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Iran Report: August 10, 2006

August 10, 2006, Volume 9, Number 29

PREPARING FOR A DEFINING ELECTION. Buoyed by success in municipal, legislative, and presidential elections in recent years, fundamentalists associated with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad have now set their sights on the Assembly of Experts, the popularly elected body of 86 clerics that supervises and selects Iran's supreme leader.

The fundamentalists want Ahmadinejad's spiritual guide, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, to head the assembly. Their support has put him in competition with Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the assembly's deputy speaker, who lost the presidency to Ahmadinejad in a runoff vote in 2005. Mesbah-Yazdi's supporters shouted down Hashemi-Rafsanjani when he tried to give a speech in Qom on June 4.

A commentary in a conservative weekly connected to Mesbah-Yazdi, "Parto-i Sokhan" on May 10, also took shots at Hashemi-Rafsanjani when it interpreted regulations on eligibility for the Assembly of Experts. The weekly said that critics of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's stance on the 1979-81 hostage crisis or on the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War are ineligible. So, too, it said, are those who caused delays in the acquisition of peaceful nuclear technology or who advocated backing down in the diplomatic process.

Mesbah-Yazdi's opponents have retaliated. They have criticized the president's spiritual guide for his lack of activism against the monarchy before Iran's Islamic Revolution. They have also hinted that he is a member of a banned religio-political organization called the Hojjatieh Society. Mesbah-Yazdi has denied Hojjatieh membership. A prominent intellectual and scholar of Islam, Abdolkarim Soroush, backed that denial in a January 30 interview published on, asserting that Mesbah-Yazdi is a follower of Iranian philosopher Ahmad Fardid, who espoused fascistic ideas and derided the value of individual voting.

Success in the assembly has more than a symbolic value. The assembly plays the key role in selecting the supreme leader. But the expectation that the incoming assembly will choose the next supreme leader seems far-fetched. Ayatollah Khamenei is just 66 years old, and Shi'ite clerics can achieve impressive longevity.

There was a rapid turnover in leading Shi'ite clerics in the early 1990s, but when Grand Ayatollah Abolqasem Khoi died in 1992, he was 97 years old; Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Golpayegani died in 1993 at the age of 96, and Grand Ayatollah Ali Araki died in 1994 at more than 100 years old. Predictions of Khamenei's passing seem premature, therefore, as he would only be 75 by the time the incoming assembly's term of office ends.

Forming Factions

The rivalry between Mesbah-Yazdi and Hashemi-Rafsanjani for leadership of the Assembly of Experts reflects the divisions and rivalries among factions that have appeared in the last two years. In the last few months, there has been talk among the reformists of creating alliances ahead of the assembly balloting in an effort to head off the fundamentalist juggernaut. The former speaker of parliament and current head of the National Trust Party, Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, -- was quoted in the June 20 "Kargozaran" daily as saying he is "looking for a coalition more than anyone." But he added that he believes in "a coalition of the efficient, strong, and active forces of the true reformists -- not with opportunists."

To this end, there have been meetings of pro-reform political parties (specifically, the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization, the National Trust Party) with pro-reform clerical ones.

This latter group includes the Militant Clerics Association (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mobarez), the Qom Theological Seminaries (Hozeh-yi Elmieh-yi Qom), the Society of Teachers and Reformers of the Qom Islamic Theological Center (Majma-yi Mudarissin va Moshaei-i Hozeh-yi Elmieh-yi Qom), and the Society of the Islamic Students Following the Line of the Imam (Majma-yi Talab-i Khat-i Imam).

There also has been talk of shared lists of candidates the parties might back. There could even be a joint list backed by Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Karrubi, former President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, and Ayatollah Seyyed Hussein Musavi-Tabrizi of the Qom seminaries, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on July 23.

Setting A Date

The legislature on July 26 approved the general outlines of a bill that would permit holding elections for the Assembly of Experts and municipal councils concurrently this year, Fars News Agency reported. Some 149 out of 219 legislators reportedly backed the bill.

The elections are scheduled for November 17.

