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October 1998, Week 3

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Pluralism central to Iran democracy, official says October 21
Students, vigilantes scuffle at pro-democracy rally in Iran October 21
Iran moderates see poll as key to reform October 20
Freed Iran newspaper head says he was held in solitary October 20
Issue in Iran Democracy Debate: Clerics' Power October 19
Khatami slams barring of Iran moderates from election October 18
Iran's Right combats voter apathy ahead of polls October 16

 

Pluralism central to Iran democracy, official says
TEHRAN, Iran (Reuters) -- Political pluralism has a secure place within Iran's Islamic system and a broad range of lawful opi nions must be tolerated, the deputy head of the interior ministry said in the run-up to elections being held on Friday.

Mostafa Tajzadeh told students in Sistan-Baluchestan province that bitter political rivalries between hardliners and progress ives were well within the law.

And he said that all lawful requests for registration of political parties and newspapers should be honored. His remarks were carried in several Iranian dailies on Tuesday.

"We are not at all against the expression of views by groups and parties," Tajzadeh told a student forum in the provincial ca pital Zahedan.

"Any request from the group for formation of a party or for publication of a newspaper will be considered based on the law," said Tajzadeh, whose ministry has dedicated 120,000 police to ensure free and fair voting.

Long-running political rivalries have come into focus in recent days ahead of polls for the Assembly of Experts, a body of th eologians which supervises the work of Iran's supreme leader.

A row over the selection of candidates, which Islamic leftists and moderates say favors the right, and the obscure nature of the Assembly have raised fears of a low voter turnout.

Election officials say about 39 million Iranians are eligible to take part in voting for the 86-seat Assembly.

Iran's political in-fighting has seen several newspapers closed at the behest of conservative leaders. However, the ministry of culture and Islamic guidance has continued to license new publications.

Students, vigilantes scuffle at pro-democracy rally in Iran
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- Riot police broke up a pro-democracy rally Tuesday at a Tehran stadium after hard-line vigilantes and pr otesters began scuffling.

The fighting began as Gholamhossein Karbaschi, the suspended mayor of Tehran, was urging the 3,000 people at the stadium to t ake part in Friday's elections for the Assembly of Experts, a body that elects the country's supreme leader.

A few hundred people from both sides shoved and pushed each other -- and at least a half-dozen were beaten -- before police i ntervened.

"Sticks, clubs and knives won't work anymore!" shouted hundreds of youths, referring to the weapons that members of the Ansar -e Hezbollah vigilante group use in fights with moderates.

The rally was one in a series that moderates have been holding in the days before the elections. They accuse the hard-line Co uncil of Guardians, which screens applicants for elections, of being unfair in its selection of candidates for the assembly. Most of the moderate applicants for the assembly were disqualified.

Those attending the rally, mostly university students, used the occasion to vent their anger at hard-liners for trying to cur b civil liberties by closing down liberal newspapers.

The youths also shouted slogans in support of President Mohammad Khatami, whose election last year has brought about the more -relaxed atmosphere in which people can hold rallies.

The crowd called for the appeals court to overturn the conviction of Karbaschi, who was sentenced in April to five years in j ail for corruption.

"Acquittal, acquittal!" they shouted.

Karbaschi urged the students to vote in the assembly elections, saying: "If you don't vote, you will be depriving yourselves with your own hands from your social and political rights."

Many Iranians, angry that there will be few moderate candidates on the ballot, have said they will not vote.

"There's no point in voting. They have already selected the members," complained Mahmoud Mir Bagheri, an engineering student.

But Mohammad Rahmani said he had changed his mind after hearing Karbaschi.

"I'll vote so that I'm not left behind, " he said.

Iran moderates see poll as key to reform
TEHRAN, Iran (Reuters) -- The leader of Iran's main moderate party says that despite misgivings, the organization will take part in elections this week as the only way to realize President Mohammad Khatami's ambitious social and e conomic reforms.

Gholamhossein Karbaschi, at the epicenter of the country's political struggle, said that despite serious reservat ions over the selection process of candidates for Friday's polls, he believed Iran's Islamic system was at heart demo cratic.

