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Iran Report: November 18, 2002

18 November 2002, Volume 5, Number 42

JUDICIARY PLAYS INTO KHATAMI'S HANDS. To date, the courts -- especially the Press Court, the Special Court for the Clergy, and the Revolutionary Court -- have acted against pro-Khatami publications, journalists, and legislators. A significant aspect of the legislation submitted by Iran's executive branch on 24 September is that it would give President Mohammad Khatami the right to warn and even punish officials in the judicial branch, and would empower a committee of experts chosen by the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary to overrule court verdicts (see "RFE/RL Iran Report" 30 September 2002). Predictably, the legislation already has encountered vocal opposition from hard-line officials.

The public reaction to the 6 November sentencing to death, lashes, and prison of Professor Hashem Aghajari for a speech he made in June (see "RFE/RL Iran Report" 11 November 2002), especially when contrasted with the July 1999 reaction to the closure of a newspaper, will strengthen Khatami's pursuit of this legislation.

In July 1999 students in Tehran and other cities demonstrated against a restrictive press bill and the closure of the daily "Salam," and the situation deteriorated when the Law Enforcement Forces aided and abetted Ansar-i Hizbullah vigilante thugs' sometimes fatal attacks against the students. The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) threatened to take matters into its own hands, there were mass arrests, televised confessions, and eventually a judicial whitewash. Khatami backed the official position.

It was, in other words, a dramatic setback for the reform movement. In fact, the demonstrations played into the hands of the enemies of reform, who blamed Khatami for creating a permissive atmosphere. The then-sitting fifth parliament reacted by adopting several tough laws after these events that the reformist-dominated sixth parliament has not been able to undo.

By comparison, the demonstrations that started on 9 November 2002 have been subdued. There have been large gatherings in the cities of Ahvaz, Bushehr, Hamedan, Isfahan, Rasht, Shiraz, Tabriz, Tehran, and Urumiyeh, and there are promises that they will continue. The participants are giving tough speeches and have made their demands known. A Tehran University student who requested anonymity told RFE/RL's Persian Service their demands: "Students' demands have been declared in a manifesto. [They include] the reversal of Aghajari's death sentence and his acquittal. The judiciary's apology for mistreating the professor and students. The president's clear and decisive reaction. And the resignation of the head of the judiciary or his dismissal."

The demonstrators have chanted against judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and President Khatami. The inclusion of Khatami in this triumvirate shows the frustration of students with Khatami -- both with his inability to secure the reforms people thought he would bring about when they elected him in 1997 and especially with his failure to stand up against his political opponents. Young Iranians were among the most disappointed when Khatami toed the government line in 1999.

One student told RFE/RL's Persian Service, "[The demonstrations] represent the revival of the student movement after two years of total silence, and clearly state that most students are frustrated with the reforms conducted by Khatami and the reformists within the ruling structure, and that [they] want to take over and control the reform themselves."

The Khatami administration has been very critical of the Aghajari verdict. Khatami criticized the Aghajari sentence on 13 November, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported, referring to it as an "improper verdict." Khatami expressed concern that the situation could worsen, and he added what appeared to be a warning, "Officials of the three branches of power must beware that such a condition [when problems for the system occur] does not arise." Officials in his administration have been similarly critical.

Not only is Khatami being relatively outspoken and supportive this time around, the police are keeping the students and Ansar-i Hizbullah representatives well apart from each other. It is clear that Ansar-i Hizbullah is spoiling for a fight. During the 15 November Friday prayers at Tehran University, supporters of the hard-line vigilante group displayed a petition that said that the Muslim Iranian people had sacrificed themselves (a reference to the Iran-Iraq War of which many Hizbullah members are veterans), and recently "some individuals presumptuously offend the sanctities of our dear Islam." Chanting bystanders encouraged pedestrians to sign the petition, which called for the judiciary to take action against those who do not show the proper respect for Islamic sanctities. After the prayer service, according to the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), there was a march from the university to Palestine Square, Ansar-i Hizbullah leader Hussein Allah-Karam read out a resolution, and there were chants of "Iran's Salman Rushdie must die."

The peaceful nature of these demonstrations to date, furthermore, means that the IRGC and the Basij do not have a pretext for attacking the demonstrators, and reduces the possibility of the mass arrests that marked July 1999. The supreme leader warned in an 11 November speech that if the situation got out of hand there could be an intervention by "popular forces" -- usually a reference to the IRGC and Basij. An IRGC unit already arrested some students at the Islamic Open University in Qom, according to a 12 November ISNA dispatch, although they were demonstrating over a completely different issue.

