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Iran Report: March 8, 1999

8 March 1999, Volume 2, Number 10

IN COUNCIL ELECTIONS, PUBLIC GAINS SOME CONTROL. All the results of the 26 February council elections are not in yet, but some in the Western press already have termed them a sweeping victory for "reformists" allied with the relatively moderate President Mohammad Khatami. In fact, the results so far point to a victory for populist candidates from across the political spectrum rather than for reformers as such.

In most towns and villages, candidates were selected on the basis of local issues, and during the campaign candidates emphasized their professional and educational credentials rather than their revolutionary ones. Only in a few of the major cities � such as Tehran, Isfahan, and Shiraz � did candidates seek to identify themselves with Khatami or, for that matter, with any of the four major coalitions.

Hatam Qaderi, professor of political science at Tarbiat-i Modariss University (Tehran Teachers Training College), commented on the election in an interview with RFE/RL's Persian Service (which was picked up by "Akhbar" newspaper without attribution). He said: "Our political organization, whether on the left or the right, is not equipped and wide-reaching enough to be able to infiltrate into the depths of the social structure. You cannot expect to find a smoothly running structure of the left and the right even in the villages. It is only natural that people should be influenced by their common problems and by the people around them, and those will have their influence on the way they vote."

Qaderi also said that one cannot make "a simple and bi-polar classification" of pro-Khatami/reformist versus hardliner/conservative, because voters made their choices based on a combination of religious, ideological, and practical grounds.

Khatami's supporters viewed the election results optimistically. The Islamic Iran Participation Party's Tehran office said, according to the 4 March "Salam" daily, that out of 112 towns, 75 percent of the winning candidates are from the Second of Khordad Front (the date of Khatami's election). "Sobh-i Imruz" tried to coin the phrase "Ninth of Esfand" (the election's date) to make it as significant as "Second of Khordad." Ebrahim Yazdi of the Liberation Movement of Iran was more cautious. He said if the rural councils work well, it will be a major step toward democracy, "Akhbar" daily reported on 28 February.

The voter turnout appears to have been high, although the "Tehran Times," which is published by a government ministry, suggested otherwise. The newspaper reported on 3 March that about 60 percent of the 39 million electorate voted. Although this compares poorly with the approximately 70 percent turnout in the May 1997 presidential election, it is an improvement over the 46 percent turnout for the October 1998 Assembly of Experts election. What is curious is that in October, "Tehran Times" referred to the turnout positively, and it also suggested that the actual number of eligible voters was around 35 million.

There were some complaints about fraud. On 27 February, the Tehran Militant Clergy Association (Jameh-yi Ruhaniyat-i Mobarez-i Tehran) suggested fraud because election monitors could not enter the vote-counting area, but the Tehran governorate explained that because the process is computerized there was not enough room for additional people. "Resalat," a daily affiliated with conservative bazaaris, quoted an "informed source" in the elections supervisory board about widespread irregularities in Tehran's polling stations.

"Kayhan" daily, which is affiliated with the Supreme Leader's office, editorialized on 28 February that wealthy voters in northern Tehran supported pro-Khatami candidates, while voters in the religious cities of Qom and Mashad elected conservative candidates. Kayhan also suggested that the Tehran results were skewed because votes from the southern and poorer areas of the city were not counted. And on 3 March, "Kayhan" reported that elements associated with the long-dead Mehdi Hashemi had interfered with voting in Qom.

An unsuccessful conservative candidate, Alinaqi Khamushi, complained that candidates did not get the votes they deserved because voters got confused by similar-sounding names, "Arya" reported on 3 March. A petition complaining of fraud was circulated in Karaj, "Zan" reported on 4 March, and another one in Sanadaj, complaining that many people voted twice. The Bandar Abbas municipality is investigating a number of complaints, including reports that individual votes were bought for 15,000 rials (from $2-$10, depending on the exchange rate), "Khordad" daily wrote on 4 March.