He criticized his leftist Islamist allies for dropping out of the race for the 86-seat Assembly of Experts, an ob scure but potentially powerful body, saying they had surrendered the field to their hardline rivals.

"We believe we should act within the framework of the constitution and the rule of law, which is President Khatam i's slogan," Karbaschi, head of the moderate Executives of Construction party, told Reuters in an interview at the we ekend.

"The Assembly of Experts is very sensitive and important and can make very crucial decisions...so it is vital for us to send to the Assembly moderate, logical and less extremist figures, albeit in modest numbers."

Under Iranian law, the assembly oversees the work of Iran's supreme leader and can dismiss him or curtail his alm ost unlimited power in political and religious affairs. To date, it has never publicly exercised this oversight autho rity.

Karbaschi, who as mayor of Tehran provided vital logistical support to Khatami's surprise landslide victory last year, was convicted in July of graft in what many analysts saw as a show-trial by the conservative judiciary.

Suspended from office pending an appeal, the mayor has emerged as a potent symbol of a mounting political struggl e between the clerical establishment and moderates and Islamic leftists grouped behind the popular reforms of Khatami .

His public endorsement of the Assembly polls, in which the right enjoys considerable advantages, has rehabilitate d him in the hardline press from convicted felon to responsible political leader.

Karbaschi denies any deal to exchange his party's participation for an acquittal on appeal. But he admits the ele ction campaign has done much for his standing among former critics.

"In the issue of the Assembly of Experts elections it has become clear that a 'defendant' can be transformed very rapidly into the 'general secretary' of a political party," he said.

The vetting of candidates by traditionalist clerics, which saw conservatives vastly outnumber moderates and lefti sts on the ballot, has raised doubts about the polls' democratic credentials and prompted fears many of the 38.5 mill ion eligible voters may stay at home.

The largest leftist grouping, the League of Militant Clerics (LMC), has all but boycotted the vote in protest, re fusing to support any slate of candidates and withdrawing some prominent members who survived the screening process.

Karbaschi, whose party leadership includes the head of the Central Bank and the minister of culture and Islamic g uidance, said any boycott would be politically and morally irresponsible.

"There are two issues here. One is a political group trying to assume an intellectual posture," he said of the LM C. "The second is a political party keeping one eye on the future and making a wise decision in accordance with the c ircumstances."

Shortcomings in the selection process-- only 167 of about 400 candidates, none of them women, made the final list -- must not obscure the importance of the elections for Khatami's vision of a "civil society," he said.

"The function of the Assembly is to name the leader and to supervise his qualifications...In reality the Assembly is very powerful within a civil society, because under our constitution the leader has extensive powers and the only supervision is through the Assembly.

"This is an authority no other body has in Iran. It is all the more important in a civil society."

Karbaschi echoed leftist criticism of the vetting of candidates but said participation in the system, in line wit h the president's demands that all obey the rule of law, was the best avenue to reform the process.

"I think our constitution is a very good one and if implemented we will need no correction. But everyone, includi ng the Assembly of Experts and the supreme leader, must act in accordance with the constitution.

"One of the results of President Khatami's government is that everyone these days is talking about 'the rule of l aw,' even those whose performance has possibly been beyond the law in the past. This is very good. This is a sort of return to a national convention," he said.

Freed Iran newspaper head says he was held in solitary
TEHRAN, Iran (Reuters) -- The director of a banned moderate Iranian newspaper, who was released after a month in prison, said he had been held in solitary confinement and not told of the charges against him, a weekly magazine repo rted.

"Indirect psychological torture during 27 days through solitary confinement ... cannot be justified by any civil, legal or religious principles," Hamid Reza Jalaeipour, freed on bail last week, told the latest issue of the weekly Aban.

Jalaeipour was arrested together with three colleagues in mid-September after an Islamic revolutionary court charged them with acting against Iran's security and closed their outspoken liberal newspaper, Tous.

"We were held in total isolation and denied newspapers and a radio and not even given books in the first 10 days, " said Jalaeipour, adding that he had only seen his colleagues briefly in prison corridors.

Jalaeipour said he had not been told on what charges and on what legal grounds he and the others had been arrested

"Our biggest sin was to have taken seriously calls for 'boosting civil bodies' and 'political development'," he s said, referring to reforms promised by President Mohammad Khatami.

