Politicians React To Government's Disrespect For Parties
His remarks have provoked public criticism from politicians from the entire political spectrum and raised the fear of restrictions against parties.
Herandi said at a seminar on January 16 that "in a country where party politics have not been a successful experience," the government needs to "mobilize popular formations" to "safeguard the people" and "attract" various sectors of the Iranian population to the "values of the revolution," the daily "Etemad-i Melli" reported the next day.
Political Role For Militias?
He reportedly suggested the clergy or the Basij -- the militia affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) -- be used as substitutes for parties. His remarks came at a time when some politicians have urged better-organized parties and even state subsidies for approved parties in order to encourage party politics.
Reactions to the minister's remarks have been negative.
Rasul Montajabnia, a member of the reformist National Trust Party, wrote in the daily "Etemad-i Melli" on January 17 that the constitution expects officials to create conditions favoring legitimate political activities.
He said the Basij -- as members of the armed forces -- are specifically banned by the constitution and by their own regulations from involvement in politics. He added that the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had made clear his dislike for military involvement in politics.
Mohammad Salamati of the Islamic Revolution Mujahedin Organization, a left-leaning reformist party, warned on January 19 of the dangers of pushing the Basij militia toward politics, when its duties lay elsewhere. He said the government should be helping parties "because it is parties that prepare people for elections," "Kargozaran" reported the next day.
Some politicians have observed a link between Ahmadinejad's government and elements in the IRGC or the Basij militia, and there have been allegations of unspecified military interference in the 2005 presidential elections that brought Ahmadinejad to power.
Hussein Kashefi of the reformist Participation Front objected on January 19 to another comment attributed to the minister -- that party politics are at odds with Iran's "culture," "Kargozaran" reported.
Kashefi said this was "an injustice to culture" in Iran which, he said, had the capacity to embrace party politics.
Mehdi Karrubi, the former parliamentary speaker and head of the National Trust Party, told his party more forcefully on January 19 that "democracy" is meaningless without groups competing, and "the supreme leader has repeatedly stressed the presence of different preferences in social and political activities." He said Iranians will vote for those they prefer "if our friends in power" stop "spreading poison" and allow outsiders to run for office, "Kargozaran" reported the next day.
Mostafa Tajzadeh, a member of the Participation Front and former deputy interior minister in the last reformist government, sees the remarks as a prelude to restrictions against parties.
Political Parties Without A Voice
He observed on January 20 that Herandi had said shortly after becoming minister that parties should have newspapers so they can inform the public of their positions. Now, Tajzadeh said, not only has the government shut papers like "Sharq" and prevented "parties supporting Dr. Moin" -- the former higher-education minister now associated with the Democracy and Human Rights Front -- from starting their own papers, but "they are going after parties, and this a preliminary to...increasing restrictions on parties," "Etemad-i Melli" reported.
He said "the new government...ended party subsidies, and is very cautious in giving permits for new parties." Some officials, he added, saw parties merely "as machines to gather votes" and, as they believe clerics and militiamen could do this, "they see no need for...parties." But he believes "very large sections of the clergy and Basij [firmly oppose government] policies, and do not have a positive assessment of this government's performance."
Mohammad Nabi Habibi, the secretary-general of the conservative Islamic Coalition Party, told ISNA on January 25 that it is true some Iranian parties have not been successful, but he called the "spread of the culture of party politics" in Iran one of the "definitive necessities." Political activities by the clergy, he said, would lead to "mistaken beliefs...and discord."
The clergy are "above parties, and really have the role of a father or general guardian with the people," he said. Another conservative, Hojjatoleslam Reza Akrami of the Militant Clergy Society, told ISNA on January 24 that Iran's system is a "parliamentary and electoral" system, and needs "strong and comprehensive parties." The clergy, he says, have a "more extensive" role in society than political parties do.
The culture minister's remarks -- when taken with the president's occasional asides against his critics, unspecified domestic sympathizers of foreign powers, "cronies" or hateful speculators -- strengthen the impression of a government with little patience for pluralism or political competition.
But the responses by politicians to the government's remarks indicate a refusal by the political class to abandon institutional politics and the lawfulness promoted by reformist President Mohammad Khatami for populism and the return of revolutionary turbulence.
Rift Emerging Between President And Clerics
"Ayande-yi No" noted on January 15 that the "roots" of the differences are mainly "cultural," but observers have warned that this estrangement could cost the government a lot of public support. Both dailies cited several episodes since Ahmadinejad's election in mid 2005 that have apparently undermined relations.