The intensity of the July 1999 unrest caught everyone by surprise, not least the reform movement that the students backed. The demonstrations of November 2002 seem much better organized, as if they are driven by a sense of purpose rather than a sense of rage. And that purpose is twofold -- getting Khatami's legislation ratified, and securing the freedom of Hashem Aghajari. (Bill Samii)

FACTIONALIZATION OF FRIDAY PRAYERS EVALUATED. "All our enemies are watching to see the size of the presence of the people and the young people in the Friday prayers, and to see what positions will be taken in the Friday-prayer sermons, because the goal of our enemies is to reduce the power of the people in the Friday prayers, and once the attendance is low to infiltrate the united Muslims and take every person in some direction or other," Mehdishahr Friday-prayer leader Hojatoleslam Barani said according to the 30 July issue of Semnan's weekly "Kavir." Barani exaggerates about the extent of international attention to the Friday prayers, but in recent weeks this institution has become part of the political debate in Iran.

The Friday prayers as an official institution have existed since July 1979. Friday is the Islamic holy day, and since 1979 the sermons have dealt with contemporary political issues more extensively than they have with religious topics. The Friday-prayer leader in Tehran is the supreme leader, and the Office of the Supreme Leader appoints most members of the Central Council of Friday-Prayer Leaders. The content of the sermon is determined in Tehran by the 10-member executive board of the Central Secretariat of the Central Council of Friday-Prayer Leaders. There is some latitude in adding local variations, but there are no broad departures from the central directives. Sometimes a pre-sermon speaker also participates.

Vice President for legal and parliamentary affairs Hojatoleslam Mohammad Ali Abtahi said in a letter to Central Council head Seyyed Reza Taqvi that the politicization of the Friday prayers would be extremely harmful, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 23 October. Abtahi complained that the weekly bulletin from the Central Council of Friday-Prayer Leaders has been critical of the two recently introduced items of legislation that would affect the Guardians Council's ability to vet candidates and that would increase presidential powers, and this criticism has been reflected in some of the actual sermons. Abtahi also wrote that his offer to attend the recent Friday-prayer leader's seminar in order to discuss the legislation was turned down.

Just two days later, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi said in a pre-sermon speech in Tehran: "The prophets of God did not believe in pluralism. They believed that only one idea was right," according to IRNA. Mesbah-Yazdi directly criticized President Khatami's use of the term "independence, freedom, and progress" (istiqlal, azadi, va pishraft) rather than the term "independence, freedom, and Islamic Republic" (istiqlal, azadi, va Jomhuri-yi Islami). Mesbah-Yazdi said that this change is the result of some people forgetting the fundamental principles of the state.

A commentary by Abtahi that was published in the 26 October "Iran" took issue with Mesbah-Yazdi's hostile tone. Abtahi wrote that Mesbah-Yazdi was accusing the president of "de-Islamization," and that this had an adverse effect on Muslim opinion at home and abroad.

The Central Council of Friday-Prayer Leaders responded to Abtahi's comments and criticisms in a statement that was published in the 27 October "Aftab-i Yazd." It said that Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari had discussed the president's legislation at the recent seminar, and the only reason that Abtahi was not invited was that he never indicated an interest in attending. Moreover, President Khatami's office turned down an invitation for him to speak at the event.

Moreover, Central Council head Seyyed Reza Taqvi denied that the Friday prayers is associated with any of Iran's political factions, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 2 November.

Interestingly, the Friday-prayer leaders' comments on behalf of the president during the August 2002 Government Week did not engender any critical comments about politicization from Abtahi. Gorgan Friday-prayer leader Ayatollah Kazem Nur-Mofidi said that Khatami had "disarmed America" with his dialogue of civilizations, the Persian-language "Iran" reported on 24 August. Saveh's Hojatoleslam Najafi called on the people to support the government in order to prevent the enemy's domination. Yazd Friday-prayer leader Hojatoleslam Mohammad Ali Saduqi said all the people should help the government deal with any problems it might encounter. And in Kashan, Ayatollah Mehdi Yasrebi said: "Superpowers want to turn our country into a dump. We should refrain from discord among political factions and use our time to serve the people." (Bill Samii)

KHATAMI DISCUSSES WOMEN'S ACHIEVEMENTS... President Khatami addressed women's issues in several recent speeches. The consistent theme throughout was that Iranian women have made great strides since the 1978-79 revolution, but outmoded attitudes hinder full utilization of their abilities.

