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Subject: DNI-NEWS Digest - 21 Mar 1999 to 25 Mar 1999

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There are 3 messages totalling 328 lines in this issue.

Topics of the day:

1. Why isn't Khamenei doing more to avert an "explosion" in Iran ?
2. Iranian spiritual leader criticizes New Year celebrations
3. Iranian hard-liners shut down new year's festival

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Date: Thu, 25 Mar 1999 13:02:55 +0100
From: Farhad Abdolian <Farhad.Abdolian@RSA.ERICSSON.SE>
Subject: Why isn't Khamenei doing more to avert an "explosion" in Iran ?

03/23/99 Mideast Mirror

Unlike the popular president, the unaccountable supreme leader has the power
to get the conservatives to reach an accommodation with the reformists based
on mutual recognition and coexistence. But he has done little, despite the
risk that the power struggle could turn violent, writes Fahmi Howeidi in
al-Ahram

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the power to prevent the
increasingly fierce power struggle between the conservative and reformist
camps from getting violent, with potentially disastrous consequences for the
country, yet is not doing little to promote a modus vivendi between them.

That is the verdict of leading Egyptian Islamist writer Fahmi Howeidi in a
lengthy article, published Tuesday in Cairo's official daily al-Ahram, on the
conflict between the two camps based on conversations with leading figures
from both.

Howeidi says his impression is that virtually everyone in Iran agrees that 20
years after the Islamic Revolution, the country is going through an extremely
difficult rebirth.

They differ only in their assessment of the gravity of the dangers involved as
the struggle between the two sides comes to a head.

He sums up Iran 's current political predicament in the following points:

-- There is a sharp polarization which has split the political class and the
clergy into rival camps, a conservative one comprising rightist forces and the
traditional establishment, and a reformist one led by President Mohammad
Khatami and supported by various forces on the left.

-- All sectors of the population are speaking out loudly nowadays, creating an
unprecedented cacophony on the Iranian political stage. After two decades in
which the voices of those in power drowned out all others, previously
marginalized or inactive sectors of society, notably the intelligentsia, women
and youth, have rediscovered theirs.

-- The raising of these voices overturned many balances and shocked the
traditional establishment which had maintained a stranglehold on power for two
decades. The conservatives discovered they did not enjoy public support, as
shown at the presidential and municipal elections. And when society raised its
voice, all files were opened. Red lines were crossed and taboos broken as
everything became open for debate -- from the concept of velayet-e-faqih or
rule by Islamic jurisprudent, to the powers of the supreme leader, the role of
the clergy in politics, and relations with the United States.

-- The conservatives viewed that development as a recipe for anarchy and a
threat to their authority, and so proceeded to try to contain and reverse it.
They attempted to disqualify reformists from contesting elections
(successfully at the Council of Experts elections, unsuccessfully at the
municipal polls) and weaken the government, while hardline elements in the
conservative camp resorted to intimidating and physically silencing
reformists.

-- Despite their lack of public support, the conservatives still control most
state institutions, while for all their popularity the reformists only have a
powerful presence in the executive branch. Thus the president of the republic
is in effect the leader and symbol of opposition to conservative dominance.
And the struggle has ceased to be one between conservative and reformist
camps, but in many facets has become one between the authorities and society.

-- The conservatives' limited popular appeal has led to the erosion of the
influence of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who is closer to their
camp and associated with it. Athough he has never actually declared that, it
is clear that the institutions directly answerable to Khamenei, like the
Revolutionary Guards and the state broadcasting establishment, have been in
the forefront of the anti-Khatami campaign.

Of late, however, as the conservatives' unpopularity became more evident, and
especially after the involvement of state intelligence operatives in the
murder of pro-reform intellectuals, Khamenei appreciated that he needed the
president's popularity, just as Khatami needs the supreme leader's powers.
Thus there was a rapprochement between them, which greatly helped the
government overcome the crisis created by the violence and intimidation.

-- The reformists' landslide at the municipal elections in February provides
them with a crucial nationwide institutional base with which to defend their
program and offset the conservatives' dominance of most central institutions.
It also encourages optimism about their prospects in the Majlis
{parliamentary} elections to be held in 2000 and the presidential polls due
in 2001.

-- Khatami's Achilles' heel is the deteriorating state of the economy. The
1980- 1988 war with Iraq and the huge slide in oil prices and the value of
the national currency since the revolution has created a situation in which
the bulk of Iranians find it very hard to make ends meet. Last year, some
public sector institutions were even forced to suspend payment of their
employees' salaries. Some fear that the economic crisis could lead to social
unrest, which the conservative Right could exploit to try to bring down the
government. Other reformists suggest that public opinion knows that the
deterioration is not the fault of the present government.

