Iran: Politicians React To Government's Disrespect For Parties
By Vahid Sepehri
January 30, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The populist ideas of President Mahmud Ahamdinejad's government were made evident recently in remarks by Culture Minister Hussein Saffar-Herandi, who has been skeptical about the usefulness of political parties.
His remarks have provoked public criticism from politicians from the entire political spectrum and raised the fear of restrictions against parties.
Herandi said at a seminar on January 16 that "in a country where party politics have not been a successful experience," the government needs to "mobilize popular formations" to "safeguard the people" and "attract" various sectors of the Iranian population to the "values of the revolution," the daily "Etemad-i Melli" reported the next day.
Political Role For Militias?
He reportedly suggested the clergy or the Basij -- the militia affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) -- be used as substitutes for parties. His remarks came at a time when some politicians have urged better-organized parties and even state subsidies for approved parties in order to encourage party politics.
Reactions to the minister's remarks have been negative.
Rasul Montajabnia, a member of the reformist National Trust Party, wrote in the daily "Etemad-i Melli" on January 17 that the constitution expects officials to create conditions favoring legitimate political activities.
He said the Basij -- as members of the armed forces -- are specifically banned by the constitution and by their own regulations from involvement in politics. He added that the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had made clear his dislike for military involvement in politics.
Mohammad Salamati of the Islamic Revolution Mujahedin Organization, a left-leaning reformist party, warned on January 19 of the dangers of pushing the Basij militia toward politics, when its duties lay elsewhere. He said the government should be helping parties "because it is parties that prepare people for elections," "Kargozaran" reported the next day.
Some politicians have observed a link between Ahmadinejad's government and elements in the IRGC or the Basij militia, and there have been allegations of unspecified military interference in the 2005 presidential elections that brought Ahmadinejad to power.
Hussein Kashefi of the reformist Participation Front objected on January 19 to another comment attributed to the minister -- that party politics are at odds with Iran's "culture," "Kargozaran" reported.
Kashefi said this was "an injustice to culture" in Iran which, he said, had the capacity to embrace party politics.
Mehdi Karrubi, the former parliamentary speaker and head of the National Trust Party, told his party more forcefully on January 19 that "democracy" is meaningless without groups competing, and "the supreme leader has repeatedly stressed the presence of different preferences in social and political activities." He said Iranians will vote for those they prefer "if our friends in power" stop "spreading poison" and allow outsiders to run for office, "Kargozaran" reported the next day.
Mostafa Tajzadeh, a member of the Participation Front and former deputy interior minister in the last reformist government, sees the remarks as a prelude to restrictions against parties.
Political Parties Without A Voice
He observed on January 20 that Herandi had said shortly after becoming minister that parties should have newspapers so they can inform the public of their positions. Now, Tajzadeh said, not only has the government shut papers like "Sharq" and prevented "parties supporting Dr. Moin" -- the former higher-education minister now associated with the Democracy and Human Rights Front -- from starting their own papers, but "they are going after parties, and this a preliminary to...increasing restrictions on parties," "Etemad-i Melli" reported.
He said "the new government...ended party subsidies, and is very cautious in giving permits for new parties." Some officials, he added, saw parties merely "as machines to gather votes" and, as they believe clerics and militiamen could do this, "they see no need for...parties." But he believes "very large sections of the clergy and Basij [firmly oppose government] policies, and do not have a positive assessment of this government's performance."
Mohammad Nabi Habibi, the secretary-general of the conservative Islamic Coalition Party, told ISNA on January 25 that it is true some Iranian parties have not been successful, but he called the "spread of the culture of party politics" in Iran one of the "definitive necessities." Political activities by the clergy, he said, would lead to "mistaken beliefs...and discord."
The clergy are "above parties, and really have the role of a father or general guardian with the people," he said. Another conservative, Hojjatoleslam Reza Akrami of the Militant Clergy Society, told ISNA on January 24 that Iran's system is a "parliamentary and electoral" system, and needs "strong and comprehensive parties." The clergy, he says, have a "more extensive" role in society than political parties do.
The culture minister's remarks -- when taken with the president's occasional asides against his critics, unspecified domestic sympathizers of foreign powers, "cronies" or hateful speculators -- strengthen the impression of a government with little patience for pluralism or political competition.
But the responses by politicians to the government's remarks indicate a refusal by the political class to abandon institutional politics and the lawfulness promoted by reformist President Mohammad Khatami for populism and the return of revolutionary turbulence.
Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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