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Known as Persia until 1935, Iran became an Islamic republic in 1979 after the ruling shah was forced into exile. Conservative clerical forces subsequently crushed the westernising liberal element. During 1980-88, Iran fought a bloody, indecisive war with Iraq over disputed territory, which caused large-scale damage to its economy. The key current issue is how rapidly the country should open up to the modernising influences of the outside world, with a conservative faction in control of some key institutions, such as the Council of Guardians, and a reformist faction centred on elected President Khatami.
US and Iran
Despite the apparent improvement in the relations between the US and Iran, which had followed the 11 September terrorist attacks, by January 2002 the tension between the two countries had reached new peaks. President Bush accused Iran of being part of an "axis of evil" together with Iraq and North Korea and asked Iran to stop meddling in the internal affairs of Afghanistan and developing weapons of mass destruction. While the Iranian leadership has good reason to be worried about the intensification of American hostility, the Bush administration is clearly not planning any direct action yet. By July, however, with his call for "reform from below", President Bush appeared increasingly interested in fomenting a revolt against the Islamist regime. There are clear signs that the ruling elite feels seriously threatened and fears a tightening of the embargo. It is estimated that since the beginning of the year several billion US$ have returned to the country, as the government repatriates its gold reserves previously held by European central banks. By mid-May even the reformist President Khatami felt that he had to take a strong stance and warned the US administration against "threatening, insulting and humiliating" Iran. As a reaction to growing American pressure, Teheran strengthened its efforts to improve its relations with its Islamic neighbours, such as the Central Asian countries, Azerbaijan and even Saudi Arabia.
The reformist government of Iran is keen on improving relations with the US. Not only it stated that it was ready to accept a new, tougher resolution on Iraq, but also took the unprecedented step of declaring that a two-states solution is acceptable for Palestine, so long as the Palestinians accept it. There remains, however, strong opposition from the conservatives, who dominate a number of key institutions, first and foremost the Council of Guardians, and count among their members the Supreme spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Calls for the formation of a united national front against "American aggression" appeared to be delivering some results until April, with a lull in the repression of dissidents and the liberal press.
However, the conservatives are not uniformly hostile to improving Iran's relations with the US, as some of them argue that such an improvement would make it easier to maintain the status quo internally. Supporting a US war against Iraq could be a suitable way to buy American acquiescence for the lack of internal reforms. Still, many in Iran fear that in the event of a war its economy would suffer severely, not least because of a likely massive influx of refugees. The possibility of Kurdish nationalism being strengthened by a war in Iraq is also seen with apprehension in Teheran. On the whole, the Bush administration did not openly respond to hints coming from conservatives that a deal might be possible, but the press suggested that it might actually be considering to enlist some help from Iran. For sure, as the international attention turned to Iraq, from October Iran was spared the war of words that had afflicted it during the previous months.
Iran and the rest of the world
The main tool in the hand of the US administration for exerting pressure on Iran is increasing its isolation from the rest of the world, in particular Iran's neighbours and trading partners. The largest economies appear the least likely to bow to the pressure. The European Union in particular looks inclined to actually expand its ties to Iran. After some initial anxiety, the EU announced in July its readiness to develop closer commercial ties with Teheran, although conditionally on Iranian willingness to discuss such issues as nuclear proliferation, terrorism and human rights. There have been delays in the negotiation of deals with Russia and Japan in the oil, nuclear and defence industries, but in the end both countries appear intent on continuing their flourishing trade with Iran. The main danger to Iran is that Russia could soon be lured towards a more pro-American stance in exchange for economic concessions, which might include forgiving Russia's Soviet era debt in exchange for the termination of nuclear cooperation with Iran. The fact that Russia and Iran have increasingly diverging ideas about how to deal with the resources of the Caspian Sea might have contributed to push Russia away from Iran. President Putin, however, appears to be trying to strike a delicate balance between continuing Russia's lucrative trade with Iran, while at the same time doing his best to appease American fears of Iranian interest in weapons of mass destruction.
