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Iran Report: May 31, 1999

31 May 1999, Volume 2, Number 22

TEHRAN HOSTS REFUGEE CONFERENCE. Representatives from more than 20 international humanitarian organizations met in Tehran from 25-30 May to discuss the plight of the two million, mostly Afghan, refugees in Iran. According to the International Consortium for Refugees in Iran (ICRI), only three international NGOs involved with refugees work in Iran, compared with the many working with Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Persian Service, Catherine Squire, a representative of the ICRI, said that "the aim of the conference is to try to inform people about what [the refugees'] needs are, and to try to encourage them to see for themselves what they could do to help these refugees." Squire said representatives from Save the Children US, the International Rescue Committee, the International Assistance Mission from France, the Danish Refugee Council, and other NGOs attended the event. Also, Squire also told RFE/RL that Iranian, Iraqi, and Afghan NGOs, such as the Red Crescent Society, Refugee Aid Council, and Imam Javad Foundation, sent representatives.

About three million Afghan refugees entered Iran after the 1979 Soviet invasion, according to Hojatoleslam Hassanali Ibrahimi, advisor to the interior minister and himself director-general for Foreign Nationals and Immigrants Affairs. He said that while many have returned to their homeland, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), some 1,400,730 remain in Iran. And as a result of the war with Iraq, Ibrahimi said, some 1.5 million Iraqis took refuge in Iran, and 530,605 remained. This figure might be inflated through the addition of Kurds who fled after the 1988 Halabja massacre and by southerners who were expelled by the Baathist regime in the 1970s. An additional 32,400 refugees from other countries are in Iran, according to Ibrahimi.

ICRI's Squire described the relationship between the Iranian government and her organization since its establishment in 1992: "We have good relations with the Iranian government. They are very supportive of the need for NGO's to come and work in Iran, and since ICRI started work we've had around 50 NGOs who've come to visit Iran and to see what they can do to help here, and many of them have been involved, either in emergency work or in long-term work with refugees in Iran."

Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari said in his address at the conference that hosting so many refugees imposes a heavy burden on Iran, while international NGOs provide only $18 million worth of assistance annually. To relieve this burden, "The Islamic Republic of Iran believes in repatriation of the refugees by providing security for them and is ready to study any practical proposal in this respect," Musavi-Lari said. Until they can be safely repatriated, Iran will continue to host the refugees.

The sentiment that hosting the refugees is imposing a heavy cost was reiterated in the English-language daily "Iran News" on 26 May. The daily added that the refugees get the same subsidies, welfare benefits, and free education as the Iranian public, and "these services and subsidies however cost the treasury approximately $1 billion a year." The newspaper editorialized: "at a time when the government itself is resolved to save expenses and is short of domestic and foreign capital, this important issue is of absolute priority for the government to address." (Bill Samii)

DROUGHT COMPOUNDS PROBLEMS. On 10 April, Agriculture Minister Issa Kalantari predicted that Iranian agricultural output will suffer due to a continuing drought ("RFE/RL Iran Report," 19 April 1999). Over a month later, Kalantari said the drought is expected to destroy up to 2.5 million tons of wheat, Reuters reported on 16 May. Iran already imports wheat from Europe and Australia, and it has negotiated to import wheat from Kazakhstan. This drought will provide a face-saving excuse for the purchase of American wheat, should such an event occur.

But there are other explanations for the need to import agricultural goods, and they have more to do with price subsidies, governmental neglect, and corruption than with natural disasters. Commerce Minister Mohammad Shariatmadari said the per capita consumption of wheat in Iran is "twice the average world consumption," or 150 kg per person annually, "Salam" reported on 24 January. Overconsumption should be regarded in the context of governmental subsidies which keep prices at unrealistically low levels. And even those who do not need subsidized wheat take advantage: on 22 May the "Iran Daily" wondered how "to curtail the lavish consumption patterns of affluent people." Regarding the impact of a drought on imports, Shariatmadari said at the time, "the precipitation may only have been delayed."

