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Iran Report: March 10, 2003

10 March 2003, Volume 6, Number 10

TURKMEN LEADER'S VISIT TO TEHRAN TO FOCUS ON ENERGY, CASPIAN. Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov told his cabinet on 7 March that during his one-day trip to Tehran, scheduled for 10-11 March, he would speak with President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami and that their talks would be "another key point in traditionally friendly and constructive dialogue between the two neighboring countries," Turkmen television reported. Niyazov said that energy issues would top the list of subjects they would discuss, and he expressed optimism about the documents to be signed at the end of the visit.

In an addition to discussing oil and gas issues, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on 9 March the two sides would sign a protocol to expedite establishment of the Dam of Friendship, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported.

An unidentified "source close to the Turkmen government" was quoted as saying on 6 March that one of the main purposes of Niyazov's visit is to discuss the Caspian Sea legal regime, Interfax reported. Currently, only 14 percent of the coastline is Iranian, and Iran would like each bordering state -- Iran, Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan -- to have a 20 percent share of the Caspian seabed and waters. Russia has already entered into bilateral agreements with its immediate neighbors.

Another of Niyazov's objectives, according to the Interfax report, is to discuss increasing Turkmenistan's natural-gas exports to Iran. An Iranian delegation headed by Roads and Transport Minister Ahmad Khoram visited Ashgabat in late January to discuss this issue. Almost 5 billion cubic meters of gas was transported through the Korpeje-Kurdkui pipeline in 2002, which is a 13.1 percent increase from the previous year (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 3 February 2003).

Interfax's unidentified source added that the two sides would discuss the possible construction of an oil pipeline from Kazakhstan to Iran through Turkmenistan. Washington has in the past opposed such pipeline projects.

Artem Malgin of the Moscow State Institute for International Relations told RFE/RL correspondent Antoine Blua on 7 March that Niyazov's visit builds on Turkmenistan's signing of an agreement (in late December 2003) with Pakistan and Afghanistan on building a natural-gas pipeline.

Yet Malgin's analysis does not ring true, because in May 2000 Turkmenistan discussed a similar agreement with Iran and Pakistan, when it seemed that building a pipeline across Taliban-led Afghanistan would be unfeasible (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 22 May 2000). The current discussions about other pipelines, therefore, could be a sop to Tehran.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said on 9 March that the two sides would sign documents on cultural and educational exchanges, IRNA reported. Tehran may see Turkmenistan as a bridgehead for spreading its influence in Central Asia. Tehran University professor Hermidas Bavand told RFE/RL's Blua: "This visit is likely to be a key element in the development of political and economic relations, and above all in the field of culture. Turkmenistan belongs to the basin of Iranian culture. From Turkmenistan, we can enter more easily in[to the] whole Central Asian region." (Bill Samii)

AFGHAN GOVERNOR ISMAIL KHAN VISITS IRAN. Herat Province Governor Mohammad Ismail Khan flew to Iran on the morning of 1 March, Herat television reported. He arrived in Mashhad and praised Iranian construction of schools and medical centers in Herat city, IRNA reported. Ismail Khan said international organizations have not done anything specific to help the reconstruction of Afghanistan. It is noteworthy that Ismail Khan was accompanied by his security chief, General Seyyed Nasir Ahmad Alawi; Military Corps No. 4 political-ideological commander Qari Qolam Mohammad Masum; Frontier Brigade No. 5 commander Qazi Mohammad; and Security Command political commander Mustafa Haqju. The heads of Herat's accounting department and education department also accompanied Ismail Khan.

Ismail Khan returned to Herat on 5 March, Herat television reported. He said that he had met with President Khatami, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari, judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, and security officials. Ismail Khan said that the Iranian side expressed its willingness to cooperate in construction of roads and railways, education, public health, and border security. They also discussed cooperation in the repatriation of Afghan refugees.

