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Iran Report: October 11, 1999

11 October 1999, Volume 2, Number 40

NEW LAWS AND CANDIDATES AND PARLIAMENT'S FUTURE. There are four months remaining before the Islamic Republic of Iran's sixth parliamentary election, and it is shaping up to be an exciting contest. Three developments are a direct result of the pending election: legislation affecting the Guardians Councils' supervisory role, the entry of new candidates and the creation of new parties, and the continuing discussion about Expediency Council chairman Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani's political future. As all this is happening, however, there is at least one voice calling for the election's cancellation.

On 29 September, according to state television, parliament ended its discussion of the draft election law and approved its 94 articles in the second reading. The day before, article 60 of the election bill was approved, according to state broadcasting. This article gives the Guardians Council authority to "disqualify any candidate for the Majlis who commits any type of offense -- or any offense which may affect the outcome of the election -- and declare the election null and void."

There continues to be a debate about articles of the election law that say the Guardians Council can ask the Interior Ministry to suspend governors who try to influence the election in their constituency. "Iran News" said on 27 September that the screening of candidates and "disregard of supervisory boards" threatens the election and may "heighten tensions." When these are combined with disagreements between the Interior Ministry and the Guardians Council over the suspension of governors, "the controversy is bound to disrupt the nationwide elections."

Yet Guardians Council secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati told state television on 6 October that the Guardians Council, which has the power to disapprove any legislation, rejected Parliamentary approval of the election law. Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari, furthermore, said his organization was never consulted about the draft election legislation, "Payam-i Azadi" reported on 7 October.

Qodrat Ali Heshmatian, parliamentary representative from Sonqur-i Kolyai, predicted that most of the winning candidates for the new parliament will be independents, because development in the last three months have inclined voters towards moderates, "Iran Daily" reported on 28 September. (Heshmatian has been predicting this for at least a year, Maku representative Ali Ahmadi told "Jebhe" on 5 June). In fact, new political groups are being licensed, suggesting that the value of parties is gaining recognition. Among these groups is the Green Party, as well as localized bodies like the Islamic Association of Gilan Province Teachers and the Society of Solidarity of Students and Graduates of Islamshahr, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency on 25 September.

The Islamic Labor Party (ILP) got an early start, announcing the start of its parliamentary campaign in August. Talking to "Iran Daily" on 3 August, ILP founder Abdulrahman Tajeddin said his party probably will align itself with other 2nd Khordad supporters in the parliamentary election. The ILP and the Forces Following the Imam's Line will share three or four candidates, "Qods" reported on 30 September. The pro-Khatami Islamic Iran Participation Party started its campaign in Qom, "Keyhan" reported on 2 October. The candidates lists for the Islamic Iran Participation Party and Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization are taking shape, too, according to the 23 September "Arya."

Hojatoleslam Mehdi Mahdavi-Karubi, secretary of the relatively liberal Militant Clerics Association (Majmae Ruhaniyun-i Mobarez), will be on the list of candidates supported by the more hardline Tehran Militant Clergy Association (Jameh-yi Ruhaniyat-i Mobarez-i Tehran), according to the 23 September "Aftab-i Imruz" and the 28 September "Tehran Times." Former Interior Minister Ali Akbar Mohtashemi also will be on the Tehran Militant Clergy Association list. Karubi predicted that "on 29th Bahman [date of the parliamentary election] people will create an epic that will be even greater than 2nd Khordad [date of the 1997 presidential election]."

There are still questions about Hashemi-Rafsanjani's intentions. When the Tehran Militant Clergy Association criticized Khatami, Rafsanjani distanced himself from the organization: "an informed source" told IRNA on 29 September that Hashemi-Rafsanjani "had long since discontinued his organic links" with the group and "in a distant past" he only "routinely and sporadically" met some of its members. This was further reinforced when Executives of Construction Party secretary Seyyed Hassan Marashi said Hashemi-Rafsanjani had been offered but declined the leadership of the Tehran Militant Clergy Association. And in what sounded like a bit of campaigning, Marashi said the Executives of Construction is neither left nor right, it is a "balancing force" that makes "moderate" moves.

Such actions and statements indicate a desire to be a candidate of the 2nd Khordad organizations and a desire to benefit from popular rejection of hardline policies. The Freedom Movement of Iran's Hassan Yusefi-Eshkevari explained: "My understanding is that Mr. Rafsanjani will not stand as a candidate if his name is going to be on the list proposed by the right wing or the Executives of Construction but not the 2nd Khordad front," "Khordad" reported on 26 September.

