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Iran Report: January 15, 2001

15 January 2001, Volume 4, Number 2

AN EXCITING CONTEST DESPITE A NEAR CERTAIN RESULT. Iran's eighth presidential election will be held on 8 June, and the indications are that the incumbent, Hojatoleslam Seyyed Mohammad Khatami-Ardakani, will win another four-year term if he stands in the election. Yet there is controversy about many election issues, from the administration of the election to the actual candidates to which way parties will lean. So although the final result seems clear-cut, the period leading up to the election promises to be exciting.

The appointment of Deputy Interior Minister Mustafa Tajzadeh as head of the election headquarters is irritating the conservatives. Mohammad Reza Bahonar of the Islamic Society of Engineers, Abdosaleh Jafari of the Islamic Society of Students, the Islamic Associations of the Bazaar and Guilds of Tehran, the Isfahan University Professors' Basij, and the Association of the Islamic Revolution's Devotees have called for the replacement of Tajzadeh. His mistake in their eyes was his defense of reformist victories in the February 1999 council elections and the next year's parliamentary elections. More recently, Tajzadeh was blamed for the violent events in Khorramabad in late August, when a reformist student group, hard-line vigilantes, and security forces clashed with each other. Tajzadeh's enemies also claim that he is partisan and is associated with the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization and the Islamic Iran Participation Party.

Other election officials include the Interior Ministry's Gholam Hussein Bolandian, who will deal with security and law enforcement issues, Ali Mohaqar as head of the Central Investigative Committee, and Seyyed Abbas Ahmadi as managing director of the election office.

Hussein Amini, the political and social assistant director of Khorasan Province's governor-general, has rejected concerns about Tajzadeh. He told the 28 November "Khorasan" that the complaints about Tajzadeh overstate his role in elections. Amini stressed that his province will see fair elections: "We will try with all our power to prevent any kind of modification in the people's votes and we will try to be their trustee." Amini also pointed out that the Guardians Council will be on the scene, which should theoretically preclude any tampering with the results.

There also are worries about the Guardians Council, which has the constitutional power to supervise elections. The council operates in an obscure and unaccountable fashion, using its supervisory power to reject potential candidates and cancel election results. At the end of December it seemed that the council was extending its reach by establishing headquarters in provincial cities and towns for the first time, according to "Aftab-i Yazd." Previously there was controversy about hand versus computerized ballot-counting. In October the council said it did not object to computerization, if the Interior Ministry could provide the necessary software and hardware by 21 December.

Khatami declared his intention to run in late July (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 31 July 2000), but since that time there have been reports that he has not decided to run yet. Numerous possible challengers to Khatami have been mentioned in the Iranian press. Some of the early names are former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, conservative bureaucrat Farah Khosravi, Mohammad Javad Mohammadi-Nuri, former Tehran Mayor Gholam Hussein Karbaschi, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and former Islamic Culture, and Guidance Minister Ataollah Mohajerani (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 9 October 2000). "Mohajerani is capable and experienced enough to be president, but our choice is Khatami," Mohajerani's wife (Jamileh Kadivar) told the 8 January "Iran."

Other names that have cropped up are former Premier Mir Hussein Musavi, former Kurdistan Governor-general Rahimi, Kermanshah parliamentary representative Ismail Totori, and Expediency Council secretary and former Islamic Revolution Guards Corps chief Mohsen Rezai. Speaker of Parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Mahdavi-Karrubi also has been mentioned, but he denied the rumors, IRNA reported on 10 December. Clerical candidates mentioned in the 7 December "Iran News" are Vice-president Hassan Rohani, Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Mohtashemi-Pur, and Hojatoleslam Mohammad Musavi-Khoeniha. Some of the non-clerics are Behzad Nabavi, parliamentarian Mohammad Reza Khatami, Azad University chancellor Abdullah Jasbi, and Mohammad Reza Bahonar.