Apart from the international tensions, the economic and political situation of Iran remains uncertain. The development of oil extraction in Iran has been negatively affected by project delays and by some flaws in the buy-back deals negotiated with the international investors and it is by no means certain that Iran will succeed in increasing its production to the levels planned. A failure would have very negative consequences for the economic stability of the country, due to the rapid growth of internal consumption of oil, which is expected by some analysts to match the volume of exports during the current year. Petrol is sold within Iran at heavily subsidised prices, with a litre costing to the Iranian motorist just $0.063, which encourages high consumption levels and waste. Moreover, while Iran is being relatively successful in attracting investment towards the development of oil extraction, it has not succeeded yet in doing the same for the construction of pipelines to East Asia, a market for which the country is potentially very well placed.
Economics and demographics of a latent crisis
If the debate about the chances of success of Iran's plan to expand its oil production is still undecided, there is no doubt that the Islamic Republic cannot afford a failure. Although the birth rate has now been brought down to manageable levels, the baby boom generation is beginning to join the workforce, causing a terrible headache to the government. With 5.5 million high school certificate holders expected to join the job market in the next four years, the government needs to create more than 1,300,000 new jobs every year to prevent an increase in the unemployment rate and keep the population happy, but in 2000/2001 it succeeded in creating just 400,000. To generate the required amount of jobs, Iran's economy should growth at the yearly rate of 12%. Economic growth reached 4.5% in 2000/2001, short of the 6% target but still not a bad achievement when judged by the standards of Iran's performance over the last decade. In 2001/2002, which according to the Iranian calendar ended on 21 March, low oil prices and a cut in production will ensure that growth will be lower, probably around 3.5%. It appears obvious that it will be difficult to achieve significantly higher growth rates without attracting massive foreign investment, but there is a strong opposition among conservatives against foreigners playing a much larger role in Iran's economy. Moreover, during the early months of 2002 the negotiations with potential investors in Iran's oil and gas industry took a negative turn, although there were signs of improvement towards the end of the summer. A wave of financial scandals has hit executives of some Iranian oil companies involved in partnerships with foreign investors and Iranian officials are now delaying the negotiations, fearful of attracting the attention of a judiciary which is closely aligned with the conservative faction. International investors, on the other hand, are increasingly sceptical of the Iranian market under the present conditions and are demanding more favourable contracts. During May there were indeed some signs of a growing willingness to offer more appealing conditions to foreign investors, as the chairman of the parliamentary energy committee, Hossein Aferideh, proposed to lengthen the buy-back contracts which represent Iran's approach to reaching agreements with international investors. At present, buy-back contracts last five to seven years, which is considered too short by many players in the oil industry. Iran will need to invest $30 billion over the next 8-9 years to maintain its share of world oil exports. The ageing Iranian fields have lost production capacity at the rate of 250,000 barrels per day, 6.4% of annual production. At least $1 billion are needed every year to maintain production at the current levels. This year, the situation is compounded by an extensive program of well maintenance and by a series of strikes in the industry, which is resulting in a 8-9% decline in exports of crude Iranian oil. In the strategy of the Khatami government, gas is supposed to make up for the shortcomings of the oil industry. Since Iran has huge reserves of gas, which at present are largely under-exploited, it would make good sense to move the focus of the investments in that direction. It is significant, however, that one of Iran's newest gas clients, Turkey, successfully bargained for lower prices after being offered a substantial discount by Russia. Russia's increasingly aggressive marketing practices might cause more problems to Iran in the future, as it continues its efforts to penetrate the European market.
