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Iran Report: July 23, 2001

23 July 2001, Volume 4, Number 27

POPULAR ANGER AND THE SEARCH FOR A HERO... Events in the last month, which include demonstrations following the demolition of slum housing, violence against refugees, protests by unpaid workers, and manifestations by drought-stricken villagers, suggest that many people need the assistance that at one time could have been offered by the Iranian phenomena called a "javanmard." Such a man would be well-off, well-connected, reliable, and a philanthropist, and he would help others without seeking the limelight. But expectations have fallen in recent years, and "Today you are a javanmard if you succeed in bringing home a kilo of meat," Fariba Adelkhah writes in "Being Modern in Iran" (1999).

In the second week of July, clashes broke out in the Tehran neighborhood of Shahriar as municipal officials attempted to raze illegally constructed housing. At least 30 people were arrested, while 40 protestors and 22 Law Enforcement Forces representatives were injured. Three bulldozers and four vehicles were set on fire, IRNA reported, and the demolitions were stopped after residents threatened to close the road connecting Shahriar with Tehran. As of 11 July, according to IRNA, 140 buildings had been leveled and many others were headed for a similar fate. The area is home to 24,000 people, most of whom are laborers, and a local official said that the housing was built illegally because Tehran City Hall put up too much red tape.

Earlier in the month, Welfare Organization chief Gholamreza Ansari had warned that governmental passivity in the face of growing social problems could result in "riots by the urban poor," "Resalat" reported on 5 July. Yet many Iranian from the provinces continue moving to the cities in search of employment. Adding to this pressure for housing and social services, Afghan refugees displaced by the continuing conflict in their country have moved to Iran and especially its bigger cities.

These Afghans have become scapegoats for many of the country's difficulties and are blamed for unemployment, the drain on social services, and crime. As a result, the Iranian government's policy of forcible repatriation has picked up steam, with a 19 July report from IRNA about plans to deport all unregistered Afghan refugees by September and a June order for police to round up the refugees from Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari. Shahrud parliamentarian Mohammad Shahi-Arablu, for example, said that the Interior Ministry's plan to provide legal foreign nationals with residency permits would just encourage more Afghans to immigrate, the Iranian Students News Agency reported on 16 July, and he said that the 3 million [sic] Afghans living in Iran are the "main cause" for high unemployment among Iranian youth.

These governmental actions and elected officials' statements, coming when Iranians face a 25 percent unemployment rate, are likely to encourage anti-refugee violence. Indeed, there were violent clashes in the central city of Flaverjan on 8 July, when Iranian youth injured dozens of Afghans. The police failed to make any arrests, according to IRNA, in what has become a regular occurrence. Six Afghans were stabbed during late-June clashes in Khomeini-shahr, too.

The presence of cheap labor in the form of Afghan refugees is not the only cause of unemployment. One-third of the labor force is employed in the agricultural sector, and Deputy Agricultural Jihad Minister Mohammad Hussein Imadi announced that his ministry would be laying off 20,000 people. He went on to tell agricultural graduates at Mazandaran University in Sari that the job-creation rate in his ministry is zero, there will not be any future recruitment, and there are no jobs available in any other government departments either, "Kayhan" reported on 5 July. Provincial Governor Heydar Qassemi said that some 100,000 farmers in Isfahan have lost their jobs because of the drought that has hit Iran, IRNA reported on 12 July.

Employment does not necessarily lead to an income and there were a number if labor-related demonstrations in the last two months. In the third week of July, about 250 workers from the Jamco clothing factory and the Shadanpur shoe factory, many of whom have not been paid for more than a year, demonstrated in front of the parliament. Baton-wielding police injured eight workers, ISNA reported on 15 July and IRNA reported on 16 July, as they tried to storm the parliament. Ali Talai of the Tehran governorate told ISNA that the LEF showed maximum restraint and none of the protesters were arrested, although they did not have a permit.

Some 60 employees of the Darugar company demonstrated in front of the Chamber of Commerce to protest being laid off and replaced by 100 contract workers. "We have not been paid for over three months and laid off," protestor Monzer Piri told IRNA on 18 July. Workers from Barkhar va Meimeh's Kuhfard factory, which manufactures radio and television sets, protested on 16 July. The factory was closed because it could not get spare parts, and the workers demanded job security as well as new parts supplies. Iranian economist Alireza Ahmadi told RFE/RL's Persian Service that he expected more worker protests in the coming months.

At the same time as these incidents of public unrest, there is unrest over the government's reaction to the drought. There is water rationing in about 30 cities, including Tehran, Hamedan, and Mashhad, and in Khorasan Province many villages have been abandoned. Jamil Ahmed of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization explained in an interview with RFE/RL, "If you have lost your livestock or your harvest, then you move into the city [or] to other places where there is water."