As of February 2000, 111 registered political organizations existed in Iran, and several more -- such as the Islamic Homeland Party (Hizb-i Mihan-i Islami], the Friendship Society (Jamiyat-i Dusti va Mavaddat), the Islamic Farmers Party (Hizb-i Islami-yi Keshavarz), and the National Will Party (Hizb-i Iradeh-yi Mellat) -- have emerged since then. The Solidarity Party has declared its support for Khatami, and the endorsement of the Islamic Iran Participation Party is a foregone conclusion. Gholam Hussein Karbaschi said that the Executives of Construction Party has never regretted its support for Khatami, IRNA reported on 11 December.

Hamid Reza Taraqi of the conservative Islamic Coalition Association did not mention a possible candidate, but he predicted victory, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 6 January. The conservative Islamic Association of Students said in mid-December that it would nominate a candidate, and it indicated that its decision would be based on economic, cultural, and security factors, "Iran" reported. These are three areas in which the current administration is being criticized, which suggests that this conservative group will not support the president's candidacy.

The conservative Tehran Militant Clergy Association (Jameh-yi Ruhaniyat-i Mobarez-i Tehran) has not decided if it will endorse a candidate, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 11 December. The Qom Theological Seminary and Lecturers Association has not reached a decision either. The theological group was not going to endorse a candidate for the 1997 election, until Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered the seminarians to support Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Nateq-Nuri.

Sanandaj parliamentarian Bahaedin Adab also is undecided on who he will endorse, "Hayat-i No" reported in November. Regarded as a conservative in the previous parliament, Adab ran as an independent in the sixth parliamentary election. He frequently complains that Sunnis are under-represented in the current administration, so he may trade his support in exchange for a Sunni Kurd in the cabinet.

At this stage, therefore, it seems that the big question is not "who will win?" The questions are "who will run" and "who will endorse them." Also, will the Supreme Leader endorse Khatami, will he remain above the fray, or will he support one of Khatami's opponents? (Bill Samii)

QUESTIONS ABOUT PARLIAMENTARY ELECTION PERSIST. The election headquarters announced in late December that the parliamentary by-election for 18 undecided seats will be held on 7 June. Registration for the candidates begins on 30 March, and civil servants and municipal council members must resign from their posts by 29 January if they wish to stand in the election. Parliament had said previously that the by-election and the presidential election should fall on the same day, 29 May, IRNA reported on 17 December.

Some of the people whose candidacy for the February 2000 parliamentary election was rejected still do not know why they were not allowed to compete in the election. A letter from Karim Arqandpur demanded answers from the Guardians Council, the body that vets candidates on the basis of its power of "advisory supervision" over elections, about the rejection of 132 candidates. The Guardians Council responded that it had given all the information to the Interior Ministry and it was to pass that information on to the rejected individuals, "Dowran-i Imruz" reported on 13 December. Abbas Abdi, Azam Taleqani, and Hamid Reza Jalaipur told "Dowran-i Imruz" that they have not gotten any information on their rejections. (Bill Samii)

'SHABNAMEH' IS PERSIAN FOR SAMIZDAT. Deputy Speaker of Parliament Mohammad Reza Khatami complained on 5 January that the widespread closure of publications in Iran has robbed people of information and contributed to the spread of rumors and lies, IRNA reported. Use of the "shabnameh" (literally "night letter," a kind of samizdat) to disseminate information has increased as well. The appearance of the �night letters� at a time when there are few reformist publications to provide an alternate view is not altogether surprising. Nor is their appearance unprecedented in Iranian history.

Yet these are not samizdat publications as typically understood. Most of these night letters are produced by hard-liners and used to attack members of the reformist movement. Among the night letters' producers are, therefore, so-called "research institutes" in Qom, the Qom Seminary Theological Lecturers Association, and hard-line pressure groups. And the allegations and accusations that first appear in the night letters subsequently reappear in publications like "Kayhan," "Siyasat," and "Yalisarat al-Hussein."