Another problem is the government's inattention to the agricultural sector. Hashtrud's member of parliament, Mohammad Shahi-Arablu, urged the government to eliminate wheat imports, "Resalat" reported on 17 December 1998. Shahi-Arablu suggested the government purchase domestic wheat at the price of imported wheat, then pay the farmers at the beginning of every year for the wheat and provide appropriate bank loans to the farmers. He went on to say that inattention to agriculture causes rural unemployment, which in turn results in urban migration.

Such governmental neglect means that farmers are unable to pay for equipment maintenance. Due to the poor state of tractors and other machinery, according to a 25 May RFE/RL Persian Service broadcast, the equipment is not fully productive.

During the Friday Prayers of 19 March, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati had another explanation for problems in the wheat sector: corruption. Jannati said in Khuzestan Province "the lowest estimate says that about 28,000 tons of [subsidized] wheat and flour was smuggled and sold to others. Larger estimates say that the arrested individuals smuggled 76,000 tons of wheat and flour over a period of six years." The authorities could have eliminated the problem much more quickly, Jannati said, because "the hapless people of Khuzestan [had been] complaining that the quality of their bread was poor." The stolen wheat was of the type meant for human consumption, so the public was forced to use "wheat which had been discarded to be used as chicken feed or animal fodder. ... If we were to pursue the matter seriously and stop such crimes," Jannati suggested, "the situation would not deteriorate and we would save money."

The drought, which is affecting all of Iran, will not last forever. And wheat purchases from other countries will only provide a short-term solution. A longer-term solution will almost certainly require increased investment in the agricultural sector as well as the elimination of economically inefficient mechanisms, such as price subsidies, and eradication of corruption. (Bill Samii)

BKO REACTIVATED? In the last four weeks there have been a series of explosions in Iran, which when examined individually seem inconsequential, but taken together leave troubling questions unanswered. "The explosion of dubious items in various districts of Mashhad [on 9 May] seriously injured four persons," the "Tehran Times" reported on 11 May. A pipeline transferring oil from Khuzestan to Isfahan's refinery exploded near Izeh city, causing contamination and "heavy damage to production and industrial units," state television reported on 14 May. The incident occurred, "Tehran Times" reported on 17 May, when a loader ruptured the pipeline. On 24 May IRNA reported that 70 people were injured by the explosion of a liquid gas transfer pipeline near Ahvaz the previous day. "A gas leak was reported to be the cause of the explosion," according to IRNA. The latter two events can be ascribed to the deteriorating condition of the petrochemical sector's infrastructure. Regarding all of these events as a pattern, however, one wonders whether the recently uncovered Mahdaviyat group is responsible. On the other hand, observers in Masjid-i Suleiman report that the Babak Khorramdin Organization has been reactivated. (Bill Samii)

SUPPORT FOR KHATAMI NOT RECIPROCATED. Just as President Mohammad Khatami was giving a speech decrying violence and calling for civil political discourse, his supporters were gathering in Tehran's Laleh Park to celebrate the anniversary of his 23 May 1997 election. Most of those in attendance were members of pro-Khatami student groups that operate under the umbrella of the Office for Fostering Unity. Also in attendance were members of the Youth Wing of the pro-Rafsanjani Executives of Construction Party. But there also was an anti-Khatami group on the sidelines.

Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, leader of the Office for Fostering Unity, told the audience that the election of Khatami and the turnout for the February municipal council elections demonstrated the young's rejection of violence, "Hamshahri" reported on 24 May. Asgharzadeh called for political expression within constitutional boundaries, but "if anyone were to push his opponents out of the arena by violent means, he must be resisted." Such sentiments were soon tested.

As Asgharzadeh was speaking, a group started chanting hostile slogans and then threw punches. Law enforcement forces tried to intervene, according to "Hamshahri," but they were outnumbered. The initiators of the violence also trampled floral bouquets. The rally ended in chaos.