The arrest of Jalaeipour and his colleagues drew protests from Iranian moderates and international human rights g roups, which expressed concern that the four were being ill-treated to force them into signing false confessions.

Jalaeipour's case drew particular attention in Iran because of his impeccable revolutionary credentials as a vete ran Islamic activist who lost three brothers in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

Late last month, a court banned Tous after ruling it had insulted the late supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khom eini.

Tous often criticised Iran's powerful conservatives and had gained wide circulation by testing the limits of wide r press freedoms introduced by Khatami.

The closure of Tous came after supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for action against newspapers which h e said were abusing press freedom.

Issue in Iran Democracy Debate: Clerics' Power
From:New York Times
TEHERAN, Iran -- In a country lurching between old oppression and new freedoms, Heshmatollah Tabarzadi has kept his bloodstained shirt as a kind of two-edged reminder -- of the peril in outspokenness and the pleasure of speaking out.

When Tabarzadi dared suggest in public a year ago that Iran's supreme leader ought to be elected by the people, he was beaten by thugs aligned with the ruling religious establishment.

But the speech at Teheran University was a ripple in what became a wave, as Iranians have begun to question orthodoxy in ways inconceivable only a year ago.

"People are for the first time challenging the official version," said Sadeq Zibacalam, a professor of political science at Teheran University. "And some of them are even daring to say that the emperor has no clothes."

In many cases the reaction has been harsh, a backlash carried out by and on behalf of the clerics who have ruled Iran for almost 20 years. Newspapers have been shut, people have been jailed and the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has begun to thunder against those he says are "crossing the bounds of freedom."

But having already confounded the establishment by electing a dark horse, Mohammad Khatami, as their president in May 1997, Iranians have now become even bolder about asserting a right to shape the country's course. With another national election on the horizon, a high-stakes tug-of-war has been set in motion.

Few Iranians have openly dared to echo Tabarzadi, 38, leader of a student movement, in espousing full democracy for the Islamic republic, whose supreme leader -- unlike the less powerful president -- is selected by a panel of religious experts to serve as God's representative on earth.

Yet for the first time since the Iranian revolution of 1979, the last few months have brought an open debate about whether clerics alone should have the power to make such a momentous choice.

There have been only two previous elections to choose the 86 members of the panel, known as the Assembly of Experts. Those votes passed virtually without notice in 1982 and 1989. In a kind of closed circle, the candidates have always been senior Shiite Muslim clerics approved by a powerful Guardians Council whose members are appointed by the supreme leader.

The only known action ever taken by the experts' assembly was essentially to wield a rubber stamp after the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, when it swiftly endorsed his choice by naming Khamenei as his successor.

But as early as last spring, seeing a potential to expand what remains a narrow base of power, some of Khatami's supporters -- including Faizeh Hashemi, the daughter of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani -- began to argue that so important a panel should include women and members of the Iranian lay public as well as clerics.

"When there are only clerics on the Assembly of Experts, that means that leadership belongs only to the clerics," Ms. Hashemi said in an interview last spring. So politicized has the atmosphere become that Hadi Khamenei, a brother of Ayatollah Khamenei who is nevertheless aligned with Khatami, said in an interview that the conservative faction could best be defined as "the one that wants to keep the power."

The reaction from the authorities reflected a distinct lack of enthusiasm for such changes.

In early September the Guardians Council finally ruled that non-clerics could indeed become candidates, but only if they were able to meet a high standard of religious expertise -- effectively disqualifying nearly all of the dozens of laypeople, women and younger clerics aligned with Khatami who had begun a quest for seats.

The immediate effect, Iranian experts and Tehran-based diplomats say, will almost certainly be to preserve the status quo, in which the most important levers of power in Iran remain in the hands of the religious establishment. But Iran's self-styled reformers say they are confident that even such a setback will ultimately rebound in their favor.

"There is no way back anymore," said Ezatollah Sahabi, editor of Iran e-Farda, a weekly newspaper often critical of the conservative establishment. "Even if they shut down all of the papers and magazines, and put all of us in jail, the talk will continue. The ice is beginning to thaw."

