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Iran Report: February 8, 1999

8 February 1999, Volume 2, Number 6

MUNICIPAL ELECTIONS: A SUCCESS ONLY OUTSIDE TEHRAN? In his Youth Day speech on 2 February, President Hojatoleslam Seyyed Mohammad Khatami urged young people to participate in the 26 February municipal elections, which he described as "the manifestation of the people's self-determination." By voting, the youth could "foil the conspiracies of those who try to dishearten the younger generation and spread poison against the revolution." Khatami urged people to "vote for the candidates of your choice."

But this might be problematic, since in some places certain candidates have been declared ineligible. In Tehran, candidates affiliated with the Islamic Iran Participation Party, Workers House, and Executives of Construction (such pro-Khatami groups are collectively nicknamed the "2 Khordad group� after the date of his election) are ineligible, "Salam" reported on 2 February. It was hoped that moderates would have a good chance of winning public office because approval of their candidacy did not depend on the conservative-dominated Council of Guardians. But the Election Supervisory Boards are dominated by conservatives, too.

The election headquarters of the Tehran governorate accused the Central Election Supervisory Boards and its chief, Ali Movahedi Savoji, of irresponsibility and selectivity. The Interior Ministry also questioned the selections. Savoji and his deputy reacted to such accusations on 30 January by saying that Interior Minister Abdol-Vahed Musavi-Lari did not understand the law, reported "Sobh-i Imruz," and on 1 February, Yahyavi accused Musavi-Lari of breaking the law.

A sub-debate emerged about the legality of disclosing the names of disqualified candidates. Musavi-Lari told "Khordad" he would publicly identify disqualified candidates so the public could judge, and "Keyhan," which is associated with the Supreme Leader's office, quoted conservative parliamentarian and election supervisor Ahmad Rasulinejad's statement that a complaint would be lodged against anybody who reveals the names.

The row got so bad that by 31 January a five-member arbitration board was established by Khatami, Musavi-Lari, and Parliamentary Speaker Ali-Akbar Nateq-Nouri to review the election-related issues. Its decisions will be final, the "Tehran Times" reported, although Savoji told IRIB there will be one more chance to appeal.

"Akhbar" on 30 January regretted the rejection of candidates as a manifestation of factionalism which robs people of their legal rights and discourages participation in the elections. Hojatoleslam Nadi Najafabadi believes the right-wing is trying to hinder the 2 Khordad group, he told "Sobh-i Imruz" on 1 February. "Towseh" editorialized on 1 February that people do not need to have their candidates approved for them, "they can distinguish between good and evil." "Kar va Kargar" questioned the selection process, too, on 1 February. Hashem Aghajari also criticized what he saw as a move against the 2 Khordad group, "Imruz" reported on 2 February.

But in some areas, there promises to be a good showing. Some 92 percent of the applicants for candidacy will run in the election in East Azerbaijan Province, according to "Salam" newspaper on 30 January, and 77 percent of the applicants will run in the municipality of Bukan. In Isfahan, 95 percent of the candidates have been accepted, reported "Salam" on 1 February. (Bill Samii)

SUPPORTER OF PRESS FREEDOM RESIGNS. There are two reasons why some may see the 30 January resignation of Deputy Minister for Culture and Islamic Guidance Ahmad Bourqani as bad news. First, Bourqani was seen as an advocate of a relatively open press. And second, his departure may make the ouster of his boss, Hojatoleslam Ataollah Mohajerani, that much easier.

Bourqani was credited with founding Iran's Journalists Union. More importantly, in defending politicized newspapers, he argued that in the current Iranian setting there is almost no other means of political expression. "Iran News" editorialized on 1 February that during Bourqani's tenure, publications reached new levels of openness, while he never let his personal preferences impinge on his professional activities. Thus, he was unhappy with the closures of both "Jameh" and "Shalamcheh."

