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Iran Report: January 10, 2000

10 January 2000, Volume 3, Number 2

PROTESTS NEAR TEHRAN AND IN SOUTHWEST. On 3 and 4 January, residents of Islamshahr, a suburb southwest of Tehran, staged demonstrations that turned violent. The demonstrators blocked the Tehran-Saveh highway, according to IRNA, then "thugs and hooligans" damaged a local health center and some bus kiosks. A few days later, a mob in the southwestern city of Ramhormoz attacked a police station and government offices, the 6 January "Kayhan" reported.

Most of the residents of Islamshahr are poor migrants from rural areas, while those who live near Ramhormoz mainly work in the oil sector. They are not university students or multilingual intellectuals. Their protests have nothing to do with press freedom, elections, or relations with the U.S. Their protests focus on basic human needs, such as clean water and jobs. And for all these reasons, they draw relatively little attention in the rest of Iran and the West.

The Ramhormoz incident started as a protest about a redistricting plan. The unrest escalated over local concern about the parliament's plan to close a local oil facility and possible job losses. Reports about the Islamshahr incident also state that the protest was about a redistricting plan. But Islamshahr Governor Buyk Musavi told IRNA that central authorities consistently ignore locals' demands for improved public services, such as telephones and fuel supplies. This is not the first time violent protests occurred in Islamshahr over social services.

In April 1995, what started as a demonstration for better water supplies turned violent when people voiced their anger about economic hardships. Shops and offices were closed and demonstrators set fire to public buildings, government vehicles, and a gas station. Security forces killed and wounded demonstrators. In June 1992, there were protests when demolition teams tore down 220 illegally-built houses and shops as part of a clamp-down on unlawful buildings.

Lack of social services is not the only factor contributing to Islamshahr's tensions and its citizens' disaffection. Just as in the case of Ramhormoz, unemployment and job concerns greatly affect local attitudes. In July 1995, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corp suppressed a three-day strike at the Khavar auto plant in Islamabad when workers protested for wage increases. A 20-ish fellow explained the current situation in the 16 July 1999 issue of "The New York Times." "We're all jobless. We have nothing to do. We try to do a little bit of business here and there and they arrest us as hooligans. That's why there are so many drug addicts here. It's the despair." What jobs are available generally go to Afghan refugees, who work longer hours for less money.

Islamshahr Governor Musavi told "The New York Times" that his town does not have an unemployment problem, and he added that the locals are very satisfied. This may be because he is unwilling to express criticism in front of foreigners, because in April 1999 he told a meeting of the Provincial City Administrative Council that the improvement of public services and linking Islamshahr with Tehran were outstanding problems.

An Islamshahr veteran of the Iran-Iraq War told "The New York Times": "I fought 40 months in the war against Iraq. When I came back the regime abandoned me. ...The youth are becoming drug addicts. We have no freedom, no jobs, nowhere to go and have fun. So we are all addicts. We are all addicts."

The incidents in Ramhormoz and Islamshahr may not attract much media interest. For most of the Western media, unemployment and poor social services are not very sexy. In Iran's heavily politicized climate, where most newspapers serve as factional mouthpieces, unemployment is being emphasized by the hardliners as a failure of President Mohammad Khatami's administration, and local problems are emphasized as a failure of the municipal councils and the Khatami-controlled Interior Ministry. In December, in fact, the Interior Ministry banned demonstrations by unemployed people in several cities, IRNA reported. For these very reasons reformists probably will ignore the issue, too.

For the average Iranian, however, unemployment, a low standard of living, and a weak economy are extremely relevant. And these are further indicators of the revolution's failure to fulfill its promises. (Bill Samii)

SHOOTINGS IN TABRIZ? In response to reports that a Tabriz rally had been suppressed violently by Islamic Revolutionary Guards, Mehdi Sobhani, an official at the Iranian embassy in Baku, told an Azerbaijani television station on 7 January: "Such lies have been repeatedly disseminated in Azerbaijan and it has been proved that they were lies. The people disseminating such reports are playing on the Azerbaijani people's emotions. And people who consider the Azerbaijani people to be so naive and disseminate such false reports, these people are not so much acting against Iran as they are insulting the Azerbaijani nation."