Police detained 44 people in Isfahan, IRNA reported on 5 July, as demonstrators attacked banks and telephone booths, burned tires, and chanted against local officials. They also attempted to enter the provincial water organization, but the LEF discouraged them by shooting into the air. Police arrested nomads in Hamedan Province who clashed with local water officials, too.

Shahr-i Rey residents protested against the cutoff of the neighborhood's water supply in early June, according to "Tehran Times." And on 30 May, residents of Khorramshahr rallied in front of the governor's office to protest against plans to divert the Karun River. Friday Prayer leader Ayatollah Abolhassan-Nuri said that the people would destroy all the equipment and machinery on that site if the plan to divert the river was not abandoned. The local market was closed all day, furthermore, while security forces and police were put on alert, according to ISNA.

In such an atmosphere, at least people may soon be looking for more than a "javanmard" -- possibly a charismatic leader who promises to help the whole country. Official Tehran clearly seems to fear just such a possibility. (Bill Samii)

...AS REGIME MOVES AGAINST ONE. The state's recent actions against Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri-Najafabadi and his household, coming in the midst of all the recent unrest (see above) may reflect fears about the emergence of an Iranian hero. Indeed, support for Montazeri is increasingly evident. Five hundred and fifty-four clerics submitted a petition calling for an end to Montazeri's house arrest in Qom. "Nearly four years have passed since the illegitimate and illegal house arrest of [Montazeri]...unfortunately the siege has become tighter and the pressures on him have increased," the statement said, according to a late July Reuters report. Montazeri's own statements will not dispel governmental fears about him.

"If the leadership does not change its behavior radically, there is no future for the religious government," he said in response to questions faxed to him by a French communist party. Montazeri, who has frequently questioned the credentials of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and also called for changes to the constitution that empowers him, said that "the concentration of powers in the hands of a single person is not accepted and must not be accepted." Montazeri also suggested that either the post of president and spiritual leader should be combined to create a powerful elected leader or the president should be given more powers and the spiritual leader should just fill an advisory role, AFP reported on 18 July.

Tehran is continuing its efforts to silence Montazeri's followers. Special Court for the Clergy (SCC) agents arrested Montazeri's son-in-law, Mujtaba Feyz, and three other clerics on 16 July, and they confiscated computers, compact discs, and documents. Moreover, agents raided the house of Montazeri's son Ahmad a few days earlier and confiscated money, documents, and books.

Saideh, Montazeri's daughter, told RFE/RL's Persian Service that she does not recognize the SCC as a legal entity and she would not let the SCC agents enter, so they broke the windows and came in that way. Saideh was not given a reason for the arrest of her husband, and she speculated that it was in connection with his work with computers and Ayatollah Montazeri's website.

Hojatoleslam Mahmud Salavati was among those who were arrested by the SCC agents. Salavati's son told RFE/RL's Persian Service that the SCC agents had a search warrant, and they seized some of his writings, translations of Montazeri's work, and computers. The son went on to say that this is not the first time his father has been arrested.

Bertolt Brecht wrote that "unhappy the land that needs heroes," and under current circumstances, Tehran may fear that Montazeri is that hero. Montazeri's release from house arrest in the near future is extremely unlikely, Tehran journalist Nima Rashedan told RFE/RL's Persian Service, and as long as Supreme Leader Khamenei sees Montazeri as a threat, it will not matter how many clerics sign petitions. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN SEEKS INTERNATIONAL AID. Tehran is making much of the three-year drought affecting all of Southwestern Asia, and drought damage is estimated at some $2.6 billion. Although the hard currency earned through unexpectedly high oil prices could help relieve much of the drought's financial impact, Iranian officials and UN representatives met with foreign diplomats on 10 July to present their case for international assistance.

Abbas Jazayeri of the Interior Ministry's Disaster Relief Force said that the drought is expected to affect 25 out of 28 provinces, and rainfall in Sistan va Baluchistan Province is 78 percent less than the long-term average. Water is being rationed in Bushehr, Fars, Isfahan, Kerman, Khorasan, Sistan va Baluchistan, and Tehran provinces. The Dez and Karkheh rivers are 70 percent lower now than they were at the same time last year, Luristan Province water affairs official Mohammad Taqi Tavakoli told IRNA on 17 July.

Damage in Isfahan Province is estimated at 676 million rials (about $85,000 at the open market rate), "Iran Daily" reported on 10 July. Provincial Deputy Governor-General Seifollahi predicted that water reserves behind the Zayandeh Rud Dam would be depleted within two months, IRNA reported on 1 July, and this would cause a lack of drinking water, a water shortage at the local oil refinery, and insufficient water at the local power plant.

