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Iran Report: June 14, 2005

14 June 2005, Volume 8, Number 23

IRAN VOTES 2005: Get the latest election news, profiles of the candidates and parties, and background on all the issues at:

BOMBINGS IN IRAN MAY BE CONNECTED WITH MINORITIES AND ELECTION. On the morning of 12 June, four explosions occurred within 20 minutes of each other in Ahvaz, the capital of Iran's southwestern Khuzestan Province. This is only the most recent violent incident in a region inhabited by ethnic Arabs who are angry about discrimination (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 18 and 25 April 2005).

Iran's population of some 69 million people is ethnically and religiously diverse, and the country's minorities have many legitimate grievances. Politicians have glossed over these issues in the past, but in a new development, candidates for the 17 June presidential election are appealing to minorities. This could reflect a quest for votes, but it could also reflect fallout from democratic developments in Iraq.

All the 12 June explosions in Ahvaz targeted government facilities or officials. Interior Ministry official Mohammad Hussein Motahar said, "Two bombs were hidden in toilets within the building of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development and at the Office of Construction and Civil Engineering. The third bomb exploded in front of the house of the governor of Khuzestan Province. All three of these explosions were in the city center of Ahvaz. Another bomb was hidden in the doorway of the house of a [state] radio and television official in Ahvaz. The bomb went off when the door was opened," Radio Farda reported, citing state television.

State television reported that the bombings killed at least eight people and injured another 70. No one has taken responsibility for the 12 June bombings. The Interior Ministry's Motahar connected the bombings with the unrest that occurred in Khuzestan in mid-April.

In what might be a related incident, two bombs exploded in Tehran near the Imam Hussein Square on the evening of 12 June. At least two people died in this incident, the Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

A History Of Ethnic Grievances Incidents of ethnic unrest in the outlying provinces are not without precedent. Kurds and Azeris in the northwest, Turkmens in the north, and Baluchis in the southeast, as well as the Arabs in the southwest, occasionally demonstrate over perceived injustices. Their complaints cover economic issues -- insufficient jobs and underdevelopment that lead to migration to urban centers, and discrimination in getting government jobs. The minorities also note inadequate educational facilities for young people, few publications in their languages, and low-quality local programming by state radio and television. They allude to historical grievances and refer to poor governmental representation.

The state response to these incidents varies depending on their scale. Sometimes it resorts to repression -- some 360 people were arrested after the April unrest in Ahvaz. In other cases, security forces contain the demonstrations and let people vent their frustration. And occasionally, the central government will dispatch officials to the region to show interest and attempt to mollify the locals.

But until this most recent race, ethnicity has not been a major factor in presidential campaigns. In fact, Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati said in Friday prayer sermons in February and again in March that candidates should not promote ethnic issues (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 4 April 2004).

The candidates, particularly the reformist Mustafa Moin, have disregarded this advice. As he toured Ilam, Kermanshah, Khuzestan, and Kurdistan provinces, Moin said that the Kurdish people deserve to be treated better by the central government, "Eqbal" reported on 8 June. While in Sanandaj he said, "All religious and ethnic groups are entitled to participate at the level of vice president, minister, governor-general, or ambassador." Moin pledged that his cabinet will include individuals from all the provinces and all the ethnic minorities, including Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmens, "Iran" reported on 7 June. He said minorities' rights have been ignored so far and he will repair this situation.

Religion An Issue Religious diversity has become a factor in the presidential race, too. In Iran, most Persians, Azeris, and Arabs practice Shi'a Islam, while Baluchis, Turkmens, and some Kurds practice Sunni Islam. The Iranian Constitution states that Shi'ism is the state religion but other schools of Islam will be respected fully, and in regions where the minorities predominate, local regulations will respect their faith.

Some 9 percent of Iranians are Sunnis, and they have expectations of the next president. Sunni activist and former legislator Jalal Jalalizadeh wrote in the 10 January "Sharq" that Sunnis have been "actively participating" while not having "a share in getting elected or gaining concessions." There are 10 million Sunnis, Jalalizadeh wrote, and candidates ignore them at their peril. Even though they do not have the constitutional right to become president, he continued, they do have the right to serve in other positions. Will the next president implement the slogan "Iran for Iranians," he asked.

Sunni leaders met in Tehran in late May to discuss their role in the elections. They decided that they would support anybody who can solve their problems, "Sharq" reported on 30 May.

A statement from Sunni residents of Tehran informed presidential candidates that they demand the right to publish freely and to build Sunni mosques, "Eqbal" reported on 6 June. They also called for involvement in state broadcasting and the opportunity to broadcast their own programs.

Some Sunni leaders announced their support for Moin, "Eqbal" reported on 11 June.

More than 20 Sunnis who served in previous parliaments, on the other hand, declared their support for center-left candidate Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 11 June. Although their previous demands were ignored, they said, they will participate in the election in the hope that this will lead to a democratic society based on "Islamic justice and equal rights for citizens of all ethnic and religious groups." They urged Karrubi and other candidates to keep their word, "not to forget their 'pact with the people and especially with Sunnis,' nor promises made at various electoral gatherings 'attended by Sunni elites, clerics and representatives.'"

Christian Armenians and Assyrians also live in Iran, as do practitioners of the Baha'i, Jewish, and Zoroastrian faiths. Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian practices are to be respected as well, according to the constitution. Baha'is, however, are not recognized and face intense repression.