In a related matter, Interior Minister Musavi-Lari on 6 March expressed hope that some 400,000 Afghan refugees in Iran would be repatriated "soon" with United Nations assistance, according to IRNA. He told visiting UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers on 5 March that there were more than 2.3 million Afghans in Iran and, in view of the jobs the refugees take, Iranian labor and social-affairs agencies wish to see Afghan repatriation expedited. (Bill Samii, Stephen C. Fairbanks)

IRANIAN STATE RADIO BROADCASTS HEKMATYAR STATEMENT. Hizb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar said in a recent statement that "people who support the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan are enemies of the people of Afghanistan," Iranian state radio's Pashtu-language service reported on 5 March. Hekmatyar went on to say that Afghanistan would be free of unrest once all foreign forces are expelled. The United States on 19 February announced that it considers Hekmatyar a "specially designated global terrorist" because of his cooperation with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda against the Afghan central government (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 3 March 2003). Broadcasting Hekmatyar's statements in the Pashto language is part of Iran's effort to use the ethnic factor to turn Pashtuns against the central government of President Hamid Karzai. (Bill Samii)

KHATAMI EXPRESSES READINESS FOR IRAQI REFUGEES. President Khatami said during a 5 March meeting with visiting UN High Commissioner for Refugees Lubbers that Iran is ready to cooperate with international organizations in assisting Iraqis who might be displaced by a possible war in their country, IRNA reported. Khatami said U.S. military intervention in Iraq would create more problems than it would solve and would result in long-term instability. Lubbers is also scheduled to visit the city of Ahvaz in southwestern Iran, where an influx of refugees is expected, dpa reported, citing the UNHCR's media-relations office.

The Iranian government has set up camps no more than 10 kilometers inside the country to help refugees while preventing them from traveling too far into Iran. Iran claims that it already hosts some 2.55 million refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries.

Lubbers also met with Foreign Minister Kharrazi on 5 March, according to IRNA. Lubbers told Kharrazi that the UN would do its utmost to help the refugees if war breaks out.

Lubbers met with Interior Minster Hojatoleslam Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari on 6 March, according to IRNA. Impending refugee flows from Iraq appeared to be on his mind when Musavi said, "Given that Iran does not have the potential to accept more refugees, we do not intend to give refuge to any more possible applicants in the border areas." He advised, "Some refugee camps should be established by the UN inside the territory of the refugees' countries of origin to enable other states to dispatch their joint relief aid to the refugees."

Lubbers described Iranian refugee preparations during a 6 March press briefing. He said, according to IRNA, "The UNHCR and Iran would set up 10 refugee camps on the no-man's-land near the border with Iraq for settling 200,000 to 250,000 possible refugees, mostly southern Iraqi Shia." Lubbers added that three sites are almost ready and that work on the others is continuing. (Bill Samii)

IRAN CITES 'SECURITY' IN HALTING PILGRIMAGES TO IRAQ. Government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh on 19 February cited unspecified "security concerns" for Iran's decision to stop further visits by Iranian pilgrims to Shia shrines in Iraq, according to IRNA. In addition to keeping Iranian pilgrims out of harm's way during a possible U.S.-led attack on Iraq, Iran might be concerned that heavy pilgrimage traffic would complicate efforts to accommodate the large numbers of Iraqi refugees that are expected if war breaks out. Initially, the Iranian press reported that it was Iraq that had closed the border to Iranian pilgrims, according to IRNA on 19 February.

It would be in Baghdad's interest to keep groups of Iranian pilgrims away from the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf this year. Iranians potentially could galvanize anti-Saddam Hussein emotions during the Shia mourning days in the Islamic month of Muharram, which takes place in March this year, particularly during the intensely emotional mourning processions on Ashura, the 10th of Muharram (13 March of this year). Baghdad prohibited such processions in Iraqi Shia cities last year.