But a government spokesman, Gholam-Hussein Elham, said recently that Ahmadinejad's administration opposes holding concurrent elections, Mehr News Agency reported on July 19. The spokesman argued that campaigning for the entities differs, and that holding the elections simultaneously requires additional planning and preparation.

There are other potential logistical difficulties. A bill that would increase the voting age only for municipal elections was recently approved by the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, according to a Mehr News Agency report quoting legislator Kazem Jalali on July 12. The current voting age is 15, and the bill in question would raise the minimum to 18.

The Guardians Council, which supervises Assembly of Experts elections and vets candidates, has announced that it approves concurrent elections.

The Interior Ministry, which runs elections, has already prepared its timetable, culminating in voting on November 17, "Mardom Salari" reported on July 20.

Under the Interior Ministry's scenario, election executive boards will be set up (September 2-6), candidates registered (September 7-13), and paperwork forwarded to the proper authorities by mid-September (September 14-16 from local governorates to the Interior Ministry, and from there to the Guardians Council).

The Guardians Council will then have until October 16 to assess the candidates' qualifications, and two additional days to inform disqualified candidates.

Appeals can be filed from October 19-21, and the Guardians Council's clerical members will review the appeals from October 22-31 and advise the Interior Ministry accordingly. The names of eligible candidates will be announced on November 1, campaigning will take place from November 2-15, and the election will be on November 17.

The Guardians Council's work will continue until late December, as it investigates possible complaints about conduct of the elections and campaigning, "Etemad-i Melli" reported on June 7.

Controversial Vetting Process

Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati warned in a late-July interview that the law determines the vetting of candidates for the Assembly of Experts, and that this could upset people who have individual preferences, "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on July 24. The Guardians Council's vetting of candidates has always been controversial. Disqualifications of parliamentary hopefuls -- particularly incumbents -- met with protests in 2004. It took the supreme leader's intervention to get disqualified cabinet members reinstated in the 2005 presidential election.

Balloting for the Assembly of Experts takes place every eight years. In the past, potential candidates had to demonstrate "ijtihad," the highest form of Islamic learning, which enables Koranic interpretation. They also had to have clean political and legal records, and believe in the Islamic republic's system. In the run-up to the October 1998 Assembly of Experts election, an announcement emerged that all potential candidates must demonstrate the proper political inclination, as well.

In the last Assembly of Experts election in 1998, the Guardians Council accepted fewer than half of the 396 applicants. It rejected eight of the nine women who applied, and the ninth subsequently withdrew her candidacy. The council allowed a number of incumbents to run again despite their having failed the "ijtihad" examination -- arguing that they could run because Ayatollah Khomeini had approved their credentials for previous elections.

New Questions

It is therefore unsurprising that questions over the vetting process have preceded the upcoming Assembly of Experts election. At the assembly's September meeting, some members reportedly submitted a motion requiring more stringent academic qualifications -- advocating "absolute ijtihad" rather than simply "relative ijtihad." The daily noted that the former qualification permits one to interpret Islamic law, while the latter qualifies one to issue religious decrees (fatwa). Sponsors of that motion reportedly also wanted the job of vetting candidates withdrawn from the Guardians Council and given to seminarians. They argued that because some council members also compete for the assembly, the normal vetting procedure represents a conflict of interest.

In mid-June, the Interior Ministry declared in a communique that individuals whose "ijtihad" abilities were endorsed by Ayatollah Khomeini need not be vetted by the Guardians Council, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on June 15. A member of the Assembly of Experts, Hojatoleslam Majid Ansari, added that there are other people whose "ijtihad" skills have already been tested and proven -- including noted seminarians and appointees of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, like the head of the Judiciary and clerics on the Guardians Council.

There also have been suggestions that prospective candidates' religious skills should be examined by the seminaries, rather than the Guardians Council. This is of particular concern in instances when members of the council are candidates themselves.

