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Iran Report: April 2, 2001

2 April 2001, Volume 4, Number 13

TAJZADEH STILL SUPERVISING ELECTIONS. Iran's Interior Ministry announced that registration of candidates for the parliamentary by-elections will start on 31 March and end on 6 April, state radio reported on 27 March. The by-elections will be held on the same day as the presidential election -- 8 June -- although it was previously reported that the by-elections would precede the presidential election by one day.

Deputy Interior Minister Mustafa Tajzadeh and Tehran Governor Ayatollah Azarmi reportedly will continue their duties in preparing for the elections, although they were found guilty earlier in the month of rigging the February 2000 parliamentary election and barred from overseeing elections for six years and five years, respectively, and barred from holding governmental posts for 39 months. Azarmi's attorney explained that as long as their appeals are outstanding, legally they can continue their work, IRNA reported on 28 March.

Azarmi's lawyer, Ali Hamid Tavasoli, said if the case progresses normally, it will not be heard by the appeals court before 8 June. It is possible that the case would be dealt with more rapidly, he added, but the files on the cases are incomplete, although the appeals were lodged on 25 March. (Bill Samii)

FALLAHIAN IS RUNNING. The office of Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Fallahian-Khuzestani has sent a letter stating that Fallahian is "determined to stand as a candidate" in the 8 June 2001 presidential election, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 18 March. Indeed, Fallahian was one of the first people to announce his candidacy -- on 19 February. Fallahian was an unsuccessful candidate from Isfahan in the 2000 parliamentary election. Currently a member of the Assembly of Experts, he served as minister of intelligence and security for eight years. He is one of four people indicted by a German court for his role in the murder of Iranian dissidents in Berlin in 1992. Before that he served as commander of the Revolutionary Committees, acting Revolutionary Prosecutor, chief of the Armed Forces inspectorate, and prosecutor for the Special Court for the Clergy.

Opinions are divided on Fallahian as a candidate. Parliamentarian Ahmad Shirzadeh of Isfahan welcomed Fallahian's candidacy, saying the participation of different factions in the election is welcome. Hadadizadeh of Mahallat added, according to the 22 February "Abrar," the presence of different outlooks in the election will encourage greater voter participation. Based on the Guardians Council's past history in vetting candidates, however, Hadadizadeh speculated that there would not be many candidates. Rahmani-Khalili of Behshahr and Neka opined that voters would not favor any individual associated with the country's intelligence and security organizations.

Writing in the 21 February "Hayat-i No," Mohammad Javad Ruh suggested that Fallahian would attract the same people who supported Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mohammadi-Reyshahri and the Society for the Defense of the Values of the Islamic Revolution (SDVIR) in the 1997 presidential election. Furthermore, according to Ruh, Fallahian's candidacy shows that the way of thinking of the SDVIR continues, although the party itself no longer exists. This also will emphasize the divergences in thinking among conservative Iranians, with the other, more moderate, faction opting for the "new religious thinking" promoted by Taha Hashemi.

By submitting himself as a candidate and facing the public, Ruh concluded, Fallahian is bringing transparency to the political climate. This is a reference to Fallahian's general silence on the serial murders by personnel that had served under him in the MOIS, and speculation that he was somehow involved with the murders of Iranian dissidents at home and abroad. (Bill Samii)

LABOR-RELATED UNREST IN LAMERD. Local Basij commander Brigadier General Abdolali Najafi told an audience of 5,000 Lamerd (Fars Province) residents on 30 March that they should abide by the law when protesting the erection of "a refinery which they consider to be environmentally hazardous," according to IRNA. Najafi added that foreigners were behind the unrest that occurred earlier in the week, and he warned that they would exploit the situation: "I deem it necessary to say that many foreign enemies and their agents inside the country have over recent days been abusing the ongoing situation and provoked it." But this statement reveals several lies. Locals were worried about job losses, not the environment. Secondly, the unrest was a spontaneous public reaction to government ineptitude. And finally, the government should have predicted such a public reaction to its actions.

Citizens of Lamerd rioted on 27 and 28 March over plans to relocate the local Parsian Oil Refinery to Mohr, which also is in Fars Province. The locals stormed the governorate and set a fire there, blocked the local airport's runway, and burned tires in the streets, according to IRNA. Security forces reacted by using tear gas to dispel the rioters, and a local official said that the instigators of the unrest had been identified and would be punished. Subsequently, 27-40 people were arrested, state radio and television reported, and more arrests were planned.

