In the wake of sweeping gains by reformers in February's parliamentary poll, Iran's conservatives are hitting back by overturning race results and trying to publicly discredit the reformist camp. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the heightening political tensions in the country.
Prague, 21 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's parliament is due to be handed over to reformist control when the new legislature convenes late next month, and the prospect appears to be sparking a growing conservative backlash.
In recent weeks, the backlash has seen the passing of restrictive new press laws, the nullifying of several parliamentary races won by reformers, and public attempts to discredit the reformist camp.
The conservative offensive has given rise to a lively debate in the Iranian media over whether there could plans for a hardline coup to prevent the new parliament from taking its seats on May 28.
That debate took a passionate tone early this week, as Iran's hardline Revolutionary Guards threatened to crush any liberal challenges to revolutionary values.
The guards said in a statement broadcast on state radio that, in their words, they will first be tolerant of duped segments of the population. But, they said, when there is need, they will descend upon their enemies without hesitation.
The threat came two days after Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said there must be limits to what he called "American-style" reforms which would undermine the strict religious codes of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. He also said violence cannot be ruled out as a means of protecting Islamic institutions.
Khamenei spoke again late this week, saying, to quote, some press circles have turned into a center of the enemies of the Islamic Revolution.
RFE/RL's Persian Service asked journalists and former lawmakers in Iran to gauge whether talk of a potential hardline coup is warranted.
Masood Behnoud, a reformist journalist in Tehran, said the conservative establishment does not feel sufficiently threatened to launch a coup.
"This is not going to happen in Iran because the Revolutionary Guards are not in a position [to launch a coup] and the regime is in no danger of destabilization. Even the opponents of reform, or conservatives, are trying to solve everything through legal channels. This is what the reformers also want. A coup requires a lot of elements which Iran does not have [and] one of the main reasons is that the Revolutionary Guard is formed of the people and ideologically tied to them, and its relationship with the people is much stronger then [its involvement in] the politics of power."
Ghasem Sho'leh Sa'adi, a former member of parliament in Tehran, agrees.
"The Revolutionary Guards and the military are on the same wavelength as the people, even the high-ranking personnel is pro-people and pro-reformist, and if the conservatives think they can start a coup with them they are wrong ... Also, more than 70 to 80 percent of the Revolutionary Guard and the army voted for [moderate Iranian President Mohammad] Khatami."
Worries of a crackdown have grown as the current conservative-led parliament has used its remaining weeks in session to rush through restrictive press laws. This week, the legislature passed a law to let hardline Revolutionary Courts prosecute press offenses, something hardline legislators say will stop what they regard as attacks against revolutionary principles. Until now, suits brought by conservatives against liberal papers have been heard by a jury at a special press court.
The parliament also banned newspapers from re-opening under a new name after they have been closed by a court order. Reformist editors have previously used the tactic of renaming their papers to continue publishing despite closures.
The new press laws still must be approved by a vetting committee, the Council of Guardians, which oversees legislation for conformance with Islamic and revolutionary values. But there is little doubt the conservative-led council will approve. One reason is the council's own initiatives to use another of its powers -- as an electoral watchdog body -- to roll back reformist gains in the recent parliamentary poll.
Since the February vote, the Council of Guardians has overturned the election of some 10 pro-reform winners. It has also overturned some races where independents won.
The overturning of poll results has sparked violent protests in several cities, including rioting this week in the southern city of Sarvestan, where crowds attacked and damaged the local courthouse.
It is not immediately clear how the Council of Guardians' retroactive policing of the poll will affect the balance of power in the next parliament, where reformers continue to hold a wide margin of victory. But even as the actions spark protests, there are signs the council may have other strategies in mind to complicate the reformers' win.
Yesterday (Wednesday), the council declined to set a date for a second round of voting to complete the legislative poll -- the second time it has postponed it. The second round is for seats where no candidate won at least 25 percent of the ballots two months ago.
The recent steps by the Council of Guardians suggest that whether or not there is any danger of a violent crackdown on reformists, the campaign to limit their power is gaining momentum. And so far, there is no sign the tone of the confrontation is softening.
This week, conservatives used their control of state television to selectively air images from a reformist conference in Berlin. The images showed the seminar being interrupted by a group of exiled dissident women dancing without veils. Reformists accused the television of manipulation, but the damage was done. The scenes infuriated conservative viewers -- who view such behavior as immoral. And that is exactly what the broadcasters intended.
(Azam Gorgin also contributed to this article)