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Iran Report: February 26, 2001

26 February 2001, Volume 4, Number 8

THE THINGS THAT MATTER IN THE ELECTIONS. Iran is scheduled to have a presidential election in four months, and candidates must be registered within two and a half months. But beyond those more or less fixed points, much about the election remains uncertain, including what it will mean for that country and the world. Many factors, some obvious, some obscure, are going to play a role. Each of them is reviewed below. But because this algebra contains so many unknowns, the product of these factors remains far from clear.

SHOWING CONTEMPT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS. Tehran again demonstrated its utter lack of respect for international human rights standards and its gross attempts at the manipulation of international organizations during the third week of February. The Islamic Republic hosted the Asian Preparatory Meeting for the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance. And UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson's presence lent credibility to the same government that has not permitted her special representative, Maurice Copithorne, to visit Iran since 1996. But while the conference was about tolerance, the Iranian hosts forced female guests who did not wish to cover their hair to do so and to apologize for their own beliefs.

According to a 21 February UN statement, Robinson "expressed her dismay" that the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Bahai International Community were not allowed to attend. She met with Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Shahrudi on 20 February, and she said that she had spoken about the arrests of reformists and students, as well as the July 1999 attack on Tehran University. Shahrudi responded that UN reports detailing human rights violations in Iran are "politically influenced and biased and not based on truth prevailing in the country."

German Bundestag President Wolfgang Thierse was in Tehran too, and he said on 19 February that he and his Iranian counterparts should be able to discuss human rights issues. President Mohammad Khatami told Thierse that he opposed the use of human rights issues for political means, and the Iranian leader insisted that cooperation between Iran and other countries should be based on mutual respect.

A 20 February commentary on Iranian state radio dismissed the "irresponsible statements" by Robinson and Thierse. "Iranian and Western elites, legal experts, and thinkers" should meet, state radio said, so the Westerners can learn about Iran's rules and regulations and so that "European officials [will not] be influenced by the insinuations of Zionist circles, which are involved in conducting a propaganda campaign, and that they will not make statements which are tantamount to interfering in Iran's internal affairs." The commentary concluded by saying that "the human rights issue is being used as an instrument and certain powers are taking political advantage of that instrument in order to interfere in the affairs of other countries and stage a show of force."

Indeed, at the 19 February opening session of the conference, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said Zionism is a "vivid example of racism and racial superiority" and he called for "concerted international action aiming at confronting crimes perpetrated by Zionists in the occupied territories."

Meanwhile, several Tehran dailies -- the "Tehran Times," "Resalat," and "Kayhan" -- complained that some women at the conference did not cover their hair, and "Resalat" referred to a convention of "women without hijab," IRNA reported on 21 February. Foreign Minister Kharrazi said that the guests were told beforehand that they must observe Iranian regulations, and although some flouted the regulations, they covered up when ordered to do so.

The women from various non-governmental organizations said in an open letter faxed to AFP, "we wish to express our grave concern regarding the agreement reached between the UN, especially the office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights...with regard to the imposition of a dress code on women from the Asia-Pacific region attending this meeting. We find that the imposition of a dress code on women participants at this NGO forum constitutes an invasion of privacy, a denial of dignity and of our right to choose," the fax continued, and it expressed concern that Robinson did not negotiate for the conference to be held in a "space free of all forms of discrimination and respected cultural diversity" devoid of "intolerance." (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN CRITICIZES U.S.-U.K. STRIKES AGAINST IRAQ. The Iranian government and media have reacted negatively to the 16 February bombing of Iraqi communications and air defense sites by U.S. and British aircraft. Speaker of Parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi said on 18 February that "any attack against a Muslim country by the U.S. is unacceptable, including Friday's attack against Baghdad," according to DPA. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on 19 February that "we regret the carnage of innocent Iraqi and we condemn it," IRNA reported on 19 February.

Hamas, which is sponsored by Iran, released a statement on 17 February which said that "Hamas condemns this American, British aggression and calls for Arab and Islamic nations to take a condemnatory stand and support the Iraqi people and their right to live in independence and peace." It commented on the timing, saying the raids occurred at the same time as the "Zionist entity's continued aggression against the Palestinian people."