Members of the Zoroastrian community in Yazd Province are backing Karrubi, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 7 June. The head of the Zoroastrians' pro-Karrubi headquarters, Dariush Kamusi, said Karrubi personifies the Zoroastrian tenets of good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. Kamusi noted that Karrubi backed legislation that made the blood money for killing a member of a religious minority the same as the blood money for killing a Shi'a Muslim.

The Iraq Effect? Candidates' attention to ethnic and religious minorities could reflect the traditional quest for votes in what increasingly appears to be a hard-fought race for the presidency. The candidates may be coming to recognize, furthermore, the fallout from the traditional emphasis on the Persian nature of the state and efforts to eliminate minority interests by emphasizing linguistic, religious, and cultural unity. Minorities are more likely to identify with the state if the state pays attention to them.

Postwar developments in Iraq are probably having a more profound effect. The government in Baghdad includes members of all Iraqi ethnic and religious minorities -- Arabs, Kurds, Turkomans, Assyrians, and others. A Kurd is president, his deputies are Sunni and Shi'a Arabs, and a Shi'ite Arab is prime minister. Kurds in the north enjoy a degree of autonomy unimaginable in Iran. The minorities in Iran may not want to appear to support the U.S. role in overthrowing former President Saddam Hussein and bringing democracy to Iraq, but they are certainly aware that minorities to their west have a greater role in government.

Some observers have expressed concern that if the Shi'a majority in Iraq enjoys political power commensurate with its share of the population (about 65 percent), then Iraq could become another Shi'a theocracy. In fact, the political current appears to be flowing in the other direction, and as the 12 June bombings show, the Iranian government ignores this at its own risk. (Bill Samii)

DISSIDENT JOURNALIST DISAPPEARS. Dissident journalist Akbar Ganji, who was released from prison in late May for medical reasons, told Radio Farda on 7 June that the instant he returns to prison he will resume his hunger strike. He said he was effectively thrown out of prison when given medical leave, and the official he spoke to that final evening told him to take all the time required to have his health problems resolved. Ganji said the corrections officers know where to find him, since they delivered him to his home.

One day after effectively challenging the security forces to take him back to prison, Ganji was on the run. Ganji's wife, Masumeh Shafii, said on 8 June that bailiffs came to their house the previous evening with an arrest warrant, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported. She said the bailiffs waited there until 6 a.m. but Ganji never turned up. She added that the warrant, for giving illegal interviews and exceeding his prison leave, was signed by Press Court Judge Said Mortazavi. Mortazavi said he issued the warrant because Ganji failed to present himself when his one-week leave expired, Fars News Agency reported.

Mashallah Shamsolvaezin and students from the Office for Strengthening Unity were at Ganji's home on 7 June. Shamsolvaezin told Radio Farda the next day that there are contradictory reports on whether or not Ganji has been recaptured. The presence of unaccountable security agencies, referred to colloquially as parallel institutions, that operate with no oversight and are not answerable to elected officials, makes it possible that Ganji is already in custody.

Ganji's wife, Masumeh Shafii, echoed concern that her husband was in custody already, telling Radio Farda on 9 June: "We haven't had any news from him since Tuesday afternoon [7 June] when he left the house. I am very worried about him. I think there is a possibility that they have arrested him without making any noise. I don't [know where to go], and I don't trust any of these [officials] because they say he is on the run. They say that they don't have him."

In a letter faxed to Radio Farda and other news outlets on 10 June, Ganji said he will return to prison and reiterated that he will resume his hunger strike. Ganji, who suffers from asthma and back pains, noted that it was the prison authorities who sent him on medical leave.

Ganji presented himself at Evin the next day, Reuters reported. With his medicines in hand, he told reporters, "All political prisoners must be freed." (Bill Samii)

JAILED LAWYER BEGINS HUNGER STRIKE. On the mornings of 8 June and 10 June, pro-democracy activists and the family of imprisoned lawyer Nasser Zarafshan held demonstrations outside Evin prison, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. They called for the release of Zarafshan, who represented families of the dissidents murdered by Ministry of Intelligence and Security personnel from 1998-99. Zarafshan was arrested in August 2002 on charges of revealing government secrets.

Mohammad Sharif, Zarafshan's lawyer, told Radio Farda on 7 June that his client has begun a hunger strike. Zarafshan has health problems and needs to see a specialist physician, but his jailers have refused to give him a furlough. Sharif went on to say that drug dealers and other regular prisoners sometimes get lengthy furloughs.

Zarafshan's wife, Homa Zarafshan, told Radio Farda on 9 June that a physician came to Evin prison and examined him. Zarafshan told his wife that the physicians said both of his kidneys have problems and that he needs surgery for kidney stones. She went on to tell Radio Farda that her husband has not received permission to leave the prison for his operation. She told Radio Farda he will continue his hunger strike until released. (Bill Samii)

NATIONALIST-RELIGIOUS FORCES ENCOURAGE VOTERS. Political activist Ezzatollah Sahabi told Radio Farda on 7 June that the nationalist-religious forces and the banned but tolerated Liberation Movement have endorsed the candidacy of reformist candidate Mustafa Moin. Sahabi urged Iranians to vote in the presidential election and predicted that the reformist candidate will win. He explained that the nationalist-religious forces want to expend their political capital before it is too late. Whether or not we participate, he added, events in the country will continue.

