Spotlight on Iran (Week of May 16-23, 2012)

May 2012-Ordibehesht 1391
Week of May 16-23, 2012
editor : Dr. Raz Zimmt
Iranlowers expectations and stresses need for fundamental change in Western policy ahead of Baghdad talks

Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the chairman of the Majles National Security and Foreign Policy Council, has announced this week that the differences of opinion between Iran and the West with regard to the nuclear issue cannot be expected to go away in just one or two meetings. Those who expect the meeting in Baghdad to mark the end of the talks between Iran and the West are mistaken, Boroujerdi said at a press conference. He noted that the talks in Baghdad are a follow-up to the talks held earlier in Istanbul, and that what is important for Iran is to protect its right for peaceful nuclear energy despite the international pressure exerted on it and the resolutions passed against it. He went on to say that Israel and the United States have no interest in solving the crisis that surrounds the nuclear program and therefore continue bringing up false accusations against Iran. He expressed his hope that the G5+1 countries will change their policy towards Iran in the course of the Baghdad talks and adopt a realistic, cooperation-based approach, while recognizing that Iran is within its right to develop nuclear technology (Mehr, May 20). 

On the eve of the launch of the talks in Baghdad, 203 Majles members released a statement calling on the West to change its policy towards Iran and adopt an approach based on cooperation instead of one based on conflict. The statement said that it is now up to the West to engage in trust-building measures towards Iran. Over the past two decades the United States and its allies have put pressure on Iran, even though the latter has fulfilled its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Western countries must recognize the rights of the Iranian people and proceed in accordance with the NPT, regardless of "Zionist pressure". The Majles members called on Iran's negotiators to protect their rights in the forthcoming talks (IRNA, May 20).

Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast also called on the West to change its policy and lift the sanctions imposed on Iran. He noted that the talks in Baghdad need to end with the lifting of the sanctions, which have no legal basis whatsoever. By lifting the sanctions, the West will prove that it is willing to change the inappropriate policy it has been pursuing towards Iran and its nuclear program. He further added that the West would be completely mistaken to believe that Iran would give up its rights as a result of the sanctions (Fars, May 20). A similar demand for lifting the sanctions during the talks in Baghdad has been heard in recent weeks from other top Iranian officials.

Meanwhile, the daily Jomhuri-ye Eslami warned against harboring unrealistic hopes for the talks in Baghdad. An editorial published by the daily on May 21 said that some have high hopes for the coming talks with the West, thinking that they will bring a solution to all problems facing Iran in all spheres of life. There is a tendency in Iran to link everything to the nuclear talks: the rise in taxi fares, the reduction in the size of bread loaves, the delays on the subway system, and even the defeats suffered by the soccer team. There can be no doubt, the article said, that the political, economic, cultural, and social spheres are interconnected and dependent upon each other, and that the outcome of the talks in Baghdad is going to have an impact on the political and economic relations between Iran and other countries in the world. There is also no doubt that the results of the talks are going to have an impact on how easy or difficult it is to carry out transactions between Iran and the West, which, in turn, will influence the value of the Iranian currency, the price of imported goods, the price of products, the stock exchange situation, and the state of the real estate market.

One should not, however, give the talks more importance than they really deserve and think that all of the problems facing Iran depend on their results. It is true that the Iranian economy will be put in a more difficult situation if the talks fail; however, this does not mean that the consequences of failure are insurmountable. In the past, the Iranian people extricated themselves from worse situations than this. On the other hand, even if the talks go well and the West recognizes Iran’s right for nuclear technology, that on its own will not be enough to solve all the problems, since many of them have nothing to do with the sanctions but rather with problematic management, wrong decisions on the part of the government, undesirable policy pursued in recent years, and problems with the infrastructure. While the sanctions have exacerbated these economic problems, it is not the sanctions that caused them in the first place. Even if the talks succeed and the sanctions are reduced or lifted altogether, the fundamental problems will still be there. Jomhuri-ye Eslami warned that chalking up all the problems to the sanctions may cause despair in society. The right thing to do is to prepare society for two options: the talks either fail or succeed. The expectations from the talks will then be realistic, and national dignity can be defended.