The night letters indirectly target President Mohammad Khatami's administration and the reform movement. They directly target prominent reformists, journalists, and reformist publications. In September 2000, for example, imprisoned journalists Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, Emadedin Baqi, Akbar Ganji, and Ezzatollah Sahabi lodged a complaint with the parliament's Article 90 Committee regarding pamphlets which they said were influencing their trials, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported. Evidence appearing in the night letters was used during former Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Ataollah Mohajerani's interpellation hearing in April 1999, too, "Bahar" reported in August 2000.

The night letters rarely make direct attacks. They make allusions, or they describe a malfeasance but ascribe it to "Mr. X" rather than naming him. Another tactic is to let the reader draw his own conclusions, with sentences ending in ellipses because the material is too sensitive or possibly too offensive to complete. The research institutes try to make their work seem scholarly and thoroughly researched by using references and endnotes. When one tries to look up the references, however, one discovers that the original source does not exist. Research on the night letters by the Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry also found numerous cases in which people were misquoted or they never actually made the statements attributed to them, "Bahar" reported on 27 July 2000.

Although they have less assets at their disposal, reformists also have resorted to night letters to spread their message. One example is the 80-page night letter about the serial murders (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 27 November 2000). This publication linked Ministry of Intelligence and Security officials and top regime figures with murders that preceded those of 1998. Distribution of the videotaped confessions of Amir Farshad Ebrahimi, a former Islamic Revolution Guards Corps and Ansar-i Hizbullah member, is another example of reformists' use of night letters. In these confessions, Ebrahimi described the existence of an Iranian power mafia that used murder to eliminate its rivals (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 9 October 2000).

Reformist parliamentarian Ali Reza Nuri has described the night letters as a negative development because they are not accountable. "The newspapers have managing editors and individuals place their signatures on their writings," he told Rasht's "Pegah" in June 2000. But because the "shabnameh" is not responsible to anyone, he said, it undermines security. (Bill Samii)

IRIB CUTS JOBS AS IT INCREASES PROGRAMMING. Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting may have to dismiss 10,000 employees because of budgetary shortfalls, IRNA reported on 30 December. But IRIB's Kurdish Sahar satellite service increased its transmissions, Suleimanieh's "Kurdistani Nuwe" reported on 20 December. IRIB launched its new Koranic network, which will broadcast on two different channels for a total of five hours a day, on 11 December. The East Azerbaijan center of the provincial television network was inaugurated on 12 November. IRIB director Ali Larijani said during the ceremony that the provincial networks are being launched to revive indigenous culture, enhance national unity, and increase social, political, and cultural awareness. Radio broadcasts to the region will increase, too. Seven transmitters -- located in Azar Shahr, Bonab, Jolfa, Kuleybar, Miyaneh, and Tabriz -- are operating in the province and reach 95 percent of the local population. 15 FM transmitters broadcast in the province. The Persian Gulf television network's transmitter -- installed on Geno Mountain -- was completed on 11 September. It will broadcast to the residents of Bandar Abbas. (Bill Samii)

UNEMPLOYMENT POLITICIZED BUT REAL. One of the major topics in Iran's upcoming presidential election campaign will be the country's unemployment rate. Twelve months ago discussion about unemployment was dismissed as a hard-line tactic to undermine reformists' emphasis on political and social freedoms. Politicization of this subject, as well as unreliable statistical practices, resulted in a hodgepodge of unemployment figures. Last May, for example, "Qods" cited two different Central Bank officials -- one said unemployment stood at 16 percent and was climbing, while another said that it stood at 12.9 percent and was falling. And Paris-based scholar Fereidun Khavand cited a poll of Iranian economists who gave figures ranging from 15 to 22 percent.

