zarif, the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations in New York, said on July 21 that everybody knows who is really responsible for events in the Middle East, IRNA reported. He dismissed all the allegations against Iran and added that all the problems in the region stem from occupation and its consequences. "These allegations emanate from the occupying regime and relayed by Zionist quarters across the globe to overshadow its crimes and excuse its recent chronic setbacks in the face of a growing resistance in Palestine and Lebanon," he said.
Praise From The Pulpits
While the Iranian government is keen to avoid the appearance of being involved with the current conflict, it has been quick to whip up public sentiments over the issue, possibility with the intention of diverting attention from more pressing problems, such as unemployment (http://www.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2006/7/CDCCDE09-8BDD-4888-89A7-6D8660D98524.html). There are hundreds of Friday Prayer leaders in Iran who are appointed by the central government and whose sermons are dictated or at least outlined by a central authority. Praise for Hizballah and criticism of the United States and Israel were major aspects of the sermons on July 21.
In Tehran, Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani said events in Lebanon and in Gaza were "engineered by the U.S. and Israel," state radio reported. The plan was prepared "weeks in advance," he said. Rafsanjani criticized international human rights organizations for their silence on these events. The Lebanese and Hizballah have survived and "resisted well," he said, adding, "They are the heroes, both Hezbollah members and the Hezbollah leader, our dear brother Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah. He is truly a historical figure in our world today."
Hashemi-Rafsanjani suggested that southern Lebanon might be occupied by foreign pro-Israeli forces. He explained, "To remove their citizens, several powerful countries, such as Canada, America and Britain, are bringing in military troops. Of course it is apparently for taking out their citizens but things could happen."
In the southwestern city of Ahvaz, Hojatoleslam Mohsen Heidari also criticized human rights organizations for their alleged silence, Khuzestan Province television reported. "With a green light from Western governments, particularly America, the criminal Israel is murdering the oppressed people of Lebanon and Palestine," he added. Hizballah, he continued, is representing the Islamic world, and Arab and Muslim government are therefore obliged to help it.
In Mashhad, Hojatoleslam Seyyed Ahmad Elmolhoda said Hizballah's resistance has revealed Israel's "aggressive visage of profanity and apostasy," IRNA reported. He called on Islamic countries to provide greater support for Hizballah. Elmolhoda added, "We hope that Israel, like the Taliban and Saddam which were the prot�g�s of world arrogance, one day will turn into a source of disgrace and humiliation for America."
In the southern city of Bandar Abbas, Ayatollah Gholam Ali Naimabadi said, "Without a doubt, Israel is the manifestation of America' wrath," IRNA reported. He called for Muslims to "annihilate these superpowers."
In the city of Zanjan, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Taqi Vaezi also spoke out against human rights organizations for their inaction, Mehr News Agency reported. "The UN and the Security Council are tools in the hands of Western countries, especially America," he said, calling on Muslim states to act.
In Ardabil, Hojatoleslam Hassan Ameli told his congregation that Hizballah did the right thing by seizing the Israeli soldiers and firing missiles at Israel, IRNA reported. Western silence shows that its pro-democracy slogans are meaningless, he added.
Anti-Israeli Rallies Across Iran
Pro-Hizballah and anti-Western statements were not confined to the pulpit, and there were related rallies across the country. Senior officials, political activists, students, and members of the public participated in a July 18 rally in Tehran against Israeli activities in Palestine and Lebanon, IRNA reported. Parliamentarian Hussein Muzaffar read out a statement from the legislature in which Israeli activities were denounced as "brutal aggression" and "savagery," IRNA reported. The statement criticized the U.S. for vetoing an anti-Israeli resolution in the UN Security Council.
Ali Zoham, the Hizballah envoy in Tehran, also spoke at the July 18 rally, Fars News Agency reported. "We are now fighting with the worst creatures of God," he said. The conflict is not about the Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hizballah on June 12, Zoham said, "Rather, this is an idealistic, ideological, and cultural war -- the war of Islam with blasphemy." Zoham said Hizballah is willing to fight for another century, until it "demolish[es] the Israeli regime exactly the same way that we destroyed the Israeli townships, settlements, and navigation fleet."
Numerous rallies took place in the southwestern Khuzestan Province. At the July 19 event, a demonstrator said, "Israel is another word for America," according to provincial television. Another said, "America and Britain naturally support Israel."