The conservative "Jomhuri-yi Islami" newspaper, on 25 May, felt obliged to explain this incident because "foreign radio stations have given extensive coverage to the reports on the rally." It explained that supporters of the Freedom Movement (Nehzat-i Azadi) and the National Front (Jebhe-yi Melli) "were chanting seditious slogans [which] created tension and resulted in clashes."

Although the rally was to celebrate Khatami's election, he made no mention of it. This prompted the Islamic Association of Students in Water and Energy University (Shahid Abbaspur) to write an open letter to Khatami in which they urged him to take a stand. They wrote, according to "Neshat" on 26 May: "Alas, you have not adopted a stance. The vigilant students are watching you with concern. We were hoping that at least you would show the slightest regret for the incident."

On 25 May another student rally occurred, this one at Tehran University. About 2,000 people gathered to demand the release of Islamic intellectual Hojatoleslam Mohsen Kadivar and dissident politician Abbas Amir-Entezam. This rally also ended in violence. Student leader Manuchehr Mohammadi was arrested and held until 30 May.

IRNA downplayed the incident, saying "arguments between those who favored the meeting and the opponents lasted for four and a half hours and then turned into sporadic skirmishes at the end." Reuters, on the other hand, reported that "sporadic scuffles broke out after hardliners, some carrying knives, fired tear gas canisters at the crowd...Police did not intervene." (Bill Samii)

STILL NO MAYOR IN TEHRAN. Pundits hailed the municipal council elections as a great victory for pro-Khatami forces. But the most significant city council, that of Tehran, is clearly not a unified body as demonstrated by its inability to select a new mayor during its first month in operation. In the beginning of May there were 74 candidates for the job, and by the end of the month this list was whittled down to nine serious contenders. IRNA announced that the final choice would be made on 23 May, then 25 May, and then it stopped citing specific dates. There is no simple reason for the delay, although it safely can be ascribed to factionalism.

Each candidate has specific supporters within the council, and the factional conflict has brought about a standstill. "Tehran Times" reported on 17 May that members of the pro-Rafsanjani Executives of Construction Party and the pro-Khatami Iran Islamic Participation Party disagree over the best candidates. Two days later, the English-language daily reported that the top candidates were Mohammad Atrianfar and Fakhreddin Danesh-Ashtiani. The conflict over these two candidates is the real delaying factor, "Resalat" reported on 24 May.

Rumors about the delay are plentiful. Council member Said Hajjarian said the initial postponement occurred because some members of the council were participating in 2nd Khordad ceremonies, "Neshat" reported on 24 May, while others were at council-related events. But even when all its members were present, "Keyhan" reported on 25 May, the council could not make a decision. Then there were rumors that the delays were caused by council member Abdullah Nouri's resignation. Other rumors attributed the delay to the refusal of Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, Soheila Jelodarzadeh, Ezzatollah Sahabi, or Mir-Hossein Musavi-Khamenei to accept the job.

Another reason for the delay is the desire to control the substantial financial assets of bodies affiliated with the municipality, "Tehran Times" criticized on 26 May.

While there are troubles in the capital, other cities are having an easier time. The "Iran Vij" newspaper reported on 15 May that Mohammad Mehdi Sherafat is Yazd's new mayor. (Bill Samii)

ISLAM ON THE INTERNET. Perhaps reflecting the quality of their experiences with Internet Service Providers, members of the Iranian leadership are expressing differing sentiments on the World Wide Web's future in their country. Parliament speaker Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri said on 18 May: "We must present pure Islam to the world via the Internet and demonstrate the correctness of our religion," "Keyhan" newspaper reported. He went on to say that the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution and the Supreme Council for National Security "have studied the question whether or not to use the Internet and they have reached the conclusion that we are required to use the latest findings in technology," according to IRNA. On the other hand, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned of the dangers of access to the Internet, saying it, as well as satellite dishes, could spread corrupt western culture, newspapers reported on 19 May. (Bill Samii)

A PLACE FOR A PARTY. In his 23 May speech to a gathering of about 107,000 members of the recently-elected municipal councils, President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami made frequent references to the need for institution-building. While recognizing that there is a wide assortment of political and ideological groups in Iran, Khatami said, "gangs and factions should become identifiable and responsible social tendencies and institutions." Institutionalization will lead to transparency, and "masks will be removed."