Although these incidents seem to have caught the authorities by surprise, there have been indications of employment-related unhappiness in Lamerd specifically and in Fars Province generally for several months. 2,000 locals staged a rally on 18 March to protest the relocation plan, according to "Tehran Times" and "Iran Daily," and they also declared their intention to go to Tehran and ask President Mohammad Khatami to intervene. Fars Province parliamentarian Seyyed Mehdi Tabatabai had warned at a gathering of labor councils in February that the province's growing population and the lack of job opportunities have caused "increasing problems," "Kar va Kargar" reported on 17 February, and the presence of Afghan workers was worsening the situation.

There was additional unrest when President Khatami visited the province in January. Ironically, during this trip Khatami cited the Parsian Refinery as a project that would have a great impact on the provincial economy, state television reported on 19 January. And in late December, demonstrations over unsatisfactory public services lasted several days. In that case, the security forces also used tear gas in an effort to subdue a crowd that set fire to official buildings. (Bill Samii)

GOVERNMENT REDRAWS POVERTY LINE. The Management and Planning Organization's mid-February announcement that it has revised its definition of the poverty line reflects governmental efforts to understate the dire economic circumstances faced by most Iranian citizens. On these grounds, and also on methodological grounds, these new figures have been criticized by some of the country's economic experts. And in different parts of the country, one hears complaints about poverty and inadequate government support.

MPO chief Mohammad Aref announced that as part of a bill for combating poverty, the average income of a 4.6-member urban family would be put at 700,000 rials per month (about $400 at the official rate or around $87.50 at the open market rate), and a 5.2-member rural family's average income would be put at 480,000 rials($274/$60). But as the 21 February "Kayhan" reported, another MPO official said last September that at least 1.2 million rials ($686/$150) is required to purchase the basic necessities in the cities and 800,000 rials ($457/$100) is needed in the villages.

Furthermore, economist Fariborz Raisdana announced at a mid-February Seminar on Poverty that the MPO's measurements mean that only 14 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Raisdana, however, estimated that the poverty line stood at to 900,000 to 1 million rials a month ($514-$571/$112.50-$125), which would mean that 30-35 percent of the population lived under the poverty line, "Entekhab" reported. Guild, Distribution, and Service Assembly President Faramarz Kay Nia said his organization believes that the poverty line is between 1.3-1.5 million rials ($743-$857/$162.50-$187.50), according to the 4 March "Resalat."

Oppressed and Disabled Foundation (Bonyad-i Mostazafan va Janbazan) Deputy Director Yahya Al-i Ishaq also criticized the new poverty figures. He told the 4 March "Resalat" that new numbers would not eliminate poverty, nor would protectionism and government subsidies. He advocated reform of the economic system and making that the country's top priority. Professor Kazem Najafi-Alami added that the figures were too low. Even resetting them and distributing more government hand-outs would not solve the problem of poverty. The solution was to create more jobs. Professor Farhad Khorrami of Allameh Tabatabai University told the 21 February "Resalat" that the biggest problem with the economy is the government's interference. Whenever the government should have interfered it did not, when it should have desisted from interfering it did so anyway, he declared, and furthermore, the government blocked the private sector's activities.

Kay-Nia went on to say that the government is trying to "boost the people's morale by giving out those figures." Using such figures would backfire, he asserted, because officials could not make accurate decisions about subsidies and setting the minimum wage. Mehdi Sahraiyan, who is another economist, said that if anything, the poverty line is falling, and the unscientific distribution of subsidies and uneven distribution of resources only makes the situation worse. He told the 21 February "Resalat" that 20 percent of the population controls 20 percent of the national revenue.

The discussion about the poverty line is not an academic exercise about figures and formulas. It has a practical and human side. Bukan, West Azerbaijan Province, is an impoverished town of about 250,000 people. The local economy is based on agriculture and animal husbandry, but these sectors are not functioning due to the drought, "Kar va Kargar" reported on 27 February. There is now high unemployment, and many of the young people have migrated to the major cities to look for jobs. Other local youth have become seasonal laborers.

Even in Qazvin, which is closer to the capital, poverty has reared its ugly head. Qazvin Governor Jalaledin Sharafi said that some of the districts and villages in the province are the poorest in the country. Sharafi resisted criticizing the MPO, but he did tell the 19 February "Vilayat-i Qazvin" that the MPO has not allocated enough credits for the province. And to better meet locals' needs, Sharafi said that "we should try to upgrade the level of our provision of services," improve management, and increase facilities.