This year, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein apparently is trying to appeal to the country's Shia, who have been the subjects of repression for more that two decades (see, for example, the 1993 Human Rights Watch report on Iraq at or the January 2003 Human Rights Watch briefing paper titled "The Iraqi Government Assault on the Marsh Arabs" at He marked the Muslim new year with a speech for the first time, "The Economist" reported on 6 March, and alluded to the spirit of sacrifice displayed by Imam Hussein. (Stephen C. Fairbanks, Bill Samii)

IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER KEEN ON IRAQ REFERENDUM. Iranian Foreign Minister Kharrazi's enthusiasm for his proposed Iraqi referendum has not been echoed by his colleagues in the government or from Iraqi Shia opposition groups.

Kharrazi during a 4 March Persian Gulf forum in Tehran unveiled a plan calling on the Iraqi opposition to reconcile with Iraqi President Hussein and for a UN-supervised referendum, IRNA reported. Kharrazi was adamant that the Iraqi people make their own choice and "form a broad-based government in which all minorities, as well as ethnic and religious groups, have a share." Kharrazi described this as the only way to have a peaceful change of government in Baghdad that could preclude a regional war. Kharrazi compared this plan with Iran's earlier plan for national reconciliation in Tajikistan. He emphasized Iran's concern about Iraq's territorial integrity.

The next day, Kharrazi told reporters in Tehran that "we want a referendum to be held in Iraq and the Iraqi opposition [to] reconcile with the current regime in that country under the supervision of the United Nations," IRNA reported on 5 March. Kharrazi also said that U.S. plans to have a "military governor" in Iraq are provocative, adding, "Such methods can lead to the expansion of terrorism and extremism, and we are worried about this."

Iranian government spokesman Ramezanzadeh said after a 5 March cabinet meeting that the referendum is Kharrazi's personal idea and is not an official proposal, AFP reported.

Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, the London-based spokesman for the predominantly Shia Al-Da'wah al-Islamiyah (Islamic Call) party, rejected any possibility of reconciliation with the Baghdad regime as suggested in Kharrazi's plan for an Iraqi referendum, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported on 5 March, citing London's "Al-Zaman" daily. So did Shia opposition figure Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum, according to "Al-Zaman." (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN CONFERENCE STRIVES FOR IRAQI SHIA UNITY. Elements of the main Iraqi Shia opposition groups, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and the Al-Da'wah al-Islamiyah (Islamic Call) party, opened a conference in Tehran on 6 March. Other participants are Iraqi National Congress head Ahmad Chalabi, who is a Shia Muslim, and representatives of the Islamic Amal Organization, "Iran News" reported on 8 January. The goal of the conference is to unite the Iraqi Shia opposition groups and secure their interests in a future Iraq, "Etemad" reported on 6 March.

SCIRI member Muhammad al-Hadi downplayed differences between SCIRI and Da'wah. He added that all the opposition groups agree on the need to "preserve Iraq's independence and territorial integrity" and that "they do not accept the presence of outsiders." Nevertheless, according to "Etemad," prominent Shia opposition figure Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum and some smaller Shia organizations had decided not to participate in the Tehran conference.

Al-Da'wah al-Islamiyah political-bureau member Jawad al-Malki predicted in a 5 March press statement that the opposition conference in Tehran will be unsuccessful, reported. He ascribed the likely failure to the difficulty of maintaining links between U.S.-backed groups on one side and Iran-backed groups on the other side, as well as concerns of Shia-Sunni sectarian conflict.

Yet it appears that the SCIRI is trying to present the other opposition groups with an accomplished fact, namely, an actual military presence in Iraq. The armed wing of the SCIRI, known as the Badr Brigade, is in northern Iraq allegedly to help the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), but brigade members drive vehicles identical to those of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, AP reported on 5 March. PUK leadership-council member Molla Bakhtiar told AP that more of these troops are on the way. The Badr Brigade is essentially an extension of the IRGC, and SCIRI leader Ayatollah Muhammad Baqer al-Hakim is close to the Iranian leadership.