Piruz Dilenchi, head of the National Liberation Movement of Southern Azerbaijan, had told ANS television earlier that 7,000 thousand ethnic Azeris had gathered at Gyrkhmetri and Davachi districts of Tabriz to stage a rally for their national rights, at which point shooting started. Dilenchi also said the rally was in support of Iranian-Azeri nationalist Mahmoud Ali Chehragani (Johragani), who supposedly is being denied necessary medical attention because he wanted to run in the sixth parliamentary elections. Dilenchi added later that about 200 people were arrested and another 50 people were wounded, Baku's Space TV reported on 8 January. There also are reports that mass arrests have been occurring in Tabriz since 11 December, "Azadlyg" daily reported on 6 January. Among those supposedly arrested are student leader Gholamreza Amani and the famous singer Jabrayil. Those arrested are subject to torture, and Jabrayil's instrument was allegedly broken.

Sources in Tabriz told RFE/RL's Persian Service that some of Chehragani's supporters were detained by the police on 5 or 6 January. But nobody could confirm the claims of shootings or mass arrests.

Another Baku-based separatist organization, the United Azerbaijan Movement, accused employees of the UN's Baku office of cooperating with the Iranian authorities and demanded greater attention to the plight of Azeris in Iran, Baku's Turan news agency reported on 7 January. The next day, the UAM went further. It said: "We demand that until this issue [of Chehragani] is cleared up, the authorities first of all should break off all diplomatic relations, stop the transportation of oil and annul oil agreements," Baku's "525 Gazet" reported. The [pro-government Azerbaijani] Motherland Party's central committee condemned Chehragani's situation, too, Baku's "Mukhalifat" newspaper reported on 8 January.

Chehragani allegedly had sent a fax requesting medical assistance to Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev, "525 Gazet" reported on 6 January. But Aliev's office said the fax was written in Cyrillic and came from the NLMSA, Space TV reported on 8 January. Aliev's office went on to say that "taking into account the high level of the health service in Iran, the wish to come to Azerbaijan for medical treatment causes at least amazement," and it accused the NLMSA of trying to harm Azerbaijani-Iranian relations.

Dilenchi described his objectives in an interview broadcast by ANS TV on 25 December. He said: "We will split up Iran and will liberate our territory occupied by Iran because only a minor part of Azerbaijan in the north is liberated [presumably the Republic of Azerbaijan] but its major part is under the occupation of Persians." He added that Chehragani is on par with turn-of-the-century Azerbaijani nationalist Sattarkhan. (Bill Samii)

ETHNIC PROBLEMS RESURFACE AMONG TURKMEN, KURDS. Iran is not an ethnically homogenous country, so ethnic issues always exist as an undercurrent in the Iranian political ebb and flow. But in the run-up to the February parliamentary election, ethnic issues are resurfacing among the predominantly Sunni Turkmen and Kurdish minorities.

The strongest indication of this is in the predominantly Turkmen regions in northeastern Iran. Originally, this made up Khorasan and Mazandaran Provinces, but redistricting resulted in the addition of Gulistan (Gorgan) Province. While the stated reason for doing this was to simplify administrative processes in view of a growing population, local observers believe the main motivation was to divide the roughly 1.35 million Turkmen and decrease the chances of ethnic identities superceding identification with the state.

Nurjan Ak, an Iranian expert on Turkmen affairs, described the impact of state policies in a December interview with RFE/RL's Turkmen Service. First of all, he said, the Turkmen would like a single Turkmen province, rather than three separate ones. Also, they resent the fact that the Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian minorities have a set number of parliamentary seats guaranteed to them, whereas the predominantly Sunni Turkmen have no such guarantees.

