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Iran Report: March 1, 1999

1 March 1999, Volume 2, Number 9

COUNCIL ELECTIONS PROCEED SMOOTHLY. On 26 February the Islamic Republic of Iran held its first municipal elections ever. The vote was an important test of political strength and approval for President Mohammad Khatami's initiatives. Paris' "Liberation" said on 26 February that Khatami hopes the election will enlarge his political base.

The battle between conservatives, hard-liners, and moderates was concentrated in the major cities. There was some violence caused by this: the Executives of Construction party headquarters in Tehran was sprayed with gunfire by a motorcyclist, which is an Ansar-i Hizbullah tactic; in Karaj there was a violent clash in which six people were seriously injured, "Jomhuri Islami" reported; and a candidate associated with the pro-Khatami Office for Strengthening Unity was attacked, "Asr-i Azadigan" reported. But on Friday the Interior Ministry official in charge of election security said there was no violence.

And there was debate over the eligibility of candidates just days before the election. A number of those who had been declared ineligible by a conservative-dominated body said they would run anyway. But if they did run, Central Election Supervisory Board chief Ali Movahedi-Savoji said, he would declare the election process in Tehran null and void, the daily "Akhbar" reported on 24 February. The next day, Khatami over-ruled Movahedi-Savoji.

Some 298,865 candidates competed for about 200,000 seats, according to the Interior Ministry. This may seem like low interest after the government's call several months ago for one million candidates. But there was actual interest in the competition throughout the country. There were four major coalitions in large cities, ranging from moderates to hard-liners. (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 22 February 1999) The parties and pressure groups did not actually field candidates, but they did endorse the candidacy of specific individuals. Outside the capital, an observer said, candidates "didn't mention President Khatami or his programs at all." In the provinces many small societies and associations were established to support specific candidates or promote local issues.

About 39 million Iranians were eligible to vote. Reports indicate that the turnout was low in the morning but picked up later, so polling was extended by six hours. This seems to be a regular pattern in Iranian elections.

Voters may have been responding to Khatami's frequent calls for their participation. Also, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged people to vote, as did Expediency Council chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and other prominent officials. Isfahan Friday Prayer Leader Ayatollah Jalal Taheri voted, too. Nor was participation limited to the Shia majority. Zoroastrians living in Yazd Province "rushed to the polling stations since the early minutes after the opening of the municipal polling," the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) claimed.

And although 15-year-olds are eligible to vote, older people came out as well. IRNA reported that in Shahr-e-Kord (Chaharmahal-Bakhtiari Province) a woman reportedly said to be 137 years old voted, and in the western city of Ilam a 110-year-old man voted.

One of the intellectual fathers of Islamic government, Ayatollah Mahmud Taleqani (he died in 1979), strongly promoted local councils as a way of giving people greater control over their lives, "Hamshahri" reported on 25 February. Article 7 and Chapter 7 (Articles 100-106) of the 1979 constitution indicated the need for such consultative bodies at the city, regional, district, and village levels, but the elections were never held for two reasons. First, Article 68 permits suspension of elections during war time, which accounted for the years up to 1989 (Iran-Iraq War). And second, hard-liners in the government feared a loss of control should there be any decentralization.

And even if the need for councils is specified in the constitution, their actual duties and responsibilities are not clearly defined. The councils will select mayors, for example, but provincial and city governors are selected by the Interior Ministry, which is controlled by Khatami. On the other hand, Article 105 states that council decisions must not contradict "the criteria of Islam." It is not specified who will determine this, but it is a potential bone of contention. (Bill Samii)

KHAMENEI DENOUNCES IRAQI MURDERS... Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who also is a leader of the international Shia community, said on 22 February: "Baghdad will be held accountable to the entire world, especially Muslim countries, for what has been happening in Iraq," London's "Financial Times" reported. "Tehran Times," which is published by a division of the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance, editorialized the same day that "to teach a lesson to the brutal regime in Baghdad, Iran should stop sending pilgrims to Iraq."

They were referring to the 19 February murders in Najaf of Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr and two of his sons. Iraq's Information Ministry claimed the murders were carried out by people who wanted to "sow sedition among the Iraqi people," England's "The Independent" newspaper reported on 22 February, and suspects were rounded up promptly. On 26 February, "Al-Sharq Al-Awsat" reported that 120 clerics from the Shia seminary of Najaf were arrested, according to IRNA.