Sobh-e Sadeq, a weekly published by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, also took a reserved stance when discussing the results of the talks. An article written by Yadollah Javani, the head of the Political Department of the Revolutionary Guards, said that, in the assumption that the Western proposal that will be presented to the Iranians during the talks in Baghdad is the same proposal on which the Western media has been reporting these last few days, it does not contain anything that can satisfy the Iranians, and must not be accepted by the representatives of Iran. The only kind of arrangement that Iran needs to accept is one based on the NPT. According to this treaty, the West has no right to negotiate with Iran the rate of uranium enrichment or the shut-down of the nuclear facilities, or to present Iran with conditions it needs to meet in order to pursue its nuclear program. The only thing that the West can negotiate with Iran is the monitoring of its nuclear activity, which needs to be discussed between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Other than that, the West has no legal right to meddle in Iran’s nuclear activity.

The West needs to stop its propaganda against Iran and fully recognize its nuclear rights, the article said. It is only in this case that Iran will be willing to put the West’s concerns to rest, whether the concerns are real or whether they are false. Talks with no threats and deceptions may end with positive results, and in such a way that both sides feel that their rights have been realized. However, if the West persists with its old policy and backs out of the principles agreed upon in the Istanbul talks, the negotiations will go back to square one (Sobh-e Sadeq, May 21).

Second phase of subsidy policy reform delayed once again

Despite a statement made by President Ahmadinejad saying that he is determined to move forward with the implementation of the subsidy policy reform, the government has pushed back the launch of the second phase of the program, which was scheduled to begin this week. On Sunday, May 20, Iranian media reported that the launch of the second phase was pushed back to an unknown date due to various reasons. Mehr News Agency reported that the main reason for the delay is a resolution passed by the Majles last week to let the government increase the budget allocated towards the implementation of the reform from 44 billion dollars to only 53.8 billion dollars, significantly lower than the nearly 110 billion dollars requested by the government (Mehr, May 20).

As preparations continue for the launch of the second phase of the reform plan, its implementation continues to draw criticism. In an interview given this week to the daily Mardom Salari, Abdolhossein Sasan, an economist from the University of Esfahan, warned about the inflationary impact of the reform, saying that it needs to be implemented gradually over the course of five years at the very least.

Sasan argued that 99 percent of the consequences of the reform have yet to become manifest, and that its impact on the industrial sector and on the people of Iran will be fully seen only in about 4-5 years. He pointed out that, as a result of the implementation of the first phase of the reform, the government was forced to run the money printing press at an unprecedented rate, and nevertheless found itself facing a severe budget deficit due to errors in the economic assessments carried out prior to the launch of the plan. For example, assessments of the economic growth rate were considerably higher compared to the actual growth rate. The inflation rate, too, was worked out incorrectly, since the calculation did not take into account the increase in the prices of housing and of some public services.

The top economist warned that, if the government moves forward with the implementation of the plan, the prices will keep rising and the economic growth rate will keep dropping. He noted that the government needs to take a number of preliminary measures to improve the state of the economy and increase its revenues before continuing the implementation of the plan. The government needs to scale up support for the weaker sectors of society and carry out the reform gradually, over at least five years, since paying cash benefits to the people of Iran will not be enough to minimize the harm done to the citizens. It is Sasan’s assessment that, among other things, a gradual implementation of the reform will make it possible for Iranians to make the move from traditional energy sources to new heating methods based on solar panels, and for factories to switch to production methods based on energy-efficient systems. These processes will make it possible to diminish the impact of the rise in gas prices as a result of the subsidy policy reform, he said (Mardom Salari, May 20).

The burden of “inflation” in the transition from “phase 1” (of the subsidy reform) to “phase 2”

In the meantime, uncertainty remains over the plan to terminate the eligibility of several million Iranians who belong to the higher income deciles for the cash benefits. Iranian media have reported this week that, in accordance with the national budget approved by the Majles last week, 10 million citizens will be removed from the list of cash benefit recipients. So far the government has made no announcement about its plan to terminate the eligibility of some Iranians for the cash benefits; however, in recent months the organization in charge of implementing the reform has called on citizens who do not require the cash benefits to give them up on their own initiative.

