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Iran Report: November 23, 1998

23 November 1998, Volume 1, Number 2

NEW CONCERNS ABOUT THE ECONOMY. Economic issues continue to be the biggest concern of the Iranian people, according to a survey published in "Resalat" last week. And three recent and interrelated events -- the decline in oil prices, a rise in unemployment, and devaluation of the currency -- have only heightened the reasons for their concern.

Iran�s economy depends on the export of a single commodity: oil. Economic planners prepared this year�s budget with the expectation that each barrel of oil sold would earn $16. In fact, the world oil glut has driven prices downward and oil now trades at $12 per barrel. Iran earns 80 percent of its revenues through oil sales, so this has been disastrous.

The government has adopted several measures to try to compensate. To meet its immediate obligations, it has borrowed from the Central Bank. But the regime is also seeking to attract new foreign investment. To this end, President Mohammad Khatami has encouraged expatriate Iranians to return to their homeland. And his government has proposed legislation that would compensate those whose assets in Iran�s seven free-trade zones have been nationalized. Recently, Tehran adopted a law against state takeovers of foreign investments in the free-trade zones.

But Iranian expatriates remain reluctant to invest there for a number of reasons, according to an Iranian economist who spoke in the West recently. For most of them, the rules regarding the three different exchange rates are mysterious and flexible. They find it difficult to convert rials to dollars. In addition, the export and import of goods is tightly controlled. Laws are unevenly applied. And the many quasi-governmental foundations (bonyads) continue to confiscate private property.

Although labor laws are strict and firing someone is difficult, unemployment in Iran now stands at 13 percent, according to "Resalat." This trend is already causing political concern. Indeed, "Kar va Kargar" newspaper recently warned that unemployment is the greatest danger the country faces. And Bakhsh Ali, head of Tehran�s unemployment office, said that in that city alone 530,000 people, 84,000 of them university graduates, have signed up for assistance, according to the 28 October "Keyhan."

The situation in rural areas, where 26% of the residents live under the poverty line, is no better. Deputy Minister of the Construction Jihad Mohammad Hossein Amadi told "Salaam" in October that of the 3.5 million jobs created in the last ten years, only 170,000 benefited the rural areas. Even those who have jobs do not fully benefit: in Mazandaran, for example, workers at a textile mill went on strike to protest wage arrears.

Moreover, the last few weeks have seen a sharp decrease in the value of Iran�s currency, the rial. Although the currency is pegged at 3000 rials to the dollar, it recently climbed to 7000 rials per dollar on the black market. This trend also makes it increasingly unattractive for Iranians to keep their money in the country, and those who can send it out or buy precious metals rather than investing it or buying consumables.

WHAT WILL THE ASSEMBLY DO NOW? The Assembly of Experts, elected at the end of October, will appoint the supreme leader of the Islamic Revolution. The selection process and the actual candidate chosen by the Assembly, which under normal circumstances meets semi-annually, will affect the future of Iran�s domestic politics and international relations. But despite the assembly's religious roots, recent developments suggest that it will give greater weight to political factors than religious ones in making that choice.

The father of Iran�s Islamic Revolution, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, wanted the supreme leader to be more than a religious figure. As he saw it, the supreme leader should combine religious and political leadership abilities. Khomeini met this requirement, which was constitutionally formalized in 1979. He was widely recognized as a religious �source of emulation,� having achieved the level of juridical knowledge which enables Koranic interpretation and written a theological treatise at a relatively early age. His political involvement started fairly early, too: he opposed the king�s policies and foreign intervention in the 1940s.

After his death in 1989, Khomeini was succeeded as supreme leader by Ali Khamenei, as Khamenei had the support of the Assembly of Experts, for there was little doubt about his political credentials: he had served as president and was close to Khomeini during his exile. But some questioned Khamenei�s religious credentials: he was not an Ayatollah until days before his selection as supreme leader, nor was he widely recognized as a source of emulation. But this was no longer an issue, due to 1989 constitutional changes which made political qualifications more important than religious ones.

While Khamenei became supreme leader after Khomeini died, the mantle of religious leadership went first to Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Golpayegani (died1993) and then to Grand Ayatollah Ali Araki (died 1994). After their deaths, intense debate about the religious leadership resurfaced. The Qum Theological Lecturers Association and the Tehran Militant Clergy Association mentioned several possible candidates, including Khamenei, but he withdrew from contention.

Since that time, there has been a great deal of discussion about the qualifications for the office. In a December 1993 sermon, Chief of the Judiciary Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi said that Islamic law does not bar a supreme leader from being a source of emulation. If anything, he argued, this improves his qualifications. Council of Guardians chief Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, in a November 1994 sermon, said political engagement was more important than religious standards alone. Yazdi, in a December 1994 sermon, took this further. If the sole grounds for selecting a leader is religious knowledge, he said, then the seminaries can select candidates. And when there is no Islamic government, any faqih (jurisconsult) can provide religious and temporal leadership, �but when Islam gains sovereignty one faqih rules and the other faqihs have no rule.� In other words, now there is room for only one faqih�s leadership, because Iran is an Islamic state.

