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November 99, Week 3
|Iranian 'Foundations' Thriving||November 21|
|Iranian Filmmakers Breaking Ground||November 21|
|Iranian Hard-Liners Ask for Unity||November 20|
|Dissident Cleric in Iran Defiant||November 17|
|Iran Says Sanctions Mostly Damage U.S. Oil Firms||November 16|
Iranian 'Foundations' Thriving
By Brian Murphy|
Associated Press Writer
TEHRAN, Iran -Book a nice hotel room, eat a meal or buy a soft drink chances are the money flows to one of Iran's "foundations" and on to the country's powerful, hard-line clerics.
The impressive holdings of the foundations, or "bonyads," cover nearly every aspect of life from soybean farms to luxury hotels. Outside Iran, the bonyads' wealth include cargo ships and a New York office building once owned by the monarchy deposed by the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Now, with Iran showing signs of easing back from rigid state economic controls, the bonyad network stands as a major test for the reformist bloc led by President Mohammed Khatami. No serious restructuring of the anemic economy is possible without breaking the bonyads' stranglehold.
But that means confronting an ultra-powerful establishment, which some experts say includes confidants and key allies of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
A growing number of critics accuse the bonyads of acting as autonomous conglomerates outside any normal controls or scrutiny.
"They are out of the economic order," said Fariborz Raisdana, a sociologist who has urged greater openness about bonyad operations. "At least they could try to get them to pay taxes. They are one of the biggest economic complexes in the Middle East."
Conservative estimates say at least a quarter of Iran's economy is controlled by the dozen or so main bonyads.
The bonyad concept was begun for charity purposes under the former shah, then expanded into diversified business powerhouses by Islamic leaders.
Some of the bonyads' funds still go to social programs like clinics or to families who lost relatives in the 1980-88 war with Iraq. But the groups increasingly look more like hard-edged businesses with strategic plans and rich portfolios.
The full extent of the bonyad wealth is difficult to ascertain, since they are neither audited nor obliged to fully disclose their ventures. But the bonyads' own material gives a hint of their reach.
About 70 different farm-related companies are operated by bonyad groups, including vast soybean, wheat and cotton fields in Iran's breadbasket near the Caspian Sea. Tourism holdings include more than 24 hotels led by two five-star accommodations in Tehran: the Azadi (the former Hyatt) and the Esteghlal (the former Hilton).
The bonyads run global shipping lines from offices in London and Athens, Greece, and there is the Bonyad Eastern Railway at home. A bonyad consortium is seeking to open an airline. Iran's best-selling soft drink, Zam Zam, is a bonyad brand.
The bonyad boards are rooted in Iran's political culture. Many directors were leaders of the revolution and enjoyed close ties with its leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. A former bonyad head, Mohsen Rafiqdoust, drove Khomeini in from the airport when he returned to Iran after the shah's downfall.
"There is no real dialogue about economic reforms unless there is discussion about making the bonyad more accountable and bringing them into the system," said Mehrdad Baghery, a former central bank executive who is seeking to open one of Iran's first private credit institutions.
Iran's new five-year economic plan is lacquered with a thick sheen of optimism for a nation that has watched its fortunes grow tarnished.
Key goals of the program include a nearly threefold boost in growth to at least 6 percent a year, trimming inflation to 10 percent from the current unofficial estimate of 30 percent and capitalizing on higher oil prices to bring in a flood of new revenue for OPEC's second-largest producer.
But no mention was made of trying to squeeze state revenues from the bonyads.
"This shows the reformers still do not have the strength they need," Baghery said.
Iranian Filmmakers Breaking Ground
By Brian Murphy|
Associated Press Writer
TEHRAN, Iran -The young couple never kiss. They don't touch. There's not even a shared whisper about sex.
But it's clear what the teen-agers are thinking. In Iran, that's enough to gain the first adults-only film rating since the Islamic revolution 20 years ago.
The movie "Sweet Agony" and its carefully suggestive plot capture in fiction what is actually occurring all over Iran: Limits on expression are being tested and slowly redefined.
"We are all trying to push the edge a little bit these days," said the film's director, Davoud Nezhad Alireza, one of a score of Iranian filmmakers who have won accolades from critics and film festival judges around the world.
"Sweet Agony" has become a sensation in Iran, especially among the vast pool of young people who intimately relate to the main characters distant cousins struggling to overcome family objections to a physical relationship before marriage.