And Mahabad is facing a crisis, "Kar va Kargar" reported last October. There are more and more unemployed young people, and no steps have been taken to create jobs for them or to address related difficulties. Officials have made promises about infrastructure projects and building factories, but "these are promises that have not materialized so far." As a result, people have taken to importing consumer goods such as bananas and tea, and otherwise participating in the "black economy." But they are usually caught, and paying fines only leaves them deeper in debt. (Bill Samii)

IRAN-IRAQ UNDERSTANDING ON OPPOSITION. Qusay Saddam Husseyn, who heads Baghdad's security agencies, visited Tehran in mid-March and met with Iranian military and security officials, Abha's "Al-Watan" reported on 27 March, citing the "Al-Ittijah al-Akhar" newspaper from Holland. Their discussions focused on the role of regional states in the U.S. plan to create a safe haven in southern Iraq and other threats against Baghdad.

Qusay has been entrusted with Iraqi President Saddam Husseyn's plan to make a distinction between oppositionists linked with the U.S. (such as the Iraqi National Congress) and those linked with neighboring states (such as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, SCIRI), the Paris newspaper "Al-Watan al-Arabi" reported on 23 February. The opposition in neighboring countries is now being viewed in the greater context of Iraq's relations with these countries. Iraq hosts the Mujahedin Khalq Organization and Iran hosts the SCIRI, and Baghdad and Tehran have reached an "agreement in principle" to resolve the issue of these groups as part of improving their bilateral relations. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN-BACKED IRAQIS REJECT U.S. SUPPORT. U.S. officials say that they are trying to establish links with the Tehran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and other opponents of the Baghdad regime, in addition to the Iraqi National Congress (INC), with which it already has relations, Reuters reported on 23 March. Also, "informed sources" in Washington said that efforts were under way to arrange a meeting between Secretary of State Colin Powell and SCIRI chairman Ayatollah Baqir al-Hakim, "Al-Hayat" reported on 4 March. The Clinton administration was wary of dealing with the SCIRI due to its Iranian link, but Washington is reassessing its Iraq policy.

According to reports in London's Saudi-owned "Al-Hayat" on 22 March and the independent Arab nationalist "Al-Qods al-Arabi" on 21 March, however, such efforts have been unsuccessful so far. INC leader Ahmad Chalabi met with an SCIRI delegation in Tehran recently, but the SCIRI rejected U.S. initiatives for a dialog and rejected a plan to set up a "safe pocket" for the opposition in southern Iraq. And the Iranian government refused to let the INC open an office in Tehran. "A leading Iraqi opposition source" said conservatives in the Iranian government were behind these decisions, because they would serve as "cover for U.S. security services" and could also lead to regional instability. Tehran also called for the removal of all U.S. forces from the Persian Gulf region. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN-BAGHDAD HOLD P.O.W. DISCUSSIONS. Iraq's President Saddam Husseyn has ordered the release of 27 Iranians imprisoned for various offenses, Xinhua reported on 15 March. The transfer of the prisoners took place under the supervision of the International Committee of Red Cross. Prisoners of war remain one of the issues outstanding from the two countries' eight-year war. Brigadier General Abdullah Najafi, who heads Iran's POW and MIA Commission, announced on 15 March that an Iraqi delegation is to visit Iran later in the month to discuss the issue further. Najafi added that a Red Cross visit to Tehran in early March did not yield any tangible results for Iran, "Tehran Times" reported, and the results of the Red Cross negotiations will be made public in April. POWs are not the only outstanding war-related issue. The number of combat engineering battalions involved in demining activities in the western and southern parts of Iran has been increased to ten, IRNA quoted army ground forces commander Brigadier General Naser Mohammadifar as saying on 24 March. (Bill Samii)

PAKISTANI NAVY VISITS BANDAR ABBAS. A Pakistani submarine and destroyer paid a "courtesy visit" to Bandar Abbas on 29 March, according to IRNA. The visitors are to stay for four days and inspect Iranian naval installations. Two Iranian vessels visited Karachi earlier in late February, and the chief of the Pakistani navy visited Iran in autumn 2000 ("RFE/RL Iran Report," 19 March 2001).

TEHRAN DENIES SUPPLYING ROCKETS TO HIZBALLAH. "We are not interested in confirming or denying such remarks," Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah declared in response to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's statement that Iran had supplied the Lebanese organization with long-range missiles. Nasrallah added, according to the 27 March "Al-Hayat," that "we will be very happy if these were in our possession.... It is our right to defend our country and its people and we will do so."