One was his decision in April 2006 to allow women into sports stadiums to watch soccer games in mixed crowds, which senior clerics deplored as encouraging indecency.
Another incident was the president's presence in Doha at the opening of the Asian Games in December, where he reportedly witnessed displays that included dancing women -- considered indecent by strict Muslims.
Another, undated incident cited was the reported attendance by Vice President Esfandiar Rahim-Mashai at a private party in Turkey, where again there was dancing. The vice president apparently did not leave, "Ayande-yi No" reported, citing iranews.org.
For his part, Mashai has accused two legislators of conducting a smear campaign against him by distributing video footage from the party. He said they edited the video to give the impression that he stayed for the entire party, though he said he left when the dancing started.
Clerics were then puzzled by the president's letter, or letters, to Pope Benedict XVI, presumably because this was a religious matter not directly related to presidential prerogatives and because some of Benedict's comments on Islam last year made him controversial to many Muslims.
'The Religious Authorities Should Have Been Consulted'
These incidents, the daily noted, have prompted Qom's silent disapproval -- and, at times, public criticism -- and have given the impression the president takes religion, public morals, and the Qom religious authorities lightly. A cleric and member of the conservative Islamic Coalition Party, Hojjatoleslam Mohammad Khorsand, was cited by "Ayande-yi No" on January 15 as saying it "was a mistake" to write to a pontiff who seemed to have insulted Muslims. "If the seminaries and religious authorities [marajeh] had been consulted," Khorsand said, the letter would not have been written.
"Ayande-yi No" stated that observers believe this estrangement may harm the government, given the respect most Iranians are said to have for Qom theologians. "The mass of [Iranians] are religious, and when there is a growing distance between the government and the seminaries, [Iranians] will move toward the theologians," the daily quoted Mohsen Gharavian, a pupil of Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi -- considered a religious mentor to the president -- as saying.
Mohammad Gharavi, a spokesman for the conservative Society of Qom Seminary Teachers was quoted by "Ayande-yi No" as saying the government should take issues that concern the clergy more seriously.
"The Muslim people, theologians, and seminary elders cannot tolerate the repetition" of such incidents as those cited above, Gharavi said. "Etemad" reported on January 14 that Gharavi stressed in a fax sent to the paper that he said the above in a private capacity, not as a spokesman for the Society of Qom Teachers.
A Poor Liaison
"Ayande-yi No" added that the government has a religious-affairs adviser, who also acts as a liaison with Qom. This government's liaison is Hojjatoleslam Mohammad Naser Saqa-i Biria, a pupil of Mesbah-Yazdi. In spite of his ties with the influential Mesbah-Yazdi, the daily notes he has failed to maintain cordial ties between Qom and the presidency.
The distance between clerics and the government was evident recently by the president's absence in Qom on January 9. Past presidents have generally attended ceremonies in the city commemorating an uprising that took place there in 1978.
The daily contrasted this absence with the fact that the last president, reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami, was usually welcome in Qom despite the criticisms senior theologians leveled against his liberalizing social and cultural policies.
"Etemad" quoted Mohsen Gharavian as saying that Saqa-i Biria lived for several years in the United States and enjoys "a lower status in the Qom seminary," in spite of his 25-year association with Mesbah-Yazdi.
Ahmadinejad "does not have suitable and good advisers, at least in the seminary," Gharavi of the Society of Qom Seminary Teachers concluded, "Etemad" reported on January 14.
The respect Qom clerics enjoy among Iran's officialdom is shown in the visit nuclear-dossier chief Ali Larijani paid to Qom on January 19 to explain to senior theologians the state of the nuclear issue.
For now, the concerns of clerics seem to center on morals or "culture." Hojjatoleslam Khorsand was cited by "Etemad" as saying that "in cultural issues, a policy of tolerance and laxity is not acceptable." He urged Ahmadinejad not to overlook incidents like the party in Turkey.
That incident was again cited on January 21 by Ahmad Karimi, the secretary-general of the conservative Islamic Society of Guilds and Bazaar Associations, speaking to ILNA. "The president must safeguard the system's Islamic positions," he said. "The theologians are, like us...concerned about the safeguarding of values. I ask the president to respond over Mashai's conduct, and not to overlook that."
Tehran To Ponder UN Offer To Delay Sanctions
The offer came from Muhammad el-Baradei, the head of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), who says the "timeout" is urgently needed to provide an opportunity for dialogue.
Iran has reacted cautiously to the suggestion by el-Baradei that the UN should delay implementing its sanctions -- imposed by the UN Security Council in December -- if Tehran would also halt work on uranium enrichment.
Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, would only say on January 28 that the offer will be considered.
Taking Its Time
"Iran needs time to review such an initiative to see whether it has the capacity to resolve Iran's nuclear issue," he said.
Appearing at the same Tehran press conference with Larijani was the head of the Russian Security Council, Igor Ivanov. He urged the Iranians to give close consideration to the idea, saying that a "timeout" could lead to a negotiated resolution of the nuclear program dispute.
Iran analyst Mark Fitzpatrick, of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, says that in presenting this initiative el-Baradei is using an old diplomatic ploy aimed at bringing some movement to a standoff.
"The suggestion to have both kinds of suspension simultaneously is a frequent diplomatic method [used] when two sides are at loggerheads in a negotiation, asking each other to do something," he said. "If they do it simultaneously this is often a way to get out of an impasse, a face-saving way."
In his remarks, Ivanov also said there is no military solution to resolving the controversy over Iran's nuclear program -- an opinion shared by el-Baradei as well as by Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, both of whom have said that a military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would have "catastrophic" consequences for the entire region.
Their comments on the use of force come as the United States is moving heavy naval units into the Persian Gulf to "remind" Iran that it will not tolerate Iran developing nuclear weapons through its nuclear program. Tehran says the program is purely for civilian purposes.
But will Iran's hard-line leadership give serious consideration to el-Baradei's offer? Iran has in the past expressed initial interest in compromises only to stall and then, months later, to reject the offer outright. Tehran's guiding principle appears to be that Iran must carry out its own enrichment work regardless of what it may cost the country in terms of exclusion from the international community.
But Fitzpatrick says that following the UN's adoption of the sanctions on Iran in December, a debate has been going on in Tehran about the mistakes made by the hard-line regime of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
"Combined with his economic-policy failures, the diplomatic failure of seeing a 15 to nothing vote against Iran in the Security Council was eye opening to many in Tehran," he said.
Impact Of Sanctions
Whether this will result in policy changes is not yet clear.
Fitzpatrick continues to say that although the UN sanctions are not very tough -- forbidding the supply to Iran of nuclear parts and equipment -- nevertheless they are set to have an impact.
That's because the sanctions also have provisions allowing countries to individually or collectively impose international financial penalties on Iran, such as the United States had sought, and these restrictions by some countries -- for example sanctions against Iranian banks by Washington -- are already biting into the Iranian economy.
El-Baradei Says Attack On Iran Would Be Catastrophic
Several prominent participants at this year's World Economic Forum are urging politicians to give dialogue and diplomacy a chance in the crisis over Iran's nuclear program.
Focus On Diplomacy
El-Baradei, whose agency has been monitoring Iran's nuclear program for several years, called for an end to talk of a military option for the Iranian nuclear crisis, saying that any strike would be counterproductive.
Rafsanjani said today in his Friday prayer sermon that Iran has to act to act with "caution" against U.S. threats aimed at curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions.
"I still believe that the only solution to the Iranian issue -- which is in our hands right now -- is dialogue, is negotiation, is engagement by the neighbors and by all the relevant parties," he said. "The Arab countries have to be engaged, the U.S. has to be engaged. We need to try that. We need to invest in peace because the alternative is not there, and the alternatives could be 10 times worse."
El-Baradei made the comments on January 25 at a panel discussion about nuclear proliferation at the Davos conference. He said his agency is unaware of any undeclared Iranian nuclear facility aimed at building nuclear weapons.
"Nobody knows [if] Iran has an undeclared nuclear facility," he continued. "So, [Iran has] the knowledge [to build a nuclear weapon]. Sure, they have the knowledge. Are you going to bomb the knowledge? That's not even a practical proposition."
His comments come amid a toughening of U.S. rhetoric against Iran, which Washington accuses of secretly developing nuclear weapons and of destabilizing Iraq and the region. Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful and it rejects allegations that it is meddling in Iraq's internal affairs.
Is Iran A Threat?
The international community remains suspicious about Iran's nuclear intentions and last month the UN Security Council adopted limited sanctions against Iran aimed at curbing its nuclear program.
In recent weeks there have been a number of reports about a possible U.S. or Israeli strike on Iran to halt the country's nuclear activities. U.S. President George W. Bush warned in his State of the Union speech on January 23 about the dangers posed by Iran. A U.S. military build-up in the Persian Gulf has added to the speculation.
The Bush administration has said all options are on the table when it comes to dealing with Iran's nuclear program, but it has said it remains committed to diplomacy. Despite Washington's assurances, concern about a U.S. military confrontation with Iran is increasing inside Iran and also on the international scene.