Another objective of the conference in Tehran is to reassure Sunnis that there will be no sectarian conflict in Iraq, Da'wah's al-Malki said. The Shia also want to reassure the Sunnis that they do not hold them responsible for the actions of the Ba'athist regime. (Bill Samii)

IRGC STAGES WAR GAMES NEAR IRAQI BORDER. Acting deputy commander of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps ground forces Brigadier Zahedi announced that 20,000 "courageous troops" began a "great military exercise" in four regions of Iran's southwestern province of Khuzestan, Tehran television reported on 6 March. Possibly referring to potential clashes with U.S.-led forces, he said that the aim of the exercises is to learn from the experiences of the Iran-Iraq War in the area of "asymmetrical combat" in order to increase defense capability "against any type of modern weapon." Brigadier Kazemeyni, senior IRGC commander for the southern region, said on 7 March that the exercises -- code-named Ya Aba Abdullah Al-Hussein -- would last until 9 March, state television reported on 7 March. On that final day, elements from the IRGC air force in coordination with the IRGC's Imam Hasan-i Mujtaba 2nd Brigade of the Vali-yi Asr 7th Division forded rivers, responded to the imaginary enemy's attacks, conducted reconnaissance, practiced ambushes, and executed other training missions. (Stephen C. Fairbanks, Bill Samii)

TOP SECURITY OFFICIAL DESCRIBES U.S. REGIONAL OBJECTIVES. Supreme National Security Council secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani on 3 March described his understanding of U.S. objectives in the region, IRNA reported. "America is trying to help its oil giants dominate the oil resources in the Persian Gulf region, make use of Iraq's oil revenues, and reconstruct Iraq after imposing a war on the country in a bid to enhance its bargaining power at [the] international level," he said. Rohani said that other goals are the marginalization of the Palestinian issue, weakening Russia and Europe, controlling decision making in Iraq, turning Iraq into an oil superpower that could rival Iran and Saudi Arabia, exporting U.S. products to Iraq, and installing a secular government in Iraq.

This may explain Iran's public refusal to help the United States. Foreign Ministry spokesman Assefi on 2 March said that neither Iraqi nor U.S. aircraft would be allowed to use its airspace if there is a war in Iraq, IRNA reported. Assefi rejected a report that had appeared in a Kuwaiti newspaper in which Kuwaiti Information Minister Shaykh Ahmad Fahd al-Ahmad al-Sabah said Tehran had provided the United States with such permission. Assefi added that Tehran has asked Kuwait City for an explanation. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN-ISLAMABAD TIES IN TROUBLE. A number of recent incidents suggest that Tehran-Islamabad relations are going through a rough patch. Moreover, India is frequently mentioned as a catalyst for the deterioration of Iran-Pakistan ties.

Pakistani Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali's visit to Iran, scheduled for mid-February, was cancelled due to U.S. pressure, unidentified "credible sources" said in the 24 February edition of Islamabad's Urdu-language "Ausaf" daily. The daily also speculated that the cancellation could be associated with President Khatami's tilt toward the Indian position on the disputed Kashmir region.

"Iranian diplomatic sources" said in "Ausaf" on 23 February that they do not see Jamali's visit as cancelled; rather, they believe that it is postponed. Referring to the oft-discussed Iran-Pakistan-India natural-gas pipeline, the sources said that New Delhi and especially Tehran still see it as an economically viable plan. India, however, is skeptical about Pakistan's ability to keep the pipeline secure.

In what could be another indication of deteriorating Tehran-Islamabad ties, Iran has deferred plans to provide Pakistan's Baluchistan region with electricity, Rawalpindi's Urdu-language "Nawa-i-Waqt" daily reported on 24 February. The provision of electricity was to begin in mid-February, and the Iranian side has not given a reason for the delay other than to say the power will not be available for several months.

India's Border Roads Organization is expected to start building a highway from Delaram in Afghanistan's Herat Province to the Iranian border, and Iranian firms will build the rest of the highway from the border to the Arabian Sea, AFP and Mashhad radio reported on 23 February, citing the United News of India. The Indian news agency reported that Indian officials hope the project will strengthen Afghanistan-India ties and reduce Afghan dependence on Pakistan. President Khatami had discussed the roads project during his January visit to India (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 3 February 2003).