This is not the first time an Iraqi Shia leader has been killed by Saddam Husseyn's regime. Last year, Ayatollahs Morteza Borujerdi and Mirza Ali al-Gharavi were assassinated. And in 1980, Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr and his sister were executed by the Baathist regime. But this time the event prompted violent clashes in Baghdad, Najaf, and in the southern town of Nassiriya, said Hamid Bayati of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an opposition organization based in Iran. Iraq's official INA news agency denied these reports.

But such concern over al-Sadr and his sons may seem misplaced in light of the severe repression faced by Iranian Shia leaders who disagree with the state's leadership or with the principles behind its theocratic system. For example, Ayatollahs Hossein Ali Montazeri-Najafabadi, Yasubedin Rastegari, Mohammad Shirazi, Hassan Tabatabai-Qumi, and Mohammad Hussein Vahid-Khorasani have faced, under the best circumstances, house arrest. Their less senior followers face imprisonment and torture, according to Amnesty International.

Also, Iran's Sunni, Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian minorities face discrimination, and some of those communities' leaders have been killed. And UN human rights official Maurice Copithorne said the situation of Iranian Bahais, which was already very bad, has worsened in recent months, Reuters reported on 26 February.

Abu Dhabi's pro-government newspaper "Al-Ittihad" complained on 21 February that Iran's leadership was "shedding false tears." It also said: "Living in a house of glass, one should not hurl stones at others." (Bill Samii)

...AS DOES IRAQI OPPOSITION IN IRAN. Ayatollah Baqir al-Hakim, leader of the SCIRI, said the murders should be investigated by a commission of inquiry led by an international organization, such as the United Nations. Last year the UN had submitted a report on human rights in Iraq which said such murders were meant to stifle dissent.

But al-Hakim's demand seems incautious, since Iran's government has repeatedly rejected requests that an international inquiry look into the recent murders of intellectuals and oppositionists there. Also, Iran regularly denounces UN reports about its human rights situation. Some might argue, however, that the SCIRI is not an Iranian state institution.

But the SCIRI operates not only with the Iranian government's tolerance, but with assistance from some state institutions. According to Ken Katzman's "The Warriors of Islam" (1993), the SCIRI works closely with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. In 1984, the SCIRI participated in IRGC maneuvers. The IRGC apparently assisted in the Iraqi Shia uprising of 1991, although al-Hakim later complained of insufficient support from Tehran. Other parts of the SCIRI, such as al-Dawa, have cooperated with the IRGC in Kuwait-based operations.

In a November 1995 Reuters report on the SCIRI military unit, called the Badr forces, one source said: "They are well-armed, well-paid and well-organized and guided by Revolutionary Guards commanders." The June 1996 military exercises of the Badr forces were also conducted with IRGC assistance, London's "Al-Hayat" reported. The relationship reportedly continues. (Bill Samii)

RELIGIOUS SUCCESSION IN IRAQ. The murder of Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr raises some questions about the Shia hierarchy there. Al-Sadr was appointed by the Iraqi state in 1992 as the country's leading cleric. But over time he showed an independent tendency, and his sermons attracted increasingly larger crowds. Al-Sadr refused to issue a religious edict calling for a holy war against the U.S. after the December bombings of Iraq, reported the Iraqi Broadcasting Corporation on 21 February. And last year, al-Sadr issued a religious edict that people should attend Friday prayers personally, rather than watching them on state television.

Iraq's most senior Shia clergyman is Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini-Sistani, who is based in Najaf. He is viewed as the source of emulation of the Iraqi Shia and has some popularity in Lebanon and Pakistan. He and his followers have been repressed because he is seen as overly independent. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, he receives many charitable contributions. He therefore has many students because he can distribute a stipend. Ayatollah Hussein Bahr ol-Olum is another high-ranking Shia cleric, but he is friendly towards the Iraqi government. There is also Ayatollah Mohammad Said al-Hakim. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN ANGER OVER TURKMEN PIPELINE DEAL. On 19 February, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov confidently told a group of Iranian diplomats and business leaders in Ashgabat that their countries "would be able to collaborate more fully with each other after the legal regime of the Caspian Sea has been firmly established."

So it appears to have come as a nasty surprise to Tehran when Turkmenistan announced the signing of a deal with U.S. companies General Electric and Bechtel Group to lay a gas pipeline across the Caspian seabed. The pipeline will be 1,250 miles long and will initially carry 350 billion cubic feet of gas a year. It will take three years to build. Some financing will be provided by U.S. government agencies such as the Export-Import Bank.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Assefi said Iran regards Turkmenistan's action as "contrary to the principles already declared by the littoral states." Iran and Turkmenistan are signatories of the 1996 Ashgabat Declaration of Foreign Ministers and the Tehran-Ashgabat joint statements of 14 October 1997 and 8 July 1998 to avoid unilateral actions in the Caspian Sea, the IRNA reported on 20 February. Assefi went on to say: "given the fact that the Caspian Sea is shared by all littoral states in accordance with the 1921 and 1940 treaties," any unilateral action there is legally "invalid and unacceptable."