In terms of the pending parliamentary elections, Ak said that the Turkmen vote is divided among reformist, hardline, and pro-Turkmen candidates. Division of the voting districts and constituencies is advantageous to the hardliners, Ak said, because they have the advantage in publicity and in local supervisory boards.

Representatives from Turkmen communities in 14 countries attended a conference of the World Turkmen Humanitarian Association in Ashgabat at the end of December. Two Iranian representatives were there, too, including Sunni cleric Abdol Rezaq. Speaking at the conference, Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov said that Iranian Turkmen should increase their identification with co-ethnics from other countries. This does not imply any deterioration in state-to-state, Iran-Turkmenistan relations. Iranian ambassador to Ashgabat Mehdi Mir Abutalebi and Turkmen Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov held "positive" talks on the extradition of Iranian convicts and on new visa regulations, IRNA reported on 31 December.

Long-standing ethnic problems were seen among Iran's Kurdish population, too. According to the 13 December "Kurdish Media" and the 28 December "Iran" newspaper, in early-December university students at Ardebil's Medical Science University struck over the poor quality of their food and the decrepit condition of their educational facilities. In November, Kermanshah's thrice-weekly "Bakhtar" reported that students wrote to Azad University's chancellor to ask for Kurdish-language teaching in Kermanshah universities. And in February they had protested about the lack of Kurdish-language classes in the universities, with the result that Tehran's Shahid Beheshti University promised to open a Kurdish Studies department.

Also in February, protests about the trial of Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan were suppressed violently by Iran's Law Enforcement Forces. The failure of the Khatami administration to do anything about this led to complaints from Sanandaj parliamentary deputy Seyyed Maruf Samadi ("Khordad," 3 July) and from local writers.

Shokrollah Javan, writing in "Iran-i Farda" in October, wanted to know why nothing was done about the suppression of Kurdish demonstrators, while there was such an uproar about the suppression of the July demonstrations in Tehran. Javan asked President Mohammad Khatami if Kurds are not equal before the law: "Were not the Kurdish people and the Kurdish youth worth anything that you did not condemn the inhumane action [in Sanandaj] in the way that you condemned the events at Tehran University dormitory? ...Is the promise of civil society and political development only for those who live in Tehran?"

Salah al-Din Abbasi, writing in an earlier issue of "Iran-i Farda," was also underwhelmed by so-called "civil society" and what he sees as "Pan-Shiism." He wrote that the predominantly-Sunni Kurdish people are frustrated that there are no local Sunni governors, deputy governors, judicial officials, or religious officials, although there is one Kurdish governor. What Abbasi sees as "Pan-Shiism" effectively excludes a substantial number of people from the "united body of Iran," with the result that the Iranian Sunni community's trust is "weakened."

Parliamentary representative Abdolrahim Nurbakhsh gave other examples of factors that undermine the Kurdish population's trust in the central government. "Chronic unemployment" and no local factories, "the lack of job-generating centers," and the "unkind approach of central hiring officials" has forced alienated youth to leave the country illegally to find jobs. Others "have been forced to join the PKK." (Bill Samii)

KHATAMI UNDERMINES HIMSELF. Before breaking the Ramadan fast on 29 December, President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami gave a speech which could be interpreted as a criticism of regulations affecting the 18 February parliamentary election. Khatami said that at times, "rulers control all the instruments of power without people's consent and without being answerable to anyone. ...people were duty-bound to surrender to the wishes of the state." But now societies are built on rights, while state's have "duties and responsibilities," so "it is no longer the case that governments have rights and people have a duty to accept whatever they say." Khatami then cited Imam Ali, whose martyrdom anniversary was being commemorated that night.

According to Imam Ali, "people have rights over the government," including the right to criticize their rulers. Imam Ali goes on to say, according to Khatami, that the ruler has a duty to "act responsibly towards the people." Khatami's statements indicate that he is not entirely happy with the course of events in the run-up to the parliamentary election, but his mild and indirect criticisms are leaving his supporters dissatisfied. In turn, this is threatening the future of the pro-reform political coalition behind his electoral victory.