At a press conference in Spain that was relayed by Iranian state television on 29 October, Khatami said that there have been developments in achieving the equality of males and females, and he advised comparing Iran with its neighbors. "Some of our criteria may differ from some of the criteria in other countries," Khatami acknowledged, and he also noted, "I believe that there are many rights that our women should still attain." Khatami said that it is up to women themselves to attain their rights, and the more knowledgeable they are, the greater their awareness will be. "And, naturally, if they, themselves, wish it they would attain their legitimate rights more quickly." Khatami's Spanish trip had been preceded by some controversy regarding how the women with whom he met would dress and about the circumstances under which he would interact with them (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 21 and 28 October and 4 November 2002).

On 20 October a message from President Khatami was presented at the Tehran Women's Participation Conference of Islamic States, IRNA reported. Khatami noted that "Muslim women of merit seem to have found their status in the social arena, and they are now participating in the general, political, and social life." Yet he also called for a campaign against the imposition of improper traditions on women in the name of religion, and he noted that much more could be achieved. Khatami's message said that "expressing the true outlook of Islam towards women's role, status, rights, and duties...will expose the real [character] of the religion of Islam to the world."

Women's Week coincided with Government Week this year, and in a 24 August statement that was broadcast by state radio Khatami said that Iranian women have "proven their excellent qualifications" and preserved Islamic and Iranian standards. He mentioned women's historical accomplishments in literature, science, politics, culture, and the arts. Nevertheless, he said: "We believe that they deserve more.... We believe that we have not worked as much as they deserve and what they have gained has been a result of their own efforts." He concluded, "They can work as well as men and in some areas even better than men."

Khatami also discussed women during his July trip to Malaysia. He said, according to a 23 July IRNA dispatch, that Iranian women have displayed their talents whenever they had the opportunity to do so, but there is a lot more to be done to restore their rights. (Bill Samii)

...BUT WOMEN SEEM UNIMPRESSED. The United Nations Development Program's "Human Development Report 2002" ( features a specific "Gender-related development index" on which Iran ranks 83rd out of 173 countries. The index compares female-male life expectancy at birth (69.8-68.0), literacy rate (69.3-83.2), and estimated earned income ($2,524-$9,088). Women hold 3.4 percent of the seats in parliament, and women make up 9.4 percent of ministerial-level officials in government.

Khatami's administration has removed some of the limitations on young women to do things like enter university, parliamentarian Akram Mosavari-Manesh said in the 29 August "Tehran Times." Nevertheless, she said he has been unable to take significant steps in giving women a greater role in the state. Mosavari-Manesh said that the Interior Ministry and cultural institutions must promote greater women's participation in social and political affairs. She also advised, "Any move by Khatami to give high-profile posts to women in his cabinet will certainly set a precedent for the rest of his administration to follow."

Debate about the absence of women in top-level posts reached a climax in June 2002, when the parliamentary Women's Faction asked Minister of Science, Research, and Technology Mustafa Moin-Najafabadi why he had not given any managerial posts to women. The spokesman for the Islamic Iran Participation Party said that this was an improper question, to which the Women's Faction responded with a threat to resign.

Fatimeh Khatami of the Women's Faction said, according to the 16 June "Aftab-i Yazd": "We have reached the conclusion that some individuals who are known to be related to the [reformist] 2nd of Khordad Front intend to block the development of women and their rights being secured.... Whenever we have wanted to ask a minister why women are not appointed to high positions, the gentlemen have become upset and given a warning about a breach of regulations."

This same issue caused controversy in June 2001, when women sought positions in President Khatami's cabinet and in the Guardians Council (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 29 June 2001). At that time Deputy Speaker of Parliament Mohsen Armin suggested that appointing women to cabinet positions would undermine their dignity. (Bill Samii)

SOME SIGNIFICANT FIRSTS FOR IRANIAN WOMEN. The Bank Melli has opened a branch in Zanjan Province that is exclusively for women and is staffed only by females, "Tehran Times" reported on 7 November -- a first in Iran. Iran's first female bus driver, Masumeh Bolaghi, took to the roads in Karaj, IRNA reported on 1 November. The Iranian cabinet decided, according to a 16 October state television broadcast, that the minimum salary for female state employees would be the same as that for male state employees -- 700,000 rials ($87.50 at the market rate). General Taqizadeh, who heads the Criminal Investigation Department in Tehran, announced on 5 October that a specialized women's unit has been created to maintain security and investigate matters that pertain to women, state radio reported. (Bill Samii)

AGRICULTURAL SUBSIDIES HINDER QUALITY, COMPETITIVENESS. The Iranian government will pay 13 trillion rials ($1.625 billion) in subsidies this year, the managing director of the State Commerce Company in Tabriz, Mujtaba Ansari, said in the 31 October "Aftab-i Yazd." Ansari described the government purchase of 8.6 million tons of domestically grown wheat and another 2 million tons of foreign wheat, as well as its purchase of 300,000 tons of sugar beets, 60,000 tons of domestic rice, and another 600,000 tons of foreign rice.