A new batch of figures appeared recently, and they are as clear as the old ones. The Management and Planning Organization announced on 30 December that the unemployment rate would fall to 14.5 percent in the year starting March 2001, according to IRNA. Six days earlier, the Deputy Labor and Social Affairs Minister Ajayebi declared that "the country's unemployment rate is much higher than the unrealistic 12-13 percent announced by the Central Bank and Iran's Center for Statistics," state television reported. Political commentators, therefore, have a lot of material to work with, but state officials, from the Supreme Leader to the president to provincial governors, also have warned of the dangers posed by joblessness.

Unemployment has affected the entire country. In Karaj, a city of 1.5 million, 250,000 people are unemployed, "Payam-i Karaj" reported in July. Changiz Aslani, manager of Hamedan's Labor House, warned that "the number of discharged workers increases daily," "Sima-yi Ayandeh" reported in June, and Mr. Talebi of Qom's Labor House warned that local unemployment is increasing because of the drought and related urban migration, "Kar va Kargar" reported. Parliamentary candidate Ahmad Ramazanpur said that Gilan Province suffers from an 18 percent unemployment rate, and Rasht, the capital city and the "Pearl of the Caspian," suffered a 23 percent unemployment rate, "Khabar va Nazar" reported in May. Parliamentarian Alaeddin Borujerdi said on 3 January 2001 that 32,000 agricultural engineers are unemployed.

The statistics may be problematic, but there is also plentiful anecdotal evidence about unemployment and under-employment. Alireza Mahjoub of the Labor Party pointed out that wages have not kept pace with inflation. He told "Aftab-i Yazd" in November that the annual inflation rate is about 26 percent, whereas over the last ten years white-collar workers' wages have only increased 70 percent and unskilled workers' wages have only increased 120 percent. An April commentary in "Kar va Kargar" pointed out that the minimum wage for a worker is less than 300,000 rials a month, whereas an income of 1,590,000 rials a month is considered below the poverty line for a family of five. The commentary also said that workers deserve greater job security.

Workers have resorted to strikes, sit-ins, and other forms of protest in order to protect themselves and improve their situations. In late December, dismissed employees of the Kosar dam project demanded their jobs, and they also protested not being paid for four months, mandatory blood transfusions, and poor work conditions. In late November, workers at the Aladdin factory blocked the Karaj highway to bring attention to their not being paid for four months. They also complained that although insurance payments were withheld from their paychecks, the money was not given to the insurance company, "Dowran-i Imruz" reported. Abadan Water and Sewage Company personnel protested against not being paid for two months, "Resalat" reported.

Similar events occurred in October. Contract workers at the Pasargad Darya Company on Khark Island demonstrated against not being paid for three months, "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported. Earlier, workers at the Beshahr cotton factory protested that they had not received their salaries or their benefits. 800 employees of the National Excavation Company protested against the privatization of the firm, which is under the Oil Ministry.

A good education or even retraining does not necessarily result in rewarding employment in Iran, furthermore. 1.5 million people take the university entrance exams every year, according to statistics cited in "Qods" in September, but only 130,000 will win places. Even then, only 20 percent of the graduates will get public or private sector jobs. These figures are expected to worsen. Dr. Ismaili, secretary of a conference on higher education and employment, said that each year 270,000 university graduates will enter the job market, whereas only 75,000 can be absorbed, "Jam-i Jam" reported in June. Morteza Mamouei, chancellor of Kermanshah's Razi University, warned that the employment market is saturated, "Tehran Times" reported in May.

One way by which Iran hopes to address its unemployment problem is by sending its workers to other countries. Iranian Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari signed an agreement with his Italian counterpart, Enzo Bianco, that allows for the emigration of 20,000 Iranian workers a year, "IRNA" reported on 7 January. There also is a plan underway to send health care professionals to the Persian Gulf states. 14 non-governmental employment agencies and 11 private sector employment agencies exist to help Iranians, but the head of an agency in Tehran told "Entekhab" in December that it could take up to six months to find an applicant a job.