RIVAL CONCEPTS: To this backdrop, Howeidi writes, Iranians from both camps
offer conflicting interpretations of where the problem lies and what solutions
are called for.

According to Mahmoud Shams, editor of the pro-Khatami newspaper Nashat, the
present situation resembles that prior to the 1979 Islamic revolution, when
an unaccountable Shah wielded all power, while his prime minister, though
accountable to both the monarch and parliament, had no real power. This
situation more or less persisted after the revolution, with the supreme
leader and the president taking the place of the Shah and prime minister
respectively.

But Khatami's landslide victory at the ballot box changed the balance of
power. The president, with limited prerogatives, acquired a massive popular
base that gave him far more clout than was the case in the past or was
envisaged by the constitution. That alarmed the traditional establishment
which favors absolute power for the supreme leader and clerical "trusteeship"
over society.

According to Shams, Khatami's election triggered an "earthquake" that made it
imperative to reconsider many established norms. The resistance currently
being shown by the conservatives is not directed against Khatami personally
so much as against his program, which can be summarized in the phrases
"political development" and "Islamic civil society."

As Mohammad Sadek Husseini, an advisor at the ministry of culture, put it, the
struggle is between two concepts of society: one based on the supremacy of
elected institutions, the other on people submitting to the leadership of the
clerical class and the concept of velayet-e- faqih.

But Ayatollah Ahmad Janati, a leading conservative and secretary- general of
the Guardian Council, argues that the concept of velayet- e-faqih is enshrined
in the constitution and was not the invention of any faction. The
responsibility of the clergy to society, in terms of guidance and supervision,
is a cornerstone of the Islamic Republic, he says.

He also expresses concern about some of the phenomena that have become common
since Khatami's election, and the spread of ideas liable to weaken religious
devotion or lure young people into aping Western mores.

The head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, agrees.

Another leading ally of the conservatives, Asadollah Badamjian, charges that
things got out of hand under Khatami, and his government team is incapable of
rising to its responsibilities.

DECISION: As for the question of where the struggle between the rival camps is
leading, pro-Khatami figures express divergent views on how long it is likely
to continue and how hard the conservatives will resist the tide of reform.

Imadeddin Baqi, a writer on the pro-Khatami daily Khordad, predicts that 1999
will be "the year of decision."

The conflict between the two camps has been simmering for 20 years and must
now be resolved, he says. "It used to be hidden and whispered but is now open
and public, and in a country the size of Iran it is hard for confrontation
and struggle to continue on the political stage after peaking in the way
everyone has witnessed," he adds. Fact is that "society cannot withstand
remaining so long under the shadow of such a high degree of tension and
polarization."

Baqi says that if we do indeed witness "the birth" this year, he is not sure
whether the "baby" will be healthy, deformed or stunted. "It will be healthy
if the conflicting sides agree to resolve their differences by peaceful
means. But if that is beyond reach, the foetus will be extremely deformed."

But this view is contested by Gholamhossein Karbaschi, Iran 's most famous
mayor and prominent reformist who was hounded by the conservatives until they
got him sentenced to a jail term and removed from his post (though the
sentence has not been implemented pending appeal).

Karbaschi says Khatami's problems are too numerous, profound and complex to
be resolved this year. His enemies are very powerful, and the civic and
democratic style he has adopted in dealing with them is not one that produces
quick results. It is true Khatami is growing steadily in strength and
stature, but he will need time to become strong enough to clip the wings of
those enemies, Karbaschi notes.

He says there are forces in the other camp which are trying to push things in
the direction of repeating the experience of Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, Iran 's
first president who fled the country after falling out with the late Imam
Ruhollah Khomeiny and the Majlis.

Khatami's success in strengthening his relationship with Khamanei has, for
now, deprived those forces of the opportunity they were awaiting, but the
conservative-dominated parliament's attitude to the president is "not
reassuring," says Karbaschi.

In the opinion of Tehran's former mayor, while the economy is the biggest
challenge facing the government, the problem of the country's management is no
less serious -- and by "management" he means the distribution of power between
the supreme leader and the president.

With the supreme leader having the final say, the president's limited powers
do not leave him with the freedom of movement he needs -- and this has a
negative impact on virtually every aspect of the government's performance.
And the conservatives are determined to maintain this state of affairs in the
name of upholding the stature and authority of the vali-e-faqih.

Karbaschi, who at one point was the conservatives' "most wanted" man, goes as
far as saying that they will never end their battle against the reformists but
will persist until they have "eradicated" them, if they can, to ensure that
they do not come back and threaten their power again. And they have shown they
are prepared to use every means available to achieve their objective.

Thus Karbaschi says his best hope is for the struggle to remain within
"tolerable" limits and for violence not to break out and spread, threatening
Iran with the kind of tragic internecine strife that afflicted Lebanon or
Afghanistan.