Hamid Bahram, vice chairman of the parliament's Agriculture Committee, discussed the status of agricultural subsidies in the 24 October "Aftab-i Yazd." Bahram pointed out that the industrial sector and other sectors of the economy get much larger subsidies. He said that the payment of subsidies is a "short-term plan to save the agriculture sector," which seems somewhat inconsistent with a later statement that the government has doubled the amount of agriculture subsidies in the last five years. Bahram also said that the payment of subsidies is harmful to the quality of agricultural crops. He explained that if there is a guaranteed purchaser, the crops would be sold regardless of quality or public interest. This is, in turn, harms productivity and ruins competitiveness. (Bill Samii)

AGRICULTURAL SECTOR USES EQUIPMENT, CREATES JOBS. Minister of Agriculture Jihad Mahmud Hojjati said during a conference in Karaj that developing the agricultural sector requires "proper equipment and technology and skilled manpower," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 31 October. This would increase work speed and productivity and simultaneously reduce costs. Hojjati described increases in Iran's production of tractors and harvesters. Speaking in Bushehr on 13 October, according to IRNA, Hojjati said 150,000 new jobs were created in the agricultural sector annually over the last five years. (Bill Samii)

SAFFRON CULTIVATION INCREASES BUT EXPORTS DROP. Ali Fereiduni, head of the Agricultural Jihad in Khorasan Province, told the Islamic Republic News Agency on 10 November that a 60 percent increase in total land under saffron cultivation has occurred in the last six years. At the same time, Fereiduni noted, saffron exports have dropped and he cited the lack of investment in saffron cultivation.

A partial explanation for this drop in exports came during President Mohammad Khatami's 2 November message to the national saffron festival, which was read out by Khorasan Province Governor General Hassan Rasuli, according to IRNA. In that message, Khatami urged saffron producers and exporters to upgrade quality to international standards. Khatami also encouraged officials to adopt programs that would fully utilize Iran's existing facilities and potential.

Hamid Reza Shushtarian, who heads the Mashhad International Saffron Bourse, said that Iran exported 83 tons of saffron in the March 2001-March 2002 period, IRNA reported on 30 June. Shushtarian added that Iran produces 156 tons of saffron annually. (Bill Samii)

ANOTHER STEP IN IRAN-PAKISTAN-INDIA GAS PIPELINE. Islamabad on 11 November signed a memorandum of understanding allowing Russian energy firm Gazprom to conduct a pre-feasibility study on the construction of a gas pipeline from Iran to India via Pakistan, Karachi's "Dawn" newspaper reported on 12 November. Citing an anonymous "senior government official," "Dawn" reported that President Pervez Musharraf authorized the memorandum on the condition that Gazprom would not be allowed to do any surveying or mapping. Gazprom is scheduled to sign memoranda with Tehran and New Delhi in the next two months, according to anonymous "diplomatic sources."

The Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline is not, however, a competitor with the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan one, according to anonymous "officials" cited by "Dawn." The leaders of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan -- Hamid Karzai, Pervez Musharraf, and Saparmurat Niyazov -- signed a memorandum of understanding in Islamabad on 30 May to proceed with a feasibility study for the construction and financing of a gas pipeline from Dovletabad in Turkmenistan via Afghanistan to Pakistan (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 3 June 2002). Nevertheless, some thought has been given to extending the pipeline to India, too (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 6 May 2002). (Bill Samii)

ECONOMIC FREEDOM IN IRAN IMPROVES. Iran ranked 146th out of 156 countries surveyed in the 2003 Index of Economic Freedom -- compiled by the Heritage Foundation and "The Wall Street Journal" -- which was released on 12 November ( Iran's overall score is 4.15, which is a 0.40 improvement over last year and its best score since 1996. The improvements came in the areas of "trade policy," in which there is a moderate level of protectionism, and "fiscal burden of government," which notes moderate tax rates, a low level of government expenditures, and a moderate cost of government. The survey also notes that Iran suffers from a high level of "government intervention in the economy," a high level of inflation (13.2 percent from 1992-2001), high barriers to "capital flows and foreign investment," and a very high level of restrictions in "banking and finance." Iran has a high level of intervention in "wages and prices" and a high level of protection of "property rights." The survey points out that Iran's very high level of "regulation" effectively discourages the creation of new businesses, and notes that there is a very high level of activity in the "black market," with "rampant" smuggling. (Bill Samii)