Thirty-two prominent Iranian political figures sent an open letter urging Khatami to ensure that the parliamentary election is not rigged, IRNA reported on 4 January. Among the letter's signatories are the secretary-general of the Militant Clerics Association, Hojatoleslam Mehdi Mahdavi-Karrubi; Hojatoleslam Mohammad Asqar Musavi-Khoeniha; parliamentarian and secretary-general of the Islamic Assembly of Women, Fatemeh Karrubi; Islamic Labor Party founder Soheila Jelodarzadeh; and former Khatami adviser Seyyed Mehdi Imam-Jamarani.

At the sermon marking the 8 January end of Ramadan, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei criticized the letter. "Legal organizations, including the Interior Ministry and the Guardians Council--the former responsible for implementing and the latter responsible for supervising the elections--are charged with appropriate tasks and they follow the law. ...If the organizations [the Interior Ministry and the Guardian Council] differ on a matter and are not sure whether it is legal or not, then they must resolve the problems among themselves. In order to create a commotion, some people accuse [certain] individuals or organizations for their actions. This is below the dignity of Islamic officials."

Ayatollah Ostadi of the Guardians Council told state television on 5 January that writing such a letter "is not wise...prior to discussing the issue among ourselves." He went on to say that supervising the election is the Guardians Council's responsibility, rather than the executive branch's, and he rejected suggestions that there are any problems between the Interior Ministry and the Guardians Council.

In fact, problems over the election laws persist. The most serious indication of this occurred on 2 January when a parliamentary walkout occurred. This was brought about by Mohammad Reza Bahonar's proposal for the elimination of second round run-offs. Bahonar proposed that anybody who gains a majority should win, whereas under the existing law the winner had to gain at least one-third of the votes. Objecting to this proposal as contrary to the constitution and Islamic law, enough deputies walked out that a quorum could not be formed. The next day, after a closed-door session, 113 deputies voted against and 110 voted for the motion to hold single-stage elections. It was decided that whoever earns 25 percent of the vote wins, and in case of a second round, the winner just needs to gain a majority.

Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari gave his grudging approval of this latter measure, telling IRNA that Bahonar's proposal would have meant "the governing of a minority over a majority."

The Guardians Council also is strengthening its control over every stage of the electoral process (as predicted in "RFE/RL Iran Report," 27 September 1999). The Guardians Council announced that it is not sufficient for parliamentary candidates to be Muslims. They also must show commitment to Islam. This would be determined by local supervisors who could vouch for the candidates' attendance at pro-regime rallies and at the Friday prayers.

And as usually happens, the Guardians Council's actions were described as unconstitutional. "It is the explicit wording of the constitution that 'candidacy in elections' is the natural right of every citizen and that nobody and no authority has the right to deny or restrict this right," a commentary in the 5 January "Iran" stated. The commentary went on to say that judging a person's faith and religion "is entirely in the hands of Almighty God." Legal experts Ali Shokuri-Rad, Mahmud Akhundi, and Mohammad Reza Kamyar all stated, in interviews with the 3 January "Mosharekat," that the Guardians Council is exceeding its authority.

Another point of contention relates to the role played by state broadcasting in the election. Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Director Ali Larijani has been criticized frequently for the favorable coverage he gives to hardline candidates and causes, and he also has been criticized for IRIB's hostile stance towards reformists. Interior Minister Musavi-Lari told IRNA: "what we are after is that all the organs should apply equal justice and especially IRIB should remain neutral in the upcoming elections." In a 4 January meeting with IRIB's Supervisory Council, Khatami said television must remain impartial and should contribute to peace and tranquility.