State radio said on 17 February that over 50 aircraft (the Pentagon said 24) had attacked the sites near Baghdad in what amounted to a message, although it did not say what the message was, and the attack should be assessed as "America's warmongering and crisis-making policy in the region." State radio complained later in the day that the decision to strike was arrived at hastily because none of America's European allies, except the United Kingdom, were informed beforehand. It added that the airstrikes intentionally preceded U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to the region, that the strikes were meant to divert attention away from events in Israel, and that they were intended as a message that President George W. Bush intended to finish what his father had started -- namely the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

"Political observers believe that the intention was to create a calm atmosphere that will allow the new Zionist leaders to form a united cabinet, overcome domestic political obstacles, and also acquire the necessary potential to break the Palestinian Intifada," the daily "Afarinesh" noted on 18 February. It continued: "this is regarded as the first great service that is being rendered by the Bush administration to the Israeli regime only a couple of weeks after its coming to power in Washington!" An article in the 19 February "Iran Daily" said that Iraq is a "sick man" and wondered "what is there left to be bombed?" The English-language newspaper ridiculed Bush's comments on Saddam Hussein's production of weapons of mass destruction because, according to the "Iran Daily," the U.S. "supports the last outpost of Western imperialism in the Middle East, namely Israel, with billions of dollars worth of weapons of mass destruction." And "Kayhan International" commented on 22 February that the attacks show that no matter who is in the White House, "Washington's anti-Islamic policy remains unchanged." (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN-CAIRO RELATIONS 'STUMBLING?' Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, who is in Cairo for the summit of the Muslim Group of Eight, met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on 24 February. "The talks...covered cooperation between our two countries on an international level as well as current economic and cultural relations," Kharrazi said later. He explained further that "talks with President Mubarak included the issue of the Middle East in detail. We focused on the necessity of realizing the full rights of the Palestinian people." The next day, Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Musa said that both Egypt and Iran "aspire to a better future for their relations." Musa added that "there is no valid reason for there not to be relations between us and Iran."

On 20 February, an anonymous Iranian Foreign Ministry official had rejected reports that Kharrazi would meet privately with Mubarak, according to the "Tehran Times," saying that any meetings would be part of the regular program. London's Arabic-language "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" had reported that Kharrazi would convey a message from President Mohammad Khatami to his Egyptian counterpart.

The indications are of improved relations between Egypt and Iran. Unnamed Egyptian diplomatic sources, however, were cited in the 17 February edition of Abha's "Al-Watan" as saying that attempts to normalize relations between Cairo and Tehran are "stumbling" and "thorny files are still blocking a full normalization." Cairo opposes Tehran's position on the Middle East Peace Process, and it views Iranian insistence that Egypt distance itself from the Camp David accords as unwarranted interference. The naming of a Tehran street after Khalid Eslamboli, the assassin of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, is aggravating the situation, the paper noted.

The G-8, consisting of Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Turkey, was founded in 1997. During the summit, Kharrazi will discuss Iran's ideas on upgrading Muslim countries' status in the world economy, member roles in the international decision-making process, international peace and security, and the promotion of international dialogue and cooperation, IRNA reported on 19 February. Also, Tehran Mayor Morteza Alviri was in Cairo for the ninth conference of the Organization of Islamic Capitals and Cities (OICC), which was held from 15 to 17 February. The OICC was founded in 1980 to help Islamic capitals in preserving their character and heritage while upgrading public services, IRNA reported on 18 February. (Bill Samii)

A NOTE OF CAUTION ABOUT CONCLUSIONS. Discussion of these various factors might appear to suggest that Iran has a real and functioning democracy in which the people's vote really matters. Compared to its neighbors, Iran can make some claim to being a democracy -- at least in some of the forms it uses. But most political decision-making still occurs behind the scenes, a situation compounded by the absence of a free press or open media. And because Iran's political system allows one man to overturn the ideas and efforts of the people's representatives -- something that this round of elections does not appear likely to change -- it is far from clear not only who will be elected but what any election in Iran under current conditions will in fact mean. (Bill Samii)

THE CANDIDATES. Who Iranians vote for depends on who actually stands in the election. Khatami, after saying in July 2000 that he would stand in the election, is now being coy about his candidacy, possibly because of the limited powers he actually has. Some reports suggest that he has set out conditions if he is to run for office (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 31 July 2000 and 19 February 2001). If Khatami decides not to stand, then this election really could be an open race.

Other individuals have been named as possible candidates, the most recent one being former Minister of Intelligence and Security Ali-Akbar Fallahian-Khuzestani, for whom there is an international arrest warrant outstanding. Fallahian failed to get elected in the most recent parliamentary election, and when Kermanshah deputy Ismail Tatari, who also is a presidential candidate, was asked how many votes Fallahian would get, he responded, "I don't talk behind anybody's back!"