This week the Asr-e Iran website took issue with the uncertainty that continues to surround the reform. A commentary article published by the website said that, while 10 million Iranians are to be made ineligible for the cash benefits, it is unclear who they are or whether they are the same people who have recently received a text message from the organization responsible for the implementation of the reform calling them to give up the cash benefits. If they are, indeed, the same people, then that is a serious problem: while some of them belong to the weaker sectors of society, many high-income individuals have received no such text message from the subsidy reform organization. Asr-e Iran demanded that the government provide explanations as to the criteria it uses to select the citizens who will be removed from the list of benefit recipients, to make sure that no one is taken off the list by mistake. The website claimed that the government has not acted transparently since the beginning of the implementation of the reform, and that the lack of correct, reliable information has created a breeding ground for rumors and unreliable reports on the cash benefits, which put further psychological pressure on Iranians and make their concerns worse. Top officials in the reform organization must therefore provide the people with quick, reliable, and correct information about the cash benefits and the implementation of the second phase of the subsidy reform (Asr-e Iran, May 18).

Iranobjects to Eurovision song contest in Azerbaijan: another expression of mounting tensions between the two countries

The Iranian protest against the Eurovision song contest in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, has reached a peak in recent days. Most of the criticism is directed at the plan of the LGBT community to use the occasion of the contest to hold a first-ever gay pride parade in Baku.

Last weekend Ayatollah Kazem Sediqi, the Friday prayer leader in Tehran, strongly condemned what he referred to as Azerbaijan’s “anti-Islamic” policy, and called on the authorities of the republic to cancel the gay pride parade. He stressed that homosexuality is incompatible with Islam, and argued that it is inappropriate to spend millions of euros on a “homosexual parade” while millions of Azerbaijanis are struggling to overcome poverty. The top cleric strongly condemned the policy of the Azerbaijani authorities, accusing them of letting Israeli officials visit the republic whenever they wish even as the country’s mosques are being destroyed, supporters of women’s veils are being arrested, and severe restrictions are being imposed on Islamic activity. Sediqi called on the Baku authorities not to play with the religious sentiments of billions of Muslims across the globe just to please Israel and the United States (Mehr, May 18). The top cleric Ayatollah Ja’far Sobhani also condemned the plan to hold a gay pride parade in Baku, saying that, by doing so, the government of Azerbaijan will encourage corruption and promiscuity among its young men and women. He called on the media to report and protest against the parade (ISNA, May 18).

The strong criticism leveled by the clerics against the Eurovision song contest and the gay pride parade was also joined by Ayatollah Mohsen Mojtahed Shabestari, the Supreme Leader’s representative in East Azerbaijan Province, who referred to the Azerbaijani authorities as “puppets of the Zionist regime”. In a Friday sermon given in the city of Tabriz, the cleric fiercely condemned the upcoming gay pride parade and demanded that the authorities of Azerbaijan call it off. Islamic countries must not fall into the trap of the anti-Islamic policy pursued by the West, Mojtahed Shabestari said. He noted that holding a gay pride parade in a country where Muslims make up 95 percent of the population and Shi’ites make up 85 percent is an inappropriate, immoral act that offends the religious sentiments of Muslims. He expressed his hope that the government of Azerbaijan is taking seriously the warnings voiced by Muslim nations about the parade, and warned that if the government does not prevent the parade from taking place, it will provoke increased anger not only from its own citizens but also reactions of rage and hatred from the people of Iran (Fars, May 18).

Last week Mojtahed Shabestari argued that the Eurovision song contest in Baku is “a plot of the Zionist regime”. According to the cleric, the plan to hold the parade in Baku is proof that the government of Azerbaijan follows the policy of the United States and Israel, and that holding the Eurovision song contest in Baku is part of the “Zionist regime’s” plans. He called on the people of Azerbaijan to join the protest rallies held by the people of Iran against the Eurovision contest and the gay pride parade, and said that the authorities of Azerbaijan should invest their energy in solving the border dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia (over the Nagorno-Karabakh region) instead of putting efforts into organizing the contest and the parade (Roydad Online, May 15).