Radio Farda noted that the creation of a pro-Moin "democracy and human-rights front," which includes the nationalist-religious forces, is the first opportunity for opposition forces outside the government to work with those inside it. However, Sahabi said, the nationalist-religious forces will decline any positions in the government. (Bill Samii)

VIOLENCE MARS ELECTION CAMPAIGNING. "I expect that our dear people...will stick a huge stamp of 'Death to America' on polling booths through their extensive turnout," Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati said in his 10 June sermon at the Tehran Friday prayers, state radio reported. Jannati claimed the U.S. and Israel want Iranians to boycott the 17 June presidential election, because they feel threatened by Iran.

Outside observers have predicted a low turnout, but Jannati could be pleased by two recent surveys. A poll of 46,034 people in 25 provinces conducted by the Islamic Republic News Agency found that 54.8 percent of eligible voters will definitely vote and another 15.5 percent say they will "almost certainly vote," state radio reported on 11 June. Another 10.3 percent said they are undecided and 9.6 percent said they probably would not vote. In a late-May survey commissioned by the Fars News Agency and conducted by an unidentified polling service, 68 percent of the respondents confirmed that would vote, "Kayhan" reported on 6 June. Another 16.3 percent said they probably would vote, 5.3 percent said they probably would not, and 104 percent confirmed that they would not vote. The survey took place in 28 provinces.

Jannati also noted that some of the candidates have violated campaign regulations. He did not provide any details, but other officials also have referred to campaigning problems.

Interior Ministry spokesman Jahanbakhsh Khanjani said on 8 June that there had been attacks against election headquarters, as well as battery of candidates' supporters, IRNA reported. He accused "certain institutions and organizations" of interfering in the process. Khanjani said some candidates were questioning the accomplishments of the Islamic Revolution. Khanjani complained that the police and Tehran municipality are not cooperating with the governorate. Khanjani reiterated his complaints about the interference of the armed forces.

Violence has marred the campaign already and it continues. Most recently, Behzad Nabavi of the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization was beaten up at a rally in Qom for reformist candidate Mustafa Moin, "Aftab-i Yazd," "Etemad," and other dailies reported on 11 June. Nabavi attributed the violence to parallel security institutions.

Government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh hinted at this, too. He said on 11 June that until the incident in Qom the election campaign was progressing normally, Fars News Agency reported. He continued, "It seems that since last Thursday new decisions have been made by some groups which can never accept that there should be an open atmosphere in the country." Ramezanzadeh attributed the violence to "an utterly radical current."

In a letter to Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi, Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari asked for the violence to be curbed, IRNA reported.

Vajiollah Aqataqi, the governor of Tehran, said on 8 June there will be no fraud in the 17 June presidential election, Mehr News Agency reported. There will be 2,760 polling stations in Tehran, and 203 of these will be mobile polling stations. Officials will monitor the entire process carefully, he said, and he urged them to deal with electoral violations impartially. (Bill Samii)

HASHEMI-RAFSANJANI LEADS IN PRESIDENTIAL POLLS, GETS IMPORTANT ENDORSEMENT. Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who served as president for two terms from 1989-97, has emerged as the most popular candidate for the 17 June presidential election in several polls, and late last week he received the endorsement of the country's oldest political organization for clerics.

It is important to note that the polls show Hashemi-Rafsanjani will not win an outright majority. According to the constitution, if nobody wins more than 50 percent in the first round of the election, a second round will be held between the top two finishers on the subsequent Friday.

In the poll reported most recently, which was conducted by the hard-line Islamic Revolution Devotees' Society (Jamiyat-i Isargaran-i Inqilab-i Islami) in 30 cities in late May, 32.6 percent of respondents indicated they would vote for Hashemi-Rafsanjani, ILNA reported on 10 June. He was followed by Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf (18.6 percent), Mustafa Moin (8.9 percent), Ali Larijani (8.9 percent), Mehdi Karrubi (7.5 percent), Mahmud Ahmadinejad (4.1 percent), Mohsen Mehralizadeh (2.2 percent), and Mohsen Rezai (1.2 percent).

Hashemi-Rafsanjani came out ahead in a poll conducted by the Iranian Students Polling Agency, ILNA reported on 7 June. He was the preferred candidate of 19.1 percent of respondents in Tehran and 12 other cities. Following Hashemi-Rafsanjani are Qalibaf (9.5 percent), Moin (6.7 percent), Larijani (4.5 percent), Karrubi (3.6 percent), Ahmadinejad (2.8 percent), Mehralizadeh (1.5 percent), and Rezai (1.4 percent). Another 17.7 percent of respondents said they will not vote.

These polls may be encouraging for Hashemi-Rafsanjani's supporters, but they are not perfect. Ali-Reza Yusefi, chief of Hashemi-Rafsanjani's campaign in Isfahan, described the polls as only "50 to 60 percent accurate," the "Financial Times" reported on 8 June.

Endorsement Of Conservative Clerics The conservative Tehran Militant Clergy Association (Jameh-yi Ruhaniyat-i Mobarez-i Tehran) has declared its support for Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Radio Farda reported on 10 June. The association met many times but could not make a decision, the Baztab website reported on 7 June.

The clerical organization's dilemma was that Hashemi-Rafsanjani is a member, but the organization's leadership is involved with the Coordination Council of Islamic Revolution Forces, which backs another candidate -- Ali Larijani. Generational divisions and ideological disputes are behind the conservatives' lack of unity and their inability to decide on a candidate. There have been calls for some of the candidates to withdraw from the race, but so far none have given ground.