Tehran's Election Supervisory Board threatened to annul the election results on 1 March, because previously disqualified candidates had run for office. The next day, the head of the Central Election Supervisory Board, Hojatoleslam Ali Mohammad Savoji, said there might have been fraud in Najafabad in Isfahan province because there was no electoral supervision or observation there. Najafabad, where dissident cleric Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri-Najafabadi comes from, has been a stronghold of opposition to regime hardliners.

If anything, attempts by the hardline supervisory boards to ban pro-Khatami candidates backfired. In January, news reports indicated public indifference towards the election, as well as reluctance to get involved in a politicized process (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 18 January 1999 and 1 February 1999). But extensive press coverage about the issue made people aware that the regime was attempting to limit their choices, and apparently they fought back by voting. (Bill Samii)

KHATAMI GOVERNMENT TESTED. The elections, whether seen as a victory or defeat reform, are only one of the challenges that will test the government of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and his commitment to reform in the months ahead. Last month, a number of clerics were physically attacked (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 22 February 1999). Last week, UN human rights official Maurice Copithorne called for the abolition of the Special Court for the Clergy. And then, Islamic intellectual Hojatoleslam Mohsen Kadivar was arrested on the orders of the Special Court.

The Special Court for the Clergy was established in 1986-87 at the urging of Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mohammadi Reyshahri to pursue a case against Hojatoleslam Mehdi Hashemi. Now, the Special Court investigates and tries crimes such as "counterrevolution, corruption, immorality, unlawful acts, anything which might damage the prestige of the clergy and acts committed by pseudo-clergy," according to Amnesty International. Penalties imposed by the court include death and imprisonment. It is this court which has sentenced many leading clerics to house arrest. Copithorne's report says it is "difficult to justify the continued existence of such an apparently arbitrary and secretive tribunal." Akbar Ganji asked in "Sobh-i Imruz" on 28 February what differences between clerics and laymen should make such a special court necessary. Paris-based lawyer Abdol Karim Lahiji told RFE/RL's Persian Service that the court's existence demonstrates that the clergy considers itself an elite.

Kadivar (born in 1959) was charged with several "crimes," "Salam" newspaper reported on 28 February. He spoke favorably about dissident cleric Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, disrespectfully about the leadership, and insultingly about the founder of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Also, he undermined public confidence in the Special Court.

In an interview with "Sobh-i Imruz" on 1 March, Kadivar defended himself by rejecting the authority of the Special Court and calling it "illegal." As for the anti-Khomeini charge, he said, that stemmed from misunderstanding Kadivar's comments about nationalist Premier Mohammad Musaddiq.

Just as there was a sharp public reaction last month to the attack on Hojatoleslam Hadi Khamenei in Qom, there has been a sharp reaction to this arrest. The Office for Strengthening Unity, a coalition of pro-Khatami Islamist student groups, condemned the arrest at a special meeting, "Salam" reported on 1 March. So too did a number of individual student groups. In Shiraz, about 100 students staged a rally outside Kadivar's home.

Liberal newspapers like "Neshat," "Sobh-i Imruz," and "Khordad" indicated their unhappiness, and the Islamic Republic News Agency reported that the "managing directors of major dailies" protested the arrest in a letter to Khatami.

Ayatollah Mohammad Abai-Khorasani of the Qum Theological Lecturers Association told "Zan" daily on 2 March that the arrest was inappropriate, as did another Islamic scholar, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Taqi Fazel Meybodi. Abdol Karim Soroush, an Islamic intellectual, also criticized the arrest, saying positive comments about Montazeri are permissible because he is a respected cleric and also because he was Kadivar's teacher.

How the Khatami government reacts to this arrest will be an indicator of its commitment to the rule of law.

Minister of Islamic Guidance and Culture Ataollah Mohajerani defended Kadivar as an intellectual and academic with no political involvement, "Etelaat" reported on 1 March. Mohajerani wrote, in Tehran's "Iran Daily" on 3 March, that Kadivar's arrest "is like the detention of thoughts and theories. ... We should recognize and appreciate [Kadivar's] value and try to understand his concerns." Since Kadivar is Mohajerani's brother-in-law, it is unclear whether this statement stems from personal or ideological concern.