In Hamedan Province and Tehran Province officials have resorted to using the traditional qanats to get water, and customers who use too much water have had their accounts terminated or have been fined. About 650 villages in Khorasan Province have been abandoned, IRNA reported on 6 July, although the provincial governor-general denied this the next day. (Bill Samii)

AGRICULTURAL SHORTFALLS BLAMED ON DROUGHT. "Even though the officials have always used the drought as their excuse [for reduced wheat production], this is not accurate, because the drought has the greatest effect on dry farming wheat, not irrigated wheat," according to Qolamreza Pezeshki, director of the Agricultural Promotion and Education Group at Teachers Training College. And even if such an excuse was accurate, Pezeshki added in a May interview with "Khorasan" daily, "if cultivation had been carried out on a scientific basis with consideration for the conditions, there should have been no decrease in production."

A recent report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said that Iranian wheat production fell to 8 million tons in the 2000-2001 growing year. Jamal Ahmed of FAO's Tehran office told RFE/RL that farmers in Iran's drought-hit regions are expecting 35 to 75 percent reductions in wheat and barley production, an estimated 1 million animals have died over a three-year period, and economic damage over that same period amounts to $2.6 billion.

The FAO report criticized poor water management, a dilapidated infrastructure, obsolete technology, and wastage. Ghazanfar Goltapeh of the Agricultural Jihad Ministry also mentioned wastage in an interview with "Khorasan." He went on to say that cultivation, maintenance, and harvesting policies were misguided, and the provision of subsidies to consumers caused further losses for farmers.

Pezeshki told "Khorasan" some of the other reasons for the failure to produce enough wheat. He said that Tehran encouraged wheat cultivation in the early 1990s by offering prizes to the farmers, but the government eliminated the prizes and reduced provision of other resources when neglect of other crops became a problem. "Therefore the main factor in the decreases of wheat production was firstly the decrease in funds and the stopping of prizes, and then because small pieces of agricultural land were being cultivated without uniformity, this situation continued. Eventually, the gentlemen will have to stop blaming the drought some day and think about preventing the waste of resources."

Nonetheless, the drought is bearing the blame and Tehran has mobilized resources to deal with its effects. Yet Tehran cannot do this alone, according to FAO's Ahmed: "The drought impact is so huge that international assistance is needed, is really needed to relieve the people in the country and perhaps help the livestock sector." Ahmed says that Iran needs about 2,500 water pumps, water quality testing equipment, epoxy-coated water tankers, stationary tanks for potable water, and about 2,000 kilometers of polyethylene piping.

Ahmed also told RFE/RL that 1.5 million tons of barley is needed for livestock feed. In addition to its impact on wheat and barley, the drought has affected rice cultivation in Gilan Province adversely. Tehran purchased up to 100,000 tons of Thai grade-B rice in June, according to Reuters, but purchases of Vietnamese rice fell through because of disagreements stemming from previous transactions. Iran also purchased about 14,000 tons of white sugar in late July, and it submitted tenders for 35,000-40,000 tons of raw sugar. (Bill Samii)

ELECTRICAL EXPORTS CONTINUE, AS DO BLACKOUTS. Akbar Nematollahi, who heads the international department of the state power generation and transmission management company (Tavanir Corporation), announced on 10 July that Iran exports some $25 million worth of electricity to its neighbors. Iran's power grid is linked with those of Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, Nematollahi said, and discussions to do so are underway with Pakistan and Iraq. Azerbaijan regional electricity organization managing director Mir-Fatah Qarabaq added that the links with Iran's neighbors in the west are through five stations in East Azerbaijan, West Azerbaijan, and Ardebil provinces.

"It is not a great accomplishment to give electricity to other countries while Khuzestan, which is the country's most important provider of electricity, should suffer continuous periodic blackouts," Ahvaz city council member Salehpur said, according to "Nur-i Khuzestan" in early June. She went on to say that Energy Ministry officials do not seem serious about resolving this problem and are unresponsive to the city council.

Gilan Province managing director for electricity Ali Ejeian said that because of the fall in water levels at the country's dams, 3-11 percent nationwide power cuts are possible, "Noruz" reported on 10 July, and the amount of electrical production is already 8 percent lower than in wetter years. Isfahan Province Deputy Governor-General Abdol Hussein Seifollahi also expressed concern that the drought would lead to power cuts, IRNA reported on 1 July.