All this factional jockeying and rivalry could be countered by the actions of the 12-man Guardians Council, which arguably counters any democratic credentials of Iranian elections. This unelected body is the ultimate arbiter in the voting: It has overturned results in the past. All the more notable, then, that its six clerical members are appointed by the supreme leader and the six lawyer members are selected by the Judiciary chief and approved by the parliament. The council has a tendency to reject the candidacies of individuals it fears might aggressively oppose the status quo. Its paring down of available candidates could also have an adverse impact on voter participation. (Bill Samii)

POLITICIAN SAYS FORMER PRESIDENT CAN NO LONGER WIN VOTES. A politician associated with former President and Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani believes Rafsanjani is no longer a popular option at elections, but that his pragmatic ideas are widely accepted among politicians, Fars news agency reported on August 3. Mohammad Atrianfar, a member of the Executives of Construction, a centrist party considered close to Rafsanjani, said he believes "the [Rafsanjani] period in the executive sphere has come to an end, but his ideas are brilliant." He said that -- as shown in the 2005 presidential elections -- Rafsanjani "personally lacks the capacity to win the people's votes, but people continue to support his ideas." Atrianfar said reformers have moved toward these ideas -- considered moderately conservative and pragmatic -- and "even Mr. [President] Ahmadinejad resorts to this thinking...when he wishes to win people's votes." He said Ahmadinejad, who competed for the presidency against Rafsanjani in 2005, is legally president, but "not in terms of...votes." Who, he asked, paid for a nationwide publicity campaign that allowed posters of Ahmadinejad, then Tehran's mayor, to appear in far-off villages in Iran? "There is still a great question mark over [the polls] and great doubts on its outcome, but everyone is keeping quiet to maintain national cohesion," Fars quoted him as saying. (Vahid Sepehri)

REFORMERS DISTRUST PROPOSED ELECTION OVERHAUL. The Iranian Interior Ministry is proposing changes to election rules, and reformers are concerned the proposals would further restrict the range of aspirants allowed to run for public office, local media reports from July 28 and 31 and August 1 suggest.

On July 28, the head of the ministry's electoral affairs department, Ali Asghar Karandish, said a comprehensive electoral-system bill would, among other conditions, require presidential hopefuls to obtain the written support of 50 legislators from 20 provinces and 20 members of the Assembly for Experts in order to become candidates. The bill also tasks the paramilitary Basij militia with reviewing informal reports by members of the public concerning would-be candidates' private lives or reputations.

Jurist Bahman Keshavarz said on July 31 that the bill could pave the way for intrusive inquiries into would-be candidates' private lives, which he said is illegal, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported the next day.

Mohammad Salamati of the reformist Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization said such "proposals will...add to the atmosphere of concern," the same daily reported on August 1.

Former legislator Yadollah Islami said such bills ensure "the gap between the people and state will never be filled," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported.

But Interior Minister Mustafa Pur-Mohammadi predicted on August 1 that the bill will "open" the environment for voters and candidates, and urged specialists and politicians to study it before reacting, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. (Vahid Sepehri)

FORMER STUDENT PROTESTER DIES IN PRISON. Akbar Mohammadi, a student jailed for his involvement in 1999 Tehran demonstrations, died in Tehran's Evin prison on July 30 after what was described by authorities as a nine-day hunger strike, Radio Farda reported on July 31, citing the Tehran provincial prisons chief Akbar Suleimani and the Student Committee of Human Rights Reporters.

The Student Committee of Human Rights Reporters stated that other prisoners saw marks on Mohammadi's body suggesting that he had been beaten, Radio Farda reported. "This regime brings Palestinian children to be treated in Tehran hospitals, and gives them money and homes, but is destroying our children under torture," Mohammadi's father told Radio Farda on July 31. Mohammadi had been sentenced to death but his sentence was commuted to 15 years in prison, according to Radio Farda.

One of his lawyers, Khalil Bahramian, said Mohammadi had been on indefinite leave in the past year but "recently he was rearrested by agents without any warning and transferred to prison."

Another lawyer, Nemat Ahmadi, said prison doctors confirmed Mohammadi was ill and should receive treatment outside prison but Mohammadi told him by phone that prison authorities were depriving him of necessary medicines, including for asthma, Radio Farda reported.