Kurdistan Province Governor-General Abdullah Ramazanzadeh thinks the whole election should be canceled, according to the 23 September "Manateq-i Azad." With new laws giving the Guardians Council so much power in every aspect of the election, from determination of candidates' eligibility onward, Ramazanzadeh does not see much point in holding the event. Due to the dynamic nature of Iranian politics, it may be too early for such pessimism. It is still possible that with behind-the-scene manipulations and maneuverings, the February parliamentary election will fulfill the Iranian public's hopes. (Bill Samii)

PARLIAMENT UNHAPPY WITH KHATAMI'S DEVELOPMENT PLAN. On 15 September, Iranian President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami presented the third five-year development plan to the parliament. On 5 October, the parliament responded that the plan was overly general and lacked specific solutions to Iran's economic problems. There has been speculation that the parliament's action stems from factional motivations, but this appears to be secondary to concerns about the real decline in living standards for the average citizen.

Parliamentarian Mohammad Baqer Nobakht gave an example of what bothered parliamentarians about the plan, Reuters reported on 5 October: "The plan only gives a figure for the cut in the rate of unemployment and does not include ways of reducing joblessness and increasing investment." Labor and Social Affairs Minister Hussein Kamali had proposed reducing unemployment by repatriating foreigners who are working in Iran illegally, according to a 28 August Islamic Republic News Agency report.

Plan and Budget Organization chief Mohammad Ali Najafi attempted to answer parliament's questions in a closed door session, IRNA reported on 6 October. Afterwards, Nobakht said views were exchanged on employment, foreign exchange, and expansion of non-oil exports. To create 3.8 million jobs, it was decided to have 7.1 percent growth in investment to yield 6 percent economic growth. To achieve the 7.1 percent in investment, Nobakht explained, the private sector must add 8.5 percent and the public sector about 5.1 percent.

The government wants to reduce the country's dependency on the oil sector, but oil has been doing well for Iran recently. Iran has bypassed Saudi Arabia as Japan's top oil supplier, although this may have something to do with Iranian-Japanese debt arrangements in which repayments are made in oil. Also, oil prices are near a 32-month high, and oil ministers in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria promised to keep output at reduced levels. Meanwhile, French company Elf Aquitaine has submitted bids to develop three phases of Iran's South Pars gas field in the Persian Gulf, the "Middle East Economic Survey" reported on 13 September. Shell is close to signing a deal to develop the Soroush and Noruz Zanganeh offshore projects, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh said on 22 September, according to Reuters.

Also, Oil Minister Zanganeh announced the discovery of a 26,000 million barrel oil field in southwestern Khuzestan province on 28 September. He said, according to state radio, that the field can produce up to 400,000 barrels daily. U.S. oil company Conoco's chairman, president, and Chief Executive Officer, Archie Dunham, said on 2 October that this discovery has great potential, but U.S. companies cannot take advantage of it because they are "excluded by U.S. sanctions." Cunningham went on to say that economic engagement will "cement" progress in relations between the U.S. and Iran.

From a credit and loan perspective, Iran's economy may be in for some relief. The Central Bank of Iran (CBI) and the Arab-Italy Bank (UBAE) signed an agreement for a $120 million credit line, IRNA reported on 28 August. A special part of the agreement is the waiver on a government guarantee. The Saudi-based Islamic Development Bank gave Iran a $105 million loan, Agence France Presse reported on 12 September. The loan must be repaid in 12-15 years at an interest rate of 5.5-8.0 percent.

Khosrow Salur, a consultant at the Dutch embassy in Tehran, told Iranian state radio on 5 October that "In the near future, two Dutch banks will issue an 8.5 year line of credit to Iranian investors with $2 billion." Meanwhile, German oil facility builders are urging their government to increase Hermes coverage for contracts from Iran, according to the 4 September "Frankfurter Allgemeine." Without financing, they do not think they will be able to participate in the ambitious Iranian plans. An added reassurance for foreign investors came from Chamber of Commerce, Industries, and Mines head Ali-Naqi Khamushi, who said on 22 September that the Iranian government has insured all investments and allows the transfer of capital and interests at any time, IRNA reported.

The government hopes that floating the currency and unifying exchange rates will attract foreign investment. Also, unifying exchange rates may stem corruption, particularly speculation by para-statal foundations that get subsidized hard currency, Rutgers University Professor Houshang Amirahmadi told Reuters on 22 September. There is also a negative aspect to a currency float. Iranian businessman Mohammad Masinaei told Reuters that the plan to float the currency at the market rate may worsen capital flight. London-based currency trader Ali Pakpour was skeptical about the plan: "This is the same kind of pretty talk we have heard many times in the past twenty years. I doubt it will happen."

Although many Iranians suffer from the economic situation, "many well-connected businessmen have accumulated massive wealth," according to the 15 September "Washington Post." This led Iranian consultant Bijan Khajepour-Khoi to say that "Much of this wealth has been created by abusing the system."