The Khuzestan Province representative to the Assembly of Experts, Ayatollah Abbas Kabi, said on July 20 that the Zionists are trying to wipe out Muslims, provincial television reported. He urged locals to participate in a rally the next day. He added, "If the Zionists consider the myth of Holocaust as acts of anti-human crime, they themselves are now committing bigger anti-human crimes in Lebanon and Palestine."
Tens of thousands of people participated in a July 21 rally in Ahvaz, provincial television reported. They chanted "Death to Israel," and a young girl said, "I have come here today to tell the children of Palestine and Lebanon that we support them."
Denials From Hizballah
With the outset of hostilities, Israeli officials immediately portrayed Hizballah as an instrument of Iranian and Syrian policy, but several Lebanese observers reject this perspective.
"To suggest Hizballah attacked [Israel on July 12] on the orders of Tehran and Damascus is to grossly oversimplify a strong strategic and ideological relationship," Lebanese American University's Professor Amal Saad-Ghorayeb wrote in a July 15 commentary in "The Guardian." Syria, Iran, Hizballah, and Hamas have overlapping interests and "form a strategic axis." However, Hizballah has "never allowed any foreign power to dictate its military strategy."
Leading figures in Hizballah also deny that Iran is telling the organization what to do. Haj Hassan Hussein, a Hizballah deputy, said, "We acknowledge that Iran helps us in humanitarian and civilian matters but we are the masters of our decisions," "Le Figaro" reported on July 21.
Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hizballah, said on July 20 that neither Iran nor Syria was informed of plans to kidnap the Israelis, Al-Jazirah reported. Nasrallah said a conflict involving Lebanon could last three months but it will eventually end, and it will have no impact on the Iranian nuclear case. Moreover, he added, a Hizballah that is weakened in a war will be less able to help Iran.
Nasrallah said the homes of all leading Hizballah figures have been destroyed, and to suggest that they were acting in the interest of Iran or Syria is insulting. "Yes, we are friends of Syria and Iran, but for 24 years we benefited from our friendship with Syria and Iran for the sake of Lebanon." (Bill Samii)
BASIJ COMMANDER DENOUNCES AL-QAEDA AND TALIBAN. In Mashhad, Brigadier-General Mohammad Hejazi, commander of the Basij Resistance Force, said on July 18, "Today, we can hear the crushing of the Zionist regime's bones," ISNA reported. He added that the Islamic community is praying for victory on the part of young Palestinians and Lebanese. Hejazi denied that Iranians are involved in the fighting in Lebanon, and said such accusations stem from Israeli embarrassment. Hejazi criticized Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, who claim they are fighting the occupiers of Iraq and Afghanistan and are not involved with events in Lebanon and Palestine. The failure of Taliban and Al-Qaeda to act, he continued, "shows that these groups were created by America and that they are still influenced by Western and Zionist power." (Bill Samii)
MOTTAKI VISITS DAMASCUS. Manuchehr Mottaki arrived in Damascus on July 17, Iran's Arabic-language television station Al-Alam reported from Iran and the Hizballah television station Al-Manar reported from Lebanon. Mottaki and Syrian Vice President Faruq al-Shar'a condemned Israeli activities in Lebanon and Palestine, and they expressed solidarity with the Lebanese and Palestinian "resistance," Syrian state news agency SANA reported. They called for a united Arab and Islamic stance on these issues. Mottaki called for a cease-fire and a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hizballah. (Bill Samii)
BAGHDAD MAYOR VISITS TEHRAN. Baghdad Mayor Sabir al-Isawi arrived in Tehran on July 15 and met with his counterpart, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, Mehr News Agency reported. Qalibaf offered his municipality's assistance in a variety of areas, from traffic services to engineering. Al-Isawi said he hopes Tehran will sign the sister city agreement proposed by Baghdad six months earlier than originally planned. (Bill Samii)
IRAQ COMPLAINS OF MUJAHEDIN KHALQ INTERFERENCE. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told reporters at a July 19 press briefing in Baghdad that an Iraq-based Iranian opposition group known as the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO or MEK) is interfering in internal Iraqi affairs and must go, "Los Angeles Times" reported on July 20.
The MKO is listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. State Department and operates under many cover names, including National Council of Resistance of Iran and People�s Mujahedin Organization of Iran. The MKO was based in Iraq and operated against Iran at Saddam Hussein's behest; most of its members now reside in Camp Ashraf (100 kilometers from Baghdad) where they enjoy the Geneva Convention's "protected person" status. The MKO reportedly has the support of some Pentagon officials and members of Congress because of its opposition to Iran.