Indeed, much of what has begun to appear regularly in Iran's increasingly freewheeling newspapers has crossed old limits.

Foreign policy, once sacrosanct, has been attacked over the government's hard-line stance against the Taliban movement in Afghanistan. The judicial authorities, once off-limits to public challenge, have been accused of abusing power for political purposes, particularly with the recent closing of a newspaper, Tous, and the high-profile corruption trial last summer of the mayor of Teheran, Gholamhossein Karabaschi, a close ally of Khatami.

Even the very concept of clerical rule, the backbone of the Islamic republic, has become the subject of an open quarrel, as moderate scholars and clerics publish articles questioning whether the supreme leader derives legitimacy from the people or from God.

Until recently the conservative clergy forbade that kind of public challenge, and the fact that the questions are being raised is clearly a source of deep irritation to Ayatollah Khamenei and those around him.

"Why do they play with people's beliefs?" Ahmad Jannati, the secretary general of the Guardian Council, demanded this month in a sermon at Friday prayers in which he denounced those who have questioned clerical rule as being "part of a conspiracy to overthrow our culture."

So sensitive is the issue that Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, a longtime rival of Khamenei, has been under house arrest since shortly after he suggested in a speech last fall that the proper role of the supreme leader should be to supervise, not to rule. Montazeri's son-in-law, Medi Hashemi, has also been jailed, apparently for acting as a surrogate in demonstrations staged on Montazeri's behalf.

The backlash has also seen the jailing of top newspaper editors, including those in charge of Tous, after what Khamenei pronounced as his "final ultimatum" against "creeping cultural excesses" in the press.

Karabaschi, who was convicted in July and sentenced to five years in jail, is waiting for his case to be heard on appeal. In an interview here, Karabaschi made clear that he regarded the case against him as politically motivated but did not see it as more than a temporary setback.

"I think we are going toward a very good democracy," he said. "But of course we will run into problems, and we have to learn to live with them."

Another official close to Khatami, Mostaffa Tajzadeh, a deputy interior minister, said he regarded the internal jockeying as part of an evolutionary process and believed it was beginning to calm down.

"We do not believe that the fact of multiple political factions will change," Tajzadeh said. "But what is changing is that everyone is learning to play according to the rules of the game."

Still, others wonder whether more blood is destined to be spilled. Tabarzadi, the student leader, scored a coup last spring by winning permission from Khatami's government to hold a demonstration calling for the democratization of the experts' assembly elections. But a group of thugs broke up the demonstration before he had a chance to speak, a bitter reprise of the attack in which he had been beaten six months earlier.

No further permits to demonstrate have been issued, and Tabarzadi's quest to become a candidate himself in the current election, to be held on Oct. 23, has similarly been turned down.

"As somebody who is still fighting, I don't feel secure yet," Tabarzadi said. "We cannot predict what will happen."

Khatami slams barring of Iran moderates from election
TEHRAN, Iran (Reuters) -- Iran's President Mohammad Khatami on Saturday criticised opponents barring many moderate candidate s from elections to a powerful state assembly, saying only competition could ensure a wide voter turnout.

But Khatami urged Iranians to participate in next Friday's election to the clergy-based Assembly of Experts, saying voters s till had a choice among candidates for the 86-seat body which names and can dismiss Iran's supreme leader.

"One can justifiably complain that those in charge of the elections ... could have presented more candidates to the people i f they had acted with more flexibility," Khatami said in an address on state radio and television.

Khatami's remarks echoed criticism by his backers against the conservative-run Guardian Council, which screens candidates, f or rejecting the credentials of many moderates.

The council approved just 167 of about 400 hopefuls, rejecting several prominent clerics close to Khatami.

Political analysts said the elections were seen as particularly sensitive by the conservatives after recent challenges to th e authority of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei from groups ranging from pro-Khatami students to dissidents.

Khamenei, who has the final word on all matters of state, is widely considered close to hardliners and conservatives, who do minate the current assembly.

"I also believe that more enthusiasm in the elections would benefit the system and the people themselves. ... But we officia ls have the duty to create the conditions for the enthusiastic participation of the people," Khatami said.