Also, Parviz Varjavand of the National Front has offered to run if Khatami does not do so. Assadollah Badamchian of the Islamic Coalition Association; Islamic Azad University head Abdullah Jasbi; Expediency Council secretary Mohsen Rezai; and Tehran University law lecturer Mahmud Kashani may stand in the election, too, according to the 20 February "Entekhab." Former president Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani is being encouraged to run again, although his disastrous showing in the Tehran parliamentary race last February might dissuade him. (Bill Samii)

THE CLERGY. Friday Prayers are held in 420 locations, and although the size of the congregations is falling, it is clear that the endorsement of the higher clergy and seminaries will carry some weight with conservative voters. "The Wall Street Journal Europe" noted on 13 February that support is waning for what some see as a parasitic class, but the clergy's influence persists: students wrote to seminarians in late January and urged the clerics to condemn the Judiciary's politicization. Their letter went on to ask, "Why is it that those who speak for reforms are put in chains and prison?" And on 7 February Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari went to Qom to discuss the upcoming election with Grand Ayatollahs Nasser Makarem-Shirazi, Yusef Sanei, Safi-Golpayegani, and Mohammad Taqi Bahjat.

Ayatollah Seyyed Hussein Musavi-Tabrizi declared that the Qom seminaries respect Khatami and he is influential there, the "Tehran Times" reported on 21 February. Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Musavi-Bojnurdi declared on 1 February that he approved of Khatami "100 percent, because he is following the line of Imam [Khomeini]." Other seminarians have been relatively quiet on election issues and may wait until May, when the Guardians Council announces the eligible candidates. There is some speculation that the clerics will not endorse any candidates this time. The clerics did not support any candidates before the 1997 election, but waited until the Supreme Leader told them to endorse the conservative choice. (Bill Samii)

PARTY ACTIVITIES AND ENDORSEMENTS. Discussing how parties will bring added dynamism to Iranian politics, Deputy Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Baqeri recently said that "political activists should agree on principles, values, and criteria so that the arena of political competition will be immune of extremism, violation of laws, toeing the enemies' objectives, jeopardizing security, and demagoguery." There are 120 political parties, associations of political activists, and other social groups in the Islamic Republic, but few of them are active due to financial or procedural difficulties, according to Javad Etaat of parliament's Article 10 Committee, which deals with licensing parties. As part of the new budget, the parliament wanted to provide parties with 50 billion rials, which prompted complaints from conservative observers who feared that the pro-Khatami Interior Ministry would channel the funds to reform-oriented parties. The Guardians Council objected to this proposal, IRNA reported on 11 February.

Individual parties usually form coalitions to focus either on single issues or on promoting candidates in elections. At the time of the February 2000 parliamentary election, the coalitions could be classified as "reformists" and "conservatives." But that may not be true or at least not so simply true this time around. In late December and early January of this year, it became apparent that a new political current was flowing away from the right wing. The extreme positions of the Islamic Coalition Association apparently had gone too far for other conservatives, who fear completely alienating the public. These ideological differences were seen in mid-February, when hard-line clerics and students in Qom demonstrated against the conservative "Entekhab" newspaper for its promotion of the "new religious thinking" and its condemnation of hard-line extremism.

There has been discord in the reform coalition as well, and Mohammad Reza Khatami, the Iranian president's brother and secretary-general of the Islamic Iran Participation Party, described the disagreements as "fundamental," according to the 20 February "Iran News."

In recent weeks, several parties and political groups have announced whom they support. The Islamic Iran Participation Party announced on 16 February that President Khatami is its official candidate. A party spokesman said that during the election, the focus would be on the issues, rather than the candidate. Abbas Abdi added, "By supporting Khatami, we are supporting reforms, because we believe that the reforms can help save the regime."

The leading reformist student group, the Office for Strengthening Unity (Daftar-i Tahkim-i Vahdat), announced on 12 February that it will support Khatami's candidacy. "Iran" reported. In late January, several reformist groups -- the Militant Clerics Association (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mobarez), the Islamic Society of Engineers, and the Association of Past and Present Majlis Deputies -- announced their support for Khatami's candidacy. According to Gilan Province's deputy governor of political and security affairs, Ali Baqeri, the real question is whether or not Khatami will stand as a candidate, because if he does the reform parties will have no choice but to support him, "Hayat-i No" reported on 14 January.