Concern was expressed on January 25 by Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, another participant at the Davos World Economic Forum. He warned that attacking Iran in order to halt its nuclear activities would be "catastrophic" for the region and the world.
"In Pakistan's point of view, Pakistan is against [nuclear] proliferation by Iran," he said. "We do not support their production of weapons, and we support what the IAEA is doing."
Also in Davos, former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami appealed for calm on January 25 in an effort to reduce increasing tension between Tehran and Washington. Khatami called for "patience and understanding" and suggested that the United States should have a dialogue with Iran and Syria over the situation in Iraq.
A day earlier (January 24) in Davos, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Mussa, said there is a 50-50 chance that the United States will attack Iran. He did not explain on what basis he made the assessment, but he said any such strike would backfire. Mussa said Washington should use dialogue both to resolve the tensions with Iran and also the violence in Iraq.
Iranian officials have downplayed speculation about a U.S. military strike against the country and described such talk as "psychological warfare."
On January 25, top Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani assessed as "very weak" the possibility of a U.S. strike on Iran but added that Iran is ready to confront such threats.
Hard-line Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has also rejected the possibility of a U.S. attack against Iran. He said on January 23 that "the threats" are only a psychological war to try and create what he describes as "an atmosphere of fear" in the country.
Despite the official defiance, reports suggest there is growing concern within Iranian society about the effects of sanctions and other measures if Iran continues sensitive nuclear work.
"The Guardian" reported on January 24 that Iran's former powerful president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, is trying to persuade the country's supreme leader that further negotiations are essential to avoid a conflict with the United States or Israel.
The British daily wrote that Rafsanjani believes that Iran may have to accept Western demands to suspend uranium enrichment in order to save the country's Islamic establishment from "collapse."
Rafsanjani said today in his Friday prayer sermon that Iran has to act to act with "caution" against U.S. threats aimed at curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Political Elite Seen As Moving To Restrain President
Iran was recently placed under limited United Nations sanctions because of its refusal to stop uranium enrichment, and the president has responded with a barrage of criticism of the UN and the West.
Some analysts think Iranian politicians might rein in Ahmadinejad, and distance him from the country's controversial nuclear program, in case the UN imposes broader sanctions that could devastate Iran's economy.
It is too early to say whether populist Ahmadinejad is losing the confidence of Iran's political classes. But there are several concrete developments that could indicate a desire to restrain excesses and perceived policy errors since he came into office in 2005.
Shrugging Off UN
One clue is contained in the daily newspaper "Jomhuri-yi Islami," which has rejected Ahmadinejad's jeering comment that the UN sanctions resolution is merely "a scrap of paper." In remarks to parliament on January 21, the president continued his defiant tone.
"The [UN] resolution was born dead, and even if they issue 10 more of such resolutions, it will not affect Iran's economy and policies," Ahmadinejad said. "They want to say, through a psychological war, that the resolution has been very effective."
He returned to the same theme on January 23, telling state television that sanctions "belong to the past."
"Jomhuri-yi Islami" took the contrary line, saying that the sanctions will certainly hurt Iran, and that it is a mistake to take them lightly.
"Jomhuri-yi Islami" is generally held to reflect the views of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the most senior political and religious authority under Iran's constitution.
Ali Ansari, an Iran analyst with the London-based think tank Chatham House, says Khamenei is the key figure in the question of what to do about Ahmadinejad.
"The issue is what the supreme leader will do," Ansari says. "I think [that] in the first instance, they will just try to contain and control him. If they can't contain and control [Ahmadinejad], and he keeps shooting his mouth off, I'm not sure what will happen; but clearly there will be a lot of pressure on the supreme leader to take some more decisive action."
Another sign of discontent with Ahmadinejad comes from within the parliament. Legislators are collecting signatures on a demand that the president be called before parliament to answer questions about the country's nuclear program, which some in the West suspect is aimed at producing atomic weapons.
Also, the president has come under sharp criticism for his handling of the economy. Some 150 legislators have signed a letter condemning his policies, which are seen as having caused rapid inflation. Ansari says that comes as no surprise.
"Right from the beginning, people were warning that this man had no concept of an economic policy or plan; he had a lot of rhetoric, a lot of wishful thinking, [and] he made a lot of promises," Ansari says.
One member of the reformist National Trust Party, Hadi Baluki, said recently that Ahmadinejad had promised to "bring oil money onto people's plates" but that instead the people have no bread.
Food prices have risen sharply, and critics blame Ahmadinejad's actions in pumping cash directly into the economy, in part through handouts.