That politics is more relevant than religion was made evident when candidates for the 1998 Assembly of Experts were selected. Jannati specified that candidates must meet political criteria, and in a heated exchange of public correspondence, he refused to explain the selection process to rejected candidates. Most of these individuals were clerics who, on purely religious terms, should have been eligible to stand for office.

Therefore, the next supreme leader of Iran will be chosen on mainly political grounds by a body whose membership was evaluated primarily on political grounds. The next supreme leader will probably be someone recognized primarily for his political skills, someone like Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani.

Rafsanjani served as parliamentary speaker, commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, and president. He is chairman of the Council for the Discernment of Expediency and speaker of the Assembly of Experts. Rafsanjani was close to Ayatollah Khomeini. He is a member of both the militant and the moderate clerical political groups. He supports policies advocated by the Executives of Construction Party. The Iranian press increasingly refers to Rafsanjani as an Ayatollah. Also, he makes occasional theological statements and often gives sermons.

Thoughts of a succession to the current supreme leader may be premature. At 58, Khamenei is relatively young. Iran�s ayatollahs, furthermore, have a tradition of longevity. For example, Araki lived to be over 100 years old. His predecessor, Golpayegani, died at the age of 96. On the other hand, Khamenei was badly wounded in a June 1981 assassination attempt. He reportedly suffers residual health problems and his right arm was paralyzed. An incident in June 1998, when Khamenei cut short a speech, also raised doubts. Khamenei appeared tired and visibly ill, and before he spoke, the crowd was urged to �listen carefully� because he was �suffering from a minor illness.�

But the recent round of elections and discussions suggest that whenever he is chosen, the successor to Ayatollah Khamenei will likely be Iran�s least theocratic supreme leader yet.

NEW PARTY ANNOUNCED. When two political groups that have been competing with each other decide to cooperate, observers usually take note. But the September announcement of one such partnership consisting of members of the Executives of Construction Party and the Tehran Militant Clergy Association has attracted relatively little comment.

That is almost certainly a mistake. The new pro-Khatami party -- to be called the "Participation Front" -- is important both because it indicates that the municipal elections in February will be hard fought and because it highlights the continuing growth of civil society institutions in Iran.

Members of its leadership council include Deputy Interior Minister Mostafa Tajzadeh; Deputy Foreign Minister Mohsen Aminzadeh; Cooperatives Minister Morteza Haji, who ran Khatami's election campaign last year; presidential adviser Said Hajarian; and newspaper editor and former Student Following the Imam�s Line member Abbas Abdi. Other founding members reportedly include Energy Minister Habibollah Bitaraf and Alireza Tabesh.

The party is expected to make a strong showing in the February voting and thus strengthen Khatami�s efforts to bring about reforms in economic and administrative policies. A coalition of student groups called the Office for Strengthening Unity and the Militant Clerics Association, which is considered the more moderate clerical group, also say they will particpate in the municipal elections.

Some conservative members of the parliament oppose having the elections, arguing that the vote will cause an excessive financial burden so soon after the Assembly of Experts election. "Iran" newspaper, however, writes that many government officials, such as Vice President for Development and Social Affairs Abdullah Nouri, are resigning so they can take part.

None of those involved has specified why they are leaving other parties to join this one. But there are a few clues: some members of the Executives of Construction split during the Assembly of Experts election to lend their support to Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Others may want to avoid the stigma of association with General Secretary Gholam Hossein Karbaschi, the Tehran mayor who is currently appealing a conviction for corruption.

Association with other Executives of Construction is also unattractive. Abdullah Nouri was interpellated (given a vote of no-confidence) by the parliament when he was interior minister. Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance Ataollah Mohajerani believes some members of parliament want to impeach him, according to an IRNA report. And about 1200 students and teachers at Mashad theological institutions petitioned parliament to interpellate Mohajerani. They wrote, according to the paper "Quds," "We request the lawmakers make the revolutionary people of Iran happy by revoking your vote of confidence."

While it is not certain why people left other parties to join this one, it is certainly a sign of political development and maturity. It is an indicator that in the future, candidates for office are likely to be selected on the basis of their party platforms. It also indicates that the current system of pressure groups and alliances which are constantly shifting on the basis of each different issue will gradually be replaced by political institutions reflecting Iran's multihued spectrum of political, social, and religious opinion.

RUSHDIE�S NEW FRIEND? In September, President Khatami and Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi declared that the Iranian government had no intention of carrying out the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini�s fatwa (religious judgment) decreeing death for Salman Rushdie, author of "The Satanic Verses." Around the same time a book was released that questioned the decree�s validity.