In a meeting with President George Bush and National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice, Sharon had listed the items shipped from Tehran to Beirut via Damascus, "Yediot Aharanot" reported on 23 March. The shipments included long-range rockets that could reach central Israel, rocket-propelled grenades, light antitank weapons, and Katyusha rocket launchers. Sharon said the Iranians are training Hizballah personnel and planning their attacks on Israel, and the shipments were under direct Iranian control, especially the long-range launchers. A 25 March report in Tel Aviv's "Maariv" said that the so-called long-range missiles are "'only' capable of reaching Haifa's southern periphery."

Meanwhile, Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told Jerusalem's Channel 2 television on 24 March that Sharon's statement about the airlifting by Iran of weapons, funds, and ideological personnel to Lebanon was justified. Ben-Eliezer predicted that military personnel may follow.

Nasrallah complained about double standards during an Ashura ceremony in the Beirut suburb of Haret Hreik, Baalbek's Voice of the Oppressed radio reported on 26 March. "The enemy, which possesses nuclear weapons, complains that the resistance possesses missiles.... There is no problem that the Zionists possess all the advanced weapons supplied by the United States. But for us to possess a weapon, a rifle, or a missile, this is prohibited and it is something that triggers a regional, media, and international crisis."

Mohammad Rad, who is a Hizballah parliamentarian, said that Israel is exaggerating the threat facing it so it can attract more U.S. arms, Beirut's "Al-Mustaqbal" reported on 25 March. He added that Sharon is acting like he will do anything to protect Israel, while in reality Israel still occupies Lebanese territory.

Although the Hizballah response to Sharon's accusation was vague, Tehran's reaction was a fairly straightforward denial. Iranian Ambassador to Beirut Ali Sobhani denied the allegations and said they were "flimsy," Beirut's Radio Lebanon reported on 26 March. Iranian state radio on 25 March cited the Foreign Ministry's denials and then it accused Tel Aviv of preparing public opinion to justify another invasion of Lebanon. State radio added that allegations of Iranian support for the Lebanese resistance are meant to instill doubt about the origins of the resistance.

Lebanon's Prime Minister Rafik Hariri ridiculed Sharon's statement and asked, Beirut's "Al-Mustaqbal" reported on 25 March, "Is Israel short of weapons? Israel is the last to talk about weapons." (Bill Samii)

WHAT DID KHARRAZI TALK ABOUT? Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi's three-day visit to Beirut and Damascus ended on 21 March and caused some speculation about the topics that he had discussed in his meeting with Hizballah chief Hassan Nasrallah, Lebanon's Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and President Emil Lahud, Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, and Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara. Some observers speculated that Kharrazi was trying to make sure that the pending Arab League meeting did not broach the topic of the Tunbs and Abu Musa, three islands that Iran currently occupies but which the United Arab Emirates claim as its own.

Kharrazi himself said the main topic of his discussions was the Palestinian uprising. He stated that "Iran is seeking a broad alliance of Arab and Islamic countries to drive Israel out of occupied Arab lands..., just as Hizballah drove the Israelis from Lebanon last year," IRNA reported on 21 March. He added that the "Zionist racist regime" would face the same death as "apartheid" did in South Africa.

On the same day, Hassan Nasrallah had said that Hizballah would not disarm, "Al-Hayat" reported. He also suggested that Hizballah would continue its operations even if Israeli forces withdrew from the Shabba farms. Two days later, Rosanna Abumunsif wrote in Lebanon's mass circulation "An-Nahar" that the timing of Nasrallah's statement and Kharrazi's visit was noteworthy.

Meanwhile, a "serious report from U.S. and Israeli intelligence bodies," states that Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and Fatah activists are receiving shelter in Sudan, "Maariv" reported on 12 March. According to this "serious report," the activists go to Sudan, then to Iran, back to Lebanon for training at a Hizballah camp, and sometimes on to Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip for their operations. Iran provides money and trainers, and it maintains contact with the PIJ and Hamas operatives. Indeed, Palestinian sympathy for Hizballah started to increase about one year ago, Reuven Paz of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy wrote on 26 March, and it "skyrocketed" after the Israeli withdrawal in May. At the same time, Palestinian appreciation for Iranian support is on the upswing.

If one actually believes statements by Iranian officials, then concern about Iranian support for terrorists is misplaced. Kharrazi said on 19 March that "we should be after a diplomatic solution to the Middle East problem," IRNA reported. The U.S. State Department is not convinced by such statements. Assistant Secretary of State Edward Walker said on 29 March that "the problem of Iranian support for terrorism has increased." (Bill Samii)