Foreign investments and internal politics
Investment in the oil industry is less controversial, because it tends to be easier to isolate from the mainstream of society and because the rewards are so obvious. But that will likely not be enough to inject enough dynamism in the Iranian economy. The opportunity to attract funds towards other sectors certainly exists. An important sign was the successful launch in July of the new euro bonds, the first denominated in a foreign currency since the Islamic revolution. There are now plans for new issues of euro bonds and even a proposal to receive oil payments in euros. Foreign businesses express a strong interest in the Iranian internal market, which at present is underdeveloped, due to restrictions to imports, which are not allowed to exceed $15 billion, and to the inability of the domestic industries to meet demand. In the car industry, for example, it is estimated that annual sales of 300,000 cover only half of potential demand. It is expected that in the foreseeable future most investments in the non-oil sector will come from Arab countries, but already some European companies are beginning to invest small sums. Even the World Bank is planning to invest in Iran, despite the likelihood of us opposition.
The attempts to reform the Iranian economy and political system have been slowed by the opposition of the conservative faction. The Council of Guardians has been blocking the introduction of several laws, including the new foreign investment law, approved by the parliament. There are however some signs that doubts are emerging within the conservative camp, with some taking a more moderate stance. On the other hand, there are divisions within the ranks of the reformists too, as they include both groups favourable to the liberalisation of the economy and others, such as the Islamic left, who are cold towards it. Even the 2002-2003 Iranian budget, approved during the spring, reflects the political constraints under which Khatami and his government have to operate. Spending has gone up massively on the previous year, with tax cuts and massive pay rises to civil servants, whose real income is increasing by 17% in real terms. The government expects to pay for a large part of such increases in expenditures through the privatisation program, which however has been stagnating for a while and might well continue to do so in the near future. Most observers therefore believe that Teheran will soon be running a massive deficit.
Some reformists are also showing signs of growing impatience with the pace of the reforms and Khatami is beginning to be accused of failing to deliver the democratic reforms he had promised. A number of draft laws, which are crucial to the re-launching of Iran's economy, remain blocked, due to the opposition of the conservatives. Such laws include a project to end the unaccountability of the foundations, which control a large part of the Iranian economy, a large-scale privatisation program, a new labour code and several others. The renewed pressure of the units of the "moral" police on an increasingly impatient youth, together with the ongoing repression against the reformist press, only contributes to the radicalisation of a part of the opposition. There is a concrete danger that at some point in the future the political climate might deteriorate to the point where the economic and social framework is seriously disrupted. Faced with a conservative opposition that showed little sign of wearing down, President Khatami finally decided for an all-out assault on the main conservative stronghold, the council of guardians. During September the reformist government presented a draft law, which would greatly reduce the powers of the council, especially as far as its ability to disqualify election candidates is concerned. The government also appears to be about to present other constitutional and administrative reforms, including greater powers for the president. President Khatami has already warned that he might resign if his projects are not approved, leaving the country in a state of chaos.
The outcome of the conflict between conservatives and reformists remains uncertain. while the possibility of a conservative coup d'état has long been in the air, Khatami's move appears to weaken what many saw as the only alternative to a head-on clash between left and right, that is a new coalition between moderate conservative and moderate reformers. The latter would include the reformist right of the executives of reconstruction party and the moderate left of the militant clerics society, which are both part of the current government coalition. By contrast, the more radical reformers of the Islamic Iran participation front and of the Mujahidin of the Islamic revolution would be left in opposition, once weakened in partially rigged new elections.
Update 012 - (28/11/02)
The students are back
The political debate in Iran continued to be dominated during November by President Khatami's attempt to expand his power at the expense of the Guardians Council. While the conservatives maintained a strong opposition to the reform bill, even after it was approved by Parliament, some moderate reformists argued in favour of a compromise, for example by dropping the proposal that the President should acquire the power to prevent the execution of a sentence delivered by the judiciary. On the other hand, more radical reformists are stating clearly that Khatami and the government as a whole should step down if the reform bill is rejected by the Guardians Council. According to some sources, Khatami himself has privately stated his intention to resign if his bid to achieve a breakthrough fails.
The issue of the constitutional reforms, however, was overshadowed by a new wave of student unrest across the country, the largest after that of 1999. The resurgent student movement took most observers by surprise, as many had diagnosed its demise. It was unleashed by the death sentence against a reformist intellectual, Hashem Aghajari, guilty of having attacked the power of the conservative clerics.