Among many high school students, getting into see the film has become an obsession and reflects a hunger for anything that explores the confusing mix of youthful crushes drawing couples together and Islamic codes keeping them apart. Theaters considered willing to overlook the over-18 restriction on the film are magnets for teens.
"I had to see it," said a 14-year-old girl who gave only her first name, Fatemeh. "It speaks directly to us."
The film traces the growing attraction between an 18-year-old boy and his 15-year-old cousin in a village on the Caspian Sea. The families, with mounting frustration, try to keep them apart. One scene shows the angry young man shoving aside his grandmother another challenge to the taboo of showing any physical contact between sexes. Iranian censors allowed the scene because the performers are related in real life.
Eventually, the families relent. The final scene shows a gathering that suggests the couple will be allowed to become lovers under a "temporary marriage," a pact permitted by Islam but frowned on by Iranian leaders.
"Films in most places are reflections of society. But in Iran I feel like we can try to use film to project something on society," said Alireza. "If we push a little bit each time getting into sexual themes, economic themes and deeper real-life issues maybe films can help lift some of the restrictions on our lives."
But the limitations imposed by the Islamic leaders may have also indirectly nurtured Iran's respected film industry, which produces 50 to 70 movies a year.
With most foreign films banned, Iranian directors were in the unusual position of not having to compete against Hollywood blockbusters.
And censorship of themes such as overt sex and violence forces more intimately crafted stories and allegorical, sometimes quasi-mystical, commentary on themes such as society, relationships and war.
Iranian movies have won more than 300 awards at international film festivals, including the 1997 Palme d'Or at Cannes for Abbas Kiarostami's "Taste of Cherry" about a suicidal man seeking someone willing to bury him. In September, Kiarostami won the Venice Film Festival's special jury prize for "The Wind Will Carry Us," the story of villagers who mistakenly believe a group of strangers is searching for treasure.
Majid Majidi's "Children of Heaven," a story of impoverished siblings seeking new shoes, was nominated for an Academy Award this year in the first such achievement for an Iranian film.
For the moment, film directors have a powerful ally in moderate President Mohammad Khatami. He is credited with helping revive Iranian films in the early 1980s when he headed the influential Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
"We have a chance now to move Iranian films into new frontiers," said Alireza. "I hope we all take it."
Iranian Hard-Liners Ask for Unity
By Afshin Valinejad|
TEHRAN, Iran-Hoping to stem their growing unpopularity, hard-liners in Iran's clerical government have reached out to their reformist rivals ahead of key legislative elections in February.
In a closed-door meeting Thursday between key leaders of the two factions, the hard-liners appealed for unity in the divided Islamic establishment. The appeal for reconciliation marks a significant change in tactics for the hard-liners.
"We must strive to get closer to one another and forge solidarity and harmony to block the penetration of outsiders and prevent harm to the ... Islamic establishment," newspapers quoted Ayatollah Mohmmad Reza Mahdavi-Kani, head of the hard-line Society for Militant Clergy, as saying.
Saturday's newspapers showed Mehdi Karrubi, the top reformist at the meeting, and Mahdavi-Kani in a friendly hug.
"I think that this is a tactical move by the Society of Militant Clergy," Hashem Aghajari, a university professor who supports reformist President Mohammad Khatami, wrote in the Asr-e-Azadegan daily on Saturday.
The hard-liners "initiated this meeting as a way of returning to society and making themselves more attractive to the people," he wrote.
Since the election of Khatami, the hard-liners have spared no effort to stall his initiatives toward greater freedoms for Iran's 60 million people.
Khatami, who came to power after a landslide electoral victory in May 1997, has become immensely popular as he has tried to relax social restrictions that force women to cover head-to-foot in public, and ban satellite television receivers, Western music and dating.
Increasingly out of step with the nation's mood, the hard-liners have closed down pro-Khatami newspapers, jailed leading activists and arrested key allies of the president.
Earlier this month a special clerical court convicted a Khatami confidant, Abdollah Nouri, of insulting Islamic sanctities and other offenses. Hard-liners feared losing the presidency of parliament to Nouri after Feb. 18 elections, but he is technically barred from the elections because of the verdict.
Thursday's closed-door meeting of the rival factions follows other unprecedented reconciliation efforts. But few Iranians believe the appeal for reconciliation means the hard-liners are willing to go along with Khatami's reforms.
"For us, the only important issue is reforms. We will trust only those groups whose speech and actions are compatible with reforms," said Amir Mahmoud, a 26-year-old university student.
The pro-Khatami Arya daily said that the hard-liners wanted unity "as long as they can define it."
