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Iran Report: November 20, 2000

20 November 2000, Volume 3, Number 44

FOCUS ON FLORIDA. Electoral events in the U.S. are eliciting a variety of reactions in Iran. Among these are observations about systemic changes that may help future elections run more smoothly, but there are also the usual criticisms about "hidden hands" and U.S. duplicity.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on 18 November that any country in which "75 percent of the people have played no role in the election of the top authority" cannot be called a real democracy. "The people who close their eyes and welcome with open arms whatever is thrown at them by Westerners who have claims on ideas, logic, and politics should refer to their senses and ask their own conscience if that is democracy. That cannot be called democracy." Khamenei went on to say that there was "no freedom of thought or news or information-gathering [in the West] that could be said to be independent [of the control] of the monopoly [exercised by] businessmen and capitalists," so real information about behind-the-scenes maneuvering never comes out.

Khamenei's comments during a 17 November speech in Tafresh, however, suggested that his dislike of the U.S. is a constant, regardless of its elections or form of government. He first told the audience to remain vigilant against the influence and dominance of the U.S. Then he warned that "those who attempt to rekindle the enemy's hope of returning to Iran, by virtue of their words, conduct, political actions, and a variety of amateur acts, are committing an act of treachery."

During the 17 November Friday prayers in Tehran, former Judiciary chief and current Guardians Council member Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi also discussed the U.S. election. "The American election farce revealed cheating and collusion. However, the Americans call this democracy, the rule of the people and this or that. We saw how both sides, both factions, implemented the democracy that they keep talking about." Yazdi then cited an anonymous African statesman who offered to send election monitors to the U.S. "Indeed there is so much decadence in America today that they need election monitors from Africa. That is the situation the world democracy finds itself in at the moment."

Yazdi's earlier remarks during the sermon indicated that he may have a slight bias when discussing the U.S. "Yes indeed, death to Israel and its biggest supporter. If America had not given its support [to Israel], the Muslims would have been able to better encounter Israel. We must chant death to America and its political ideology." The crowd did so, repeatedly.

The "Tehran Times" observed on 13 November that the recount in Florida illustrates the need for a Guardians Council that could "prevent vote-rigging and guarantee a free and fair election." The daily also rewrote history to fit its own agenda, saying that candidate George W. Bush was arrested for driving while intoxicated "on the eve of the elections," and it described Bush as a drug addict. In another article, "Tehran Times" claimed that hidden powers control electoral and political events in the U.S.

"Iran News" said on the same day that "the deterioration of the American democratic process is interesting to watch." It noted that the U.S criticizes elections in other countries and advocates the use of international election monitors, and it wondered if the U.S. would welcome international observers in this case. (Bill Samii)

COHEN'S COMMENTS UNWELCOME. U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen's 18 October statements during a visit to Qatar have irked Tehran. Cohen said that terrorism could not drive U.S. forces from the Persian Gulf region, and he warned that the violence between Palestinian and Israeli forces could spill over into the entire region. Cohen went on to say that the U.S. is a stabilizing force, according to Reuters.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi reacted the next day. He described Cohen's remarks as "disruptive" and suggested that such comments are likely to cause regional "instability." According to Assefi: "At a time when America supports the crimes of the Zionist regime against the Palestinian people, it is in no position to accuse other [states] of supporting terrorism and then try to set preconditions for them." Assefi went on to say that Cohen had effectively insulted regional states, and he went on to say that "the presence of U.S. military forces in the Persian Gulf region was a major factor contributing to instability in the region," according to IRNA.

"Kayhan International," an English-language daily associated with the Supreme Leader's office, accused Cohen of underestimating the Muslim community. People are sensitive to his "hackneyed remarks about the threats posed by Iran to the region." Cohen was trying to distract people from Israel's "crimes," and he was encouraging the Palestinian and Arab youth to throw stones at Tehran, rather than Tel Aviv. The daily said that people would see through Cohen's claims. (Bill Samii)

SUPERVISION, SUCCESSION, OR OBFUSCATION? The late-August meeting of the popularly-elected Assembly of Experts -- an 86-member clerical body that has the power to appoint, supervise, and dismiss the Supreme Leader -- may result in greater clerical control of Iranian cultural and press affairs. Moreover, there are rumors that the body selected a successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rumors that have spread because this body does not have an official spokesman. Resentment about this lack of transparency appeared after the Assembly's January meeting, and because the Assembly seems to have assumed new powers, the calls for transparency have resurfaced.