Iran's Russian allies weighed in, too. The Russian Foreign Ministry complained to Niyazov about the "negative effect" the pipeline could have on the ecological and seismic situation of the region, ITAR-TASS and "RFE/RL Newsline" reported on 22 February.

The Tehran daily "Iran News" said that "this latest move by Turkmenistan is in effect rejecting the hand of friendship extended by Iran." The 22 February editorial also said "the recent move by Ashgabat has caused Turkmenistan to fall into the U.S. trap." Furthermore, it has discredited Turkmenistan in its neighbors' eyes.

The U.S. special envoy to the Caspian region, Richard Morningstar, rejected the Iranian criticism. He said the deal will go ahead as soon as Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan sign the relevant documents. Morningstar said: "If Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan agree, and assuming that the financing agencies are satisfied that there are no environmental issues, the pipeline will go forward." ITAR-TASS reported on 22 February that Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan will sign the agreement in June.

Turkey and Georgia also must give their approval. But the Turkish government and oil industry officials are having tough negotiations about the project's financing, according to the "Turkish Daily News" on 22 February. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze indicated that his country's approval will be forthcoming, saying a "special unit" has been created to guard the pipeline, according to ITAR-TASS and "RFE/RL Newsline."

The U.S. ombudsman for Energy and Commercial Cooperation with the Newly Independent States, Jan Kalicki, is enthusiastic about the trans-Caspian gas pipeline. In a 23 February speech in Washington, he said the pipeline offered a "cost-effective and geopolitically sound" export route for Turkmen gas, and eventually Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan might use the pipeline to reach "lucrative gas markets in Turkey and Europe."

But the real mystery is why the Iranian government was surprised by the Turkmen action. A week before the announcement, in a 12 February interview with Reuters, Turkmenistan's foreign minister, Boris Shikhmuradov, said Niyazov had chosen a consortium comprising Bechtel and General Electric to build the export route. The pipeline "trumps a rival gas pipeline project to Turkey through Iran." Nor was this the only source of information on the pipeline project. On 16 February the "Houston Chronicle" and the "Wall Street Journal" also discussed the project.

"Iran News," which reportedly is close to Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, criticized the Iranian Foreign Ministry, saying it must explain "its immature and unrealistic policies regarding friendship with Ashgabat." Perhaps the Ministry of Intelligence and Security could have provided information about Turkmenistan's real intentions had it not been busy terrorizing the citizenry. (Bill Samii)

GAS EXTRACTION AND WELL-DRILLING CONTRACTS AWARDED. While Iran is upset over the trans-Caspian gas pipeline and what it sees as Turkmen treachery, it is probably happier about other developments in the oil and gas sector that will bring in much-needed Western technology. Also, these developments are another possible gain in Iran's conflict with the U.S. over sanctions (Iran-Libya Sanctions Act) against companies which invest over $20 million there.

On 17 February, the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) awarded a $500 million contract for work on Iran's Doroud oil field to France's Elf Aquitane and Italy's ENI, Reuters reported. The gas that is extracted will be re-injected into Doroud and some offshore fields to boost oil output.

This project is relatively small, "The Wall Street Journal" reported on 18 February, in financial terms and in terms of market impact. Iran's output capacity will increase only by about 100,000 barrels per day.

Its impact is greater in political terms, because it will be another gain for companies wanting to bypass ILSA. An industry analyst claimed the U.S. government is "unhappy" about the project and is discouraging the French government from providing credit. French company Total, Russia's Gazprom, and Malaysia's Petronas had sanctions against them waived last year.

Canada's Bow Valley and Britain's Premier Oil won a contract for a $200 million oil project in the Persian Gulf's Balal field. They will build offshore platforms and drill wells. A U.S. State Department spokesman said the ILSA law will be applied if appropriate, Reuters reported on 17 February. Bow Valley Chief Financial Officer Dinesh Dattani, however, said his Canadian firm complies with Canadian laws and is doing business legally in Iran, so it sounded unreasonable to him "to deal with a U.S. situation."

Other positive news from Iran's point of view includes the commencement of drilling in the South Pars oil and gas field in the Persian Gulf. The field measures 3,700 square kilometers, according to Agence France Press on 18 February, and is believed to hold reserves of about 10,000 billion cubic meters.