The public sector, already the country's biggest employer, says that it can employ more people if there is greater investment. Industries Minister Gholamreza Shafei said on 30 December that with a $7 billion capital investment in the state airline 100,000 jobs could be created, according to IRNA. The Construction Jihad Ministry prepared a report stating that, with a 100-million-rial investment, it could create 100,000 jobs, "Entekhab" reported in October. Cooperatives Minister Morteza Haji said that with an investment of 5.6 trillion rials, 80,000 jobs could be created by March 2001, IRNA reported in September. Deputy Cooperatives Minister Issa Shahsavar announced in November that some 1.5 million Iranians are involved in the cooperative sector. And in late May, the Tour and Tourism Organization predicted that by 2005 it will have created over 100,000 new job opportunities. A possible source of this increased investment is the foreign currency surplus that resulted from high oil earnings.

An unfortunate result of the unemployment situation is the scapegoating of foreign residents. Some 2.5 million foreigners, mainly from Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, India, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan, currently work in Iran, and many of them fill the most menial and low-paying jobs, such as in construction or brick-making. Mr. Ebrahimi, director-general of the Labor Ministry's alien affairs department, said on 4 January that 1.2 million foreigners work illegally in Iran, and they remit about 75 percent of their earnings. This was not a problem during the 1980s and early-1990s, but it has become one as more and more Iranians look for scarce jobs.

Complaints about this foreign presence can be heard from the executive branch, the legislature, and the grass roots. Shakur Ebrahimi, director-general of the Interior Ministry's foreign nationals employment department, said on 4 January that foreigners are behind the country's high unemployment rate, and he advocated walling off the borders. Isfahan representative Abdulrahman Tajedin complained in December that foreign workers take jobs and also cause social and cultural problems, Last July, workers in Rafsanjan protested against the Afghans in the construction business and demanded that they be repatriated. The Iranians' complaint, which is not uncommon, was that the Afghans work for half the legal salary because employers do not have to provide them with any benefits, such as health insurance.

Commentary in newspapers of all political hues also condemns unemployment and ascribes numerous social difficulties to it. According to the newspapers and the experts they interview, unemployment is responsible for the brain drain, broken homes, divorce, drug addiction, crime, insecurity, mental health problems, and suicide. Yazd representative Mohamad Razavi told "Aftab-i Yazd" in December that "instead of providing funds for prayer venues in Qom, Tehran, and Isfahan, the sixth parliament should pursue investment that would bring about employment opportunities." Also, parliamentarian Khodadad Qobadi warned that government ministers who do not address the unemployment problem could face interpellation, "Qods" reported in October. And when Iranians go to the polls in June, whether or not they have jobs could determine how they vote. (Bill Samii)

LAWS THREATEN AFGHAN REFUGEES. About three-quarters of the refugees in Iran are Afghans who fled their country in three waves: during the 1979 Soviet invasion and the almost 10 years of war that followed, during the intra-factional conflict that came after the Soviet pullout and the fall of Kabul's communist regime, and after the takeover of nearly the whole country by the Taliban group. But even in the relative security of Iran, the refugees' existence is tough. They live "from hand to mouth, shelling pistachios, cleaning wool, or weaving carpets at homes or in dingy sweatshops," according to the 10 January "Independent."

In their own country, Afghans face religious persecution if they are Shia and food shortages due to drought and pestilence. There is little infrastructure, with a lack of electricity, water supplies, or basic health care. Fighting between the Taliban and their opponents continues. Afghanistan is littered with mines and unexploded ordinance. Many parts of the country are still inaccessible to relief agencies. So Afghans keep paying smugglers to get them into Iran.

In addition to bearing some of the blame for Iran's double-digit unemployment rate, the Afghans also are accused of drug trafficking and other criminal activities. Parliamentarian Kazem Jalali of Shahrud, Semnan Province, added on 4 January that of the 3.2 million Afghans in Iran (UN sources describe 1.4 million Afghans), only 170 of them pay taxes.

