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Iran Report: April 28, 2008

Iranian Conservatives Extend Control After Parliamentary Runoffs

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad voting in Tehran

Iranian conservatives have consolidated their control of the country's legislature in runoff elections. Eighty-two seats in the 290-seat parliament were at stake in voting on April 25 after the first round last month assured conservatives of a crushing victory over reformists.

Officials say conservatives have won 69 percent of seats in parliament and reformists 16 percent. But conservatives are split between supporters of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and those who criticize him, especially over the economy.

Interior Minister Mostafa Purmohammadi told journalists on April 26 that independent candidates won more than 14 percent of the seats. The results include seats won outright in the March 14 first round of the elections and those won in the second-round runoffs.

Purmohammadi said the percentages were based on final election results from 287 seats in parliament.

Earlier reports said conservatives would control 29 of 30 seats in the capital, Tehran, with one going to the reformists.

No Conservative Unity

But Ahmadinejad, whose policies have alienated many conservatives, is expected to face increased opposition in the new conservative-controlled parliament.

The Iranian press, including the Tehran daily "Hamshahri," quoted the judiciary chief, Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, as accusing Ahmadinejad of "exaggeration, unrealistic campaigning, and sloganeering."

The comments came after Ahmadinejad declared "open war" against what he called the "economic mafia" and "financially corrupt" people in high positions. In a speech in the city of Qom on April 16, the president also blamed some ministries and government offices as well as foreign "enemies" for all the economy's shortcomings.

In the past week Ahmadinejad has been locked in a bitter public row with parliament speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel over implementing past legislation.

In his farewell speech on April 22, outgoing Economy Minister Davud Danesh-Jafari blamed Ahmadinejad and his close associates for being directly responsible for Iran's economic crisis.

Ahmadinejad, who is expected to run for a second term as president next year, has come under fire for pumping excessive liquidity into the economy, which has been blamed for skyrocketing inflation that some experts say is closer to 30 percent than the official rate of 18.5 percent.

Reports said second-round turnout appeared to be down sharply on the first round of voting, when the authorities hailed participation of around 60 percent as a blow to Iran's enemies.

The West reacted with suspicion after the conservative victory in the first round, which the United States called "cooked."

Hundreds of reformist candidates were disqualified in preelection vetting for not meeting the criteria required.

Conservatives advocate strict adherence to the principles of the 1979 Islamic revolution, while reformists push for greater economic liberalization accompanied by cautious social change.

News Analysis: Firing Tightens Iranian President's Economic Circle

By Iraj Gorgin

Ex-Minister Danesh-Jafari was regarded as a critic of many presidential policies

For some 33 months, as Iran's economy minister, he was either silent or supported the president's economic policies. But on April 22, in a farewell speech that ended in tears, outgoing Economy Minister Davud Danesh-Jafari blamed President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and his close associates for being directly responsible for Iran’s economic crisis.

Danesh-Jafari's dismissal was interpreted by some media in Tehran as a victory for Ahmadinejad in his bid to rid his cabinet of officials who disagree with key government policies. And disagree Danesh-Jafari did.

Amid skyrocketing inflation that some experts say is closer to 30 percent than the official rate of 18.5 percent, Danesh-Jafari opposed the president's policies of lower interest rates and granting more loans to help industries and the poor. Many reform-minded economists blame that policy for Iran's inflation rate.

In his farewell speech, Danesh-Jafari said government economic policies involved too much politics, an apparent reference to Ahmadinejad's efforts to use economic populism to attract votes in next year's presidential polls, and contradict internationally accepted economic theories. At least five influential clerics or grand ayatollahs with millions of followers have also recently expressed concern over inflation.

Moreover, given Western economic sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, international banks and financial institutions have been reluctant to do business with Tehran, compounding the country's economic crisis.

Mohamed Reza Behzadian, the former head of the Tehran Chamber of Commerce, told Radio Farda that the conduct of international financial institutions toward Iran is understandable. “The reaction of international banks to Iran's demands is rational," Behzadian said. "It is toward Ahmadinejad's behavior and his actions at the international arena."

In the past, Ahmadinejad has denied that international sanctions have had any impact whatsoever on Iran or its economy. But in a much discussed speech in the religious city of Qom last week, the Iranian leader for the first time appeared to acknowledge the sanctions as one of the factors behind the country's economic crisis. "Any time our economy is on the verge of a great leap, they [the West] sanction us," Ahmadinejad said.

In his Qom speech, which was part of a provincial tour ahead of next year's elections, Ahmadinejad also declared "open war" against "economic mafia" and "financially corrupt" people in high positions. And he blamed some ministries and government offices as well as foreign "enemies" for all the economy’s shortcomings.

Many observers have called the Qom remarks "an introductory election speech" aimed at cementing his position long before the official start of the campaign next year.