Another possible irritant, from the Iranian perspective, is recent sectarian violence in Pakistan. Discussing the shooting of worshippers at Karachi's Mahdi Mosque on 22 February, an editorial in the 24 February "Iran News" noted that Shia Muslims are often the target of such attacks during the holy month of Muharram. The Pakistani government is aware that extremist parties like the Sipah-i Sahaba and the Jangvi are behind the attacks, but it has never confronted them seriously. "Iran News" editorialized that if Islamabad had dealt with this problem seriously, such attacks would not occur. (Bill Samii)

SUPREME LEADER CONCLUDES VISIT TO SISTAN VA BALUCHISTAN. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei concluded in the first week of March a visit to Iran's southeastern Sistan va Baluchistan Province. Efforts to put a positive gloss on the trip were undermined by the intelligence and security minister's reference to sectarian violence and assassination attempts. (For coverage of the first part of his trip, see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 3 March 2003.)

On the morning of 2 March, he visited the Hirmand River, the Chahnimeh Reservoir, the Zehak Dam, and irrigation networks in the Kahak border area in the northeastern part of Sistan va Baluchistan Province, IRNA reported. Accompanying officials briefed Khamenei on steps being taken to alleviate the region's water shortage, and the supreme leader said more must be done to increase the supply of water for irrigation.

Later in the day, Khamenei gave a speech in Zabol in which he urged Afghanistan to fulfill its commitments on supplying water. "We expect Afghanistan to respect the rights of Iran and of the residents of Sistan va Baluchistan Province to Hirmand River water, and the issue will be followed up seriously by the Islamic Republic of Iran," Khamenei added. He noted the difficulties the province is facing and promised that they will be resolved soon with the cooperation of officials and local citizens.

No other high-ranking official has spent as much time in Sistan va Baluchistan, Iran's "most deprived province," columnist Parviz Ismaili noted in the 4 March "Entekhab." In addition to its overall deprivation, the province suffers because of insecurity resulting from its location on a narcotics-smuggling route. The province needs help in job creation and eliminating unemployment, according to the daily.

Ministry of Intelligence and Security chief Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi said on 7 March that his organization had foiled "assassination plots against certain Shia and Sunni clerics" during Khamenei's trip to the province, IRNA reported. Yunesi said that the terrorists were arrested and their plots foiled. (Bill Samii)

KURDISH PARLIAMENTARIANS CONCERNED ABOUT PROVINCIAL DEVELOPMENTS. Iranian Kurdish parliamentarians on 4 March questioned Roads and Transport Minister Ahmad Khoram regarding the recent suspension of flights to the Sanandaj airport, "Tehran Times" reported on 5 March. Sanandaj representative Bahaedin Adab said that Khoram's answers were unsatisfactory; regarding cancellation of flights, for example, Khoram claimed that the move was a reaction to the recent crash of an Ilyushin 76 military transport plane near Kerman.

On 5 March, the Kurdish deputies expressed their concern about Turkish plans to deploy military personnel in northern Iraq, dpa reported, citing IRNA. Sanandaj representative Jalal Jalalizadeh warned that a Turkish invasion could be catastrophic and urged the Iranian Foreign Ministry to act. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN WANTS TO CONFRONT ORGANIZED CRIME. Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi said at a 6 March meeting with national judiciary officials and heads of justice departments that the Iranian justice system must be updated so it can deal with organized crime, IRNA reported. To this end, Shahrudi said, modern methods must replace traditional judicial procedures and that "well-educated judges with high-level training should be recruited."