Only a small fraction of the Afghans -- 25-30,000 -- live in the 30 refugee camps run by the Iranian government. Initially, the rest were integrated into local communities, received state-subsidized food and health care, and attended state schools. This led to Tehran complaining about the high financial cost of hosting so many refugees and appealing for international assistance in dealing with them. U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Raimundo Perez-Hernandez y Torra visited Iran in February 2000, and in April a joint Iran-UNHCR repatriation program went into effect. International partners in Iran's Afghan repatriation program are the World Food Program, which gives returnees a sack of wheat, and the International Organization for Migration, which gives them a ride to the border. UNHCR gives the Afghans $40 for going home, an amount termed "insulting" by Mashhad's Dari-language "Faryad-i Ashura" in October.

The repatriation system is inadequate and poorly planned. Tushiro Odashima, who represents the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Mashhad, told that city's Dari-language "Bonyad-i Wahdat" in November that teams consisting of one Iranian government official and one UNHCR official in 7 Iranian cities hear the refugees' appeals against repatriation. 63 percent of the appeals heard had been rejected, Odashima said. Laurens Jolles, the UNHCR's assistant chief of mission in Tehran, told RFE/RL's Persian Service that there is a need for a "long-term strategy" that balances the needs of the Iranian government -- "the problems resulting from the big presence of Afghans" -- and of the refugees. Part of that strategy would be creation of the means to identify people who cannot return to Afghanistan safely under current circumstances.

Tehran recently took steps to hasten the Afghans' return. Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi announced in a 7 January circular that ambiguity of the laws would not be a reason for delaying the prosecution of illegal immigration cases. Shahrudi warned that the "unauthorized and clandestine presence of foreign nationals" is harmful to "public security and order." In the past, there have been reports of police sweeps and mass arrests of refugees. And on 9 January, Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari announced the government's intention to take "strict measures" against illegal immigrants in Iran, IRNA reported.

An August commentary in Tehran's Dari-language "Jonbesh" called on Iranians, "as they have been hosts to a large number of Afghans, [to] extend their patience and Islamic tolerance and take into account the existing conditions in their neighboring country." It seems that Tehran's patience has been exhausted. (Bill Samii)

EXTREMIST GROUPS ACTIVE. As keen as many Iranians are to conduct their political affairs in a peaceful and civil manner, some appear to have decided that they have no option other than violence and threats to achieve their objectives. The Center for Propagation of Islamic Facts cancelled its meeting in Mashhad for the third consecutive week after it was attacked by a group threatening to loot its contents and set fire to it, the Iranian Students News Agency reported on 10 January.

A group calling itself the "Zealots of Zahedan" issued a statement complaining that local concerts are "pushing our young people towards nihilism, irresponsibility, and degradation," "Iran" reported on 7 January. The Zealots did not threaten to take any action, but their statement warned that "If there is no reaction to these events and if they are not brought under control they will definitely end up in the cultural and artistic festivals similar to those held by the former regime."

The Iraq-based Mujahedin Khalq Organization is responsible for some of the violent incidents in Iran. The MKO claimed responsibility for the 7 January detonation of five mortars shells near an Islamic Revolution Guard Corps base in northern Tehran, IRNA reported. On 19 November, the MKO fired mortars near the border city of Musian, Ilam Province. On 15 November, the MKO and Iranian Law Enforcement Forces exchanged shots in the Abadeh region of Fars Province. And on 2 November the MKO fired mortars at Kermanshah.

Brigadier General Amir Fallah and several of his bodyguards allegedly were killed in an ambush near Tehran on 6 January, although this could not be independently confirmed. The same group that is reportedly responsible for this incident, the Dilavaran-i Niqab-i Dar, allegedly was behind the late October shooting in Shiraz of Fars Province Law Enforcement Forces chief General Hussein Zolfaqari and his bodyguard. (Bill Samii)