Managers and editors had mixed opinions about the resignation. Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, director of the banned publications "Jameh" and "Tous," said the resignation would weaken the political system. Also, reported "Aria," he saw it having an impact on a "national scale." Mohammad Reza Zahedi of "Aria" expressed disappointment, while Masoud Safiri of "Akhbar" and Hossein Shariatmadari of "Keyhan" claimed to have predicted the event in interviews with "Sobh-i Imruz." "Akhbar" expressed regret and speculated that Bourqani had to resign because he "knew too much." "Salam" condemned the government for accepting Bourqani's resignation because he had defended free expression. "Khordad" wondered why the president let one of his "strongest" officials resign. "Kar va Kargar" also regretted Bourqani's resignation.

An interviewee on RFE/RL's Persian Service speculated, according to "Resalat," that with the departure of the tough Bourqani, attacks against Mohajerani would be made easier. Last summer, an Iranian scholar speaking at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC, speculated that after the conservatives got rid of Khatami allies Abdullah Nouri and Gholamhossein Karbaschi, Mohajerani would be next. He is seen as weaker than Nouri, and he has done more to irritate the conservatives, imposing press controls too slowly for their liking. Symbolically, Mohajerani's departure will be harmful to Khatami, because he was also minister of Islamic culture and guidance. (Bill Samii)

PUBLICATIONS COME AND GO. Only a month old, 1999 has already seen a great deal of activity in Iran's media sector. Most significant, perhaps, is the closure of "Adineh," a 10-year old monthly known for its criticism of corruption and its support for human rights issues. Its first editor, Faraj Sarkuhi, was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured before his release in January 1998. This time, publisher Gholamhossein Zakeri was sentenced to a flogging and penalized 9 million rials ($5,150) for publishing articles that were "false, misleading and morally corrupt."

The weekly "Aban's" director, Mohammad Hassan Alipour, was tried for publishing an interview with former Foreign Minister Ebrahim Yazdi. In early January the tabloid "Fakour" was banned for carrying "indecent" photographs of Monica Lewinsky. Later in the month "Gozarish-i Ruz" closed because the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance did not provide sufficient funding, its director told "Tehran Times." The hard-line biweekly "Shalamcheh" was banned, and when "Zan" daily was suspended for two weeks, "Shalamcheh's" Massoud Dehnamaki said "Zan's" director should be executed. Ali Sebati, director of the provincial publication "Payam-i Shomal" was arrested and is being held at the Gilan Province headquarters of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, "Khordad" reported on 3 February.

Yadollah Sahabi of "Iran-i Farda" received several death threats, reported "Zan" on 16 January. At the end of January, a percussion grenade was thrown at the offices of the pro-Khatami daily "Khordad" by two men on a motorbike, which is a known Ansar-i Hizbullah tactic. The blast shattered some windows and caused minor injuries to journalists. The director of the provincial publication "Kosar Kavir Kerman" claimed that his offices were set ablaze in reaction to articles about the improper use of nationalized property in Kerman Province, reported "Kar va Kargar" on 31 January. The director was told that if he wrote about somebody named Hossein Hashemian again, he would be killed, reported "Aria" on 1 February.

But not all the news is bad. An application for publication of "Nishat" was submitted, and its staff consists of personnel from the now-banned "Tous" and "Jameh" newspapers, reported "Kar va Kargar" on 19 January. Dehnamaki submitted an application for publication of "Jebhe," reported "Qods" on 27 January. The daily "Entekhab's" first issue appeared in Tehran on 1 February. "Tehran Times" described it as "center-left" and published by the "Light Expectation Cultural Organization." "Mosharekat," the Islamic Iran Participation Party's daily, hit the newsstands on 3 February. (Bill Samii)

PARLIAMENT ADOPTS BUDGET AMID DEBT PROBLEMS. On 31 January, the Iranian Parliament approved the government's proposed budget of almost 277 trillion rials, reported RFE/RL's Persian Service, with a special fund for informing people about "America's cultural onslaught." The next step is approval of the budget by the Council of Guardians. Meanwhile, Iran's Central Bank has asked two international banks and 14 South Korean firms to reschedule its debt. Iran also requested advance payment for oil sales. A spokesman for Daewoo Corporation told Agence France Presse on 2 February that "Iran has asked us for an additional 18 months after it failed to remit overdue payments," but the companies are awaiting the South Korean government's approval. Last year, Iran imported $700 million worth of South Korean goods. Iran's current revenues are hindered by a world oil glut which has caused a drop in oil prices. This, in turn, has led to currency shortages and in the black market, the rial is trading at over 8,000 to the dollar. (Bill Samii)

WHEAT OR MISSILES? On 2 February "Salam" reported that Parliament Speaker Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri harshly criticized a reported request by the Iranian government to buy $500 million worth of U.S. wheat. Referring to reports that a U.S. missile had landed near Abadan (see RFE/RL Iran Report, 1 February 1998), he wondered how Iran can buy goods from a country that launches missiles at it, stating that it is strategically dangerous. "What country connects its bread to its enemy?"