Mohammadi was swiftly buried near the town of Amol in northern Iran despite a request by his parents for an autopsy, Radio Farda reported on August 1. Radio Farda reported that Mohammadi's parents flew to Tehran from Turkey late on July 31 to see his body but were detained by security forces at Tehran airport, then taken at about 4 a.m. with their son's body toward Amol for a burial. Some 5,000 security agents were in the vicinity for this process, Radio Farda quoted Reza Mohammadi, Mohammadi's brother, as saying. Agents also prevented some 700-800 well-wishers and relatives who had come to the airport to see the parents from entering the airport building on July 31.

Another brother, Manuchehr Mohammadi, is also in prison for political activism, and the parents asked that he be allowed to see his brother's body, although it was not clear whether he did, Radio Farda reported.

In Tehran on August 1, a spokesman for the state coroner's office said Mohammadi's body had been delivered to his family after an autopsy, presumably by a prison doctor, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported. "The results of the tests and cause of death will be announced in one month," the spokesman said.

Amnesty International said on August 1 that Mohammadi's death "casts a pall" on Iran's judicial system, adding that "thorough reform of the criminal justice system is urgently needed" to prevent "more deaths in Iranian custody," Radio Farda reported. Amnesty International urged Iranian authorities to end torture, provide fair and open trials for dissidents, and end the practice of "delaying or denying medical care." Mohammadi was denied some of his own medicines, according to a lawyer quoted by Radio Farda, but Amnesty cited reports that he might have been administered another drug that could have contributed to his death. His detention, since 1999, was reportedly characterized by routine torture, including beatings by Intelligence Ministry operatives as he hung upside down, Amnesty reported, attributing the accusation to "information available."

The U.S. State Department condemned the "severe repression" of dissidents in Iran and said Mohammadi's death in prison in late July was "not an isolated case" but symptomatic of Iran's repressive treatment of dissidents, AFP reported on August 2, quoting State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. McCormack said Iranian government measures against opponents are part of a "deliberate campaign" to "silence the student movement, in particular, and civil society more broadly." McCormack expressed concern over the fate of two other prominent detainees -- former legislator Ali-Akbar Musavi-Khoeni and trade unionist Mansur Osanlu. (Vahid Sepehri)

ANOTHER STUDENT SENT BACK TO JAIL. A student sentenced to prison for involvement in the 1999 riots, Ahmad Batebi, was arrested at his home on July 29, apparently while on prison leave, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) and the "Aftab-i Yazd" daily reported on July 30 and 31, citing lawyer Khalil Bahramian and Batebi's father. The latter told ISNA on July 30 that family members "have no news of Batebi for now." Tehran deputy prosecutor Mahmud Salarkia said Batebi was arrested for failing to return to prison six months after his prison leave had ended, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported.

Separately, a group of legislators visited Evin prison on July 30 to inspect prisoners' conditions but were not allowed into Section 209, where political or security-related prisoners are kept, ILNA reported on July 30, quoting legislator Akbar Alami. Alami said the visitors previously coordinated their visit with officials, including a deputy intelligence minister, but "most regrettably" the wing was closed, and this, he said, has "contributed to doubts" about what goes on there. Alami said that if the "law is respected" in this as in other wings, "there was no reason not to let [legislators] visit" it, ILNA reported.

Batebi's wife, Somayeh Binat, told Radio Farda on August 2 that "my opinion is they are trying to physically eliminate Ahmad and other political prisoners." She added, "They are effectively, through torture, implementing the execution sentence they had initially given Ahmad." (Vahid Sepehri)

TRADE CHAMBER OFFICIAL SKEPTICAL ON PRIVATIZATION. Alinaqi Khamushi, the head of Iran's Chamber of Commerce, Industry, and Mines, said in Tehran on August 2 that there is a "startling difference" between state officials' verbal commitment to privatization and their actions, ILNA reported. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently instructed the government to implement parts of Article 44 of the constitution, which is expected to initiate a large-scale privatization drive. But business circles remain skeptical of the government's willingness to withdraw from vast sectors of the economy. Khamushi asked at a meeting why "the government should sign 11 agreements with Venezuela without anyone from the private sector being present." Particularly, he said, when Khamenei's written instructions on Article 44 urge the government not to involve itself in "operational" areas, presumably specific business projects, ILNA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 31, 2006). "Iran's economy has turned a page and, after 80 years, the overall policies in Article 44 were announced," and this requires "a strong private sector that can gain the capacity to engage in large investments," Khamushi said. He complained that the industries minister in late July prevented a scheduled meeting between visiting Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and trade-chamber representatives. (Vahid Sepehri)