Two days earlier, Economy and Finance Ministry adviser Hussein Abdoh-Tabrizi said that as part of a government-proposed bill to counter money laundering, depositors at Iranian banks would have to complete forms specifying the source of large financial deposits, IRNA reported. Such an invoicing system, Abdoh said, would help in the campaign against drug smuggling and against tax evasion. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN FOREIGN DEBT IS $23.4 BILLION. Akbar Kimjani, the Central Bank of Iran's deputy governor for economic affairs, said on 2 March that Iran's foreign debt, excluding interest, stood at $23.4 billion by 20 January, IRNA reported. Kimjani said that as part of the current five-year development plan, long-term debt repayments should be rescheduled so that they do not exceed 30 percent of the government's hard-currency earnings. He added that the central bank is trying to restructure the debt so that it is predominantly intermediate- and long-term. Oil revenues pay for the short-term debt, Kimjani said, and sensitivity to market fluctuations affects the government's debt-repayment abilities. Kimjani said hard-currency and foreign-exchange reserves could cushion fluctuations in the price of oil. (Bill Samii)

NUCLEAR TECHNOLOGY REINFORCES IRANIAN 'AUTHORITY.' Supreme National Security Council secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani said at Tehran's Imam Khomeini Mosque on 3 March that nuclear sites at Natanz in Isfahan will be inaugurated early in the Iranian year, which begins on 21 March, IRNA reported. Rohani said the "gigantic nuclear site of Isfahan" took two years to build and, in IRNA's words, "the use of the nuclear technology would reinforce the authority of Iran's system." Rohani said the Natanz facility will enrich uranium extracted in Yazd Province and that upon the inauguration of the Natanz facility, Iran will be self-sufficient in producing the fuel to run its nuclear-power stations.

Such self-sufficiency would obviate the need for nuclear fuel from Russia, thereby eliminating a level of control over Iran's ability to divert spent fuel for the manufacture of nuclear weapons.

Nevertheless, the Russian company TVEL, which deals in sales of nuclear fuel, has signed a contract with Iran on the delivery of nuclear fuel to Iran's still-unfinished Bushehr nuclear-power plant, Interfax reported on 6 March. Russian Atomic Energy Minister Aleksandr Rumyantsev said during a visit at an unspecified date to Tehran that Atomstroieksport, the construction department of the Atomic Energy Ministry, will load the first shipment of some 40 tons of fuel later this year, after which TVEL will supply the fuel and Tekhsnabeksport, the Atomic Energy Ministry's marketing arm, will remove spent nuclear fuel from Iran. The first unit of the Bushehr nuclear-power plant is planned to open in 2004. Meanwhile, President Khatami during a 6 March ceremony commemorating martyrs from Kan va Soloqan said that unidentified nuclear powers had used "any excuse to stop us" from acquiring nuclear technology but that today "the offspring of this land has acquired this technology," state radio reported. (Bill Samii, Stephen C. Fairbanks)

KERMAN PLANE-CRASH MYSTERY CONTINUES. Minister of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Ali Shamkhani said on 5 March that the possibility of a conspiracy in the mid-February crash of an Ilyushin 76 aircraft carrying approximately 300 members of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps "is not ruled out," IRNA reported. He said the contents of the flight-data recorder (black box) have not yet been examined. Government spokesman Ramezanzadeh said during his weekly news conference on 5 March that information from the black box has not been given to the government committee probing the crash, IRNA reported. The committee has met twice, Ramezanzadeh said, but it has not reached a conclusion because the necessary information has not been made available. Meanwhile, a 5 March report from ITAR-TASS cites Shamkhani as saying that Russian experts will participate in the investigation. The second black box is so badly damaged that efforts to decode its contents have been delayed, IRNA reported on 9 March, citing "Afarinesh." Although the Russian experts are present, the restoration process is not finished yet, "Afarinesh" reported. (Bill Samii)

MORE SURPRISES FROM MUNICIPAL-COUNCIL ELECTIONS. Nearly 11.7 million voters from 21 of the country's 28 provinces voted in the 28 February municipal-council elections, IRNA reported on 3 March. Turnout was thus about 28.7 percent, on the basis of the 41.2 million eligible voters described by state officials. About 566,000 (12.1 percent) of Tehran's 4.68 million-person electorate voted, IRNA reported on 3 March. Beyond Tehran, the highest turnout was in south-central Kohkiluyeh va Boir Ahmad Province, where 79.14 percent of the electorate voted, and the lowest was 29 percent in Qom Province.