This lack of unity was apparent among the religious community. In Qom, the religious seminary failed to decide on its favorite candidate, "Etemad" reported on 7 June. Thirty-two out of 55 people at the meeting voted for Hashemi-Rafsanjani, but he needed a minimum of 36 to get the endorsement.

A late-May statement from seminary lecturers said Hashemi-Rafsanjani's running in the election does not benefit the system, "Siyasat-i Ruz" reported on 28 May. They accused him of ignoring the existing laws during his presidency and trying to persuade Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the legislature that his plans were the best. The seminarians went on to say that economic development at the expense of social justice will eventually lead to "social divisions, favoritism, poverty, and corruption." They said Hashemi-Rafsanjani's present plans are identical to the ones he had 16 years ago, and "he believes it is logical and legal to have social cleavages in society -- even among statesmen."

Hojatoleslam Mujtaba Keshani, who serves on the central council of the hard-line Ansar-i Hizbullah political organization, is unenthusiastic about Hashemi-Rafsanjani. He said the same corrupt people associated with the Executives of Construction Party, who were in the Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Khatami governments, are trying to make a comeback, "Ya Lisarat al-Hussein" reported on 25 May. He also criticized the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Party. Keshani compared the privatization plans of Hashemi-Rafsanjani's administration with the era of the Thousand Families, the aristocracy of the monarchic period. Keshani criticized Hashemi-Rafsanjani for his campaign photographs with made-up girls who are not wearing their Islamic head coverings in a sufficiently modest fashion. He said social cleavages grew during Hashemi-Rafsanjani's presidency.

The country's other main clerical political organization, the left-leaning Militant Clerics Association (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mobarez), broke away from the older clerical organization in 1988. It backs the candidacy of Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, who is its secretary-general.

More than 63 present and former parliamentarians have declared their support for Hashemi-Rafsanjani, ILNA reported on 6 June. The legislators issued a signed statement backing Hashemi-Rafsanjani's reform plans.

While Hashemi-Rafsanjani is getting endorsements from political organizations, it is not so clear if the general public will vote for him. Support for him in the Tehran bazaar seems low, according to "The Christian Science Monitor" on 2 June. Indeed, the Islamic Associations of the Bazaar and Guilds of Tehran (Anjumanha-yi Islami-yi Bazaar va Asnaf-i Tehran) has endorsed Larijani's presidential bid (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 3 June 2005).

Compared to his competition, Hashemi-Rafsanjani's campaigning has been passive and he has not left Tehran. He said on 28 May that visiting the provinces is impossible because there is not enough time and he does not want to be accused of using state resources, ISNA reported the next day. The other candidates have made a point of meeting with ethnic minorities and provincial residents and acknowledging their concerns.

Discussing The Issues Although he has not been the most active campaigner, Hashemi-Rafsanjani has made himself available to the media. "The New York Times" carried an exclusive interview with him on 25 May. A few months earlier, he gave an interview to "USA Today" (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 14 February 2005). He is cited frequently by the Iranian media.

Hashemi-Rafsanjani said in an interview taped on 3 June and broadcast the next day that alleged U.S. hostility to Iran is partly based on "greed." He went on to say that if Iran convinces the United States that it is only defending its own interests, then the two countries could resolve their problems. Hashemi-Rafsanjani described the U.S. presence in the region as a problem and expressed concern about Iran's troubled relations with some of its Persian Gulf neighbors. Hashemi-Rafsanjani said Iran should receive credit for not interfering with the Iraqi elections, even though it could have. He said Iran was happy with the fall of the Taliban and former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, as well as the containment of Al-Qaeda.

In a 4 June meeting with members of the bakers' union, Hashemi-Rafsanjani said the United States has unintentionally helped Iran by weakening the Mujahedin Khalq Organization, an armed anti-Iranian group, Mehr News Agency reported.

Turning to the nuclear issue, Hashemi-Rafsanjani said Iran will not forsake the right to use nuclear energy peacefully. He said according to international law Iran should not build nuclear weapons, and he added that Iran should prove that it is not doing so. Nevertheless, he said, international law entitles Iran to foreign support in developing technological and scientific capabilities. "We have to insist on our rights and get them," he said.

Hashemi-Rafsanjani also discussed domestic issues in the interview broadcast on 4 June. He advocated freedom of expression, as long as people do not pass undefined "red lines." He advocated education for young people and reminded them that they will be held accountable for their actions in the afterlife. He noted the importance of education in improving the country's culture, and said there should be greater attention to education. Teachers are very important in this arena, he said, and the best professors should be hired. He also called for improvements in the quality of research and laboratory equipment. Hashemi-Rafsanjani said Iran is lagging behind the rest of the world scientifically.

Hashemi-Rafsanjani told state television that his compatriots are not united. On 17 June the world will see if enough of them can unite to elect Hashemi-Rafsanjani to his third presidential term. (Bill Samii)

NEW WORRIES OVER MILITARY INVOLVEMENT IN ELECTION. Iranian Interior Ministry spokesman Jahanbakhsh Khanjani said on 7 June that there was no doubt that there was military interference in the election process and this was "dangerous," IRNA reported.

Khanjani's statement is just the most recent warning about this issue. In early April, pro-reformist political commentators expressed concern about the planned presidential campaigns of individuals with backgrounds in the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps.

Now, with just days to go before the 17 June election, there are new concerns that the involvement of military personnel in supervising the election could lead to fraud.

The Guardians Council is tasked with supervising elections. "There is no legal impediment to the presence of military forces in the [elections] executive and supervisory domains," council spokesman Gholam Hussein Elham said, according to "Eqbal" on 31 May.