After the Assembly's last session, it did release a statement, state television reported on 29 August, asserting that "cultural onslaughts" have targeted religious rule and jurisprudence. The statement also called on people to support the constitution, religious leadership, and governmental bodies, and officials were told to put aside factional disputes.

It was not until Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani's 1 September Friday Prayers sermon in Tehran that there was much news about the late-August meeting of the Assembly, except for boilerplate reports from the official media. Hashemi-Rafsanjani noted that the main business of the Assembly is the leadership, but there were roughly 30 speeches about current events. Because the speeches were off-the-record, Hashemi-Rafsanjani said, the speakers could be frank.

After the speeches, Hashemi-Rafsanjani said, "it was agreed that in the future, the experts of the nation will be able to exercise greater supervision over the country's affairs." The reason for this development is concern about the enemy's entry into the arena "in a bid to destroy the Islamic essence of our political system." The unnamed enemy's hostility exists because "their civilization" propounds "secularism...antagonism or apathy towards religion." Hashemi-Rafsanjani described the use of rumors, the outlay of money, sending people to Iran and inviting Iranians abroad, and organizing "gatherings" to achieve this end.

Ayatollah Reza Ostadi, who also is a member of the Assembly, commented on the meeting in articles for the 7 September "Resalat" and the 9 September "Siyasat." He wrote that President Mohammad Khatami had been warned about the "penetration of elements opposed to religion and revolution inside cultural arenas." There also was concern about the threat to Islam as a form of government.

Hashemi-Rafsanjani's comments caused a great deal of concern in the parliament, "Hayat-i No" reported on 4 September, and many deputies said the Assembly was exceeding its powers. Former Assembly member Hojatoleslam Assadollah Bayat concurred with this view, and he wondered why the Assembly had not issued an official declaration. Parliamentarian Abdol Nasser Qavami said that Hashemi-Rafsanjani should focus on the organizations meant to curb the pressure groups. "If he is really worried about the recent clashes and outbursts, he should prohibit those groups that are waging a free-for-all in the name of defending the faith." He went on to say that the public demanded information on the Assembly's recent session.

Calls for increased transparency were not uncommon. "Asr-i Ma" complained on 6 September that two years ago there were promises of greater transparency in the Assembly's activities but that nothing has happened yet. The meetings are still closed, and there are no official reports about its internal debates. The activities of an official spokesman, furthermore, would indicate greater respect for public opinion. And there should be information about the pre-agenda speeches, too, the paper said.

Assembly members Ayatollah Seyyed Mohsen Musavi-Tabrizi and Hojatoleslam Qorban Ali Dori-Najafabadi told "Entekhab" in August that the issue of greater openness about Assembly meetings had been discussed, although there was no final decision. Either there would be a general statement about the meetings, or the meetings would be open to the public. Current regulations, according to Musavi-Tabrizi, do not allow for a report on the meetings.

All the talk about supervising the country's affairs may be a smokescreen, if August reports in London's "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" are accurate. The Arabic daily, which claimed that its scoops on Iranian affairs frustrated Tehran officials, described a "closed, unannounced," mid-summer meeting of the Assembly of Experts at which Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi was chosen as the Supreme Leader's successor. Khamenei, who supposedly is suffering from an unnamed illness, promoted Hashemi-Shahrudi, but the Iranian religious establishment in Qom and Mashhad resents having an Iraqi-born cleric foisted on it. There has been no subsequent confirmation of the selection of a successor for the Supreme Leader.

Official news reports about the Assembly's meeting supported the view that there is concern about the country's cultural status. Supreme Leader Khamenei warned the Assembly, state radio reported on 30 August, that global arrogance is trying to poison and manipulate public opinion and undermine support for the Islamic system by using propaganda and "sophisticated communication technologies." He told the Assembly to be vigilant because the enemy would persist in its efforts.

