News and Letters April 1998
Protests test Iran's ruling order
by Cyrus Noveen
The arrest of the populist mayor of Teheran, Hassan Karbaschi, on April 4
caused such an uproar that a top- level summit of Iran's rulers had to be
convened to prevent the power struggles from breaking out into major street
battles. After several days of maneuvering and sending out the riot police
to break up a protest demonstration by nearly 4,000 university
students-"Followers of the Line of Imam" who have now thrown their support
behind President Khatami-Karbaschi was released from Evin prison on bail.
He is charged with embezzlement and financial fraud.
The arrest and the charges are a not-so-veiled attack on President Khatami
and his powerful supporters, including Karbaschi. The so-called "religious
hard-liners" exemplified by Mohammad Yazdi, the head of the judiciary, have
seen their powers recede drastically ever since Khatami's ascendance to
power. A recent visitor to Teheran observed that "many people support the
Khatami administration because they are determined to protect the recent
gains that have been made in limiting the powers of the conservative clergy
and their supporters."
According to one source, the president has been trying to remove Yazdi from
the post of chief judge for some time. Mayor Karbaschi's arrest was a
preemptive move by Yazdi to reassert the dominance of the "conservative
Karbaschi, appointed mayor in 1989, is held up as the architect and the
moving force behind a major facelift of Teheran's dilapidated buildings,
streets, and other public places. His administration's beautification
campaign transformed scores of empty lots into public parks.
Many Iranians opposed to the regime, however, sneer at such claims. For
example, one longtime opponent points to the rampant corruption so systemic
in all members and factions of the regime. He explained that the
"beautification" of Teheran served to hide the fact that this city of
nearly 10 million people still does not have a functioning covered sewage
system. "The mayor," he points out, "is revered by major speculators and
other big property owners who have made billions while avoiding compliance
with health, safety, and zoning regulations." Many of the newly built
high-rises in Teheran are "death traps," he believes.
At the same time, he added, "small property owners, those who often cannot
afford to pay the exorbitant property taxes they owe, have seen their lands
expropriated by the city using a traditional law that allows them to plant
a few trees-thus the designation 'park'-and laying claim to the property
which is then sold off to the highest bidder to build more high-rises."
This sentiment is shared by many, who do not want to be pulled into having
to choose the lesser of two evils among ruling officials.
Iran's economy is in major disarray, and the mayor's arrest helps to focus
(and divert) the blame for the deteriorating conditions of life and the
state of the economy on "corrupt" elements. "Hyperinflation, recession, and
unemployment are causing widespread public concern," according to a report
by Agence France Press (4/12/98).
Nearly 85% of Iran's economy is controlled by the government. In the last
few weeks the price of rice, the major staple of Iranians, was raised by
70%. Meat and chicken prices are so high, they are unaffordable for the
general population. Price subsidies for bread were also eliminated by the
government. Fuel prices increased nearly 100%. Bankrupt industries, such as
the nationalized Melee shoe company, are borrowing from banks to pay their
workers' salaries, according to a labor ministry official. While consumer
prices have shot up, Iran's currency, the Rial, has taken another nose
All eyes have been on the rapprochement between Iran and the U.S. Major
developments are occurring in that front that will have important
consequences for the world.
Powerful forces are shaping up inside Iran at multiple levels in society.
These forces, including a totally alienated and fed-up population-are also
compelling a part of the rulers to effect a major house-cleaning in their
affairs. One welcome development would be for the pro-Khatami forces to
cleanse the judicial system of judges and prosecutors who implement the
obscene and disgusting practices of so-called "Islamic" justice, public
stonings, lashings, and the arbitrary accusations of moral transgression.
But will the reformists be able to maintain their powers while effecting
such changes, or will a much deeper mass movement emerge that raises the
banner of total human freedom?
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