This triggered a quick reaction from the Interior Ministry, which runs elections. Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari said the law clearly stated that military and police personnel were banned from entering election headquarters or backing candidates at polling places, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 30 May. Expressing astonishment with Elham's comments, Musavi-Lari said the possibility that military personnel might play a part in the election process was a matter of great concern.

"Behind the scenes, there is a whiff of preparations for interference by military men in the course of the elections," Interior Ministry spokesman Khanjani said at a 31 May news conference, according to IRNA.

Council spokesman Elham responded that "whipping up a topic" that "springs from illusion" was tantamount to carrying out the plans of Iran's enemies. Elham went on to provide a detailed written response to questions about military involvement in the election, "Sharq" reported on 1 June. "According to the law, membership of the military in executive and supervisory boards has not been banned and their responsibility is something personal as far as they are concerned," Elham said. According to the law, Elham wrote, military personnel cannot campaign on behalf of or otherwise represent candidates, and government officials generally are prohibited from making statements, announcements, or placards for or against candidates. He added that military and police personnel were barred from acting on behalf of their institutions, but said they were not barred from participating in election-related activities as individuals. Although the Guardians Council has not employed military personnel in its supervisory activities, he continued, there is no problem if it does so in isolated cases.

Active-Duty Versus Reservists Elham wrote that barring Basij personnel from election-related activities was impractical, "Sharq" reported on 1 June. He explained that this would deprive the 20 million people who serve in the Basij of their rights.

The 20 million figure is most likely an exaggeration based on revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's November 1979 decree creating the Basij. Khomeini said at the time that "a country with 20 million youths must have 20 million riflemen or a military with 20 million soldiers; such a country will never be destroyed" (

Full-time, active-duty personnel serve in both the conventional armed forces and the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps. The Basij is part of the Guards Corps and is made up mostly of boys, old men, and those who recently finished their military service. There are about 90,000 active-duty Basij members who are full-time uniformed personnel, who are joined by up to 300,000 reservists, according to a 2005 study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. That study adds that the Basij can mobilize up to 1 million men.

The real figure for Basij personnel falls somewhere between these extremes, if one includes members of the University Basij, Student Basij, and the former tribal levies incorporated into the Basij (a.k.a. Tribal Basij). Middle-school-aged members of the Student Basij are called Seekers (Puyandegan), and high-school members are called the Vanguard (Pishgaman), "Kayhan" reported on 6 November 2003.

General Mohammad Hejazi, commander of the Basij, stressed on 1 June that his personnel would not be allowed to participate in the campaign, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported. He added that some Basij members are not salaried and are only answerable to the organization when they are on duty. Their participation in the election is not prohibited, he said.

Brigadier General Alireza Afshar, deputy commander of the armed forces headquarters for cultural affairs and defensive promotions, stressed on 5 June that no military personnel would be involved in supervising or conducting the election, IRNA reported. As for the Basij Resistance Force, Afshar said Basij personnel were considered members of the armed forces only when they were on duty.

A Force Apart Numerous commentators asserted that the Guards Corps voted in overwhelming numbers for the reformist candidate, Ayatollah Mohammad Khatami, in the 1997 presidential election. Yet there is no solid evidence for these claims, such as exit polling data. Subsequent events -- such as commanders' threats against critical newspapers and reformist political figures -- put these claims in serious doubt and showed that the Guards Corps considers itself a praetorian force that holds itself above the civilian leadership and elected officials.

During the 2003 municipal council elections and 2004 parliamentary elections, the Guards Corps was linked with the political activities of the hard-line Islamic Iran Developers Coalition (Etelaf-i Abadgaran-i Iran-i Islami). In the former case, Basij facilities were used for the Developers Coalition campaign activities, and in the latter case Guards Corps officers were given lists of Developers Coalition candidates for whom they and their troops should vote.

The role of the Guardians Council in vetting candidates always raises questions about the democratic nature of elections. The potential involvement of military personnel in supervising the election puts in greater doubt an already dubious process. The military personnel can ensure that their favorite candidate gets the majority of votes. Furthermore, military and law-enforcement personnel in polling places can intimidate or interfere with voters. Soldiers who vote in military installations or in the presence of their officers can be ordered to vote for specific candidates.

Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Movahedi-Kermani, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's representative to the Guards Corps, claimed on 6 June that the corps is unbiased and backs no specific candidate, ISNA reported. Nevertheless, four of the candidates in the upcoming presidential election have Guards Corps backgrounds. The other four candidates have no such association.

It is up to the Iranian people to decide who they will vote for -- but military interference in the 17 June presidential polls undermines Iran's already weak democratic process. (Bill Samii)

REZAI CAMPAIGNS ENTHUSIASTICALLY BUT INEFFECTIVELY. Conservative presidential candidate Mohsen Rezai, who is secretary of the Expediency Council and who headed the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps from 1981-97, is lagging in the polls, receiving the least support of the eight candidates. Nevertheless, he is campaigning enthusiastically and has even granted an interview to an American newspaper.

In the poll reported most recently, which was conducted by the hard-line Islamic Revolution Devotees' Society (Jamiyat-i Isargaran-i Inqilab-i Islami) in 30 cities in late May, Rezai came in last with 1.2 percent, ILNA reported on 10 June. And in another poll conducted by the Iranian Students' Polling Agency, Rezai got 1.4 percent of the votes, ILNA reported on 7 June. Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani came in first in both polls.