But will such outspoken concern be extended to laymen? Even after the arrest of 45 people involved in the attack on Khamenei, many were not reassured. It is fine if people are arrested for assaulting a cleric, a member of the public asked "Salam" newspaper last month, but will anybody speak up if students are attacked? Another said that he had become physically ill just thinking about the attack, because he is not a cleric and "what if, God forbid, I lose control and I want to speak my mind?" (Bill Samii)

WITH OIL CONTRACT SIGNED, WILL ILSA SURVIVE? On 1 March, Iranian Deputy Oil Minister Mehdi Hosseini signed a contract with France's Elf Aquitane and Italy's Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi SpA (ENI) for development of the Dorud oilfield in the northern Persian Gulf. Details about the contract are unclear: the "New York Times" described a $998 million, ten-year contract; Reuters described a $1 billion contract; and Agence France Press described a $540 million, nine-year contract. Either way, this contract exceeds the limits set by the U.S. law called the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA), which calls for U.S. actions against any firm which invests more than $20 million in Iran's petroleum sector.

Whether or not the U.S. will implement ILSA is unclear: sanctions against the $2 billion Total, Gazprom, and Petronas project were waived last year, but U.S. State Department spokesman James Foley said there is a possibility of sanctions against Canadian firm Bow Valley for its $200 million project (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 1 March 1999). The Clinton administration is "disappointed and concerned" about the Elf-ENI deal, Foley said, and the State Department will review it. He said: "The United States remains strongly opposed to investment in Iran's petroleum sector and we have repeatedly urged the governments of France and Italy at the most senior levels to discourage this investment." Elf Aquitane spokesman Thomas Saunders is confident, however, saying his company expects "the same treatment" as Total.

At a New York oil conference this week, Reuters reported, industry executives voiced their irritation with ILSA, which will remain in force until it expires in 2001. John Lichtblau of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation said: "ILSA will probably not be renewed, but that also means for the next two and a half years, U.S. companies will be excluded. But other companies will go ahead and do business with Iran." Lance Johnson of Mobil said that compared with their European counterparts "U.S. companies are at a competitive disadvantage."

Conoco's senior vice president for governmental affairs, J. Michael Stinson, told a Senate subcommittee on 3 March that the sanctions were a bad idea both economically for the companies and politically for the U.S. He said: "Leadership demands engagement, not isolation"

Lichtblau expressed the belief that Iran is liberalizing and argued that selling food and medicine to it would reward this process. But Judith Kipper of the Center for Strategic and International Studies sounded more restrained, although she too criticized ILSA as "foolish" and "self-defeating." Kipper said: "All of you in the oil business were hoping once Khatami was elected things would change very quickly, U.S. sanctions could be lifted and everybody could go to Iran to do business. That would be wonderful. ... But this change in Iran is going to take much longer than we anticipated." (Bill Samii)

EUROPEAN WHEAT PURCHASED. Some 300,000 metric tons of German and French wheat which Iran purchased in February is scheduled for delivery in April and May, Dow Jones Commodities Service reported on 22 February. Iran is expected to import a total of 3.8 million tons of wheat this year, according to the International Grains Council. This is reportedly the first time Iran has bought European-origin wheat in five years. Dan Basse of AgResources, a Chicago consulting firm, said this confirms that Iran will request American wheat once U.S. sanctions are relaxed.

US-based Niki Trading Company claims that Iran already requested American wheat (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 4 January 1999), while Iranian Commerce Minister Mohammad Shariatmadari denies this (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 25 January 1999). On 1 March, Senators Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), Larry Craig (R-Idaho), and Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) met with U.S. National Security Adviser Samuel Berger to ask for a lifting of sales restrictions, Agence France Presse reported.