Supreme Spiritual leader Khamenei emerged once again as a relatively moderate force within the complex Iranian political constitution, calling for the judiciary to reconsider the sentence. Other moderate conservatives, such as Hassan Khomeini, the Ayatollah's grandson, and Ahmad Takoli, who had challenged Khatami in the 2001 elections, also condemned the death sentence against Aghajari. On the other hand, Khamenei also threatened the radical reformists with the intervention of the security forces if the unrest spread too far. Khamenei's stand hints at the search of an alliance between moderates on both sides, but it might be already too late, as popular opinion is becoming radicalised.
Towards an uncertain cooperation with the US
If the internal political situation grew tenser, internationally the bitter verbal confrontation between Iran and the US continued to ease in November, mostly due to Iran's efforts. Even the Bush administration acknowledged that Iran's help had been crucial in stopping the smuggling of Iraqi oil through the water of the Persian Gulf, with the rate of success rising to 80-90% this year, up from 30-40% a year ago. The fact that some Iranian officials hinted that Teheran might allow Iraqi exiles to take part in operations against Iraq from the Iranian territory must have pleased the Americans too, although other officials declared later that this would not happen. Contacts are also known to be going on to reach arrangements on emergencies such as downed pilots in the event of a war in Iraq. In response to these friendly Iranian moves, the Bush administration did lower the tone of its rhetorical offensive against the Iranian regime, although it also made clear, through statements such as Defence Secretary Rumsfeld's at the end of October, that it would still welcome its internal overthrow.
The worries about Iran's relationship with Russia and the EU appear now mostly over. Russia has once again confirmed its willingness to pursue its nuclear cooperation with Iran, despite Washington's persistent attempts to lure it away from it with offers of reward elsewhere. The relationship with the EU was troubled recently by Teheran's reluctance to allow the Europeans to meddle with its internal affairs, notably human rights. The start of the talks on a cooperation agreement has once again been postponed, after the Iranians reiterated their unwillingness to accept any preconditions.
The economy improves, but is it only short-term?
Paradoxically, as the internal confrontation in Iran heats up, good news comes from the economic front. Due to the increase in oil prices, this year's economic growth is now estimated at 6.4%, which if confirmed would be a remarkable result by Iranian standards. However, there are few illusions with regard to the sustainability of such a growth rate, as oil prices are widely expected to drop once the uncertainty surrounding a possible war in Iraq wears out. Moreover, other economic news was not as good, as inflation is expected to increase in 2002/2003, up four percentage points to 15.3%. One of the causes of the increase is the abolition of privileged currency exchange rates for some Iranian institutions, which was one of the reforms of the Khatami government.
Longer-lasting beneficial effects are likely to come from Iran's improved status on the world financial markets, following a successful euro bond auction earlier this year. Many Iranian businessmen, faced with poor performances in the American and European markets, are now moving their assets back to Iran, which on the other hand has reduced taxes and has approved a more friendly foreign investment law. It is estimated that private funds account for a large part of the US$7 billion which have gone back to Iran so far this year, underpinning among other things a very good performance of the Teheran stock exchange, which this year is one of the world's best performing, up by 30%. The success of the stock exchange too, however, remains vulnerable to a fall in oil prices or a war in Iraq.
The attempt to create conditions more favourable to international investment is also bearing some fruits. During October, plans were announced to open up the mobile phone market to foreign investors, starting from October 2004, although initially only a single foreign company would be allowed to operate in Iran. Still in October the government decided to allow the import of foreign cigarette brands, after the Iranian Tobacco Company, which holds a monopoly, reached agreements with Reemtsma (Germany), BAT (UK), Japan Tobacco International and Korea Tobacco and Ginseng Company.