DIALOGUE: Howeidi says that his personal view is that Iran will know no
stability unless the rival camps overcome their struggle and reach an
understanding, moving on to a period of mutual recognition and coexistence.

It is not just that the whole revolutionary program could fall victim to the
power struggle, he says.

There are many good people in both the conservative and reformist camps, and
there are also negative aspects to both. There is no doubt that Iran
desperately needs the liberalism of the reformists. But that liberalism would
be better if reinforced by the attachment to identity and basic principles
that is expressed by moderate conservatives.

Only a meeting of minds between the moderates in both camps can take the
danger out of the rebirth Iran is expecting.

Khamenei could presumably play a vital role in encouraging such an
accommodation, and one has to wonder why he is hesitating to take on such a
role.

It is true that he sometimes intervenes at the last minute to extinguish
fires and defuse explosions when conflicts between the two camps get
critical. But given the powers at his disposal, he has the capacity to create
conditions that prevent those fires breaking out and those explosives being
laid in the first place.

"He can do much, but he has done little. This is a problem that must be
resolved one day, which we hope will not be too far off," Howeidi says.

------------------------------

Date: Thu, 25 Mar 1999 13:03:53 +0100
From: Farhad Abdolian <Farhad.Abdolian@RSA.ERICSSON.SE>
Subject: Iranian spiritual leader criticizes New Year celebrations

TEHRAN, March 23 (AFP) - Iran's spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei has criticized certain aspects of celebrations of the
Iranian new year and said allowing people to observe a popular
spring festival was a mistake.
Khamenei, in remarks reported by Iranian radio, said the
Festival of Fire, in which people jump over bonfires and set off
firecrackers, is a "superstitious festival of which Islam does not
approve."
The interior ministry "made a mistake" in allowing celebrations
to go ahead this year for the first time since the 1979 Islamic
Revolution, he told the radio late Monday.
The Festival of Fire, which was permitted despite its obvious
roots in Zoroastrianism, the pre-Islamic religion of ancient Persia,
was observed last week ahead of Sunday's New Year's Day.
While criticizing the Festival of Fire, Khamenei welcomed
celebrations of the Iranian new year, or Nowrouz, which date from
the Zoroastrian period but have adopted a number of Islamic
elements.
"Islam give human and spiritual content to Nowrouz," he said,
also giving his blessing to the upcoming festival of nature known as
"Sizdeh Bedar."
"Islam approves of it because it is good to celebrate nature,"
he said.
Iran entered the year 1378 on Sunday. The Islamic Republic dates
its centuries in the Moslem way, starting from the Hegira, the
flight of the Prophet Mohammed from Mecca to Medina in 622 of the
Christian era. But it never adopted the lunar calendar used by other
Moslems. Instead, it kept its ancient solar calendar, giving it a
unique dating system.
Khamenei's remarks point to the sensitive balance between the
Islamic regime and popular traditions in a country with a rich
history pre-dating the Moslem era.
The election of reformist and moderate cleric Mohammad Khatami
as president in May 1997 has seen a revival of popularity for
ancient rites along with Persian nationalism, a source of
consternation for the Islamic clergy.

------------------------------

Date: Thu, 25 Mar 1999 13:06:53 +0100
From: Farhad Abdolian <Farhad.Abdolian@RSA.ERICSSON.SE>
Subject: Iranian hard-liners shut down new year's festival

March 22, 1999
Web posted at: 12:06 PM EST (1706 GMT)


TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- Revelers heading to a Persian new year's festival said
they were turned away Monday, apparently because Iranian hard-liners
believe the celebration evokes the country's pre-Islamic past.

Nowruz, or new year, festivities at Takht-e-Jamshid attracted about 3,000
people when they opened Sunday, the start of the new year. Takht-e-Jamshid,
about 640 kilometers (400 miles) south of the capital Tehran, is the site
of ruins from the 6th century capital of Persepolis.

But people who showed up Monday for the traditional songs and dances were
told the shows had been canceled. They would speak only on condition they
not be identified.

The festival had been scheduled to run for three days.

Earlier, Tehran radio quoted Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as
saying: "It is not an honor to attract the people to ruins that have no
spiritual significance and contain vestiges of the deposed monarchy."

In 1971, the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was deposed by the 1979
Islamic revolution, invited kings and presidents from around the world to
celebrate 2,500 years of the Iranian monarchy at Takht-e-Jamshid.

The controversy over the festival was yet another sign of a power struggle
between moderates allied with President Mohammad Khatami and hard-liners
clustered around Khamenei.

Since the Islamic revolution, hard-liners have tried to discourage Iranians
from celebrating Nowruz, which dates back to Iran's pagan past, with
displays considered un-Islamic.

------------------------------

End of DNI-NEWS Digest - 21 Mar 1999 to 25 Mar 1999
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