According to a 14 July statement from Tavanir Corporation, however, there will be no power cuts in Iran despite the 3 percent reduction in hydroelectric power production caused by the drought. Moreover, Tehran is trying to increase its power output. Energy Minister Habibollah Bitaraf watched the initial operation of the Kerman synthetic cycle power plant on 14 July and he said that in the long term the project could generate 7,500 megawatts of electricity. Five more units are expected to be operational by 20 March 2002, and technology for the project was imported from Italy. Moreover, the Energy Ministry and Industries and Mines Ministry signed an agreement to build a 1.3 megawatt capacity power plant on one of Iran's Persian Gulf islands, according to a 10 July IRNA report. The project will cost 3.6 billion rials ($450,000 at the open market rate) and all the equipment for it will be purchased from domestic factories licensed by international firms. (Bill Samii)

NEW GUARDIANS COUNCIL MEMBERS TAPPED. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei on 16 July appointed Ayatollah Mohammad Hassan Qaderi and Hojatoleslam Sadeq Larijani as clerical members of the Guardians Council, and he re-appointed ayatollahs Mohammad Daneshzadeh-Momen-Qomi and Mohammad Yazdi, according to IRNA. Qaderi and Larijani are to replace Ayatollah Hassan Taheri-Khorramabadi, who is resigning due to health problems, and Ayatollah Reza Ostadi, whose term has ended. If these reports are accurate, the clerical membership of the Council now includes Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, Momen, Larijani, Qaderi, Ayatollah Gholamreza Rezvani, and Yazdi. According to a report in the official "Iran" newspaper, however, some Qom seminarians designated Ahmad Khatami as their preferred candidate, while there also was speculation that the more moderate Ayatollah Mohammad Ebrahim Jannati might be appointed to the Council.

Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, meanwhile, has presented his list of candidates for the jurist positions on the Council, according to reports in the 16 July "Tehran Times" and "Iran" newspapers. The parliament must choose three candidates from Shahrudi's list, which named Ebrahim Azizi, Gholamreza Elham, Mohsen Ismaili, Abbas-Ali Kadkhodai, Ali Karimi, and Hussein Mir-Mohammad Sadeqi. They will replace Ali Arad, Hassan Habibi, and one of the two Alizadehs on the Council.

Shahrudi's list has met opposition in the parliament because of the candidates' conservative political tendencies. Five of the six jurist candidates faced the legislature in an unofficial session on 17 July, according to state radio, and presented reports about their lives, professional experience, and official jobs, and then they answered questions. The candidates presented their future programs during a subsequent closed session.

Afterwards, some reformist deputies said that the candidates were unacceptable because they were too inexperienced and too conservative. Mohammad Naimpur said, "the proposed nominees are very young and some of them have a certain political inclination [that] contradicts the independent nature of the Guardian Council." Rajabali Mazrui said the candidates should be veterans in their field. Moreover, parliamentarian Mohammad Kazemi suggested that "Ayatollah Shahrudi should have consulted the parliament for selecting lawyers as does President Khatami for choosing ministers for his next administration," IRNA reported. And Mohammad Ali Kuzegar of Shahriar and Robat Karim constituency in Tehran Province complained that the jurists' answers about the Council's power of approbatory supervision over elections were vague and cautious, "Iran Daily" reported on 17 July.

The parliament then decided to postpone making a decision on the proposed jurists until after President Mohammad Khatami's 4 August inauguration, according to IRNA. About 60 members of the legislature requested the delay so they could get "more acquainted with the nominees." (Bill Samii)

EUROPE BUYS IRANIAN SEAFOOD. Director-General of West Azerbaijan Fishery Ayat Fakhri said that over 30 tons of prawns have been exported from West Azerbaijan Province this season, IRNA reported on 16 July. Fakhri said demand for the unique shellfish is high in European markets, where it trades at $8-12 per kilogram. The country's shrimp yield is expected to show a 250 percent rise in the year starting March 2001, putting the figure at 10,000 tons. In the previous year (March 2000-2001), according to IRNA, Iran exported 7,800 tons of shrimp, worth $22.9 million, which marks a 120 percent increase in weight and a 114.4 percent increase in value over the previous year. IRNA went on to report that Iran could raise its shrimp output to 200,000 tons a year.

Golestan Province Veterinary Organization Managing Director Hussein Zahtab said on 11 July that 17,930 kilograms of sturgeon meat and over 9,136 kilograms of caviar have been exported to the European Union in the year starting March 2001, according to IRNA. Iran has a 200-ton per annum annual production and export capacity, but its export quota is only 90 tons. Iran is the only Caspian Sea state exempt from the threat of a caviar export ban because it practices effective conservation, "The Christian Science Monitor" reported on 20 July. The UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) threatened Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan with the caviar ban if they did not halt sturgeon fishing, because Beluga sturgeon is in danger of extinction. The Caspian's sturgeon population was around 200 million in the late 1980s and the typical annual catch was around 25,000 tons, but it is estimated that there are less than 10 million sturgeon in the Caspian today. (Bill Samii)