"With their extensive propaganda and by aggrandizing the problems [in Iran], the enemies are trying to portray the Islamic system as ineffective and powerless," President Khatami warned the Assembly. He went on to say that there are plans to increase people's political, economic, cultural, and religious demands, according to state television. Khatami also warned against the use of violence, and he said the government aims for "social justice and social welfare, and it is trying to restructure the economy and the administrative system. According to IRNA, Khatami also "upbraided the Fascist and Communist enemies."

At the opening session, Assembly speaker Ayatollah Ali Meshkini-Qomi complained that some publications do not respect religion, the constitution, or the Koran, and he complained about the performance of some cabinet members (presumably Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance Ataollah Mohajerani). Meshkini added that he and the Supreme Leader are satisfied with the government's performance. (Bill Samii)

MANY WHEAT SUPPLIERS CONSIDERED. Iran may buy 7.5 million tons of foreign wheat this year, and recent efforts by the U.S. wheat industry to encourage Iran to buy American grain may have some success, largely because Iran is currently at an impasse with one of its suppliers, Pakistan. The U.S. does not have a lock on the deal, however, because Tehran has been involved in negotiations with and has purchased from other suppliers, namely Argentina and Canada. And until now, Tehran has refused to buy U.S. wheat because Washington would not provide credit while its competitors were quite happy to do so.

Staff from U.S. Wheat Associates, the industry's export development group, met with Iranian millers in Turkey in October, Reuters reported on 15 November. The Americans urged the Iranians to persuade the official Government Trading Corporation, which controls the Islamic Republic's wheat purchases, to buy from them. There are shipping reports that up to 120,000 tons of American wheat has been sold to Iran, but nobody can confirm the veracity of these reports and there is speculation that the reports actually refer to Canadian wheat.

Wheat negotiations between Tehran and Islamabad, which were being pursued vigorously until October, have stalled. The Iranian side wants to buy the wheat for $135 a ton, but the Pakistani side is asking for $157 a ton, Islamabad's "The News" reported on 2 November. Pakistani sources said that the negotiations had become "unproductive."

Iran is Argentina's main Middle Eastern wheat buyer. Iran purchased 600,000 tons of Argentina's wheat and 600,000 tons of soft French wheat in October, according to Reuters. Another 400,000 tons of Argentinean wheat was purchased in August. It is speculated that Iran will buy well over a million tons of Argentinean wheat due to high oil prices and low grain prices ($105-106 per ton).

Significantly, Canadian Deputy Minister of Agriculture Sam Watson visited Tehran on 19 October and met with officials from the Government Trading Corporation, which handles wheat purchases. Watson said that "agriculture still forms the backbone of Canada's exports to Iran," IRNA reported. He added that "the objective of my visit is to thank Iran for purchases of commodities such as wheat, and to develop the relationship essential to further enhancement of our long-established commercial cooperation."

Iran was Canada's biggest wheat customer in three of the last four years. Iran bought 3.3 million tons of wheat last year, 2.1 million tons in 1997-98, and 2 million tons in 1996-97. Due to a relatively good crop in 1998-99, Iran only bought 525,000 tons of Canadian wheat. Brian White, the Canadian Wheat Board's vice president of market analysis, told Saskatoon's "The Western Producer" in August that he expects this situation to change in a few years, when the U.S. returns to the Iranian market.

Official Iranian sources and those sympathetic to the Islamic Republic say the wheat imports are needed to compensate for drought damage. This is partly true, but farmers of all commodities, from tea to rice to cotton, complain about corruption, a lack of state credit facilities, unnecessary imports of foreign goods, and mismanagement of a non-existent agricultural policy. As production costs rose in the latter-half of the 1990s and the government eliminated many production and sales incentives, "Iran Daily" reported in September, many wheat farmers decided that the crop was no longer profitable and changed to other crops. (Bill Samii)

KING COTTON. Parviz Azizpur, director general for cotton and oil seed at the Agriculture Ministry, told "Iran" newspaper in late-September that the Islamic Republic will produce 470,000 tons of cotton between March 2000 and March 2001. He said that the drought in Gulistan Province meant the earlier forecast of 514,000 tons will not be met. Due to the reduced size of the crop, none will be exported this year. There are more man-made factors behind the problems in the cotton sector, and for these reasons parliamentary deputies from the cotton-growing regions filed a motion on 1 November to interpellate Economy Minister Hussein Namazi. Parliamentarian Hassan Almasi described untimely allocation of credits, prohibition of exports, lack of cooperation from the banks (which are run by the state), and "opportunism" by cotton sellers. "Due to [these] previously mentioned reasons, this crop has hit a recession," Almasi said according to IRNA. (Bill Samii)