Al-Maliki said the MKO was too involved in his country's political and social issues. "It is interfering as if it is an Iraqi organization, despite the fact that it is considered to be one of the terrorist organizations and its presence in the country contradicts the constitution," said the premier, who has close ties with Tehran. He added that the government currently has no contact with the group. The group reportedly responded to al-Maliki on July 19, saying that the premier was carrying out the wishes of Iran.
Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, the Iranian ambassador to Iraq, and Iraq's Deputy Interior Minister for Security Affairs Shirvan Vaeli discussed the MKO's future on July 21, IRNA reported. The Iraqi official reportedly called for the group's expulsion from his country, and he added, "We are now preparing a comprehensive plan which requires approval of the government to expel the MKO from the country by the year end."
"A significant number of MEK personnel have voluntarily left the Ashraf group, and several hundred of them have been voluntarily repatriated to Iran," according to the State Department's 2006 "Country Reports on Terrorism." (Kathleen Ridolfo, Bill Samii)
FIRMS LINKED WITH IRANIAN MISSILE PROGRAM IDENTIFIED. Iranian state television reported on July 19 that many of the world's biggest businesses have ties with Israel or have "Zionist" shareholders, and it mentioned Coca-Cola, Marlboro, McDonalds, Timberland, and several other firms. Money spent on their products, state television reported, "turns into hot lead to rip open the chests of the children of Palestine and Lebanon."
On the previous day, the U.S. Treasury Department listed two Iranian businesses for their ties with the country's missile program, according to a press release. Sanam Industrial Group and Ya Mahdi Industries Group are "owned or controlled by, or act or purport to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, the Aerospace Industries Organization (AIO)." The report adds: "AIO is a subsidiary of the Iranian Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics, and manages and coordinates Iran's missile program and oversees all of Iran's missile industries." The two firms have made extensive purchases of missile-related products. The designation is meant to isolate Iranian proliferation. (Bill Samii)
IRAN SETS DEADLINE FOR RESPONDING TO NUCLEAR PROPOSAL. In a statement read out on state television on July 20, Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani set out Iran's stance on the nuclear issue. The international proposal submitted to Iran in early June in an effort to resolve the continuing crisis over the country's nuclear program requires a great deal of attention and study, according to the statement, and Iran will announce its views on August 22 (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," June 12, 2006). According to the statement, Iran plans to use nuclear power to produce 20,000 megawatts of electricity over the next 20 years, and in order to do this it must produce its own nuclear fuel.
The statement added that Iran has always cooperated with the International Atomic Energy Agency and abided by its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty commitments.
Iran is being subjected to discriminatory practices that aim to deprive the majority of the international community of nuclear power, and the statement cited the Non-Aligned Movement, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and the Developing-8 (D-8; Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Turkey) as supporters of this view.
Government spokesman Gholam-Hussein Elham said on July 18 that the June proposal is a "good starting point for negotiations," IRNA reported. He said Iran remains optimistic about a negotiated solution to the standoff, and he described the current atmosphere as "positive."
Also on July 18, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said Iran will continue enriching uranium, ISNA reported. A halt to uranium enrichment is one of the international community's demands of Iran (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," June 5, 2006). Ahmadinejad said mastery of the complete nuclear fuel cycle is the Iranians' right. Earlier in the day, Ahmadinejad said Iran is willing to hold talks with the European powers, IRNA reported, and he urged the United States not to cause problems.
Also on July 18, talks began at the UN in New York on a Security Council resolution demanding a halt to Iranian enrichment activities and on the construction of a reactor in Arak, Reuters reported. Participants were China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Russian and Chinese diplomats were reportedly not seriously engaged, participants said, because they had not received instructions from their capitals.
Alaedin Borujerdi, chairman of the legislature's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said on July 18 that the parliament is ready to cancel the country's membership in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) if the UN Security Council passes a resolution against Iran, Mehr News Agency reported. Iran signed the NPT in 1968 and ratified it in 1970.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said during a July 16 press conference in Tehran that referring Iran to the UN Security Council for its failure to cooperate on the nuclear issue is not "constructive," state television reported. Doing so will not contribute to a negotiated solution, he added.
Turning to the package of incentives Tehran received in early June, Assefi said, "we considered the proposed package as a proper basis for cooperation...but we also think it is a potential that needs to be processed further." The only way to accomplish anything, he said, is through negotiations. Until that happens, "we cannot be certain what our response would be."