The lack of support in such surveys is matched by the lack of support given to Rezai by the country's political parties and institutions. Rezai received an endorsement from the relatively new Islamic Iran Popular Front on 6 June, ILNA reported. The organization's secretary, Fayazi, said there are 30 parties and political associations in the front. They first chose Mohsen Rezai and Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani as their favorite candidates, and because Rezai satisfied their criteria they settled on him. No other organizations have expressed their support.

Rezai said in a 5 June interview with Iranian state television, "I believe that the most important regional challenge facing Iran is the Greater Middle East initiative. In other words, I mean the American military presence in the region." However, Rezai said, Iran is not "encircled" because its cooperation is the key to regional stability. He said regional problems are compounded by the U.S. presence, and he advocated greater activism by Iran, including more exports and a greater number of "cultural institutions" in other countries.

Rezai said Iran is important to the United States and added, "I think that, if America had a strong president who could put forward a proposal to Iran that was worthy of the Iranian nation, then many things would change." He said the United States cannot initiate relations with Tehran because "the Zionists do not allow the Americans to take giant strides on the issue of Iran."

Rezai called for continuing diplomatic contacts with the EU and the IAEA, as well as the resumption of uranium enrichment. He predicted the world would treat Iran differently once this is done.

On 8 June Islamic Republic of Iran News Network broadcast Rezai's 30-minute campaign film. Set casually and without a lot of attention to specifics, the film allows Rezai to discuss his love for Iran, "poverty and unemployment among young people," and the country's economic potential. He accused "economic mafias" of trying to bring him down and said this is minor compared to his simultaneous war with Iraq when it was backed by the U.S. and USSR, against domestic political factions, and against emotional issues.

Asked what should be done about the U.S., Rezai responded: "Americans are a big power in the world but they are a simple people. If you surrender to them they will really exploit you. If you fight them they will totally destroy you." "We should jump over America," Rezai recommended. He said Iran needs an effective government if it is to pull this off.

Rezai said he would give young people even more freedom than they had during the Khatami-era (1997-2005). He also expressed shame that he has not done more for veterans of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.

Rezai had an e-mail interview with "USA Today" correspondent Barbara Slavin that was published on 10 June. He said he has been preparing himself for the presidency since the end of Iran-Iraq War, and he has "an economic plan that will transform the Iranian economy." This plan calls for an end to government interference in the economy, more privatization, and the creation of 10 federal economic, industrial, and commercial zones. He added that the current open university system will be consolidated so there are only 10 universities.

After praising former U.S. President Ronald Reagan and former Secretary of State Madeline Albright for their openings to Iran, he said other American presidents and secretaries of state should make a "rational offer" to Iran. Rezai said this would lead to a transformation in their relations.

Rezai refused to say that the constitutional power of the unelected supreme leader is an obstacle for the elected president. Instead, he said the problem is that the laws on the president's powers are "ambiguous." (Bill Samii)

QALIBAF DISCUSSES FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND MINORITIES. Presidential candidate Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf said in a 4 June interview on Iranian state television that, although the United States is hostile to Iran, it is not the cause of the country's problems. Qalibaf suggested that Iran improve its relations with other countries and redefine its international role. He said mismanagement is behind Iran's problems.

Qalibaf told people in the Sarv border district in the West Azerbaijan Province on 3 June that residents of the border regions should enjoy a higher standard of living, Mehr News Agency reported on 5 June. If the central government paid greater attention to these outlying areas' economic needs, he said, there would be far less urban migration. He noted that Iran is a multiethnic country, but everybody gets on well because they consider themselves Iranians first.

Qalibaf's spokesman, Mohsen Bahrami, said on 4 June, "One of Qalibaf's serious programs is to ensure that the rights of the ethnic and religious minorities will be observed within the framework of the law and the constitution," Fars News Agency reported. (Bill Samii)

AHMADINEJAD CRITICIZES NATIONAL MANAGEMENT. Mahmud Ahmadinejad said on 8 June in Urumiyeh, West Azerbaijan Province, that the priorities of the managerial class that has emerged in Iran differ from the people's priorities. The managers are therefore unaware of issues like poverty and they do not empathize with the public. He added that, in an Islamic society, economic development means the fair distribution of wealth, while political development means political understanding, national unity, and solidarity.

In a 4 June program on state television, Ahmadinejad said he wants to change the government's attitudes toward culture, justice, economic growth, and science and technology. Ahmadinejad added that young people are an asset, not a threat. They need more opportunities, he said, and they are the ones responsible for Iran's advance in nuclear science, dam building, aerospace technology, sports, and culture. He said Iranians' sense of national identity should be revived.

Ahmadinejad said, in an 8 June interview on state broadcasting, that he promotes relations with all other countries on the basis of respect, IRNA reported. In order of priority, he said, relations with immediate neighbors are the most important, followed by countries that were once part of the Persian Empire. Then come Muslim states, and last but not least, states that are not hostile to Iran. Turning to the United Nations, Ahmadinejad said its structure is "one-sided, stacked against the world of Islam." He described nuclear energy as an achievement and a right of the nation, adding, "No one can deprive the Iranian nation of this right." (Bill Samii)

KARRUBI CONTINUES CAMPAIGNING. Speaking in the northern city of Bandar Anzali on 7 June, pro-reform candidate Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi said the importance of elections is that they remind rulers of the source of their power, Mehr News Agency reported. A high voter turnout in the 17 June presidential election will prevent tyranny, he said. Karrubi has been campaigning seriously, selecting a running mate, receiving endorsements, and discussing the issues.