Other groups that might be expected to support Khatami appear to be holding out their support in exchange for places in the administration. Gorgan deputy Qorban Ali Qandahari, who heads the 50-member Islamic Solidarity Party faction in parliament, told the 18 January "Entekhab" that Khatami should involve all parties and regions in his second cabinet. It was around that time that new cabinet members were being considered. Qaemshahr deputy Vali Raiat said representatives from Iran's northern provinces (Gilan, Mazandaran, Gulistan) were dissatisfied that Khatami had not appointed even one of their proposed choices, "Iran News" reported on 10 January, adding that deputies from some provinces think that certain areas get "preferential treatment when it comes to choosing cabinet members."

Young Iranians voted for Khatami in large numbers in 1997, when the minimum voting age was 15. It seems less likely that he will carry the youth vote so easily this time. On the one hand, the voting age was raised to 16 before the 2000 parliamentary election. And on the other, according to Afshin Molavi, "President Khatami's original promise and, originally, the way he was treated as a rock star and sort of as a messiah figure, has rapidly dwindled and I think Iranian youth are looking for new heroes to look up to now." (Bill Samii)

ELECTION SUPERVISION. All too obviously, those who run the elections are likely to play a major role in the outcome reported. The pro-reform Interior Ministry handles most aspects of the election at the provincial and local levels. But the hard-line Guardians Council supervises the elections and vets candidates. The council has declared its intention to set up local supervisory bodies for this election, and the Guardians Council's decision not to computerize the vote-counting process inevitably increases the potential for fraud.

In past elections, these two bodies have clashed, and the battle between them started early this time. The reformist parliament initially refused to comply with the Guardians Council's budget demands for election supervision. This issue bounced between the legislature, the Guardians Council, and the Expediency Council until they reached a compromise -- funding set at 12 billion rials was increased by 500,000 rials -- and the council approved the budget. Meanwhile, the head of the election headquarters, Mustafa Tajzadeh, and Tehran Governor Ayatollah Azarmi, are facing trials at the hands of the hard-line Judiciary.

Possibly in an effort at intimidation, the courts have summoned a number of reformist parliamentarians and provincial officials. The most recent ones to be called into court are Sanandaj representative Jalal Jalalizadeh, Tehran representative Mohsen Mirdamadi, and Ali Mohammad Qaribani of Ardabil, Nayyer, and Namin, as well as Kurdistan Province Governor General Abdullah Ramazanzadeh. Reformist parliamentarians now are trying to pass legislation guaranteeing their immunity, and if they succeed, these officials would be able to speak their minds and cooperate with the next administration with less fear of retribution. Hussein Loqmanian, a deputy who was detained recently, warned on 18 February that the parliament should not become a place of authoritarianism and the repeated summonses impinge on people's rights, "Hayat-i No" reported the next day.

There are other efforts to control outspoken parliamentarians as well. Mashhad deputy Gholamreza Tavakoli said that the Guardians Council is planning to oversee parliamentarians during their term of office and it will have the power to dismiss them, the "Tehran Times" reported on 17 February. An editorial by Hussein Shariatmadari of "Kayhan" endorsed the idea of a parliamentary court, prompting an official complaint from the parliament that publications like "Kayhan" are insulting the public by implying that its elected representatives should be dismissed. (Bill Samii)

THE ISSUES. For most Iranians, the economy is a central issue. Political conservatives have hammered President Mohammad Khatami's administration about the country's economic problems -- inflation is at an estimated 20 percent ("Iran News," 22 February). But not all of the current problems are Khatami's fault. During its first two years, his administration faced a conservative parliament. Moreover, the laws affecting foreign investment, state industries, and the economy's structure have been in place for many years. Regulations restricting the import of some goods or limiting the domestic production of other goods often favor highly-placed officials or their well-connected patrons. Official corruption can be seen in this context, and public resentment of it could also play a role in the election.

Iran's estimated 25 percent unemployment rate affects everybody and students are especially worried about it. As journalist Afshin Molavi noted during a presentation at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, "There are some broad trends which are easily detectable for anyone who travels in Iran except for the willfully blind. One thing is the issue of jobs, because across socio-economic sectors in Iran, among Iranian youth, the issue of jobs is at the top of their list of grievances." Young people wondering what they will do when they finish their educations, civil servants moonlighting as taxi drivers, working mothers -- they all realize that they are facing serious problems and they hope for some sort of improvement.

Political freedom is another important concern. For one segment of society, this involves issues like press freedom, free elections, and judicial and parliamentary independence. For another, it involves superficially more mundane matters like going to a party, listening to music, or walking with a friend of the opposite sex without being harassed by the authorities and self-appointed vigilantes.

Foreign policy is unlikely to figure as a major issue, although some conservatives may try to portray reformist leaders as pro-American, as happened when Mohammad Reza Khatami appeared in Qom recently. Nor is it unlikely that some candidates will try to place the blame for the country's problems on foreign machinations.