In Mashhad on July 15, Supreme National Security Council Deputy Secretary Gholamreza Rahmani-Fazli told a meeting of Basij officials from Khorasan Razavi Province that Iran is prepared to begin talks about its nuclear program, IRNA reported. It will not, however, accept any preconditions. (Bill Samii)
TEHRAN OPPOSES SIMULTANEOUS ELECTIONS. Government spokesman Gholam-Hussein Elham said on July 19 in Tehran that the government of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad opposes holding elections for municipal councils and the Assembly of Experts on the same date, Mehr News Agency reported. Campaigning for the entities differs, he said, and holding the elections simultaneously requires additional planning and preparation. The elections are scheduled for November 17 (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 12 May 2006). (Bill Samii)
WEAK ECONOMY CHALLENGES POPULIST PRESIDENT. The biggest problems facing elected officials in Iran are economic ones, particularly double-digit unemployment and inflation. These factors dogged President Mohammad Khatami during his term in office (1997-2005), and the reformists' focus on civil-society development resounded poorly with people who often could not afford meat with their meals.
Mahmud Ahmadinejad's campaign promise that Iran's oil revenues would end up on Iranians' tables, therefore, contributed greatly to his winning the 2005 presidential election. In recent weeks, Ahmadinejad has pledged to do more to resolve the country's unemployment problem, but national media and parliamentarians have become quite critical of the administration's failures in this area.
Unemployment is one of the country's biggest problems, Ahmadinejad said on July 11, IRNA reported, and job creation is a major aspect of the government's development plan. "The government intends to tackle the unemployment problem with assistance from the people and principled planning," he told residents of the town of Malekan in East Azerbaijan Province.
The Central Bank of Iran reported that the unemployment rate was 12.1 percent as of March 20, 2006, Fars News Agency reported on June 5. The overall population was 68.6 million and the working population was 22.3 million. Yet some economists believe the unemployment rate could be as high as 20 percent, and they add that underemployment is a major problem.
Deputy Minister for Labor and Social Affairs Ebrahim Nazari-Jalali provided a slightly higher joblessness figure -- 12.4 percent -- in a July 3 interview, IRNA reported. He went on to say that the government is determined to reduce this to 8.4 percent by 2010 by creating 900,000 jobs annually. Jalali added that the government has earmarked 180 trillion rials ($20.5 trillion) for small businesses in an effort to create jobs.
Ahmadinejad discussed economic policy in a June 7 interview with state television, saying that officials have held many meetings on employment generation. Ahmadinejad also noted the allocation of 180 trillion rials for projects that he predicted will produce quick results. Ahmadinejad made the same points during speeches in April.
These job-creation targets are ambitious and the government has failed to meet similar goals in the past. The government aimed to create 3.8 million jobs (760,000 a year) from 2000-05, in an effort to reduce unemployment to 11.5 percent. Yet it conceded that only 2.3 million jobs (431,000, 493,000, 690,000, and 700,000) were created from 2000-04.
Western journalists noted Ahmadinejad's popularity with average Iranians when they assessed his standing a year after his election. "The Wall Street Journal," for example, reported on June 22: "The president's popularity is soaring thanks to...his embrace of economic populism." "Ordinary people marvel at how their president comes across as someone in touch, as populist candidate turned caring incumbent," "The Washington Post" reported on June 3, adding that Ahmadinejad shows "a relentless preoccupation with health, housing and, most of all, money problems."
The populist touch is good politics, but it is not always easy to translate into a sustainable economic policy. In early June, 50 scholars wrote to Ahmadinejad and warned him about the state of the economy. They criticized his economic policies as inflationary and counter to previous economic plans. The economists highlighted grievances like excessive state intervention in business and restrictive employment regulations. They pointed to increased imports and government spending and noted broader issues they say contributed to economic problems.
Lack Of Expertise?
Iranian media also criticized the president's economic policies and their impact on employment. "Kargozaran" newspaper -- which is connected with the technocratic Executives of Construction Party -- commented on June 1 that the government recently made three decisions that were meant to create jobs and protect domestic production, but the decisions did not account for the interdependence of economic factors. For example, interest rates at banks were reduced by 2 percent, but the rush to borrow forced the government to withdraw $5.1 billion from the foreign-currency reserves. In another case, import tariffs were increased by roughly 5.2 percent, and this led to an increase of up to 1,500 percent in the prices of household goods, cellular phones, shoes, and textiles. The government's increase in the minimum wage for temporary workers led to large-scale layoffs.