Ismail Gerami-Moghaddam, Karrubi's election spokesman, said at a 7 June press conference in Tehran that former Prime Minister Mir-Hussein Musavi is considered the top choice as first vice president, Fars News Agency reported. Gerami-Moghaddam hopes that Musavi -- who rejected entreaties to run for president -- will agree to be Karrubi's running mate.

Members of the Zoroastrian community in Yazd Province are backing Karrubi, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 7 June. The head of the Zoroastrians' pro-Karrubi headquarters, Dariush Kamusi, said Karrubi personifies the Zoroastrian tenets of good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. Kamusi noted that Karrubi backed legislation that made the blood money for killing a member of a religious minority the same as the blood money for killing a Shi'a Muslim.

Qodratali Heshmatian, secretary-general of the Islamic Iran Independent Society, announced on 4 June that 81 parties and 262 present and former parliamentarians have backed the candidacy of Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, Fars News Agency reported. Heshmatian said Karrubi has made a great effort on behalf of the reform movement.

"Undoubtedly, we will not establish any kind of relationship with Israel," Karrubi said in an interview with LBC television, as reported by ISNA on 5 June. "We consider Israel to be the usurper of Islamic lands. We will not establish contact with them under any circumstances. We will not have economic or political relations. We will not participate in forums in which Israelis participate either." Karrubi continued: "We have never had any meetings with them and we will never have any meetings with them in the future either." Karrubi denied that Iran provides Palestinian organizations with military or financial help. Turning to nuclear issues, Karrubi said, "The Zionists constitute one element that is involved in hatching plots and mischief making. That is particularly true of the Iranian nuclear case." He insisted Iran will use nuclear energy only for peaceful purposes.

"We have serious problems with the U.S.," Karrubi said in an interview with state broadcasting, according to IRNA on 8 June. He went on to say that an Iran-U.S. dialogue is possible if the United States tries to mend fences. Karrubi added, "We want peaceful and friendly ties with the whole of the world, except Zionists and Israel. Excluding Israel, we are willing to have good ties with all countries." Karrubi stressed that Iran is not interested in having a nuclear weapons capability, and accused the United States of raising suspicions about Iranian ambitions. Karrubi said: "The Islamic Revolution has been the subject of the animosities of Americans. The Americans are also hostile to the world of Islam." (Bill Samii)

REFORMIST CANDIDATE PROMOTES 'WELFARE ADMINISTRATION.' One-fifth of the country's families live in absolute poverty, presidential candidate Mohsen Mehralizadeh said in Lavasan, Central Province, on 8 June, Mehr News Agency reported. He said his Welfare Administration would focus on solving young people's main concerns -- jobs, housing, and marriage. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN OFFICIAL CRITICIZES STATE ECONOMIC POLICIES. Deputy Oil Minister for International Affairs Mohammad Hadi Nejad-Husseinian said on 9 June in the northeastern city of Mashhad that there is too much state interference in the economy and other areas, IRNA reported. He added, "Currently around 70 percent of the national economy is in the hands of the government and over 530 state-affiliated companies' budgets are earmarked from the national budget." He said the private sector is not willing to invest in businesses because it sees the government as a competitor. Nejad-Husseinian also said nongovernmental organizations have not taken root, while the size of the government has increased. He referred to contradictory state policies, as well as a lack of realism and decisiveness on the part of officials. (Bill Samii)

IRAN RECEIVES OBSERVER STATUS WITH SHANGHAI GROUP. Kazakhstan's Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev announced on 4 June in Astana that Iran, India, and Pakistan will be granted observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, IRNA reported. Current members of the organization, which was formed in 1997, are China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The organization originally focused on border-security issues and now serves as a regional forum for discussion and confidence-building. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN REJECTS TERROR ACCUSATIONS. Iranian Foreign Ministry official Mohsen Aminzadeh dismissed recent allegations that Iran is sheltering Al-Qaeda personnel and other terror suspects, Radio Farda reported on 5 June, citing the Arabic-language "Al-Hayat" daily. Aminzadeh said all Al-Qaeda personnel have been extradited to their countries of origin.

U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies have accumulated evidence over the last few years that leading terror suspects have been living in Iran, AP reported on 4 June, citing anonymous U.S. and foreign officials. This evidence is based on communications intercepts and the confessions of Khalid bin Ouda bin Muhammad al-Harbi, an Al-Qaeda associate extradited from Iran to Saudi Arabia in July 2004 (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 19 July 2004). Al-Harbi reportedly provided his captors with information on Al-Qaeda and Taliban personnel who fled into Iran after U.S. forces attacked Afghanistan in late 2001.

The intelligence agencies also have information on Ahmed Ibrahim al-Mughassil, who is wanted in connection with the 1996 bombing of U.S. military housing in al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia. Other individuals believed to be in Iran are Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's son Saad bin Laden, Al-Qaeda security chief Saif al-Adel, and Al-Qaeda spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith, AP reported. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN AND DUSHANBE SIGN HYDROELECTRIC POWER DEAL. Tajik Energy Minister Jurabek Nurmahmadov, who is visiting Tehran, delivered a message from President Imomali Rakhmonov to President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami on 9 June, IRNA reported. Khatami said Iran is ready to cooperate with Tajikistan more closely, and he noted their cooperation on projects such as construction of the Anzab tunnel in Tajikistan.