Khatami's remarks came amid a campaign by conservatives to encourage wide participation in the elections as a sign of contin ued popular support for Iran's Islamic government.

"Competition is the main element which can electrify the elections. ... Nothing should hinder the people from exercising the ir right to participate in the political process," Khatami said.

"But there is still variety and plurality among the present candidates. ... Voters can find candidates close to their liking ."

Pro-Khatami newspapers said the final field of candidates included 130 conservatives, and about 30 candidates close to the r eformist president.

Commentators, citing the obscure nature of the assembly and the limited choice of candidates, say they expect a relatively l ow turnout. Past assembly polls, held every eight years, have drawn fewer voters than parliamentary or presidential elections.

Khatami reiterated the view of Iranian moderates that the legitimacy of the supreme leader is based on appointment by the po pularly elected Assembly of Experts. He also said the leader had to answer for his actions to the assembly.

Conservatives say the supreme leader's legitimacy is based on divine principles, that the leader only answers to God and tha t he is due "absolute obedience" by all.

Iran's Right combats voter apathy ahead of polls
TEHRAN, Iran (Reuters) -- Iranian conservatives, increasingly fearful that a low turnout in next week's polls could weaken the country's Islamic system, have launched a big political and media campaign to encourage people to vote.

State radio and television, controlled by the right, is sponsoring various competitions, including a prize for the best pro-election slogan.

News bulletins in the run-up to the October 23 polls to the Assembly of Experts, a body of theologians which names and can dismiss Iran's supreme leader, feature senior statements by Shi'ite Moslem clerics saying it is a religious duty to vote.

Leading conservatives, meanwhile, have attacked leftist and moderate rivals for challenging the screening of candidates as unfair, or for withdrawing from the race altogether.

Almost 400 people signed up to take part in the elections, but only 167 -- none of them women -- were ruled as having the required theological credentials.

Progressives around President Mohammad Khatami saw many of their candidates eliminated, driving some of those approved to drop out in protest.

Habibollah Asgarowladi, head of the conservative Islamic Coalition Society urged a number of leading moderates to reconsider their decision to withdraw from the race.

"We, in the Islamic Coalition, believe that our (leftist) brothers should take part more seriously in this divine test before it is too late," said Asgarowladi, quoted by Iran's news agency IRNA.

High public participation, he said, would represent "a bullet in the heart of the enemies of the Islamic Revolution" and provide further proof of the legitimacy of the system.

Underlying the twin campaigns is the fear that low voter participation in the nationwide elections could set in motion a challenge to the entire Islamic political system, which officials say is among the world's most democratic.

In contrast, the 1997 elections that swept moderate President Khatami to an upset victory, saw heavy participation, particularly by women and young people energised by his promise of a "civil society" within the Islamic system.

The latest race has already been hit by key withdrawals from the leftist camp, in protest at the rejection by a conservative oversight body of most progressive candidates.

No official figures exist but published estimates show the approved field features about 130 conservatives, 20 moderates and 10 leftists. There are 86 seats on the Assembly, chosen by popular vote.

Among those who have withdrawn in protest are Ayatollah Jalaleddin Taheri of Isfahan, the only big-city prayers leader to support Khatami's reforms, and Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali, once in charge of meeting out revolutionary justice.

The head of the biggest leftist grouping, the League of Militant Clerics, in an open letter published on Thursday challenged the head of the oversight body that vets all candidates for elected office to defend the screening process.

The body, the 12-member Guardian Council, put the interests of the conservative establishment ahead of democracy, said Mehdi Karrubi, leader of the pro-Khatami League.

"The Guardian Council has exceeded its legal duties in elections and become a source of pressure and elimination against rivals...disgracing respectable, revolutionary figures and demolishing the rights of others," Karrubi said.

Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, secretary of the Council, declined Karrubi's challenge to debate, saying it would only serve to polarise society and undermine the elections.

About 29 million voters took part in the presidential polls last year. Commentators say turnout for election to the powerful but obscure Assembly is likely to be less than half that figure.

However, prospects for a competitive vote got a lift on Wednesday, when the leading moderate party called on its backers to vote despite misgivings over the screening process.

 

Gorbeh, Persian Cat
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