An analysis in the pro-reform "Mardom Salari" on June 19 noted that although Ahmadinejad promised during his campaign that people would benefit directly from oil revenues, he and his associates subsequently denied any such statement. Meanwhile, one mistake by the government cost 50,000 people their jobs, the article continued, and the overall unemployment rate has increased. Mohammad Khoshchehreh, a former adviser to Ahmadinejad, said 100,000 people have been laid off since March, and many of those who still have jobs will not get raises or have not been paid for months.
The Ahmadinejad administration has failed politically and economically, the pro-reform "Etemad-i Melli" editorialized on July 13, and unemployment, inflation, and a general reduction in public welfare are the outcome of its policies. The Strategic Council for Foreign Relations (Shora-yi Rahbordi-yi Ravabet-i Khareji) was created to utilize the views of more experienced individuals in the area of foreign policy, the article continued, and a similar step is needed in the economic arena.
Lawmakers Air Critical Views
Ahmadinejad defended his efforts during a July 9 meeting of cabinet members and provincial governors-general. "The government's economic policies are quite transparent and based on planning and reason," Ahmadinejad said, according to IRNA. This is not the impression of some members of parliament, who presumably are in close contact with their constituents and see the impact of government economic policies first-hand.
The administration's policies have led to unemployment, Ardabil's Nureddin Pirmoazen said during the June 18 session, as well as high prices, inflation, and recession, "Sharq," "Resalat," and "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported on June 19.
"Today, unemployment has turned into one of the greatest problems of youths and their families," Tehran's Alireza Mahjub said during the June 18 session, "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported on June 19. "Today the unemployment issue has even affected middle-class families and the educated classes of society. Unfortunately, this crisis is growing worse every day." Mahjub added that job security is a major problem.
The nation is facing significant economic difficulties, Nahavand's Mohammad Taqi Kavianpur said during the July 9 session. "The source of most of these problems is the unemployment of educated and job-seeking youths," he asserted, according to "Jomhuri-yi Islami" on July 10. He said the government has consistently failed to achieve its job-creation goals, and its reliance on trial-and-error furthers unemployment.
"If we don't settle the problem of unemployment the government will face a challenge much more serious than the energy shortage crisis," Miandoab's Assadullah Tabeh warned on July 11, "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported the next day. Tabeh hinted that unemployment has had the greatest impact on the country's poorest people.
During a conference in Mashhad on July 11, Tehran representative Mohammad Khoshchehreh said the government's monetary, commercial, and employment policies are not coordinated, Mashhad television reported. A focus on the agriculture and construction sectors, Khoshchehreh continued, would help create jobs.
Worker Dissatisfaction Produces Unrest
The difficulties faced by workers come to the fore during occasional strikes and other labor actions.
Speaking on behalf of dismissed state bus-company employees on July 15, Said Torabian said six people were arrested at a demonstration that day, ILNA reported. Another three went to the Labor Ministry to meet with officials and were arrested there. Ali Jahanbakhsh, director of the political-disciplinary office of Tehran's Governorate-General, said on July 15 that a permit for a July 16 bus-drivers demonstration in Tehran was denied because the event would cause traffic problems, ILNA reported.
More than 200 workers at a Tehran soft-drink factory began a strike on July 10, ILNA reported. The majority of the workers are on contract, rather than being permanent employees, and they say they had not been paid for the first three months of the Iranian year (which began on 21 March) and have not received all their benefits from the previous year.
Employees of the Industrial Growth and Development business in Azerbaijan Province signed a petition on June 29 protesting their mass dismissal, ILNA reported. The petition noted that although one group of workers was dismissed, the firm continues to employ people who have officially retired or are filling two positions.
Employees of a china and porcelain factory in Tabriz staged a protest on June 27 against five months of wage arrears, ILNA reported. During that time, workers told ILNA, they only received a onetime payment of 500,000 rials (roughly $57). The factory's managing director told ILNA he would pay the employees as soon as he can, but there has been a slump in demand for the plant's products.
Ahmadinejad's statements indicate that he is aware of the unemployment situation. The financial cushion provided by high earnings from oil and gas exports, however, means that serious and potentially painful steps are not necessary in the short term. According to International Monetary Fund statistics, oil and gas exports brought in $55 billion this year, compared to $23 billion in 2002-03. Foreign-currency reserves are approximately $47 billion and could reach $62 billion by the end of the year. As long as these funds are available, the government can continue to ease the difficulties of unemployment through subsidies and other forms of charity rather than embarking on systemic reforms.