IRAN DISMISSES UN SANCTIONS THREAT. Rejecting a July 31 Security Council resolution (1696) ordering Iran to suspend nuclear enrichment activities, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said in Bojnurd in northeastern Iran on August 1 that Iran is peaceful and law-abiding but has a right to obtain "peaceful nuclear technology" and will not allow itself to be addressed in a threatening manner, IRNA and Reuters reported. "Iran's enemies should know that the Iranian people consider the use of nuclear science a right, and will not forego this right," IRNA quoted him as saying. Western powers are concerned that Iran's nuclear know-how could help it make bombs.

On August 1, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said the resolution has no "legal facet or basis," IRNA reported. Assefi said the resolution serves the purposes "of certain states" and seeks to "swiftly close the road to negotiations." It will have "no constructive results," he said, and "can only worsen the situation."

A member of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Kazem Jalali, said the same day that the "Americans seem to be trying their best" to move the dossier from "the path of dialogue" toward "creating some kind of crisis," ISNA reported.

Assefi said on July 30 that Tehran will reject a package of international incentives designed to curb Iran's nuclear program if the UN Security Council approves a draft resolution obliging Iran to stop uranium enrichment by August 31 or face possible sanctions, agencies reported. "If a resolution is issued" against Iran, Western proposals "will no longer be relevant," ISNA quoted Assefi as saying. He said the package of incentives is part of a negotiating process, but that EU states have "changed their method" and are moving away from talks by turning to the Security Council. He said Iran thinks "those who wish to issue a resolution" targeting Tehran are trying "to make the region's conditions" more critical, adding that this "is very clear, and needs no explanation." He did not specify what Iran would do in response to a resolution, but "my message to Western parties is very clear," ISNA reported. (Vahid Sepehri)

VENEZUELAN PRESIDENT SIGNS SEVERAL AGREEMENTS IN IRAN. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez arrived in Iran on July 29 for a visit that included meetings with President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The leaders used their meetings to affirm mutual support and to denounce Israel. They also signed several agreements.

On July 29, Khamenei told Chavez that the Americans are using Israel to wage a war intended to create an "American Middle East," but "they had overlooked the Lebanese people in their calculations," ISNA reported the same day. He said Hizballah resistance has obstructed plans to "create a Middle East made of puppet regimes, with [Israel] as the main axis."

On July 30, Ahmadinejad presented Chavez with a medal for his "outstanding efforts against imperialism" at a ceremony in Tehran University, the setting for more condemnations of Israel, ISNA and Fars News Agency reported the same day. Ahmadinejad said Israel was created "as a permanent aggression and threat" to regional states and a means to "loot" their wealth through fear, leading to arms purchases from Western firms. Chavez denounced Israel's "fascist actions" in Lebanon and Gaza. The United States, Chavez said, is stuck in a "quagmire" in Iraq, Palestine, and Afghanistan, and "we can together defeat America's imperialism and save the world. America is defeated," ISNA reported.

Iran and Venezuela signed 11 agreements at the end of President Chavez's visit to Tehran in sectors that include oil, petrochemicals, and housing, IRNA reported on July 30. The two states agreed to form a joint housing-construction firm, cooperate to provide petrochemicals and oil-related training and education, and launch joint ventures to make bicycles and pharmaceuticals.

The directors of state-affiliated Petropars and Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) signed a memorandum of understanding on oil exploration and extraction, while Petroleum Ministers Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh and Rafael Ramirez Carreno signed an agreement on cooperation between their ministries. Other documents signed were in aviation, the environment, and manufacturing, IRNA reported. The presidents and oil ministers of Iran and Venezuela, and Iran's health and industry ministers were among senior officials attending the ceremony. Chavez left Tehran for Hanoi late on July 30, IRNA reported. (Vahid Sepehri)