Tehran-based journalist Shayan Jabari told Radio Farda on 28 February that the polling places he visited in the northern and northwestern parts of the capital were empty, and reporters who visited polling places in other parts of the city had similar accounts. Jabari said that the turnout was noticeably lower than in previous elections.

Tabriz-based journalist Ensafali Hedayat, meanwhile, told Radio Farda that turnout was so low that state television could not even show the polling places. It resorted to live images of snowfall with a voiceover of election news. Kerman-based journalist Mohammad-Sadeq Taheri and Ahvaz-based journalist Mujtaba Gachsarian had similar descriptions of voter turnout in interviews with Radio Farda.

Fazlollah Salavati, an Isfahan-based political activist, also told Radio Farda about low turnout. Nevertheless, he said, some turnout was to be expected due to the large number of candidates, each of whom has friends, neighbors, and relatives.

Nevertheless, President Khatami tried to put a bright face on events. Speaking to a 3 March seminar on "Challenges and Prospects for Development in Iran," Khatami said the people's choice should be respected, IRNA reported. He added that people become disappointed in a governmental system when they see that it does not react to their demands and that it cannot fulfill its responsibilities. Khatami said an overly negative perspective is inappropriate: "Though the government may have weaknesses in its performance, great works have been done. But, unfortunately, certain tribunes are misleading the public opinion by offering a gloomy picture of the overall situation." Khatami cautioned against disappointment in democracy, saying the only alternative is dictatorship.

In some places, people voted on the basis of local interests and disregarded factional politics. Shiraz candidate Rahimi-Moqadam told Radio Farda that some tribal leaders campaigned for the minority vote in Fars Province.

In Ahvaz, Khuzestan Province's biggest city, the Lajneh Al-Vafaq (Unity Committee) party won all the council seats, as reported on the Iran-i Imruz website on 2 March ( An unidentified party official said that, although all the winners are Arabs, they would work for all the city's residents. Moreover, the official said, they might even choose a non-Arab mayor.

Arabs are the predominant inhabitants of Khuzestan, but it also is home to the Bakhtiari, Dezfuli, Lur, Behbehani, and Shushtari tribes. The Islamic Iran Participation Party tried to use ethnic and minority issues in Khuzestan Province during the municipal-council election campaign, "Jomhuri-yi Islami" daily newspaper claimed on 6 March. The hard-line daily warned that using such issues could undermine unity in the province. (Bill Samii)

CLARIFICATION: "Resalat," a conservative Tehran daily, on 26 February claimed that Radio Farda had given undue attention to municipal-council candidates affiliated with the pro-Khatami Islamic Iran Participation Party (IIPP). The newspaper claimed that Radio Farda had publicized the views of IIPP candidate Mustafa Tajzadeh at least four times.

Radio Farda did carry a report about Tajzadeh and the IIPP on 23 February, but he was not the only candidate interviewed by the station. On 27 February, Radio Farda interviewed Tehran candidate Said Haqi, Shiraz candidate Said Rahimi-Moqadam, and Mashhad candidate Mohammad-Sadeq Javadi-Hesar. Conservatives declined to speak with Radio Farda. The day after the elections took place, Radio Farda interviewed Ahmad Hakimipur, a losing candidate from the Freedom Movement. (Bill Samii)


By Stephen C. Fairbanks

Iran's democratic impulse is by no means dead, but the public appears to be tired of the ceaseless factional quarreling of recent years and disappointed by the inability of politicians to effect the democratic reforms and economic improvements they had promised. The reform era of Iranian politics that was ushered in by President Mohammad Khatami's surprise landslide in 1997, followed by the sweeping victories of his reformist followers in local-council elections in 1999 and parliamentary elections in 2000, and Khatami's own re-election in 2001, now appears to be over. That was shown by the low voter turnout for nationwide local-council elections on 28 February.