Obvious abuse of the system results in greater frustration on the part of average citizens. Mohammad Rezai, a 51 year-old former truck driver, summed up the feelings of many when he said "The government doesn't care about the people." (Bill Samii)

TABRIZ PRISONERS APPEAL FOR HELP. Fourteen Tabriz students sentenced to prison terms of between seven and nine years for participating in last July's demonstrations have appealed to Minister of Culture and Higher Education Mostafa Moin to have them released, according to the 4 October "Khordad" and the 7 October "Akhbar-i Eqtesad." Complaining of ill treatment, they asked Moin in an open letter to "find a solution for our release by posting bail or by any other means." The students were convicted after closed trials. Seyyed Mohammad Reza Milani, the Tabriz parliamentary representative, complained in a 6 October "Khordad" report: "I believe that these students should have been tried in an open court so that people would know what the charges against them were."

Regarding the authorities' methods, Milani also had some comments. "Some individuals imagine that they can restore calm in a closed atmosphere, but if they wish to win the trust of the students, they should reassure them that there would not be an attack [against the university] from outside. When several young persons, who are learning to live through practice and struggle, are tried behind closed doors, this would only lead to greater mistrust in the university environment." (Bill Samii)

DIALOG AMONG CIVILIZATIONS AND MESBAH-YAZDI. Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi was in Damascus on 6 October, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency, to meet with Syrian clerics and intellectuals. Among the issues they discussed were "dialog among and clash of civilizations." He may seem an odd choice for such discussions. Mesbah-Yazdi's 6 August comment about Islam's enemies -- "They presented principles such as tolerance and compromise as absolute values while violence was introduced as a non-value" -- and violence -- "the taboo -- that every act of violence is bad and every act of tolerance is good -- must be broken," were interpreted by many as open advocacy of violence against one's opponents, rather than dialog with them. (Bill Samii)

INDIRECT NON-PROLIFERATION DISCUSSIONS WITH ISRAEL. At the annual meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iranian Vice-President for Atomic Energy Qolam Reza Aqazadeh-Khoi called for "the bringing of Israel's nuclear facilities under full-scale safeguards," Agence France Presse reported on 28 September. There are reports that Iran has approached Israel, using the United Kingdom as an intermediary, to pursue this issue. Yet Iranian and British government officials deny the veracity of such reports.

A delegation of British officials met with its Israeli counterparts and presented Iranian proposals addressing nuclear weapons, Tel Aviv's "Haaretz" newspaper reported on 29 September. The proposals included a no first-strike agreement, an agreement not to arm ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads, and an agreement to restrict the use of long-range missiles. The Israeli delegation refused to respond, according to "Haaretz." If nothing else, a response would be a tacit admission that Israel possesses nuclear weapons, something it never has acknowledged officially.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi dismissed the "Haaretz" article, IRNA reported on 30 September. He said, according to state broadcasting, "The Islamic Republic of Iran's talks with the British government concerned international disarmament and ways of confronting proliferation of the weapons of mass destruction. Neither in these or any other talks anything was raised to link these measures with the Zionist regime." The British Foreign Office also dismissed the "Haaretz" report, according to "The Times" of London on 30 September.

"The Times" goes on to report, however, that the British have acted as intermediaries between Iran and Israel in non-proliferation issues in the past, as have the French. London is in an especially strong position because it is close to both the U.S. and Iran, which do not have formal relations with each other. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi is expected in London before the end of the year, so there may be further developments in this affair. (Bill Samii)

LITHUANIAN PARLIAMENT CONCERNED ABOUT IRANIAN OIL TALKS. Just back from a visit to Iran, Lithuanian Economic Minister Eugenijus Maldeikis said on 4 October that the Baltic country will soon begin negotiations with Iran for oil. The Foreign Affairs Committee of Lithuania's parliament (the Seimas) summoned Foreign Minister Algirdas Saudargas to discuss this issue. According to Radio Vilnius on 5 October, the parliamentarians want to know if "the plans to hold talks on crude oil supplies from a country supporting international terrorism will not affect Lithuania's agreements with the United States oil corporation Williams International." Vytautas Dudenas, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, told Radio Vilnius on 6 October that he was concerned that Williams International would withdraw from talks to privatize Mazeikiu Nafta, the Lithuanian oil refinery. (Bill Samii)

CONSPIRATORIAL EXPLANATIONS FOR ANTI-SHIA VIOLENCE IN PAKISTAN. Sectarian violence is not uncommon in Pakistan, and a new spate of it started at the end of September. Traditionally, Iran's concern about such events is affected by three factors: Iran-Pakistan political and business relations; Iran's role as chair of the Organization of the Islamic Conference; and Iran's role as leader of the Shia community. Regarding the current outbreak of violence, there are three interpretations that involve Iran. The Iranian government blamed the U.S. Pakistan's Jamaat-i Islami said India and the U.S. acted to get Iran involved. And sources in the Pakistani security services absolved "friendly Muslim countries," blaming instead the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani officials who support them.