After several months of stagnation, even the oil industry is showing signs of recovering some dynamism. Two Spanish companies, Repsol YPF and Cepsa, appear to be about to sign relatively minor deals with Iran, while a major deal is reportedly in an advanced stage with a Japanese company. However, the Iranian government seems now to be more interested in developing its gas extraction industry, whose international prospects look definitely more attractive. After the blow of the re-negotiation of the deal with Turkey, which could have cost Iran as much as a 20% in discounts on the previously agreed price, Iran is now looking east, having identified China and most of all India as potential major markets of the future. A big contract was signed in October with Norwegian Statoil, for the offshore part of phases six, seven and eight of the South Pars gas development project. Statoil is one of the few international oil companies which is still willing to accept to work in Iran on Teheran's terms. It remains to be seen whether other potential investors will follow suit.
Iran plans second eurobond before '03
Iran is to issue an unknown amount of Eurobonds before 2003 following its successful US$625 million Eurobond issue earlier this year an Iran newspaper reported quoting a senior central bank official as saying.
The bond would be Iran's second foray into the European financial market following an issue in July, = its first since the 1979 Islamic revolution, which analysts said was oversubscribed.
"The foreign currency section of the Central Bank is taking into account a second issue by the year's end," the state-owned newspaper cited Central Bank Governor, Mohsen Nourbakhsh, as saying.
Nourbakhsh said the central bank was consulting foreign banks before they decided which one to mandate for the new issue. Lead managers for Iran's first issue were BNP Paribas and Commerzbank.
"We will use our past experience, but a final decision will come about only after consultations," he said.
The bonds are part of Iran's current budget that has authorised the government to seek up to US$2bn from external markets in the year to March 2003 to finance its many incomplete infrastructure projects.
Nourbakhsh did not comment on the size of the new issue but his deputy for foreign currency affairs told Reuters last month it would range between US$300 -$400m.
Iran's economic growth to top 6.4 per cent for year to March
Iran expects its economy to grow by more than 6.4 per cent in the current Iranian year ending in March 2003, up from 4.8 per cent last year, Reuters has reported quoting an Asia newspaper.
It quoted a report by the State Planning and Management Organisation as forecasting a growth rate of 13 per cent in construction, 11.8 per cent for industries and mines, 6.1 per cent for agriculture, five percent in services and 1.2 per cent in oil and gas.
The organisation said inflation would increase to 15.3 per cent for the year to March, compared to 11.3 per cent last year.
The paper said the inflation increase was due to a change from a two-tier exchange to a single rate and growth in liquidity over the past two years. The organisation predicted a 31 per cent rise in liquidity for this year compared to 28.8 per cent last year.
One factor behind the growth of liquidity is that the Central Bank managed to raise its foreign exchange reserves and assets, the paper said.
FOREIGN ECONOMIC RELATIONS
Iran to hold first exclusive trade fair in Kabul
The Islamic Republic of Iran will hold its first exclusive trade fair in Afghanistan called 'Kabul 2003', officials in charge of export department for foodstuff Mohammad Bisotoni said on 9th November.
In a exclusive interview with IRNA, he said the agreement to the effect was signed between the Iranian private sector and the Afghan commerce ministry following a year of market survey and negotiations.
The first exclusive trade fair 'Kabul 2003' is slated for January 30th for a ten-day period in which foodstuff and industrial products will be put on display, he said.
The second exclusive trade fair dubbed as 'Norouz-e Kabul' is to be held on March 1st for a ten-day period in which foodstuff as well as industrial products will be put on public display, he said.
The fairs will prepare grounds for about 1,000 Iranian companies to present their products and services in four phases at the fairs, he pointed out.
UN representatives in Afghanistan, active non-governmental organizations (NGO's) as well as foreign embassies in Afghanistan have cooperated in organizing such events, he said.
EU-Iran Cooperation for sake of peace and security
Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi has stressed that EU-Iranian cooperation is not for the sake of economy and trade only, but equally for promoting peace and security, IRNA News Agency has reported.
