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Chamber of Commerce Elections Bring Surprises, New Faces

by KAVEH OMID in Tehran

19 Jun 2011 15:54Comments

Influence of trade and industrial associations grows.

72_840828_L600.jpg[ business ] Elections held on June 15 for the board of directors of Iran's Chamber of Commerce, Industry, and Mines produced some surprises that may yield a less politicized, more representative chamber in the future.

The chamber is a non-profit semi-governmental institution, established to facilitate cooperation among businesses and advise the government on relevant laws. It includes representatives from the government as well as the private sector. Organizationally, it is constituted by delegates from provincial chambers.

Although the chamber's president, Mohammad Nahavandian (pictured), was reelected overwhelmingly, with his longstanding rival Alinaqi Khamoushi receiving just 42 out of 392 votes cast, only two of the board of directors' seven members were voted back into office. Nahavandian and Pedram Soltani, from the Tehran Chamber, will remain on the board along with five new members, all from other provincial chambers. This is the first time representatives from provincial chambers outside Tehran will have the majority on the board.

The elections were originally scheduled for March but delayed three times. The organization has been beset by political wrangling since 2002 when Mohammad Reza Behzadian, a reformist businessman, was elected president of the Tehran branch. Behzadian opposed the way both the national and Tehran chambers had been run by Khamoushi for the previous 23 years. The first thing Behzadian did was to relocate the Tehran branch offices, separating them from the national chamber offices. The physical separation was accompanied by a new level of financial independence and transparency for the Tehran Chamber, which has traditionally been the main source of financial support for the national organization.

With the rise of conservatives to power in the Islamic Republic's government in 2005, the conservative faction in the chamber enjoyed a similar resurgence. In a surprise move, Behzadian was impeached and removed from the presidency of the Tehran Chamber one year before the end of his term. Nahavandian, who received his doctorate in economics from George Washington University and is considered a close ally of Majles Speaker Ali Larijani, took the post for the remainder of the term.

In the 2006 elections, the sixth held since the Revolution, Behzadian and his group, who now referred to themselves as transformationists (Tahavolkhahan), sought to unseat Khamoushi, whose name means "darkness." Behzadian jokingly said in interviews, "Wherever Khamoushi goes, I will follow him with a flashlight" and "Whenever Khamoushi departs, light will come to the chamber." Behzadian and his group, along with government representatives from the Ministry of Industries, supported Nahavandian and were able to unseat Khamoushi after 27 years at the helm of the Iran Chamber.

These changes led to gradual growth in private sector activities in the chamber, with greater involvement by trade and industrial associations. Lobbying within the chamber's various committees became as important as membership in provincial delegations. Farhad Fozouni, a businessman and Tahavolkhah, believes that "if you are not a delegate to the chamber, you can still do things and even be more effective."

The recent elections for both the national and provincial chambers were thus held in a lively environment. Along with groups considered to be political, such as the Association of Development Activists to which Khamoushi belongs, trade and industrial associations were also involved, through several known Tahavolkhah candidates such as Behzadian and Fozouni were disqualified.

The election of delegates to the Iran Chamber from various provinces that were held in February had already seen a significant shift in the body's membership. Among Tehran's 40 delegates, for instance, 17 new members from various associations were elected who were virtually unknown to the wider public.

Nahavandian received the highest number of votes among the Tehran delegates, though he faced quite a bit of criticism in his reelection bid. Behazadian, for instance, questioned his management, which also brought to the fore criticisms from the Ministry of Industries representative to the chamber, Shojaeddin Bazargani.

Several issues were involved. Nahavandian was criticized for being an economist and not a businessman. According to Behzadian, "the chamber needs someone with backbone... who will not spend money, which is really the members' money, on a mosque-building plan." Nahavandian had been heavily criticized for backing such a plan in the first year of his term.

The many trips taken by the president also came in for criticism, with some sarcastically dubbing the president "Marco Polo." Assadollah Askaroladi, a chamber old-timer, rejected that criticism by pointing out that Nahavandian always traveled "with a team of people who knew the country they were visiting to do business." He described that as evidence that the trips were indeed for lobbying and building trade, rather than idle tourism.

Shojaeddin Bazargani, who also ran for the presidency, criticized Nahavandian's breakfast meetings with ministers in an interview with Tejarat News, expressing his doubt that they were of any value: "Nothing was gained by either side except a bunch of accusations and misunderstandings." Ibrahim Jamily, an executive board member, said in an interview with Radio Eqtesad, "the chamber has not had an appropriate relationship with the government." He also complained about lack of access to the president because of his frequent travels.

At the same time, most chamber members in the private sector acknowledged that Nahavandian's good relationship with Speaker Larijani has facilitated the private sector's dealings with various Majles committees and the passage of favorable legislation that was incorporated into the 2011-12 budget.

According to Jamshid Edalatatian, another Tahavolkhah, the private sector is "not yet ready to take the helm. It still doesn't have confidence in any of its own members." The leadership of the Iran Chamber is still seen as a political position and among the choices, neither Khamoushi, who was trying to regain the post, nor Bazargani, the Ministry of Industries representative, were deemed acceptable. In the end, various groups that had been critical of Nahavandian over the past year reached a consensus and voted for him, in part because he took responsibility for his shortcomings and put forward a plan for change. A journalist who has observed the Iran Chamber for years suggests that "in the current conditions, Nahavandian can get the private sector to organize better since he is not opposed to it."

Giving hope to this scenario were elections for the executive board, the results of which surprised everyone. Among the current deputy presidents, only Mohammad Shafei from the Mashhad Chamber was reelected. The government representative, Khodamard Ahmadi; Pedram Soltani, a Tahavolkhah; and Mohsen Jalalpour, head of the Kerman Chamber, are all new, young faces.

Both Assadollah Askaroladi, probably Iran's richest merchant, and Ala Mir Mohammad Sadeghi, a longstanding member of the board, were denied seats. Two delegates from the Ahwaz and Isfahan chambers replaced the previous treasurer and secretary from Tehran.

One Tejarat News analyst described the rise of the provinces at the expense of Tehran as a populist victory over technocracy. An economist who did not want to be identified saw hopeful signs in the private sector taking the steps toward independently organizing and managing its affairs: "If some people think that the new executive board has deficiencies, the arena to remedy these deficiencies is through associational presence and in cooperation with provincial delegates in various committees of the chamber."

A Tehran member of the national organization expressed his belief that "the chamber must respect these democratic changes. To the extent that economic and in particular production issues are concerned, there is no difference between Tehran and the provinces. Everybody's interests are the same."

The author writes under a pen name.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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