On 22 February, NIOC secured a $900 million loan from French bank Credit Agricole to finance development of South Pars. Crude oil from the Sirri fields will be used as collateral, Dow Jones reported.

And on 23 February, ITAR-TASS reported that Gazprom soon will submit a plan for further development of South Pars. The Russians also drafted a service contract which includes the supply of Russian equipment. Approval of the proposals is expected in late-March or early-April. Gazprom also has drafted a feasibility study for construction of an underground gas storage facility and its submission is expected by the end of February.

But on 22 February there was some news Iran will view as less positive. It was announced that the Iran Power Plant Projects Management Company (MAPNA) was having difficulty finding consortium partners who can provide financing to build a $347 million Caspian Sea oil pipeline, according to Reuters. At this point, two Chinese state-owned companies are being considered because they are offering cheap financing. Iran may have political motives for encouraging Chinese involvement, also, speculated "Iran Energy Focus" in January: involvement in the Iranian project may dissuade investment in an eastward pipeline from Kazakhstan

This 390-kilometer pipeline from the Caspian port of Neka to the refinery in Shahr-e Rey will transport 370,000 barrels of oil per day. The project will include pumping stations, as well as storage and blending facilities, in Tehran and Tabriz. (Bill Samii)

TENSIONS WITH AZERBAIJAN. On 17 February the Iranian-Azerbaijani extradition drama took a strange twist. In the January installment, Iran asked Azerbaijan to extradite Mohammad Ali Galibi, reportedly a founder of the separatist New Union organization in Iran (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 11 January 1999). In the February installment, Azerbaijan requested extradition of Makhir Javadov, whose brother, Ravshan, was accused of leading a police unit which attempted a coup in March 1995 (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 8 February 1999).

The most recent chapter involves accusations of espionage. Piruz Dilenchi, of the Movement for the Liberation of Southern Azerbaijan, accused Azerbaijani Parliamentarian Matlab Mutallimov of cooperation with Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security, "Turan" reported on 17 February. Dilenchi said that Javadov is conducting anti-Azerbaijan activities in Tehran under the patronage of Iranian entrepreneur Abolhassan Moinzadeh. Moinzadeh, who was associated with the Motherland (Vatan) society, which espouses the connection between northern and southern Azerbaijan, was arrested in Baku in December 1997 for attempting to bribe a judge. Both Mutallimov and the Iranian Embassy appealed for Moinzadeh's release. The accusations were rejected by Mutallimov.

But the prisoner drama is not the only one complicating Iranian-Azerbaijani relations. Pipeline politics and the remote possibility of Western military bases in Azerbaijan continue to have an impact. In a 16 February interview with the "Iran News," Social Democrat Party co-chairman Zardusht Alizadeh said he believes Azerbaijan's involvement with Western oil companies should be limited to a small sector of the Caspian so it can garner the required technology while limiting the negative impact of the firms' presence in the region. And AzadInform reported on 19 February that Alizadeh had visited Tehran and claimed that Makhir Javadov would be used against Azerbaijan if NATO forces were based there (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 1 February 1999). (Bill Samii)

ASSEMBLY OF EXPERTS INAUGURAL MEETING. On 23 February the third Assembly of Experts, which was elected in October, held its inaugural meeting in the holy city of Qom. The 86 clerics in the Assembly serve for eight years and have the power to appoint and dismiss the country's supreme religious and political leader. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was unable to attend, so his message to the assembly was read by his office chief, Hojatoleslam Mohammadi Golpaygani, IRNA reported.

The message praised the conduct of the October election, and it criticized efforts "to deprive the assembly of a strong public backing by launching poisonous propaganda and raising doubts regarding its procedures." Not only can this be seen as rejection of an issue raised last autumn, but it can be interpreted as approval of the selection process for the council elections. Khamenei's message went on to say "the massive turnout" of voters showed the relevance of the assembly to their lives. The people were not "influenced by the propaganda of the enemies who are still working to bring an obedient and subservient administration to power in Iran."

IRNA reported on 23 February that the permanent presidium was elected during the session. Its members are Ayatollah Ali Akbar Meshkini-Qomi as speaker, Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani as first deputy speaker, Ayatollah Ebrahim Amini as second deputy speaker, and Hojatoleslams Qorban-Ali Dori-Najafabadi (who recently retired as Intelligence Minister) and Hassan Taheri-Khorramabadi were chosen as secretaries. (Bill Samii)