"Mr. Ahmadinejad's speech in Qom was but [part of] an election campaign, and the president is adopting the same style he has implemented in the past: the policy of 'escaping ahead' and utilizing equivocal matters such as mafia and economic corruption so that he can evade direct response to questions," Tehran journalist and columnist Isa Saharkhiz told Radio Farda.

Iran's economy is going through one of its worst stretches in recent memory. The price of food and commodities is increasing daily. Foreign trade has nearly ground to a halt, and under the terms of United Nations sanctions, almost no credible international financial institution will give loans or credit to Iranian banks or merchants.

But Fereidoon Khavand, an economics analyst and a university professor in Paris, believe that sanctions are only a part of the problem.

"Although the West's economic sanctions have a negative impact on Iran's economy, the fundamental element that contributes to confusion and instability is the Ahmadinejad administration's economic policies and the lack of harmony among the ideas of his economic policy designers," Khavand said.

It was known to most observers that Danesh-Jafari and a few others in high positions, such as Central Bank Governor Tahmasb Mazaheri, have different opinions on economic policy and are in constant disagreement with the president.

Last week, Mazaheri ordered lenders not to rely on central funds for their loans and to reset interest rates based on the inflation rate. Ahmadinejad immediately blocked his order.

The president has promised single-digit lending rates, which are currently at 12 percent. Analysts say failure to deliver on that vow could damage his reelection hopes.

On April 22, the president named Hossein Samsami as the next economy minister. Like the president, Samsani is seen as supportive of further lowering interest rates and making credit easier to come by.

Radio Farda broadcaster Fereidoon Zarnegar contributed to this report

Iraq: Al-Sadr Aide Downplays Threat, Assails Iran's Role In South

By RFE/RL analyst Kathleen Ridolfo

Al-Ubaydi (right) at a news conference in April 2007

An official spokesman for Shi'ite cleric and militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr has signaled a reluctance on al-Sadr's part to order his Imam Al-Mahdi Army to fight the Iraqi government and distanced his group from elements in neighboring Iran.

Al-Sadr had issued an ultimatum to the Iraqi government earlier this week, saying he would launch an open war if the government did not call off security operations targeting Sadrists.

But in an interview with RFE/RL on April 22, spokesman Salih al-Ubaydi said he thinks al-Sadr "does not accept any kind of clashes with government troops."

"If any kind of open war starts, it will start against the occupation forces," al-Ubaydi told RFE/RL on April 22. "But if the occupation forces try to make use of the Iraqi troops in front of them during [any such] clashes, we have to defend ourselves."

Al-Ubaydi played down ties with Tehran and said Iran has participated in a "campaign against the Sadrists" in the southern city of Al-Basrah to help wrest control from supporters of al-Sadr. Al-Ubaydi added that the Al-Mahdi Army is not supported by Iran.

"It is very well known that there are some political parties playing the Iranian role in Iraq. It is not the Sadrists; it is the al-Hakim party," he said, in a reference to a rival group known as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq led by Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim.

Al-Ubaydi accused Tehran of interference in Iraq, saying that "it is very well known that Iran also has participated in this campaign against the Sadrists in Al-Basrah, because the Sadrists in Al-Basrah have good control, and at the same time they do not take their orders either from the American or the British consuls, or from the Iranian consul there."

He said Iranian elements were waging "a kind of propaganda against the Sadrists to push them out of Al-Basrah...[so that those elements] can work on their investments inside Al-Basrah."

The spokesman suggested that al-Sadr might not have control over all Al-Mahdi fighters but is trying to "take control" over the group.

He accused "bad people" of actions aimed at "tarnishing" Sadrists' reputation, and accused authorities in Baghdad of failing to prosecute "senior figures in the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army who are killers and who have committed many crimes under the authority of the government."

Iran: Women’s Rights Activists Get Suspended Lashing Sentences

Defendant Nasrin Afzali (file photo)

A revolutionary court in Tehran has sentenced three women's rights activists to suspended sentences of lashings and six months in prison for charges that include acting against national security.

Critics of the verdicts accuse the authorities of persecuting citizens willing to campaign for social rights, and using the suspended sentences to ensure that detractors remain silent.

Nasrin Afzali, Nahid Jafari, and Minoo Mortazi were found guilty of acting against national security, disrupting public order, and refusing to follow police orders. All the charges stem from their participation in a political rally outside a Tehran courtroom in March 2006.

A fourth female activist, Zeinab Payghambarzadeh, who attended the same rally, was given a two-year suspended prison term after being accused of similar charges.

The sentences will only be carried out if the women are found guilty of another crime within two years. All four women intend to appeal the verdicts.

Zahra Arzani, a defense lawyer for Jafari, told Radio Farda that such sentences are intended to humiliate human rights activists across the country.