''Cooperation between Iran and the EU will not be only in the interest of economy for both sides, but also for promotion of peace and security,'' Kharrazi told a press conference in Brussels at the end of his 2-day visit.
He said the EU and Iran are to start comprehensive negotiations that would include trade and economic cooperation as well as the political dialogue in December.
''Both sides have the political will to continue these talks. This would be in the interest of both sides, Iran and the EU.'' Kharrazi noted that he had ''very good'' discussions in the last two days in Brussels with EU officials including Romano Prodi, Javier Solana.
He also met the speaker of the Belgian Parliament and the foreign ministers of Belgium and France, Louis Michel and Dominique de Villepin.
Kharrazi said he discussed with them relations between Iran and the EU, the situation in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East.
''We were very satisfied with the talks over relations between EU and Iran.'' Kharrazi said he hoped war would now be avoided in the region after Iraq has accepted to grant unhindered access to UN weapons inspectors.
He said he was glad that the EU is now a partner in playing a role in the Middle East.
''Our expectation from the EU is to advise the Americans to be neutral in Palestinian affairs. Unfortunately, till now the Americans are on the side of Israel. They fully support Israel and this does not lead to any peaceful resolution of the Palestinian problem.'' Kharrazi left Brussels for Bonn on Wednesday and held talks with his German counterpart Joschka Fischer.
German Foreign Ministry Spokesman Walter Lindner told IRNA that both sides stressed the need to further boost bilateral ties in all areas.
"Both sides discussed the possibilities to continue the intensification of ties within the framework of an ongoing dialogue, notably through the exchange of parliamentary contacts," Lindner said.
Both ministers underlined that the dialogue of cultures should be a 'focal point' in strengthening bilateral ties, Lindner added.
Fischer invited Iranian Kharrazi to attend next month's one-day follow-up conference on peace and reconstruction in Afghanistan, scheduled to take place on December 2 at the Petersberg Castle near Bonn. "The (German) foreign minister extended the invitation to the Iranian foreign minister," Walter said.
Russia says Iran nuclear plant won't make weapons
Russia has given assurances to a top Western diplomat visiting Moscow that it had taken steps to ensure that Iran could not use a Russian-built nuclear power station to produce arms, Ron Popeski reported for Reuters News Agency .
The United States has urged Russia to reconsider its contract to help build the power plant, saying Iran, one of the states on President Bush's "axis of evil," could use the facility to make nuclear weapons.
But visiting Canadian Foreign Ministe,r Bill Graham, said he had received assurances from Russian Atomic Energy Minister, Alexander Rumyantsev, that Iran, Russia's neighbour across the Caspian Sea, was committed to the peaceful use of nuclear technology.
"(The Russians) have a vested interest in making sure this plant works in such a way that nuclear materials don't get diverted to improper purposes," Graham told reporters at the end of a two-day visit to Moscow.
He said Rumyantsev had pointed to 60 inspections of the site at Bushehr in the past two years with no evidence of illegal activity. Other assurances, he said, could come from proposals to ensure spent fuel was removed and reprocessed safely outside the country.
"I got very good assurances from the minister that the Russians are serious about monitoring and controlling and they'll make sure that Bushehr does not become a place for diversion of materials," he said.
But one regional expert, Celeste Wallander, of the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, has said the main concern over Bushehr lay in Tehran acquiring know-how rather than materials for producing weapons.
"Although technically legal under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty ... Bushehr poses a proliferation risk by contributing to Iran's knowledge for developing an independent fuel cycle for producing weapons-grade fuel," Wallander wrote in a paper last month.
Graham said Russia could play an important role in avoiding conflict in Iran's neighbour Iraq, accused by the United States of developing weapons of mass destruction, following the approval of a tough new U.N. Security Council resolution on disarmament.
"Iraq has demonstrated a capacity to ... slide around problems. We have to make sure they understand there is no wriggle room. That is one place where Russian interlocutors are very valuable as they have the best contacts with Iraq at the most in-depth level, certainly more than anyone in the West," he said.
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