Other conservatives also oppose a wheat deal. A journalist from "Arzesh-ha," a weekly associated with Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mohammadi Reyshahri, said such a sale is part of America�s "double-face policy." He told the "Tehran Times" on 25 January that the only reason the U.S. is considering the sale is the attractiveness of Iran�s 67.5 million person market.

Secretary General of the Islamic Coalition Association Habibollah Asghar-Owladi complained about the missile strike, and he urged the Foreign Ministry to pursue the case until the U.S. government apologizes and pays compensation, reported the Islamic Republic News Agency on 2 February. The same day, Iranian ground forces chief Brigadier General Abdolali Pourshash said the incidents indicate American military weakness.

So far, facts about the missile remain unclear. On 27 January, the U.S. State Department said that although it had received a protest from Tehran which alleged that a stray missile landed near Abadan, "we have no information that this is the case, but we are looking into it." The State Department went on to say it knew of "no injuries or casualties that resulted from this reported incident."

But the issue is very clear for "Tehran Times", which is published by a division of the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance. It editorialized on 4 February that the "Islamic Republic has no way but retaliation. Getting their response by fire, Americans will be obliged to modify their policies."

And the conservatives� concern about the wheat sale may be premature. Commerce Minister Mohammad Shariatmadari said on 23 January that "Iran did not approach the United States for the purchase of agriculture products," reported "Tehran Times."

In the U.S., the wheat sale is being promoted by Niki Trading Company, a firm run by Iranian-Americans. They claim to have been approached by Iranian government representatives, and Niki also promotes the sale as a way to establish a dialog and strengthen moderates in Iran by demonstrating America�s good will, reported "The Washington Post" on 19 January. It is not clear what Niki�s financial gain will be.

This is not the first time trade with Iran has been promoted as a way to strengthen moderates there and to promote dialog. 15 years ago other Iranian exiles made similar claims. Manucher Ghorbanifar and Cyrus Hashemi said all the U.S. government had to do was provide Iran with missiles and them with cash. (Bill Samii)

INTERSTATE TRUCKING WITH AZERBAIJAN. Iranian businesses said recently that the customs department of Azerbaijan was imposing a 45 percent increase in taxes on Iranian goods, reported "Millat." But in an interview with IRNA, the director general of the Azerbaijani customs office in charge of financial affairs, Fazel Mohammadov said there have been no changes in Azerbaijani customs regulations since 1997. Transit duties are still $180 for trucks using the five customs points between Iran and Azerbaijan, Mohammadov said, adding that "Astara, Bil-i Savar and Jolfa are currently active while Imeshli and Khodafarin border points are temporarily closed."

Around the same time, the joint border-market of Bil-i Savar-i Moqan was reactivated, said Eqbal Abbasi, Iran's Bil-i Savar governor. But soon thereafter, Abdol-Rahman Mohammadi, head of the Astara customs office, said Azerbaijani officials were stopping "all Iranian trucks carrying exports or transit goods." Mohammadi told IRNA the reason the Azerbaijanis gave was the "excessive amount of petrol carried by the trucks." During negotiations between Azerbaijani and Iranian officials it was decided "that the trucks should remove their extra and non-standard fuel tankers," Mohammadi said, and transit resumed. Since last March, over 280.6 million liters of fuel were transported from Bil-i Savar to Nakhichevan by 14,149 Azerbaijani registered tankers. Also, over 3,836 Azerbaijani nationals and 2,254 Iranians passed through the Bil-i Savar Moqan border point, the director general of the provincial customs office, Yavar Abdi, told IRNA. (Bill Samii)