Early in the fourth week of September, a leader of the Shia Tahrik-i Jaafariya Pakistan (TJP) party, his daughter, and a guard were killed in the northern Pakistani city of Dera Ismail Khan, and soon thereafter a TJP leader was killed in the central city of Gujranwala. On 1 October, nine worshippers in a Shia mosque in Karachi were murdered, in an incident that bears a chilling similarity to the January murders of Shia worshippers (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 11 January 1999). From a Shia perspective, the timing of this incident was particularly bad because, as "Kayhan International" noted on 2 October, it occurred on the birth anniversaries of Hazrat Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Mohammad, and of Father of the Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The TJP called for three days of mourning. By the end of the day three more Shia were killed in central Punjab.

The provincial traffic police chief in the Northwestern Frontier Province, a member of the Shia community, was killed, and two Shia in the southern Muzzaffaragh district of central Punjab were killed on 2 October. The same day, three Sunni students were killed and 13 wounded as they played cricket outside their school in Karachi. Two other Sunnis, one related to a leader of the Kashmiri militant group called the Lashkar-i Tayyaba, were also killed. Late that day, a Shia leader in eastern Punjab was killed and his son wounded when a grenade was thrown into their home.

According to a 2 October Reuters report, Sunni militants accuse Iran of aiding the Shia, the Shia say Saudi Arabia helps the Sunnis, and both Iran and Saudi Arabia reject the charges. On 2 October, "Kayhan International" -- some say it is affiliated with the Supreme Leader's office, while others say it has Ministry of Intelligence and Security connections -- criticized the Pakistani government for its failure to protect the Shia minority from the Sunni Sipah-i Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), which it termed an "extremist Wahhabi faction."

"Tehran Times" -- affiliated with the conservative Islamic Propagation Office -- explained the situation in Pakistan on 3 October. It said the killing started just after a Pakistani military delegation visited the U.S. and "met with senior officials of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). ... One can sense another deep-rooted plot designed by the CIA and the military officials who sojourned to the United States." The English-language daily went on to say that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government may be facing a coup "if security is not tightened."

Expressing Iran's concern about the situation in Pakistan, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi had an explanation for the violence. He said, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency on 2 October: "The concurrence of the surge of terrorist operations in Pakistan and spread of internal clashes and civil wars in Afghanistan are evidence of intensification of the conspiracies of the enemies of the Muslim ummah [community] to divide Muslims and pit them against each other." Assefi went on to say that "Iran condemns the conspiracies of the enemies of Islam," and he invited Muslim countries to maintain unity.

Such simplistic statements are unlikely to help Iran fulfill its responsibilities to the Shia community specifically and the Islamic community more generally. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is recognized as the source of emulation by Pakistan's Federation of Shia Clerics (Vifaq-i-Ulama-i-Shia), by the TJP, by Lahore's Jamiat Ul-Muntazir, and by Allama Sayyid Ghulam Riza Naqvi, leader of a TJP splinter group called the Sipah-i Mohammed. And Iran is still the head of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, something about which it frequently reminds the world.

A similarly unlikely explanation appeared in Karachi's Urdu-language "Jasarat" newspaper -- linked to the Jamaat-i Islami -- on 5 October. An article by Arif Bihar claimed that the violence was engineered by India in collusion with the U.S. in order to create the conditions under which Iran will join an anti-terrorism agreement with them. The article explained that a "deep worldwide conspiracy" is behind the violence, which "erupted at a time when India and the United States are close to a secret deal to counter terrorism." This will, in turn, "coerce Iran to join the U.S.-Indian alliance against the Muslim jihad movements."

A more believable explanation for the violence came in a 2 October report from Islamabad's English-language "The News." Quoting "ranking security sources," it said, "Pakistani secret services strongly believe that sectarian terrorism is conducted almost entirely by local elements, and there is no legally maintainable evidence to indicate the involvement of any foreign power." It continued: "These agencies believe that friendly Muslim countries provide only financial assistance to various Shia and Deobandi Sunni religious schools in the country." "The News" reported that Taliban "provide ideological and related support to the forces committed to confronting the minority Shia population in Pakistan." Pakistani "security officials" say that because their forces are "heavily involved in the freedom struggle in Kashmir or in aiding the Taliban to maintain their grip on most of Afghanistan," they cannot crackdown on the militants in their own country. (Bill Samii)