On 7 June in Dushanbe, Rashid Gulov, who heads of the Tajik Energy Ministry's energy-policy department, told Asia-Plus the main reason for Nurmahmadov's trip is to discuss building the Sangtuda-2 hydroelectric power station in southern Tajikistan.

Iran and Tajikistan signed an agreement on building the power station on 11 June, IRNA reported. Signatories were Iranian Energy Minister Habibullah Bitaraf and his visiting Tajik counterpart, Nurmahmadov. The project is estimated to cost $220 million, and Nurmahmadov predicted the project will be ready in four years. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN ENCOURAGES WASHINGTON TO TAKE DIPLOMATIC STEP. Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani announced, during his recent trip to Kuwait, that the United States should take a bold first step to resume relations with Iran, Radio Farda reported on 7 June. Rohani predicted that if this step is sufficiently impressive, the next Iranian president will react positively to it. Rohani said the current situation, in which Iran and the United States do not have relations, cannot continue.

While in Kuwait, Rohani held discussions with Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Ahmad al-Sabah, who is scheduled to visit Washington next month. However, Rohani said that Tehran has not asked the sheikh to carry a message to the United States. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN INVITED TO JOIN EU, U.S. AT IRAQ RECONSTRUCTION MEETING. Iran may join officials from the United States, European Union, and Iraq at a meeting later this month on Iraqi reconstruction. Jean Asselborn, the foreign minister of Luxembourg, which currently holds the EU presidency, said on 2 June that Tehran has been formally invited to attend the 22 June meeting in Brussels. Despite long-standing enmity between Washington and Tehran, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says the U.S. has no objection to Iran participating in the meeting.

It is not yet clear if Iranian officials will be in Brussels on 22 June.

Tehran has participated in past meetings on the future of Iraq, including the 2003 donors' conference in Madrid.

Washington has no official ties with Tehran. But at a 2 June joint press conference with Rice, Asselborn made it clear the EU was extending an invitation to Iran: "Luxembourg has the presidency. Luxembourg has relations with Iran. Iran [is] invited."

Rice said that, despite the absence of relations between Iran and the U.S., Washington has no objection to the invitation. She said the U.S. wants Iraq and Iran to enjoy good and transparent neighborly relations: "Iran is Iraq's neighbor. We would like nothing better than for Iran to be devoted to a stable Iraq, in which Iran is not trying to interfere in Iraq's internal affairs but rather trying to support the development of a stable and democratic Iraq."

Iran has been accused of backing factions of Iraq's Shi'a majority and also of allowing militants to cross its border into Iraq. Tehran has repeatedly denied meddling in Iraqi affairs.

Looking to Iran's 17 June presidential election, Rice expressed doubt the vote would be free and fair, and pointed to the disqualification of some 1,000 candidates by Iran's powerful constitutional watchdog: "It's [not] a very pretty picture of this 'election,' quote-unquote, that is going to take place in a couple of weeks, when candidates have been summarily dismissed by an unelected Guardian Council."

Rice's comments were rejected by Iran's Foreign Ministry as interference in the country's internal affairs.

Iran's student news agency ISNA on 3 June cited ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi as saying Rice is angry over what he called the "success" of a trip last month to Iraq by Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi.

Kharrazi's trip, which came on the heels of Rice's own trip to the country, was praised by Iraqi officials as a new start in bilateral relations. The two countries issued a joint statement blaming deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein as being the aggressor in the bloody Iran-Iraq War.

ISNA quoted Assefi as saying: "Without a doubt, Iran is not moving in line with U.S.-imposed developments in the region. Iran believes that people in the region have enough political maturity to determine their own future."

So is the invitation to Brussels a quiet attempt by Washington at mending fences?

Hassan Fathi, a journalist based in Tehran, says the invitation shows that the U.S. recognizes Iran's influence in Iraq: "Iran also attended conferences on the reconstruction of Afghanistan, and there, also, the U.S. recognized Iran as an acceptable player in the region. Regarding Iraq, Kharrazi's recent trip to Baghdad, where both sides reached an agreement, showed that Iran and Iraq are willing to solve differences and problems peacefully. The invitation to Iran and the tacit U.S. approval of Iran's participation in the meeting is because Iran's influence among Shi'a in Iraq. And the U.S. does not want this influence to be used against its own interests or the interests of the Iraqi government."

Davood Hermidas Bavand, a professor of international law in Tehran, agrees that the U.S. acknowledges Iran's importance in forming the future of Iraq. He adds that bringing Tehran and Washington together at the reconstruction meeting could help ease tensions between the two countries: "Without a doubt, it will have some effect. These initial understandings can lay the groundwork for talks on more general issues. Participation in such conferences and meetings, in general talks and dialogues, prepare the ground for more understanding, but at the current moment the U.S. is more willing to have a tactical agreement, with Iran, not a strategic one."

Fathi, however, says that the animosity between Tehran and Washington has deep roots, and cannot be solved through even a point of common interest like Iraq.

The U.S. has called on Iran to abandon its nuclear program, which Washington suspects is being used with the aim of producing weapons of mass destruction. Iranian officials deny the claim, and say the U.S. should drop its "hostile "policies toward Iran.

Washington and Tehran severed diplomatic ties after the 1979 Iranian Revolution and U.S. hostage crisis. Tensions heightened further in 2002, when U.S. President George W. Bush labeled Iran as part of an "axis of evil." (Golnaz Esfandiari)