An announcement dealing with a number of domestic and foreign issues released this week by the Combatant Clergy Association, affiliated with the conservative religious establishment in Iran, also condemned the authorities in Baku for hosting the Eurovision song contest. The developments in Azerbaijan are a cause for concern, according to the association, since they constitute an offense against the Islamic faith. Holding the Eurovision contest and the “parade of beastly homosexuals” in Baku is contradictory to Islam and the values of morality, said the announcement, which was signed by Ayatollah Mohammad-Reza Mahdavi Kani, the chairman of the Assembly of Experts. These events give rise to differences of opinion among Muslims, offend their religious sentiments, and are tantamount to bending the knee to foreign influence and anti-human culture (ISNA, May 18).

Meanwhile, media in Iran have provided extensive coverage of the growing protests among the Islamic opposition in Azerbaijan against the Eurovision song contest and the gay pride parade. Press TV, an Iranian television channel broadcasting in English, widely reported on the preparations for the contest in Baku. In its commentary, Press TV said that the contest and the growing protests it has sparked reflect the serious internal problems faced by Azerbaijan and the increasing domestic resistance to the government and to its secular, pro-Israeli policy (Press TV, May 18).

In the past two weeks a number of protests have been held in the Azeri provinces of northern Iran against the Azerbaijani authorities, Azerbaijan’s “anti-Islamic policy”, and the Eurovision song contest in Baku. Last week in Ardabil Province, hundreds of students and lecturers from two local universities took part in a demonstration against the contest and the “anti-religious conduct” of the government of Azerbaijan. The protestors chanted slogans against the authorities in Baku and shouted “death to Israel” and “death to America”. At the end of the demonstration, the protesters released a memorandum of opinion condemning the policy pursued by the authorities of Azerbaijan.

On May 8 a march against the government of Azerbaijan and the Eurovision song contest was also held in the city of Tabriz. In a demonstration that took place in front of the local consulate of Azerbaijan, the protestors called on Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev to abandon his anti-Islamic policy, prevent the Eurovision and the gay pride parade from taking place in Baku, release detained members of the Islamic opposition, and cut off ties with Israel. One of the participants of the march was Mohammad Sa’idi, a Majles representative for Tabriz, who strongly criticized the policy of the Azerbaijani government and the arrest of Islamic opposition activists in that country. Sa’idi declared that Azerbaijan has become a stronghold of “the Zionist regime and the United States”, and that the “homosexual parade” in Baku was masterminded by the Zionists and is paid for with the money of “the downtrodden citizens” of the republic as part of the cultural attack launched by the enemies of Islam.

Iranian demonstrators in Tabriz. The sign carried by the demonstrator reads: “Mr. Ilham Alief [Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev], instead of holding a homosexual parade, think about how to free Karabakh”

The Iranian protest against the Eurovision song contest and the gay pride parade in Baku reflects the mounting tensions in the relations between the two countries these past several months. The tensions can be seen in exchanges of accusations between Iran and Azerbaijan and in their waging a media propaganda campaign against each other. While the government of Azerbaijan has accused Iran of planning terrorist attacks in its territory against Israeli targets, Tehran has claimed that Azerbaijan helps Israel carry out espionage activities against Iran from its territory and encourages separatism among the Azeri minority in the Islamic republic. Iran has also submitted its protest to the authorities of Azerbaijan in light of reports on Azerbaijan’s intention to let Israel use military bases in its territory for a military offensive against the Iranian nuclear facilities. Meetings that took place in recent months between top officials from the two countries, including a visit held by Azerbaijan’s defense minister to Tehran this past March, proved unable to allay the growing tensions between them.