BAKU SEEKS EXTRADITION OF AZERI REVOLUTIONARY. When Iran demanded the extradition of Mohammad Ali Galibi, who is reportedly a founder of the separatist New Union organization in Iran, Azerbaijan's government indicated that it would cooperate. (see RFE/RL Iran Report, 11 January 1999) And at the end of January a possible reason for Azerbaijani cooperation became clear, when Foreign Affairs Minister Tofig Zulfugarov and public prosecutor Eldar Hasanov met with Iranian Ambassador Bigdeli and requested extradition of Makhir Javadov on charges including "complicity in murder." Javadov's brother, Ravshan, was accused of leading a special police detachment which in March 1995 attempted a coup in Baku. Makhir arrived in Tehran in December 1998 and announced the creation of similar militia, reported "Azernews-Azerkhabar" and "Turan."

An Iranian embassy official in Baku said Javadov was in Iran as a businessman, but "Iran will not allow anti-Azerbaijani activity on its territory," reported Turan. Azernews-Azerkhabar reported on 3-9 February, however, that Javadov said in an interview that he will "enter the occupied Zangilan and Gubadli provinces in the west of Azerbaijan with 700 of his supporters [and then] liberate the entire occupied territory of Azerbaijan from Armenians." (Bill Samii)

RISE AND FALL OF REGIME STALWART. Ayatollah Ahmad Azari-Qomi-Bigdeli, an architect of the current Iranian political system, was hospitalized on 1 February. Azari-Qomi has been under house arrest, his daughter said in an interview with "Sobh-i Imruz". An examination of his background shows three reasons why such a senior religious figure might be confined to his home: questioning the infallibility of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini; questioning the system of Vilayat-i Faqih (rule of the jurisprudent); and questioning the qualifications of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

A former student of Khomeini, Azari-Qomi was imprisoned several times by the monarchy before the 1979 Iranian Revolution . After the revolution, he served as public prosecutor and represented Khomeini during parliamentary review of the constitution. Later, he served in parliament as Qom's representative. He was also a founder of the Qom Theological Lecturers Association. By 1985, Azari-Qomi was leader of the Resalat Foundation, which was founded by conservative bazaaris, and chief of "Resalat" newspaper.

But on 23 February 1990, Azari-Qomi made comments which seemed to question the lasting authority of Khomeini, and this set off a tempest. "Certain directives [of Khomeini] are not to be emulated unless [Khamenei] endorses them, [and furthermore] the exigencies of time and place should always be considered." Thus, he implied that Khomeini's edicts could be changed to fit the circumstances. He also said that those Qom seminarians who questioned the competence of Khamenei are American agents. He went on to say that a sufficient reason for obeying Khamenei is that he is Khomeini's successor.

Azari-Qomi was criticized in the parliament. Then the hard-line newspapers "Keyhan" and "Jomhouri Islami" joined the fray, saying that Azari-Qomi "has a record of opposition" to the Vilayat-i Faqih and to Khomeini, and both he and "Resalat" were guilty of sowing dissension in the past. Azari-Qomi's response was simple: either Khamenei is the Supreme Leader and Khomeini's successor and can rule accordingly, or he is something else and cannot really lead.

But in less than three years, he had become openly critical of Khamenei. In December 1993, when Grand Ayatollah Araki died and there was a question about who should succeed him as the Shia source of emulation, Azari-Qomi said more than 10 people were qualified. The next year he nominated Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Behjat, rather than Khamenei, for the marjaiyat. Azari-Qomi said Khamenei "lacks the two essential requirements for being a source of emulation, that is, being the most pious and the most knowledgeable," according to London's "Keyhan." Subsequently, Azari-Qomi was dismissed from his position with "Resalat" and from the Qom Theological Lecturers Association.

In November 1997, Azari-Qomi accused the authorities of pressuring senior clerics to accept the "unqualified" Khamenei as the source of emulation. This caused outrage and a mob attacked Azari-Qomi's offices. Then there was an unsuccessful effort to expel Azari-Qomi from the Assembly of Experts for his criticism of Khamenei, reported "Jomhuri Islami" in February 1998. This effort failed, but that September Azari-Qomi's application to run for the Assembly of Experts election was rejected by the Guardians' Council. (Bill Samii)