Other grain producers are ready to meet Iranian demand, and in some cases, they see American reluctance to sell grain as an opportunity for themselves. "Australian exporters have benefited from the lack of U.S. competition" in Iran, the "Australian Financial Review" reported on 8 February. In 1997-98, over 500,000 tons of Australian grain were shipped to Iran, and in 1997-98, 3.35 million tons were shipped there. Australian Trade Minister Tim Fischer visited Tehran in the first week of March. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN ARMY GETS NEW CHIEF OF JOINT STAFF. The success of the Iranian military in the war with Iraq was hampered by the division between regular and revolutionary units, and that problem still exists. Since 1989 there have been efforts to reorganize and streamline the Iranian military, particularly through the creation of the Supreme Council for National Security, which is chaired by the president. But despite these moves, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps retains considerable independence.

The Iranian military journal "Saff" published an interview in mid-February with the new chief of the Joint Staff of the Iranian Army, Brigadier General Mustafa Turabipur. The interview highlighted continuing rivalry between these services. It showed that even though the military is nominally subordinate to President Khatami, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is at the top of the chain of command. And finally, the interview pointed to some future plans of the Iranian military establishment.

Turabipur explained that after the Iraq-imposed war a reorganization of the armed forces took place. Because of this, the Supreme Leader is the commander-in-chief of the Armed forces. The second-highest authority is the commander-in-chief of the army. And the commander-in-chief of the IRGC "will be the third highest," Turabipur noted. Also, the reorganization "enhanced the Army's status with the entire armed forces."

Notably, he made no mention of the Supreme National Security Council or of the President in this chain of command. And in fact, the executive branch has no constitutional or legal authority in the security field. This organizational set-up permits unity of command, according to Turabipur, and that in turn permits joint maneuvers and improved coordination of operations and avoids "duplication and confusion."

Turabipur identified his objectives: (1) improved recruitment of personnel; (2) expanded army "intelligence capability and strength," reflecting his former position as Army counterintelligence chief; (3) improved esprit des corps; (4) increased financial efficiency; (5) improved living standards and social status for soldiers; (6) improved "brotherly ties with other military and security forces" and more joint operations; (7) achievement of domestic self-sufficiency in research and technology; and (8) further reorganization to eliminate duplication and improve training standards. (Bill Samii)

AUSTRALIAN TRADE WITH IRAN. In the first week of March Australian Trade Minister Tim Fischer visited Iran to discuss a variety of subjects, the most significant of which were trade- and investment-related. In the last year Iran imported $500 million worth of Australian goods, Iranian Agriculture Minister Issa Kalantari said, while it exported only $16 million worth of goods to Australia. Kalantari believes that trade between the two will be more balanced in the coming year, with Iranian imports amounting to $227 million and exports equaling $20 million, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. Fischer expressed the hope, during a meeting with Minister of the Construction Jihad Mohammad Saeedi-Kia, that Australian oil imports will increase in the coming year. Fischer also signed a joint communique expressing readiness to provide $86 million of credit for an Iranian copper smelting project.

Fischer also met with President Mohammad Khatami. They discussed bilateral relations, then Khatami "severely condemn[ed] crimes committed by the Zionist regime in the Middle East" according to the IRNA report. Fischer and Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi discussed the war on drugs and arms control, with Kharrazi saying that Iran was drafting a document on controlling biological weapons. Parliamentary Speaker Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri and Fischer discussed expanding ties in tourism and Central Asian investment, while Fischer and Expediency Council chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani discussed cooperation in the areas of electronics, telecommunications, and transportation. (Bill Samii)

BROADCAST NEWS. In mid-February Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reappointed Ali Larijani for another term as head of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. Only a month earlier, however, Larijani was facing heavy criticism after a guest on the "Cheraq" television program said the autumn murders in Iran were the work of the allies of President Mohammad Khatami. There were reports that Larijani would be banned from cabinet meetings, and Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Ataollah Mohajerani said Larijani should apologize publicly. Television coverage of the council elections, said observers in Iran, was "mostly neutral and often very informative." On the other hand, "Jam-i Jam," which is IRIB's international service, carried almost no coverage of the elections, the daily "Kar va Kargar" reported on 28 February. (Bill Samii)