All of these developments, as well as Khatami's relatively muted and belated reactions to them and to preceding ones, seem to have reduced the Iranian president's support among the country's political elites. An anonymous "university professor in Tehran" said, the German agency dpa reported on 2 January, that an alliance is evolving, going beyond just reforming the Islamic system to forming a secular system. He added that in his view, Khatami will be the main victim of this process. (Bill Samii)

ANTI-CORRUPTION CAMPAIGN ANNOUNCED. "The people are complaining about the unhealthy relationships in certain executive machinery and the application of the principle: it is not what you know; it is whom you know--particularly in the signing of agreements--and bribery and the receiving of illegal sums of money," according to Hojatoleslam Seyyed Ebrahim Raisi, chief of the National Control and Inspection Organization, which is charged with combating corruption and supervision of proper implementation of laws. Raisi went on to say, according to a 4 January television broadcast, that most of the reported complaints involve the municipalities, the State Social Security Organization, hospitals, and the Law Enforcement Forces. Implying that Kish Free Trade Zone is a hotbed of debauchery, he added that the cultural atmosphere there "does not conform to Islamic values."

In order to address such problems, the Judiciary, which supervises the National Control and Inspection Organization, has issued instructions that the courts must investigate its reports on an "out-of-turn basis."

Another indicator of the extent of state corruption was a statement by Administrative Tribunal chief Hojatoleslam Qorban-Ali Dori-Najafabadi. He told the 29 December "Tehran Times" that the Administrative Tribunal was being created to "investigate the complaints lodged against government organizations and its affiliated bodies." But in a cautionary note, Dori-Najafabadi said the tribunal is overloaded with 35,000 accumulated cases and it does not have sufficient resources to deal with them.

The corresponding comments of Raisi and Dori-Najafabadi suggest that bureaucratic rivalry may undermine their efforts. Their comments also support suggestions that this anti-corruption campaign probably will not achieve much (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 27 December 1999). (Bill Samii)

BENEFICIARY OF CHECHNYA WAR. President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami sent a message of congratulations to the acting president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, Iranian state television reported on 4 January. As Russian artillery continued to hammer Grozny and Chechen forces tried to retake the city's northern suburbs, Khatami's message expressed his hope that the Chechnya crisis "would end in a peaceful manner as soon as possible." But the Russian military industrial complex is reluctant to see the conflict end, the 29 December "Izvestiya" suggests, and Iran is a beneficiary of this alleged policy.

According to "Izvestiya," there are now only nine Russian military hardware dealers, compared to 21 last year, and this will strengthen export possibilities. The Russian government, furthermore, has promised soft loans to the military-industrial complex this year. Helping Russian exports is the battle-testing of weapons systems in Chechnya. The "Izvestiya" report says, "Cynical as it may sound, Chechnya is a kind of storefront for prospective foreign customers."

Iran is one of these customers. Iranian acquisition of goods associated with nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare is common knowledge, but Iran is also a customer for Russian conventional weapons. Among Iran's Russian weapons are T-72 Main Battle Tanks, armored personnel carriers, self-propelled howitzers, Multiple Rocket Launchers, ZSU 23-4 anti-aircraft artillery pieces, and MiG-29 (Fulcrum) and Su-24 (Fencer) aircraft. Most of these items, and most likely some new ones, have seen service in Chechnya. (Bill Samii)

COMPETITION AMONG SOUTH AMERICAN HIZBALLAH. Two Hizballah organization's are jockeying for dominance in the tri-border region of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, Asuncion's "ABC Color" reported on 5 January. Leader of the Ciudad del Este Islamic Education Center and the local Shia mosque, Said Mohammad Fahs represents the wing with a "conciliatory attitude with Western society." The opposing "radical wing" of Hizballah is led by Bilal Mohsen Wehbi, who is supposedly "pro-Iranian." Fahs survived an assassination attempt by his opponents, so they tried to discredit him through blackmail. He told "ABC Color:" "First they wanted to kill me. they are accusing me of being a child abuser and a homosexual. ...the Paraguayan Police must clarify this incident." Regional police cracked down on local Hizballah organizations on 22 December out of concern that they may be planning terrorist operations, and on the same day Iran announced its withdrawal from a Colombian slaughterhouse project (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 27 December 1999). (Bill Samii)