The conservative clerics and politicians who hold the reins of power can breathe more easily now that they see the pressures for greater democracy have abated. But they have little reason to gloat, as did the hard-line Tehran daily "Kayhan," whose front-page headline on 1 March proclaimed a "Resounding Victory for the Fundamentalists." In no way were the elections a mandate for them and their repressive policies. Rather, it would appear that most voters simply stayed away from the polls, seeing little point in voting for reformist politicians who have been so ineffective against the conservative backbone of the regime.

So ended the hopes of those reformists who not long ago said the elections would amount to a nationwide referendum that would show overwhelming public support for the reform movement. They figured that since the conservative Guardians Council did not have the same right to vet local-council candidates as it had for parliamentary and presidential ones, the public would have a large choice of more liberal candidates and would turn out in great numbers to vote for them. And the conservatives themselves appeared to share that view, last month downplaying the elections in newspaper editorials and even declaring that "pious" Muslims would find little reason to vote in the election.

The conservative parties consequently did not present their usual lists of candidate endorsements, while the reformists, apparently expecting the conservatives to boycott the contests in order to avoid what would surely be a humiliating defeat for them, made little effort to market their own candidates. Some, including a major student group, did not bother to participate formally. And perhaps out of overconfidence, the broad coalition of reformist factions disintegrated in counterproductive rivalries.

But lackluster campaigning only partially accounts for the reformists' apparent defeat at the polls. Their own postelection finger-pointing suggests they had it coming to them. Since electing Khatami president in 1997, Iranians had made clear their desire for change, but to a certain extent this was more a reflection of their aversion to the conservative faction than solid confidence in the reformists themselves. And their experience of the reformists' disappointing administrative performances in recent years gave them little reason to support them again. The reformist daily "Aftab-e Yazd" asked why the public should allow indecisive, disorganized administrators to "work as they please and waste months and years of a ministry's life under the banner of reforms."

Nowhere had the reformists' job performance been worse than in the critically important Tehran municipal council. Intending to make it a showcase of what the reform movement could achieve, pro-Khatami politicians gained control of it in the 1999 local-council elections, the first since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. Several high-profile reformists were elected then in a wave of overwhelming pro-democracy enthusiasm. But the most prominent member, a Khatami adviser, barely survived an assassination attempt the next year, and a second was tried and imprisoned, leaving directionless council members to squander their opportunity by bickering among themselves and quarrelling with the mayor they had elected. Conservative opponents, with apparent justification, charged the council with graft and corruption. Following repeated scandals over selective sales of construction permits to developers, a government supervisory body dissolved the Tehran municipal council in January 2003 and sacked the mayor soon thereafter.

With that experience, only 12 percent of the Tehran electorate showed up to vote. Sensing public frustration with politicians, candidates from both the conservative and reformist sides emphasized their technocratic skills and tried to steer clear of larger political issues. In the occasional newspaper ads that did appear last month, candidates from both sides tried to project images of technological seriousness by appearing clean-shaven. The winners, though, to the extent they could be identified factionally, were by and large conservative.

In Iran's towns and villages, public participation in the polls was much greater, averaging some 58 percent. That probably reflects the continuing enthusiasm in the provinces for deciding on issues that used to be dictated from Tehran, such as water and sewage, and road repairs. And the farther away from Tehran, the less apparent was the conservative-reformist divide that marks politics at the national level. Most candidates in the provinces had no clear factional affiliation. But despite the comparative success of the provincial elections, the 220,000 candidates nationwide were about one-third fewer than those who ran in the local-council elections of four years ago.

It is too soon to say that Iran's democratic trend has reached a dead end, but it is clear that the public is disillusioned with the factional politics that have paralyzed the country in recent years. Until new leaders or issues come along that inject new life into the Iranian political scene, the public will remain indifferent to a political system that has had so little success in solving the problems of their daily lives. It remains to be seen whether a post-Saddam Hussein experiment in democracy following a U.S.-led attack on Iraq this spring would serve as a new impetus for democratic change in Iran or whether, as some reformists fear, it would only spur the conservatives to crack down further on what remains of Iranian democracy.