In recent months the Iranian media has adopted a particularly aggressive approach towards the authorities of Azerbaijan, accusing them of pursuing an anti-Islamic policy and encouraging the growing Israeli involvement in the country. Media in Iran have widely covered the measures taken by the authorities in Baku to restrict the freedom of action of Azerbaijan’s Islamic opposition and limit religious Islamic activities.

Islamic dress code increasingly enforced as summer approaches

Last week the Tehran police began the implementation of a new phase in the campaign for the enforcement of the Islamic dress code in the city. Last Wednesday, May 17, internal security forces were sent to the main squares and streets of the capital and began enforcing the dress code for women and for men. ISNA News Agency reported that on Thursday the operation was expanded to include shopping centers and major trade centers.

Top officials in the Tehran police have announced that in the coming days the police will be launching additional phases of the program. Hossein Sajediniya, the chief of the internal security forces in Tehran, has recently announced the intention to implement the program, saying that the police will fight against any expression of non-compliance with the Islamic dress code in the city. He noted that the police intends to conduct the program among manufacturers and importers of banned clothing and also among citizens making use of such clothing. According to Sajediniya, all the centers for the manufacturing and sale of clothing in Tehran have received warnings about the instructions in place with regard to the dress code, and any center found in violation of the instructions will be shut down. In addition, Sajediniya noted that, as part of the program, mobile patrols on motorcycles and vehicles will be regularly conducted across the city. The patrols will operate on the streets, commercial centers, and highways.

Ahmad-Reza Radan, the deputy chief of the internal security forces, spoke about the program as well, saying that the internal security forces intend to fight against violations of the Islamic dress code and enforce the principles that ban clothing incompatible with the values of Islam. Ahmad Rouzbahani, the chief of morality police in the internal security forces, warned that any civilian apprehended by the police for violating the dress code or sporting a Western-style haircut will be taken in to a police station and released only after he or she has been provided with appropriate clothing by family members. The cases of persons committing such an offense for the second time will be transferred to the judiciary (ISNA, May 19).

Last week Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stressed how important it is for women to adhere to the standards of appropriate clothing. Speaking at a meeting with women held on May 12 on the occasion of Mother’s Day, celebrated on the birthday of Fatimah, Prophet Muhammad's daughter, Khamenei said that women need to preserve their dignity and modesty and make certain to wear the veil. According to the Supreme Leader, violating the Islamic dress code has disastrous consequences for the state, the society, morality, and politics. If there is a difficulty in adhering to the religious principles that govern forms of behavior and dress code, it is a difficulty only in the short run, while its influence is deep and extends into the long run. He noted that the veil is a source of pride for women and that it guarantees their freedom. Women who do not wear a veil are humiliated, exposing what God has ordered them to conceal. The veil provides women with dignity and should be considered one of God's gifts.

In addition to launching stricter enforcement of the Islamic dress code in Tehran, this week the internal security forces announced their intention to take measures against underground musical performances held without the approval of the authorities. Ahmad Rouzbahani, the chief of the morality police, said that the security forces intend to intensify their fight against anyone who organizes performances without the approval of the Ministry of Islamic Guidance, and against singers and musicians who perform without such an approval. He warned that those who are apprehended for these kinds of violations will receive a criminal record (ISNA, May 19). In recent years the internal security forces have conducted raids on underground performances featuring Western-style musicians and attended by mixed-gender audiences.

In previous years the security forces also intensified the enforcement of the Islamic dress code ahead of the summer season. In recent years the authorities have significantly stepped up the enforcement of the Islamic dress code, after a certain period of leniency in enforcement in the mid-1990s. Conservative clerics repeatedly claimed, however, that the policy of enforcement pursued by the government was unsatisfactory and even accused the president of having a too tolerant approach to the enforcement of the Islamic dress code. This week Majles member Ali Motahari, one of President Ahmadinejad’s strongest critics, said that the difficult situation in which Iran has found itself with regard to women’s veils is the result of the policy adopted by the president and his office chief Rahim Masha’i, which goes against the principles of Islam, encourages women to wear pants and coats that do not extend past their knees, and even leads to the establishment of cabarets and night clubs (Fars, May 20).N

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