Optimistic observers believed the president�s statement put the issue to rest. Almost as soon as Khatami had spoken, however, voices from Iran said that Khomeini's decree was irrevocable. They even increased the bounty offered by an Iranian foundation. And now the author of this recent book, as well as those who write about it, are being subjected to sharp criticism from Tehran.

University of Aarhus Professor Mehdi Mozaffari, in his new book titled "Fatwa: Violence and Discourtesy," writes that Ayatollah Khomeini issued a hokm (an edict), not a fatwa. He describes what he sees as the substantive differences between the two: Khomeini�s hokms were typed, whereas his fatwas were hand-written, and the actual document was neither signed nor sealed. In the book, Khomeini's right to issue such a fatwa is questioned, because a man of politics is not supposed to issue religious decrees. "Iran Daily," the English-language publication of the Islamic Republic News Agency, then published an article about the book titled �When Is A Fatwa Not A Fatwa?�

"Tehran Times," an English-language daily published by a division of the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture, criticized its competitor. �We really do not know what service 'Iran Daily' rendered to Islam or the nation through publishing such provocative material.� The book�s author was criticized too. �It is really a matter of great concern that in the name of �liberty or freedom,� some trample on sacred values or others� beliefs. This is what Rushdie did in his satanic work and, now, the same has been repeated by Mozaffari.�

In a subsequent interview with "Keyhan," a hard-line daily under the direct supervision of the Leader�s Office, "Iran Daily" editor Mohammad Khoddadi said the article was published when all the editors were at a meeting. Khoddadi went on to say that it was the �religious duty of each Muslim� to carry out the edict. And the 11 November "Iran Daily" wrote that the author was �a columnist of Egyptian origin� who was reprimanded. In that issue, an editorial reiterated that the decree is valid until its implementation.

As these accounts demonstrate, the Rushdie issue is still very sensitive for Iranians. Within domestic Iranian politics the entire issue continues to be a powerful tool for intimidation. But for many devout Iranian Muslims, the issue is not one of politics, it is one of faith. According to different newspapers, in the town of Bahar, a father offered his vineyard as additional bounty; residents of Kiyapay village offered land, dwellings, and carpets as additional bounty; and students in a Qum seminary offered a month�s allowance as additional reward.

IRAN ACCUSED OF INVOLVEMENT IN AZERBAIJANI UNREST. Since the 11 October presidential elections in Azerbaijan, opposition groups there continue to dispute the outcome and do not recognize it as legal and valid. The Azerbaijani government has accused Iran of backing the opposition. But so far, Baku has not provided any convincing evidence to back up its charges.

On 7 and 8 November, Azerbaijan security forces violently suppressed demonstrations against the conduct of the election, which had fallen short of meeting Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe commitments and other international standards. National Security Minister Namig Abbasov blamed foreign agents, among them Russians, for initiating the violence. He said, according to Turan News Agency: �The interests of a number of foreign countries are behind the events of 7-8 November. These interests are being fulfilled with the help of those countries� secret services which have contacts with opposition parties in Azerbaijan.� Parliamentarian Khady Rdzhabov later alleged that the Russian and Iranian secret services were supporting the Azerbaijani opposition.

In late October, four Azerbaijan newspapers quoted a �Mir Mehdi Huseynli� of the banned Islamic Party of Azerbaijan (IPA) as having said that the Iranian government had allocated $14 million for the Movement for Democratic Elections and Electoral Reform, an alliance of Azerbaijani opposition parties. These accusations were reiterated by Azerbaijani parliamentarian Zahed Gharalov. The charges were rejected by Haji Mehdi Shamil of the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan. The Iranian embassy in Baku denied these accusations and protested formally to Azerbaijan�s Foreign Ministry.

In late August, and perhaps in anticipation of the October presidential election, Baku�s "Sharg" newspaper published accusations that Isa Gambar of the Musavat Party was also on the Iranian payroll. Evidence of this, the newspaper wrote, was that Gambar had performed the Hajj pilgrimage! While some IPA members did pursue an alliance with Musavat, the two groups never merged due to their different interpretations of the role of religion in government. Earlier in August, the National Liberation Movement of Southern Azerbaijan, a Baku-based group that advocates secession of Iran�s Azeri provinces, published a pamphlet accusing Iranian intelligence agencies of sponsoring provocations and cooperating with the IPA. These accusations were repeated by the Azerbaijani newspaper "Zerkalo" when Iranian Foreign Minister Kharrazi visited Baku.

Iran often has been portrayed as interfering in Azerbaijani politics. In 1996, for example, Iran was implicated in conducting subversive religious activities among Georgia�s ethnic Azerbaijanis, according to a Russian press summary of remarks by Georgian National Security Minister Shota Kviraia. According to a May 1997 report in "The Georgian Times," Iran is proselytizing actively among the displaced persons from Nagorno-Karabakh. And in April 1997, four IPA leaders were sentenced in a closed trial on charges of espionage for Iran. Moreover, Iran reportedly has funded some village mosques and spent money on rural proselytization.