TOO MUCH RICE... Most of Iran's rice is grown in paddies in the north of the country, in Mazandaran and Gilan provinces. Much of what Iranian farmers grow stays in the warehouse, however, while the government imports foreign rice. This trend, as well as other state policies, is causing disgruntlement among the farmers, local agricultural officials, and parliamentary representatives.

Some 300,000 tons of last year's crop is sitting in warehouses, while the government is buying foreign rice "unrestrictedly," Mahmudabad and Nur parliamentary representative Ahmad Nateq-Nuri said. He added that the Commerce and Agriculture Ministries had not fulfilled their promises to purchase Iranian rice at 3,250 rials per kilo, making farmers reluctant to produce in the future. Nateq-Nuri said that different ministries are pursuing uncoordinated and conflicting policies, which also causes discontent among farmers. Because of these problems, Nateq-Nuri said, farmers are being reduced to "bankruptcy," "Resalat" reported in October.

Rice farmers in Mazandaran are being encouraged to grow high-yield varieties, which has resulted in major crop increases. The domestic rice is not being consumed, however, and the import of foreign goods is driving rice prices upward. The prices for fertilizer, water, and machinery rental are increasing the farmers' expenses. Firuz Kala village farmer Abbas Darvan said that the Agriculture Ministry ordered the farmers to grow the high-yield rice. The high-yield (and lower-quality) rice is mixed with the high-quality Tarom variety of rice, then wholesalers sell all the rice under the Tarom name for 8,000-10,000 rials a kilo. The government promised to pay 3,000 rials for each kilo of high-yield rice, Rudbar farmer Rahmatollah Velayati said, and it should live up to this promise.

Fereidun Ismailzadeh, director of Amol's Bureau of Agriculture, told "Qods" in August that the government must stabilize prices and guarantee that it will buy the rice in a timely fashion. The adulteration of Tarom rice must end, too, and the rice husking factories need modernization. Ismailzadeh explained that "if in the current year the government does not show proper planning for the timely purchase of rice from the farmers, and at suitable prices, then the farmers will have no incentive to cultivate the high-yield hybrid in future years." (Bill Samii)

...AND TOO MUCH TEA? Gilan Province journalist Hassan Ziavari told RFE/RL's Persian Service in late-October that Iranian tea farmers are troubled by overproduction. Local farmers and industry insiders described other problems, such as inadequate credit facilities and predatory pricing policies. Young people from the north, therefore, are seeking employment elsewhere.

Hussein Mohammadi, director-general of the North Tea Organization, told IRNA on 28 October that Gilan and Mazandaran have produced 197,000 tons of green tea leaves this year. Although that is less than last year's 279,000 tons, Mohammadi said, the quality of this year's crop is higher.

This will be news to Hemat Ali Purshasb, manager of Rahimabad's Resalat tea factory, who said that both quality and quantity have dropped. He added that efforts are underway to improve tea quality, "Khabar va Nazar" reported in July. Purqasem went on to say that the interest on bank loans should be eliminated so that the volume of good quality tea can be increased. Tea factories, furthermore, are facing an unfavorable market, so warehouses are staying full.

This means that the factories can dictate prices to farmers, irrespective of the tea's quality, or even refuse to buy the tea. The farmers then are forced to sell their tea to middlemen, who buy clandestinely for the factories.

Similar problems exist in western Mazandaran. According to a report in the 2 May "Jomhuri-yi Islami," factories buy the tea at any price they want, irrespective of the prices set by the government. Furthermore, there are not enough drying facilities, so farmers will sell their tea to anybody.

Dadgar, a farmer from Berishi village, commented: "Many of the region's youth have moved to large cities, including Tehran, for this reason, and they have started working there, and if a serious solution for the income situation of the region's farmers is not found very soon, we will not be able to work either." (Bill Samii)