But one aspect of foreign affairs that could have an impact in the election is the degree of insecurity -- kidnappings, smuggling, murders -- along the eastern border. This is routinely blamed on foreigners -- Afghans specifically -- but conservative newspapers regularly condemn the Interior Ministry for its failure to restore order in Khorasan, and to a lesser degree, in Kerman and Sistan va Baluchistan provinces. (Bill Samii)

THE MEDIA. One factor that could have a tremendous impact on the election is media outlets. Since April 2000, almost 40 Iranian publications -- in Tehran and in the provinces -- have been closed, and an untold number of journalists has had to appear in court. Indeed, Reporters Sans Frontiers wrote on 14 February that Iran now is the biggest prison for journalists in the world. Many other publications have received warnings for crossing the invisible "red lines." The majority of banned publications support Iranian reformists, although others seem quite benign.

State radio and television (IRIB, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting) is very conservative and its reporting about candidate Mohammad Khatami in 1997 was quite unfavorable. The current parliament tried to slash the IRIB's share of the state budget, but the conservative Guardians Council, which must approve all legislation, rejected this proposal. After arbitration by the Expediency Council, parliament restored the originally proposed budget of 320 billion rials in place of the 220 billion rials it had first approved.

Beleaguered domestic journalists include Zahedan journalists Davud Allahverdi, Dariush Imani, and Mohammad Bazgir, who received prison sentences ranging from three months to five-and-a-half months for publishing a slanderous article, newspapers reported on 25 February. Also, Reza Alijani, editor of the banned "Iran-e Farda" journal, was arrested on the orders of the Revolutionary Court, according to a 24 February IRNA report.

The trial of journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi started on 21 February. He is charged with insulting Father of the Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, publishing lies, and harming national security. Mohammad Baqer Vali-Beik, general manager of the Jameh-yi Ruz publishing house, was released on 200 million rials bail on 18 February, having been arrested a week earlier. Abbas Dalvand, publisher of the weekly "Luristan," was released after posting 100 billion rials in bail, IRNA reported on 18 February. He faces complaints by the Guardians Council, the IRGC, and security forces. "Fath" journalist Fariba Davudi-Mohadjer was taken into custody by the Revolutionary Court, "Hambastegi" reported on 18 February.

Farideh Saber, the wife of jailed journalist Hoda Saber, was warned that she would be arrested if she spoke with a foreign radio station about her husband's case. Mrs. Saber told RFE/RL's Persian Service that in her response she said she was only reporting the facts, and it was the only thing she could do to help her husband. She has spoken with him one time since his arrest in late January but she does not know where he is because he has been taken to an unknown location. The Prisons Organization denies holding Saber, she added, and the only answer she has heard is that "he is under this blue sky."

On 25 February, the Revolutionary Court in Zahedan revoked the publishing license of "Ruzdara" daily for its publication of a slanderous article. "Pahlavan," "Avay-i Malayer," "Neday-i Saveh," and "Payam-i Shomal" received warnings from the Press Supervisory Board on 12 February, and the cases of "Pahlavan" and "Avay-i Malayer" have been referred to the Press Court, IRNA reported. Some new publications will emerge soon. The conservative "Siyasat" weekly is to become a daily after the Iranian New Year, and the State Prisons Organization's "Hemayat" weekly has begun publication, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 19 February. The Press Supervisory Board issued licenses for two newspapers: "Didar," with Abbas Salimi Namin as managing director, and "Noruz," with Mohsen Mirdamadi Najafabadi as managing director.

In this atmosphere, the public will be hungry for unbiased news and is likely to turn to foreign radio stations. Before the February 2000 parliamentary election the Iranian government jammed Persian language broadcasts by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Voice of America, and the BBC. A new round of jamming thus appears extremely likely, especially in light of a 13 February statement by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that "the political and security organs which are against the Islamic Republic political system in America and Europe all emphasize in their statements, and in the broadcasts of the radio stations they fund, that their efforts are aimed at countering our political system. The other day, I accidentally heard this myself, while listening to one of these radio stations..."

Law Enforcement Forces Commander Brigadier General Mohammad Qalibaf, furthermore, said that foreign radios were behind a 10 February demonstration in Tehran. "A number of those who had been provoked by foreign radios, such as Radio Liberty, had congregated in the park." The accusations against RFE/RL are completely inaccurate, but the complaints about foreign radios highlight the regime's fear of unbiased news sources. (Bill Samii)