"The feminist movement's work and demands are entirely peaceful," Arzani said. "Their latest project -- the One Million Signatures Campaign -- is also a peaceful project that involves talking to people in person. It is not a crime."

Arzani added that "people who take part in these projects should be appreciated and shown gratitude for doing this work, instead of being sent to prison and beaten up."

Jafari said that by gathering outside the court in 2006, she and the other women were protesting the trial of fellow rights activists. But she said the police disrupted the peaceful rally, beating up and arresting dozens of demonstrators.

She told Radio Farda that the court has yet to respond to a formal complaint that she filed about abusive behavior by the police officers.

"Back then, I was beaten up badly. I had bleeding, and my hearing ability was impaired for some time afterwards," Jafari said. "They inflicted serious injury on me, but I still haven't got any response to my complaint."

Afzali, for her part, said that she does not understand why human rights activists should be arrested and punished.

All the women are members of the One Million Signatures Campaign, a nonpolitical movement that seeks to change what it calls discriminatory laws in Iran, including laws on inheritance, divorce, and child custody.

Campaign members want to gather 1 million signatures from Iranians and ask the parliament to abolish those laws, which the campaign says treat women as "second-class citizens."

Some 43 of the campaign's members have been arrested since it was launched in August 2006, most of them subsequently charged with acting against national security.

One campaign member, Khadija Moghaddam, arrested earlier this month, is awaiting trial after failing to pay $110,000 in bail that a Tehran court had set for her release.

Iranian-born human rights activist Mehrangiz Kaar said that the authorities obviously feel threatened by human rights and feminist activities, and that they fear such activities might expand around the country as a part of a greater social rights movements.

Kaar told Radio Farda that Tehran "wants to keep all these rights activists silent -- that's why the feminists have been handed suspended sentences."

According to Kaar, the authorities hope that with suspended jail sentences hanging over their heads, the women will not take any further risks by getting involved in rights-related activities.

Iran denies Western allegations of discrimination against women.

RFE/RL correspondent Farangis Najibullah contributed to this report

Beijing, In Diplomatic Gamble, Hosts Iranian Nuclear Talks

Daniel Fried (right), the head of the U.S. delegation, and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Kislyak, at the meeting in Beijing

For the first time, China has hosted talks on Iran's controversial nuclear program. The gathering in Shanghai of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, discussed whether to offer more incentives to Iran to curb its uranium-enrichment program.

The talks aimed to follow up on a package of political, security, and economic incentives offered unsuccessfully to Iran in 2006.

After the meeting, Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister He Yafei told reporters that the participants agreed "on the main content of a plan" to restart the lapsed nuclear negotiations with Iran. But he cautioned that "not all" problems had been resolved.

He did not go into any detail on what differences remain. But he said the officials will report back to their governments, and as soon as the oustanding issues are resolved, the proposals will be referred to the Iranian side.

The meeting involved the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany, as well as China itself. A European Union representative was also present.

He Yafei said earlier, before the talks began, that the participants were determined to press ahead. "So, we are here today to discuss new developments surrounding the Iran nuclear issue," he said. "We are certain that we have agreed to continue our discussion on the proposals on resuming talks on the Iranian nuclear issue."

Tehran has spurned the aid offer, and for years has said it will never give up the independent ability to enrich uranium, which it is now developing. The international community fears that Iran may intend to put its enrichment capacity to military use, something which Tehran denies. The UN Security Council has imposed three sets of international sanctions against Iran in a bid to get it to obey resolutions ordering it to stop enrichment activity.

Iran is continuing its defiance of the UN, however, announcing only last week that it plans to install 6,000 more high-speed centrifuges at its Natanz uranium-enrichment plant.

Adding to the sense that Iran is in no mood to compromise was the cancellation without explanation of a meeting set for April 14 between Iran's top nuclear official, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, and the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Muhammad el-Baradei. El-Baradei was hoping to persuade the Iranians to allow his agency to make further investigations into Iran's alleged past program for nuclear weapons development.

Diplomatic Gamble

The IAEA chief will however be discussing the "Iran dossier" in Berlin on April 17 with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. His ministry said the two will also look at nuclear nonproliferation issues. They can also be expected to review what, if anything, transpired at the April 16 Shanghai meeting.

China has taken something of a diplomatic gamble in hosting this gathering. Previously, it has stayed on the sidelines of the debate on Iran's nuclear program, joining the UN sanctions drive only reluctantly. Chinese officials want to avoid offending Iran, which is China's third-biggest supplier of oil, while at the same time they do not want to offend the United States, which seeks stronger action against Iran.

For this reason, it has chosen to host the talks on a subject that has become a mere side issue -- namely, should the benefits package already offered be extended in scope. Given Tehran's repeated rejection of the package, it's hard to believe it would react positively to any likely sweetening of the offer.