The UN sanctions imposed so far on Iran are limited to preventing other countries supplying Tehran with the means to expand its nuclear program.
Iran seems set on ignoring the UN demands. But some Iranians fear that Ahmadinejad's fiery defiance could be laying the groundwork for an expansion of sanctions into the economic arena.
Analyst Laurent Zecchin, writing in the French daily "Le Monde," says Iran would be particularly vulnerable to a ban on oil imports. That may seem odd in a country with some of the biggest oil and gas reserves in the world. But the fact is that Iran refines just 60 percent of its own needs; the other 40 percent of refined oil products must be imported.
Zecchin notes that with domestic demand for oil products rising by 10 percent per year, Iran would be hard hit by any form of UN energy sanctions.
He writes that "Le Monde" has information that the Foreign Affairs and Defense committees of the Iranian parliament late in 2006 compiled a 100-page report that concluded that national economic stability would be at risk from UN economic sanctions.
Health Official Fears New Wave Of HIV Infections
But a senior health official's recent warning of the potentially exponential spread of HIV and AIDS through sex suggests that an official reluctance to discuss extramarital intimacy and other forbidden topics might be giving way to a more realistic view of AIDS.
The head of the Iranian Health Ministry's disease-management center (Markaz-i modiriat-i bimariha), Mohammad Mehdi Guya, warned that the threat of "a third wave of AIDS...through sexual relations is slowly showing itself," Fars News Agency reported, according to "Kargozaran" on January 11. He cautioned that a failure to "intervene in time" could allow "a sudden increase in the disease."
Guya said the first wave of infections came in the 1980s, with the import and use of infected blood for transfusion. The second wave erupted in the late 1990s and was blamed on needle sharing by drug addicts.
He said the past two years have brought "early signs" of an incipient third wave of HIV infections through sexual relations. He warned that unless young people and spouses of infected people are educated and informed, infections could increase rapidly in the next two years, "Kargozaran" reported.
Guya insisted that the Iranian state has not been idle. He said the government began planning its response to a "third wave" a year ago, and has been drafting a "second strategy" in its AIDS-control program. He said that this strategy will be implemented next year if the relevant budget funds are approved.
Guya said that "government centers and many nongovernmental organizations" are working on AIDS prevention. He described "an attempt to teach people to...control relations outside the family circle" and, if that fails, to prevent AIDS "by using condoms in sexual relations, or using disposable needles and syringes."
Condoms are already a part of state and religious authorities' plans, under family-planning and population-control policies that have been in place for several years.
Guya contended that the government has responded seriously to the second wave of drug -related HIV infections.
Iranian officials are uncertain how many Iranians are HIV-positive.
A little over 13,000 Iranians are officially known to be, according to Health Minister Kamran Baqeri-Lankarani on October 15, although he and other officials estimate that as many as 70,000 Iranians are actually infected.
Guya noted that 14,090 HIV cases are women, "Kargozaran" reported on January 11, although it was unclear if he was quoted properly -- or was giving the current number of all known HIV-positive Iranians.
But "Kargozaran" quoted parliamentary Health Committee member Masud Amini as cautioning that official figures given for HIV infections "cannot be real...due to moral considerations and religious restrictions in the country." He was careful to avoid accusing the ministry of intentionally blurring the figures, but Amini noted people's reluctance to reveal their HIV status, to avoid social discrimination or disgrace. Amini also argued that AIDS-education budgets are not "enough," saying that public education must spread to the media if prevention is the goal.
Amini downplayed statistics and claimed that the first real step lies in changing the perspective on AIDS as a threat. He asked whether officials' goal in presenting figures is "to say that we are a very good or a very bad country," on the one hand, or "prevent the disease," on the other?
Out Of Sight
Amini credited the former government -- of President Mohammad Khatami -- with at least discussing frankly the spread and prevention of AIDS in its waning days. He said that while that approach "faded" with the inauguration of Mahmud Ahmadinejad in 2005, "recently...the ministry has become active" again.
And he noted that the "first step in preventing AIDS is not denying that infections...occur."
Another member of parliament's Health Committee, Hussein Ali Shahriari, also warned on January 12, according to ISNA, that HIV infections are on the increase -- and more than ever from sexual relations. He blamed the trend on poverty that prevents young people from marrying -- leading to an increase in extramarital sex. Shahriari argued for greater efforts at prevention by noting the "costs for society" of HIV infections, saying public education should begin in secondary schools.
In an admonition that officials seem more likely than ever before to heed, Shahriari said Iran has "problems in terms of education and cultural formation, because [the country has] not set out the issues as they are."