Although Article 26 of Iran's Constitution allows party formation "provided they do not violate the principles of independence, freedom, national unity, the criteria of Islam, or the basis of the Islamic Republic," actual political parties are a relatively new phenomenon in the Islamic Republic.

For many years, the main factor militating against party formation was the concentration of political power in the hands of two clerical organizations, the conservative Tehran Militant Clergy Association (Jameh-yi Ruhaniyat-i Mobarez-i Tehran) and the more leftist Militant Clerics Association (Majmae Ruhaniyun-i Mobarez), according to an article by Stephen Fairbanks in the Winter 1998 "Middle East Journal." Both groups had coalitions allied with them. Had either association formed a party, however, non-clerics could have joined, thereby diminishing the clerics' power. Some argued that clerics' trustworthiness mitigated the need for parties.

At least one Islamic scholar, however, favored political parties. Hojatoleslam Davar Firhi described parties' compatibility with Shia Islam in "Iran" newspaper on 28 December 1998. Because they are based on "freedom, mental development, and individual responsibility in political life," and "because political activity has a social characteristic, political parties play one of the key roles in enjoining the faithful to do what is good and avoiding what is bad in the arena of politics." Firhi recognized that parties might be misused, but they were preferable to the alternatives (such as "dictatorship and one-party states, both of which have fallen into the sphere of corruption and despotism").

Parties realized a greater significance during the 1997 presidential campaign. Candidate Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri was backed by a coalition of conservative "pressure groups" which had party-like characteristics. But much more significant was creation of the Society for the Defense of the Values of Islamic Revolution (SDVIR) by Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mohammdi Reyshahri as a party backing his (weak) candidacy. This indicated recognition of value of parties, and in theory Reyshahri symbolized and represented party-members' ideological values.

The most significant was the group that came to be known as the Executives of Construction. Initially formed as technocratic supporters of Rafsanjani, this group backed Khatami's electoral victory. But as its leader, former Tehran Mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi, got entangled in a corruption trial and then encouraged participation in the Assembly of Experts election, several prominent party members split off.

This group formed the Iran Islamic Participation Party, which stated outright its position as a pro-Khatami party (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 23 November 1998). But for many, this was really an ideological issue, rather than one focusing on an individual.

Shortly thereafter, another party was announced: the Islamic Labor Party. Unlike the IIPP, this group had existed as a licensed body since 1997. Its stated purpose was to represent workers' interests.

Despite these hopeful signs, the February council elections demonstrated that party formation has a way to go in Iran. Candidates and voters identified with either the left or the right, the weekly "Vilayat-i Qazvin" reported on 2 February, but a "third way" also emerged which had "no liking for the forces of the left or the right." In rural areas and smaller towns candidates ran on the basis of local issues and were not identified with any specific group. In Tehran, coalitions formed which shared some but not all candidates, making it difficult for voters to think other than in terms of the best-recognized candidates. And after the election of a supposedly pro-Khatami council, it had (and still has) great difficulty in choosing a mayor.

So it may be premature to view the formation of a few parties as a sign of significant change. This is particularly true when the system continues to be dominated by clerics who resist sharing power with the public. But should a few more parties with genuine national appeal emerge, they could play a major role in next year's parliamentary elections. And this, in turn, may bring Iran closer to having a functioning democracy, rather than what currently exists. (Bill Samii)