Dissident Cleric in Iran Defiant
By Afshin Valinejad|
Associated Press Writer
TEHRAN, Iran-A prominent Iranian cleric confined to his house for his dissident views has rejected efforts by authorities to ease a ban on his visitors, his son said Tuesday.
Authorities had given permission to a group of 15 people to visit Ali Montazeri, who was once hand-picked for Iran's top spiritual and political post.
His son, Ahmad, did not say who the 15 people were, but the Khordad daily said they included two conservative clerics.
Ahmad quoted his father as saying the authorities "have no right to decide whom I can meet and whom I can't. It's either everyone or no one."
Montazeri has been isolated under house arrest since 1997 in the city of Qom, about 80 miles southwest of the capital Tehran.
Authorities had welded shut the main entrance to Montazeri's home, leaving only a rear door that was used by the family. The main entrance was reopened Monday night by the authorities, Ahmad said. Guards watch the house.
The faction loyal to Iran's reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, has been locked in a power struggle with the hard-line faction responsible for the crackdown on Montazeri. The recent easing of restrictions coincided with a visit by Khatami to Isfahan, Montazeri's home province.
Montazeri had been expected to succeed the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as Iran's supreme leader. But just months before his death in June 1989, Khomeini dismissed Montazeri because of his comments against the clergy.
In November 1997, Montazeri was publicly repudiated after he questioned the legitimacy of rule by the clergy, including Iran's hard-line spiritual leader Ali Khamenei, who replaced Khomeini.
Khamenei accused Montazeri of treason and, days later, hard-liners attacked Montazeri's home and office in Qom.
Despite hard-line efforts to repudiate Montazeri, his popularity has not waned. Even many senior officials have admitted to be among his followers.
Iran Says Sanctions Mostly Damage U.S. Oil Firms
PARIS, (Reuters) - Iran Tuesday said it would soon sign
more oil development contracts with foreign companies in
defiance of U.S. sanctions following an $800 million agreement
with Royal Dutch/Shell reached at the weekend.|
Deputy Oil Minister for International Affairs Mehdi Husseini said U.S. policy restricting foreign investments in Iranian oil industry had failed because tens of other firms were competing for 40 investment opportunities in the Islamic Republic.
"This shows the world does not condone sanctions. The U.S. is more isolated than ever," Husseini told an oil conference. "The American oil firms are the ones to lose from this policy, for they would be left out of the competition." The United States on Monday expressed disappointment at the Shell agreement, saying expanding economic links with Iran did not help Washington's aim of isolating Tehran for its alleged support of terrorism. Iran denies the accusation.
Husseini, who has negotiated similar deals with firms such as France's Totalfina and Elf Aquitaine, told Reuters next priority projects were development of Iran's Darkhovin, Ahwaz Bangestan and Cheshmeh Ghosh and Dehloran fields, ventures which he said were all progressing very well.
He said other foreign oil companies were poised to sign deals with Iran, a major OPEC exporter trying to obtain foreign financing and technology to increase the production capacity of its aging oil industry. Iran on Sunday signed an agreement with Shell to develop the offshore Doroud and Nowrooz fields. Husseini said the combined output would be 190,0000 barrels per day 45 month after the day of signature.
SANCTIONS POLICY PRACTICALLY DEAD
Husseini said some conservative companies, among which were BP Amoco, were concerned about the consequences. "But practically ILSA proved not to be effective during the negotiations we had with many companies. Now by the good support of the world community and the European Union there are not too many difficulties for making contacts with the companies.
"ILSA is more weakened after the conclusion of the contract with Shell. When the other projects come to the finalization stage and sign the more ILSA will be weakened. The point is that we are witnessing the absence of the U.S. oil companies in this competition, which is a sanction against them, not Iran, and they are the main victims of this process.
ILSA does allow the U.S. government to waive sanctions under certain circumstances, an option Washington took last year for a $2 billion Iranian natural gas project involving Total, Russia's Gazprom and Malaysia's Petronas.
Husseini said in answer to questions that London-based major BP Amoco appeared to be adopting a more conservative approach to Iran than its rival Shell because it was in the sensitive process of buying U.S. company Atlantic Richfield following BP's acquisition of the former Amoco last year.
But he added that BP Amoco had nevertheless been in touch with Tehran over the Iranian investment opportunities. "I do believe that BP Amoco, especially after merging with Arco, they are more conservative about sanctions and the consequences of this for them. They have more than maybe 60 percent of their assets in the United States and this puts them in a conservative position. "But they are in contact with us. Maybe they are waiting or some other days to do something."